Notes from a conversation with Sam Venables and Joe Fletcher Orr
With rising university fees, intern culture, and a precarious labour market creating economic barriers for many, art in the UK is in danger of becoming a bourgeois monoculture. If it does, then distinct ways of making art will be lost, with working class artists from around the country shut out of the art world. In light of this, it is imperative to understand how working class artists make their practices work, how they fund themselves, and how they make sense of what they do.
In early 2017 I spoke to Sam Venables and Joe Fletcher Orr. They are both artists and curators, and grew up on the Wirral in Merseyside – Venables in Ellesmere Port and Fletcher Orr in New Brighton, where he still lives. Fletcher Orr’s father is a market trader selling carpets and Venables’s mother is an antiques dealer – although lately she mostly sells on eBay. Venables and her sister used to help set up the antiques stall when they were young, and Fletcher Orr has also worked for his father since he was young, still putting in a few hours a week on the stall. Fletcher Orr doesn’t need to work so much these days, his artwork is selling but he’s also got his own online carpet business. Whereas Venables works for Levis, doing shop fits and merchandising.
Fletcher Orr refers to his family a lot, previously recounting how his father would take him to galleries when he was a child so they could laugh at the artwork. “Part of what made this experience funny was discussing how much money the work was worth.”* Fletcher Orr has also made work in collaboration with his father, ‘Orranorco’ (2016) is a carpet designed by his father and exhibited by Fletcher Orr, and was acquired by the Arts Council Collection. He explained that, “My dad’s always saying rug designers know nothing, and if he ever designed a rug it would be better. His first reaction to the Arts Council buying it was, ‘I told you so’.” The influence of Venables’s family trade on her artwork is less overt, but is apparent in her interest in crafted objects, her attraction “to why people are interested in things” and her love of “spaces [where] you can tell people really understand the objects they are selling and [they] appreciate them”**- words that could describe both an antiques market and a contemporary art gallery.
Both artists spoke about their respect for the craft inherent in working directly with materials, which appears in their work in different ways. Fletcher Orr often uses specialists; his father’s rug for ‘Orranorco’ was produced in Morocco, he commissioned a doll maker to produce a soft toy self-portrait for him for ‘Muppet’ (2016) and hired a professional photographer to shoot still lives of his mother’s fruit bowls for ‘Welcome Fruit 1, 2 & 3’ (2016). As Fletcher Orr put it, “If you have a house, and you want some plastering doing, you don’t just think ‘I’ll have a go at that’”.
Venables’s approach is slightly different. She started out as a tailor at Levis, and her respect for that kind of tactile skill can be seen in her artwork, which often has a handmade quality. Although she recently had an artwork fabricated (‘Cindy’ (2016) which was made by a metalworker), she told me that “it’s important to start with a knowledge of what you’re doing”. As an example of this eagerness to understand the essentials of a craft, Venables spoke about how she had recently trained with the master sign writer Joby Carter in Maidenhead. With both artists, it is vital that an artwork meets their own standards of quality control, whether this means doing it themselves or working with skilled craftspeople. This focus on the finish of the object produces a contrast with the low culture references in both artists’ work, and constitutes a way of ‘sneaking’ in unexpected concepts whilst evoking a familiar frame of reference for an art audience that is placated by well crafted objects.
Whilst similarities are evident in their approaches to artwork, Venables and Fletcher Orr’s curating practices are very different. Venables was a director of The Royal Standard, a studio complex and gallery that has been a stalwart of the Liverpool art scene since 2006. These days, she has to fit curating around her job, driving 40,000 miles a year to work in different Levis stores around the country. In 2013, she organised a travelling exhibition installed in her company car (a BMW, hence the title of the programme, Big Massive Work), and for last year’s Glasgow International, she curated It’s Friday!, a series of window displays made by artists. This shopfront style installation allowed her to investigate the cross over between her art practice and her job. Crucially for someone who works a 40 hour week, it also meant that she didn’t have to invigilate.
Fletcher Orr is more traditional in his approach to organising exhibitions, running Cactus, a permanent gallery space in Liverpool, but he is equally pragmatic in how he manages the exhibitions. Cactus usually hosts solo shows for early career artists without gallery representation, opening for a private view and then by appointment only for the duration of the exhibition. The way Fletcher Orr sees it, he is maximising the benefit for himself and for the artist; “Quite often people do shows with loads of artists and have a private view with 500 people, but what does that really give the artists? I give artists a clean space to do a show, and the photographs are always slick so then they can use the documentation”. When he first started Cactus, Fletcher Orr was still working full time on his father’s stall, “Five or six days a week, long hours. Then going to the gallery after work”.
Fletcher Orr had thought that it would take him two weeks to build the gallery, but it took six months. He had to save money from working to buy the wood, then save up more money for paint and so on until the space was finished. When I asked him why he did it like that, he said he didn’t really know, explaining that it was, “Probably a family thing where you don’t ask for money. I just thought that was a lot easier than applying for funding at the time, so for me, it was do that or what? Just moan about having no money?”…“No one likes a whinger”, added Venables, who has also expressed ambivalence about the amount of effort it takes to maintain her practice in her free time; “I actually thought while I was installing It’s Friday!, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I didn’t get paid. I got funding from Glasgow International but I gave all the money to the artists and the rest I used to build the space. I get five weeks of holiday a year and I spent two weeks of it doing that”. Yet, when I asked if having to work in that way would ever discourage her from making or curating art, Venables shrugged and said,“No, I’ve always done it like that”.
In contemporary society, artists and art workers are encouraged to take an aggressive approach to work, without thinking critically about the ways in which an ‘always busy’ culture generates problematic distinctions between those who can and can’t cope with a never ending workload. However, with this in mind it is also clear from speaking to Venables and Fletcher Orr that self-reliance and hard work are important parts of the way they both understand their practices, and also present their practices to other people; ‘getting on with the job’ and ‘not whinging’ are ideals long associated with working class self-identification. As well as the pride inherent in overcoming the restrictions of class and economic status, we spoke about the impression of feeling too visible in an artworld that often seems to only just tolerate artists with working class backgrounds – let alone those who started out as, and remain provincial. As Fletcher Orr articulated, “When you go down to London to an opening they can tell you’re from Liverpool. You feel exotic – they’re not used to hearing that accent”.
At the same time, Fletcher Orr often uses his identity in his work, particularly in the series where he paints himself into portraits alongside collectors and curators, “I did one with Lynda Morris and Richard Parry from the Grundy Art Gallery, ‘Me, our Lynda, and our Richard’ (2015), and I saw the comments on the picture when Richard put it on Facebook. People were saying, ‘I know who you and Lynda are, but who the hell is that guy in the middle?’ and that was what it was about. Me being a nobody. Obviously people know who the curators are, but why would they want a painting with me?”. This tactic, that Fletcher Orr described as “overdoing it”, is part of an aesthetic strategy. Both Venables and Fletcher Orr make forthright artworks that use low culture references, pop imagery and local dialect, and by openly referencing their backgrounds in their work put forward a coherent artistic identity that is alien to a lot of people in the art world. This can be seen as a form of pride in where they’re from and who they are, but it can also be partly read as a coping strategy to address the anxiety associated with standing out from a (mostly middle class) crowd.
Although Venables and Fletcher Orr’s family backgrounds in buying, selling and appreciating objects seem to make sense of their decisions to become artists, Venables explained that her parents still don’t quite accept the idea, “Even though me and my sister both make art, we both also have full time jobs. That probably comes from the fact that as soon as we were 16 my dad wanted us to get out and work”. Whereas after initial scepticism, Fletcher Orr’s parents seem to have come around to the idea of art as a legitimate career choice, “My dad watched a documentary about Ryan Gander and he really got it. Obviously Ryan makes a lot of money now, and because he comes from Chester, which is local, it made more sense. My dad always laughs about Piero Manzoni selling his shit (‘Artist’s Shit’, Piero Manzoni, 1961) and he always uses that to explain to his friends about what I do. He reads quite a bit about art now, but his interest is in value as well”.
Venables cut in at this point with a succinct explanation; “It’s because you’re making cash, so he’s like, ‘how are you doing that?’ That’s why he gets it”. For both Venables and Fletcher Orr, sustaining a practice has involved persistence and a pragmatic approach to balancing gainful employment with a commitment to making and curating art. Simultaneously, their shared experiences of economic pressure and familial critique have contributed to their approaches to art making, and it is through withstanding, representing and interrogating these pressures whilst continuing to produce work that working class artists enrich the art world.
Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau co-directs The Bad Vibes Club with a new programme starting in June 2017 at Open School East in Margate, then moving around the country. The Bad Vibes Club are also in residence at Flat Time House in London from Autumn 2017. Sign up to the mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org
*From ‘Artist of the Month: March 2015, Joe Fletcher Orr’, available at http://www.axisweb.org/archive/profile/artist-of-the-month/march-2015-joe-fletcher-orr/
**Both quotes from from ‘Q-N-A with Lilly Atkinson’, a text for Venables’s solo show ‘Slummy’ (2016) at Plaza Plaza, London, available at http://www.plazaplaza.co.uk/PLAZAPLAZA-Sam_V.html