It's something of a ritual, wandering round each other's studio complexes, checking out the competition. Most visitors are other studio-renters - I won't say artists, because... well that's a distinction for others to make. True, it`s usually a thrifty and earnest life-style, on the face of it dedicated to Art, but it has its own sub-culture of peeling white emulsion, heavy staple-guns, scrunchy textures, concrete stairs and ex-GPO Morris Minors. Professional but understated and underfunded. Mostly funded by part-time jobs, teaching if you're lucky. Good light - which means freezing winters and boiling summers - and Radio 3.
I was nudging my way through conversations about social security in a smoky corridor - bankrupt offices reoccupied, nice things now on walls and floors - in Tottenham, and I ran across two friends. One was two years out of the Slade, and beginning to get aerated about the impossibility of getting anyone to look at her work. The other divided his time between being a curator and an artist, was pushing forty and took a more detached view: to be visible you need to connect, network with Damien; everything else is background, isolated, out of the conversation. I'd introduced these two, and found myself replaying their cross- purpose conversation days later. It had some poignancy because before Tottenham I`d been at the RCA's private view, packed with celebrities and funny hats, caught in a stampede to get to the new talent. The same students, two, ten years later, become the invisibles of Tottenham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Walthamstow, wherever. Yes, well that`s the way things are. The fittest survive, one way or another. And one way or another, the best of all this work gets itself circulated among the cognoscenti in Mayfair.
That's the theory, a conveniently myopic theory... if we haven't heard of Roman Mircea (an extraordinary sculptor from Romania, who was then working at Delfina Studios) then so what. He can't be any good.
There are also, by the way, enough Japanese, Chinese, Brazilian, German, Iraqi ex-pats scattered round ACME-land to make a high-class show called Exiles. In fact there are enough representatives of most strands - sculptures of cats, installations involving distressed baths, basketwork onions, followers of easy listening blue- tinged minimalism - to fill any exhibition committees books till 2015. And that's the point. This isn't just a downtown arty district just off the tourist trail with an eye on your Access card. This is the largest population of would-be artists Europe has ever known. If you believe in statistics it's simply unlikely not to contain some amazing stuff, somewhere. It's also provided the breeding ground, the texture, the ethos of a whole chunk of the most substantial art for the past decade. Substantial? There I go, making value judgments, when that is the province of the taste-makers. But there is something that needs to be said, and I can imagine a PhD on the subject twenty years from now. How - if at all - art-making has been shaped by this locality, the buildings, the shells of collapsed industries, recycled, improvised, low-tech - Robinson Road studios, fittingly, used to be a paint-brush factory. Artist, it`s been said, is the number one profession on doctors' lists. Nowhere else do the graffiti betray a BA in typography and angst - the famous “Why Breakfast?” and “Critical Times”. Do the studio-renters make a social group? Are they visitors from somewhere else, or both, like the 8000 Kurds? “Champagne motoring for lemonade money” says the car lot. Will tracking down the iconography of African snails or surplus suitcases - both components in the excellent work of Andrew Carnie at the Tramway Depot - be like checking up on Paris 1905? Alternatively... alternatively a cultural guru would have to account for the absence of any art of real class given such a concentration of effort.
Too many would-be artists, so 99% are thrown out to artworld Siberia regardless of merit? Like the resting actor not answering the phone, most of us flipping through the colour supplements in the studio corner are caught in a bind. A studio is about privacy, pursuing your vision regardless. And that's what makes painting such an extraordinary activity - you get lost in those deep blues reflected in Cezanne's Lac d'Annecy and it`s like getting inside someone else's dream. Painting needs hours and hours of practice, solitary, maybe going nowhere and without apparent objectives. It needs silence and empty heads. So maybe it`s right that all these studios don't count for much, and maybe keep the doors shut. But can a painter afford to cut out of the scene? Keeping in touch... it also means networking, cultivating your social profile. Nothing new in this, Reynolds had a carriage drive to his Leicester Square studio to get his rivals in a tizz. I suppose the immediate difficulty we face is there aren't the obvious points of connection: if there is a ‘scene’ it`s got no focus - unless you buy into the Goldsmiths idea, or the School of London idea - well that`s not an idea, it's more of a coffee table book. Nobody is doing survey shows, Hayward Annuals, Summer Shows, there's only the Whitechapel Open and that's oversubscribed and the Salvation Army end of the trade. The major shows are all we-call-you with enigmatic titles - the Arrival and the Shadow - and heavy on installation and heavy with logistics. Unless you`re already Somebody with a support team of riggers, forget it. You`re background.
After the tensions of the opening - West End, East End - the pub conversations run over this ground endlessly. There's usually a consensus about the spread of non-profit informal galleries plus a whole variety of frustrations, most of them utterly boring. It`s bizarre, of course that while thousands queue for hours to catch a glimpse of a Cezanne, Monet, paying collectively vast sums of cash, only a few miles away - and probably unknown to them - whole armies of artists are beavering away without any audience at all. Ah... but are they artists at all? One dealer of my acquaintance calls it the easy option. Art school, no sales, then the easy option. What impressed me at that Tottenham opening - and don`t get me on to Jo Lawrence`s miniature cranes, or turkey paintings, which are just wonderful - was that a new wave of frustration was about to turn productive. Space studios, ACME studios and artists' housing, Artists' Market, Air Gallery, Artscribe magazine, were all in their different ways success stories powered by artists - sorry, easy opters - fed up with the circumstances of twenty years ago. They were all practical solutions. I don't know whether that's what's needed, probably not. First we have to agree that this studio culture adds up to something significant - and if we do make something of it. Other countries have similar set-ups but much smaller, and make more of a fuss. It's crazy that the Hayward has never done any kind of a survey. Second, some of the strain should be taken off the Whitechapel, and there should be another, really smartened up, venue that would spend all its time exhibiting, reporting, debating the work being done - several studios do this already, but without proper resources. Third, some entrepreneur with the vision of PC World, Ikea or Majestic Warehouse, could make the link between the well-dressed art lover and the high quality, but mostly unsalable, work that makes up maybe 10% of studio production - industrial terms for industrial scale. This might arouse some noise from the high-rent outfits that take 50% commission and trade on spurious exclusivity, but this is the age of consumer choice. Give me that rather than paternalism any day.
Going back forty years, to 1957, The Studio published an anthology called “Artists of Promise”, presumably with similar well-intentioned objectives. It hoped to raise interest in scores of then little known and unfortunately still little known (except for Jo Tilson, Albert Herbert, Patrick Symons and Carel Weight) easy opters. The intro advocates horizontal paintings as the best sellers (sideboards, you see...) and throws a lot of doubt on abstraction. It promises too that despite their beards (mostly male then) artists don`t usually smell. Leafing through the reproductions it`s mostly Life-is-Grim, cramped and spiky, and even the muscley Sicilian fishermen are heavy-lidded. It wouldn`t be difficult to end up with a similar collective mood were you to recycle the idea. Despite appearances and theoretical position-taking, the vices of mediocrity, self-obsession and conformity remain constant. Periodically it does us good to see awful art in bulk - OK the RA Summer Show does this too - and then the really good stuff is that much sweeter. And that`s the point of the studio shows. Your discoveries are not only your own and spring out after building after building of so-so studios, they can become your friends. “I`m afraid there`s a smell of dog, and there`s a lot of oil”, engine oil, as it happened, from gutted Astras down in SE5. Upstairs the polythene dividers are collapsing; one section is for daylight, the other for night - fluorescent paintings. Here Rufus Knight Webb paints planets and geometry for Swiss nightclubs.
There are studios I visit year after year - Tony Whishaw`s in Bethnal Green - where the paintings grow from the texture of the floor, the walls. the light. The sensation of being with the work where it is made is just golden - something you just miss in the coldness of a Serpentine retrospective. Helen Chadwick`s front room in Beck Road, Bert Irvin's schoolroom in Stepney, Susannah Heron's incised slate at Britannia Works, Tim Allen's method paintings in Rotherhithe, Martin Spanyol's painted vases, Jenny Franklin's sea-shores.... hold on, I`m making a list.
Artists and Art Organisations in the East End of London 1972 to present day