Jack West: Studio Visit

by Emma Defries

Only a year or so after completing his MA at the Slade, West has already had his first solo show, been selected for several group exhibitions, as well as winning the Kenneth Armitage Young Sculptor Prize. He was selected by Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2016, nominated for the Broomhill National Sculpture Prize and soon gained the attention of the public sculpture curators at Spitalfields. West’s work springs from the idea of the machine and what it means to us. The artist explains: ‘I like the idea of a machine part, creating something that feels as though it has a purpose, a function beyond just its visual appearance. It’s almost a sense of “Where did you get that part from? Did you pick that up from something?”’

West’s white and grey studio could almost be a toolmaker’s workshop or a factory office, except for the lack of dust and grease. A closer look reveals some surprising features in a row of cut metal discs hanging on the wall. They could be essential machine parts waiting to perform some precise manufacturing role, but surely the one at the bottom has a clown’s face? On a post carrying a row of what look like metal blades there is a mirroring set of shapes made out of rubber and incapable of cutting anything. A hint of the intriguing relationship between these materials within West’s practice.

‘The initial inspiration was taking things apart’, West tells me. ‘I was taking apart a lot of machinery and I’d find parts that had slots and holes that started to resemble faces.’ He became interested in both wider notions of the machine and what that can mean, as well as the anthropomorphic aesthetics of individual parts. He finds the relationship between the body and the machine ‘interesting because the machine is made to perform a function that we can’t do, and we can’t help but anthropomorphise.’ ‘I think’, West says, ‘that is where it all came from’. Indeed this distinctive imagery and signature motif are recurrent throughout West’s practice, and effortlessly translate into his public realm work.

Although he initially started by playing with bits of machinery, literally pulling things apart and reassembling them, now he reveals: ‘I start to play by drawing.’ Except that being West, the drawings are made on a machine, the laptop on the desk in the corner is where all the works begin to take shape. West explains ‘When I was applying to the Slade for my MA I didn’t have a studio or much money, so CGI was a good way of making large-scale sculptural work.’

Computer-generated videos and large sculptural works are now parallel strands to West’s practice. He enthusiastically describes how his relationship with technology has evolved:, ‘When I first used CGI I thought of it as a tool to aid design, to make these sculptures and eventually translate them into real objects, but then I found the space CGI allowed you far more interesting, as you could make things that could never be created in the real world, so it seemed silly to just use it as a design tool … now the two have diverged, they are still very related but not standard to one another.’

West’s first solo show, ‘Time and Attendance’, at Castor Projects in southeast London, showcased four video works alongside the sculptures. Two of the screens were suspended from vertical metal poles angling them away from the walls, and giving them as much pride of place and sculptural quality as the work in wood, metal and rubber. Defining his ideas West explains: ‘My work is very much sculptural, but this notion of sculpture can sit in both the real world of the studio and the virtual world, played out through rendered CGI imagery.’ The CGI sculptures would be near impossible to realise, and definitely not within the confines of most gallery spaces but allow the possibility of complex narrative movement, and subsequently a deeper exploration of West’s themes of labour and automation.

Preparing for this exhibition West ‘was excited to take the CGI as the primary output – as it allows large scale structure to come into being through the click of a button.’ By contrast the materiality of the sculptures seemed much simpler and more immediately satisfying. The steel holds a well-defined shape against the wall and is echoed by the same shape in rubber – almost melting and falling away. The exhibition highlighted the difficulties of reconciling the world we can imagine with the world we live in, and the need to continue to strive to do so.

West reveals that the curators were at first quite alarmed by the computer-generated drawings for Frame Break, his dramatic public art work at Spitalfields. The artist explains that he showed them the drawings – with the eyelevel metal points appearing as sharpened spikes and, he confides with an amused smile, ‘they were concerned about impalement!’ He was, however, able to reassure them that their translation into the physical world would result in blunt edges. After this, inspite of health and safety considerations, the overall process of making his first large-scale public sculpture was a very positive one. What was really good about the process, he says, was that the curators were ‘incredibly open’.

West tells me that the process began when two curators, Emma Russell and Rachel Dickson visited his degree show. For the last 10 years they have been curating a rolling programme of sculpture at Spitalfields. They liked Wild Man and By Chain ByFurlong (main image), and told him they they would like him to propose a public sculpture for Spitalfields either by adapting an existing work or by creating a new one. Thinking about the context the curators wanted the sculpture for, West said he felt it was more interesting to make a new work, even though that meant supplementing the budget available. The curators like the work they commission to be inspired by Spitalfields, which West felt was ‘a really open read because there is such a deep history you could almost find anything and make it fit…I was very interested in machinery, and in the history of weaving that is obviously a major factor… I had been looking at looms, so I had the idea of crossed metal acting like a weft and warp but I like the idea of it being this object, this machine which hasn’t quite fulfilled its purpose’.

While he was researching the Luddite Revolt, West discovered the Frame-Breaking Act, which he says was ‘to stop people from breaking looms, which for many weavers represented a real threat. These machines were doing their job. The Frame Breaking Act was a law that was passed to make it illegal to destroy looms.’ Digging deeper, he found that ‘much of the weaving came from the Huguenots, who were fleeing persecution in France and Belgium, and there are fascinating reports of people coming here, taking our jobs’. West is instinctively drawn to the complex and often problematic relationship between man and machine. ‘It’s quite fascinating but rather bleak that all of these problems keep coming back, that it is all still happening,’ he reflects. Frame Break also features his signature motif which acts almost as a full stop or stamp at the end of the left beam, adding a touch of humour and ambiguity to this strident form. 

Deceptively tidy, West’s studio is in fact packed full. My gaze flits between accumulated objects, leftover materials, bits of artworks and completed work. Studying his working environment, I examine the ambiguous array of tools laid out on a large workbench, which may be artworks or may have a purely functional purpose. West talks lyrically about rock: ‘I love rocks, there is something so monumental about them …They are in some ways almost the oldest sculptures that have ever happened.’ Then he talks about the oak which was used as a base for Frame Break. Reaching up to take a piece of wood from a shelf, West demonstrates how the pale untreated oak becomes a very deep black, when rubbed with a simple iron oxide solution of wire wool in vinegar. He tells me it is not a stain, but it changes the oak so that it becomes completely weatherproof. 

West’s use of rubber is more recent, he had been looking at conveyor belts and was thinking about making one. He describes how he bought some sheets of rubber and ‘started tracing shapes in it (figs. 8 & 9). I really liked the contrast between the really stiff metal and this completely limp ineffectual version of it. So although my work conceptually has these ideas of work and economics in it, I find the materials really interesting and there is real joy in the way that rubber flops and steel doesn’t – it can be as simple as that.’

West’s love of the world of materials has not always been pre-eminent. He started art school as a painter, and he says the good thing about the Chelsea BA Fine Art course was that it was non-specific: ‘I went in painting and was making very big large-scale paintings of airport runways, which were gray with lines across. I was a reasonably good draftsman but that didn’t matter. I was asked “but what are you thinking about?”. … I started making dowels , linking parts and large abstract forms, and that was when I began to look at CGI as a way of making, and although now I love painting I can’t imagine doing it anymore.’

Designing and creating works in the CGI world can mean that the material world throws up some challenges. In West’s experience: ‘there is another interesting relationship between man and the machine, I am making the work, virtually. I still see the work as sculptural even in CGIspace, but for me it’s important to be manipulating these objects.’ Later in our conversation West describes how when he was making Frame Break he ‘suddenly became very aware of the weight of things. Making work in the CGI world, nothing has any weight, you have to fake it to make it seem heavy, so when I was in the studio using wood it was quite interesting. In my head I thought I could probably manipulate it myself but in the end I had to get people to help me move things.’

Thinking about public sculpture, West remembers: ‘when I was 14 or 15 going to Italy with my dad and in a little town called Poggibonsi in Tuscany, we came across this cast iron sculpture and I thought ‘that’s interesting, that works, but I didn’t know what it was. Years later, I discovered it was by Antony Gormley, and was one of his earlier commissions. That was the first public sculpture I’d come across, but I didn’t know it was made by a well-known artist.’

West’s father is an urban designer, who ‘has been in lots of consultations where an idea comes in and it starts to get pulled apart by different people and what was a fantastic idea just becomes what he and some architects refer to as “the turd in the plaza”. A lot of things that you see that are really bad, are not because they started badly, but because the process becomes impossible’. Luckily for West, that was not the case at Spitalfields, where the process was open, the sculpture stands in its own space and ‘the worst thing that has happened was that some of the bolts rusted and I had to go and replace them.’

West’s working method, combining both computer and material work, feeds neatly into the conceptual concerns of his practice, and interest in the nature of work. To create the metal discs hanging on the studio walls, West tells me: ‘I start them on the computer as a drawing and then, send it off to a company which cuts the shapes. Therefore at no point do I have to use my hands to make them – which is quite an interesting process. I don’t even speak to anyone, because I just upload the drawing onto the website. It’s rather like prayer, I send the drawings off, hope and the discs appear – my prayers are answered’.

Main image: Jack West, Force Majeure, 2017, painted aluminium, threaded rod, bolts, 160×145×130cm., Broomhill, North Devon (photo: courtesy of Jack West)

Aurora Corio