Interviews with Artists

Graeme Durant

Interview by Rebecca Travis

Published February 2015

All images courtesy of Colin Davison


Graeme Durant makes sculptures, paintings, collages, drawings and installations. With the use of appropriated materials that are borrowed from a day-to-day context, he tries to develop forms and methods that do not follow logical criteria, but are based only on subjective associations and formal parallels, which incite the viewer to make new personal discoveries.


This conversation started in Graeme’s studio in late August 2014. We’d been speaking on and off about his work since his week-long solo exhibition ‘The Gate of the Kiss’ at BALTIC 39 in September 2013, and with a just-announced solo exhibition due to open at the main BALTIC venue in December 2014, it seemed a good time to pick up the conversation again.

Starting with some excerpts from a recorded studio visit, what follows is an edited long distance interview with Graeme in the lead up to, and opening of, his first major solo exhibition.

28/08/2014 – A recorded conversation with Graeme in his studio at The NewBridge Project, Newcastle

Let’s talk about the title…

I’ve come up with a title which is still floating about – When in Roam – a play on the word ‘Rome’, ‘roam’ – like my practice…it's a bit aimless, a discovery.
The idea came from appropriation and looking back through art history and architectural sources.
I’ve been looking at the body and artists I like, taking references from them.

Who in particular?

John Baldessari. I’ve started making are these wax hands – looking at Italian gestures, how you can say a lot without talking. I’m always pretty terrible at talking about my work…

Your work is so process-heavy though it’s understandable. There’s method to it, but also a real sense of feeling your way through materials and new influences…

Yeah. So they represent the visual language of my work and reference the history of language. They all have their different meanings. I have this book by Bruno Munari ‘Speak Italian’ that I’m drawing from. There’s a link back to Rome there too, they represent this lost way of communicating.

(left) GI Blues, wax, 2014 (right) Theft of Blues and Oldtime, wax, 2014

Where do the colours come from?

Just from unscented candles at IKEA, I guess that’s what I do, I pick up everyday things and try and turn them into something else.

So what else have you been transforming?

Well then the work jumps a bit. I’m taking the idea of the body parts and expanding on it. Like this eyebrow, that’s another Baldessari homage. I want to make a giant light box to go behind it with the light blinking through, like an all-seeing ‘eye’ in the exhibition.
I’m also making this massive gherkin sculpture; it’s going to sit on an architectural wall, like an advertising model. I’m scaling a lot of things up at the moment, looking at scale, colour and history.
Another piece I’m considering is a giant column. It references Brancusi and his ‘Endless Column’, but also links back to Rome and classical architecture. I’m thinking it will be floor to ceiling and made out of polystyrene, but ‘turned’ in a traditional way, like turned classical pillars in Rome.
There’ll be several larger scale objects. And found objects too, I’ve been working with these rugs that have an 80’s design feel to them – they remind me of the Italian group ‘Memphis’ design and link back into pattern and colour. I’m thinking of casting them in resin and placing them upside down like vessels.
There will be smaller works too, they won’t be the main focus but will play off everything else.
I like the idea of merchandise, side projects. I think I could take that further, maybe even doing T-shirts etc. There’s big history of that kind of collaboration, like Urs Fischer and Commes des Garcons. I guess it would be a pastiche of that. It’s another thought.

You’ll have to keep me posted with updates. Out of interest, have you ever been to Rome?

Nope. Never.

Shortly after the studio visit I moved to Canada…Graeme and I carried on our long-distance conversation in the run up to the exhibition over email.

So, has the title 'When in Roam' stuck? I’m drawn to the idea of your whole practice being like collage and of you picking your way through cultural archaeology. Like an artist Indiana Jones…

Haha artist Indiana Jones! I heard a great one last week …“if Bart Simpson was an artist”. Still can't work out whether that’s a compliment or not… The ‘When in Roam’ title has stuck.

The hands were the starting point of our last conversation. Will you be exhibiting the models or do they become a relic of your process? Is language still important?

The [wax] hands will be shown in the exhibition. At this stage I’m not sure how. I’m thinking more dotted around the gallery on little shelves, like an instructional narrative. The Italian gestures represent a dead language and I’m trying to reform a new language that can be used to connect works.
I like the idea of communicating without words, ergo having no artist talk and instead having a musical and video intervention/response to the show.

Chairman Meow, acrylic paint, emulsion paint, venetian blind and electrical fixings, 2014

Sounds good! I'm also wondering about the lucky cat - how did that reference come about? It seems culturally distant from some of the other references in the show?

The lucky cat came from the circular doorway idea. I wanted to create a new type of entrance not commonly seen in a gallery scenario. The circular threshold replicates ones found in Chinese temples, the concept being that you are entering into a space where you can reflect and ‘get centered’. It’s also a way to encourage an attitude of spiritual openness. In your daily life, you have so much to think about and to do. After entering you are confronted with an array of objects that confuse and bewilder but you have space for contemplation, meditation.

There seems to be more references to interior furnishings (the chairs, rugs, blinds) than exterior surfaces - are you still looking at building surfaces such as marble / wood grain / rock strata? If so how will these come into play in the work?

I’ve been reading into 'Design as Art', a book by Bruno Munari. He got me onto the Italian hand gestures and form/function of an artwork. I’ve been developing this vein for future work too. I guess the interior does connect with the exterior through the ‘building’ materials I use to make the work - wood/resin/rubber/plaster.

You mentioned Bruno Munari before, are the references to him, Baldessari and your other influences going to be made clear in the text interpretation or is it just going to be implied/rely on the viewer's knowledge of art history? Is it important to you that they know?

I kind of want to rely on the viewer’s own knowledge... or lack of. They will either to take it at face value or read into it from their own perspective.

Will you continue making additions to the work in the space?

Everything is finished, but I'm working in the studio at nights on new work. I think choosing what to show is going to be the toughest part; I have nearly 35 things to pick from. The main works that are definitely being shown are.... flashing eyebrow, painted spectrum column, circular doorway, gherkin and waving cat. I've attached some install shots…

When in Roam (installation view)

The gherkin looks great...and kind of gross! Is that dripping that I can see coming off it?! What did you cast it out of? Nice baby pink wall too, are all the walls going to be painted? You mentioned about the gherkin spinning like an advertisement...is that still the plan?

I made it out of fibreglass, rubber, tennis balls, spray paint and other stuff and yes, it does rotate! Only the one wall is a different colour and I'm only putting one work on it (the flashing eyebrow).

The circular opening really frames the view in a very satisfying way. I feel centered already! Can you say a bit more about the significance of the circle? It's appeared in your past work too...

The circle is indeed a shape I keep coming back to; it is steeped in a lot of meanings, such as being the perfect form. I guess I'm drawn to a sense of achieving some sort of perfection, but through the lo-fi way I make stuff. It doesn't always happen.

Can the same be said for the plinth with the gherkin on? It's almost like a stepped temple, but it's lop-sided…and what about the pillar? I can see the link to ancient architecture, but where did the rainbow spectrum come from?

The plinth for the gherkin is taken from a winner’s podium and a ziggurat. So I guess there are some architectural and imperialist notions.
The column has that too but the colour spectrum has been sprayed (graffitied / tagged / defaced / vandalised) in a spectrum bar. So instead of a colour wheel, it's a bar, like Newton’s original spectrum diagram. The colours are tying the works together or aiming to aesthetically…

The exhibition When in Roam opened on December 5th 2014. A few weeks later I was keen to get Graeme’s thoughts on the show as a whole and where his future roaming might lead…

When in Roam (installation view)

How are you feeling about the show now it's been up a few weeks? Did you find it difficult to edit during the install? And can you talk about that process at all?

I had a lot going on in my studio and decided to take it all (two van loads!). Katherine [Walsh, Curator] and I began by placing the column, ziggurat platform and eyebrow first and went from there. The colour spectrum of the column became a tool for curating the rest of the work in a sense, the order was apparent when you walked around. This also came into play when placing the wax hands. They were dotted about and seemed to represent title cards that you would see next to paintings in a classical gallery hang.
I was also quite aware of the height of the space. It’s over 7.5 metres tall. The placement of the eyebrow was always going to be elevated like an all seeing eye. I selected another two works to place high which were extensions of drawing. One called 'Saucisson Sec' is this large curved shape that has a lot of bodily associations and another called 'Swing Ball' that is 80-odd tennis balls manipulated into the shape of a nose, but with an echo of another nose spray painted to the side of it. I guess that it has a historical link to traces of other artists/architecture that my work alludes to.

We've spoken about the title of the show, but not really about any individual work titles...Are there any in When in Roam that have particular significance? At what stage do you tend to decide on a title for a work?

Some of the titles are thought up before the work is made, or the 'components' in my studio come together. Some are more literal, for example 'Onion Ring Garden Party' - that was taken from the imagery in the work, same as 'Nice Plant' and 'SLAP'. Others like 'To Sleep, Perchance To Dream' (the gherkin) are not as obvious. That particular title came from a Shakespeare quote, Hamlet I believe. I guess it references the dreaminess and surreal nature of my work.

Do you have any critical reflections on the exhibition?

Yeah, I’ve been reflecting on the possibility of less work in the show. There was a lot of editing made in the selection process, but I think it is still close to being overcrowded. It has certainly opened up thoughts into making new work following on from the series I’ve created.

To Spread the Permafrost, rug and resin, 2014

(left) SLAP, wax, 2014 (right) Nice Plant, plywood, spray paint, digital prints and acrylic paint, 2014

I see there are some programmed events still to come as part of the show ‘Double Dare: Day’ and ‘Double Dare: Night…’

Yeah. It began by me being asked to give an artist talk, but as I mentioned before, I’m not too great at vocalising about my work. So I suggested a musical response/intervention instead.
I talk a lot about taking influence from art, architecture and history but it never really clicked that my work is a hands on, explorative process and music aids that. I guess I use music as a tool for creativity, but don’t always draw direct influence from it.
So following that I asked That Fucking Tank to play in the gallery as they are in my top playlist and I thought it would be interesting to hear them live amongst the work at BALTIC. After some conversation with Andy [Abbott from TFT] there were some interesting points raised about DIY culture in music and art - that punk attitude of going out and playing a gig, whether it’s in someone’s living room or a damp basement. Just plug in and play. The same ethos can be said about art and exhibiting too.
So… after me not wanting to do a talk, I now am. I’m going to have a conversation about DIY overlaps in art and music with Andy that will be chaired by Emma Coffield who is doing a PhD exploring Artist Run Initiatives. That will be the ‘Day’ element of the Double Dare event and the gig will be the ‘Night’.

I guess a good place to finish is with what might come next...Are you working towards anything else at the moment?

I’m having a solo show at Bloc Projects in Sheffield at the end of March. For that I will try to apply a more minimal approach to the hang. I’m creating work following on from the interior design influences, using more blinds and objects like that.
I’m also taking part in The Retreat, a residential workshop where 16 people live communally for a week discussing topics about their practice or influences.


Graeme Durant When in Roam continues at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 21st February.

For further information about the Double Dare events visit BALTIC’s website.

When in Roam (installation view)


Graeme Durant lives and works in Newcastle. Recent solo exhibitions include When in Roam, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, Fig 1, BALTIC 39, Newcastle and Tundra, Satellite Project Space, Newcastle. Recent group exhibitions include Jesmonite on Paper, A3 Projectspace, Birmingham and Malgras|Naudet, Manchester and Title, Newbridge Space, Newcastle.


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