Monumental Ornamental: Ian Kirkpatrick

Artist Feature / Contemporary Sculpture

It was more than a decade after completing his BFA in 2009 that Ian Kirkpatrick went back to making art. Since then he has built up an impressive body of work in large measure through grants, residencies and open exhibitions in London, Rotterdam, Berlin, New York and Chicago.

Kirkpatrick talks about his time at art school and the years afterwards wistfully: “I just never found a satisfactory way to join up the technique-concept-object nexus… For a long time I stopped doing anything with my hands.”

Ian Kirkpatrick, 'Vessel', 2011. Copyright the artist.

Ian Kirkpatrick, ‘Vessel’, 2011. Copyright the artist.

That was before an open call for an archaeologically-themed exhibition engaged his thinking about material culture. Kirkpatrick’s response was to paint a mix of contemporary and art historical imagery on found cardboard boxes. As an added homage to historical studies of objects – particularly vessels like urns used for trading goods – he then cut up and reassembled the box shards. Dislocating the visual syntax in this way, Kirkpatrick finally struck upon a way to express memes of both visual and material culture. “For me, the attraction is the quality of design that artists of the past absorbed and transmitted over many centuries.”

These days, Kirkpatrick’s ALLCAPS aesthetic is jubilantly baroque, fizzing with iconography in amounts that seem only just contained by their larger, cohesive structures. Building on his background in graphic and packaging design, Kirkpatrick’s work usually contains or is contained. “The intention is to reorientate the viewer’s perception of and interaction with packaging. And to create a memorialising art form that draws on narratives, tensions and aspirations within culture.” The resulting genre-busting packaging-sculptures pose provocative questions about how fine art sculpture stands in relation to the real-world conditions of commerce.

The Canada Council provided the opportunity to make another critical transition: from analogue to digital production. Kirkpatrick now uses vector graphics in both the construction of his sculptural forms, as well as in their surface designs. This is an approach he will be relying on for one of his current projects, The Graphic War, a collaboration with Leeds Galleries and Museums. The project won a Leverhulme grant: a 10-month, funded opportunity to work in residence with a museum, university or other non-art institution, and offers an interesting counterpoint: post WW1 saw the greatest number of memorials being built, a practice that, with the possible exception of Anthony Gormley, has almost vanished today. Does he expect more latitude among post-nostalgic audiences – with no direct experience of The Great War –  for the kind of cultural play that his work offers? He’s not sure it will be an issue: “The project’s four big sculptures will have contemporary and contemporaneous imagery, photos and text embedded in them. But the ‘surface decoration’ will refer directly back to the collection, and original archive material will be exhibited as well.”

We talk a bit about the current context for World War I – uncertain European allegiances, flawed leadership and poor diplomacy, all of which seems worryingly familiar. Does he anticipate any difficulties given the current sensitivities and war imagery? “The project’s focus is the graphic design of things, rather than narratives around people, but there’s still definitely a tension. The design of things like ration cards, postcards and adverts subtly reflect, but also steer us towards certain values. During WW1 there was a move away from cubism and futurism’s hard-edged machinic styles to the softer realism of classical imagery.” Kirkpatrick says that anything controversial will be left to the viewer to find between the deconstruction and detail in the work. Ultimately, propaganda is unambiguous and art is the opposite: “I’m not trying to make a statement about war. ”

A concurrent AA2A (Artists Access to Art Colleges) residency with York College for CoCA (Centre of Ceramic Art at York Gallery), will see Kirkpatrick make an entertaining, but above all meaningful point of transition for the gallery’s exhibition to celebrate the opening of its renovated premises in August.

For it, Kirkpatrick will return not only to hand-painting, but also to using found boxes; COCA’s archive boxes. At this point Kirkpatrick opens his laptop, scrolling his way past an impressive amount of documentation to reveal an ambitious maquette. Reincarnation will be a larger than life-sized butterfly constructed of hybridized packaging-ceramics:  COCA’s archival boxes, Kirkpatrick’s own ceramics, vacuum-formed ‘blister packs’ and a ceramic sculpture. He admits that it is probably his most complicated work to-date. It involves many processes in part because the work is a monument to the one-off, involving aspects of studio production such as hand-mades and flaws, as well as legacy within the craft.

Ian Kirkpatrick, 'The Stars Which Know No Destruction', 2014. Copyright the artist.

Ian Kirkpatrick, ‘The Stars Which Know No Destruction’, 2014. Copyright the artist.

I ask about how he’s going to deal with COCA’s British Studio Ceramics collection. The movement’s lodestar was Zen Buddhism – a religion not immediately associated with the kind of muscular ornamentalism for which Kirkpatrick is known. Reincarnation will involve other kinds of Buddhistic imagery, in line with his ‘Wikipedia-esque’ approach to research. Kirkpatrick likes to compile “a nebula of related notions – actual truths or generally believed ‘facts’ – that surround one central idea.” In addition to Mandala imagery and Tibetan Wheel of Life, he’ll be referencing contemporary iconography and border patterns from COCA’s archives.

Ian Kirkpatrick’s practice offers an object lesson on how collaborations, grants and open exhibitions can stimulate and develop artistic practice, without distorting it. When I ask him, Ian is not certain about what he’ll be doing after the Leverhulme residency is over. But chances are, it will be monumental.

Look out for Ian Kirkpatrick’s ‘Graphic War’ sculpture trail this coming November at various locations across Leeds, including Leeds Art Gallery.  The CoCA exhibition will be open from 1st August at York Art Gallery.
Find out more about Ian’s work and processes here: https://iankirkpatrick.wordpress.com/

Valerie Zwart

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