The Real Art World: 1980 – London’s Burning

apfire.jpg

Hornsey Art College burns…a great start..

I am going to describe the 1980′s artworld as it really was for the majority of art-students. Not the cosy new money YBA’s and their cohorts or the city-slickers with loft-spaces and pockets to fill. No this is one lowly art student’s coming of age in the brutal underbelly of North London in the years when Lady Thatcher was in charge and you could get round London all day for £2.50!

I will start with the photo above. Hornsey College of Art burning well in summer 1980 just after the previous year’s final show. Alexandra Palace had sat safely on the hill above North London through over a century but in June 1980 a considerate workman was deemed to have inadvertantly set fire to a roof. Most at the time didn’t believe it and it sad to say that both the council and developers gained much from the resulting fire. An art college burns very well by the way what with all the paint and combustibles contained therein. My favourite story from the conflagration was the one about etching tutor Dick ‘Sleepy’ Fozzard who having worked a plate to the final stages was sleeping throughout most of the fire and only an alert staff member prised him away from the presses before they melted. I watched the whole thing from my parent’s council house in Oxfordshire after my mother kindly pointed out that my college appeared to be on fire on the T.V. Hot enough to make the BBC news! I sat in an armchair with my pork chop and two veg and watched two years paintings burst into some spectacular flames and then it was gone…next day I pointed out where my space had been in The Sun’s coverage …now empty sky….

I sometimes try to recall not only my artwork but that of those around me…ironically Bell & Langlands (later Saatchi chosen ones) had just left and had probably removed their ‘burnt-books installation’ before the real fire got a hold…life imitating art? I can’t say I was that impressed with Bell & Langlands then it seemed mediocre conceptualism and I can’t say my opinion shifted much since. I did see them sucking up to someone form the Tate years later and evidently they played their networking hand well..but art??..hmm not in my book. Ironically looking at the archive photos it just as well that most of us actually more intent on learning our craft and developing theories..if the same occurred now half the students would be ‘documenting’ the ruins and the other half either rolling in the ashes for a site-specific performance or claiming they had burnt the whole thing down as a protest against neo-stalinism in the Hackney gulags…

As it was we suffered in silence watched the building collapse and got on with drinking ourselves stupid and occasionally making splendid art at the original college which still contained the Foundation Course about two miles down the hill. We were all shipped back in there come September 1980 and told to get on with it..three years work to be done in one..oh yes we were a hardy lot….no digital archives then just new paint. canvas and stone..oh and cameras…

My first memories of the new building were that it had changed little from the grainy footage of the Hornsey ‘Riots’ which was religiously shown to all new students ( along with a healthy helping of art history tutor Peter Webb’s porn collection rebranded as art history). Now although some real Situationists did make it over to sleep on the floor and smoke dope with the Hornsey crew in 1968 it was hardly Paris ’68. Indeed the footage confirmed our suspicions that most were spliffed out hippies having a damn good time and sandals and kaftans aside there was no real riot just a bunch of students carrying coffins and  getting bitten occasionally by friendly police dogs. Kent State it wasn’t in fact it wasn’t even Guildford. The College had been purpose built at turn of century and had some fantastic north-facing studios, perfect for painters and if truth be told was better equipped than the now crumbling Palace with the exception of the much-missed Panorama Bar which had been the handiest bar to an art college ever devised. Situated directly below the college one short stairwell down and half the college had written off another afternoon in fierce debate or shallow drinking depending on your viewpoint. The view was lovely….I remember listening to the Iranian Embassy siege on a tinny radio and watching the smoke rise across the London skyline to the south. Dearest Margaret was untroubled by our Leninist revisionism and Barthes semiotic signifiers she was too busy deploying the S.A.S. and getting ready for the real enemy within ‘Oop North’.

As we struggled to unload the batches of new easels and paint stocks from the lorries ( the technicians as ever too busy to help as they rebuilt yet another american car engine) little could we guess that the 1980′s were going to be as troubled a decade as any of us would ever see. I managed to set myself down in a bunker below ground with my welsh compadre and stone sculpting house-mate Ken Absalom who defined hippy chic in a way many of us had never known. Five years after punk he still wore a kaftan embalmed in pitchouli and owned more tie-dye and crocheted shirts than any man should. A miner’s son from Blaeanavon on a cold welsh mountaintop he’d ended up in India discovering large amounts of hashish and women in about equal measure. A return to his village was precluded by a fierce isolationism that was to affect us both sooner rather than later. For now I tried to rationalise the fact that I’d chosen to occupy a space about ten feet square next to a mad welshman who was power-drilling his way in true miner style through a ton of portland stone. Each time he started up a piece of stone would hit me in the ear or back and the dust….It was only when my ‘personal tutor’ (they could afford to be called that in those days) almost lost an eye and choked her way out of the plastic tent I was trying to protect myself in that I realised that a painter could do better in the purpose built studios upstairs.

Easy to say in retrospect but as I spent most mornings developing tinnitus by ‘drumming’ ( loose description) on old dustbins in a freeform jazz orchestra/ punk supergroup that later became the ‘Fuck Pigs’ most aspects of reality had probably already passed me by. None of this was drug induced the major drug was the ale sold at the new ‘Art School Pub’ The Railway conveniently situated downhill from the College in pre-yuppified Crouch End. Hard to believe that what has become the land of lattes and expensive three whelled buggies was then a pretty rundown suburb with a few pubs……and not a wine bar in sight….most of us then would have guessed a Pinot Grigio was an Italian dancer…maybe we were right…

My Proustian moment #1

In a vain attempt to prove my solid postmodernist hypertextual qualities I will occasionally sidetrack by digressing on a particular piece of artwork and see what hidden depths it may reveal or shallow inexcusable art pretensions it unravels before me after all these years. Starting in September 1980 is as good a point as any as everything pre June 1980 had just disappeared in smoke with the exception of a Foundation and school folder which remained tucked in my parent’s loft. Whereas my memory of the sculptors ‘Neffertiti at the waterhole’ remains strong….he was still hacking away at it six months later..my own work has slipped from my mind. I do however have the sketchbook from September 1980 here and it reveals a strange concoction. I had started drawing house plants whilst still at my parents. To save money most students (especially those unemcumbered by rich parents and trust funds) would go home for the summer to save paying rent which in my case set at a fiendishly expensive £9 a week thanks to the wonderfully eccentric yet generous Jewish Hashidic family the mad sculptor and I roomed with in Stamford Hill…The Gordons..of them more later….

The sketchbook reveals the influence of solid painters like John Walker, Alan Green and John Hoyland. Everything was very ‘mark-making’ in those far off days. We are talking pre Zeitgeist, pre R.A. New Painting Show. Recently there has been a spate of re-assessment shows in USA and Australia looking again at the supposedly ‘dead’ area of painting during those minimalist and conceptual 1970′s. ‘To the victor’s the spoils’! The art history has been rewritten from the more recent perspective as once again we are reminded that painting is ‘dead’. This memoir is in part a redress to this manipulation of history.

I remember distinctly taking Samuel Palmer and Graham Sutherland books from the newly restocked College Library and the drawings show their influence. I was encouraged in my focusing on ‘British’ art by my tutor a wonderful printmaker called Tricia Stainton who unbeknowns to me also taught part-time at the Royal College. I was the world’s worst ‘networker’ and so focussed on my own concerns things like that just went straight by me….others were less naive.

The sketchbook contains a print by Fragonard which came from a cheap artbook my Auntie Sue had bought me one Christmas from our local W.H.Smith….It wasn’t until my early twenties that I could afford more than a few large art books. The sketchbook stays in its dark foliage, slightly gothic mood throughout until the following March when Picassoesque forms take control. Maybe a subconscious reaction to the fire ..who knows..I know many of us struggled in those early months after the fire and the staff (in most cases) were very helpful. Needless to say the technicians helped the most attractive girls and the owners of american cars the most…

As my mood (and circumstances lightened) the drawings took on more Matisse and Picasso touches and a trip to see the Picasso bequest in Paris certainly helped..although my strongest memory of my fellow student’s reaction to first plate of snails must wait another day…Jackson Pollock comes to mind but not in a good way…..

Here is one of my very few prints that survived from the printroom then and Tricia’s influence. Samuel Palmer and Sutherland put through a blender certainly…

(picture to come)

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