East Sussex Open 2012, art work by Hermione Allsopp. Photo by Alison Bettles
If you want to confound a gallery professional, here’s a question which does the trick: “Could you define emerging artist?” Never mind that the phrase is a stock-in-trade of press releases and never mind the support which public galleries in the South East go so far to provide. Aspex, Towner and MK Gallery, for example, do plenty for local and/or fledgling talents. Just don’t expect them to nail down their terms.
Joanne Bushnell, Director of Aspex, says her Portsmouth gallery does very little else but support artists: through artist surgeries, an accessible exhibition programme and a biannual group show. The very history of the institution is a history of helping along the next big thing. It has given “important” shows to Mona Hatoum, Helen Chadwick, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wilson at “key points”. Becoming established in 1981, Aspex was once working with a definition of emerging artist as, “Someone we can see is about to make a step change in their career”.
Now their group show, Emergency, offers emerging artists a well-respected platform from which to go on and score a solo show or gallery representation. “What Emergency is about really is about enabling artists to get noticed,” says Bushnell. Selecting between eight and twelve names for the exhibition, she tells me they take more than one piece of work per artist: “So that we can really begin to show them off and hopefully expose them to our peers nationally and internationally”. And indeed there have been cases in which other galleries have in years gone by cherry picked future stars from this prestigious show.
But it seems that the term emerging artist has grown vaguer since the 80s. So Emergency is open to undergraduates in their final year, and has previously attracted an entry from a participant in the British Art Show. (They were disqualified.) “It’s for the artists to define themselves,” says Bushnell. “One could have had a solo show, but still not have had any significant success subsequently. It depends where that solo show is, doesn’t it? We entirely leave it to the artists.”
Just don’t think you can fool the selection panel. “I think that’s the beauty of working with a range of professionals from the sector, if someone has emerged, we know about them, we know their work,” says Bushnell. Pressing on, it is asked if representation by a commercial gallery was the step change between emerging and emerged artists. “I think galleries do take artists to a different place,” she confirms. “I think you’re on the way to having a career if you’ve got gallery representation, but that still doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re quite there.”
Visitors, meanwhile, who it can be easy to forget about, are less interested in terms like these. “One of the things we have to work quite hard on, to explain to the public, is that the artists that we’re showing aren’t yet household names and therefore they are seeing fresh, exciting talents and we require them to take a risk”. This must be one of the best arguments for free entrance in these straitened times.
It was also worthwhile speaking to the Exhibitions Curator from Towner. The Eastbourne gallery stages an annual open exhibition for artists within the county. And Sanna Moore is at first dismissive of the slippery term ‘emerging’. “We don’t really differentiate for the East Sussex Open where people’s careers are at,” she says. “You just have to be based in the East Sussex region to apply. So you can be a complete amateur or you can have 30 years’ experience and we get people from all walks of life.”
Since I fell for you by Lucy Brown. Installed at Towner Gallery. East Sussex Open 2013 exhibition
Try not to breathe by Lucy Brown. Installed in Towner Gallery window as part of East Sussex Open 2013 exhibition
So whether graduates or MA students, Londoners in retreat, or pensioners with time on their hands, “It’s really up to them how they position themselves,” she insists. “We’re looking for quality of work, really, and the CV and the artist’s statement are the back up and the thing we’re most interested in is the visuals.” Work in the East Sussex Open is all for sale and many of the participants are so far from ‘emerged’ that this is the first time they have priced their work.
Moore reveals that the latest show, in Spring 2013, pulled in 220 applications and resulted in 38 people able to display work in one of the stunning gallery’s white box spaces. When pressed about ages or years of experience with regard to the term emerging, there is a pause before the curator says: “I think it’s very individual. I don’t think you can put any specific numbers on that. It’s really about how quickly someone’s profile rises.” She contrasts the artist plugging away for 20 years and the Saatchi sponsored graduate who wins international fame in half a decade. Both, it seems, could claim the unhelpful label.
Boyd & Evans, Salt Lake 2, 2004, Digital Inkjet Print
But at MK Gallery in Milton Keynes you can indeed spot the hallmarks of emerging talent. It often comes down to affordable materials and manageable scale. The slickest works at group show MK Calling are those by Boyd & Evans, who have enjoyed a solo show at Ikon in Birmingham. But the established duo get a run for their money from graduate Jack Brindley. The young artist has painted a wall, and his medium of choice is clay. The abject result looks like a dirty protest, which is quite the statement in what must be his first appearance in a public space.
“There are a lot of emerging artists in the current exhibition,” gallery director Anthony Spira comments before beginning to um and ah about it. “It’s a really tricky question because one wants to be slightly more specific, I mean maybe ‘five years out of college’ would do it but when you talk about the cutting edge, one person’s cutting edge is another person’s conservative or retrograde.” So it seems that ‘emerging’ is often used as a sales pitch. “Yes, or innovative, or new, or fresh, these horrible labels,” confirms Spira.
“But you think of emerging, you maybe think of up to mid 30s,” he says. “If you have to have an age it’s probably around 35, but then does emerging mean emerging into public consciousness?” Or, he agrees, even emerging into a style of one’s own. “I think it’s very open. These labels are all tricky, aren’t they?” Spira is quick to offer the caveat that Marcel Broodthaers did not even begin making work until he was 40.
RCA Painting dept student Jack Brindley, as part of MK Calling at MK Gallery group show until 8 September 2013
But the personable director is a bit more ready with his definition of later stages of an artist’s life. “When I say a mid-career survey I’m thinking of . . . artists who are hitting 40,” he says. “The main thing is that they have this substantial body of work under their belt so they’ve had ten years of proper art production which enables us to create an exhibition which has substance.” These may not be darlings in the marketplace, yet, but they are certainly ready for some attention.
Spira has said that he likes to support mid-career artists along with neglected older types, in other words “artists who have probably never been in fashion”. Next up is Peter Dreher, a German in his 80s, who’s made a conceptual practice out of painting the same empty glass every day since the 1970s. “It’s incredible,” the director enthuses, with the relish that suggests the best thing a gallery can do is to give the deserving exposure. Whether emerging, mid-career or neglected, there are opportunities for all in the South East. Oh, and it’s probably your call when it comes to labels.