"The plus side of this collaborative approach is that you’ve always got someone to remind you that you’re not a fucking genius."
Harry Adams is the pseudonym used to present the collaborative paintings of artists Steve Lowe and Adam Wood. Steven Lowe is also the founder of L-13 Light Industrial Workshop, working with artists like Billy Childish, Neal Jones and Jimmy Cauty.
Could you talk about the beginnings of L-13 Light Industrial Workshop, what is L-13? Is it something you have always wanted to do?
I can’t say that running L-13 is something I’ve always wanted to do as that would imply some kind of forethought or plan. I guess it has evolved out of me always trying to find ways of doing the things I do want to do. That also involves doing things I’m not so keen on such as working with artists, dealing with the mechanics of running a business and other such unpleasant things.
It all happened because I’ve always been proactively creative and am someone who always needs to be busy. I drew and painted as a kid, went to art school, dropped out a month before the finishing an MA stating ‘I hated all art, artists and anyone involved in art’ as my reason. Then I was in bands for years, dealt in rare books (with a focus on counter-culture and radical literature) to earn money, ended up with a shop in Euston that I turned into what could be described as a ‘gallery’ on the eve of the war with Iraq.
I never wanted to run a gallery though and never called it one. Back then we were known as the aquarium & I would correct people if they called it the aquarium gallery. I still claimed to hate art and had an idea there was something tainted about a regular gallery – something I’d be embarrassed to be associated with. So I wanted to skirt the orthodox role as a gallerist and do something with a bit more flavour & involved - a space where creativity happened rather than one that just displayed and sold it. I still had no real desire to reconnect with the art world; it was more a matter of me pursuing things I was interested in. Our first show was called The SI and After: What is Living and What is Dead in the Situationist International’, and for that I made a limited edition artists book. Something I hadn’t done since art school. Then we did a show with Billy Childish. I was familiar with his writing and music, but had never seen any of his paintings. For me that was by the by… I just wasn’t interested in them, but I was interested in Billy’s position in the margins of culture, ploughing his own furrow so to speak. That’s what I admired. For his first show we made a record, a chapbook of poetry, a series of little prints and a box set made out of a painting with all the things we’d published sealed in the back.
We just hit it off in terms of making and doing things + we also managed to make a bit of money, which was a bit of a surprise to us all. So that kind of kicked things off in terms of the nature of what I wanted to do & we’ve just never let up on it since. Following Billy’s first show we then did an exhibition of art against war in aid of the Stop The War Coalition. Jimmy Cauty and Jamie Reid lent us work for that & I ended up doing print projects and exhibitions with them, so that sealed the deal. At that point I decided that rather than take on more and more artists I’d just focus on these 3 to facilitate what they did and work with them in a surreptitiously collaborative way. When I was at art school I worked for Matts Gallery occasionally and I always admired Robin Klassnik's collaborative approach with the artists he showed so I thought I’d try something similar but on a completely different level. I worked with a few other artists along the way, but Billy, Jamie and Jimmy always remained the defining trio. At the time someone told me they thought the choice to bring them together was genius, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. I seemed to just fall into place without anyone really making any decisions. By the end of 2005 we’d outgrown the small shop near Euston and we moved to a much bigger space on Farringdon Road to a building that had been bombed by a Zeppelin in 1915.
Billy did some research on this and found that the airship that bombed us was Zeppelin L-13, which was like some glorious gift to us, so we became THE AQUARIUM L-13. That lasted a couple of years, but as we became more successful I began to really dislike running the business… it was just too full on all the time and I felt we were having to do things to keep everything running rather than doing them because we wanted to. I’d also started making art again in collaboration with my old friend Adam (first as STOT21stCplanB then when we got seriously into painting as Harry Adams) and just thought something drastic had to happen to shake things up.
So I decided to close everything down for a major rethink and the rethink ended up with us downscaling and moving just around the corner to our basement HQ to start again as the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and Private Ladies and Gentlemen’s Club for Art Leisure and the Disruptive Betterment of Culture. I came up with the name first and thought with a name like that everything else would just fall into place. And it did! The closing down and moving and change of name confused a lot of people and probably wasn’t good for business, but it put a spring back into my step.
What does L-13 mean to you now? How has it changed over the last couple of years?
L-13 is my home from home. It’s the Harry Adams studio and HQ for the artists I still work with – primarily Billy and more recently with Jimmy again. We stopped doing exhibitions in 2013 but still make lots of editions and facilitate the needs of the artists in a very proactive way. The biggest change has been me trying to give time to my own practice, but I still spend a lot of time on Billy and Jimmy business. I’d describe them both as full time jobs. The other big change has been what Billy describes as his ‘overnight success’. In 2010 neugerriemschneider, a big gallery in Berlin, took him on and through that now has a gallery in New York – Lehmann Maupin, and Carl Freedman here in London.
That means I don’t have to worry about selling his paintings any more, something I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t good at anyway. But I do now get to help curate his shows and tend to travel with him when he has exhibitions. It’s an odd relationship, because even though we both have towering egos, mine works in a different way from his and we have a good, productive and friendly working relationship. It means I have to rub up with the mainstream Art World quite a bit, but I’m more mature now and am more at ease with my conflicts. Billy’s the same… we don’t expect anything from it, so it’s easy. I think I’m considered a necessary & useful sidekick by the galleries but like to made it clear early on that I’m not his “assistant”. My joke is that Billy works for me & not me for him. My other joke is that he’s merely a projection of my own creative being… with the emphasis on the merely. We have a lot of fun at L-13… we’re all irreverent and there’s always lots of laughter.
Yourself and Adam Wood collaborate to make paintings under the name Harry Adams, could you tell us how this partnership started? What are the obstacles and benefits with this method of working? For instance: who lands the first paint stroke?
Adam and me were at art school together. Adam tried to get a college band together and I turned up with a 4 stringed beaten up guitar and made an awful racket whilst the other were trying to do more regular songs. Within a couple of weeks Adam had joined me in the noise making and the others left. So our first collaborations were doing ‘noise performances’ that I described as like Einsturzende Neubauten without the tunes. It was quite extreme but our aim was to always to create intense sonic experiences of great beauty. We’d get into college really early to practice before anyone else turned up, but still managed to piss so many people off. After that we were in more regular bands, the last one of which was called STOT21stCplanB. This was our zero ambition band where we didn’t play gigs and would only release CDRs through the aquarium. This is also how we started making visual art again – we’d made an LP ‘Satan’s Rat Trap and the Mouse that Wound Up Dead’ and as we were releasing it as an aquarium Ltd Edition we decided to have a launch and make an exhibition around it. So we turned the space into our art lab and made a whole exhibition's worth of work on-site in 5 days. It was all a bit shit, but that suited us fine.
We then continued making work as STOT21stCplanB, described by a magazine at the time as “ranging from sublime genius to unmitigated shit”. We’d always say “you work out which is which”. This was all pretty easy and fun but very adolescent, so at some point we decided we should grow up and take up painting to cure ourselves. So we then needed a painters name and settled on Harry Adams as it sounded good & solid and also began with A so if we were in any group shows we’d be at the top of the list. And so in 2007 we began to learn to paint again. I’d gone to art college as a painter, but whilst there discovered I didn’t like other painters… generally too rarified and bourgeois for my angry young man act at the time, so I stopped that first… then found out I didn’t like any other artists either. But through working with Billy I learnt that I didn’t need to worry about that and that painting, with all its faults manifested and amplified in the art world, was still probably the most difficult and rewarding of the art forms… and we wanted some of that.
The weird thing is that it never even occurred to us that we should paint separately. We’d been working together for so long we just assumed we’d continue with the paintings. In that way the collaboration isn’t a construct or a gimmick.
It’s perfectly natural. We don’t have any rules of engagement other than that we decide to present our work under one name. I always describe it as like having two singer songwriters in a band. Adam & me are like the Lennon/McCartney of the painting world. Sometimes we’ll both work on the same painting, rarely at the same time unless it’s big, and sometimes it’s all one person's work.
But there’s lots of discussion around what we do and have a tag team style process, where we respond to or even try to copy something the other has done. If it works out it’s a Harry Adams. If not it goes in the recycling pile. Our egos are also very compatible for this with neither of us being too precious about what we do. We don’t mind ruining each others work or having our efforts ruined or improved by the other. The plus side of this collaborative approach is that you’ve always got someone to remind you that you’re not a fucking genius. I can’t think of a downside, other than I have to put up with Adam and he has to put up with me.
Harry Adams paintings often depict flowers and garden landscapes, are you both a romantic at heart?
We haven’t done too many flowers and the garden paintings are based on a Roman fresco from 20BC & not our most “romantic” work, but we do make lots of English landscapes featuring oak trees and most of our work has a kind of apocalyptic feel to it which is ultimately in the tradition of Romantic Painting. So yes, we’re quite romantic at heart - I think you have to be to be a painter in this day and age - but we’re not fooled by the romance or any kind of romantic vision. We’re too aware of the constructs and fallacies of art to con ourselves or anyone else. In this way we’re interested in the history, culture and codes of painting & making use of the various identifying traditions, trying to find the sublime points of tension between our concerns and interests & how they may be perceived or identified. It’s all construction and deconstruction… trying to discover what a good painting might look like through a variety of subjects and to see how all the themes could be linked. It’s tricky stuff – a balancing act made difficult because the centre of gravity is constantly shifting. To an untrained eye it may look chaotic, but it’s really a highly controlled poetic outpouring!
Do you feel working under a pseudonym, gives you a sort of freedom that you wouldn’t get if you were working under your own name?
Probably. I think we’re both quite shy by nature so having an alter ego that can take responsibility for the work releases us from that a bit. I really can’t imagine making work under my own name; it would just seem odd and a bit dull. Doing this interview under my name feels a bit awkward to me. I like pseudonyms. They just add flavour and yes, an element of freedom. One of my favourite authors is Flann O’Brien who also made good use of the pseudonym. This was partly because he worked for the Irish Civil Service and as a result was forbidden from writing for newspapers as himself but I always thought him having the different names was quite playful and good fun. It also has a lot to the music side of things. When you start a band the name is always an important aspect. We’ve just transferred that over into an art world context.
L-13 has helped support artists like: Billy Childish, Neal Jones, Jimmy Cauty and of course Harry Adams, do you think it's important for artists to stick together? How do you think being in a group changes/helps you as an artist?
I never at any point had the idea of creating a community of artists. If anything I find the idea abhorrent and always tried to keep them apart. Neal and Billy would just bait each other when they did meet, but I suppose Jimmy and Billy get on OK - but only because their work is so different … I’m sure it wouldn’t last if they were left together in a room for too long though. Artists don’t want to stick together, their rampant egos, narcissism and arrested development means they’d kick they’re own mum out of the nest if it gave them some of the attention they crave. That said, and joking apart, I think L-13 has been able to provide a platform for these artists to allow them develop their work within a sense of community – a sense of being part of something. It’s helpful and fulfilling for all involved. But they’re all individual artists with differing concerns… and a few overlaps, so I suppose I’m the unifying factor. However, I decided early on not apply value judgments on the work itself or impose my ego in terms of what I think the group identity should be. I admire and trust the artists I work with so try to listen carefully to what they want to do and help them do it. In that way I really do work with them individually but that in turn has created a spirit of co-operation between us all. Mind you, it was very tiring applying this approach to 5 or 6 artists so I'm glad I've been able to reduce it so I can allow Harry Adams a bit more time.
Could you talk about the recent project "ADP Riot Tour" by one of your artists: Jimmy Cauty. The logistics of this tour must have been a huge challenge?
Jimmy’s Aftermath Dislocation Principle is a vast model made in miniature 1:87 scale of a post-apocalyptic landscape (set somewhere in a mythical Bedfordshire) housed in a 40 ft shipping container and viewed through observation ports in the side. The scene inside is the aftermath of some kind of cataclysmic upheaval that some people think may have been a mass riot, but all that remain now are about 3000 tiny policemen and media crews, all standing looking a bit lost, or starting to misbehave. This container is currently on a pilgrimage to 38 historic riot sites around the country on a nationwide tour that ends in Bedford at the Garden of Eden on Christmas day. Everything about the tour is amazing, from the detail, quality and artistry of the actual model, to the way the container is being hosted by various groups around the country. The container itself is also turning into a great piece of folk art as it gets covered in graffiti along the way.
Yes, it’s been a big challenge, hugely costly and time consuming. But all worth it. I strongly advise everyone to follow the tour’s progress on the L-13 website and go to see it as soon as you can. Also, everyone should come to Bedford on Christmas Day. You’re all invited!
Your project Art Hate is often politically motivated; with recent events there is untold material for you to play with I’m sure. Has it always been political? Or has it changed over the years from when you first started?
The recent “politically motivated” posters are a bit of an anomaly as far as Art Hate is concerned. ART HATE is a polemic and not political with a big P. Firstly, I should clarify that Art Hate, and the ‘political posters’ are Billy Childish led projects but Harry Adams has been instrumental in various aspects, and like all good collaborative projects, there are significant blurrings as to who brings what to the table. Billy brings the focal thrust of all the design and content though. He is the Art Hate Fuhrer. The origins are in a non-group Billy started called The British Art Resistance. For that he made a number of placards and posters with text and his hangman gallows symbol in the middle. One of these stated ART WAR. Then he came up with ART HATE and put a hung swastika between the two words. He then suggested putting the words ‘National’ and ‘Week’ into the equation and we ended up with a poster that said ‘National Art Hate Week’. I then suggested some dates for this week and proposed we design more posters that promoted events, protests and activities during that week – a tactic I’d used before with in a campaign for an imaginary candidate for Mayor of London called The Assistant.
Soon we had lots of posters and proposed events that some people hoped or feared were real, and Art Hate was born. We then decided the first wave of posters were a bit too satirical and jokey, so we started making them more brutal and confusing. There’s a huge body of work we’ve made for this project known as the ART HATE Archive. One day we will make a book to reveal it all.
Anyway, the ‘politically motivated’ posters you refer to first came about as ‘New Coalition Directive Considered Response Posters’ which weren’t ART HATE but used a similar aesthetic and were in the same family as polemic statements. Their job was to short-circuit any sensible political argument and just call David Cameron a cunt in a way that made us laugh. The recent ones brought out for the Tory’s post Brexit referendum leadership battle are a continuation from that and for some reason we decided to call them Art Hate posters. Probably because we haven’t done any pure ART HATE for some time. Pure ART HATE wouldn’t worry itself with such banalities as current political nonsense. It concerns itself with more universal idiocy.
What’s next for Harry Adams and L-13? Any shows/projects lined up?
Harry Adams is currently on a residency in Italy for a month. We’re making paintings at an old monastery - Eremo S. Maria Maddalenna, that’s built into the side of Monteluco a ‘sacred mountain’ just outside Spoleto where St Francis used to come and pray. Alessandra Bonomo who runs the residency and has also shown us at her gallery in Rome has invited us here. Sol Lewitt used to spend time here and made his first pencil wall drawings in the 1970s. Since then many other artists have come to make work, mostly site specific, so it’s a very potent place to come and make paintings.
After that we have a solo show in October at the Eagle Gallery, just around the corner from our studio in Clerkenwell. We’re also publishing a book to coincide with that.
Not necessarily an exhibition catalogue, but something that can stand-alone as an intrinsic part of our ongoing practice. I’ve always loved making books, whether hand made, special limited editions or ones for the mass market. They have always been part of L-13 and as an artist I think they can add depth and breadth to what we do.
As for L-13 we’ll be full-on with Jimmy’s tour until Christmas followed by a book for that + we have a few Billy Childish books in the pipeline + a bronze, silver and gold Auroch to present to the world. I’m sure there will also be many other things to do along the way that no one’s even thought of yet. The main thing about L-13 is to never put the brakes on.
Publishing date of this interview: 12/08/16