If it’s not nice to look at, is it really art? Madeleine visits Watt Space’s new exhibition ‘What IS Art’ and talks to Stephen Cotterill about how his unconventional work challenges our understanding of art.
I felt like an imposter feigning artistic intelligence at the opening night of Watt Space’s new exhibition, ‘What IS Art?’. I walked slowly and deliberately with a slight frown and tilted head, hands deep in my pockets and lips pursed in an effort to look thoughtful and vague. I was careful to stand a respectful distance from the art, half terrified that I’d overstep an invisible line and be escorted out if I dared come closer.
An artwork on the far side of the room looked as out of place as I did. It didn’t catch my eye because of its size. It was just so, well… Peculiar. Odd. Unappealing.
Aptly named ‘Procedural Gooseflesh’, Stephen Cotterill’s creation of cardboard, polymer fiber and latex won him the ‘Highly Commended’ award at the exhibition. He described his piece as highly-magnified skin that represents “human frailty, sensitivity, healing and bodily maintenance.”
His was the only artwork at the exhibition that encouraged onlookers to touch and feel. It felt so disrespectful, so naughty to be touching something hanging on a gallery wall. My eyes darted around to my fellow exhibitioners, who were all consumed in the same facade of artistic consideration. Could I really touch it?
My hesitant fingers were met with the oddest texture. It was repulsive and intriguing.
Stephen explained that he used water-based latex paint with a flesh-tint dye to make the cardboard look and feel like human skin. He admitted that his deep fascination with materials and reapplying them in new contexts has always been there. “I wasn’t encouraged into art as a child,” he said. “But I was left to my own devices a lot. I would hike through forests, cultivate native orchids, and make things with bark and leaves and bits.”
The decision to pursue art came later in life for Stephen. Now a father of four, he told me: “Only recently have I acknowledged that I’m a maker, and I’m allowed to be that.” Stephen is in his second year of a Fine Arts degree at the University, and continues to work part-time at a supermarket, where he has been for years.
“We all have a burden to do mundane things,” he recognises. “But now I can be the artist I want to be. I feel more like myself than I ever have.”
The idea for ‘Procedural Gooseflesh’ stemmed from his work at the supermarket. “I’m exposed to so many types of packaging materials, and we’re so reliant on them. There’s quite an irony there.” He explained that although consumerism and the damage of packaging waste was a concern of his, it wasn’t the primary focus of the piece—which is made from cardboard fruit trays. “I wasn’t taking a massive environmental stance. I just saw goosebumps; I saw magnified skin.”
Over breakfast this morning, I showed a friend a photograph of Stephen’s work. “Is it art?” I asked, as they chewed on their buttermilk pancakes. “Of course not!” they responded, incredulous. “It’s not nice to look at. And it doesn’t serve a purpose.”
I asked Stephen how he feels about the theme of the exhibition, ‘What IS Art?’, and how he responds to those who don’t consider his piece to be ‘artwork’.
He looked at the floor and laughed. “That was one of my fears.”
“There’s a common conception that art has to be pretty – but I’m trying to challenge that.”
“Art is our attempt to explain the world in new ways,” he continued. “It’s like a reflection of its creator. Your reaction is a filter.”
“It’s not pretty,” he admitted with a grin, “And it’s not a functional object. It’s to behold.”
The ‘What IS Art’ Exhibition will be open from Thursday 18th of May – Sunday 4th of June at the Watt Space Gallery in Northumberland House, Newcastle CBD.
Photographs taken by Danielle Minett of Natural Lights Photography.