Following two shows in Messums Wiltshire, and online, Charlie Poulsen has lately been preparing for a new collection of drawings debuting in Messums Yorkshire, Harrogate.
To bring Charlies character to the fore and to shine a light on the artist behind his collections we talked to him about his working day, his creative practice and his inspirations.
Drawing has, in recent years, been Charlie’s primary means of expression however it is only one of many. As Lynne Green says, ‘that Poulsen is also a sculptor is important. He works with the solidity of wood, the weight of lead and the malleability of wax (in 3D drawings). Moreover, he is a gardener – or rather a sculptor of growing form – whose preference is for order, repetition in planting and colour, and the training of tree branches and shrubs in to unaccustomed geometries.’ Charlie’s many projects of all shapes, sizes and materials are a large influence on his abstract drawings.
In this transcribed interview with our Head of Programming, Hannah Hooks, Charlie discusses the essential collaboration between the physical making process and the concept, as Charlie Says; ‘The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making’.
HH: Good afternoon Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.
I thought we should start with.. You’re up there in your studio in the Scottish boarders, it’s a beautiful spring day, and so what does a typical day in your studio look like.
CP: At the moment I’m in the middle.. well I’ve started another drawing. I’m in the middle of the first stages where mostly the first stages are pencil work which is very quick and very busy, it’s a very active time where I’m really buzzing. And in some ways, you ask that question about automation, and in some ways yes, I’m in automation role. Because you stop thinking, the whole aim is to stop thinking really and just do and react to whats in front of you. Obviously I have done some small preparatory drawings but they’re a guide and I try not to be too strongly guided by them if I feel the drawing is going another way because in the end it’s the big drawing that counts not the small one.
The drawing is the quickest part of the time and that might be a matter of a day or two only, and then you’re doing the other processes which is adding a layer of wax and gouache and so on which gives more depth to the painting, to the drawing, and at the end you can go back to drawing because the pencil lines, because I use a very hard pencil it creates a groove in the paper and when you apply the gouache the gouache will go into the grooves and so in a sense it becomes a bit like a print if that makes sense.
Especially if, a lot of the drawings, just before I put the final layer of gouache on I run a layer of wax on the
whole surface so what that means is that the gouache only goes in the lines, it just picks up the lines. I suppose the wax must glide over the top of the grooves. So on the final stages I’m trying to emphasise various parts of the pencil line and various parts of the drawing. It comes to a point where I’ll even use a very very fine number one paintbrush to actually paint in individual lines if I had to. At that point then, at that stage of the drawing, it slows right right down, and I can be messing around for several days, trying to get it adjusted. I suppose i’m trying to get to.. stillness or something, yes I’m trying to get a sort of calmness and stillness within the drawing even though its very busy I suddenly want to control that business, I’m not quite sure why but that feels right anyway.
HH: So is that what satisfaction in a painting looks like or feels like to you? Its arriving at a point of stillness?
CP: Yes I think so. Stillness is important and I don’t really know why but in some ways my role is not to ask the question why my role as I see it is just to do.
HH: What’s interesting about your drawing practice it that you’ve been an artist for many many years but you haven’t always made drawing a primary means of expression but more recently you have, for something like ten years?
CP: Yep, I think partially I got very frustrated with sculpture because if you’re not selling it or showing it a lot the damn stuff just sits there and if its quite big you keep having to move it and I get really fed up with it. And also its very slow work and in some ways because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t for years really with sculpture I suppose, and so I decided when, well this would have been 2010, that I was going to concentrate on drawing because one, you can get through ideas very quickly and in some ways its more me in my head, in some ways it’s a bit like.. lets put it like this on a musical thing.. it’s the difference between a big concert piece and a chamber work, something classical, and it’s the chamber work which is more personal, more introverted if you like but I find that more interesting and the sculpture was the more public side of things so i’ve turned to drawing as a way of getting through ideas faster and maybe finding myself more. Because about fifty I suddenly realised you’ve got to stop getting frustrated at not getting anywhere with this work, you’ve just got to do it for yourself. And I think I thought sculpture wasn’t doing it for myself so much. As well as.. it just took too long really. I’m inpatient. The older you get the more impatient you get. You can sort of see the departure lounge you know.
HH: So the date that you give as the title on the work has always interested me because I’ve never known whether it was the start of the work or the end of the work.
CP: The end. Very much so. There doesn’t seem much point in putting the date where you begin because you might never finish. In some ways you make a decision that its finished, it isn’t, its never really finished, there’s always something you can do but I think in some ways also you can lose the freshness of it and that sort of thing and that’s a sort of decision you make somehow that you’ve got as far as you’re going to go with that piece of work.
HH: I think that’s what is really captivating about your work is that energy you’re able to harness within the framework or the constraint or outline of the square so you start always with the square and then you’re working within that each time but there’s this sort of containment versus this sort of freedom or energy that I think, that kind of push and pull creates a really interesting practice.
CP: Yeah, because, you mention the word restraint and you meant the square. It is a restraint but also it makes decision making a lot easier, otherwise theres always all those different sizes you can do. You can have a rectangle in all sorts of different proportions but there is a convenient side of things because as a maker of things, i’d rather call myself just a maker of things, as a maker of things there are so many choices and its actually quite important to reduce your choices. But there was a logic behind reducing choices to a square, well you’ve got the classic thing about the portrait and landscape isn’t it. Painting is always in a proportion of landscape or portrait but a square in neither so it has that great advantage, it is a very powerful structure and virtually nothing will break it down really so I’m constantly trying to break it down to a point where it just.. sometimes it may nearly disappear altogether but its got that nice tension about seeing how far you can go with a drawing. In terms of extending the drawing, not beyond the boundary and yet its still feels like a square even though the drawing escapes right the way to the edge of the piece of paper, you’ll still feel the square when it’s finished, I hope.
HH: You mentioned a few moments ago your changing concerns or a sense of being impatient as you feel time is against you and I wonder if your inspirations have changed and who and what they were to start with. You sent me a beautiful picture this morning saying ‘this is my inspiration’ the view from your studio window but I wonder beyond that creative space what really influences you.
CP: Its always a very difficult that one Hannah, because you know as a painter yourself that it’s very hard to pin down what influences are and where they’re from. There are certain people, I would probably say some of the abstract expressionists and minimalists, Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt, Rothko, those sort of people, but funnily enough on the other end of the thing i’d probably say Ravilious and Nash, I sort of follow their English landscape, i’m quite interested in having all those influences mixed up. But then you look at a Turner or something, or a Seurat and you get very excited by seeing those so how do you know where you’re coming from in many ways, you pick up all these influences over your life and so i’m really not sure and I think that it pays not to have heroes anyway. In my opinion if you’ve got a hero and I mean a female or a male hero in some ways you can’t get past them so you’ve got to see them as mortal if you like. That’s the trouble with Heroes, they tend to be immortalised and you’ve got to get past that. But then I talked about the allanbank, there definitely are influences from landscape and where you live. But again I used to start the basis of a drawing on something particular so in the earlier works, the drawing behind me, well that’s about the year 2000 and at that same time I did several drawings which were influenced by the hedge if you like and trying to sort of make sense of the hedge but I think In many ways the one behind me was more successful than the ones where I was trying too hard so about that time I thought I should abandon any thought of representation because somehow I couldn’t do anything with it, in that sense I can’t cope with drawing in that way and i’m a great admirer of people who can in fact i’m rather jealous of their abilities but I feel its not a route that I can take. I remember when we were doing life classes, you know, I would plug away at them but in the end Hannah I don’t think I was that excited by it. But just starting with a pencil and just doing something, just sticking a pencil on paper and just going for it is, it’s a bit basic but there you are.
HH: You gave a wonderful talk as part of the last exhibition with us in Wiltshire in the long gallery about drawing and that sort of immediacy of it and the importance of it as an action, as a way of mark making and the kind of accessibility of it as well as the fact that its sometimes not seen as the highest of art forms when actually I think, what amazing about your work, and I don’t know whether it’s the scale or the detail or the way that you make them, there’s something about the mark making its almost like listening to music, there’s a lot to be absorbed by and I suppose what’s strange about this exhibition is that people wont be seeing your works in real space. They will be experiencing them virtually which is a sort of departure because artists want people to stand in front of their work and I wonder whether there was any advice we could give to people looking at your work and maybe experiencing it for the first time through a computer screen.
CP: well on the whole I prefer not to give advice because I thinks it’s a bad idea but you put your finger on it really I mean if they approached it like music because music in the end that’s instrumental it is abstraction and so if they can cope with the abstraction, you know, abstraction didn’t start in the 20th century in my mind it started long before and certainly in music, abstractions always been there but people haven’t talked about it like that have they. But its always been there with music I think, nobody know really, all these people tell you what’s its all about this music but I’m always sceptical about their claims because as in all the people who create things I don’t think they always know where they’re going because if you know where you’re going do you bother to do it so I suppose I’m thinking the only reason you’re going in a direction is because you don’t know
where it’s going to come out and that’s where the excitement is of creating anything. I obviously cant speak for anyone else but I do feel that that must be to a certain extent how it is because, in fact I remember someone recently who, she was doing something for the Tate, she said she’d got this great idea, and now she had to go an make it, well she didn’t really like the idea of making it. And it happens at colleges now, you’re meant to write it all down what you’re going to do and then you do it. Well that seems pointless. The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making and so if you just have an idea on paper and you totally translatephysical reality I’m not sure you’ve achieved very much, you might as well just have the idea on paper which is in other words just the concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, the conceptualists did that, but then im old school. You’re always taught that, you’ve got to let the material have some say in the matter when your making something.
HH: for a man who doesn’t like to dish out advice that is excellent advice. Because I think all the best artworks rely on the artists ability to use their materials well and you certainly do that.
CP: I forgot to say that of course I listen to music a lot with the drawing, I don’t let the music influence the drawing if you like but it does calm me and also I suppose its that parallel nature of it that I like. Though having said that it did influence me this morning, I was dancing to that, but then I just left the drawing and sort of danced around the floor. But then Ive always danced in some way, even in college id be the first one on the floor. No girl would ever dance with me because I was just too wild I would go on for hours, anyway.
by Mary Schoeser, world-renowned textile historian, curator & author
Pondering the topic of why women designers played such a prominent role in the provision of artistic patterns for printed textiles of the mid- 20th century, one can turn to four inter-related factors: demography, educational reforms, printing technology and publicity. All four came into play after WWI, when 700,000 deaths created a large gap between the male and female populations of people aged 25 to 34. With 1,158,000 unmarried women versus 919,000 unmarried men, according to the 1921 census, this discrepancy was not in itself a new phenomenon except for one feature: the higher social status of the women remaining unmarried as a result of the significant number of officers who had been killed. Sensationalised by the press as “surplus” women, the better appellation would be “enterprising” women, who, emboldened by the British arts and crafts ethos – itself promulgated by art colleges who took in increasing numbers of females – set about creating workshops, galleries and collectives that did much to define the artistic landscape by mid-century.
Of particular importance was the rise of “self-made” printed textiles, as distinguished from the established method of large-scale production, namely engraved roller printing. From the early 1900s it was batik, stencilling, lino-printing and, by the later 1920s, hand-screen printing, that provided a means of mark-making entirely novel in its directness. Freed from the mediation of the highly technical transfer of designs to copper rollers, such methods were attractive to those who wished to control their artistic outcomes. In retrospect, it is clear that women took greater advantage of these possibilities, which did not require large premises or vast investments. This legacy remained when hand-screen printing was taken up in the early 1930s by firms already hand-block printing, as well as by firms newly established soon afterwards especially to produce artist-designed printed textiles, such as Allan Walton. By the early 1950s, despite the fact that the ratio of British men to women was still low – 92.5 to 100 – one cannot argue that the visibility of creative women was due solely to their single status, nor to a shortage of male competition. No, it was to do with their much closer involvement in the experimental developments surrounding hand-screen printing. That this technique offers a unique capacity to translate faithfully a myriad of small studio or “kitchen sink” artistic mark-making to cloth is borne out by the sensitive replication of batik (for example Nicola Woods, April Showers), oil, gouache and watercolour painting (Barbara Brown, Sweetcorn and Colbertaldo Dinzl, Orpheus and untitled), collage (Jacqueline Groag, Traffic Light), stamping (Mo Sullivan, Garland), sgraffito (Mary Warren, Nautilius) and mono-printing (Lucienne Day, Linden). In addition, screen printing could accommodate printing with surface pigments, as opposed to cloth-saturating dyes. Best known for using this approach was the newcomer in 1957, Hull Traders, who made sensitive use of pigments to create intense and flat expanses of colouration (Shirley Craven, Kaplan) as well as impasto-like effects (Althea McNish, Rubra).
How do we know? The evidence survives within archives, museum and private collections, but at the time was being made visible through influential media vehicles such as The Studio, founded in 1893 by Charles Holme and under his editorship from 1895-1919, and thereafter until 1964 maintaining an Arts & Crafts ethos of equality between media and methods. Founder Holme had been a silk manufacturer so it is no surprise that amid the mix of media, textiles received fair coverage. It sought to create an international means of communication, meaning that it was well illustrated, often showing work by women. This role might be said, certainly for textiles, to have been supplanted postwar by the magazine, The Ambassador. From 1946-72 (from 1961 a Thomson Publication), its founder Hans Juda and his wife, Elsbeth – responsible for much of the magazine’s striking photography – vigorously promoted British exports through their monthly publication in English, German, French and Portuguese. Its success demonstrated that publicity, more so through editorials and exhibitions than advertisements, was an essential component in the campaign to bring good design to the people. And judging from the number of women both depicted and represented as designers, ‘the people’ – that is the consumers – were understood as more likely to be women.
Overseas sales mattered and, as a result, overseas tastes. The taste in postwar America was for art, especially expressed through manufactured goods such as textiles. As early as 1946 the art critic Walter Abell was to conclude: ‘Today industry appears to have established itself as the largest single source of support for the contemporary American painter.’ Aware of this trend, both the Judas and organisations such as the Cotton Board’s ‘Colour, Design and Style Centre’ in Manchester sponsored exhibitions aimed at inducing British textile manufacturers to back the (pre-War) principle of ‘art into industry’. While the Style Centre’s export-focused 1941 exhibition, ‘Design for Textiles by Twelve Fine Artists’, was remembered for the inclusion of works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland, by the 1950s their support for artists’ designs looked beyond the establishment. Its ‘Living in Cotton’ exhibition in late 1961 declared ‘Suddenly, British cottons have found a design hand-writing. …Perhaps the most significant feature of the fabrics is the new bold use of colour. Young designers have contributed largely to this.’ And the gender ratio had also changed. Of the ten Design Award fabrics featured, seven were by women, predominantly students (or graduates) at the Royal College of Arts and the Central School of Arts & Crafts. Subsequent exhibitions – ‘Young Ideas’ and the ‘Inprint’ and ‘Texprint’ series which continued into the early 1970s– had a similar flavour. ‘Inprint Infact’ of 1964-5, for example, featured 35 furnishing fabrics by two men and nine women, including Pat Albeck, Barbara Brown, Colleen Farr, Natalie Gibson, Fay Hillier and Althea McNish. A lively exchange between the Style Centre, the Design Council and colleges ensured a sustained promotion of young, talented women, all with “hands-on” experience. Barbara Brown, for example, had taught Zandra Rhodes at Medway College and encouraged Tom Worthington at Heal’s to take on the three designs the firm produced for their 1964 and 1965 seasons, including Zandra’s first, Top Brass.
While exceptional roller-printing firms, such as David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd., had been producing artist-designed printed rayons since 1951, the majority were hand-screened on cottons, linens or (if scarves or for fashion) silk, and thus more costly – effectively limited editions. This changed once flat-bed ‘automatic’ screen printing was introduced by several printers, including Whitehead’s in 1958. Now, ‘they are able to offer “expensive” furnishings at roller-print prices. They can print small quantities for sampling and thereby incorporate more experimental designs and colourings; there is no need for the burden of the heavy run required by roller printing.’ This, just as Pop Art was emerging in Britain and then America, gave a convincing and quantitatively far more visible expression of artists’ engagement with new types of subject matter, as well as new ways of presenting it. Having emerged from interwar explorations of individualistic textiles – call them series or limited editions – these screen prints had a longer pedigree than serigraphy on paper. In addition, other ground breaking art-into-textiles movements had also occurred during the interwar years, notably the initiatives in France of Marie Cuttoli (1879–1973), who engaged artists with a new, simplified form of tapestry making. Postwar, this entrepreneurial role was taken up in America by Gloria F. Ross (1923-1998), who ‘described her work as the translation of paint into wool’, from 1965-96 commissioning innovative weavers in France, the Southwestern United States and at the Dovecot Studios in Scotland. Unlike Cuttoli, Ross commissioned women artists too, including her sister, Helen Frankenthaler. Although in all countries the tapestry artists were more often men, what mattered for our story was another textile-based confrontation of the supremacy of easel painting and validation of the series as a legitimate artistic enterprise. In addition, women had led the way from the late 1950s onwards in the emergence of experimental wall hangings, or fibre art – critically and once again made by their own hands rather than by others, whether in an atelier or industry – and within a decade, wearable art. Thus textiles of several sorts were, from the 1930s at least, the site of the first post-modernist initiatives and within these women played a foremost role. Mid-twentieth century screen printed textiles, now rather taken for granted, need to be reconsidered in this light.
1 http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/unconventionalsoldiers/‘surplus-women’-a- legacy-of- world-war-one/. Accessed 24 January 2020.
2 See Mary Schoeser, ‘Following the Thread’ and ‘Spreading the Word’ in Sylvia Backemeyer,Making Their Mark: Art, Craft and Design at the Central School 1896 -1966 (A & C Black: 2000)
3 www.ons.gov.uk › articles › overviewoftheukpopulation › february 2016. Accessed 24 January 2020.
4 See Chris Breward and Claire Wilcox (eds.), The Ambassador Magazine: Promoting Post-War British Textiles and Fashion (V&A Publishing: 2012)
5 Abell, W. ‘Industry and Painting’, Magazine of Art, March 1946, p.89, cited in Dilys Blum, ‘Painting by the Yard: American artist-designed textiles 1947-57’ in Schoeser and Boydell (eds.), Disentangling Textiles: Interdisciplinary Techniques in the Study of Design (Middlesex University Press: 2002), pp.109-110.
6 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Living in Cotton: December 14, 1961 to January 19, 1962, typescript catalogue, pp.1-2, collection of the author.
7 The Cotton Board Colour Design and Style Centre, Inprint Infact: December 15, 1964 to January 22, 1965, typescript catalogue, pp.1-3, collection of the author.
8 ‘David Whitehead Fabrics Ltd.: Automatic Screen Prints’, The Ambassador, 12:57, p.45.
9 See K. L. H. Wells, Weaving Modernism: Postwar Tapestry Between Paris and New York (Yale University Press: 2019).
10 See Ann Lane Hedlund, Gloria F. Ross and Modern Tapestry (Yale University Press: 2010) and Elizabeth Cumming, The Art of Modern Tapestry: Dovecot
11 See Dilys Blum, (ed.) Off the Wall: American Art to Wear (Philadelphia Museum of Art/ Yale University Press: 2019).
view Material: Textile exhibition
Top image: Shirley Craven ‘Kaplan’, 1961