Artist Unknown

Mikey - Scarlet.JPG

This is a story about the loss of control an artist has over her work once it’s left the studio – gone out into the world, no longer her responsibility. Exchanged for money or favours, thrown away, reclaimed, coveted or rejected; sometimes a painting might even be held to ransom – the artist has no control over its destiny. The paintings go on to tell their own stories, gathering provenance in unexpected ways.

You have no control over what happens to them.

They can be damaged, hung upside down (or not hung at all), creased, battered, badly framed, cherished (or not).

Sometimes you’re glad to see them go: you needed the money or the painting was gathering dust, out of sight, wrapped up in storage. Or maybe it’s left you too soon – you haven’t tired of it yet, and it’s left an empty space. Or if it was an older work, you wonder why the buyer liked this and not your newest? Was the older work better? If money was exchanged it feels like a combination of too much and too little. You feel cheated, but you also feel like you’ve cheated them. The money is never right. Or you might exchange with another artist: the photographer who wanted to swap a photograph for a painting, but you felt an oil painting was worth more than a photograph so he gave you two, which you never got around to framing. Then there was the drawing you laboured over, and then exchanged for a signed poster (edition 150) by an artist who was quite famous, and whose work you quite liked.

And what about the paintings you’ve sent out to competitions, wrapped in clean polythene, with carefully constructed corners to protect them, and they come back, rejected, sometimes damaged, but always changed; they’ve lost their lustre, and no longer have the promise they held when you sent them away. Rejection casts a shadow over the work – perhaps you’ll never see that painting in the same light again.

Recently you heard that a collector who used to be a friend offered to give one of your paintings away to a close relative of yours. The relative was delighted, but the collector said there was one condition to giving her the piece – she couldn’t tell you – it had to be a secret. Your relative said that would be difficult for her – the painting was big, so where would she hide it when you visited? And anyway, she didn’t like the idea of deceiving you. The collector withdrew the offer. And right now, at this very moment, another painting of yours is being held to ransom in a house not far from where you live. The ransom holder, who had borrowed your painting, is waiting for an apology from you for something you said; then and only then will it be returned. It’s two years on, and you haven’t said ‘sorry’.

Another time you catch sight of your painting on a best selling author’s Instagram post – on her dining room wall at Xmas time, with a splendid dinner table setting in front of it (you didn’t know she owned that painting). And long ago, on a billboard, advertising a popular brand of Vodka, your painting hanging over the mantelpiece in a sleek living room (you were angry about that). More recently, in an email from an ex-student, whose girlfriend was working for a famous YBA. The ex student sends you a photo of a work you’d abandoned – put out on the street when you were moving house a few years ago, but there it is, hanging on the artist’s wall, next to a neon lobster (the YBA’s own work). How the hell did that happen?

I had a fling once – years ago, with an affable artist. It was one of those flings where neither of us wanted more than the other; he had a girlfriend who lived a long way away, and I was in love with someone else. He lived in an ex council flat in Hackney – the old fashioned Art Deco kind, with metal windows and sanded parquet floors. The white walls were hung with paintings that weren’t his (he was a sculptor); they were by an artist whose work was being exhibited everywhere and reproduced in glossy art journals.

‘Wow – how did you get these?’ I asked.

‘Oh – I’ve got a studio in the same building as her; she chucks her failures in the skip outside, and I retrieve them.’

Flash forward 25 years; it’s July 2011 and I’m clearing my house, the house I’ve lived and worked in for over 30 years. I’ve put my paintings – the ones on stretchers – into storage in a friend’s studio, and now I’m clearing out the rack above the stairs, piled high with canvases rolled around long cardboard tubes. Anna – who was our lodger for 3 years, has come over from Stockholm to help me. She is a meticulous person, and she makes me unroll every canvas, examining them carefully. She allows me to reject some (into the skip they go), and the others are carefully lined with tissue paper (light as air), rolled up again, sealed with polythene and labelled. We tackle the work under the stairs. There are framed drawings, and smaller paintings that haven’t seen the light of day for years, decades. I drag out a heavy framed piece, some 150 x 170 cms. I’d framed it myself with strong glass over the front. The glass was so heavy you needed two people to carry it home from the glass merchants in Goldsmith’s Row.

I’d called it Scarlet’s Torn Curtain: a red and black conté and pastel drawing of a pair of curtains – on two long sheets of yellowing paper – side by side, with the curtains drawn back, theatrically – one on the right, and the other on the left – symmetrical. Pointing towards the gathered insert in each curtain, I’ve drawn an old-fashioned tin-opener. The drawing of the curtains was so vigorous that the paper had torn in places. It was 1983, and I’d been drawing objects for a while, gathering them into paper skirts or painting them onto printed wallpaper: brick, stone and wood. Shoes (high heels), perfume bottles, fans, spatulas, forks, knives, scissors, pots and pans, and the tin opener. I’d bought it especially, from Bradbury’s, the ironmongers on Broadway market, run by two elderly siblings, Albert and Ivy Bradbury. I always drew my objects from life, and I did have a tin opener, but the one I owned was too modern. Like Jim Dine, with his etchings of everyday objects, I wanted something archetypal, recognisable. It looked like a spear or a weapon; it was perfect. I framed the drawing/s, painted the wooden frame red, and entered it for a national show; it got in. When it was returned, I put it under the stairs, out of sight, never to be looked at again until now.

I was exhausted. Packing up my work and life – my whole adult history, and moving to a small town, to an even smaller house, with nowhere to paint. I knew I wouldn’t have room for the drawing, and it wasn’t a great piece of work anyway. Anna agreed, and she helped me carry it to the front of the house with a pile of other things I couldn’t take with me, but thought they could maybe be useful to someone else, so they weren’t actually thrown into the skip.

I heard later from a friend in the street that ‘Scarlet’ had been taken in by Stephan who runs the deli in Broadway Market. He lived a few doors along from me. But that doesn’t solve the mystery of how the drawing eventually ended up on the wall of a YBA artist’s studio. I would have to do some detective work.

My friend Pete, who lives in my old street, uncovered the mystery for me. He bumped into the wife of the neighbour who had first taken the work in. She and her husband had separated; Scarlet belonged to Stephan – he was gone, and she was making some changes – having a clear out. Maybe she never liked the work and was glad to get rid of it. Who knows? Of course, I imagine her dragging the drawing out to the front of her house and slamming the door behind her, but that probably never happened. That still didn’t solve the mystery of how Scarlet ended up on a YBA artist’s wall.

The following week, Pete saw the artist at an opening. He went up to him and asked about my work – how had it ended up on his studio wall?

He’d been walking along Mare Street one morning on his way to the studio, and he’d spotted the big drawing, outside the Salvation Army charity shop, which is just across the road – at the far end of my old street. The Sally Army were getting fed up with it, and were thinking of throwing it away into their own skip. The artist paid a small sum for the work, and – with the help of his assistant, carried the work down the road to his studio.

He said to Pete, something along the lines of ‘the work is a great example of feminist art from the 1980’s – I’m really pleased I rescued it.’

I’ve never been comfortable with labels, but I could see what he meant, what with the tin openers, the torn paper, and the title of the work.

Of course, I’m still curious to know how the drawing ended up at the Sally Army charity shop in the first place. It couldn’t have walked there. Did someone else – a third person or persons, further along the street decide to take it in, and then realised they didn’t have room for it? Maybe it was raining, and they didn’t want to leave it outside, so they carried it to the charity shop.

Pete once told me a story about an exhibition he had in the late 70’s – his first one-person show. Saatchi – in his early days of collecting, came into the gallery and bought a few of his small, exquisite abstract paintings. Later, Saatchi phones the gallery, wanting to buy several more of the paintings. But there’s a hitch: he’d like a 60% discount. The gallery contacts Pete – would he agree to this? After all, Saatchi is the collector – it’s almost an honour! He doesn’t have to consider the offer for long; the paintings are far from pricey – somewhere between £30 – £120, and Pete says ‘NO.’ Later, he told me that he wished he had said “You know what? Why don’t you take your commission, and give Saatchi the change.”

A few years later, Pete is walking down Cork Street, and goes into a well-known gallery where there’s a mixed show of artists. Pete is surprised to see his paintings – the few that Saatchi had bought, hanging on the wall, but when he looks at the label on the wall beside them, it reads: artist unknown. That seems like one of the worst thing that could happen to an artist, for your work to be unattributed. Sometimes I wonder about those paintings of mine – the ones that have gone out into the world, and left my watch. Maybe one day – in years to come, they might turn up in a gallery with ‘artist unknown’ on the label.

Just this weekend, I received an email from a man I lived with a long time ago. He lives in another country, and I rarely see him, but we keep in touch with news about our lives and our children. He’d just come back from honeymoon in Mexico, married to the woman of his dreams. He attaches a Jpeg – I’m anticipating a wedding photograph to mull over, but instead, there’s a murky image of an old painting of mine; it rises up – a vertical rectangle, covering a wall in his living room from skirting board to ceiling. It’s not on a stretcher, and there are horizontal creases running across the canvas, which make me feel sad. A familiar work, but there is something odd about the image, and I realise it’s hanging upside down.