“Art is meant to be about transformation and bronze transforms rubbish into art” - an interview with Keith Coventry

By Aina Pomar - Tuesday, May 10, 2016
“Art is meant to be about transformation and bronze transforms rubbish into art” - an interview with Keith Coventry

If there is an artist that has managed to address drug addiction, junk food, prostitution and racism in the framework of the Modernist aesthetics and bring it to major galleries, it’s Keith Coventry. Committed to approaching London’s most rooted social issues since the early eighties, he is well known for being one of the founding members of City Racing. The space was run by John Burgess, Matt Hale, Paul Noble, Peter Owen and Coventry between 1988 and 1998 and is considered one of the most remarkable artist-led galleries from the 90s. ... We met Keith Coventry to talk about his recent work, his sources of inspiration and about a time in London when it was possible to run an artist-led space on an exhibition budget of just £100.

“Art is meant to be about transformation and bronze transforms rubbish into art” - an interview with Keith Coventry

If there is an artist that has managed to address drug addiction, junk food, prostitution and racism in the framework of the Modernist aesthetics and bring it to major galleries, it’s Keith Coventry. 

Committed to approaching London’s most rooted social issues since the early eighties, he is well known for being one of the founding members of City Racing. The space was run by John Burgess, Matt Hale, Paul Noble, Peter Owen and Coventry between 1988 and 1998 and is considered one of the most remarkable artist-led galleries from the 90s.

Located in South London, outside the mainstream art circuit, City Racing acted as a route to exhibition in large commercial galleries for many emergent artists of the time. During its active years it featured the work of many YBA and future prominent artists, including Sarah Lucas, Fiona Banner, Ceal Floyer, Gillian Wearing and Martin Creed.

Despite not being part of the YBA movement, Keith Coventry’s work was present in the famous and controversial show Sensation in 1997, which is today remembered as one of the most successful of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Surprisingly, he is now starting to receive a comparable recognition to the one the other coetaneous artists had ten or twenty years ago. With a consistent career, he has been exhibited internationally and his works are in important collections such at the British Council, Tate Modern, Arts Council of England, Walker Art Center of Minneapolis and MoMa among others.

From the 27th April to the 28th May he presents Black White Gold at PACE London, showing his new works that build up from distinguished previous series like the Junk Paintings or the sculpture Looted Shop Front.

We met Keith Coventry to talk about his recent work, his sources of inspiration and about a time in London when it was possible to run an artist-led space on an exhibition budget of just £100.

Artdependence: Along with other artists you ran City Racing space from 1988 to 1998. Tell me how this project started and how it became a pivotal space for some emergent artists at that time. 

Keith Coventry: The building was basically two flats and a bookmakers’ office and I kind of squatted the place. I used the bookmakers’ office (which became the first stage of the gallery) as my studio and then with a few friends we decided to put on exhibitions of our own work.

At the time there were very few spaces for people to show their work. So, after we had shown our work once or twice we realised that we should continue doing this and that it was time to bring in other people too.

Initially we ran little shows on a budget of £100 per exhibition, which included the wine, the postage and the production of the invitation card.

There were other groups with exhibition spaces, but the thing that made us a bit different is the fact that we just carried on. A lot of them crumbled after a couple of years. It was this thing of relentlessly doing exhibitions for ten years that got us some attention. Quite a few well-known curators came. One year Francesco Bonami, who was doing the Venice Biennale, came down there and it was super encouraging to have him coming to see us in that tiny place.

At the time the area of Vauxhall, where it was situated, was a place that had been overlooked. It was like a wilderness from the sixties and seventies, but yet it’s only about a mile from Tate Britain, in a completely different world across the river. 

Keith Coventry, Goschen Estate, 1999. Oil on linen, glass and wood. 112 cm x 91.5 cm x 5.5 cm (44-1/8" x 36" x 2-3/16"), framed. © Keith Coventry, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Damian Griffiths

AD: Keeping London as a reference, I would like to ask you about your famous series Estate Paintings. This series refers to social housing blocks in the form of Malevich’s suprematist artworks. When did you decide to create this series?

KC: When I was living at City Racing I had a dog, a greyhound, and I used to go on long walks in the morning for a couple of hours and cut through all the various big estates, always trying to find something different everyday, a different route or a different path so it wouldn’t be too boring. I kept noticing these maps, the repeated viewing of something that may not impress itself upon you, but as you keep seeing it over and over again the idea forms.

I thought about the early century modernist and Malevich and how their legacy was so optimistic about it and now I was walking through the dreary failed results of that. Those places were laid on to give me more ideas for my work, because I saw the buildings as containers for all the other social illness that was inflicting society at that time in the early 90s. It was like a flâneur or peregrinations.

AD: The Estate Paintings are perhaps one of the best examples of how you comment on social issues through references to Modernism. Does your exhibition at PACE White Black Goldoffer the opportunity to explore these connections further?

KC: The white pictures [the recent Pure Junk series] are not made with paint, they are just made with a kind of material that could be sculpture, it’s often used on picture frames and it could be shaped. It’s a bit like the Russian constructivists’ notion of faktura, where the paint becomes a malleable subject, like sculptural material.

A connection to Modernism is that Jean Arp made his reliefs in Paris and then Ben Nicholson saw these reliefs and produced his White Reliefs. There was this connection, except that they produced abstract things and mine appear to be abstract, but actually engage with something from popular culture in a very universal way.

That is my angle really. I make something that appears abstract, but it’s actually depicting something that exists. There is this figurative element. Just like the Estates [Paintings] appear abstract, but they are actually like a picture of the layout of the estate.

Installation view of Keith Coventry: White Black Gold, Pace London 2016. © Keith Coventry, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Stephen White

Installation view of Keith Coventry: White Black Gold, Pace London 2016. © Keith Coventry, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Stephen White

AD: The exhibition contains a selection of your recent works, for example the new Pure Junk evolving from the previous Junk paintings, which uses the famous McDonald’s logo as a starting point. Why did you decide to use the imagery of the burger chain to create your works?

KC: Near my studio in Camberwell years ago the amount of litter that accumulated outside of McDonald’s was mad. It was blowing and swiping around the entire pavement in this really busy street. There were coffee cups rolling around and people came along and stepped on them. The logo was on the cup so it would be flattened in a very unpredictable way and to me that was just like a ready-made.

At the time I think they had a yellow square with the red wedge going into it with an arch coming out of it. They were the colours of Modernism, red, yellow and blue. They had this Malevich quality and they were rather abstracted by somebody editing the image unconsciously and just by chance. You’ve got the Man Ray thing about chance and Schwitters picking up rubbish and I was combining all of those things.

At the time there was this idea of making a painting, but not really getting yourself too involved in the making of it. There was drippings, spraying, all these things, not only using a paintbrush. I was using a paintbrush but all the decisions had been made. The composition had been given to me; the colours had been given to me. So it was a way of being quite distant from the picture.

AD: Also in the show, there is Destroyed Shop Window (2016). You have addressed this subject matter in various works, like the sculpture Looted Shop Front (1997) or the Broken Windows paintings.

KC: One was after the Brixton riots in 1995, the first window I made in bronze. I went out the night of the riots and collected a piece of the debris from this window – In some riots if you remove anything from the side you could be put in prison.

I also thought about bronze. Art is meant to be about transformation and bronze transforms rubbish into art.

The other day I was reading Sartre’s essay about Alexander Calder and he talked about bronze and gold being stupid materials.

Obviously, the window casted in bronze gives this sort of monumentality to something that would be torn away and scrapped up otherwise.  

I know there is a lot of sorrow attached to destruction, but it’s not about a specific place. The [Broken] Windows represent the destruction, the universal aspect of it.

Keith Coventry, Golden Arches I, 2016. Gesso, glass, wood, bronze, and gold. 72 cm x 63 cm x 5 cm (28-3/8" x 24-13/16" x 1-15/16") framed. No. 63073. Location: PACE LONDON 6BG. Copyrights Keith Coventry, Courtesy Pace London

Keith Coventry, White Slaves (Various), 2008. Painted bronze, dimensions vary. © Keith Coventry, courtesy Pace Gallery

AD: Michael Bracewell has said about your work: “The shuttling between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural values in Coventry’s art appears endless – and wholly dismissive of taking one side or the other, either aesthetically or politically. What you get is nothing less than an Orwellian vision of the chilling dualism that comprises late capitalism – the mating of wealth, cultivated taste and status with social collapse, addiction, violence, cynicism and effluence”.

In this sense, you have integrated elements of “low culture” including crack pipes, prostitution, racism, and poverty in your works and displayed it in major galleries.

KC: In order to get people to look at those issues you have to make something look quite attractive, to draw them in, to make them invest the time to think about the issue. If it’s done in a very ugly way then people rarely look at it.

It’s a bit like advertising. You can’t make it too shocking. If you want to make a charity appeal, you have to moderate it because if it’s too awful then people won’t look at it, and you won’t get them to donate anything. It’s about being able to draw them in.

That was the subject of White Slaves as well. I found a newspaper headline that I saw in East London about this women being kept captive by other women for prostitution and they were all from Eastern Europe. I made these pictures and sculptures brightly coloured using the national colours of each country. They look like signs from Formula One or Racing trucks.

AD: Thank you very much, Keith.

Please read the full version of the inteview with Keith Coventry in the printed version of Artdependence Magazine #3 (2/2016).

Keith Coventry’ White Black Gold runs from 27 April to 28 May 2016 at PACE London.

Aina Pomar graduated in Sociology and Photography before completing a Master in New Media Art Curatorship. She has collaborated with Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Majorca and with CCCBLab and Fundació Foto Colectania in Barcelona. She moved to London to work at the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain, where she coordinated visual arts and exhibition projects with the aim of promoting Spanish culture and artists across the United Kingdom. She currently collaborates with various galleries and art projects in London.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995. Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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