Co-curator of The Art of Regeneration Pandora Moloney interviews Focus LDN director and artist Tom Cox about his painting.
What was your first experience of art and what inspired you to become an artist?
My first experience of art was not necessarily making it. Just being a kid and my dad taking me round lots of museums and galleries. Really it was when I was 16/17 doing my A levels when my art teacher really inspired me and challenged me to look at things. She gave me that tough love I needed to become a good artist. The point at which I realised I wanted to make it my career was when I was 19, in my gap year. I was completing about three different paintings a week. I started going around applying for jobs in bars, and when they wouldn’t give me anything I would ask if they could display my art instead. After two days of doing that I had two pubs displaying loads of my work!
So, that’s when you got the buzz for displaying your work?
Well, I am quite an exhibitionist! I’ve always enjoyed showing my work to people, getting feedback and working out how to develop my art further.
What is your thought process or theme that you are working with at the moment?
At the moment my main theme is the city. I am very interested in the narrative that you can create in the scenes by simply having one person. If you have one person, one subject in the scene, it can have a kind of solemn nature, or it can appear quite silent. Especially within a big city scape. In contrast, if there are two people we instantly have a dialogue. There’s some sort of interaction, and it starts to develop into something more interesting. I never really tend to focus too much on the faces. It’s more about the people and their positioning within the scene.
How would you go about representing these scenes?
Generally I’ll start by finding a subject matter. I’ll go out on the hunt with something in mind and then I’ll discover it, or maybe something serendipitous will happen and I’ll find something walking down the road, and I’ll think right! That’s my subject matter. Normally I’ll take pictures and do some sketches. Recently what I’ve been doing is using Indian ink, bringing my canvas on site and sketching it out quite roughly using the ink.
How do you think your technique has developed over the years, and to what extent is this reflected in your current work?
I’m developing this new technique with my palette knife where I respect the spontaneous, sketchy nature of my initial mark making. I try not to overly develop or refine it, but instead discover an energy within the scene. In the last year I’ve massively progressed, previously I did oil paintings but it was very thinly layered and there wasn’t much texture on the work. Recently I’ve really come to love getting my palette knives involved - having this rough nature.
I did a lot of paintings of construction this year which became a new passion, because instead of having that clean glass and steal city, you have scenes which contain this earthy messiness. As my studio is sandwiched between two construction sites I see it every single day, which is really inspiring. It’s really interesting to represent this with the techniques that I enjoy using. It’s nice to have those bold architectural lines with the rough textures of the raw materials. I think it’s the materiality of the subject that appeals to me.
Could you tell us about any paintings you are working on at the moment?
So, I’ve just finished a painting of Brixton Bowls, which I used to skate at when I was a teenager. The painting portrays social housing - Lambeth social housing - which is all boarded up now and is prepared for demolition including a couple of diggers in the scene. This seems to become a motif for my current work. I have captured quite a lot of construction scenes. On one side of the building it says “One and Two Luxury Apartments to Come,” which I haven’t painted in – it is unspoken. It is this condition of the current gentrification in London, a rapid and very insensitive changing of communities - and I’m capturing that. The painting also has a sort of playful nature too, because the skateboarders are there in the foreground, they’re still doing their thing. There’s this big blue sky behind, but there’s this central aspect which is, you know, demolition. So, it’s got a pleasant nature, and then this constant theme of what’s happening now – this fast destruction of communities. I think people work so hard these days and everyone has their head in the clouds, this change is happening too quickly around them to notice. I feel as an artist I’m constantly observing the world around me, and I feel like I want to show that to people.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
I want to continue developing my art practice, continue to learn from other artists, learn more about the history of art, and I want to further contextualise my work. I see my work ageing well, because I think I’m recording events that are relevant to our contemporary culture. With time we should be able to look back on them. It’s these monumental, social things that are happening in the present that seem to fly by unnoticed in the noise of modern life. This quick energetic technique I am developing really embodies these moments of change – as with my Brixton Bowls painting.
I don’t feel the need to do something totally new, in the sense that I’m not trying to push the boundaries of ‘How can I do something that’s never been done before?’ I want to learn from great artists and apply my skill to a subject that’s never existed before – which is our city now. My life now, our culture now, which is changing so fast. I’m not trying to say ‘this is what I think about the situation’; all I’m trying to do is capture it. I’m capturing the change.