ARTIST INTERVIEW: Central Saint Martins Degree Show Prizewinners

by Cass Art

Cass Art supports graduates of University of the Arts London each year with the Cass Art Prize. Awarded to two promising emerging artists from Central Saint Martins, the prize consists of £1000 in art materials vouchers, and is designed to help fund their ongoing practice post-graduation. We sat down with this year's winners, Joe Richardson and Alisha Mir, to hear their thoughts on art, university, and chat about their hopes for the future...

Joe Richardson- BA Fine Art

Hi Joe- congratulations on such a fantastic degree show! How did you find your final year at art school, and how did your work progress over the course of the year to reach this point?

To be honest, my work from the beginning of the year is unrecognisable from what I showed at the degree show! Coming into September 2015 I carried on with an existing representational, figurative practice, but early-on in the year I had a bit of a brutal tutorial, which really made me question why I was making that kind of work, and ask myself whether or not I was fully invested in it. I wanted to have a bit more fun with what I was doing, so I started to introduce humorous, pop-culture references into my work, such as Kanye West at breakfast, Liam Gallagher reclining by the pool and a dinner party with the Kardashians. These ideas opened me up to a freer way of working, and I started to use collage to reduce the imagery and organise compositions. It was great fun, but I found that my ideas were forming in a very literal way. I wanted to question things more through my work, and explore the collage element on a larger-scale in combination with my painted practice, which kind of brought me to the more abstract work I am producing now.

So how about what you’re doing now? Are there any links between your more recent pieces and older works, and how do they differ?

I’ve moved away from such literal representations of people, scenes and celebrities, but kept hold of some of the relatable, fun imagery from that time. Two of my degree show paintings incorporate a Custard Cream pattern within the abstract composition- it’s more removed from the original imagery, but still works as an access point for viewers. I’m starting to find ways to link the things I love outside of the studio and the artwork I make inside it. It’s a really great feeling, and when people resonate with it it’s an even better feeling.

Your degree show pieces incorporated lots of different elements and materials- Which materials did you work in, and how does this add to the context of the work?

My material choices came about through a process of experimentation, and, with hindsight, are a real reflection on my studio environment and the physical act of making the work.

I used a lot of acrylic paint, which is a favourite of mine, but I also experimented with a variety of other materials and tools, such as rollers, gesso, tape, canvas fabric, and an overhead projector. It was fun to explore the qualities of new materials; find out how they work, and let them bounce off one another on a piece. A friend at university gave me some leftover house paint, which I discovered crumbled slightly on the surface of the canvas. It opened up a new discussion for me about the life-cycle of a painting and made me consider whether or not the work I was producing would be preserved, or whether it was more of a temporary thing. I used the tape to add colour and separate areas within the composition- it’s a really interesting material to incorporate into a finished painting; to know when to leave it on and not, how much or how little to use, and how to enhance it to become a feature of the work, rather than a mistake. In the end I began to let the materials dictate the direction my paintings took, and having faith and letting go seemed to really work; helping me create finished paintings with a kind of raw, naked quality.

What was the most challenging thing about setting up your degree show?

I had lots of different things I wanted to do for it, and eleven paintings to decide between for the final show. It was hard to settle on the best way to curate the space, and I spent a lot of time questioning the wall in relation to the canvas; at one point I considered extending the painting onto the walls behind the work, to try and add a new dimension to the work. You really have to consider how the hang will influence visitors’ reading of the paintings; whether it will be positive or negative, leading or confusing. My paintings tend to borrow from each other, and I wanted to make sure that they didn’t all look the same. The Custard Cream motif recurs in two of my exhibition pieces, and I had to really question whether I should hammer it home and put them both next to each other, or separate them within the space. Ideally, I wanted to organise it in a way so I wasn’t completely spelling it out for the viewer, but at the same time allowing them to find some understanding of the work within the space.

Your degree show pieces were very vibrant, with a strong yellow hue dominating many of the paintings. What role does colour play in your work?

Most of the colours in my work now are dictated by the process of the work, so the palette of my degree show pieces came together quite naturally in reflection of the materials I was using; pale hues from the canvas and gesso, different shades of grey from the projector, yellow and blue from the Tesa tape, and the vibrant teal from my friend’s leftover house paint. Sometimes I still get drawn into painstakingly trying to mix the perfect colour, and I tried to recreate the teal once the house paint ran out, but it wasn’t quite right. The colours are more a reflection of process, rather than concept. They look quite naked I think, which I like.

How will you be spending your £1000 worth of Cass Art vouchers?

I’ll probably start by stocking up on a load of basics, like brushes, canvas, tape and Golden Acrylic paint, which I’ve recently started using. I’d like to play around more with texture in my paintings- I’ve recently been looking at the artist Laura Owens, who creates these amazing drop shadows across her canvases just from the thickness of her paint strokes, so I think I’ll invest in some different acrylic mediums to experiment with in my own work. Also, I’ve never painted onto linen, so it’d be nice to try that out too- now I’ve got this prize I can really afford to play around and try new things out.

Now that your final year is over, what’s next for you?

I’m not 100% sure yet, but there are a few possibilities on the horizon. The main plan is to keep painting, making, experimenting and exhibiting as much as I can! Myself and some other CSM students have organised ourselves into a collective, and we’re hoping to keep putting on as many shows as possible; we’ve put on a couple of nights in our flat already, which have been really well-received. It’s so much more productive when you’re working within a group of people with a shared goal than going-it alone.

No matter where I am I think that’s what I’ll do really; just get a load of people together, put on shows and just keep painting.

Alisha Mir- MA Fine Art

Hi Alisha- congratulations on winning the Cass Art prize! How do you feel?

Oh it’s brilliant, I have to be honest though, I was not expecting it, there is such a range of amazing work in the show this year, so to have been selected feels amazing!

Your work is incredible- could you tell us a little about the thoughts behind it?

I like to describe my work as an oscillation between what was already present and what has been created; what is hidden and what is on the surface. I search for a crossover between the uncanny and the fantastic, and am always inquisitive as to where my practice fits in between those two points. My ultimate aim is  to create an atmosphere of unease and absurdity.

Your MA show had both pieces on paper and metal surfaces, what are the differences in process you must take to create such varied work?

I've come to realise that the process of making plays an important part in my practice, and each task I performed when creating my degree show pieces was strenuous- each steel angle required cutting over forty times before being clamped into place to weld. It doesn't even end there; when it came to printing I had to use the largest etching press at the university, and the press tension had toi be adjusted to accommodate my plates. The press is a massive hand-crank

monster of an etching press. I literally had to use my entire body weight to get it into a good momentum and then keep going until I see my paper at the other end.

I have to hand it to the amazing, resourceful technical staff at CSM, Gareth Jones (Metal), and Paul Dewis (Printmaking) for giving me really useful suggestions, being really patient with me and doing it all with a massive smile day after day.

You went straight from your BA into an MA course- how was the transition for you, and how do you feel your work has changed in the past few years?

Previously, having done large scale paintings, I noticed the canvas just accepts the paint giving you a lot more control or power, whereas the steel resists the marks I make, so in a way, the resistance from the material made it far more interesting for me to work with.

What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learnt at art school, and what has been the most challenging part of the experience?

I would have to say, allowing your practice to lead you, accept the change and take risks because that is where I noticed my work come to life. The most challenging part I think is yet to come-maintaining the same standard of work outside the comfort of the institution

You have £1000 worth of art materials to buy- what’s on your shopping list?

I have had my eye on some Michael Harding paints for quite some time now, so some paints and I can never have enough graphite sticks!

And what’s next for you after the completion of your MA?

I will need to find myself a welding and etching workshop as I would love to continue working with steel. But for the moment I am preparing work for Print/5 at the Bomb Factory Art Foundation.

Feeling Inspired?

See more of Alisha's work on her website.

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