Last Wednesday I was invited to visit ‘Bryant Priest Newman Architects‘, located at 3 Mary Street in the Jewellery Quarter. Sleek and striking, the building has played host to a series of Birmingham based artists including; Ed Wakefield, Jane Tudge, VOID Group Show, Stuart Layton, Sam Brookes and will soon be expecting Karen McLean. These artists were all selected to take part in a program set up by ‘Three’ , generously funded by the Arts Council England, this flourishing 9 month project has provided a succession of wonderful exhibitions.
Sam Brookes is the fifth artist to take part in this exciting program and has been making use of Three’s studio space having presented his exhibition, ‘The Soft Machine’ on the 24th of April, which will be running until the 9th of May. Having read about his intricate illustrations I was excited to see the complex figures up close. Peering around the corner of Caroline Street, BPN Architects’ large glass window glistened at me to come over and with the reference to Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ already ringing in my mind I started wondering through ‘The Soft Machine’, looking forward to meeting and interviewing Sam Brookes.
JD – “How do you feel about the way you’ve exhibited your illustrations and that they are without a written narrative?”
SB – “I prefer it. I like the way that there is no narrative, but people can kind of build a narrative as they see it. Whatever I might have been thinking about at that time becomes totally different once it’s out of my control. It’s not in control of anything and the work is just at the whim of everyone else. Everyone has their own thing that they might see, think about or even just be interested in some part of it. It all might be similar to me or different, but I think that’s what is interesting really.
I struggled doing images with words. I found it difficult and in some ways it felt a bit stifling but I think it was probably a bit of anxiety whilst at Uni, working alongside deadlines, but it was good to do because it allowed me to develop technical skills and practice them a lot. Spending time in the library was also good because I got to read a lot of different books and I found a lot of influences there.”
JD – “So there’s a reading process behind it that is still important to you?”
SB -“Yeah, I don’t always read a whole book – I’ll read say bits and then that’ll work its way into the work. So with William Burroughs; with his bugs, centipedes and insects – things like that there is the imagery that comes up anyway. I don’t understand him too much because he’s very complex but you have to go with it, with ‘The Cut Up’ writings.” (The Cut Up trilogy consists of; ‘Soft Machine’, ‘The Ticket That Exploded’ and ‘The Nova Express’)
“But yeah, it influences it but it doesn’t take a huge control over the work. I don’t read something and really concentrate on a part of it; it just maybe vaguely influences it.”
JD – “When did you first define what you do as illustration?”
SB – “I don’t know if it’s defined as illustration… because I did a degree in it I was taught in that certain way, so I was surrounded by it but I don’t know if they are strictly illustrations – they border it a bit. It’s hard to define. There’s an overlap of all practices; so graphic design, fine art, illustration and photography and then there’s middle grounds where they integrate. Its’ hard to really tell which one is which. The place where I studied was very renowned for children’s books and I just couldn’t do it – which was probably detrimental to me!
I couldn’t do children’s books because every time I tried to draw something, I ended up doing something that looked pretty gross! It was also difficult because there were so many opinions from a lot of people, as well as tutors and it was hard to decipher what to do with it… but I should have really followed my own intuitions because at times you get so anxious about what’s right or wrong you kind of forget that that doesn’t really matter. I didn’t like that part of illustration. With this work there’s no right or wrong way, it’s just what it is.”
JD – “You said that a lot of the illustration that you saw at University was for children’s books. Were there any illustrators or books that opened you up a little or that you liked?”
SB – “When I was at Uni I was really obsessive with detail, I needed to loosen up… but once you become obsessed with something it’s hard to distance yourself. Then in first year, we went to visit a group in ‘Big Orange Studios’. We saw someone called Paul Davis and I really liked his way of working. I also like David Hughes, he has a crude and quite violent style of working. I liked his technique; it was very scratchy. They were caricatures done with pen and ink, very crude but they were also funny. Now really, I like Julie Mehretu. Her way of working is based upon mark making – the variation of marking and the way in which each mark feels. She does these huge abstract paintings. She calls them paintings, they’re kind of drawings and paintings – absolutely massive layered architectural drawings. She creates this chaotic atmosphere with the marks and it’s like the movement within a city or a space – but with marks made with ink and paint. She’s amazing and I really enjoy her work.
I like lots of things that I see or read (such as) films and Polish Surrealist poster art. I’m interested more in now working with the figure and (gestures to the illustrations around us) how some of them are much more final, they look like creatures within themselves – I’m interested in the shapes of the body. Say you draw two overlapping figures, how the lines are crossed form new shapes and the space around the shape of the body is changed by directions. I start thinking about lots of different things at once.”
JD – “But you’re able to record it all?”
(He reaches over to his coat and produces one of his sketchbooks. Here I get a chance to see one of his works in progress. He gestures to more pronounced areas of the drawing whilst explaining how he felt towards the shapes on the page. The drawing appears to portray moving figures, showing a continued use of black ink markings, creating stark contrast and shading against the white of the paper)
SB – “This piece that I’ve been working on is going down this new route and process. So, finding bits that are more pronounced, taking some parts out and then forgetting them – seeing what these different shapes are doing.
Once they overlap like this it’s interesting to see how it obliterates it – the image completely changes after you’ve overlapped it. I want to use velum; it’s a type of tracing paper that you can see through better. You can get marks to overlap but still see through it. I want to find a way to develop a depth within the drawings, without just drawing straight over them.”
JD – “There’s obviously a lot of movement in this piece but at the same time the image is also obviously very static. So you can already see the layers.”
SB – “It’s like gestural drawing. That’s what’s kind of weird isn’t it? It seems like there’s movement but when in actual fact it’s such a static way of working. It’s very methodical and very time consuming.
That does give it a ‘stillness’ but it also looks like there’s a bit of movement. That’s why I need to get these more gestural; quick, impulsive marks within the work. I’d like to make more use of the lines of red, as they affect the way that the eye scans across the work and use masculine/feminine lines too.”
JD – “Once up close to the pictures, you notice all the dots and the detail. Are the dots important to you?”
SB – “It makes me sure that I’ve been working hard. I really need to get away from the dots. They give an interesting quality but they are punitive, they punish you. After a while they aren’t enjoyable. With that one (picture below) I enjoyed the viciousness of breaking the pens, the more uncaring marks. There are parts that I like and others that I don’t. Not the hand so much but I do like the legs or at least what’s left of them. There are parts that work, that are more developed.
JD – “Are there other mediums and materials you’d like to use with future series?”
SB – “I’d like to use Indian ink, different colours of ink like red with black. That’d be nice. I’d like to use more colours but it’s just my fear of using them. I need to break my working patterns down and reassess what I’m doing. Not destroy them – that’s wrong. Bringing in other things to it, other depths to the work could maybe make it more interesting and give it a different movement/look.”
JD – “How did you first get involved with this particular exhibition?”
SB – “Through Charlie Levine (Curator) and Amy Kirkham (Project Assistant). They were great, really supportive and I obviously wouldn’t have been able to have done it without them. They gave me something to work at, to aim for. I knew Charlie on ‘Artfetch’. She was very good at seeing my work from a different perspective. When you’re all consumed in it, you don’t know how to look at it anymore. It just happens and then you need… well I don’t know if you ‘need’ it but it’s interesting to have – a different opinion.
I do it for my own means, I do what I want and do it for myself first. That’s how it should be. When I was doing illustrative stuff for other people – I was not very good at it! But now if I was to do something for someone it’d be different, I’m more confident. There’s no final point but you’ll know when it’s finished. There’s a time when you’ll know to stop, but I am still trying to find when that is.
That’s a big problem, I’ll just mess and mess. So I just need to stop but that’s good – to take a break and then come back to it.”
SB – “I’ve got a friend in London who I’d like to work with. We’ve always got on and it’d be interesting to see how the authorship of the work becomes less important and unrecognisable. It’s getting two different ways of thinking and two different kinds of marks to see the outcome of those. I’d also like to find a new studio space, a space with other people or at least a space where I can also see my work on the wall. Then I could become less attached to the work, in the sense that I’d like to have no sentimentally towards it at all. Once I’m doing it I’m very into it but once it’s gone it has its own kind of life.
There’s no sensible way to work, it’s a bit chaotic at times.”
JD – “Out of curiosity, how was the opening night?”
SB – “There was a good turn out! Obviously friends and family but we had some really interesting people. They seemed really interested in the work and it was good to earwig on what they were saying. There was someone there who ran the MA at Margret Street and she had some really good questions. It’s a nice space. Especially to be able to see that building opposite us. It’s a really lovely building.”
JD – “Have you been to the Jewellery Quarter much previously?”
SB – “I’ve never been here before. I used to go around Moor Street and Digbeth but I really like it here. It’s really quiet and a lot of these older buildings have been taken advantage of and turned into something good. I also really like the little alleys – it’s not hip and there aren’t too many people. It’s a beautiful place especially on a day like this.”
JD – “Would you want to advantage of any of the buildings?”
SB – “Getting a show in one of these buildings would be really interesting. I don’t know you’d be able to but I’d really like to try. Maybe that’s something that I’d do with others or maybe just myself.”
The exhibition will be open until Friday the 9th of May, with Sam Brookes onsite in BPN Architects on the 7th May from 10am till 1pm and again on Thursday the 8th from 2pm till 5pm. Needless to say I really enjoyed my time at 3 Mary Street. ‘Three’ has provided a great selection of artists and it’s been a great opportunity to appreciate the efforts of the people behind the project. Shown until the 9th of May, you can arrange a visit to see ‘The Soft Machine’ and viewings of future work at ‘Three‘ by contacting Amy; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 6th exhibition in the ‘Three’ series entitled ‘Vernacular Capitalism’ will present the work of Karen McLean. The preview evening will take place on Thursday the 29 May, starting from 5 till 7pm.