The studios behind the Summer Exhibition

Published 30 May 2017

How are the capital’s artists using their working spaces today? In the spirit of this year’s Summer Exhibition, which is encouraging artists who have not shown before at the RA, Skye Sherwin visits first-time exhibitors at work to see what they are bringing to the Academy.

  • From the Summer 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Myths surrounding the artist’s studio have only multiplied in the 21st century. The notion of the impoverished creative beavering away in a drafty garret has been replaced by the equally romanticised industrial space on the outer fringes of the city. Its flip side is the glossy photo shoots of artists’ workspaces found regularly in Sunday supplements exalting a glamorous boho lifestyle. Here the setting becomes a sort of walk-in self-portrait, not so different from Courbet’s allegorical classic, The Artist’s Studio (1854–55). Then there’s the notion that today’s post-medium artists don’t need studios anyway, hot-desking with laptops in spaces that change as frequently as their work.

    As with all myths there’s an element of truth and plenty of fiction to wade through. I visited London-based artists ranging from sculptor Francis Upritchard to painter Varda Caivano to learn the stories of their studios. All have been selected for the first time this year for the Summer Exhibition. The show’s co-ordinator, painter Eileen Cooper RA – the outgoing Keeper of the Royal Academy, responsible for the RA Schools – is keen to branch out beyond the show’s usual remit. The line-up this year veers from recent graduates working in performance to more established names rethinking traditional media.

    Visiting their London studios reveals a landscape where anything goes, while acknowledging that an artist’s age-old needs persist. “To some artists the laptop plays a huge part in storing, organising and making their work, so in that sense this may have seemed to replace a studio, but in reality I don’t know any artists who would choose not to have a studio,” Cooper reflects. “In the RA Schools, it’s something we discuss a lot. When artists make their work outside the art school there’s always a question about how will they use a studio space”.

    As Cooper points out, certain kinds of work will always demand private space, a special haven where you can shut the door on outside reality and get down to the individual process of making art: “I’ve always been aware that in my private studio space, I can leave work in its raw, often unsuccessful state as long as needed – no-one walks in, or comments. It’s a gestation period and ideas develop over time.”

    Traditionally, the studio has been as much a social arena as a hermit’s cave, be it Frederic Lord Leighton PRA’s opulent studio-home where peacocks wandered around or Andy Warhol’s Factory with its silver-foil lined walls. The Internet might now be a major platform for artists sharing work with collectors and curators, but an art world centre like London continues to hold its attraction for artists. Yes, the city’s once undesirable industrial spaces have increasingly been given over to property developers, but it seems a real-life community will always beat an email exchange.

    Today’s studios remain as ad hoc as they ever have been. In the 17th century Velázquez adapted rooms in the Royal Palace in Madrid to serve as a painting studio. Now partition walls carve up Victorian warehouses into rows of workspaces, often run by charities dedicated to keeping the creative life-blood flowing in one of the world’s most expensive cities. A small but significant number of artists are even breaking free of the rental trap, pooling resources to buy buildings that can be turned into studios or live-work spaces.

    What remains a constant is the enchantment of the studio, for both artists and art lovers alike. “Studios are always fascinating and revealing, even if they are the most tidy, nondescript spaces,” says Cooper. “They are very potent places.”

  • Francis Upritchard

    Francis Upritchard

    Photographs by Kate Peters

  • Francis Upritchard

    With its high ceilings and Hackney location, the New Zealand-born sculptor’s studio ticks the boxes as a creative and elegant hub for artists.

    When sculptor Francis Upritchard was given the chance to create her dream studio in 2009, her original checklist was straightforward: heat and light. In fact, in the building she went on to create, where she works today, she says “everything but the beams is new”. She clubbed together with her husband, the furniture designer Martino Gamper, and artist-friend Daniel Silver to buy the building in Hackney Central that Gamper had long rented, which became available after the recession had forced his landlords to sell. Together they have developed it into a pioneering live-work space, with their flats in new extensions upstairs and with workshops and communal areas on the ground floor.

    Upritchard’s studio has high ceilings, tall windows and under-floor heating concealed by parquet flooring. When I visit, her work for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition stands on her desk. A delicate watercolour study for one of the sculptures she created when she represented her home country New Zealand at the Venice Biennale eight years ago, it shows a bald man with pouting lips and harlequin skin. “When I visited Venice there was a festival and all the bakeries had harlequin tablecloths,” she recalls. “I like my work to be on the edge of souvenir tacky and something from a museum.”

    Stacked in a bookcase, her favourite books include volumes on antiquities, oddball 1970s annuals and a monograph on the American artist Paul Thek. Above these, a bundle of antique fabrics found in New Zealand will soon be hand-sewn into clothes for the doll-sized, shut-eyed and often rainbow-hued figures she has concentrated on making in recent years.

    When her studio’s not full of sculpture she meets friends here three times a week to do yoga. When she’s working though, the setting is far from serene, as she zones out with the stereo up high. For mutual protection, the wall concealing Silver and Gamper’s studios – where she can go if she needs to weld – is soundproofed. Beyond that is a shared kitchen and dining room with a 40-seater table, where laptops, pens and notebooks lie scattered beneath pendant lamps. Here she breaks from her strict 10am to 6pm work schedule for a cooked lunch with the other artists and their assistants. It’s an opportunity to catch up and to share experiences with their young employees. “We want everyone to be doing well,” she says.

    This idyllic creative space comes from hard-won knowledge. When Upritchard first arrived in London she rented two floors of a building that more than fitted the myth of the penniless artist’s garret. “I put walls up and hired out the other bits”, she recalls. “I lived there too. Beneath my bedroom was a car workshop and the noises and smells were insane. It was freezing.”

    She’s come a long way from the need for a workspace that meets basic human comforts. “I got something even better,” she says, reflecting on her original wish-list, “because it’s beautiful.”

    • India Mackie & Declan Jenkins

      Jenkins’ small space is one of scores partitioned by temporary walls in a Whitechapel warehouse, while his collaborator Mackie is a student at the RA Schools.

      The Bow Arts Trust Rum Factory Studios is found in an architectural no man’s land near Whitechapel, flanked by blocks of show homes on the one hand, and garages and nondescript industrial spaces on the other. Its maze of 90 studio spaces has been created by partition walls, thrown up in a cavernous 200-year-old warehouse. Royal Academy Schools alumnus Declan Jenkins considers the small studio he has rented here for the past two years both a secluded haven and an extremely lucky find. “Affordable studios in London are further and further out”, he says. “This is an anomaly.”

      For young artists like Jenkins and his collaborator India Mackie, the squeeze on studios in London is daunting. “There’s the double-whammy of paying two rents,” says Jenkins, reflecting the wider property crisis. Mackie, who is completing her course at the Royal Academy Schools this summer, is coming to the end of a three-year stint with a studio, tutors and technicians on call at the institution. “It’s a lovely nest, where you can chat and look at other work,” she says of the art school experience where everyone faces shared challenges. “At school we talk about finding a warehouse and building studio spaces. But if you do that landlords might kick you out in a year and you will have invested all that money.”

      Cantilever Kiss, the duo’s new work for the Summer Exhibition, marks one of the rare occasions the show features performance art. It will see the pair strapped into Mad Max-style A-frames, seeking each other out in the exhibition space and, with extreme physical exertion, meeting, like a suspension bridge, for a kiss. “We both have to approach it with equal force”, says Jenkins. “No one is leading. It’s a very horizontal power relation, which we’re thinking about in political terms too.”

      They say that a work like this, discussed as much over dinner as anywhere else, doesn’t depend on a particular workplace. Nonetheless both artists consider a studio critical to their creative work. For Jenkins, who usually makes labour-intensive woodblock prints, it provides a very special kind of environment. “I have lots of ideas but carving woodcuts is laborious and slow,” he explains. “Your ideas are working against the material, and the slowness of the studio is very important.” Hanging on the studio’s walls alongside some heavy-duty tools is a series of printed impressions and drawings, as well as scrawls of text relating to his new body of work.

      Mackie, who usually makes films and photographs, says that working from home, rather than her RA Schools studio, is impossible: “I need to sketch things out, test things, make models. I film in the studio. It’s also a social space sometimes.” As Jenkins points out though, the art school nest isn’t without its challenges: “I enjoyed the intensity but there’s a tremendous amount of scrutiny too”. He smiles. “Here I can be as anti-social as I want to be.”

      India Mackie & Declan Jenkins

      India Mackie & Declan Jenkins

      Photographs by Kate Peters

  • Tomoaki Suzuki

    For Japanese-born carver Suzuki, his studio’s location in the Dalston neighbourhood is a vital ingredient in his depictions of London’s fashionable figures.

    Sculptor Tomoaki Suzuki’s studio is situated in an old Victorian industrial space, overlooking Ridley Road market in Dalston, the original heart of what is now one of east London’s most fashionable areas. Edgy bars and vintage stores have colonised the nearby high street. Yet Ridley Road continues to serve Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Kosher fare to the neighbourhood’s long-standing communities alongside incoming hipsters, attracted by its unshakable authenticity and cut-price food.

    The roar of the market’s human traffic becomes white noise in the small room, abutting a larger studio, where Suzuki works. For the Japanese-born artist the location is absolutely essential: while mushrooming property prices have squeezed many artists out of Hackney, the breakneck gentrification is part of the area’s appeal to him. His shin-high sculptures, crafted from wood using age-old carving techniques he learned in Japan, depict exactly the kind of young followers of fashion who have colonised Dalston in recent years.

    “I’m curious how things become unfashionable very quickly,” he explains. “It represents time. What’s happening now, what’s happening last year.” Suzuki has lived and worked in London since the late 1990s, when he studied at Goldsmiths’ College. His selection of sculptures for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition will be drawn from his most recent solo show at the Lambeth gallery Corvi Mora – a cast of icons à la mode that included the baby-blue-haired art student Rosie, as well as Larry, whose camouflage baseball cap offsets a deep pink tank-top vest. Taigen, the cross-dressing bassist of seriously cult Japanese noise band Bo Ningen, is a rare “name” among Suzuki’s sitters, if only for followers of underground music.

    The figure he is currently working on (pictured with the artist, left), a young Japanese man sporting a fedora, is based on an assistant in CA4LA, the Japanese milliner with an outpost in London’s Old Street area. Cut-out photographs covering a work surface capture the man from every conceivable angle. They are snapped by Suzuki and are the first stage in creating the artist’s strikingly realistic figures. Sittings here, he says, can be extremely time-intensive.

    “The model comes maybe 20 times,” he explains. “I listen to their experience, how they grew up. I can’t really show this story, but it’s important to know when I’m making sculpture, carving wood, absorbing it.”

    Each figure is at least three months in the making. After taking up to 600 photographs, Suzuki traces the silhouette of his sitter onto a woodblock and starts carving. Finally, the model’s favourite outfit is painted over the bare wood, a finishing touch that the sculptor says makes them of the moment. “The history of figurative sculpture goes back such a long way,” he reflects. “Sculpture is always timeless. I want to make time visible, on the surface.”

  • Tomoaki Suzuki

    Tomoaki Suzuki

    Photographs by Kate Peters

  • Varda Caivano

    The Argentinian painter’s new West Hampstead studio, still a work in progress, is a quiet, private space in which to reflect and experiment.

    Provisional is the watchword on entering Varda Caivano’s new West Hampstead studio, which is situated in a council-run former block of flats that houses everyone from violin makers to picture framers. The Argentine painter moved in just a few months ago. Her materials cover two bulky desks and art books are stacked willy-nilly on shelves painted in primary colours – both left behind by the previous occupants.

    Caivano explains that her hectic schedule – which has included a Tokyo exhibition and teaching at Oxford’s Ruskin college and the prestigious De Ateliers in Amsterdam – has meant she needed to get painting as quickly as possible after she moved in, leaving the new studio as she found it, including its glaring lights. What is perhaps most important to her though is being able to shut the door on the outside world. “I wouldn’t be able to work in any space,” she says. “I have to be relaxed, quiet. I can’t share a studio.”

    A spare painting dominated by a meandering, loose grey latticework, trailing traces of charcoal lines, leans against a wall. Caivano retains an abiding interest in grey – all colours and none – that began with a residency at the British School in Rome, where she was able to see black-and-white X-rays in the school’s library of Renaissance masters, revealing the pentimenti where artists had tried things out. Meanwhile, lined up on the floor are works on paper, studies for the earlier works that established her as one of London’s most engaging painters: small, dense, coloured abstractions, also built up in layers. “The layers are about time: something happens and something else happens,” she says. “The space where I work has to be very static in order to see that.” She also works from her home nearby but only at night while her young daughter sleeps.

    Emphasising how elusive the process of painting can be, Caivano variously compares her studio to a stage, a sand pit and a head, with paintings like evolving thoughts. She continues, “The work doesn’t have a clear start and end. It comes from works I did before. I do many at the same time. I change directions, mix techniques.”

    This experimentation is crucial to Caivano’s practice. Her work for the Summer Exhibition, where a blue outline snakes across loose brush marks in greens that recall the shifting light of a forest canopy, “looks in process and doesn’t have a title, and you could think it’s in conversation with some abstract painters. It’s like a note.”

    While she often reaches for metaphor to express what creating paintings is like, Caivano is also wary of glamorising the workaday life of the studio. “We just move a brush on the surface of a painting,” she says. “We just do things.”

  • Varda Caivano

    Varda Caivano

    Photographs by Kate Peters

    • Tools of the trade

      Share your #StudioShots this summer

      Inspired by the diverse practice of artists in the Summer Exhibition and by our upcoming Matisse in the Studio show, this season we’re shining a spotlight on the artist’s studio – and if you’re an artist, we want to hear from you. Whether you create your work in a busy studio full of assistants, alone in your kitchen or out in the fresh air, we want to see where it happens and share your tips with our online audience.

      How to share your #StudioShots…
      1. Email us a photo of your studio – and/or post on social media using #StudioShots.
      2. Tell us about your studio life in 150 words or less. Where do you make your work? How do you feel in your work space? Why does it work for you? What makes a successful studio? What should an artist seeking their first studio look for?
      3. Email your #StudioShots and answer to
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    • Summer Exhibition 2017

      13 June — 20 August 2017

      Everything you’ll see at the Summer Exhibition represents the art being made today. Expect to find a panorama of art in all mediums, from painting, printmaking, film and photography to sculpture, architectural works and performance art.

      Gallery V, curated by Rebecca Salter, at the 2017 Summer Exhibition
    •  RA Magazine

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