Alastair Levy interview

We catch up with London artist Alastair Levy and discuss the rise of
the everyday.

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i. Chris A #2, Painter and decorator's polo shirt on stretcher frame, 51cm x 41cm, 2012
ii. Chris A #3, Painter and decorator's t-shirt on stretcher frame, 51cm x 43cm, 2012
iii. Jimmy D, Painter and decorator's t-shirt on stretcher frame, 46cm x 36cm, 2012
iv. Danny, Painter and decorator's t-shirt on stretcher frame, 46cm x 33cm, 2012

All photos © Alastair Levy 2012

You have a very interesting approach to photography, assemblage and installation. How would you describe your practice?

For a number of years now I have been developing a practice which is not really medium-specific but which incorporates a variety of forms and working methods. I am more interested in starting with ideas and letting the form follow, as opposed to thinking 'I want to make a drawing or a photograph or a painting'. 

The way that contrasting forms and objects relate in space is something that I have become increasingly concerned with. I have been thinking about this recently in relation to music and the way that certain radio DJs, for instance, play a very diverse and contrasting range of tracks. I think that certain things present themselves, whether it be in an artwork or a record, that maybe wouldn't present themselves if that thing was experienced in isolation. Having said that, it is imperative that the thing in question can also stand on its own and have value as an isolated form in the world.

You recently made a series of works using t-shirts and shirts given to you by painters and decorators. How did this come about?

I've always been very drawn to accidental or unintentional mark-making, whether it's produced by a naturally occurring process, such as the way that mould forms across a wall, or by people (including myself) when they are not conscious of their actions. I think that John Baldessari talks a lot about having to unlearn all the time and to find ways of surprising yourself when you make things, and I think it may have some connection to that idea. The painters' shirts that you mention look really intentional if you don't know what they are. They have this connection to abstract expressionism which I like. I also like the fact that they exist simultaneously as something that someone is ready to discard as rubbish, as well as something that could be held very dear, as something beautiful and of value.

In your earlier years you had a sojourn in India teaching English?

Yes, that was a very formative experience. I was living and working in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery for four months and it was completely different from anything I had experienced before, or will experience again. I am not religious myself but there was something extremely powerful about sitting in on the early morning prayer sessions. I was very conscious of the fact that the chants and the music that I was hearing had probably remained largely unchanged for perhaps 1000 or 1500 years. That kind of transferrance of cultural practices over so many generations creates something of immense force in the present.

"They exist simultaneously as something that someone is ready to discard as rubbish, as well as something that could be held very dear, as something beautiful..."

You have had various occupations over time. How have they helped contribute to your work?

I suppose you are always the sum of your experiences, so the jobs that I have done will have undoubtedly fed into my work in some way. I think that the job that has had the biggest impact on me was working as a facilitator to a man with cerebral palsy. That was extremely challenging and changed the way I think about a variety of aspects of life and work. In a way, there is a connection between that job and the role of the everyday in my practice.

Your work often focuses on an appreciation for everyday objects. Why is this notion so prevalent?

I'm not sure but it's been the most constant aspect of my output going all the way back to the drawings and paintings that I made at school. I think that the everyday is a very common theme in art and culture generally now for a number of reasons. The fact that the relationship between art and religion has changed so dramatically over the past 150 years is significant for artists, in that they are now much freer in terms of the subjects and materials that they are able to use. Art is no longer the servant of religion and the state in the way that it used to be and people can establish devotions to whatever they are drawn to.

What are you influenced by at the moment?

Printer alignment sheets, Tom Robinson and Tom Ravenscroft on [BBC Radio] 6 Music, The Killing, playing online chess, watching Tottenham Hotspur, renovating the bathroom, Microsoft Word, and unwanted information.

"Art is no longer the servant of religion and the state in the way that it used to be and people can establish devotions to whatever they are drawn to."

Structure and order also seem to be dominant throughout your work. Is it safe to say order plays a big role in your life as well?

That's a good question. I think that I could be a bit more ordered in my life but you're right to say that those elements are present in a lot of the work. I am increasingly aware that the work is becoming, in some ways, a kind of archive of the everyday. This is particularly the case with the painter's tops that we were talking about earlier.

Can you explain to us your daily routine?

I spend most of my time working but I don't have a routine as such. Things seem to be quite fluid and I suppose in some ways that fits with the work that I make. The boundary between working and not working is not always clear but that's partly because I'm thinking about the work almost all the time. I often feel like a large part of the work happens when I'm out and about, and that the physical production of the work is almost like a task or a quite perfunctory action that is predetermined by the thought process.

What kind of work should we expect to see in the future?

I'm currently working on a drawing of a printer alignment page. It's the page that comes out when you first test the ink cartridges. I'm not sure if this will be the first in a series but that's what I'm working on at the moment. But I tend not to think too far ahead in that respect.