In a recent conversation with another art writer, we were contemplating how people are considerably more creative than the rigid scheduling of their lives allows them to be.
Quite reasonably, most of us are committed to a nine to five conditioning. Yet, from time to time I see work which fills me with a sense of enormous gratitude that someone has foregone the reliability of a “proper job” and instead invested the time it takes to perfect a piece of work with their hands. So happened on my first visit to ALICE BLACK Gallery.
A short detour off busy Oxford Street in central London, I walked into a room of all shades of stone, wood and natural materials. Where a cast iron bust of a girl, hole puckered and fragile, looked downcast and to the side. A small, spiked wooden creature took rest on a plinth. And curiously-shaped raku earthenware sat quietly, while smudges and shadows played across surfaces from paper to panel to scroll. The exhibition titled ‘Becoming and Dissolving’, was highly influenced by wabi-sabi: a Japanese concept rooted in Buddhism, which endeavours to emulate the modesty and eternal transience of our naturally imperfect world. It was a meticulously thought out show with a refreshing diversity of artists including 1920 Polish born Dante Elsner, 1939 Japanese born Kazuyo Kinoshita, alongside local artists barely in their 30s such as Nina Royle and Rory Menage, as well as the recently deceased Howard Hodgkin who could spin a small-scale piece with all the majesty of Kandinsky. I was hooked!
Since then, the gallery has produced three more excellent shows and has just celebrated its first birthday. As one of a handful of young commercial spaces, I caught up with Alice Black, gallery co-founder with Matt Symonds, to explore a deeper understanding of just how it is that a gallery has the courage not only to exist in these turbulent times but also to commit to such an innovative curatorial platform.
You’ve hosted exhibitions traversing geometric abstraction, east Asian aesthetics, humanity in a mechanised world, allegory and, now, the synthesis of our natural selves with the surrounding landscape. What determines and holds your vision together?
Central to our ethos is the conviction that the best art communicates its essential qualities directly, while at the same time, generating intellectual inquiry. We are not governed by the lure of fashions. One of my prime motivations for setting up a gallery was my frustration in seeing so much visually weak work being propped up by long winded, verbal justifications. Technical ability is so often undervalued and plays a crucial role in freeing the artist to realise and develop their creative vision. We favour artists who are progressively pushing the bounds of their medium or conceptual inquiry. That said, we’re against novelty for novelty’s sake; so much can still be learnt and built upon from the canon. As a gallerist it’s imperative to be constantly questioning your own motivations and maintaining open mindedness. We are always re-calibrating in direct response to what’s happening in the studio.
How does your stance of developing shows and seeking artists where there is an equality of technical prowess and artistic concept, serve to support today’s art buyers?
Many of our clients are already confident and sure-footed in their taste and require little guidance in their choice of artworks. However, there is a growing community of young and/or new collectors for whom the art world can seem a bit of a minefield. We aim to create an arena where they feel unconstrained, and free to question and explore. This breeds the confidence that collectors will find works by artists both established and emerging, local and international, which have been chosen and curated with integrity and in line with our core values of quality and longevity. Also, by generating a more fluid and inclusive culture between artist, collector and gallerist, our hope is to unlock some of the compartmentalised, “behind-closed-doors” conventions of the art market.
How do you go about selecting your artists?
The process is very organic and we’re looking all the time. Degree shows are a fantastic arena in which to encounter talented young artists who are as yet largely untouched by commercial pressures. I first discovered Nina Royle at the Slade and we have been working together ever since. We do a lot of studio visits which are a very important, frontline way to gain in-depth insights into an artist’s motivations and working practices.
The internet has also been really instrumental for discovering artists, Instagram especially. We discovered LA-based Marty Schnapf this way and within 48 hours I was on a plane to see him at his downtown studio. We are now working towards a two person show with him and another LA-based artist Cammie Staros.
We work a lot in cooperation with other galleries and actively encourage artist submissions. In fact, I think it’s a mistake that so many galleries don’t. Open communications ought to be encouraged otherwise you run the risk of missing out on a great talent.
You have just celebrated your first anniversary. How did the gallery come into being with you and Matt Symonds as co-founders?
Having graduated with an Art History degree I did a number of internships and a stint at Phillips Auction House, before being offered a job in the sales team at Stephen Friedman Gallery. During my year working there, I learnt an enormous amount and made lifelong friends, but was regularly pulled back in to line and told I was “trying to run before I could walk” (which was probably true!). Having decided to strike out as an independent, I started my business by taking artworks to collectors’ houses around London in an enormous canvas bag.
The scope of my venture really began to expand when I joined forces with Matt Symonds. He was a senior partner and head of financial services at the consulting firm Bain & Company, before leaving in 2016 to pursue his interests in art, investment and politics. Already a passionate art collector, a Board member of Nottingham Contemporary and a patron of the Royal Academy of Arts, Matt saw my initiative as an opportunity to develop his own interest in the creative and commercial workings of the artworld. We now make all of the major creative, business and strategic decisions in unison. It’s a very balanced partnership.
Who do you admire in terms of other curators or galleries and what have you learnt from them?
Megan Piper was one of my primary inspirations in taking the leap. She is a young London gallerist and co-founder of ‘The Line’, an ambitious public art project in London’s East End. Then there’s Andy Wicks of Castor Projects who has been assiduously cultivating an impressive and forward-thinking programme and has no qualms about digging up the floor of the gallery or removing the ceiling to give his artists the greatest possible scope; Alex Meurice, founder of Slate Projects took over the Old Averard Hotel in Lancaster Gate, converting this crumbling baroque edifice into an immersive platform for pushy new art; Oscar Humphries has one of the best eyes in the business and great curatorial integrity. Finally, I have enormous respect for Stephen Friedman Gallery and feel privileged to have worked under their tutelage. More than anything, we are so grateful to all of the artists, collectors, writers and genuine art enthusiasts who have contributed to making our first year the amazing success it has been.
What’s in store for year two and where you are heading in the future?
We have an exciting year ahead. This summer ALICE BLACK stages ‘Desire & Menace: Ritual in Contemporary Performance Art’, an immersive summer art festival which invites experiential exploration. Seven guest artists, with a heightened sensitivity to ephemeral interventions, will respond to the idea of “desire” and “menace” as a source of antagonism.
Over the coming year we’ll be hosting solo shows with Brian Maguire, Tristan Pigott, Lee Marshall, Ivan Black and Andre Stitt. These artists broach a range of compelling research areas. Brian Maguire, a very influential Irish artist, relays his lived experience of trauma and conflict. Tristan Pigott plays on the modern condition of acute self-awareness. Lee Marshall questions how modern methods of image making can be successfully integrated into the history of the medium. Award winning Ivan Black draws inspiration from iconic natural geometry to create a striking interaction between art, science and technology. Andre Stitt has shifted his focus from live work to paintings which depict the energy of his performances.
We are also forging strong links with LA and in time plan to open up a space there. The city is abuzz with creative ingenuity and there is a real sense of being able to define the system, building from the ground up. Frieze is opening there in February which is a real statement of intent. Our upcoming show at Berwick St with LA-based artists Marty Schnapf and Cammie Staros marks the first step in a programme of reciprocal exchange. We like the idea of LA being a twin city for us.
We often separate the natural world from human development. It’s a peculiar split, as if we are not all part of the same process of perpetual change, endings and regrowth as avowed in the principles of wabi-sabi. ALICE BLACK represents part of London’s new growth, contributing to a forward-looking cultural discourse as a fresh, young gallery with a wealth of insight and ambitious plans for their artists and collectors alike.
For those who haven’t already sampled their imaginative approach, the experience is probably best summed up by long term collector Jonathan Milo Brand: ‘I can still remember the excitement I felt walking through the gallery door and having my eyes jump all over the place in milliseconds like a kid in a toy store! After all the art fairs, biennales, institutions, galleries and private collections this does not happen to me that often. Reminds me, and am sure others who visit your gallery, that we should not allow ourselves to get jaded—there is still a lot out there to discover.’