Conversations with Independents Biennial artists: Paul Mellor and John Elcock.
Anatomy of an exhibition
Interview by Joanie Magill
A Long the Riverrun, a painting show curated by Paul Mellor and John Elcock, ran from 14 to 29 July in the former Rapid DIY store in George Henry Lees building on Basnett Street. When I met with Paul and John after the show ended, we talked about the process of curating the show, creating work for the exhibition and discovering a market for contemporary art in Liverpool that neither had imagined existed.
What was the impetus that created the IB18 exhibition, A Long the Riverrun?
PM It goes back a couple of years to when John and I first met. John just turned up at my studio one day with a flyer. I didn’t know about John and his work. John didn’t know about my work and we spent a couple of hours just talking about how that might have occurred. There were two artists working in Liverpool, living quite close together and working very much in isolation.
JE There’s two aspects in terms of our early chance encounter and first was the natural affinity as painters, which is a wonderful thing. It’s not unique in art but there is a traditional legacy with painters which stretches far back and is so current that it automatically bonds you. There is something about the practice of painting which is unique, it’s a mutual fascination with the isolation Paul talks about.
How did you curate the exhibition?
PM Last year, myself and John and another artist Josie Jenkins had a big exhibition in Warrington. That was a really good experience to see three different painters together. So on the back of that we thought we must do something in Liverpool. We wanted to put on a painting show, but the main stumbling block is finding a venue. We went to Runcorn and various other places and looked at established exhibition spaces, none of which were right. At the time we were thinking of just the two of us. That’s how this show came about, it was just always trying to find a venue. So to jump very far forward we got this space (George Henry Lees) by chance basically.
JE When it came to curating this show, the crude measure was that it had to be painting. When we started even thinking about the space in George Henry Lees, it became clear from the materials left behind from the previous tenant, that there could have been opportunities for great pieces of sculpture. As the two curators and also as a group of artists in the space we had to reign things in and keep it simple and work together. I think it was a bit of a gamble because we brought together the people that we knew who were painters. We didn’t do an open submission, we wanted to open it up to friends and colleagues, people we knew and a few we didn’t.
PM We wanted to celebrate painting, and as John said, the idea of doing an open submission, because there are hundreds and hundreds of painters so many painting clubs and organisations, within the whole of Merseyside, we would’ve been inundated. We would’ve still been looking at work, but we did have a network of people that we’d known or exhibited with before and we got that group together quite quickly.
The title was A Long the Riverrun, did that come first or after the work was installed?
PM That was one of the most difficult things, finding the title. Working with eleven artists was ok. We showed them the space and at the time the space was absolutely full of the previous tenants (stuff). There was there was no floor space at all, but they were all energised by looking around, it could be great, it’s in the city centre. Vincent Lavelle came up with this title. I think john and I got it down to five and asked artists to give their top three and that was by far the most popular.
JE It was credit to Vinnie really because some of the other working titles we had, I guess we tried to be clever with the idea of these conversations that painting is still relevant. So we were slavishly trying to deal with these ideas and then Vinnie’s concept was just so elegant. It just side stepped all that and neatly dealt with the continuity of painting in terms of a river just flowing and running and also the nice little nod to Liverpool as a city.
PM The reference is from Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, the first sentence and the last sentence, it’s like a cycle – the last bit of the last sentence feeds into the first bit of the book. It was about the river Liffey in Dublin, but it could just as easily been about Liverpool.
The work you both made for this exhibition, was it new or existing work?
PM It’s the last thing I did. (We had) three or four weeks clearing the space and working out how much space anyone was going to get, who was going to go in the window and all those sorts of issues, so personally it was the last thing I did, which was one or two weekends before we started hanging it. I had an existential crisis that everything I’d done over the last two years was rubbish. So I ended up initially putting up a lot of old work, not that it had been exhibited before, but just older work. I didn’t really feel comfortable with stuff I’d done in the last couple of years basically.
JE My work is probably relatively eclectic and that’s the feedback that I got from visitors. I wanted to do something slightly different to landscape and as we were allocating the space, the section I’d demarcated for myself helped crystallise my thinking. I created one large new work for the show and the rest of the pieces which related to the work in that section were mainly to do with questions around the divinity of birds, birds being a very important part of my interest and practice. I painted the section of the wall a fabulous vermillion that we’d found on the premises. I wanted to create a sort of anti-chapel area so that when you stepped in, you stepped into a ‘other’ area.
We noticed that for the rest of the artists, which I don’t think was necessarily that deliberate, but in terms of A Long the Riverrun there was a very interesting linear flow of works that meandered from one artist to the next. The space was broken up, it felt as though you were going on a little bit of a river journey. It wasn’t necessarily deliberate, but we heard from visitors that it seemed to flow very well. That’s a great relief from a curatorial point of view because you never really know how it’s going to work until the hang.
It wasn’t a risk because you trusted all the artists you’d chosen to work with?
PM Yes and it was a very diverse range of painting styles, references, practice, but it worked. That was reflected in the visitor’s book. We had a lot of visitors and plus we sold a lot in the first two weeks, so we extended it to a further week. Normally you’d go to a gallery visitor’s book there’s going to be a very wide range of comments. There wasn’t one negative comment.
JE The numbers were beyond any sort of aspiration. I think we had about 3500 or 4000 thousand people.
PM We had 300 most days. We’d only planned to do it for two weeks because we couldn’t really manage it any longer than that. We sold £17,000 of work in the first couple of weeks. We were both really surprised. I think we expected we’d get good numbers because of where it was. We expected we’d get reasonable amount of footfall, but we didn’t know there was a market because we both thought that there wasn’t, and we were both really surprised.
JE I know we had this conversation many times as we were invigilating, that Liverpool is a fantastic city to make art but is it such a great place to sell art? For me personally I would hope that the other artists would reflect on this as well because one of the outcomes of the exhibitions is that it irrevocably changed my idea of a market for contemporary art in Liverpool. You’ve just got to have the combination of footfall and good quality art and integrity.
PM I think one of the reasons for that is that if you go to Manchester or Leeds or other provisional cities, there’s a lot of commercial galleries. In Liverpool, there isn’t and there never has been really. So there isn’t that infrastructure at all so we were really surprised that there is a market there and it needs to be built. We all sold apart from one or two artists.
Do you think it helped being in a non-conventional gallery space?
JE That was a definite factor and for those of us who have been to the Biennial since its conception, one of the unique aspects of the Biennial was always the reuse of interesting or temporary allocation of space – buildings you’d never been to in years, buildings you’ve never been in to, buildings slightly unsafe perhaps all that wonderful stuff that was always a signature of the Biennial. So we definitely had feedback from people saying that it felt like a Biennial show because it was a quality use of an interesting and dramatic and ambitious space.
PM We had several audiences at the beginning we had the Biennial crowd coming in. We got the people who used to shop or work in George Henry Lees, we got people coming in off the street thinking Rapid was still open, and people were tourists to the city who just happened to be passing, real different audiences.