One could not simply call Gordon Froud’s working space a studio, because, while it is that, it is also a treasure trove of collections — artworks, books, music, films, paraphernalia of all sorts: a gallery space; an occasional living space; an artists’ residency, and it is likely the most accurate representation of many aspects of who Gordon Froud is. Exploring these spaces is a rich sensory and cerebral adventure — a space into which Froud readily invites people to explore with him — generous in its visual opulence and eclecticism; charming in its quirkiness and occasional iconoclasm; defiant in the utterly flamboyant showiness of its vast accumulation.
TM: I’d like start our discussion, which is consistent with just having walked through your very extraordinary (working/living/being) spaces, with the issue of self-definition. You wear very many hats, even for those who slip between simultaneously being artists and curators and sometimes writers. But you wear more hats than most.
GF: I have a big head…
TM: And one of the perks of having a big head is that you can fit many more hats on! Artist, teacher, avid art collector, gatherer and curator of many collections of things; passionate supporter of young artists, sometime gallerist … How do you define yourself? And is there any particular role or space that supersedes the other? Or is this ultimately an entirely irrelevant question, because I have a sense that all of these things interplay all the time, consistently?
GF: It depends on the circumstance. Currently I see myself as a maker, and a 21st century person — that’s currently how I’d describe myself. When I was running gordart Gallery, for example, just on a technical basis, it was a good way to locate oneself by saying gallerist, curator, artist and educator. And then, as the gallery became less and the artistic and creative side became more again — because it’s always a balancing act of which should come first — I now call myself an artist, educator and curator.
TM: And the collector is an entirely separate persona, which is a far more private persona, but shares himself with those invited in?
GF: Everybody is invited in, and that’s the nice thing about it. It’s very much a public space. It’s a private collection in a public space, and I’m very happy for everyone to share and enjoy it.
TM: There is an interesting tension you embody, between the public and the private, where the slippage between intimacy and sharing is a very generous one. And if we come back to a self-definition, one thing that occurs to me is that sense of generosity, not only of you as an individual person, but of your position in relation to other artists, students, young emerging artists; to the space of the art world more broadly, regularly creating additional spaces where people can access. For me, that stands out, because the nature of access, especially in the South African art world context, is so opaque. But you open small windows where people can look in at things they might not otherwise get to see — at a less hierarchical level — and also step into a space where they can experience
GF: For me that’s a very important thing. I see myself as a generous person, but I don’t do it to be recognised as such. It’s my nature — I’m not a harmful person in any way, and I’ve always shared. I came from a very poor background, and we didn’t grow up with very much. I don’t see myself as a materialist, despite having all this stuff. To me I possess it so I can share it. With my movie collection, for example, the idea is that we have movie nights, and twenty people get together and watch movies, because I have the type of movies that other people don’t necessarily have. It’s part of who I am.
TM: Picking up on your experience of growing up, what was your exposure to creativity and art during that time?
GF: It happened in a very odd way, because I grew up basically as a poor white in Hillbrow. My dad could never keep a job and he moved around — I went to seventeen different schools, and I was never intended to go to university. Although my parents always hoped I might become a lawyer or an actor or broadcaster — I’d always shown a lot of interest in the spoken word from a young age — but there was never any money to consider something like that. So at school I did accountancy and science, and absolutely hated it, and by the end of standard nine I’d actually failed both, so for matric I changed to do art and history instead.
TM: Had you considered art before that?
GF: My mother had been a genre painter; still-life, landscape and the like. She kept us alive from time to time making paintings on tiles and selling them door to door. So there was always a sense of creativity. But I always knew I wanted to do something creative, whether it was acting, or music, or visual art.
During that time there was a shortage of art teachers at TED [Transvaal Education Department] schools, and one of my teachers at school suggested that one of the ways of getting into university was to apply for a teaching loan. So I got in basically though the back door by going to study art teaching, and getting a loan to pay for it. I had five jobs through university to pay my way and I had to teach in a TED school to pay the loan back.
I was an appalling student — I worked hard, I’ve always been Calvinist in my way of working — but I didn’t have a clue of what art was. Prof. Alan Crump, in our first year, looked at my sculpture and said, “Mr. Froud, you make furniture shop art”, and I took that as a compliment! I always saw myself becoming an abstract painter or a welder of stuff. And now I look at it and realise I had no idea what that was actually about — I couldn’t paint at all. I can do just about everything else, but I still don’t paint. It’s not something that I understand at all.
TM: And yet you have an amazing painting collection.
GF: That’s probably why. There are less sculptures in my collection because I can conceive and make them myself. But I’m more intrigued by other people’s painting abilities.
TM: There are always resonances when you start to look into people’s lives — an echo of the generosity you offer now by the particular generosity of your school teacher giving you a means to go further, for example …
GF: The same school teacher who, when I was supposed to go into the detention barracks and be in jail for six years for refusing to carry arms and go to the army, suggested that I go to university first, so that at least I’d have a degree, and would not be just another nameless/faceless person if conscripted later, but a somebody.
Coming back to what you asked about my exposure to art earlier on, we always had books in the home, even though we were as poor as church mice, and we listened to Springbok Radio — ‘theatre of the mind’. And my mom used to sketch and make copies of artworks and drawings. There was an article I remember in 1975 all about Picasso’s line drawings, and my mom made the most beautiful copies of these and they were up on the wall. I was influenced by that.
Artwork: Figure with geometry 1, 1205 x 900mm
TM: Did you ever try to emulate what she was doing?
GF: Yes, right from primary school I always drew. I had my first exhibition when I was in standard five — I had a few little ceramic works, school art things — but I was interested enough and always drew right throughout my school career, even when I wasn’t doing art. (I still have my artist sketchbooks in which I copied cartoons, landscapes and objects — very juvenile but I guess at least I did something).
My other big influence was in the city. I went to school in Germiston, and by the time we’d moved back and finally settled again in Hillbrow, I made the conscious decision that I wouldn’t uproot and move again from school, and so I travelled backwards and forwards to school in Germiston, which meant walking from Hillbrow, through Joubert Park, catching the bus to Germiston and back. So, for the final three years of my school life, I walked through Joubert Park nearly every day on the way home, and I got to go into the JAG (Johannesburg Art Gallery) three or four times a week. I’d go in and see the work, and look at my favourites, and go and explore things. And then, of course, the Artists in the Park [Artists Under the Sun] would also be there — from a Friday through to Sunday, so on my way home from school on a Friday I could spend an hour wandering through and looking at all the kitsch landscapes and things, and I’d think, “Ah, I’d love to be able to do that”. So I always had the interest, but the influence came from these experiences. I remember seeing Judith Mason’s work for the first time at the JAG, for example, and being blown away.
TM: It’s an interesting point you make about Artists Under the Sun, and their influence on you at such an early age, because as well as many of those artists going on to become well-known, highly regarded artists, the history of Artists Under the Sun is that it was mainly created by black artists who, by separatist legislation, were not allowed to show in the JAG, and the formation of the grouping was essentially an act of insurgency against that conservative and bigoted establishment of the JAG at the time.
GF: Yes, it was definitely an influence to see some of those early painters. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but when I was able to see their works again much later on, I’d be able to say, “Yes, I actually remember seeing their work there”.
TM: You mentioned your first exhibition being at school in Standard Five, where you showed a few works and was awarded a gold or silver certificate for them. It is significant to me because it would have planted a seed not only of making, but then showing your work. And many years later, in 2013-14, you come to present A retrospective of exhibitions I never had, which David Paton, in his essay in this publication, amends to A retrospective of [all] exhibitions I never had…
GF: I always find retrospectives interesting, because they require such a careful review and editing process. At the same time they can be extremely challenging processes because they require one to assess your life’s work to that point, which can be an existential adventure — ‘adventure’, of course, possibly being a euphemism for what it actually entails!
TM: You’ve described vividly the feeling of showing some works on that first Standard Five exhibition at school as having felt both powerful and empowered for you in that moment. What happened to the exhibitions that you feel should have been shown beyond that, along the way, as a working artist?
GF: Well, one of the great difficulties of trying to make one’s way through the art world is that unless you are supremely talented like [Froud’s partner] Diane Victor, for example — Diane got her first show within a week of us leaving university, which sold well and she was soon snapped up by Goodman Gallery who still shows her work to this day — then for others like me, there was no way in. I wasn’t a supremely talented artist — although I worked harder than most people — so I had to find other ways of getting into the art world. When I finished university I was still compelled by the regime to go to the army, so I registered as a conscientious objector, had a trial and was granted objector status. So while I still had to be in the military, I didn’t have to do combatant duty. That was in 1988-9. I was 25.
TM: Right on the cusp of political shift in the country.
GF: In fact those were the last two years of compulsory military service.
So I had my trial in the morning, and was posted straight out of Oudtshoorn to Pretoria to go and work in their printing unit; coming into a creative industry within the military.
TM: What was the nature of that printing unit?
GF: It involved printing everything from manuals to invitations to banquets and events for the military.
TM: And how much propaganda material was there?
GF: Probably quite a lot. It wasn’t a big military printing works, and material was more about how to conduct yourself with etiquette, give a salute, and how to make your bed properly … But it gave me an opportunity to learn the printing industry — I learnt how to do colour separations, for example, and how to do offset lithography — a lot of the things that have fed back into my work in some ways over the years.
TM: Were you reading the materials?
GF: Yes. I had to do a lot of the proof reading, and obviously I was still conflicted to some extent, because even the idea of being employed to paint a tank in pretty patterns doesn’t make the tank any less deadly. I was quite aware of those kinds of conflicts. Anyway, the printing unit was a way of me having some contact with creativity and design.
TM: David Paton, again in his essay published in de Arte speaks of your “cynical eye”, which is always, of course, melded in with an astute sense of humour. Paton suggests also that your work, over the years, has been misinterpreted…
GF:…yes, and perhaps glossed over…
TM:…and assumed to be quite simple and easy to read at a surface level. He describes your work as having been “too easily and comfortably categorised”, rather than considering the complexity of the humour, the social critique and its content. The history you’ve just described here, though, begins to make sense of these layers, especially in your earlier work.
Artwork: Geometric solid 1. dr, Mixed media on brown paper, 1580 x 850mm
GF: I’ve always been someone who thinks very deeply about things, everything from politics through to religion — I’m a questioning an inquisitive kind of person in whatever I do. I take on things in a very personal way — I analyse the world around me. But unlike Diane or Ayanda Mabula, for example, who go for the jugular and point out all the horrors explicitly, I find more subtle ways of intervening. I always look at it as a way of changing people’s view of the world around them. My coat hanger works are an example — I always love it when kids come into a gallery and see this big shape and then they realise that it’s an assemblage of coat hangers; and there’s almost this Gestalt moment where they physically move and realise that, ‘oh, it’s only coat hangers’. And then I say to them, well now I’ve changed your perception of the world forever, because you’ll never see a coat hanger being sold on the side of the road again and not think of my work. You can’t erase or unthink the thought, which is why I don’t make work that is of a high social commentary — I leave that up to the more narrative artists. My intention is to work in a slightly different way, often with a slightly cynical and humorous eye.
TM: The coat hanger works that you’ve just referred to start to infer your interest in modular forms, into the possibilities of reading forms. Interesting to me also is that you moved from hating science and maths at school into the arts, and then, much later, realising that, in fact, the sciences can be immensely creative. And considering your work over the past twelve plus years, or perhaps longer, there seems to be a type of aesthetic schism that presents itself. Aesthetically, especially since your Masters in Fine Art in 2009, there has been a shift in how you take your expressions of social critique into another visual and aesthetic realm. I’m interested in the way your still subtly politicised content has shifted.
GF: Yes, shifted through the subtlety of language — the titles are always very important to me — they’re almost a material.
TM: And one has to read subtly. As much as they could be humorous one-liners, they’re also keys into reading the work?
GF: The perfect example, again, is the simple plastic coat hanger, which for me represents the people selling coat hangers on the side of the road; the migrants who come in every day, buy a bunch of coat hangers and then flog them on the side of the road. So it has that secondary layer of meaning around economic migrancy, about the dispossessed; about taking a little bit of something, selling that and going and buying more; as well as the consumerism of it. But to me the coat hanger symbolised the people themselves. It came about quite simply as I was driving home one day to unpack my studio after living in London, and I couldn’t find the box with the coat hangers in it, and I saw one of the guys selling them and bought a hundred coat hangers from him. And when I got home, the memory of buying those coat hangers stuck with me, and when I opened them up and chucked them out on the floor, I started seeing all the patterns; so I spent the whole evening playing with coat hangers, cable tying them together rather than hanging my clothing up. And that’s where that link
When I started making work like the taxi works made of coat hangers, it was about relating to the empowerment of the people who use the taxis, the kids and that strata of migrants who come into the city into that socio-economic environment.
TM:Your work has never been explicitly political, even though it might be read as such — an example that comes to mind is your Alice
in Wonderlandseries, and its engagements with issues of gender and social class, all of those things legible within the works as social critiques, but always as implicit references. With that as an example, then, and coming back to the aesthetic shift into the hangers and more modular works, they present as a quite dramatic shift from your previous work — notably paring down, even though they’re still cumulative in their making.
GF: And that’s also what is happening with the current exhibition. They’re becoming even more minimal, coming down to a single shape or form.
TM: A maturation?
GF: Well, I couldn’t get to the [minimal form] unless I had been going through that process to get there.
TM: This different, pared down mode of working then embeds meaning through the work in a different way. Just in the title of your Masters dissertation,Modularity, Repetition and Material Choices as Strategies in the Work of Selected South African Sculptors(2009) and in the exhibitions that emerged from it, you are very deliberate in terms of recognising a capacity to shift into a different aesthetic mode, but where meaning is maintained and foregrounded.
GF: The overriding theme of that exhibition was the circular form, either as globe or as circle. In the current show I extend the geometry into other forms.
TM: But then, in 2013-14, with Retrospective of [all] the exhibitions I never had, you seemed to go back into reviewing and representing the type of early aesthetic which takes you through a process of recording your own maturation and development. And yet, the works there — and again I think that it is significant that it was a cumulative showing of works in different space, — revealed a previous focus on showing singular works, or small bodies of work that were embedded in a space, whereas, here, you have installations that start to speak to one another; that also of course start to speak to your curatorial role.