Q&A with Unfamiliar Ground artist Chris Agnew

Chris Agnew tells curator Martyn Lucas about his creative processes and being a wolf in sheep’s clothing

Chris Agnew in his studioUnfamiliar Ground artist Chris Agnew creates exquisite images using etching as a starting point for his work, which also combines drawing and painting. His etched wooden panels become part of the finished artwork, where traditional looking landscapes and architecture are disrupted by brightly painted geometric structures.

Chris studied at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA at Wimbledon College of Art in 2010. His work has been shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize in 2009 and 2010, the Clifford Chance Postgraduate Printmaking Prize in 2010 and Saatchi’s New Sensations in the same year. He is represented by Kristin Hjellegjerde and divides his time between Bucharest and London.

You can hear him talk about his work at Abbey Walk Gallery, Grimsby on Saturday 10 May at 2pm.

Unfamiliar Ground presents artworks by three contemporary printmakers.  Your work starts with etching but then includes painting and drawing.  Could you describe your process and how you came to work in this way?

Chris Agnew: Bowing to the storm (Summer-house) - etching and oil on panelI studied etching at the University of Leeds as part of my BA degree, mainly focusing on dry-point etching (drawing directly into a metal plate with an etching needle). Once I had applied the ink to the plate and wiped the excess away, the object resonated with me more than the prints it produced. I’ve always had an interest in epigraphy, inscriptions in a stone tablet for example, and these initial thoughts led me to develop my panel etching technique. I started drawing into wax and resin on my MA at Wimbledon, but it was only when I arrived in Romania in 2011 and studied the Orthodox tradition of icon painting that things began to fall into place.

After a lot of research and experimentation with materials and recipes, I finally arrived at a formula that allowed me to produce the ideal surface for engraving into. After building the wooden panels myself, they are coated with around 15 layers of a traditional gesso recipe that I make myself (rabbit skin glue, chalk dust and titanium oxide) over gauze. The timing, temperature of the gesso, and environment in which I’m working has to be strictly measured and controlled. There’s no book or instruction manual that tell you all of these things, so there were a lot attempts before I got it right. After the panel has dried for a few days, I’ve then got to carefully sand down the surface to an eggshell finish, normally leaving some scratches from the sandpaper on the surface to give the image some character. I use an etching needle to scribe directly into the surface, and then rub in oil paint to reveal the image.

You divide your time between London and Bucharest.  Tell us how you came to be working in Romania and how this informs and influences your practice.

Chris-Agnew-Life-in-PoisonAfter finishing my MA in 2010, I was living in Camden in London and working in a commercial art gallery in Canary Wharf. I had a studio at London Bridge, and despite heading there most days after work, I had very little time to push my practice on to the next level. I was featured in quite a few prizes, exhibitions and art fairs during that period, but was ultimately unsatisfied with the pace at which my work was developing. I had a real stroke of luck, when a girl that I studied with on the MA, Monica, invited me to go and stay with her in Romania and work in the studio she had there. I initially had it in my head that I’d go for a few months and return to London, but that was over three years ago.

What I appreciate most is the breathing space from the London gallery scene – I feel that I can focus much better when I watch it from afar, than being right in the middle of it. I can now choose when I want to immerse myself in it, and when to disregard it completely. In terms of how Romania has influenced my practice, aside from the practicalities that I’ve already explained, I’m really intrigued by the immediacy of their history. All civilizations are heavily influenced by their past, but it’s more apparent in some than in others. I hope that I’ve learned to respond to that relationship in a less convoluted way since being here.

What ideas you have in mind when developing your imagery?  Is there a ‘story’ to each picture and where the titles come from?

I think that I have the severe symptoms of someone that’s grown up in the age of information; I find it hard to accept only one point of view, or regard some material (a book, film, or piece of music) without reading around the subject. My approach consists of looking for that needle in the haystack that grabs my attention, the catalyst of an event, or some contradiction or irony in the life of the protagonist. Sometimes it’s not necessarily a story, but the obsession involved in order to find the truth. At the minute I’m really interested in the vernacular of conspiracy theorists, and how factual elements are arranged in such a way to arrive at the conclusion they want, much in the same way that the official records do. The titles of the works are generally quotes that I’ve twisted, or some play on words.

Your work has the look of quite traditional or historical religious art, but with a contemporary edge.  Could you tell us about how you see yourself within the context of printmaking and history of art in general?

In terms of my medium, it’s fairly difficult to place myself in a specific context, but I think this is a good position to be in. Even though my panels are constantly included in printmaking shows, they’re not prints in any sense of the word, and I don’t really consider them to be paintings either. I’m not really bothered about trying to define them; I just like the feeling that I get when they are included in a show where they don’t strictly belong, like I’m the impostor.

Even though my works deal with some fairly serious topics, I think that it’s important that my personal opinions aren’t overtly explicit. There are artists that shove their opinions down your throat and others that simply put something in front of you and say ‘here, what do you think about this?’ Michael Landy has got a great way of doing this.

I think that the general audience’s appreciation of craft and draughtsmanship has had a resurgence in recent years, helped I’m sure by artists like Adam Dant or Paul Noble and his Turner Prize nomination. In terms of how my works sit alongside some more adventurous contemporary art, I take the stance that it’s much better to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing, than just a wolf…or one of the sheep.

Which artists do you look to for inspiration? What other contemporary artists do you admire?

Half of my time is spent looking at the old masters of the etching and engraving traditions, Albrecht Durer, Gustave Dore, or Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, and the other half looking at artists like Michael Landy, the Chapman Brothers, Tacita Dean or Neo Rauch. It’s fairly eclectic, but I’ve never felt the need to restrict myself to certain genres or eras. For Christmas last year, my Dad bought me a small original etching by Frank Brangwyn and that meant a lot to me, as it was probably his expressionistic larger lithographs that made me realise how playful with the medium you could be and that you really don’t have to follow the rules. I guess I like to think of my practice as continuing the conversation that he was involved in, but who knows, maybe I’m just the heckler in the audience.

What do you surround yourself with in the studio?

Chris Agnew: The Ark, Ahora Gorge - etching and oil on panelCurrently on my desk is a black Westmoreland Terrier nodding dog called Orwell that Monica bought to keep me company, and he’s sat on top of a pile of books and art magazines that I keep handy to refer to. I collect old intaglio prints from second-hand bookshops so they are scattered around the place. The studio is full of all sorts of tools – bought ones, and inherited ones – as the space doubles as an interior design studio.

The best part of the studio though is that from my desk I’ve got a front row seat for everything that goes on in the square outside my window. There’s a team of gypsy kids that get a bit of money from helping to park people’s cars and they’re fighting each other every now and again, and occasionally you can see a frail old man walking past on his way to the supermarket, who was previously employed as Romania’s chief torturer during Communism. As you can imagine, he gets harassed sometimes, as he’s never actually been jailed for his crimes. James Stewart would have a whale of a time sitting where I do.