The relatively permanent studios belonging to established artists have little in common with those in which, year after year, an endless succession of British undergraduate fine art students work towards achieving their degrees. Each summer, in preparation for a fresh intake, art school studios are cleaned out and white-washed over, leaving little trace of their previous occupants – those having now or long since, through talent or good fortune, become successful, famous; others who fell foul of mediocrity or plain laziness; those who lost interest, the failures – so that nothing but the anonymous emptiness of the spaces themselves remains.
The substance of this nothingness became the subject matter for artist Paul Winstanley. His art school photographs, taken at over 50 colleges throughout England, Scotland and Wales during the summers of 2011 and 2012, are unsensational. Shot in straightforward documentary style, he refers to them as an archive. Their palpable silence, their sameness as much as their differences, draw the viewer’s curiosity to examine them closely and to compare them, one with another, while publisher Ridinghouse’s new book Paul Winstanley; Art School allows us to consider them in total as a body of work.
Having exhibited his paintings since the 1970s, Winstanley taught part-time during the 80s and 90s at Falmouth then at Goldsmiths, London. In some ways, through these photographs he is perhaps tracing the course and experiences of his own educational journey. Born in 1954, he attended Lanchester Polytechnic – now Coventry University – from 1972-73, then from 1973-76 was at Cardiff College of Art, after which he went to the Slade School of Art (1976-78). But it was during his teaching years that the idea began to germinate. At the time, however, involved in paintings of interiors – TV rooms, lounges, waiting rooms – that were institutional in nature, he put the concept to one side. Returning to it later, he began to consider the empty studio spaces as empty potential, which led to his visiting a few colleges, ostensibly, to take some reference photographs. He had often used photographs before to assist with his paintings, however, now realising the documentary value of photography and its suitability for recording the fine detail of the locations that he wished to show, unaltered, exactly as he found them, decided to make it the actual medium for the project.
An exercise in minimalism, Paul Winstanley: Art School is sensitively-designed. Its matt varnished cover, in putty and grey hues, the sparse elements in the photograph suggesting a shallow bass-relief, bring to mind details of the disused ex-US Air Force base and town buildings bought and recommissioned by the late artist Donald Judd – now administered by the Chinati Foundation – at Marfa, Texas, for use as gallery spaces and offices. The inside pages are without folios – a simple list of the British cities Winstanley visited providing the only clue to the locations of the uncaptioned pictures that follow, all of which are shot with rigidly identical perspective and reproduced in the same, upright format. A blank page on the left of a double-spread, is (I think) the only indication that the images of one art school are finished and another begun. While the main section of the book is printed on a luxuriously-heavy, white, smooth-coated stock, with semi-gloss varnish over each picture, at the back the essay by Jon Thompson and interview by Maria Fusco, both appear on lightly cream-tinged uncoated paper.
Coinciding with the publication of the book, the exhibition Art School, which includes new paintings and photographs by the artist is running at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, Eire until 7th January, 2014.
Paul Winstanley photographs from top
Art School 96, 2011–12
Art School 136, 2011–12
Art School 50, 2011–12
Art School 224, 2011–12
All photos ©Paul Winstanley. Courtesy the artist and Ridinghouse, London
All taken at f2.8 with a Cannon 5D Mark 2 camera, using a 24-70mm lens in natural light, where possible
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