Inspired by the ‘My Failures’ section of Jeremy Deller’s recent Hayward Gallery retrospective, here is a PJF personal project that got started and dropped – ‘Pavement Squares’- intended to form part of a 20 page postcard book. Eight were finished, one remains incomplete.
Davigdor Road. Outside Davigdor Court
Eaton Road. Wall round the side of 21 Wilbury Avenue
Hove Business Centre. Outside Microscape House
North Street. Outside Number 53
Castle Square. Outside the Royal Pavilion Tavern
Corner of Wyndham Street and Upper St. James Street
Western Road. Outside Number 66
Wilbury Avenue. Outside Number 26.
Mandalay Court. Grass in Front of 41-79 Entrance
‘Pavement Squares’ followed on from my ‘High Street Pain Relief’ handmade book. That first book aimed, I guess, to show how something extremely simple we see (or overlook) every day can be beautiful.
They’re mass produced, machine made items of smooth white plastic - yet where the pills have been popped out they distort and catch the light in unique never to be repeated patterns and ripples. Self-indulgent and wanky though this explanation may sound, I was happy to indulge myself for this project, and I still recall it fondly. My job here was to be as objective as possible – not ‘interpreting’ the items or filtering them through the lens of my mood or feelings. I was like a natural history illustrator, observing and transcribing these things dispassionately for others.
Looking back there was an unintended personal element to the project, in that I swallowed all these pills in a fairly short space of time, a fact which says something about me. I get headaches and sometimes migraines – plus I’ve had a lot of problems with my back since my last epileptic fit (I’m also a bit of a hypochondriac but lets not dwell on that…).
There was no conscious intention to ‘follow up’ the series, but I’d really enjoyed the rigour of sketching a defined series of items, so I kept an eye out. When, in 2007, I drew a metal conduit cover for my visual diary, I started looking with more intensity at the sheer variety of these objects on the streets. They’re bloody everywhere. Once you start looking down it’s very hard to stop.
In 2008 I drew a few one-off bits that made it feel like I was moving closer to a series. This Edinburgh drain cover felt a little too fussy, and I didn’t like the sharp edges.
The next one I tried, a Glasgow drain cover, felt more like it. I deliberately avoided the edges and kept it minimal – so it was less recognizable and felt like it was floating freer on the page. I was drawn to the idea of sketching something that was, although very realistically rendered, completely abstract. I also liked the grid structure which (as with the pill packets) had symmetry and called to mind my beloved Carl Andre sculptures.
For a while I also considered doing a series of sketches of another grid-like, abstract-seeming urban feature – the air brick. My first air brick, (Hill Street, Poole) from 2006, had a similar problem to the Edinburgh drain – the defined edges.
Hence my final air brick (Pearson Avenue, Poole) was edited to remove two rows of apertures and create, as on the Glasgow drain, a perfect free-floating ‘abstract/figurative’ blend.
At this point, gentle reader, you may begin to wonder whether I was possibly thinking about this all a little too much. The relative innocence of sketching pill packets was indeed getting lost in a host of complex decisions – but, hey, obsession is in the job description of any artist, right? I remember once reading that the abstract painter Piet Mondrian, with his horizontal and vertical lines, got pissed off with fellow artist Theo van Doesburg for daring to use a diagonal line. I can relate.
Anyway in 2009 I’d got the practicing out of the way and finally decided to embark on a new illustrated book of conduit covers. Here were the criteria I laid down for myself;
-They all had to be perfectly square, no circles or triangles
-They would all be from the same city, with captions to fix them to their precise location
-They would be chosen on a range of criteria. Each one had to show a different design, but I was also looking (as with the pill packets) to find how circumstance had added to them – in this case via scuff marks, grit, mud etc.
-Last but not least I resolved that this would be a much bigger series than the pill packets. I hoped to draw 30 and pick 20 truly gorgeous ones.
Decorative conduit covers with foliage designs or cursive script were ignored by me completely – I wasn’t looking to transcribe the artistry or quaint idiosyncracies of another designer. Functional and minimal was good. I chose to limit the series to Brighton, because I wanted (needed) it to be known that I’d discovered and auditioned these myself, after long hours walking up and down the streets of the city.
If the pill packets were about my over-reliance on medication, the pavement squares perhaps signified a solitary life, one I lived both figuratively and literally (at that moment at least) in a pedestrian fashion. I couldn’t legally drive a car due to epilepsy, though to be frank I couldn’t have afforded to anyway. Work had been slow in 2009 and I’d started to obsess about saving cash – so the bus was out. I was living and working alone in a studio flat – communicating with clients by e-mail. Walking the streets was about the extent of my engagement with the real world.
Things started to go a little haywire in Pete world in early 2010 – best exemplified by a chart on my wall in which I itemized all the conduit covers in the locality and rated them for suitability. I began to take six hour ‘research’ walks which involved trying to walk down as many thus far unexplored Brighton and Hove streets. Simply put: I’d set myself the goal of walking down both sides of every street in the city A – Z. Plus I was doing this during the week and calling it ‘work’. Passers-by would see me poring over pavement features, photographing them and then stopping to write descriptions in my notebook. If the sunlight was too bright they’d be flagged up for a future visit when skies were to my greyer taste.
To be honest, recalling these details makes me feel a little strange. As mentioned above, art and obsession are closely linked - but whilst I’m happy to get obsessed, and have a good old laugh about it afterwards (cf. 6 months spent happily working on the Peter Andre Saliva Tree), the truth is I just wasn’t enjoying this all particularly. I was sad for the first half of the year for all sorts of other reasons, and the self-created pressure of finding/drawing conduit covers day and night was part of the gathering storm, not part of the solution.
Yet, if you’re a stubborn git like me, walking away from a treasured but mostly destructive and futile personal project is a tough call. It finally ended for a few simple reasons: the time required to draw each picture was truly mind-bending, and it was, to put it bluntly, a boring task. As with the pill packets I intended to represent them dispassionately but with pavement squares this turned out to be back-breaking labour. After a years work I only had eight images – six of which I considered ‘maybe’ usable. The twenty page book was a pipe dream.
Add to this the sad fact that they were quite realistic – which did beg the question ‘why not just take photos?’ I put this thought from my mind as much as possible but it wouldn’t go away, and finally won me over. As I hope you can tell from my detailed descriptions of Edinburgh and Glasgow drain cover prototypes, I wasn’t simply copying photos totally verbatim. There was a huge amount of soul-searching and editing going into the process - but at the end of it... well, basically, to a lay person they were still just drawn from photos, and came pretty damn close to a photographic way of seeing. By summer 2010 I was having a healthy soul-search about the extent of ultra detail in my work, and it can’t be a coincidence that this also came at a moment when I even briefly toyed with the idea of quitting illustration altogether and getting a ‘real’ job.