Our final Issue #5 post of the week releases a snippet of our interview with Rob Ryan – master artist/illustrator and a genuinely lovely man. Our chat took place in his studio, a space heaving with books, cutting boards and scalpels, as well as a number of porcelain cats made for his recent exhibition at the Shire Hall Gallery in Stafford…
It’s Nice That: Can you put your work into some sort of chronological perspective? People know what you do now, but we’re interested in how it got to be that way, and how it existed in the beginning.
Rob Ryan: I did fine art at art school. I did a foundation, and then I did a degree for three years. I actually did a three year MA; I was on the last three year MA at the Royal College before they cut the course down to two years. I got a grant for the whole thing, didn’t actually pay a penny for anything. I even got a grant when I was at home on foundation. I don’t know whether we were poor or something, but I got a few hundred quid. It was bonkers.
Anyway, I did fine art at (Nottingham) Trent Polytechnic. It was a very open course there; everybody just did whatever they wanted to do. There were no projects or anything like that. It wasn’t at all industry-based. They just said: “OK, you’re on fine art, do what you want to do but make it brilliant.” They genuinely encouraged us to pursue any avenue we wanted. If we wanted to do a performance, they would say: “OK, then book a theatre.” If you wanted to make a film, they’d say: “Well, why don’t you start on Super 8, and maybe we’ll give you some 16mm afterwards.” Basically: “There’s the film, there’s the camera, point it at something and shoot.”
INT: Was there much collaboration between, say, film and fine art students?
RR: No, there wasn’t a film course, it was very much a tiny department within the fine art department. There was a small editing suite. They had a Steinbeck and a brilliant
16mm black and white developing tank which was sort of like a big horse trough, full of developing fluids. The film goes through this kind of coggy thing, and you stand at the end and wait for it to come out, and when it does it’s all blotchy and scratched and everything, which now they have a special button on a Mac for. There was also a sound studio there, and then there was the printmaking department, the sculpture department and painting and woodwork and all that kind of stuff. Trent Poly was funny because it wasn’t a conceptual course, although courses change every few years.
INT: It depends on the students…
RR: Yeah. I remember people saying, three years after that Frieze generation graduated from Goldsmiths, that they wanted to apply to Goldsmiths to be a part of it. But, of course, it was already over. At Trent, there was a certain group of people who were working with storytelling and narrative work – guys like Graham Ellard, Keith Piper, Ray Ward. They all used words, which gave me the confidence to not think that there was anything wrong with that, that it was OK to tell stories within my work as a fine artist.
INT: Did it exist elsewhere?
RR: It did exist. In the 1980s people like Tom Phillips were using words. It’s funny because I didn’t ever feel part of anything contemporary in British art at the time, and obviously I still don’t now. The only person I really related to was Keith Haring because he was young and vibrant and incredibly productive. Here was somebody of my own age, who had galleries coming to him. What happens at art college is people do work they think the galleries are going to like, which is the wrong way round. It was sort of like that at the Royal College, which is almost a kind of finishing school for art.
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