ORGAN THING: Exploring East London’s Chisenhale Art Place, why artist studio open days are so vitally important…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Dan Turner’s paint jars

Open days at artist’s studios are almost always worth exploring. True, the artists do tend to clean things up just a little too much to give you the really truthful honest full-on paint-encrusted deal – those carefully placed books designed to impress, that pile of music there to casually catch your eye, and yes they do tend to neatly arrange those brushes and paints when you know damn well that last week those tubes and pallete knives were scattered to the four corners of the studio alongside the half-empty beer bottles, the dirty coffee cups and the bits of moldy cake the mice have been enjoying, always worth exploring a studio complex on open day though, always something to learn, someone to discover, and artist you didn’t know about before.


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Jon George

Always worth taking the time to explore those artist studio open days, you get to discover rather a lot about an artist by visiting their (cleaned up) studio and catching them in a little bit more of a relaxed state of mind then you might do at one of their formal show openings or when they’re all dressed up (or down) in a gallery.  You get to see a little bit of what goes on underneath the bonnet, a little bit of a glimpse of the workings, the methods, the practices and most of all you get to chat and find out just a little bit more about the person who makes the art.  Open days at artist’s studios are always always always worth exploring, never pass up a chance, always rewarding, very easy to find that hour you intended to spend somehow becomes five and you’ve got into far too many conversations, spontaneous debates and who knows what with who knows who? Exploring art is exciting…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Kevin Harrison

If you’ve never been to a studio open day then generally what you get is a rabbit warren complex of artist’s studios, you get open doors, work on the walls, paint of the floors, work in progress, each studio different.  Some of the buildings housing the studios can be big, some in states of disrepair, some takes hours to go around, brilliant places, places alive with creativity, with life, with colours and smells, wonderful places.

Big old places alive with the smell of oil paint, with the activities of dozens of painters and sculptors and print makers and more – rooms usually closed have their doors thrown open (some reluctantly, some with delight) and for just a day or two you’re welcome to walk in and see inside the private worlds of working artists. One chance a year, always worth going, always rewarding, open days are generally free, there’s often a glass of (cheap) wine or a bottle of beer on offer, more importantly you get to explore the art and the artists and the marks and the smells, the turps and the oil, the paint and print paste.

Taking part in a studio open day is generally part of the deal when an artist agrees to take on a studio in one of these complexes – they’re usually old warehouses, big old spaces that have almost certainly been saved by an artist collective back in the days when places and spaces were just falling down and property developers didn’t want to know about them.  The deal tends to be that the artist takes on a studio and part of the rental agreement is that he or she agrees to take part in a studio open day now and again. The open days usually happen once a year, they’re mostly greeted with enthusiasm by the artists, occasionally they’re greeted with rude distaste, most artists want to engage though, most are friendly, some genuinely don’t feel comfortable about it, some find a studio and a working method to be something intensely private, something they don’t want to share.  Some artists are just awkwardly shy, some a little aloof and feeling contractually obliged, now and again you meet an extremely rude artist – we shan’t be wasting time on Ms “I went to the Royal College, don’t bother me” again, what an unpleasantly obnoxious woman interested in nothing more that quoting frankly ridiculous prices in response to any attempt at conversation whilst sharing snide comments with her judgemental friends as people take the time to enter her studio.  Most of the time the artists are happy that you’ve bothered to make the effort to come along when there are so many other things you could have been doing and thankfully rude woman was the exception at Chisenhale last Sunday afternoon.

Chisenhale is three East London floors of artist’s warrens, three big floors and long corridors (mostly) alive with a welcoming attitudes, alive with the smells and tastes of art, alive with friendly conversation (given the chance most of us artists love to talk about our work). You really should go if you get a chance…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017

Chisenhale is a fascinating space, like most of these old complexes the building was pretty much saved by the original artists who moved in and nursed it back to something like good health. The artists moved in back at the start of the 80’s when no one else was that bothered about it, back then artists were saving a lot of spaces, putting life back into whole neighbourhoods.  There are whole books of stories about how these old industrial places like Space or Chisenhale or Mother became artists studios and spaces, tales of squats and thrown-together exhibitions, some of the older original artists have fascinating tales to tell, apparently there’s seven of the originals still working in the beautiful old complex (and yes, those damn property developers do have their greedy eyes on it now).

You tend to  get a whole mix of artists in communities like Chisenhale, you get painters who exhibit internationally next to artists you hardly ever get to see, some who don’t seem to ever emerge from their studios, impressive artists who have now given up trying to get their art to galleries or shows and just want (or need) to be painting. Ask most decent artists will tell you there is no choice, there is no option other than to paint – there’s one wonderful artist who clearly has been in her studio here for a good few years now, she tells us that she just has to paint until she dies, there is no other option, she can’t just stop – “I shall die in here painting and then they can throw it all in a skip”, she tells how she has no energy to chase exhibitions any more, she describes how the skip moving in when an old artist dies does happen from time to time, how the painting all go in it if they can’t be given away and “what else is going to happen to all this work? But I just can’t stop, I need to do this”. Again and again you meet artists like this is spaces like Chisenhale – her work is beautiful, she pulls out her old books and catalogues, I don’t know if I should name her here or not, I will though, I love her work, she’s refreshing to talk to, she’s brilliant, Di Livey has some wonderfully tactile work – her paint, her textiles, her passion for it all – she thought she was just having a conversation with someone who has taken interest rather than someone who was going to repeat it all (although I did tell her), maybe she’ll let me go back with a recording machine and talk to her (and some of the others) properly, there’s some marvelous tales and some wonderful people in these art spaces.


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017, Di Livey

Chisenhale Art Place is a unique centre for artists, art production, education, performance and exhibition. Located next to the canal, close to Victoria Park, Chisenhale Art Place has occupied the former veneer factory and brewery buildings on Chisenhale Road since 1980. It provides a supportive workplace and vibrant public platform for London’s East End art community, local and international audiences. Chisenhale is home to 40 artist’s studios and two arts organisations; Chisenhale Dance Space and Chisenhale Gallery. The artist-run Studios provide secure affordable work space to both established and emerging artists, as well as public education and artists professional development programmes


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017, Di Livey

Some studio spaces are carefully organised, the walls almost turned to feel like informal exhibitions, some of the spaces are just crammed with years of work and paint and old brushes and sketchbooks, pathways bashed through mountains of painted canvas, “I’ve got loads more over there but I can’t get to them anymore”, says a rather passionate painter called Vincent in a room surrounded by hundreds (and hundreds) of his landscapes and portraits, there’s some wonderful pieces almost lost in corners. Vincent Milne is a proper painter, he talks of light and trees and other painters he admires as people flow in and out of his room, It clear is all about the next painting (as it is for many of us), there’s some delicious work in here, energetic greens, capturings of light, he really is a proper old school painter, a 50 something Hackney-born artist (you kind of want to volunteer to sort it all out and put on a show somewhere)  – “I draw and paint portraits and landscapes from observation . I return to the same subjects over the years – Docklands, Devon, Dorset, Brittany, Wales and the models I work with when I teach”.


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Vincent Milne

Kevin Harrison has some wonderfully playful sculpture, a cave full of colourful adventure, actually, as playful as it is, that’s not the right word – to just call his work playful is to do it an injustice, it is wonderful fun though, refreshingly so, “playful” is to throwaway, it does make you smile, it makes everyone coming in smile, how could it not make anyone smile?  He’s alive with tales and talk of his pieces, of people, of places, of the responses to his attempts to get on to that fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, he quotes anarchist publications, he happily explains work to people, he talks of London and life and being an artist and the changing cityscape – “Kevin is an established British artist, many of his public sculptures can be seen around the East End of London. He often initiates workshops for school children, two celebrated examples of these workshops are; the Human Rights Project in Johannesburg, where he helped local township children discover their own artistic talent, and also (travelling with Nick Treadwell) the Al Ain Flower Festival in the UAE, where along with the Arabic children of the town, he built a fantastic wooden flower garden, in the local Park”, impossible not to like Kevin and his work, far far more than playful fun. .


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Kevin Harrison

Sarah Kate Wilson takes time to talk about her fascinating  processes, her wrapped paintings or pieces, her feelings as they return from shows, the loss of control, the layers, the regaining of (some of that) control, the excitement, the not knowing, the temptation to watch the process in the gallery once she has let a piece go (a temptation avoided) , there’s three of her shrink wrapped pieces hanging on the studio wall and a fourth on a table, “she makes paintings that continue to evolve as they exit the studio. These works are kept alive by presenting them as events, through the use of ephemeral materials, by directing others via instructions to interact with them and by working with performer”, you get to find out so much more on days like these –


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Sarah Kate Wilson

“Artist Sarah Kate Wilson’s Shrink-wrapped Paintings, a new body of work that promotes painting as a time-based medium. these ‘durational paintings’ invite viewers, by way of instructions, to participate in their making. Visitors are encouraged to bring objects to the gallery that can be ‘wrapped’ into the paintings. The paintings already contain clothes, plates, empty packets of pain killers, clutter, trainers and other existing artworks”.


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Sarah Kate Wilson

And on goes the exploring of the warrens, further down the corridor Dan Turner is documenting travelers, Roma, the social history, persecution, he’s making art with traveler imagery,with gypsy flavours, he paints his own traveler family as religious icons, the well-worn cart wheels in the corner of his studio are fascinating as is some of documentation he’s collected. he thanks us for taking an interest, it takes an age to answer questions, he has us wanting to see more of his work and world….


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Cleaning Up

Jeremy Hutchison has invited the studio cleaners Maria Joyce and Grace Joyce to take over his sparse walls for a studio show called Cleaning Up (what were we saying about the spaces being cleaned up for the open day), Jon George’s space is alive with landscape, bursting at the seams with leafy colour, Alicia Paz‘s colour jingles, it dances, Kevin Dunbar demands your eye with his big canvas pieces, his marks, his energy, his colour range…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Alicia Paz

Sean Dawson‘s painterly textures and rhythms, his processes, his rubbing down of the paint and canvas, his taking one step back to move his big paintings two steps forward are exciting – he’s a London-based artist who mostly exhibits in Germany, we talk about the closed gallery system here in London, something we’re hearing again and again from the artists here and elsewhere in the city – frustrations with the way the gallery system works here in London and how London-based artists can’t get a foot in..Getting to see Sean’s working process, his excellent (working) drawings, his rhythm and his thinking space is all revealing, his work in progress is something you really wouldn’t usually get to see if you just encountered his work on a gallery wall – this is why open studios are so rewarding, so worth your time – his spatial ambiguity, his layers, his peeling back of layers (and his talk of black metal and German industrial music that kind of fits in with his oil paint and his darker colour range), you just don’t get this kind of insight when you visit a cold white cube and just see the finished work hanging there. You could argue that sometimes it might be best not to see, that sometime the knowing reveals too much, that seeing the work in progress might take away something?  On the whole the seeing is a good thing, certainly is here.


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Lee Maelzler

Lee Maelzer is an artist whose work you can see quite a lot in London, she exhibits widely in group shows, solo shows, she’s an exceptional painter although she will challenge that notion and polite thank you as she talk of her need to get deeper in there, to reach inside her paintings and push what she’s doing, how what she’s doing really isn’t “with respect” good enough yet – most decent artists will tell you that though, it really is all about the next one. Do love her dilapidated interiors, her paintings of peeling walls, her fascination with once inhabited places, the hints of neglect, the possibilities. (do love the accidental marks she and others make in their studio while making art as well but that’s another tale for another time – for November 6th actually, come back on November 6th)


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Kevin Dunbar and thosr accidental marks made while makeing art.

Mark Fairnington‘s large scale studies of plants and flowers are beautiful restrained, the pleasure is in the scale changes the way you look at them as does the space around the fine detail.  Diane Taylor‘s room looks intriguing, so much to explore in the rooms here, almsot too much…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017 – Diana Taylor

Nigel O’Neill is one of the founder members of the Chisenhale art complex, his bold pieces are all about the edges, about the meeting points of surface and colour, colour planes, foreground, spatial relationships, big pieces almost exhibited in his studio space, these are paintings that explore physical presence, ambiguous internal spatial relationships, they’re pieces that probably do need to be seen in a great big uncluttered white cube of a space where you can stand back or move it or walk around, there are pieces that I don’t want to know too much about in terms of the process, they’re exciting to see in here and the artist is apparently happy to engage and talk about the process, sometimes you do need it to be in a gallery where you can quietly work it out in your own way though, where you can just look and consider those edges, the shapes and the spaces, really really need to just stand and look at these pieces for a few hours – a formal white cube gallery can sometimes be a wonderful place to view art – I kind of want to spend hours l just looking at them and then maybe have a conversation (or maybe never have the conversation? Sometimes knowing less is far far more)

– “The artist Nigel O’Neill lives and works in East London . He makes abstract paintings constructed from separate shaped panels of birchfaced plywood.These panels are then painted with acrylic paint in flat vibrant colour”

– the pieces look deceptive, they look quite simple, they’re far from it, there’s something really beautifully complex, complex simplicity, all kinds of illusion, information slowly revealed, shapes that turn back on themselves, coloured edges that speak to each other, mathematics, beautiful angles, relationships, a crispness of form…


Chisenhale Open Studios, East London, October 2017, Nigel O’Neill

And on we go, looking in rooms, invading space, talking to people, to artists, talking to other visitors, looking at the marks on the floor, occasional bouts of studio envy or paint lust, marks on walls, more conversation, talk of other artists, painters we admire, have we been in here already?  Do go explore those artist studios when they open them up like this, days like this are brilliant, it really is essential that things like this do happen, that artists do engage, that these communities do occasionally open their doors and invite people in, that art doesn’t hide behind closed doors or in aloof galleries, that people are made to feel welcome, that art is part of the wide community, that it does engage – it might have been a little annoying for Ms “I went to the Royal College” to have to let the great unwashed in, but it surely can’t all be about only engaging with those who can afford to buy, as much as most of us artists need to make a sale or two to survive, it can’t be all about that can it?  It might be a little inconvenient to let people explore your private space and your working process but days like these are vitally important, engagement like this is the life-blood art surely needs. There’s some great artists hiding behind those Chisenhale doors, some exciting rewarding art, some wonderful conversation – an excellent day, very much appreciated, thank you very much Chisenhale, so important that things like this happen…  (sw)

Do please click on an image to enlarge or to run the fractured slide show


5 thoughts on “ORGAN THING: Exploring East London’s Chisenhale Art Place, why artist studio open days are so vitally important…

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