C. A. HALPIN: The I's Have It
C. A. Halpin is an artist, collector and curator of extraordinary art. After obtaining an M.A. in Illustration from The Royal College in 1989 she began to work as an animator, designing and directing both commercial and fine art films. She first opened her Outside World gallery in London in 1998, originally showing the work of Outsider Artists it evolved into a now legendary creative hub. The gentrification of Redchurch Street precipitated the closure of the gallery in its physical form and it now exists solely as a studio and online gallery. Cate continues to create art and show her own artwork internationally in independent galleries, private and public collections.
Interview by Will Kitson
You work in many different artistic mediums and seem to engage with the world via creative interaction and expression. Has it always been this way for you? Were you creative as a child?
I am always busy, always have been and ‘God spares me’ always will be. My eyes often have trouble resting and I am always on the lookout scavenging for a visual gag, a colour or a thing of beauty; at times incongruous, forever fascinating. I make and reshape my world through a mixture of curiosity and devilment. There is often a wry sideways glance at reality in my work exploiting visual mix-ups, daily detritus and observational misunderstandings. I started drawing seriously at the age of five because it made the boys like me and I could draw just as well as any of them. Having red hair didn’t make me very popular with the fellas so I found something that I could get noticed by. I don’t think I have changed much!
Of all the various media through which you express yourself creatively is there one that resonates with you most directly? And if so, why?
It is all about drawing no matter which medium I choose to work in; drawing is at the very essence of everything I do. I am currently working on some large-scale graphite pieces that appear photorealistic from a distance but up close are a mass of positive and negative black and white marks adding to taking away, fight and fury mixed with love and longing. I use the skill of drawing in a particular project, I DRAW DOGS FOR MONEY, which is exactly what it says: exploiting the craft of drawing as a way of earning a living. The title itself tends to upset the faint hearted; because I mention the word money in connection with art it makes people think in some way that I am selling out, as the sole purpose of each drawing is to make money in order to create work and buy wine. I also tell those that care that I never draw dogs without money involved; this is not strictly true, but they don’t need to know that. They will find the truth if they look hard enough.
Your latest series, The Invisible Woman, explores the idea of ‘non self’ identity. You place ‘your gaze’ on the face of another, either a contemporary or historical figure. Please tell us a bit about the origin of the series and your philosophy with regards to the notion of the ‘non self’ identity.
The series began as the result of a job for a fashion magazine. As part of the initial research I photocopied a face and cut out a slit where my eyes looked through staring at the camera lens. When I published this on social media the reaction was that I had taken to wearing a veil, even though the black and white face of the photocopy was visible. This led me to start to celebrate the woman wearing a veil of obscurity, maybe through lack of sexual, societal or historical recognition. I started off with women artists and have ended up creating double portraits of me with a plethora of subjects who I either admire or who I feel need to be noticed for their ideas or their story. Subjects include everyone from my mother unable to walk, to Madonna falling off a stage. I like to explore the idea of a double portrait of putting myself in someone else’s shoes. In these days of the ever-present selfie, the self, projected through a reflection holding a lens to the world seen from the mirror of a place of evacuation and ablution. It is interesting politically to me to make a portrait that is outward looking putting myself in another’s face. As opposed to an isolated, narcissistic and self-reflecting view, I wish to see through the identity of another the outside world and all it has to offer.
The Outside World was so much more than a gallery; it was a hothouse for hotheads and creatives of all sorts, a meeting point for artists, performers, musicians many of whom went on to be leading figures in the YBA movement. What do you think it was about the atmosphere that you created that made it such a special place?
I lived in Shoreditch, East London from 1994/5 until a couple of years ago in 2012. In the early days it was mainly artists with nowhere to go apart from a couple of run down pubs that opened and closed when they liked due to lack of trade. My house was huge on three stories, costing not very much for rent. One day a friend and I climbed up the scaffolding at the front of the house and got onto a disused overhead railway line. That was the day that we decided to dig a hole in the roof of my house, none to ask no one to be told, so we just did. While we were on the railway line we found a long wooden ladder, so we dropped it through the hole in the roof and invited everybody up. The house became party central: fireworks, art happenings, exhibitions, soirees and all-nighters; as I had no neighbor’s to speak of and a mile long garden that no one else had access to this led to a sense of freedom and nothing could stop us. I would hold exhibitions and show artists’ work in my studio, so it became a place where people would drop by and not leave. There was a point when people came and didn’t leave for so long that I threw away the chairs as soon as they had gone. I never replaced them. The area was a lot wilder then and we basically did what we liked and got away with it, until we no longer could, then we moved or got moved on. I reopened The Outside World at another location, Redchurch Street in 2006, where once again I had many exhibitions, performances, happenings and parties as well as working from my studio and showing alongside invited artists. I left there in 2012 and continue to collaborate as well as work on solo projects.
‘Outsider’ art is very much in vogue these days. You were way ahead of the curve on that and many other fronts. Please tell us a bit about your point of view and experience with ‘outsider art’ … Do these monikers and categories and definitions really matter?
I have always been a champion of the Outsider whether in art or anywhere else in the contemporary social structure. I have long held an interest in the visceral rather than the conceptual, and Art Brut and Outsider Art fit this ideal perfectly. In the early 1990’s I lived in Paris working as an animation director when I worked on a series of short films for the children’s atelier at the Jeu De Paume, Pompidou Centre. One of the short films I made was an interpretation of Dubuffet’s Jardin D’Hiver sculptural installation. This really began my interest in Outsider Art, following which I undertook a residency at La Musee De Sables D’Ollones in Brittany, which held a huge collection of Dubuffet’s letters and communications.
The archives included letters to a local untrained artist called Gaston Chaissac. He was a great influence on Dubuffet and Picasso, but died in poverty, unrecognised as an artist in his own right. This led me to start collecting and exhibiting outsider artists alongside my own work. I collected things for their aesthetic and social value rather than as an investment, but working with vulnerable people leads you up all sorts of avenues of care that you didn’t expect, as often the art is only made as art when it is realised by the viewer. I still have quite a broad collection of so called ‘Outsider Art’, but sadly much of it is disintegrating as the pieces are often made with unstable materials causing the work to become very fragile over time.
The definition does matter as the ideas around the sales of non-mainstream art have become relevant in recent years; art has become more a business of being an artist through self-projection. The outsider artist often does not consider themselves within the wider world and are therefore freer to explore the psychological interior, as the art created is not made to be seen or assessed by a wider critical audience.
If the world inside of you had to be described in one word what would it be?
Published: March 19th, 2015