Presences in the room

Artist Denis O’Connor and filmmaker Stephanie Bennett have collaborated on a documentary about artists’ spaces. The ‘O’ in Studio will be released later this year. O’Connor reports on the genesis of the project.
the tangler’s cave

In January 2011 while I was installing my sculptural piece, The Tangler’s Cave, on Waiheke Island for headland Sculpture on the Gulf, a documentary crew approached me. They were making a video about the event and wanted to interview me about my work—a 1970s horse float, which had passed its use-by date and been retired to a back paddock by its previous owner. Over the previous months I’d customised this retro vehicle into a conceptual studio space—a walk-in diorama. I’d lined the interior walls with slate and depicted an artist-figure in chalky panoramic drawings, performing some of the many roles an artist might assume—dreamer, celebrant, lone voyager, parent, prankster, forever haunted by his muses.

During a residency in Ireland six years earlier, I’d read about a mysterious figure called a ‘tangler’, who was an unofficial mediator at Irish horse fairs. He’d enter the scene when the prospective buyer and the seller of the horse couldn’t strike a deal. “Sure I can make the seller see reason,” he’d say, and then fulfill this prediction to the satisfaction of all. The tangler is a go-between, arbitrating between divided parties, negotiating clan, political and personal differences of opinion. I have a similar view of the artist, who is an intermediary, operating between inner and outer worlds, resolving conflicted viewpoints and landscapes.

denis oconnor
Denis O’Connor in his studio. Photo: Duncan Innes

When I returned home from the residency, I embarked on a series that took the artist in the studio as its theme and my artist-figure assumed the role of a horse-masked man whom I called ‘The Tangler’. I’ve now completed over 40 works on this theme.

The Tangler’s Cave won the premier award in headland, and after the exhibition finished Stephanie Bennett, the filmmaker who had interviewed me about the work, contacted me. She was intrigued by our conversation about the tangler and his ‘cave’, and invited me to collaborate with her, as the narrator and interviewer, on a documentary film about artists’ studios—and the mysteries and dutiful endeavours that play out in these private spaces. An overseas filming schedule was planned—I wanted to film specific studios that had generated passionate debate and conflicted opinions within contemporary visual art culture, such as Brancusi’s studio in Paris and Francis Bacon’s studio in Dublin—arguably the most famous studio of the 20th century. The controversial relocation of Bacon’s studio to Dublin aroused critical debate about the relevance of the studio as monument, without the presence of the artist, and gave rise to books, essays and conferences on the subject. Throughout 2012 we filmed one-on-one conversations with curators, art historians and archaeologists, and we also talked to an Irish social historian about the origins of the tangler. I often found that because they were talking to an artist, myself, the conversations with our interviewees would veer off in unexpected directions—with rich results.

The Birdman and the Tangler
Denis O’Connor, The Birdman and the Tangler, 2010, pigment and wax on Welsh roof slate

The subject of the artist in the studio has a great lineage in the Western art canon—however, it’s fraught with problems. I feel, nowadays, studios are becoming promotional spaces as more artists ‘open’ their studios to the public. We’re also seeing the spectre of career administrator-cum-artists gaining momentum and supremacy in these ‘post-studio’ times. Instead of the traditional practice of ‘hands-on’ making we’re seeing a different model: project managers, technical assistants, the process of tendering out and rigorous 
marketing campaigns.

The everyman anti-hero model can be conveniently overlooked, even ridiculed, because it exists outside the new networks. Our film keeps this issue of ‘studio as sanctuary’ as its centre of gravity, but with an eye on the mythologising and heroics that tackling this subject might entail.

Thinking about the role of the studio, I recall a quote from the great American painter, Philip Guston, as he turned his back on a reputation as one of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century, and introduced figuration into his work: “First I have to banish my dealer gallery, then the art historians, the critics, the other painters I am close to, unknown persons, finally my family, and then, when I feel the studio is finally empty of these presences, I can occupy the space and begin to see the brushes, the paints, the canvas.”

He craved something more tangible than the purity of abstraction. A recurring artist-figure—a larrikin-eyed stumble-bum, sometimes hooded like a Klansman waging war in the studio with intestine-like paint tubes, wild toothy brushes and dust-bin lids—figured over and over in his canvases during the last decade of his life. The figure waged war with the rudimentary contents and tools of his studio—against colour fields of fierce crimson reds, accusing fingers and clocks going backwards, his hooded artist ran amok, losing his battle with the world and rebuilding it—both at the same time. When 
I saw these profound existential canvases in London in 1988 I felt Guston had re-imagined the great subject of studio-life with all the triumphs of his earlier abstract works still present in the paintings.

denis oconnor, martin gayford, ed odonovan
Clockwise from top right: Denis O’Connor and Martin Gayford. 
Photo: Stephanie Bennett ; Denis O’Connor, The Tangler’s Cave, 2011, slate-lined horse float (detail); 7 Reece Mews, Francis Bacon Studio at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, digital still from The ‘O’ in Studio, courtesy Stephanie Bennett, Rongo Studios; Archaeologist Ed O’Donovan and Denis O’Connor at the Francis Bacon Studio, The Hugh Lane, digital still from The ‘O’ in Studio, courtesy Stephanie Bennett, Rongo Studios

Filming the documentary had unique and personal highlights. When thinking through how to structure a film focused on the charged atmosphere of a working studio, 
I wanted the independent voice of someone who’d witnessed an artist working at peak intensity. I’d read Martin Gayford’s best-selling book Man with a Blue Scarf, the superb account of his two-year experience of sitting for a portrait by the great figurative painter Lucien Freud. Freud fiercely guarded the privacy of his studio, and I wanted Gayford’s assessment of why an artist would seek the sanctuary of a bare almost featureless room for decades on end. How might that room retain vestiges of the struggle to portray another human being? Gayford was generous with his time, and the commitment he observed in Freud added a rich dimension to our film. We also discussed how other great artists like Mondrian, Giacometti, Brancusi, Guston and Rodin worked, and how their identities were mirrored in their own studio environments.

Most artists I know and respect wouldn’t welcome being observed at work, unless their practice included performance or was collaborative. The only precedent for Martin Gayford’s book I’ve come across was American writer Andrew Lord’s account of sitting for a portrait by Alberto Giacometti. This seminal artist’s plaster-spattered room is recognisably the prototype for studio as process-driven bare space. Lord’s book is an account of observing, with deep concern, the existential drama of an artist failing to make a likeness of what is before him and continually stripping the sculpture down to a just discernible skeletal representation of his model. It’s this failing to represent the world that I find potent and true to an artist’s endeavour.

The dust anecdote resonated for me in other ways, recalling parable-like events involving dusty footprints in temporary studios of mine. The footprints belonged to a group of homeless people who shared an abandoned cargo shed on Princes Wharf with me. This was in 1990 when I was creating a work for Auckland City Council. By day they slept, hidden in a labyrinth of boxes at one end of the building. Each morning when I arrived the veil of white stone dust on the floor was covered with the crisscrossing footprints of these unseen people who emerged only at night. I thought of these dusty trails as belonging to all of those entities, past and present, who were somehow coded into and continue to haunt my images and texts, consciously or unconsciously. It was as if they left evidence of their presence—having waited until I left the room to observe the progress of each image.

The other footprints were mine—they tracked my path from a warehouse in Willis Street, Wellington, to the City Limits Café down by the harbour. I was making a sculpture and generating a large amount of fine white dust. Each day at lunch-time I’d peel off my overalls, mask and gloves and head for the cafe. One day, while returning to the studio, 
I was tapped on the shoulder by the café’s owner, who was following my white shoeprints trying to solve the mystery of the fine, white powder regularly found in the seams of his café seating. This incident confirmed my belief that my footsteps were the haunting of a room—called the studio—and that, as an artist, you walk your studio around with you. You can access it anytime, anyplace—often unexpectedly solving conceptual riddles in the most unlikely circumstances.

The nature of what a studio might be is an evolving concept, but it’s still at the core of our 21st-century art world of museums, markets and auction houses. It’s the ‘safe room’ where artists can make mistakes, start again, ask questions and challenge themselves. Our documentary film sets out to honour these processes and to provide critical understanding why the studio still haunts our cultural imagination. The ‘O’ in Studio will be released towards the end of 2013.

Denis O’Connor’s next exhibition, Chapter 3 of The Tangler Series, is planned for mid-2014 at Two Rooms, Newton, Auckland.

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