Tell us about yourself.
I was born in the UK to an English father and an Irish mother. I currently live in France, so I would call myself a European. I am an artist, a sculptor and a teacher. I studied literature and then literary/cultural theory at university. I have got to where I am today through dogged determination and a refusal to give up.
What is beauty to me?
If I could define beauty in words I suppose I would be a writer, not an artist; my work is my attempt to define beauty. Beauty is everything I strive for; it is intuitive, visceral, physical, emotional, spiritual but also intellectual. It is my belief that it is one of the most important goals of visual art: to reinvent and re-present beauty – to make it new. I reject the dominant view in contemporary conceptual art that sees beauty merely as a cultural construct or ideological formation, a bourgeois affectation that must be avoided at all costs. In the UK where this tendency has dominated now for over twenty years, an entire generation has been brought up to mistrust and repress that very deep thirst for beauty in art. In contemporary art thinking, the more beautiful a work of art, the less rigorous and significant it is in conceptual terms. The result of this has been a generation of artists producing work of terrible visual banality. It is out of this context that my work, my exploration of beauty, comes.
Have you always been artistic growing up?
Yes, although I didn’t start in earnest until I was 13-14 years old. I attended private schools in the UK, which were really training camps for accountants, lawyers and doctors; you worked hard, played sport and didn’t think too much. The art department was a bohemian refuge, a place where other values, beyond career-money-status, existed. I loved it and wanted to live there forever.
What was the defining moment for you to become an artist occupationally?
When I sold my first piece, I stopped referring to myself as a “maker” and began to think of myself as an” artist”. For many years I produced work in isolation, monastically, perhaps fearful of others’ reaction or the hustle of selling. But when I finally did go public and sold and received so much positive response, I realized I could be an artist.
How does science affect your work?
Profoundly. Science is a way of seeing. When we think of the relationship between art and nature we tend to think of the Romantic tradition which emphasizes the atmospheric approach to nature, exemplified by Turner, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, where nature is a vehicle for the expression of the artist’s subjectivity. But there is this totally other tradition, the Scientific, which began in the Renaissance and reached its zenith in the Enlightenment. I‘m referring here to scientific illustration, drawing from nature for the purposes of objective research. This appealed to me because what inspires me in nature is the detail, the intricacy and complexity that exists on so many different levels and scales and which is best approached through detailed observation. Having said that, nothing I produce comes directly from nature. Everything is transformed through the imagination and therefore bears the imprint of my subjectivity.
In part it was happy accident that led me to discover paper as a medium; I experiment in the studio with different materials and I just happened to start playing with paper and a scalpel. Initially I was inspired by Ben Nicolson’s white, geometric reliefs but I soon moved on to organic shapes. I also remembered those 3D topographical maps from the school geography room and that’s why I started using the layering technique. Paper is an outstanding material and there is something very poetic and alchemical about its transformation from tree to sheet. I thought there was something very apt about using paper as a material to explore nature.
What’s your creative process like? How do you conceptualize a project?
Each work emerges after a long process of deliberation and gestation. I continually sketch, thumbnail doodles in small books, sometimes from direct observation of nature, sometimes from just letting the pencil play across the paper in a half focused way. Ideas then coalesce and a word or title comes to me: pod, nut, cell, seed, etc. I then move to larger drawings which are like road maps. They give me a plan of where I want to go. I’ll then cut one layer, not the top or bottom just a mid layer and from that other layers will develop. I try to keep the process as open and fluid as possible, the sculpture has to grow organically determining its own development.
How long does a single project take to complete?
I don’t count the hours so I don’t know exactly. The longest has been 4-5 months of full time work. Time is the key; it is really the subject. There is a yoga-like dimension to my working process, slow repetitive actions that are a kind of meditation. Sometimes the process is extremely frustrating and I have to master my impatience or my lack of self-discipline or my lack of belief. People respond very positively to this aspect of the work, it inspires them. In part this labour-intensive process is a response to and rejection of the ready-made Duchampian conceptual art that dominates galleries and museums in the UK, and perhaps US, and that I find so disappointing. In an age of computer designed, mass produced objects there is a deep thirst for the hand crafted; and in an art market obsessed with money and success the creation of such work intensive art is almost an act of subversion.
Tell us the story about Kernel.
Kernel is my latest piece and was inspired in part by the chesnut. I live in an isolated rural area in France in the middle of a chesnut forest. In times gone by, the inhabitants of this region lived off the chestnuts. They would make flour from them and then bread. To this day it is an iconic fruit and a life-giving symbol for the people here. I love the contrast between the inside and outside of the chestnut: outside the spiky, sharp protective shell encasing inside the shiny, smooth, mahogany fruit. It is this contrast that delights: painful exterior, beautiful voluptuous interior. We see this dynamic repeated throughout nature and I wanted to capture this in Kernel.
Growth. What inspired this piece?
Growth grew, very, very slowly. It was an experimental piece that I didn’t have a very fixed or focused plan for. At the time I didn’t have a lot of time to consecrate to art so it developed slowly, an hour here, an afternoon there, over several months. I moved with it intuitively. I’m not too sure what it is, perhaps a scientific sample from an alien planet or a mandrake or a microscopic organism. I hope that it inspires multiple readings.
Cut Pod. What did you have in mind as you created this piece?
Pod is a kind of huge fertility fetish, yonic (not phallic) in character. There are multiple associations and points of inspiration: Courbet’s The Origin of the World, plant forms, Georgia O’Keeffe‘s paintings, seed pods, surrealist drawing, the work of Ernst Haeckel, etc. Again, the intention is to contrast the voluptuous with the dangerous, to expose the barbed beauty of nature. I am conscious when creating these vegetal pieces to avoid the whimsy and cuteness of cut paper flowers, there needs to be a tension somewhere. My vision of nature is not sentimental or picturesque, this would be reductive, nature is far more threatening and powerful.
What do you love about white paper? Why monochrome in general?
By removing colour I maximize the play of light and shadow, crucial elements of these sculptures. On photos you see each piece at a specific moment with the light at a specific angle. In reality, the pieces are never static but seem to move with the changing light of the day. This gives them a kinetic, living quality that 2D work can never have. White also carries a series of associations such as purity, simplicity and innocence, that add to the quality of delicacy and fragility, thus creating a sense of refinement which lies in stark contrast to the barbs and thorns. But white also calls to mind both fossils and [dead] coral, perhaps then containing a warning of what happens if we don’t treat nature with a little more respect.
What is your perfect Saturday?
A productive morning in the studio. Lunch on the terrace overlooking the forest and mountains. Hiking in the afternoon followed by a cool off swim in the pool. A good movie in the evening. Everything to be shared with my family.
What is on your personal playlist?
Nothing. There is always a lot of noise in the house so when alone and working in the studio I prefer silence. It aids meditation.
What are three things that most people don’t know about you?
That despite wanting to, despite trying I am unable to answer this question (times 3).
For more of Rogan’s work, check out his website.