"So much of a society’s history, ideologies and beliefs are reflected in their cityscapes: civilisations inevitably pour their beliefs and culture into the forms and buildings they create.”
Junko: You're exhibiting at this month's London Art Fair, tell us about the work you're showing.
Chris: I'll be showing a new series of drawings called 'Ba da, Dodā', as well as what I think is my most ambitious work to date, my first floor work.
The drawings take the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi's sculpture, The Infinity Column, and re-imagine it as being populated by the socialist apartment blocks that still dominate the Romanian landscape, where I've lived and worked for five years.
I wanted to create a series of drawings that considered the possibility of a population living within an iconic abstract form and unexpected narratives inevitably grow out of the cracks of rigid ideology. It is impossible for the residents of the repetitive rhomboidal structure to adhere to a life of such a formal nature, and they have rebelled in various ways throughout each structure, constructing idols, swearing allegiance to flags of their own creation, and even destroying the structure itself.
The floor etching is a work that draws together quite a few different strains of my practice. The piece is 5 x 3 metres, made from reclaimed beech parquet flooring, which I have sanded, blackened, by charring it, and inlaid with brass strips of various dimensions that dart across the surface. I co-founded an interior design business in Romania, and have also worked in prop and set design for TV, so it was inevitable that these would collide at some point with my art practice. The floor has similar sensibilities to my icon panel etchings, gouging out lines and filling them with colour.
The shard motif that is featured in the floor and some of the drawings began in earlier icon panel etchings like 'Chasm' and 'Not lost in loss itself', and has its origins in the divine rays of light that are present in religious iconography. Rather than having a clearly defined source (and therefore being emitted as a form of 'illumination’), my shards are scattered across a plane, crashing into each other.
Artist Chris Agnew is becoming widely acknowledged for his highly detailed drawings and signature technique of icon panel etching. His deeply considered work, referencing art history, social ideologies, political disharmony and how cultural beliefs shape our cityscapes, has earned him a place in some of the greatest public and private collections, including the Victoria & Albert Museum. This month he debuts a solo booth at the London Art Fair with Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery. We take time to find out about his new work and get under the skin of what makes the artist tick.
J: A recurring subject in your work appears to be isolated architectures. Are they informed by your surroundings? By history? Are they imagined futures?
C: The first isolated architectural piece that I completed was a 2009 drawing, ‘Thus Spake Progress’, which was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize. It imagines the Houses of Parliament clock tower, which houses Big Ben, as an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail. This was just after the financial crash when it started to become apparent that the UK government was never going to target those responsible for financial crimes, and would instead point the finger elsewhere. There was a simple idea that I wanted to capture, that of history repeating itself – the title is a play on Nietzsche's ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ and Hogarth's etching series ‘The Rake's Progress’. It was from then on that it became a main string to my bow.
Although the drawings are architectural in nature, they are less concerned with architecture itself, and more with how ideology operates through a series of symbols and structures, and how our interaction with them shapes society. So much of a society’s history, ideologies and beliefs are reflected in their cityscapes: civilisations inevitably pour their beliefs and culture into the forms and buildings they create.
I think that all time is imagined - the past, present and future. Proof of that was provided by 2016, as voters fantasised about a return to an imagined golden age in the UK and America, which concurrently led them to imagine a future that isn't possible. The ‘Ba da, Dodā’ series asks us exactly that: how would a society function if it existed in the vacuum of an abstract form?
J: You spent some years living and working in Bucharest, did this affect your practice, whether that be influences of subject matter, aesthetic sensibilities or process? Do you find working in different environments assists or challenges your work in different ways?
C: There was a moment after the MA when I was taking part in so many shows and competitions that I didn't feel that my work was being given the breathing room to develop naturally.
In Bucharest, I found that I could really strip down my practice to the bones, and build it up again without the pressures of the London art scene. New environments challenge my work, and that is exactly what it needs. I think if it’s not challenged constantly then it exists in an echo chamber where it is only speaking to itself.
Living in Bucharest shaped major elements of my work without a doubt, but does not define it in any way. However, there are many features of life there that really put fuel in my tank: its geopolitical position, the architecture, the proximity of such a tumultuous period in its history.
My old studio used to look out over a little square in the centre of the city, and I would see this 80-odd year old man walking through, hunched over on his walking stick most days. One day I looked out to see him being screamed at by another middle-aged guy, the police pulled up and had to restrain him. I asked a friend if they knew what was going on, and they told my that that the old man was about to be put on trial again for his role as the chief torturer in one of the notorious Communist prisons. That is what I mean by the proximity of history, and you can't fail to be fascinated by something like that.
J: My favourite of your works are the icon panel etchings, especially the ones that have a collage feel to the layout. What led you to creating icon etchings and what is the significance of the bright, almost digital pen style, dashes of marks and colour?
C: The digital swipes across the surface of the 'Dither' series of icon panel etchings felt like the next natural step in the process that I'd developed. As the works were dealing with how information is manipulated, I wanted to include the hand of the secondary manipulator, the individual. If the information or story on the panel was somehow devised by an intellectual authority (by which I mean, a journalist, writer, pedagogue, artist etc), then I wanted these works to feature the hand of the receiver of the information, the figure with no obligatory commitment to the truth whatsoever, for whom information can be treated however they want. The digital swipes are therefore meant to symbolise the creations by the hand of the passive viewer, scribbling across the narrative, relishing the control they have over what appears in front of them. The icon panel etchings have always had numerous voices contained within them, conversing over the subject matter.
J: You have become recognised for your distinct style that incorporates drawing and etching. What attracts you to these methods? Is there importance in the methods and how they relate to the subject matter?
C: My interest in the etching process developed on my BA at Leeds University. I felt a natural affinity with the drypoint process, scribing directly into the plate rather than using a wax resist, and concentrated on that.
Whilst working through the printing process, I realised that the plate with the
ink on resonated more with me and my subject matter, than the final print. It
was the genuine article, whereas the print felt like a mere representation, a ghost, of the plate.
I took this idea with me to my MA at Wimbledon, and began etching on wax, then on resin, which brought some attention to my work. It was only when I moved to Romania that I developed the Icon Panel Etching technique by studying the traditional preparation of Orthodox icon panels, and adapting the process to accommodate the etching process.
I love the versatility of the medium, the works have been included in drawing, painting and printmaking shows, and in fact have a quite a sculptural presence when you experience them, so they are sort of like shapeshifters that can put on many different masks.
I always describe the relationship between the process and the subject matter as a symbiotic co-existence, in that they evolved together, and feed off each other. In a nutshell, I'm interested in how information is captured, manipulated and disseminated to an audience. The etching process was arguably the first medium to disseminate information to large audiences. Historically, paintings were reproduced as etchings for the mass market, and current affairs were illustrated using the etching medium in order to reach large illiterate audiences (just Google the London Illustrated News). The icon panel etching process toys with the idea of the 'unique' truth, in that once the moment in which 'truth' occurs, it is forever lost, and all that exists after are just iterations of that.
J: What plans do you have in store for your practice in 2017?
C: In spring I will be returning to Bucharest to start a residency with Casa Jurnalistului, a house of investigative journalists that focuses on social interest stories in East Europe. I will be starting work on a project that I have been preparing for some time now.
A few years ago I bought a writing desk at a flea market in Bucharest, the vendor explained that the central drawer was locked, with the key snapped off in the lock, and that the contents of the drawer were mine to do with as I wished. When the drawer was prised open back at the studio, it revealed a cache of various documents and objects. Personal letters, photographs, identity cards, spectacles, and the velvet case for a lady's pistol, all from the same family, dating between 1919 and 1985. The period spans and documents a tumultuous period in European history, which saw Romania during the golden age, through to five years before the bloody revolution that brought an end to Communism.
I am currently translating my way through the material, tracing members of the family, and unearthing the surprising twists and turns of their personal lives in the face of such political upheaval. The project will yield some form of film, and associated text and drawings. The first drawing from the series ‘No word of a lie’ won the Derwent Art People’s Choice Award at the end of last year so that was a great start.
Ba Da, Dodă (A routine parade), 2016, courtesy of the artist.
Ba Da, Dodă (Girl with a serpent), 2016, courtesy of the artist.
Composit-VH, 2015, courtesy of the artist.
Composit-MR, 2015, courtesy of the artist.
Chris Agnew installing his floor piece, 2017, courtesy of the artist.
Written by Amy Moffat
Jan 15th 2017
The London Art Fair preview evening is Tuesday 17th Jan and open from the 18th to 22nd.