Hugo Barclay

Arthur Laidlaw

Hugo Barclay
Arthur Laidlaw

Arthur Laidlaw

Arthur Laidlaw | British visual artist based between London and Berlin

What influenced you to pursue art?

My mum is an artist, however, I think if I am honest I never planned anything career wise.  I was fortunate in that I had done okay academically and was able to get an academic degree.  

In some ways, as much as I would like to see it entirely as something that contributes to my artistic practice, for me, my degree was a security blanket; a fall back.

As well as taking the trip travelling and having a show early on, I was doing various jobs in the art world. I think later I realised I was crossing off every other thing so I was sure that I wanted to be making the art as opposed to working in the world of art.


Where do you get your sense of self-belief from? 

The sense of self-belief I think is an attribute most artists have.  You must feel that what you have to say is valuable in some way. It took me a while to figure out.  When I did, it scared me.   As in some ways this self-belief has been prefaced by a whole load of circumstantial things.  For example, I am a straight white dude which means I am more likely to have been given that self-belief.  I have also had a remarkably privileged upbringing.  I developed a can-do attitude as a product of my personal experiences - having been to private school and having had a supportive family. 

I think when I began again in earnest after University to make work, I had a crisis in confidence. I wondered if we really needed another one of me shouting into the dark. I still struggle with that question, but I think that is a better starting point to make work from than the alternative which is a kind of arrogance; assuming your viewpoint is worthwhile.



Where do you get your motivation from?

I think getting a glimpse into what I would be doing otherwise.  In watching a lot of my friends jump straight into jobs after University, I saw that some became incredibly unhappy, and have since quit their jobs, or are desperately trying to. They are finding it difficult because they have become used to something and don't want to take a leap anywhere else.  That is an advantage you have if you start out without much responsibility, you don't have much to risk. 

My last show, about Syria, gave me a sense of urgency. I really enjoyed seeing how people engaged with the paintings, but also the subject matter underneath.

I already knew art was a potent force, with the potential to shape conversations and discourse.  But I was surprised to see it with my own work. I had never thought of my work as political.

 Why are layers important in the making of your work?

I really enjoy the idea of the viewer having to figure out how it is made.  This is like the inverse of the idea in Dutch still life painting where the artist may have painted velvet which is so representative, you can’t believe it’s not actually velvet.  This was done in order to dress art up as a glamorous thing, and not to ever allude to the dirty reality of the studio; which would associate it with manual labour and the lower-class maybe.  In my work I use layers to incite curiosity into how it was made, and to point directly to the studio processes that have been obscured throughout art history

Dhankar. IV

Dhankar. IV

Do you have any obsessions that make you a better artist? 

Weirdly I think working in a bank is as opaque as working in a studio.  I don't think there is anything special about being an artist. In fact, I am a bit scared of answering this kind of question because it starts to go towards that perception of the 'artist as genius'. 

My work is sort of structured in layers, in steps.  For example, before you arrived I did one step, which is nice because then that is done and I can do another step tomorrow. Each new layer loosely corresponds to the last, depending on how big the picture is.  That may be harder for someone not working in mixed media to understand, because I cannot be using the electric sander at the same time as the oil paint. But for an oil painter you just keep painting.

I also find that I can get into a rhythm and forget to eat.  You get this almost panicked, exhausted feeling, and a real buzz out of the fact you are delaying going home - what is in front of you is even more urgent.  I have a friend who is a musician and says the same - time just goes.

Tell us about your journey out of school...

I took 2 years out to paint basically.  I did initially apply to university to study English but realised I didn’t want to do that.  So I decided to put together my own foundation course and to paint as much as possible, to forge my own career.  I then went on to complete my BA in History of Art at the University of Oxford which provided the theory and historical background for my recent MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School. 


Tell us about your time off? 

To begin with I was in Venice and met a lecturer, called Peter Lauritson.  He taught me about classical antiquity, and how the Venetian Empire never really had a claim to classicism in the same way Florence or Rome did. It came to be a very powerful republic in more the 12th Century, but it was always harking back to a history that it didn't have.  He was constantly pointing out all the places it would trade with in order to acquire classical relics, sculptures and paintings in order to bump up it's credibility as a republic. 

He was the one who said if you are really interested in this stuff, you should go and see the sights and visit all these places. He put together a big list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, but also included some really unusual places that you might not otherwise visit 

My then-girlfriend and I then planned the journey that started in Tunisia, before travelling through Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, before ending in Sicily.

Nubra II

Nubra II

How did the trip give you confidence to become an artist?

I was away 3 or 4 months. That was the first attempt I had made to make art.  It turned into a working trip.  Every day we were visiting a new place, and it was euphoric.  We met amazing people, and each place we went the people affirmed the idea that I could be an artist for a career. They would be so enthusiastic; I would sit on the side of the road and draw something, and within half an hour there would be a crowd of 20 or 30 people. Or in the middle of a Mosque there would be dozens of people giving you a thumbs up.

It was an incredibly positive experience. Then when I returned, I spent another 3 or 4 months making bigger works from my sketchbooks, before I had a show at the end of the year.


What was the most amazing site you saw whilst you were away?

A monastery called Turbo.  You enter through a tiny door and through several chambers which are all pitch black.  Then you enter into a bigger chamber and you can only know this because there is a tiny window at the top of the room. You begin to get a sense of the space and realise that the entire room is just covered with paintings. It is really hard to tell where one begins and ends; or if they are set into the wall, or hanging, or sculptures. You have to literally go up against the wall and crawl along it to get a sense of how big the space is. 

It forces you to exist within your own head and look inside yourself, to the sense of scale inside your own head and body. I have practised meditation but it seemed extraordinary the way an aesthetic and architecture could transport you into a sense of scale which seemed to match the incredible landscape outside. It was so unexpected and gave me a lot of hope for ways that could be communicated later. You don't have to match something in awesomeness; you can make something else in order to represent scale.

Palmyra (Tomb photo).

Palmyra (Tomb photo).

How much do you think about your brand as an artist? 

I think the most helpful thing to me in my brand as an artist has been to be really simple and direct. I have tried when communicating things to be really frank about why I have chosen to paint something.  I occasionally write a blog called 'Making Art'. It often amounts to explaining the steps I take to make this work.


What are some myths in the art world?

There is too much focus on what is hot now, and what is on at the galleries now. As if that is more meaningful than just what you like. That really frustrated me about my MA- the disproportionate skew towards the shows that are on now.  You have to know who is exhibiting and where. It saddens me that many emerging artists feel pressured to have contemporary influences, but I think it is just as valid to spend an afternoon in the V & A to look at some old pots.

Another annoying thing about the art world is there is no graduate scheme. I mean that facetiously, but there are no apprenticeships really.  When I was seeking advice, there was very little. It is bizarre having people come and ask me what to do. I still feel I can give little advice. There is no one helping artists to find studio space which is affordable.  No one helping them to connect with galleries really. Therefore, a lot of it is very prejudiced as it is all about connections. One of the things which is crazy is I was the only boy on my master’s program, so 1 of 12 or 13 people, yet if you look at the contemporary exhibitions, it is 65-70 % men. So there is a huge, systemic disconnect between the number of women studying art and those exhibiting.  This is not a myth, but a serious problem that needs to be addressed, urgently



Are you in London and interested in organising artist studio visits and discovering the active emerging art scene?