Hugo Barclay

John Summers

Hugo Barclay
John Summers

John Summers

John Summers | American, multidisciplinary artist based in London

2002 MA Royal College of Art Sculpture School, London
1999 BA Honours Sculpture, Slade School of Fine Art, London

You are originally from Colorado Springs, why did you come to the UK?

My father was in the military as part of the air force, so we moved around a lot. I spent a lot of time in Germany, then the States again and we came to the UK in 1986. We lived on American bases where you are just completely enclosed in this fence; everything is American, the cars, the people, everything. If you have seen the 'Truman Show', it is like that. But you kind of roll with it, I was too young to really notice.


When did you start to be interested in making art?

Through school, it was one of the main things I seemed to enjoy and be quite good at. In school we all had to choose our GCSE subjects, I wanted to do art but one of the teachers said no, they didn't want me doing it. I could not understand it so at break times I made this portfolio, I would draw my friends. Slowly it grew, and I obtained a space in college with it. The cool thing was people who had fat portfolios of still-life's from doing GCSE art applied as well, and none of them got in. It is moments like that, where people say no and you are challenged to prove them wrong, you want it even more.


Then you went to college, where did you go?

I went to Amersham Art College, and I did a foundation thing, I was there for about three years. Then I went to Reading University, and just partied all the time, and got kicked out and made a disgrace of myself. However, by doing that I put myself in another hole I had to get out of, so I was challenged again. I then applied to Slade School of Art and obtained a space there; I was there for four years doing a BA degree.

BOY No 3. 2018 Oil on Canvas 180 x 180 cm

BOY No 3. 2018 Oil on Canvas 180 x 180 cm

Tell me about your day-to-day routine?

When I am in the studio, I might spend an hour in here or I might just look at stuff. Things are happening very slowly, and lately I have not been wanting to try to show my work. There has been this cycle I have been in the past where I felt I had to have a show, somewhere, anywhere. I felt that I was not really looking at what I was making. Without a deadline I am just making work for the sake of it, it feels completely different. At first it was a bit depressing and you question everything, and there is no drive like with a deadline. But I am sick of feeling something is not done, even the day before it has to be taken in the van to the exhibition. I am just trying to get off that high seat of wanting to be seen all the time or be shown all the time. Right now I have been in the studio, trying to make things for the pure sake it.

For you what are struggles which hold you back?

Practical situations, I might not have a certain material, or screw, or have run out of paint. I come in here and have an idea, but when I physically go to do it a whole other bunch of equations come into play and it does not always work. Then something else happens and I might find another more interesting approach. Also time is limiting. Most days I can get really stuck in. But, sometimes I will not want to be in the studio and feel bummed out, but eventually I start picking at something and then I am in. 

What are you trying to represent in your work?

When I stand back to look at what I'm doing in my studio I tend to look for imbalances, for ingredients that are not there. Ingredients for me are anything from a colour, to a particular material. I tend to be drawn to  objects, paintings, and things in the world that have a perfect balance of everything all crammed in to them; from pre-history to modern to contemporary and everything in between, but also somehow have an identity of their own that I have never experienced before. 

This is the elusive ‘newness’ that I think I’m trying to reach as I work. I know this is more than likely the impossible goal, but one that constantly stimulate my focus.

BOY No 2 .2017 Oil on Canvas, 168cm by 168cm

BOY No 2 .2017 Oil on Canvas, 168cm by 168cm

For you what is the function of art in society?

To challenge people’s comfort zones, and by doing so making them wake up a bit and feel the reality of the world, the rawness of everything.

I think if you can disturb people’s comfort zones, you are on to something.

You also want to get work as good as it can be, but with this world, especially in a western society with all this commercialism, everything is so well made, you understand it in five seconds. I think subconsciously you are taking in this sealed perspective all the time, and in order to make my work go where I want it to I have to ignore that mindset. Even in the early 90s or late 80s, artists started to really incorporate industrial processes into their work, and you would see stuff which looked like it was done by builders or NASA. Even myself I would get obsessed with stuff like that, it is so shiny, but it is completely soulless.

Boy No 1. 2017 Plaster, Clay, Spray paint, Steel, 150cm x 45cm x 50cm

Boy No 1. 2017 Plaster, Clay, Spray paint, Steel, 150cm x 45cm x 50cm

Where is it you started properly making your body of work?

I got into Slade as a painter, and everything just turned upside down when I got there. My brain was just filling up with all these people and possibilities of how to go about things. Instead of just brushes and paint, I realised you could film or photograph instead, or even photocopy your face and all sorts of crazy stuff. I wanted to test all those barriers. If you end up with the brushes at the end then fine, but I wanted to turn every stone upside down. I didn't know what department I was in. There was sculpture and painting and photography, and everything was divided up at the time. I had to keep changing department, I was unsettling the painters because I kept banging stuff into the canvas and making a lot of noise. 

What was the most transformative period in your making? Was it Slade or did it come after?

Just at the end of Slade probably, we had to do our show. I started working as a studio assistant for an artist called John Isaacs who went to Slade years before I did. It wasn’t an agreed thing, I wanted to investigate what he was doing because I was interested in it. He made all this work out of wax, so I started to use that palette. I made all this stuff out of flesh and it was very visceral and very animated; he worked in that way too, so I appreciated that process, the modelling and casting. He would always make the perfect cast or get someone to do it for him. But I would be making my own cast, and they would often break, so I would have to put them back together. It ended up being something else, it didn't have that conveyor belt finish.

Trying to work through ways that didn’t suit me allowed me to find more about myself, and a way of working that suited me better. 

Talk to me about gallery representation, what does that mean to you?

I think it is important for artists, obtaining gallery representation can help to develop your career. The internet means an individual can promote themselves, but practically it is very hard to be doing that as well as be in the studio making work. Good aspects galleries provide include networking for you; the domino effect of that and how shows can happen. Even if you are getting shows but not selling work, people are seeing your stuff and experiencing it, and you are meeting lots of people. That is something I couldn't do on my own, and galleries seem to do that for people. The galleries which cross pollinate with other spaces and other parts of the world are going to be a great benefit to artists.

How do you approach going to museums?

I go to museums all the time and both Tate Galleries, the British museum and the V&A. If I want to investigate into the body I will go to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Natural History Museum has this whole room filled with endless different minerals, it is so cool. Anything scientific or historical I am heavily interested in. I will go back again and again. I would say I am always hungry for looking and re-familiarising myself with that.

Lysippos, 2018

Lysippos, 2018

Tell me about your recent exhibition?

The exhibition was at Threeworks in Scarborough. I had about two and a half months to make two new sculptures. Along with working and family - it was an intense time. These specific works are influenced by The Virgin of the Rocks, and the Burlington House Cartoons by Leonardo Da Vinci, coupled with my fascinations of the mythic scapes in Marvel comics and video games like Zelda which I play with my son.

I was keen to continue and develop a particular way of making figures I had discovered from two sculptures I made California last year [see, Lysippos, 2018 above]. 

Before that trip to California, I had been working and reworking large oil paintings of figures for a long time for the past year or so. This was a great way of filtering out ideas and discovering new ones.

I had obtained a new determination towards getting the figures a certain way my paintings and this was a great help when I decided to sculpt for this show. It seemed as if the lights were turned on. I was more aware of all aspects from armature to surface, form, colour.

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