Frame 61

Alex Duncan

Frame 61
Alex Duncan

"It was like I was on a new edge of exploring, where I wasn't sure if it was art or not, but that felt more true to my instincts as a person."


Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?

I grew up in Swansea, Wales and decided to stay and study for my Foundation and then onto the BA at the Art School, where I graduated in 2007. I remember feeling like I had no desire to move away as I was really interested in exploring the creative potential of an area I knew well.

The Foundation course was a massive eye-opener, I cannot overstate how important that year was. Through all the people I started to meet and share ideas with, to the possibilities of what art could be. I don’t think I would have had such a good time at my degree without it. The year I was a part of on my BA was such a strong group, and we had great lecturers like Tim Davies, Craig Wood and Sue Williams who really encouraged us, and Harold Hope who was the kind of tutor who bridged the gap between technical help and tutorials - you could have a tutorial with Harold then head straight down down with him to the workshops where you’d start to solve problems in your ideas.

I stayed and worked in Swansea for several years after graduating, putting on two-person shows with artist and good friend Jonathan Anderson. We showed with some of the grass roots spaces like Elysium Gallery. Jonathan and I would meet to discuss our ideas on a weekly basis - keeping a sort of studentship after our BA - so it felt quite organic to end up making shows together. The Mission Gallery offered me my first solo show in 2011, which was the same year I moved to London.

When I moved to London I had no idea what to do career-wise, I was content with working and exploring the culture and galleries in my spare time. But after a solo show in MOSTYN and a curated group show with Vulpes Vulpes my girlfriend convinced me to apply to the RCA. So in 2013 I started the Sculpture course and again met some wonderful new friends and great tutors that really helped to push my work on, I suppose I began questioning what I had been making up to that point and the course helped me figure out ways in which I had been narrowing my practice, and how get beyond that and broaden the ways in which I could make work.

The use of pebbles and rocks seems to be an on going theme in your work, could talk about the meaning behind them?

The coastal edge of the Welsh landscape was a massive part of what I was fascinated by growing up; the intertidal zone where I’d go crabbing, fishing and surfing and then later exploring as part of collecting work for cove.

The foam pebbles that make up this work now number the tens of thousands, but they started from a single double-take on the river Ribble in Lancashire. I was out walking with my Dad and and my Uncles dog and i spotting something spinning wildly in an eddy, that at first glance looked like a well worn river stone. Years of chattering having smoothed its rough surface. But when I went to pick it up and held the object I realised that this was foam.

When we returned home to South Wales I thought this material, if in a river, must be all along the coast that I thought I knew well. Polyurethane and polystyrene, churned and tumbled in the oceans, is in a way, erosion on a fast-forward button. The material also tans like our skin, so the colour changes and can be quite beautiful, whereas the materials repugnancy creates a jarring as to how you should feel about it.

I began to collect this material from all the inlets and rocky coves along the wrecking coast of Gower. The ‘pebbles’ made me re-think about what I thought I knew, seeing things afresh. At the time I remember not being happy with the work I was making, it felt too cynical and a bit stagnant. Whereas collecting the foam pebbles felt new and exciting, it made me question the relationships between touch and sight which I still find fascinating today. It was like I was on a new edge of exploring, where I wasn't sure if it was art or not, but that felt more true to my instincts as a person.

'lacustrine' 2014

'lacustrine' 2014

cove 2017. Photo Guy Loftus

wake, 2017; Bilbao, Spain

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?

A day in the studio would ideally start with a swim in my local pool in Battersea. I love the way you feel so awake, it reminds me of when I used to go for early morning surfs in Swansea, you feel like you have the whole day ahead of you still. Recent works such as ‘like swimming’ came directly from this routine.

My studio is two mintue walk from my flat, which is amazing so I often get there early and crack on with whatever i left the previous evening, some casting experiments and recently some new wall based works. I try and make time for some research, and also a good walk around Battersea and down along the river helps generate ideas and think things through.

 If I have a show to work towards, then I have a yard space just outside to have really messy work on the go… for instance ‘like swimming (red room)’ was a piece made from 32 red pigmented concrete casts of swimming floats borrowed from my local swimming pool.

I would love to say I was in the studio all the time, but like a lot of people I have to make ends meet through different jobs. I’ve been fortunate to have good work opportunities in London - gallery installation work, museum framing etc -I have been a picture framer on and off since I was seventeen.

The people I work with know my art career is my main focus and respect that I think. But I also like working and meeting with people, I get to see and handle a lot of art that viewers don’t necessarily spend more than a few seconds looking at. Having access to workshops and materials is fantastic for when I need to make things.

I think its about making sure you don’t separate work and art, as that can get you down and inspiration can come from anywhere, its all one thing.

Could you talk about your recent major piece titled: Wake? What is your thoughts behind the piece and how was it constructed?

Wake came about through a new relationship with Aldama Fabre Gallery in Bilbao, where I was working towards a solo show curated by Emma Kelly. Emma and I were on a site visit, and we went with the Gallery down to the Maritime Quarter to explore the history of Bilbao, where we first encountered the La carola crane.

There had sometimes been advertising banners on the side of the famous crane, but never an artistic intervention.

The work is inspired by the strong connection Bilbao has to the tidal river and through it beyond, the ocean. The resulting image is a photograph I took of a side of a shipping container. I felt a connection of liquidity the more I walked passed it and thought it could be something. In flux and change, the back peeling of paint revealed different colours and layers, and I suppose a thinness of time.

I thought this image could work really well in the skyline, and resonate with the cities changes and layers.

'h2whoa' RCA degree show 2015 water, silt, ramp, custom machine. in collaboration with Roger Bone.

Like Swimming (red room) 2016

relief (poster) 2017. Aldama Fabre Gallery, Bilbao

'netsuke' 2015

'Cove' 2007-2011

'Cove' 2007-2011

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

Recently I saw the a handful of dust  at the Whitechapel Gallery, which was a stunning exhibition. It seemed to be exploring the materiality of the photographic image, the notion of the image as forensic, as a document and how there is so much fluidity there.

At South London Gallery, Eric Van Lieshout’s work was amazing, it was such a good install in the space and the work was so playful, yet deeply serious in its content. Michael Dean’s show there last year was very inspiring in it playfulness and scale too. The recent Artes Mundi in Cardiff and the Liverpool Biennale were very successful with such strong works, it was great to spend some time in both of those cities too.

I have found lots of inspiration this year from reading; novels like Ali Smith’s autumn, all of Kate Tempest’s writing is so visceral and urgent, her recent novel seemed to further add to the language she inhabits. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was also a stunning book of poetry. I walk a lot in London, and have found Audiobooks a great way of extending what I absorb through literature.

The Courthauld and V&A are places I go back to again and again. The V&A cast courts just really amaze me, and the complexities of ideas of ‘the original’ and ‘replica’ that I think about a lot in my work. ‘netsuke’ was a direct inspiration from the galleries collection of Japanese carvings.

How do you go about naming your work?

I tend to write down words and phrases in my notebooks, or on my studio walls. I like to see them again and again whilst i am making or drawing, to see if there is a connection with the things in my hands.

My recent solo show title ‘blow in’ came from friends in Swansea who i surf with who would use the phrase ‘blow in’ to describe someone who is a newcomer or some one who isn't hanging around that long.. i felt like that was an interesting phrase to own, as in a sense as an artist showing in Bilbao that was how I myself could be described.

Similarly other titles ‘frothing’ and relief’ came from conversations and short film clips that describe feelings about, or in reaction to the sea. The title for ‘like swimming’ is a Foals song title, from an album that I was really into when I first started exploring the work over the summer of 2015 at the RCA.

Words resonate when I am reading books, sometimes a short sentence can lead to things, a way of thinking. Other times something just jumps into my head when I am making the work, like ‘h2whoaa’ for my RCA degree show, where I turned a delivery ramp to the back of the building into a flooded slipway complete with a custom made wave machine to echo lapping tideline.

Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

Well, my first international solo show at Aldama Fabre in Bilbao still has two weeks to go! So that has been a really exciting last six months working through that process. It has been interesting to see how my work is absorbed by different cultures, if it translates or makes sense at all.

I will also be contributing a collaborative work made with artist Ryan L Moule for their next curated show ‘scratch the surface’ that opens in late August.

I have plans to be working with the curatorial organisation Invisible Dust next year, as well as working with Sluice this coming Autumn in London. At the Glynn Vivian art gallery in Swansea I will be contributing to a group show curated by Ephemeral Coast in January 2018, so plenty to keep me out of trouble.

At my studios in Battersea, I co-run a project space called Artlacuna that has a full calendar of exhibitions this year. We don’t have any money as such so all the shows get put together with a lot of good effort and desire from me and my fellow directors. It’s a lot of work on top of everything but I enjoy seeing people have the opportunity to experiment in the space.

All images courtesy of the artist
Publish date 01/08/2017