Cities

‘Make me wanna holler’ is a line from Marvin Gaye’s seminal tune Inner City Blues.  Written by Gil Scott Heron it’s as relevant today as it was in the late sixties, but for different reasons.  At that time our cities were suffering from decay and urban blight.  Today, issues of affordability and inequality have made it hard to sustain communities and every square foot is sought after by property developers.

 It’s nothing new – cities have always undergone a continuous process of change and modification.  Existing structures are repurposed, altered or demolished, and entire landscapes can disappear.  These historic and cultural changes and shifts are not new, they have happened throughout history, layers have been created and sedimented over time.  Homes have been displaced to make way for railways and roads, terraced houses have been cleared to build modernist estates, which in turn have been demolished to build new apartments for sale.  Human beings are constantly interacting with the dead stuff of buildings.

We are connected by bus routes, roads, tubes and train lines, water, electricity and gas are delivered to our homes by buried pipes and overhead cables and there are unseen systems and networks working day and night all around us. Although it often doesn’t feel like it, the planet is vast with huge amounts of open space and yet human beings cluster together in cities and have done so for millennia.  More than half the worlds population live in cities and it takes a lot of infrastructure to sustain them.

Today we are facing a key moment in the history of our cities – the huge scale of re-development means that we have to look again at planning and purpose, architecture and construction and how we live and how we could live.    The neighbourhoods where poorer people could once afford to live are being reinvented for a different class of people.  The words of garden city planner Ebenezer Howard are as relevant as ever: ‘the people, where will they go?’  In this ongoing conversation about the future of our cities we all have to be urban planners, accepting the past and investigating history, then looking forward to see what can be made with this knowledge. How can we keep neighbourhoods alive against a tide of blandness, when everywhere is being homogenised with the same shops and restaurants and expensive housing?  How can we use the remnants of the post war dream to build anew?

High Density

I like to think my work explores these themes.  For decades I have collected the detritus left by previous generations.  As London undergoes a building boom I have saved the discarded wooden debris from demolished buildings and the waste from redevelopment and repurposed it.  Salvaged windows, doors, lengths of architrave and timber are broken down into smaller pieces and then reworked into new forms. Some of it will remain as it is, while other pieces will be passed through the thicknesser (a giant plane),  erasing it’s history and giving it a new life.  Some of the pieces I make, like High Density, are like an aerial view of a city.  I hope that the viewer is drawn to consider things we take for granted, doors, windows, walls and corners and how they are constructed.  I use the methods and tools that carpenters would use when erecting a building.  The  pieces are constructed using halving joints – the most used assembly joint in joinery and carpentry.

The Grid

When I start a piece of work I often begin by building a grid-like structure that eventually will hold the construction together.  The end piece will be wild and obsessive and bear no relation to the grid – but its there all the same!  The grid gives me something to work with, a starting point and reference.   It’s like the steady beat of the music while the tunes weave around it.  

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Noah Purifoy

One of the places I would like to visit is Los Angeles – by the nineteen sixties a thriving art scene had established itself there, with many artists working in assemblage and using found materials. Assemblage was popular in the West Coast, not only because of the availability of cheap and disposable materials but because there wasn’t the commercial art network there was in New York.
An artist who should be far better known from this period in LA is Noah Purifoy. He was a social worker, teacher and assemblage artist, who had served in the US navy during WW2 and settled in LA in 1950. Originally from Alabama he was based in the Watts community in South Central LA. This was the hub of the Afro American community. The 1930’s had seen black people flood into LA working in jobs created by the war and escaping the Jim Crow laws of the south. Even so, schools and housing were still segregated and the black community lived as second class citizens.
Noah Purifoy was nearly forty when he graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute now known as CalArts. And this was no mean feat – no other black person had ever attended the institute. He must have been a very self confident and fearless man,- the civil rights movement of the fifties was just beginning and racism and discrimination was still the norm. He studied during the day and worked at night until in 1956 he became the first Afro American to graduate from the college.

In 1964 he co-founded the Watts Towers Arts Centre with Judson Powell. it was housed in a small bungalow near the Watt’s towers. This was an icon of the city built by outsider artist Simon Rodia from scrap metal and found objects, it was a huge influence on black artists living in the vicinity. The artists involved in the Watts Towers Arts Centre saw themselves as community artists whose goal was to provide arts education for the community. ‘Ive never been happy with the little things that hang on the wall. I perceived art as a tool for change and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential saviour’

In the summer of 1965 a toxic mix of discrimination, poverty and police brutality kicked off the Watts rebellion. There was six days of rioting – Purifoy was able to see what was happening from the arts centre.

‘I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid, I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a gold mine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it…the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course’

The material Purifoy and Powell found was turned into the exhibition 66 Signs of Neon. Working with a team of artists they created the work in just thirty days in order to exhibit it at the Simon Rodia Commemorative Watts Renaissance of the Arts Festival in the spring of 1966.

‘We did not intend to provoke…We were talking about art that would demonstrate how within oneself there’s a creative process going on all the time and that one’s life should also encompass the creative process. We were trying to experiment with how you tie the art process in with existence’

The exhibition spent the next three years touring universities and galleries around the country. But afterwards it fell into obscurity and much of the work was lost.
Purifoy went on to exhibit work in numerous exhibitions devoted to African American art, while creating assemblage sculpture he was also director of social services at Central City Community Mental Health Centre.
In 1967 two artists opened a gallery that hoped to address the discrimination in the LA art world. In 1971 Purify used this gallery to install show called ‘Niggers Ain’t Gonna Be Nothing – All They Want To Do Is Drink and Fuck.’ As the title suggests it was a very controversial and provocative show.
For a long time Noah served as a founding member of the California Arts Council where he helped to develop programmes for schools and prisons. His efforts to change things and improve peoples lives were bogged down by administration and lack of funds.
On August first 1989 he left LA and moved to a five acre piece of desert near Joshua Tree National Park that his friend had invited him to build upon. Purifoy was a craftsman – he had worked in interior design and window dressing, learnt to be a carpenter in the navy and knew welding, maintenance and other technical skills. These he began to put to good use in the desert. ‘I’d been wanting to do environmental sculpture for a long time. I did a piece at the Brockman Gallery ….and ever since then, I’ve wanted to do environmental sculpture. But since you don’t have the room in Los Angeles, I moved out here’.
He lived modestly in the desert in a trailer for the rest of his life, building over 120 pieces of environmental artwork. Noah Purifoy died in a fire in his trailer on March 5th 2004. He was 86.

Discovering Noah Purify has made me realise that parallel to the contemporary art scenes growing up in the American fifties and sixties there was another creative world that we are only just learning about. Ive learnt about artists such as David Hammons, Charles White and Timothy Washington.
It seems today that a mountain of Afro American talent has at last been allowed to blossom – Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Ellen Gallagher, Mark Bradford to name but a few. Noah Purifoy and his generation laid the foundations for this.

There is a really good short movie about him at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3tEFxYLQm0

Artists Working With Wood

Wood is our oldest natural resource. It has been fuel, food, shelter and made into tools for millennia – and it’s a staple that we can freely renew. Wood has a unique range of qualities – some woods are best for boat building while others are more suitable for furniture, other woods can be easily bent and twisted into complicated forms, as in the work of Italian sculptor Roberto Almagno and harder woods can be carved and polished like Barbara Hepworth’s solid round sculptures. From house building to delicate veneering wood is central to human creativity.

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