In Conversation with Castor Projects
Andy Wicks, pushing the gallery space into the realm of unpredictable dynamism.
Starting as a pop-up exhibition in 2014, Castor is firmly rooted in realising artistic vision through curation. This could be down to gallerist Andy Wicks having his own background as an artist, or it could be down to his drive to push the boundaries of gallery space into the realm of unpredictable dynamism. Wicks reveals to us that ‘castor’, a word linked to wheels, is the entity he chooses to work under, since he was once both an artist and curator in the same show. Now, moving away from his own practice and fully establishing himself in his gallery program, Andy Wicks is determined to create exhibitions of memorable importance for himself, and the artists he works with, telling the artists that he works with to “propose what you would really want to do, and we’ll find a way to make it happen”. In fact, according to Wicks, it is the artists themselves who make up the identity of Castor through their wide-ranging and provocative works. Having moved three times since its foundation, this is a gallery that is constantly evolving with ambition and direction, regardless of the modern challenges galleries face in light of the current art market, the need to constantly break the mould, and the threats of social media. Despite having less than five years of experience, Wicks, in fact, seems to revel in these challenges by meeting them head on through creating a strong brand for Castor that prides itself on clear communication, and putting the artist first, stating that there is no excuse not to “look your best” online in our newfound digital age. Andy Wicks also shares that his experience as a technician continues to play a part in his role as a gallerist, since he is drawn to artists who “have a deep intimate knowledge of their process and materials”. We are finally and teasingly told that there are some exciting exhibitions in the pipeline.
Can you tell me about the origins of your gallery? When did you decide to open it, and why?
Castor’s first iteration was as a pop up exhibition I curated in 2014 at a Central London gallery during their summer break. At the time, I was still a practicing artists and had an idea for an exhibition; ‘Trade’, which revolved around concerns within my own work. As I was to feature in the exhibition, I didn’t want to be the named curator, so came up Castor as an entity to work under. In 2015, I was introduced to a business lady who was soon to open a café in New Cross (South East London) next door to Goldsmiths. I’d always known, given the chance I wanted to have a physical space, which isn’t an easy thing to find in London. After negotiations, I agreed to take on a formerly disused basement below the café, that straight away I knew would take on the Castor name. Whilst I can’t say the timing was down to anything other than chance, all my experiences in and around the London art scene had prepared for me to take on what I saw as a great opportunity and challenge. I’ve tried to build Castor into the image of what I want from a gallery as a visitor. Where the programme and artists are centric, I want to go to a gallery from one show to the next and not know what to expect; whether that means the physical space adapts for the needs of the artist or at the very least is not too predictable in going from one painting show to another.
Your gallery space has moved three times in the past three years. Is change something you embrace? What has been the biggest challenge in running your own gallery so far?
That makes it sound a lot, however, the truth is I’ve always been a driven and ambitious person. Now that I’m able to channel it through the gallery, it’s meant I’ve activity taken on opportunities to step up and grow Castor as and when they present themselves. Having changed hats from artist to gallerist, I suppose I do enjoy change or at least having the desire to continue to challenge myself, even if aspects of doing this would have been previously out of my comfort zone. Without wanting to sound unconsidered in our approach, I’ve found the growth of the gallery over the past 2 and a half years as a very intuitive thing (along with a lot of hard work). It’s been a great learning curve, but many of the tools needed to do this were already within me, and experience only comes through doing. The main challenge is that of which all galleries are facing right now in so far as being able to sustain and grow in a tough market. Having not been on this side of the fence for too long means I don’t have memories of any golden era to hark back to, it’s not easy but neither is being an artist and why should it be?
Castor in Spanish means Beaver. I’m really interested, where does the name of your gallery come from?
I’ve heard this before from other people, although perhaps unsurprisingly that isn’t the motivation behind the name. Castor appears in a few guises, from Greek mythology to Oil, but for me it was in reference to the wheels / Castors you would find on furniture. As the name came about for the earlier pop-up, I liked the idea of the gallery being movable or modular, and whilst we only popped up once before getting a permanent space, I see the name still holding true in the dynamic nature in which a show can transform the physical space.
It seems as art is becoming more accessible through social media, public projects, or other forms. In this context, what is your opinion on the role of the gallery in today’s times?
We live in a time where you can see the works being revealed live during an opening of a biennale or art fair anywhere in the world from the comfort of your sofa. As such there’s a broader (albeit not necessarily greater) understanding and connectivity than ever before. But the true content makers are still the artists producing their work for people to consume in the flesh. Some articles have been questioning if a gallery needs to have a physical space in a world of art fairs dominance, but I doubt you could name me a single artist who would prefer to exhibit in a fair to a gallery show. Whilst there’s a wider accessibility to art now through other mediums, nothing will replace the physical experience, however it does mean that galleries can’t be complacent and assume old ways of operating will continue to fit in the future. We have to keep on our toes and evolve alongside the artists we’re working with.
I’ve noticed that most of the shows that you organise are site specific. Do you think your experience as a technician and artist helps to be more experimental within your space at the time to set up exhibitions?
There has always been an expansive element to our exhibitions that is partly down to the gallery leaning towards sculpture, but also due to the challenge I to set each artist from day one; ‘propose what you would really want to do and we’ll find a way to make it happen’. It doesn’t give me the same kind of satisfaction to just host another exhibition by an artist I admire, I want to see them really push themselves to create something memorable and of importance, which will still mean something in the context of their career further down the line. My background as a technician and artist definitely plays an important role in the way I approach working with artists. Young galleries such as ourselves don’t have the budget to spend much on realising ambitious exhibitions, however as someone who has a deep understanding of materials and processes, I can give artists the confidence that most things are possible, even if it means we have to put in hard graft to achieve it. Even many larger galleries wouldn’t necessarily go to the length we do to try to realise an artist’s idea within the space; having the attitude of if it can’t be sold why spend money on it. But for me, this is where things get exciting, when you know you are witness to an artist’s full vision. We probably repainted the floor of our last space 8 times over 13 shows (in a variety of colours), ripped down the ceiling, re-plastered and patched up walls, found new and interesting display devices. There’s no compromise to be found here!
A gallery isn’t just the bricks and mortar (we’re now onto our 3rd space) but rather the artists it chooses to work with, they are the ones who help create the identity by producing wide ranging and challenging work. It’s very important to me that as the gallery continues to grow, we do so with many of the artists we worked with early on. I have a close relationship with all my artists (perhaps this is something to do with those intense install periods!) and it’s this idea of a family who look out for each other which is important, and makes me believe that we are building something together.
Back in 2017 you put the very first solo show for UK-based artist Jack West, and you’ve been very supportive in giving artists such as Oliver Tirré, Sarah Bernhardt, or Ben Jamie their first London solo shows. Do you follow an ‘opportunity’ approach?
My only approach is simply whether I feel an artist is good enough and excited to work on something together. That’s not to say there can’t be satisfaction or a validation in giving someone there first show, but there needs to be more to it than simply getting in before another gallery. I’ve always trusted my instincts when choosing who to work with, my time spent making my own work perhaps gives me a closer insight into an artists thought process, and a confidence to buy into ideas even if they’ve not fully formed.
I very much enjoy Shatter Resistant, 2017 by artist Alan Magee. Can you tell me more about the editions that you sell online? You appear supportive with editions, are they made specifically for your gallery?
Alan Magee’s Shatter Resistant was the first edition we released, all have been developed specifically for the gallery. Editions were my way into collecting art when I started out as an artist, offering a chance to own a little part of that artists output for not much money. Coming from an art school background, I want to be have things available which my friends or anyone could afford to sit alongside those larger originals who’s price may be prohibited to some. We’ve also yet to do a standard print editions which I think is important to say. I see editions as a great way for artists such as Alan, whose work is often at a large scale or site responsive, to have a piece which people can easily own. It also sets a new kind of challenge to a practice, which may not usually have to think along those lines.
What is your position on art fairs? Do you think they are needed or is this something that you avoid?
Art fairs are problematic for me, it seems to be the question everyone asks a young gallery, ‘which fairs are you doing this year’… as if, if you’re not doing them (or not doing the right ones) then you are not showing ambition. I’ve done a couple of fairs, made some connections and sold some work at them, so I can see their purpose, but in putting such emphasis on them, we are centralising a system even further, and creating a class of collector who may only visit and buy through fairs rather than seeking a gallery experience. I say all this as someone who has started and still runs a gallery on a very tight budget; the money we make through sales goes back into the programme. If I had plenty of cash in the bank I’d happily go in for a few of bigger fairs to play that game, but right now that could be an easy way to overstretch myself. Perhaps it’s the artist and pragmatist in me, but I’m torn from being very driven to make Castor as big as it can be within London and beyond, with wanting to sustain and still be operating in 5 or 10 years time. As I said earlier, the growth of the gallery over the past few years has been instinctive, right now we’ve just launched our new much larger space and at this time I would prefer to put time and focus into the things I have control of. That said, as the foundation and growth of the gallery has proved if the right opportunity comes up in the shape of a fair, then I will probably jump at it.
I consider that your social media has a strong identity. What do you think about the digitalisation in the ‘art world’? Does this affect you as a gallerist in a positive way?
Social media plays a massive part of a gallery or any brand these days. It’s often the first thing the public will see before experiencing anything in the flesh, so impressions and the way you conduct yourself really do matter. Since the gallery started, the branding has always been important to me from the logo design down. Being confident in the exhibitions and documentation mean you have a responsibility to the artist and audience to clearly communicate it, and in the world of template websites there’s no excuse in not looking your best. There are many pros to a gallery’s use of social media: having the ability to grow a network quickly and far beyond those who may exist within our typical network, being able to communicate directly with new collectors, artists, and press, as well as situating the gallery amongst our contemporaries where you are judged on the quality of the programme and work alone, rather than geographical biases. That said, I do feel that sometimes over sharing can be problematic, rather than holding things back to be experienced in the real. Particularly when I think about artists (Instagram wasn’t as much of a thing when I was still producing) it can seem like a double edge sword, we’re all aware of how many likes our posts get, and the sense of validity this can brings, although this shouldn’t be seen as a replacement of critical framework from our peers.
It’s quite interesting the way you transformed the space for artist Simon Linington’s latest solo show. Can you tell me more about your curatorial approach?
Simon’s exhibition was a really interesting one. He came to me a simple idea which was to cast elements of previous works and studio detritus into rubber curtains of sorts, to hang from scaffolding, creating a threshold to cross and new spaces within the gallery. Having seen a few of his recent exhibitions, I knew his process was highly considered, yet one that ideas can jump around during its development. Once we agreed to do the show, we spoke weekly about the space and how the viewer would experience the piece, elements such as the wall colour and matching floor, scaffolding poles, fixings and netting were each painstakingly looked at and dropped or changed, if not right. For the previous exhibition of Amanda Moström, we’d cut a precise 2m square out of the plasterboard ceiling to anchor her bronze swings into the reinforced concrete above. At the time, I had the option to cover it back up post show but after checking with the landlord discovered the space only needed to be returned as a shell. On hearing this, I decided to remove all the plasterboard in stages to reveal the industrial concrete ceiling. Knowing Simon had deconstructed spaces in past works, particularly for his 2017 solo exhibition ‘Everything can be broken’ at Division of Labour in which he made a show from the raw fabric of the gallery space. I challenged him to do something with the ceiling as part of the installation. This resulted in a 10 day installation period of angle grinding ceiling struts, cutting and reforming the remaining plasterboard into a jagged island of the ceiling, followed by many evenings in the pub relaxing after some intensely physical days. It was exhausting but enjoyable, and real bonding experience between myself and Simon, thankfully our efforts were rewarded by creating such a beautifully poetic exhibition. The curatorial approach is simple, to allow freedom in creation of ideas yet be available for dialogue throughout whilst actively and physically supporting in the realisation of each show.
Claire Baily, Ben Jamie, Sarah Bernhardt, Alan Magee, Jack West and Derek Mainella are the artists that your gallery represents so far. What’s the connection between all of them? How and when do you decide to represent a new artist?
As artists they each have different practices. There maybe links between some, for example; Alan Magee and Jack West’s interests in labour and the act of production, for Magee this is through the empowerment of the individual or mass production and the automation of labour with West. The commonality between all the artists is a shared attitude to making and their willingness to buy into an ethos. Whilst I don’t see there being a ‘house style’, I am aware that I’m often drawn to artists who have a deep intimate knowledge of their process and materials. Representation has to be a two-way thing, a desire from both sides to work together towards an agreed goal, whilst it’s a professional relationship, I see it as a tight group which draws together artists who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise know each other.
How does one manage to make a mark in such a competitive industry? What are the risks or satisfactions you’ve found along the way?
The good thing about the ‘art world’ is that to contribute is to be involved. Whilst it maybe near impossible to jump in at the deep end without serious financial backing, I have seen first hand how sticking with your instinct, trusting in artists’ visions, and being willing to graft can get you a fair way. The risks are like any business, you’ve monthly outgoing and you need to find a way of making it work. I have to balance my romantic ideas formed through years of a studio practice with that of having to juggle much bigger overheads. The satisfaction comes through that of being immensely proud of the quality of exhibitions the gallery has been able to consistently realise, as well as seeing our audiences grow show on show.
As a gallerist, I assume you collect art. What can you tell me about your favourite piece?
I’ve always brought work, ever since getting my first full time job at framers John Jones on graduating my BA, being salaried at the time whenever I sold a piece of my own work, I’d use the money to pick something up. Mostly, I brought editions from the likes of the Whitechapel, as well as charity auctions, and doing artists swaps. I picked up a large Peter Doig print in 2005 from the Paris leg of the Tate retrospective which has always been one of my favourites. But topping the pile is a lovely hand coloured etching by Gert and Uwe Tobias (who show with Maureen Paley) which I picked from their 2010 Nottingham Contemporary exhibition. It feels far more like an original than a print with each being unique, it features a rather odd looking folklore like figure with a snotty nose! My tastes have changed considerably since I started, especially since switching from having the studio practice to running the gallery, that said, I enjoy and value the collection as a journal of life with certain pieces holding particular importance. I probably have around 40 works now, not all of which are on show, and slowly I’m adding more works from artists I’ve worked with.
With more than twenty-five exhibitions in your roster, can you tell me more about your programme and what we can expect in the future?
Having just moved into our new space, I’m excited and intrigued about what the next stage holds, whilst the programme is set for the foreseeable, I’m still learning how the new space will work. It always takes a few shows to understand the potential and permutations of a space, especially with the shift in scale. It’s clearly a much better proposition for the artists, so I’m looking forward to see what shows develop from it. We opened our new season with a second solo exhibition by Ben Jamie, which was really well received. This capped off a busy year for Ben, having had his debut New York solo show at Shrine back in March. Last week we opened Miriam Naeh’s debut London solo exhibition ‘Tall Tales, Tall Tails’. Miriam’s a brilliant Israeli artist who graduated Goldsmiths MA this summer, she combines video and installation, and is a really exciting young artist to keep an eye on. The exhibition continues until 24 November so make sure you catch it! Then, to end the year we’ve a show by Tom Worsfold, who I’ve been following since he studied at the Royal Academy, his new paintings are exquisite. The 2018/9 programme is definitely going to be one to follow closely.
If you could put together a show with any artists, alive or dead, in your space, which artists would you choose?
That’s a tricky question, maybe Gordon Matta Clark, who would most certainly up the ante in terms of playing with the fabric of the space… although I’m not sure what the neighbours in the flats upstairs would think!
Words by Martin Mayorga