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Anthony Banks

Anthony Banks

Digging these wonderful, colorful canvases by recent RCA grad Anthony Banks! Here we talk about traditional definitions of 'art school,' his process, and hidden painting histories. More information at the links afterward!

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First, I'd love if you'd tell me just a bit about yourself! Where are you from originally and where are you based now? 

I grew up in a small town in rural Gloucestershire; so I’m really a country boy at heart. It’s a quaint Tudor town on the river seven and the only artists in the area paint horses or watercolours of picturesque Cotswold towns, so it doesn’t exactly have an art scene. It is a great place to escape too now and again. I currently live and work in east London which has an amazing energy, but I do I really appreciate going back, seeing my family and the sense of open space.

You just earned a Masters from the Royal College of Art. What has your art education experience been like overall? 

Learning to be an artist is a bit of a bizarre concept isn’t it? To be considered a serious artist now you basically have to spend as much time in education as an architect or doctor. Every institution I have studied within has had its issues, and as a student it’s your prerogative to pull against these. Especially in these hard economic times, the easiest area to make cuts is to the arts, although this is incredibly shortsighted, so its easy to become disillusioned with the art school system. The traditionally held ideal of the ‘art school’ is starting to be challenged and this can only be a good thing, it needs to be redefined.

However overall I can only feel positive and look back with fondness at the time I have spent in art schools. I have worked under some great tutors and along side some amazingly talented artists. I think the network of friends you build when working within such institutions is the main part of the experience that endures when leaving college these are the networks you rely on for support and a trusted opinion on your work. At the RCA I felt I was completely immersed in an environment built to nurture creativity, the experience of working in close proximity to artists all with different agenda’s, sensibilities and backgrounds is infectious. Your sole task is to explore and create without distraction. You are pushed hard and have to grow a bit of a thick skin at times, but the overall sense if one of support and its an experience I would recommend.

What first interested you in painting? 

I think what initially drew me to making art and specifically paintings were their silence, they just exist. Containing their own latency, which stands in place of words or exposition. If you are interested in a work then you spend time and look at it trying to unpick it, if your not then you can just walk straight past it. I always felt like whoever shouts loudest gets heard and I have never been someone who likes the sound of their own voice; writing was not something that came naturally to me, so making art seemed like a way of saying something; of being heard whilst whispering. 

Paintings for me, or good paintings anyway, have this resistance. A resistance to trend or fashion and generally lose something when digitally reproduced. So in a way they resist a lot of what is prized in contemporary living. They also have an ability to change and alter well after the artist has finished them, shifting with the sensibilities and concerns of the world around them, becoming like mirrors.

I don’t feel I ever really chose to paint or be a painter. It was just something that I did. At one point I was considering studying Geology, which has always been a real fascination of mine, and in some ways there seems to be a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the way I work and geology. I have always been interested in qualities of surface and how what lies beneath effects the superficial appearance of a work, the time in which a work sits and gestates accruing paint and a sort of visual history or patina, which alludes to the physical processes that created its outward appearance. I do a lot of scraping / sanding back, removing layers, uncovering hidden histories.

Your work is quite abstract and colorful, and I'm drawn to your attention to the physical quality of the paint itself; its texture on the surface and its consistency. Can you elaborate a bit on your practice?

I am increasingly preoccupied with the peripheral space in my works. Painting around the focus or subject, creating embellishments or structures, which drag attention, almost as diversions, deployed to create awkward tensions that distort linear interpretation. Many of my paintings recently have employed internal framing devices in order to create a kind of objectivity and highlighting of decisions and modes of depiction that are ingrained within the paint. The subjects of my work often live within tropes or genres. I enjoy playing within preconception. Using symbols of modernity as allegory and playing within their assertions, displacing or reimagining archetypes that create a rhetoric, discussion or discordance. There is romance in my paintings, as there probably is to some extent in anyone’s work who is painting today, but this is often more subversive than an initial reading might portray.

It is interesting you use the word abstract. I feel that paintings are often described in to two categories, abstract and figurative and most exist is a sort of muddy middle ground. In my work there is a tension between these languages, I find myself when I paint separating out areas or even individual marks in to descriptive and encoded or informative and decorative. I use a lot of wax as a medium, which lends a thick matt and an instantly aged quality. Through a process of painting and layering the space in the work distills and reduces resulting on an emblematic or existential quality.

I revel in a certain amount of ambiguity. I don’t want to make objects with fixed meanings that need to be accompanied by an essay so that each viewer can access the intricacies of the decisions I have made. I think it is generous to allow a viewer their own time and space, to bring their own sensibilities to what is in front of them. Paintings change as well, there significance alters as the world around them distorts. For instance, I recently produced a painting of an old naval frigate with this elaborate and oversized rigging. I have no idea why I painted this; it was just an image that stuck in my mind. However now, in light of recent events when I look at this it appears to be talking about the movement of people and the hypocrisies defunct British Empire, but it could also just be a slightly dumb painting or a ship.

What is your favorite thing about your medium?

I would have to say the slow awkward nature of oil paint. It refuses to be mastered. Every time I mix a colour and start to paint it feels like a new experience and a thought flashed in to my mind, that I have no idea what I am doing, I’m a fraud and actually cant paint. I think there is something in this mystery that makes it addictive and beguiling. I don’t feel I could ever make the same painting twice. It almost feels like an antidote to the fast paced, mass produced efficiency of living today. Within paintings as objects there is also this weight of permanence and history, which I enjoy being able to play within and reappropriate.

What is your process like? Do you work intuitively, or do you plan much in advance?

I am fascinated by surface, when I start a painting I am completely preoccupied in creating a surface that excites me and feels new or unusual. This acts as a starting point from which I begin to ‘figure’ and compose a more legible image. I plan as little as possible. My work is almost completely improvised; I work in a very reactionary way to what is already on the canvas as well as ideas circulating in my mind. In this way becoming composites, something between the imagined and visual observed. Through this laborious process the works become dense, wrought and sculptural. Mistakes and pentimenti hide in plain sight. I make the route to the finished painting as convoluted and indirect as possible. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, however when in the past I have planned a painting, it has generally ended up as less than the conceived idea in my mind and so working in this way the end result is always somewhat of a surprise.

Sometimes I feel as if I’m not so much painting as allowing paint collect or accrue on the surfaces. At any moment I will have over 40 works which I move between, some of these will have been in my studio for years and almost be forgotten about. This affords me an amount of a distance from the paintings, an ability to move between ideas. I can approach these without being precious, if a painting I have been working on for years needs to be completely painted over I feel I am able to do this. Its quite freeing.

I collect a lot of source material. I have stacks of images that I collect, these can be ripped out of magazines, simple little sketches I have made or crude photos I have taken on my phone, they act as simple visual reminders, clues. Recently I have become obsessed with these tourist information leaflets, I pick them up where ever I go. They have a unique yet generic quality, the photos with in them of castles, historic houses and picturesque countryside scenes make perfect departure points for paintings.

What is your studio space like?

Its as if I need to see every option available to me in order to make a decision. Every tube of paint, every painting, every brush needs to be visible, so essentially it’s a mess. Images and little sketches are strewn across the walls and floor.  Freezing in winter and boiling in summer, exactly how a studio should be.

Is there a tool or an object in your studio that you couldn't live without?

I would have to say my radio, the studio for me is a very solitary place, I spend long days on my own so in a way it’s a window in to the world outside. Its mainly background noise, but sports commentary is a particular vice of mine. I can listen to days of cricket commentary.

I recently received one of those paint wringer-outers as a Christmas present, its basically a mangle you feed tubes of paint into to ensure you get every last drop of paint out – bit of a revelation. I’m slightly obsessed with really good quality paint, so it’s a good feeling to have these perfectly flattened tubes. 

Is there a piece of advice you've received that you find yourself revisiting? Any advice you're glad you didn't take?

A tutor on my foundation course told to ‘always be articulate’ and that in a strange way has always stuck with me. What am I trying to say and how am I trying to say it. A good subject for a painting can sometimes feel like the hardest thing to come by, but I think the best paintings can be centered around the most base, innocuous thought or idea it just needs to be painted in the right language, articulated in the correct way. I recently produced a painting of a China teacup, a small unassuming painting of an unimpressive piece of ephemera but all the weirder for it.

When someone comes in to your studio and looks at a painting you have just started and says ‘leave it! Its finished’. This is the worst advice. I never leave it.

How do you define "success?"

Really it depends what you're striving to achieve. To be an artist you probably need an underlying restlessness, it keeps you needing to make, to produce and to never be satisfied, always striving for something more.

The art world seems to be increasingly competitive, and I think is easy to start judging yourself against other people around you. Its good to keep a certain amount of perspective, your just making art at the end of the day and it’s a privilege to be able to do that.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or other projects?

Later in the month I have some work in a group show called Pendolino at the New Glasgow Society up in Scotland, which is part of a series a shows promoting a dialogue between artists in the north and south and in particular London and Glasgow. I’m in discussions over a few projects later in the year so a bit early to announce anything yet.  However I am conscious of wanting to create a body of work, which has a tension and traction within itself so I’m giving myself a bit of time to allow this to form. 

Find more at anthony-banks.com and on Instagram @themerchantbanker!

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Andy DeCola

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