ALEC SHEPLEY: "I SHOT B..By"Alec Shepley is an English artist who works full time as a lecturer in drawing at Edge Hill College in the UK. This interview with Cliff Eyland was conducted on the occasion of his March 1999 exhibition at Gallery One One One in Winnipeg.
CE: "I Shot B..By" is the title of your Gallery One One One show, and an anagram of the word "hobbyist."
AS: I had a conversation with an English professor once who thought that there were about ten or so serious artists in the world and that the rest were just playing at it!
CE: What about your alter ego "Shelley Cape"?
AS: It's just a simple way of having a useful conversation with yourself.
AS: I used to be a painter, and I painted myself into a cul-de-sac or a hole and I felt confined. I had what you might call a traditional studio practice in which I would use materials - canvas, linen, oil paint, various oil mediums, etc - very traditional materials. I wanted to master those materials and the traditional craft of painting. But when I was painting I began to feel held in a fixed position, a fixed viewpoint in relation to paintings and sculptural objects. The figure/ground tradition of painting became confining.
The more recent installation work became partly about problems of limitation or being confined by 'limits,' the limits of my earlier painting practice and the limits of the result.Painting did not reflect the complexity of what was going on in my head. It is exhilarating to use an entire space. There is an element of being caught in the prongs of a dilemma -- of being impaled on both horns of a dilemma -- in my installations, a falling short of a final solution that can be compromised by its 'closure.' The solution is in the feeling of exhilaration that comes just before 'the end' of an installation. I present models or scenarios of what I could build if I could - models that play with the idea of the frame.
CE: I understand that you also began to feel confined by your early commercial success as a painter, a success that included having a lot of exhibitions in the North-West (of England), in London and doing commissioned portraits.
CE: You were happy with your successes, but things were getting predictable.
AS: The practice didn't reflect the process enough. Rather, I wanted and still want the internal space of the art work to bleed into the space the viewer occupies. I felt extremely lonely in the studio, like I was cut off from the rest of the world. I felt that I was occupying this strange position of a person who stands on the bylines and then scurries off to his studio to produce work, showing it saying 'here, this is how I see you lot.' It seemed a bit arrogant and distant. Stuffy. It was not the way I wanted it to be. I wanted to get out and mix with people, to talk to people in my work rather than to simply show them what I'd done. To interact. So this idea of trying to make models of practice or scenarios of a practice is crucial because it represents the kind of process and relationship I am on about.
Hovering is very important. I'd always felt like I was hovering between painting and sculpture. Non-committal. Between real space and illusory space. As a student I always seemed to hover between painting and sculpture. I made painted constructions and assemblages, collages of found objects and of painted objects that were somewhere between painting and sculpture.
During the last five years I've made work that asks questions rather than provides answers. Earlier on I became increasingly unsure of my direction and I decided to make work that 'marked time.' It was like the opening up of a sluice gate. It all just came flooding out chaotically. As soon as I realised that I could make work that was unsure, vulnerable, and that 'hovered,' I was happy again.
CE: You use materials that are cheap, common, and everyday, often building materials, but these materials are also, since Cubism, common in the history of twentieth-century high art. What if your work starts to resemble Cubist collage, or Rauschenberg or Kurt Schwitters? What if your showing the 'process' creates 'arte povera ' icons that we have seen before?
AS: When I was an MA student, we read things that questioned the whole tradition and premises of Western art - authenticity, mastery, history - it set off fireworks in my head. I read other perspectives on painting. Feminist perspectives made me feel especially uncomfortable with this legacy. The more I read the more fragmented the 'history' I had learnt in my art education was becoming. It prompted doubts about my whole practice and a desire to do a demolition job using my old practice as the model for deconstruction. These doubts and unsure feelings became the focus of an installational practice.
I started to see my work as a space rather than an object, but I also want to represent the problem of trying to represent all this. If it started to look like something I didn't want, I'd burn it. I am trying to introduce elements of thinking and time into the work. I want to position things in real space and I want to involve real time.
Of course I've looked at people like Rauschenberg and Schwitters. I am concerned with occupying a border territory. (It seems ironic to use a military analogy like 'occupying a border territory.') The frame, or the rectangle that formed the edge of the painting seemed to me the most significant thing. The frame is neither the product nor the process, but the difference between the two. Lots of people are interested in that.