Derek Guthrie: When did you open Goldfish?
Joseph Clarke: I started in 2003.
DG: What inspired you to open a commercial gallery in Cornwall? Because you must have known it was going to be very difficult.
JC: I didn’t really consider whether it be difficult or not it was just a case of looking to provide a platform for work that I believed in, and I suppose that the work that I responded to was by artists that I felt shared a similar purpose to myself.
DG: ahh. What would you suggest that purpose was?
JC: These are things that I still ask myself questions about. It’s to do with the pursuit, a questioning of the world around me and the things that are going on inside my head. So I suppose the pursuit towards finding human truths: elemental, spiritual, environmental, emotional.
DG: Yeah, but we can say that about all artist. I mean, I see that there is a “taste” in your gallery, in a way. And how can we come to terms with what may be the general “taste” of Goldfish – not everybody, but mostly?
JC: It’s very difficult – people have said that it has a very existentialists feel…
JC: … and for someone who’s tried to read a bit about existentialism, it’s quite a difficult thing to categorise.
DG: I think that’s a good comment. Because when you say existentialist, I always think of Paris – before New York stole art from Paris. Of course Sartre, but Giacometti rejected the avant-garde as defined by Surrealism and Breton, and in a way with his renewed interest in ancient art that he got very passionate about.
JC: I think there’s been a pursuit by artists, certainly in the 20th century – in my mind going into the 21st century, the pursuit of the primitive. But from a very early age I was very aware of the absurdity of the human condition and the acerbity of the pursuit of progress, in my mind has often taken us further away from our species. And it’s that dichotomy that interests me: our willingness to get in touch with ourselves and our environment, and the fact that it is very difficult to. And, you know, this crosses very different realms, from the environmental crisis, to religious crisis, to all sorts of sociological crises.
DG: There’s a kind of gentle pessimism, or pathos…
JC: Well I think there is facing up to the pessimism that may be there but also an attempt at transcendence through acceptance of those things.
DG: I agree and of course the other factor is that there is a personal narrative.
JC: This is interesting. I think again it comes across in my taste. That, where it’s looking at human concern, the mirror’s pointed within, which become a case of personal narrative. But I think my taste does broaden into our place within the world around us, so I’d like to think it was broad enough to look out and in.
DG: But in a way all art is narrative; we can’t help it. All creativity is narrative, but you can get a kind of focus on what’s inside from outside – that’s a metaphysical point. However, it doesn’t alter the fact that if you go to a lot of your exhibitions, you get the feeling that the artist is telling you stories, and the stories about their environment, or an aspect of their environment, and it’s to do with their own personal narrative.
JC: I’m very interested in the reasons that someone would choose to do this. I spoke to one artist recently who said that making work, for them, was like making prayer, and it was to try to get in touch with something slightly out of reach. I think that’s what interests me – the thing that is out of reach, that thing we’re reaching towards. It’s a questioning process and so often I don’t think it’s about finding the answers – it’s interesting to me that we can’t – but it’s about the reaching. The reaching towards something else, not towards a kind of progress…
DG: It is not accepted pattern post modernism, where its relativity. And it’s almost a bit dated. It reminds one of Beckett, or James Joyce even.
JC: I think some people may see it as dated; to me they’re timeless human concerns. And people have said to me that my ideals sometime sound a bit romantic. So be it, if that’s the case. I don’t see it that way.
DG: Well, I don’t think the issues are “in” – an avant-garde always says it’s not dated. The whole point of an avant-garde is “we’re relevant now, and were on top of it”.
JC: It seems to me that mankind hasn’t learned an awful lot of lessons over the years.
DG: No, precisely.
JC: So these issues that artists have concerned themselves with for millenniums are issues that are still there, facing us now. As a society we tell our children not to bully each other at school, yet we go to war. We make the same mistakes again and again. And I think its art’s job to be a monument to these facts.
DG: You’ve worked very hard, and you’ve developed a market. Not only in Cornwall, but you developed a market in London.
JC: I think the interesting thing is that even though the work has been made here it’s not specifically about place, it’s about human concern. Therefore, it’s often been easier for us to achieve recognition outside of Cornwall. And the artists have achieved an element of success, yeah.
DG: I’m a bit worried about this whole “place” business, because people are very self-conscious about it. Look, you’re walking down Commercial Road in the east end of London – it’s not the same as walking along the cliffs in North Cornwall.
DG: Period. And your art is not all about walking down Commercial Road in London, or walking around Manhattan. It’s different narratives – which is to do with where artists choose to live.
JC: There are different advantage points to view the human condition from. Artists like Gilbert and George can view it from the scum-fucked streets of East London, and see the absurdity of the human condition. And others can see it from an advantage point further away, where they’re happy to look.
DG: I know, but what I’m saying is the choice of environment is something to do with the nature of the artist.
JC: I think so, yeah.
DG: That’s all I want to say. I’m not saying one is better than the other, I’m just saying…
JC: But for me, the thing, the transcendence I’m looking for, I feel I can find it in Cornwall, and I don’t think I can find it in the scum-fucked streets of East London.
DG: Fine. So you developed a market in London as well as in Cornwall?
JC: Further afield as well. There’s an outsider art collection in the States that just purchased work by a couple of our artist and,
JC: The Anthony Potchulo Outsider Art Collection in Milwaukee visited the gallery, and wrote a foreward and purchased works. And then we sold work to David Roberts – one of the foremost collectors of art in the country. So, yeah, we’ve achieved a certain amount.
DG: So, you’ve made inroads there. So after years of study you finally balance the books, right?
JC: Balance the books, make tough choices and continued in doing what I believe in.
DG: And you felt that you didn’t compromise to reach the lower end of the market?
JC: Any compromises that were taking place early on was soon… eliminated.
DG: Fine. So, you’re going along and in 2007 Susan Daniel McElroy, then artistic director of Tate’s St Ives, put on an “Art Now Cornwall” show, and this show had an enormous impact, because, you know, the Tate is the premier institution in Cornwall, maybe even in the South West of England, yes? So it’s a premier, prestigious institution that does have the very great difficulty of having to respond to local artists. And I do feel very sorry for museums when they have to respond to local artists, because there’s no yardage in doing local shows for curatorial reasons. They only get brownie points from doing smart shows, and that means importing artists. Now that’s a fact of life everywhere.
DG: Anyway, circumstances finally did it and it was her swan song. And it was a good idea it was a swan song.
JC: It was very interesting because the show took place in January – February 2007 and it started to reach awareness amongst artists and people involved in the art scene in Cornwall around about October or November 2006 so we’re only talking a very short time before. There had been little or no engagement from the Tate prior to that event, so when it was heard that this exhibition was going to take place, an early press releases stated that the Art Now Cornwall exhibition was there to represent the leading lights of contemporary Art in Cornwall, it seemed to me a little bit suspect and a little bit strange that they were able to do that.
DG: I don’t think it was suspect at all; I don’t see what else the person easily could have said. I mean they can’t say we’re here to represent “not the leading lights of Cornwall”.
JC: But it was suspect to me that despite their lack of engagement they were in a position where they felt they were able to do that.
DG: Well now, their lack of engagement is one thing… But the press release is quite predictable.
JC: But the press release changed when it attracted more controversy. I believe early on it was planned for this exhibition to show 16 artists. That gradually went up to 32 in the end as it became more and more controversial.
DG: So the process got wobbly?
JC: It got wobbly. I mean, there rumours were coming back where the selectors were saying “we had no idea any of this was going on in Cornwall”.
DG: Who were the selectors?
JC: I believe it was Susan Daniel McElroy and Sara Hughes, who was a curator at the Tate. They were visiting artists’ studios and dumbfounded that this art was taking place in Cornwall at all. Obviously this pointed towards more and more irony, that they were in this position where they were able to reflect art now in Cornwall, without embracing or being involved in what art now in Cornwall actually was.
DG: What does this mean? I don’t know what you mean.
JC: There was a lack of engagement from the Tate in the contemporary art scene in Cornwall.
DG: Yes, but when they said they saw there was a lot of art around, that obviously gave them a problem – if they suddenly found lots of stuff all over the place, where they didn’t know it was there before.
JC: It was difficult to put your finger on why certain artists were selected for studio visits or selected for the exhibition in the first place. There were certainly a lot of artists that didn’t seem to have been considered and it was opaque how the selection took place.
DG: I saw the show and it had no shape to it; in other words, to me it was like a smörgåsbord.
JC: Well, originally the decisions were made for curatorial reasons.
DG: Which were?
JC: It’s very difficult to say. Based on your assessment of the show – and you were not the only one to make that assessment – is difficult to see any curatorial response that had been made.
DG: Okay and the catalogue was very defensive as far as I could see.
JC: Debate took place after the exhibition that involved certain artists and they were visibly wincing as the catalogue forewards were read out. So it seems to me that the artists…
DG: You mean the artists suffered?
JC: Some artists that were involved –
DG: Which artists?
JC: Well, basically all the artists that were on the panel of the show.
DG: Who were they?
JC: Amanda Laurens, Hadrian Pigott, Andy Hughes – all seem unconvinced by the introductions that were made in the catalogue for them, by Susan Daniel McElroy.
DG: About anything in particular or just in general?
JC: I think it was the tone. The tone didn’t seem to demonstrate empathy towards the work.
DG: Well, yeah, but it’s not a question of empathy, I mean…
JC: Understanding then, of the work, of the artist’s practice or pursuit.
DG: What do you think she missed?
JC: Again, its difficult for me to answer, but it seemed to me to miss the mark with the people who were involved in the show as well as those who weren’t.
DG: Okay, so they felt, to use a fashionable word, they felt that “definition” was not made about their work, even though they were included in the show.
JC: Yeah. Subsequent conversations I’ve had suggest certain artists who were in the show certainly feel they came away from the experience without feeling that anything had been defined whatsoever.
DG: So the show failed in definition?
JC: The show seemed to me to fail in definition, and I was perfectly glad for that to be the case, Because that was the worry; that it would define without engaging first.
DG: That’s what Brian Sewell said when he was at the Acorn in Penzance in his lecture.
JC: It was interesting with Brian Sewell, because he obviously visited the show that we put on, which we haven’t discussed…
DG: Your protest. That was your protest show…
JC: Yeah. Brian Sewell had obviously visited our exhibition which I decided to do for various reasons.
DG: You decided to do it as a protest because none of your artists were included or visited.
JC: That was in the first instance, yeah. Up until that point I’d taken a fairly benign standpoint, I was happy to be there in the background, put on the shows that I believed in for the reasons that I believe to be right. Stand back, be as enigmatic as possible, as anonymous as possible, and at the same time achieving results for ourselves, for our artists. And it became quite clear when I dug deeper than I began to understand the politics of the Art Now Cornwall exhibition, that being benign wasn’t going to get either me or my artists very far. So I felt it was important to make a stand against it. I believe in Cornish art. I believe in it for the artists that I represent but also for the artists in the Tate show. The art scene is a big one, and it’s a complicated one. And I believe that it demanded close scrutiny before definition was made.
DG: It’s very fortunate that Sewell came down when that show was on. He walked into your gallery by accident and saw Tim Shaw’s famous Silenus, which is a large sculpture of primaeval man with cock, and he possibly responded very favourably to that, and also to Kemp’s Icarus wings (Heavy Harness for a Light Romantic) that was on the wall. Now these things are in Sewell’s entrance because, as he said, he’s interested in ancient art, the history of art, and it’s quite reasonable that he should like artists to take inspiration from the past, as he himself does.
JC: The interesting thing about Silenus, the piece in question that Brian saw and responded to, is that was the piece that sold to the David Robert collection – he’s one of the foremost collectors of contemporary art and it’s the piece that was also in Vyner Street during our exhibition, that a guy took an iron bar to, so, it’s the piece that…
DG: Because he thought it was obscene, right?
JC: Well, he thought it was idol worship, so it was a complicated issue.
DG: Okay, so he thought it was evil?
JC: It’s a complicated one to go into and it’s difficult to get into the mind of someone who is capable of doing those things, so his reasoning is… subjective.
DG: Well all these things are subjective…
JC: But what I’m trying to say is that what interested me in the work that we’ve shown, a piece like Silenus (Tim Shaw’s work), is that it’s ancient. It speaks about primal concerns and it’s something that someone like Brian Sewell responded to. But not just Brian Sewell.
DG: Others as well, yeah year. One is afraid of it and the other worships it.
JC: It’s interesting at the time Tim had already been made the recipient of the Kenneth Armitage bursary, so he was receiving acclaim for his work. When Tim was visited by Susan Daniel McElroy, after he insisted that he be visited by Susan Daniel McElroy, she’s allegedly supposed to have asked why his art wasn’t more Cornish! Anyway, he didn’t make it to the short list of people chosen to be in the Art Now Cornwall exhibition.
DG: So, in a way, what has happened is that real issues of criticism and consideration and thinking about art have been sparked by the Tate during that show.
JC: Absolutely, at the time, when asked if they would do this show again, they said that it would depend on its success. There’s been little in the way of engagement or its gone very quiet since then, so, to a certain extent, that subject is unresolved. But prior to that there was a buzz of artists working in Cornwall, something was happening, but newspaper column inches were going towards tourist art or derivative art until that point. So it created a platform and an energy were other things could come and go into the mêlée and debate could take place.
DG: The greatest problem with any kind of provincial art scene – and Cornwall’s provincial, though it has a history of not being provincial, because of St Ives in the old days – is that there is no form of articulated discussion. And unless artists are chosen by institutions they don’t have an opportunity to discuss –
JC: We are blessed in Cornwall with more than enough publicity, where everything that could be tenuously be called art is publicised.
DG: But publicity not criticism.
JC: There’s nothing in the way of criticism other than that controlled by the funded organisations down here.
DG: Yes. They’re the only people to control criticism, and the criticism they generate is the same as putting out a party manifesto.
JC: Well, all I can say is that I don’t think I’m part of that process myself.
DG: Well you’re not, you’re not.
JC: I don’t think that we were prior to Art Now Cornwall, which is when I believe that it was time to stand up and say something. And I don’t honestly believe that has changed since.
DG: There’s no way it can change. Because the one thing that funded agencies will never do is give grants or money to loose cannons. They will only give money to people who go down the route that they approve of, and can see where the finishing line is. They have to approve the finishing line. They will not give money to independent voices.
JC: I’ve been led to believe, in terms of searching for support for unestablished artists and trying to get behind emerging artists, that funding support would only come my way should I set up a graduate program, make political choices and involve myself with other political arts organisations that are presently in Cornwall.
DG: When you say political what do you mean?
JC: Funded organisations in Cornwall.
DG: When you say graduate program, in other words you will get a grant if you help University College Falmouth to give programs for their graduates to be involved in?
JC: There’s an anxiety about a “brain drain”, that graduates who are brought into Cornwall shouldn’t just be allowed to leave. Whereas, my argument would be to support those who choose to stay.
DG: That’s too politically correct for words. Because this is nonsense! If a graduate gets up and goes to London and three years later he’s been very successful, they’d be very proud to claim that. I’ve got a lovely story which has nothing to do with Cornwall but it absolutely illustrates what were talking about. Jeff Koons, the New York successful multi, multi-multimillionaire artist, and as well known an artist as possible, once spent a couple of terms in the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. And there were some guys on the faculty there called the Chicago Imagist, and they’re all involved in kitsch art, and the MCA had just put on a big show. But Jeff Koons’ work is now surrounded by all this art and all these teachers and all this stuff in Chicago. So what’s happened is Jeff Koons has become the greatest attraction there, so they’re claiming his success. But he was in New York and they stayed in Chicago! So the point is, the whole game of what is provincial and what isn’t provincial doesn’t mean a thing, because it’s all relative. Nicholson worked in Cornwall. Yeah, he’s an international artist – he was both. Hepworth worked in Cornwall – she was both. Henry Moore worked in Yorkshire. The point is every boy is a local boy from somewhere.
DG: And James Joyce had to go to Paris, but it didn’t stop him being Irish.
JC: This is the reason that I wanted to do the show in Vyner Street in the east end of London during Frieze Art Fair (2007 ed:‘Move’ when the gallery was in Bethnal Green). Because it was all very well having this local – to some, parochial (although to me the issues were very real) show, and the showcase of contemporary Cornish artists going on in Cornwall was one debate. But to show those artists outside Cornwall, in the cutting edge part of the east end arts scene, is to me a very interesting idea, and it becomes a very different show.
DG: Look. Either we’re going to get an intellectual life down here in which you’ve got good artist talking, or writers talking, or critics talking, and either ideas are going to be defined here, or they’re not. That is the only issue. And they have to happen here because once they happened in St Ives? The point is it happens, and it’s either going to happen again or not.
JC: Well it has to be defined, like you say, by the artists and the people who are here: the lifeblood of it. It cannot be defined by organisations that are paid administrators, that are here to do a job – it cannot be defined by those people. As an indicator of that: when we did the show at Vyner Street in east London, I had a letter from Nicolas Serota, of congratulations for our efforts and the work that we were doing. And part of this letter said, “you must contact Martin Clark. The Creative Director from the Tate would be very pleased to hear from you.”
DG: He’s the new one, right?
JC: Who I have spoken to on a couple of impromptu occasions. But I have left five messages from Martin Clarke specifically about this, and didn’t receive one response back. This, to me, seems a fundamental problem: that people are putting the energy in but don’t get it back.
Jo Clarke has consistently been the foremost curator in Cornwall for twenty years. Although he no longer wishes to engage with the New Art Examiner we republish the interview Derek Guthrie held with him when he was running the Goldfish Gallery in Penzance.
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 13-18