Ahead of his upcoming show Uncertain Spaces & Obscure Views which is coming to Bank Street Arts from Thurs. 24 Nov. – Sat. 3 Dec., urbanist Mick Biggs sat down with artist Andy Cropper to discuss his paintings and the inspiration behind them.
As a painter, you have a particular interest in what you call Sheffield’s in-between places and non-spaces. What are non-spaces exactly and why do you find them so fascinating?
‘Non-spaces’ are those places we don’t really stop to consider or explore, yet most of us will enter or pass through regularly. I’m thinking of urban and sub-urban spaces like car parks, road junctions, traffic crossings, alleyways, sides of buildings, wasteland. These in-between places are part of our everyday lives and they’re mundane if not banal. These are spaces that by their very familiarity disappear from our minds. They are also spaces that may be part of a given location, but also have equivalents elsewhere that they resonate with.
I find them fascinating because they’re potentially neutral, and yet if you stop and look into these everyday places and spaces, you can find yourself becoming absorbed by something uncertain. I find some sort of tension there but I’m not sure what it is. What is it about a given scene that has me confused, and yet at the same time I can’t look away? I don’t know, so that’s why I paint it.
As well as finding it hard to look away yourself, you’re also drawing in an audience to look at scenes they would normally overlook. Are you prompting people to pay more attention to their surroundings and be more “in the moment”?
I guess I am. Which is part of why I’m focusing on the world around me rather than something other or beyond. I guess this is part of a reflection of our times. We’re all looking for ways to distract ourselves from the here and now. You can see it at rush hour as people are walking home plugged into their phones distracted by sound, or reading and catching up with emails or online news. There’s something about the need to escape the greyness of the everyday and disappear into the glare of an electronic screen. We’re drawn into suggestions of what we could be or could have, things that are just outside our grasp. This creates a dislocation from the here and now. Is this intentional? With advertising it is. Maybe this is too big a question to answer here.
In collecting imagery for my work, I’ve had to learn to be more connected to what is happening around me and disconnect from that continual seeking for a “grass is always greener” ideal. By exploring, I’ve entered areas of Sheffield I normally never would and with a questioning mind hoping to find things that are outside of what I know.
Your question quietly implies a relationship to mindfulness which is about a slowing down, a switching off of things and a considered concentration on what is in someone’s current environment. A choice is involved in stopping and looking.
Talking of shadowy explorations, there is something very haunting about your work. Perhaps it is because we associate these non-spaces, these transitory spaces, with societal transgressions and even crime. Exploring this underbelly of human experience makes your art quite dangerous. Do you feel that?
That’s interesting. I see my paintings as more neutral in tone than threatening. I do know that folk can respond to my work very differently to a point where my relationship to the work can be polar opposite to another persons. That in itself is fascinating. It highlights the fact that although I created the works I am still very much a viewer along with everyone else. I relinquish an element of authorship about my work to whoever is looking. I’ve also seen in myself that, depending on my mood, my paintings can appear hugely transformed acting as mirrors of what I’m feeling. So maybe they are acting as mirrors for others too.
I guess when these spaces I’m painting are portrayed on film and TV, often it is the moment before something is about to happen – violent crime, a murder, a haunting. That may be where some of the tension lies. These spaces are filled with the potential of something about to happen, yet it never does, so these spaces remain uncertain. They lend themselves as places to portray uncertain, liminal, if not wild behaviour.
When doing a night walk I always walk with someone else. I have walked areas that I would not choose to do so outside of my work. Some of the unlit back street areas of Attercliffe, some of the industrial areas of Netherthorpe edging onto Shalesmore. But I’m not limited to these places, having walked around Queens Road, Penistone Road and Ecclesall Road.
I agree that there doesn’t seem to be any judgement in your work. You don’t seem to be saying that these spaces are attractive or unattractive or should be re-purposed in some way… But do you find yourself critiquing these spaces or find yourself altering them in your art?
Thank you for saying that. I’m deliberately trying to be free of judgement when I want to take a photo of a space, to use in my work. If I have an immediate liking of a space and/or an understanding of what it may be about, then I disregard what I’m looking at. I’m wanting to find things that I don’t understand, so, I guess, I’m looking at tensions in spaces before a conscious judgement has formed.
That’s where the long process and enjoyment of painting then comes in. Because of the long process… It takes around 10 hours for one of my small paintings and around 30 for the much larger ones… I can’t help but create a close association with what I’m working on. As I’m painting, as well as creating the work, I’m constructing some kind of meaning and I guess some kind of subjective judgement too. But that’s my own interpretation while I’m working and would suggest that’s not something I would actively tell others to see or perceive.
I always find that light is such a striking feature in your paintings. Furthermore, it’s artificial light which unlike fire or candlelight isn’t warm or comforting, it is purely revelatory. That must be very exciting for you as an artist?
A big element of what I do is to choose to look at the city at the point of sunset through into night time …and if I’m very lucky then night time through into dawn. It’s at this time that dark shadows begin to form, street lights start switching on and the strong colours of the changing sky act as a saturated backdrop for all that I’m seeing. I’ve been lucky to be painting at the time I have, as all the yellow sodium street lights in Sheffield are being replaced by the much colder and sharper daylight coloured LED lights. It’s been fascinating seeing the changes in the feel of places as they go from having a fairly welcoming warm feel to a stark and cold, if not alienating, feel. There’s a big element of getting used to this change, as it’s still very new to my eyes. I’m glad to have recorded some of the changes of the cloudy night sky in my work, as it changes from the warm sodium brown to its current subdued purple mixed with mother-of-pearl tones.
Thank you Andy and good luck with the show!
An exhibition of Andy Cropper’s work Uncertain Spaces & Obscure Views is coming to Bank Street Arts from Thurs. 24 Nov. – Sat. 3 Dec.