Artist Talk: John Russell

John Russell is a lecturer here at the University of Reading and talked to us about his practice in our weekly Wednesday artist talks. His practice grew straight after art school with a group that he was involved with; Bank. They pretended to be in shows with famous people to which they would send terrible colour photocopies of invitations to those in a large gallery mailing list. The galleries that they were advertising to be a part of started to get people to turning up to these exhibitions, despite them never existing.

It fuelled Russell and Bank’s interest in the pitching of an exhibition, when Damien Hurst caught their eye as the pitching of this particular exhibition in a warehouse was one of a kind. This inspired Bank to create their own, real, exhibition in a disused bank. This was almost like an organised party but you had to leave the work up for four weeks afterwards. Here, Russell and Bank continued to spend a lot of time and effort on the invitations because they were up against big name galleries, and this is the one thing that would be used to attract people’s attention toward the exhibition. They were able to do a whole series of exhibitions in disused buildings that were available in the middle of London, and used everything from oversized foam to fluorescent paper for the invites.

Zombie Golf was then born as it looked at the seriousness of the galleries, playing on it. They spent the summer making a golf course, using cast faces of Bank artists and members to put on the zombies. When artists were asked to exhibit, the golf course was already there so they worked around it. Some put up paintings, others allowed their piece to interact and bounce off of the golf game, as this was a working golf course. Some of the paintings were golf courses, specifically painted for this exhibition by Peter Doig, that have recently been sold for over a million pounds. It was at this point that they truly realised they were great at attracting people to their shows, but not at selling their artwork.

This was then the Bank group set up a newspaper as though they were the ‘art world tabloid newspaper’. They were able to pick on people in a funny way, which became relatively successful. This mockery quickly led onto FaxBak as Bank were receiving a lot of press releases from other galleries. Press releases are often nonsense that people think is the effective way of describing art, but Bank would then correct their press releases and give them a mark out of ten before faxing them back from where they came from. Bank even had their own stamp that they would use before sending them back. These were displayed in a pretend gallery in their exhibition space, framed and lined up. FaxBak was also done for New York exhibitions, where the group would receive threats and aggressive replies on answer machines. These answer machine messages were then played in the background of the show in New York, adding to the exhibition. These pieces are now part of the Tate Britain permanent collection.

Russell left Bank not so long ago and moved on to performance and digital work with a concentration on digital painting. He described his work as ‘a Jackson Pollock but made out of meat’. Russell was interested in the way that you can only see a tiny bit of the thing you’re working on when it is digital, with a constant motion of zooming in and out to see the whole. These are printed on large-scale vinyl for impact. Russell realised that he kind of hated them and when he finally sees them printed, they are crude and cumbersome in an inelegant fashion. The work that he produces flicks between heavy handed and spectacular but this intrigues him, and continues to do so as he makes his work today.

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