Memoir

Excerpts from 'Art, Life and Everything'

Chapter Four. Real Life
"I was offered my first solo exhibition in London at the Car Breaker Gallery, in an area of West London called Frestonia. Originally home to 120 squatters with many artists, actors, writers and musicians among its residents, Frestonia was part of the counterculture and had an interesting history. It had declared itself a free republic. But I felt comfortable among all this anarchy and mayhem, enjoying the creativity that came with it.

The exhibition proved a memorable event although the opening day was rather shambolic. We hung the paintings in the morning then shared a meal in the gallery that evening, followed by the most dysfunctional private view I can remember. As it grew dark, we turned out the lights and viewed the exhibition by candlelight. Later, one of the residents gave an impromptu performance in the middle of the room. It seemed like the whole street was squeezed into the gallery that night".

Chapter Five. Turning Point
"Despite not having a studio to work in, it was a productive year. I had a further two solo shows in close succession: one at the Albany in Deptford and the other at Soho Theatre in central London. At the Albany, I exhibited a series of large canvases in one room and hung unframed works on paper in the café (stuck rather haphazardly to the wall with double-sided tape). This rather unprofessional method of hanging the work, of course, had repercussions. The director of Soho Theatre was having lunch one day in the café, just as one of my works on paper sailed down from the wall and nearly landed on his dinner tray. It could have been a disaster but the director phoned me the next day and invited me to show my paintings at the theatre, saying that my work deserved a better place to be seen. I was glad my work had attracted his attention, however unconventionally."

Chapter Six. Ten Years of Painting
"My solo show at The Barbican included two large works on paper I had made in my last year at art school in Cornwall, alongside a range of more recent paintings and a series of charcoal and pastel works made in London. Through this exhibition, I was able to identify precise deveIopments and observe subtle shifts in my progress. It was useful to have that moment of detachment and see my paintings exhibited outside of the studio in an entirely different context. I usually showed my paintings in alternative settings but this exhibition was quite different and very mainstream.

The private view was rather formal within the corporate surroundings of the Barbican. The bar attendant, in her uniform of black and white, dispensed drinks from a table covered by a crisp white linen cloth. The people who came to the private view, perhaps bemused by their surroundings, sipped wine from tall stemmed glasses, talking quietly to each other. This survey of my paintings came at a timely point in my career. I realised just how hard I had worked over those ten years and how much time and effort I had invested in my paintings. I could only hope that at last I had made a breakthrough."

Chapter Six. Ten Years of Painting
"After my lease at Stratford Workshops expired, I moved to a large Acme studio complex in East London on the site of an old Yardley's perfume factory. Carpenters Road Studios was the largest studio block in Europe, with 140 studios on site. It was an opportunity to meet and interact with a wide range of artists and I was very excited about joining the group. Several floors of the old factory had been converted into studios and nearly 500 artists worked there between 1985 and 2001, including Rachel Whiteread, Fiona Rae and Grayson Perry.

At first, I rented one of the starter studios on the ground floor: a large room sub-divided into six, partitioned off from each other, yet still somewhat open plan. My studio had a skylight, while some of the adjoining studios had no natural light at all. I worked there for four years before moving to a bigger studio in the same development when I was finally able to afford more space.“

Chapter Ten. Parsons School of Design
"I was happy with the direction my painting was taking and the way it had evolved. Most of my peers were supportive of my work but my paintings often received a mixed response from the faculty. I didn't mind the criticism. In fact, it helped keep me grounded and encouraged me to work harder. One of the positive crits I received for my work was from Jerry Saltz, a visiting tutor who wrote for the Village Voice when I was a student and who is now senior art critic and columnist for New York magazine. He was always very enthusiastic and encouraging about my work. He described one of my paintings as looking like 'fucked-up formica'. He certainly has a way with words but the simile was intended to be complimentary".

Chapter Eleven. Possibilities
"Ryman was very unassuming, with a quiet authority. He introduced himself as Bob, shaking me by the hand as he entered my studio. He wore a suit and a pair of very cool spectacles. He was kindly and extremely modest and wanted each student to do their best whether their work was to his taste or not. In his crit with me, Ryman talked about the value of looking at paintings in different lights (both natural and artificial) and how the interior light in a painting is very important – think how Rothko's paintings have light of their own. Immediately upon entering my studio, Ryman asked me to turn the spotlights off so we could view my work in natural light. He observed that I already knew how to use horizontal and verticals in my compositions, and commented that he thought I would do well in New York. He laughed when I told him one of my paintings was called 'Creep' and said I shouldn't give emotional titles to unemotional paintings. That is something I have tried never to do again."

Chapter Twelve. New York, New York
"Two dogs, a cat and an iguana (the landlord's pets) also resided in the studios on 14th Street alongside the working artists. Marijuana plants grew in pots on the windowsill of my space. It was a rather chaotic atmosphere, controlled by the presence of the landlord who lived on the premises with his wife. Many of the other artists who were at the studios didn't come in until late afternoon or the evening so I usually had the space to myself during the day.

The studios were just a few blocks away from Union Square and close to the Meat Packing district, which was fast becoming a hotspot for artists with new galleries springing up all the time. If the weather was fine, I'd walk down to the studios in the morning; if it was raining, I'd take the bus. At lunchtime, sometimes I'd go into one of the nearby lounges to buy coffee and bagels and watch the TV, relaxing on big velvet sofas. It was the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and I clearly remember Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings being played out on the big screen in the bar.“

Chapter Twelve. New York, New York
"I didn't have the luxury of being able to spend time in New York waiting for things to change. Sometimes an artist needs to dig in and just keep working until their luck turns. I had spent years working as an artist in London after I first left college before I got any kind of recognition. There are always times when things look hopeless, when there seem to be no opportunities ahead. I was just one of many artists in New York, all hoping for a break. I found out what it was like to live amongst the glamour and the glitz and to feel so poor. In New York, there is a sense of camaraderie among struggling artists that is not so great in London. Most artists are ambitious but in New York there is also a shared sense of struggle that becomes almost a rite of passage. Although a mid-career artist, I found that I had to start right from the beginning again".

Chapter Fourteen. Falling Slowly
"In the Strange Attractor paintings I had been working on up to that point, the trail of the brush mark would almost disappear among the accumulated layers of paint. Yet when I hung one of my unfinished paintings at the end of the studio and looked at it from a distance, I saw something that looked rather like a horizon at the top of the canvas where I had pulled the brush. So I decided to keep that mark in the painting rather than allowing it to be lost in subsequent layers. This completely changed the space in the work; the first paintings I made in my new studio explored that idea. I also changed my medium and began to use acrylic paint on its own rather than the mix of oil and acrylic that I had been using in recent years. By changing the materials I worked with, I found that the surface also changed."

Excerpts quoted are from 'Art, Life and Everything' (unpublished memoir) by Julie Umerle, edited by Anna McNay.


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