Pygmalion in Reverse: Resisting Beauty.
Moving through bronze casting, CGI graphics and clay sculpture alike, London-based artist Jamie Fitzpatrick’s politically driven work is steeped in the audience adventure of visceral immersion. Having been raised in a family of builders and groundskeepers, Fitzpatrick’s background honed in the importance of working with your hands. His early exposure to British class stratification as well as his formative experiences of viewing radically critical works of art such as Gericault’s ‘Raft of Medusa’ have shaped his current conceptual approach. After graduating with an MA in Sculpture from Royal College of Art, Fitzpatrick has demonstrated his versatility. Practicing in an extensive list of mediums (3D modelling, drawing, film, robotics… the list goes on), he investigates the current state of British hierarchy as a remnant of its colonial, patriarchal traditions. His abject style of figuration often centres the authoritative male monument as a referential point, employing visually arresting shades of Millennial pink as a metaphor for whiteness. Through the recreation of these oppressive environments with installation, these totemic figures reflect the social politics of modern Britain, panning from the personal to the prevailing. The pieces take an ironic, even self-abasing, depiction of the Bourgeois, distended and disfigured by the artist’s resistance to beauty. Within this crudeness, Fitzpatrick proposes the possibility – and the victorious image – of what it means to usurp those in power.
In light of the fact that during your childhood both your parents worked as builders and groundskeepers for wealthy families, how much has the tactile nature of their careers informed your interest in making?
I’m not sure that their careers informed my practice directly. One of my parents worked as the groundsman for a huge mansion on a private Scottish island and through them, I would work from the age of thirteen as a chambermaid/pot-washer throughout my school holidays. The folks that stayed there were a mix of titled/landed gentry and very 90s New Labour entrepreneurial and media types. From the end of my childhood, I had been already working in an environment in which I was immediately in a role that explicitly reinforced a very particular British social system. It’s reasonable to suggest that that formative experience left me with a bit of a cynical chip on my shoulder. But in terms of making, I come from a very practical family, so using your hands was not so much encouraged as just being the way of things. When I was being made to help I was in fact being shown and taught, but at the time I thought I was just staving off boredom with glue, tools and wood scraps.
Do you have any recollections of a singular artwork that caught your early interest and pushed you into pursuing fine art as a desired route?
The first artwork I truly fell deeply in love with was Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ – I still am completely enthralled by it. It’s an absolute Champions League work of art. When I saw it my overriding thought was, ‘I want to do that.’ It’s the closest thing to ‘a calling’ I’ve ever experienced. I was on a school trip to Paris; the teachers were doing their best to drag the class from one end of the Louvre to the other whilst keeping us entertained. Then I saw it. It’s absolutely massive by the way, and then I just parked myself on the bench in front of it and stayed there, contentedly catatonic, left behind by the others. They had to come back and find me! It’s rewired something in my thinking and the way that I choose to use imagery as the means to process the external. It has never left me since then. I keep images of it all over the place, like a visual reset. I was in love with the sheer horror in both the politically critical subject matter and its depiction. It felt like it was wrestling a means of expression out of the hands of power. Its degrading materiality captured me. Gericault used bitumen as the binder for the paint so there’s this resignation to its impermanence; that it cannot be saved. It’s dying.
What work of art changed your life, no matter the medium?
Paul McCarthy’s ‘Caribbean Pirates’, an off-site Whitechapel project back in the mid-2000s. I came down from Edinburgh with my 6th form college and one of the tutors had told us to see it. From my memory, it was in a run down old unit building that I think became a Beyond Retro. Even back then, there was still quite an industrial and seedy feel about those side streets that ran directly off of Brick Lane. I’m not sure how much time and self-generated mystique has rendered these memories reliable but I remember there being this hefty steel door with a small business card with the Whitechapel logo taped on it. I knocked on the door and there was this hatch, like a prison door, and someone peered out and was like ‘What!’. I was a right little precocious prick when I was in my teens, but I was totally on the back foot, I was all ‘uh, um, I’m sorry I think I’m at the wrong place….’. There was this sense of having the primacy of my position as the viewer literally taken from me at the door. We went into this phenomenal space, absolutely immense in scale and so primal. It holistically affected my whole body rather than just being a critical experience. The potentiality that I felt from that, the way that an artistic practice can bleed across so many mediums, is something that I try to carry with me throughout my work even until today.
Among the references informing your sculptures are large-scale public monuments. Typically disregarded by passers-by, what piqued your interest in these visible-yet-invisible statues?
When I was young and lived in London, I don’t remember going into the city centre often and on the occasions we did, only ever taking the tube into central. But when I moved back as an adult for the RCA, I started to cycle around the city more frequently. I started paying more attention to the way that statues and memorials were placed around in these places of civic importance. It striked me that even though they had their names carved into plinths, I didn’t have a clue who they were and frankly didn’t care. Divorced from individual biographical context, I began to see this body of work as performing a large-scale interconnected dynamic or like an expanded network of conceptually connected objects whose purpose was not to be remembered. By being in public space, they acted as a collection of symbols that intentionally promote and maintain structural power hierarchies in the now. Once I began to look beyond the historical specificities of these monuments as representations of individuals and instead analyse them as separate elements part of a collective emotional and political agenda, I began to conceptualise the grandiosity of authority.
Back in 2018, you collaborated with Lindsey Mendick on an exhibition at Vitrine Gallery, a show revolving around your shared interest in The Wallace Collection and its romantic paintings and porcelain figurines. What was this joint experience like?
It was pretty hectic on my part. I got married the week before we started installing in Basel. In the lead up to the show, we had been talking a lot about gendered stereotypes in romantic ceremonies. A lot of what we were discussing in the lead up got very conflated with the organising of the wedding which got a little confusing in terms of where one started and the other ended, but as an experience it was very fun!
From my conversations with artists over the last year, it is clear the pandemic has altered either their work or the way they consider it. In what ways has lockdown and isolation affected your practice? In particular, is there a significant moment from this year that you will never forget?
Right up until the pandemic hit, I had been at the very early stages of a solo show, a residency and a public sculpture that were all centred around a single project but all of which ended up being cancelled. It took me a bit of time to shake that off as I was excited by both the subject matter and the critical expectations of the curators as well as the opportunity to make work that could be shown outside the gallery space. But with little else to be getting on with, I just decided to continue on with the development of the project anyway. Early on in the first lockdown, a friend of mine suggested trying an online 3D modelling freeware. What was amazing was how quickly I was able to use this software to emulate the idiosyncrasies of the way I model artworks. Working this way opened up a lot of potential in terms of scale and composition that then progressed to new pieces and has become an essential tool in the studio . The culmination of these works with gaming software resulted in the film ‘In the Garden of Piggy Male (Sketches)’ for VITRINE’s online summer show. I’m still pretty pleased with this accomplishment and plan to build on it in the upcoming month.
Many of your works critically address masculine archetypes ingrained in British culture. Considering that “social politics are more interesting than personal politics”, what is your take on the current debate regarding art and identity politics today?
As someone of my cultural background and personal identity it’s much easier to say, “I’m personally more interested in social politics as opposed to personal politics” as I’m someone whose position in society is rarely, if ever, challenged. By building composite figures out of these totemic references, my practice examines both a personal and social relationship towards masculine figures of authority by recreating oppressive environments. On a completely personal and subjective level, I find myself more engaged with works and exhibitions that are engaged more broadly with their subject. I feel a lot of the shows I’ve seen recently are hyper-focussed on very specific personal politics. It super-centralises the artist as the subject matter in the work. To be honest, this might just be symptomatic of the fact that the majority of shows I have seen have been in London which, in a broad generalisation, is a very ego-driven city. So, it makes sense that it fosters work that appeals to an audience more predisposed and sensitive to identity politics. It is further financially supported by an increasing trend with collectors and patrons who equally seek identity-based artists for their collections. I feel that when I see work outside of London, particularly since moving back to Glasgow, or in cities like Leeds and Manchester, the focus of the exhibitions tend to be aimed at a wider political criticality. Obviously, I’m speaking broadly and can think of several artists off the top of my head who completely undermine this as a statement. In no way am I trying to dismiss or belittle identity politics. It’s abundantly clear the importance these conversations have. It isn’t identity politics, but more “super-identity”: the presentation of one’s singular experience as the central importance in a practice that, personally, I am less interested in. However, as I said, perhaps this personal interest is a product of my own privileges.
You said that mythology is the base ground of your work and that during lockdown, you developed a CGI project inspired by the Myth of Pygmalion. What brought your attention to this topic and how does your practice relate to Pygmalion’s attempt at fabricating his utmost idea of beauty? Following the narrative of this story, have you experienced an unusual affection for a creation of yours in the same way as the Greek sculptor did?
There is something really archetypal about that story. It’s about the drive to manifest desire through making (in this myth it is romantic/sexual desire), but it is essentially how and why most artists are compelled to make. The work I enjoy the most seems to be aiming towards a critical projection of political or cultural utopian potential. On the other hand, the myth is an illustration of patriarchal power, that man literally models and creates the world in his image of beauty. It hones in on the idea that men enforce their passions at the expense of female existence. Pygmalion is essentially a tyrant, a symbolic archetype of totalitarian governance. In Wilhelm Reich’s ‘Mass Psychology of Fascism’, he explores how fascism was symptomatic of wider sexual repression. In a nutshell, social and cultural sexual suppression expends repressed energy into authoritarian idealism. A collective fear of the irrational is slaked by diverting the energy of sexual attention towards idolism and figures of heroic power. I began to see how British colonial public objects were a fetishistic totem for people to focus their nationalistic sexuality towards, either as an attraction or a rejection. Seen in the discussions around the historical and cultural legacy of our historical monuments, and the explosive emotional, sometimes violent, engagement with them over the last year. In this sense, my project revolves around this pseudo-psychosexual compulsion towards images of symbolic authority in the form of this performative alter-ego called ‘Piggy Male’, some sort of Jamie/Archetype/God/Englishman/Prince-Charming/Pygmalion/TyrantSt George/Fabio character, interrogates certain behaviours of GarGalatea, a sort of Rablaisian manifestation of both Female and authority representation. Through this figure of Piggy Male, I’ve been confronting the fictionalised romantic privacy of making and interrogating chauvinistic and European privilege behind giving shape to one body, where only white-male-heterosexual-abled figures are deemed nationally worthy. The studio shrank down to the size of a keyboard during lockdown, so I made the CGI film ‘The Garden of Piggy Male (Sketches)’, which ended up being a pseudo-manifesto of how and why I ended up choosing ‘Art’ as the means through which I explore and understand the world around me.
Is one of your intentions that of bringing the fictional world into the real one?
The fictional world is a representation always rooted in the real one. Most good fantasy worlds are a reflection of society, either intended to demonstrate dystopian-like inequality or posit a greater alternative. For me, the fictional creations I make are less about world building and more about using the space as part studio, part inner monologue. They exist more as a psycho-space rather than a fictional one.
You mentioned you don’t tend to sketch mockups, so your sculpting process always begins by following your intuition. Is there a consolidated method you employ for organising your larger-scale fabrications?
I draw a lot! I’ll often fill books with scribbled ideas or make collages which I will draw over. I don’t approach them as sketches for a specific work in mind but, after making repeated images, elements will start to emerge or repeat that I will later collate together. I’ve begun to transfer the process over to 3d modelling over the last year which helps to achieve a similar effect. Then I’ll often grab some clay and very roughly make something in the scale of the palm of my hand. Normally I’d let them dry and end up chucking them but recently, I’ve started to cast them. There is something really beautiful about working in that size where the evidence of the hand is so prominent in both the making and the scale of the work. Having such a vague idea of how it will look allows the work to evolve and break apart quite organically. I will throw and cluster lumps of clay or polystyrene, clamber them onto other parts and amalgamate them into new compositions… or just allow for things to collapse during the making process. The overall work is concerned with that explosive evocation of destruction and creation. The final sculpture is a frozen moment from a period of chaos. I find if I start the process with too clear an idea of how the work will finally look then I get a bit too precious with them and don’t allow for a more naturally haptic surface. I’ll often panic when I realise there is a particularly neat passage because it has some recognisable detail and I’ll take a hammer or tear my fingers through it. It’s like this compulsion to constantly resist any comfort towards things I find beautiful. Ha, a bit like Pygmalion in reverse…
Can you talk about the new materials and methods you have been working with recently? I am specifically interested in the bronze casting technique aided by 3-D printing, the concrete canvas material and how these tools and mediums might change your practice?
For a while I’ve been trying to get the work out of the context of the gallery space by exhibiting outdoors. There is an explicit thematic reason for this but more so, it is about the democratic access that work in the public environment creates. No matter how open galleries aim to be, nor how many community outreach programmes they make, these spaces by their nature are exclusive and exclusionary. It’s not to say that simply putting work outdoors makes it available to everyone. To be honest, in London especially, the locations that city-wide sculpture projects are hosted tend to be equally private and exclusionary regardless of walls. Whatever the costs and engineering of works, the materials that I had been using up until this point were completely inappropriate for outdoor display. Although they were monumental, they were made from soft and impermanent materials which would just fall apart outdoors. With the extra time on my hands, a lot of the last year has been focussed on experimenting with different, more durable materials. The difficulty has been not so much the technical process, but trying to retain that immediacy of the material engagement of the work is intrinsic to the practice. That it isn’t simply just a reproduction of something that happened elsewhere. I’m still not quite there, but I’m on the right road. Most of the stuff I’ve been able to do on my own in the studio has been in Jesmonite’s concrete medium. When I can afford to, I have plans to explore using concrete-canvas to see if I can make floating theatrical backdrops like I used in my show ‘he he he he’ in an outdoor context. I was approached by London Bronze Casting earlier in the year to collaborate with them on their new 3D modelling facilities. They came round to the studio with their super-fancy scanning gun and made a model of a piece that I had worked up in clay. I had been concerned about how much detail they would be able to get, in some you can see the vestiges of fingerprints in the work, or the way that clays and waxes buckle under weight or pressure. The fidelity was unbelievable, as it can pick out detail up to 0.1mm. Prior to this, I had been a bit resistant to using printed technology in the works. I had seen it as a tool I could use in the development of ideas but I was keen to have a much more traditional, hands-on engagement with the work. I’m most excited about the potential of scale this tech opens up. Whether I’m making maquettes that are six inches tall or a three metre high work, my hand stays the same size throughout. The small works have these very beautiful simple gestures in them whereas the larger works look more scrambled across, with a cumulation of lots of little marks built up over the surface. Through this process, I could combine the two, making larger works where those gestures can become almost monstrous and intimidating, by bringing this old-testament violence to the creation of the figure.
Exaggerated pink skin and yellow tones of blonde hair appear throughout your paintings and sculptures—this reminded me of the conversation I had with artist Olivia Sterling, who has observed that across the skin spectrum, the binary of black/white does not reflect the heterogeneity of shades in actuality. How did this visual exaggeration first become a method of yours?
I use it in much the same way that everything in my work is just an exaggeration of what is there already. Almost the entirety of western figurative sculpture, irrespective of the colour of the material, works on the assumption that we as the viewer are reading the skin of the object as ‘white’. That sort of ‘Millennium’ dusty pink that I use for the skin tone is ramped up to a cartoonish extreme. Instead of an allusion it becomes undisguised and indeed a literal representation of British/Euro/American societal power structures. In regards to the binary aspect of using black or white colour in sculpture, it is something I wouldn’t feel comfortable with as a middle class white man capitalising on in my own work. There are artists like Thomas J Price and Hew Locke that are already doing amazing work around that subject at the moment, it would feel inappropriate for me to address it from any angle other than my lived experience. I suppose what I find interesting, and what the work is playing with, is how that binary you speak of is so deeply associatively linked in the canon of art, and by extension linguistically and iconographically in society as a whole, to ideas of virtue and power. Nell Irvin Painter talks about this in A History of White People, about the historic formation of the conflation of the ideas of Caucasian skin, literal whiteness and purity and become synonymous with one another. Symbolically, the colour of white more so than any other could, powerfully reinforces this idea of purity. As a shade, it is so much more visibly objective than the other colours. We don’t discern Pure Green, Pure Ochre, or Pure Red, we see them as hues and variations. But we have a concept of a Pure White, a Brilliant White – our language is based around any variation of this is a bastardisation. It is Off-White, or impure, a deviation from the ideal. By conflating our concepts of colour and race in this way, and classifying Caucasian skin tone as ‘white’, even when it is not so in a literal sense, we are implicitly marking any deviation from this with the weight of historical association that these colours carry. As an example, you see this conflation of race-purity and colour-purity in the way we casually use the term mixed-heritage. Common usage of this term is to describe someone who has a mix of white and non-white heritage. It isn’t generally used when describing, as an example, someone who might have both sub-continental asian and east-asian heritage. I feel what is more dangerous is that the language that we use, by using binary colours to reflect heterogeneity, is still set up to proffer ‘White’ as something that has not been tainted, as something that in a platonic sense has strayed from the ideal. To bring it back to the question, I suppose the ramped up and visually arresting prettiness of these colours denote a very loaded version of Caucasian beauty ideals, and by extension the cultural relations to ‘goodness’.
What place does film-making, puppetry and theatre have in relation to your drawings, paintings and sculptures? Do you find the combination of both digital and traditional mediums to be synergetic in your realisations, or does one always prevail over the other?
As the practice develops, I am seeing these sculptural works becoming more like atavistic representations of myself that I can slough like a puppet or a costume, at least in their more formative moving image works. This sense of the puppet, or at least a figurative object that feels less laden with historical grandiosity, is reinforced with the works that use animatronics. The crude movements and speech give that sense that there is something animating them from within, that makes the sculptures feel like costumes that have come to life rather than characters in their own right. In that sense, I’m not sure that I see the synergy between the digital and the tradition. I think it is the disharmony between those two positions that, when it is well balanced, is when the work is at its best.
Very soon you will move out of London to Glasgow, Scotland. What’s first on the agenda once you get there?
Finding a studio would be nice. Without one, I’m not really able to get on with anything at the moment.
You alluded to the possibility of writing your own romance book — departing from your wife’s interest in Mills & Boon novels, known for their kitsch escapism. Have you ever written anything similar before, and do you think your visual work will have a recognisable influence on these writings?
It’s another project I am keen to explore. I’m not sure I see it as something novelistic in and of itself, probably more like something that expands into a wider sculptural installation that explores ideas of fantasy and iconic gender stereotypes. My interest came from that same assumed prejudice of them as kitsch escapism without having bothered to read one. I had already dismissed them as having florid and purple prose of little literary value. But I think a lot of that is quite dated. These books are fun, smart and increasingly inclusive. You look at someone like Beverly Jenkins for example who has been carving out space for POC love for decades, grand romantic stories for a community who are often excluded from positive romantic narratives. As a contemporary genre, Romance Literature creates spaces of resistance for individuals to tell stories that do not punish people for desire, giving voice to feelings often brushed-off as feminine and weak. In terms of how I see myself possibly using this in my practice, in Carol Dyhouse’s ‘A History of Women and Desire’, she proposes that masculine archetypes are a product rather than the cause of female desire. The idea that these macho heroic ideals that real-world machismo aspires to are some sort of evolutionary byproduct as opposed to being representations of the elemental masculine is what I think lies most comfortably with my interests. I’m conscious of how much of my recognisable style is acted out over these sorts of images. It doesn’t seem appropriate for me to insert myself into a female space and start throwing around a visual aesthetic that purposely tries to undermine and shit on everything.
Are there any upcoming shows we should be aware of? With indoor restriction easing up this May, your work will be exhibited at the 5th edition of Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer. How did you approach the many challenges of exhibiting in an outdoor setting, like weather conditions or health and safety regulations specific to open-air spaces?
I’m about to start installing a show with Grant Foster at ASC Gallery in Elephant and Castle and I have some works still on view as part of a project with Richard James on Savile Row. I’m also involved in a group show at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in September. I had been working towards working with outdoor materials for some time before I was invited to take part in Contemporary Sculpture Fulmer so a lot of that was good to go. The works aren’t too big so in terms of the engineering that has had to go into them, it hasn’t been too much of a feat in regards to Health and Safety.
Would you like to include collaboration again in your future projects?
More so than collaborating with another artist, I would really love the opportunity to develop moving image work alongside collaborators with more technical vicinity, such as producers, composers and crew. I also hope to have the opportunity to develop ‘The Garden of Piggy Male (Sketches)’ into a much larger and more ambitious film/sculptural installation in the future.
As we enter into the ‘new normal’, do you have any hopes for change across the arts industry? Is there anything you want to achieve before things return to normal?
One thing I would like to see is a more systemic attitude towards equality across both institutional and commercial spaces in general. Too often, these spaces see representation as something that is public facing, that only needs to be reflected in the programming. Yet, when you step into their offices, the only non-white faces you see seem to be working in the facilities or the accounting department. In any of the roles that are higher managerial positions, it is just a sea of white faces with public or international school accents. It is brilliant that over the last few years there has been a very real improvement in the variety of voices that are being given the platform but until that is reflected similarly within the whole structure of the art world, it has the potential to be at best tokenistic and at worst, a cynical avoidance towards real change.
Words by Laurie Barron