BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Tales of Everyday Madness

For three decades, the influential British artist Eric Bainbridge has been fascinated by surfaces and disguises, the exotic and the mundane

BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 05 MAY 09

I worried for weeks about where to meet Eric Bainbridge. I envisaged talking to him in surroundings that are significant for him and his work, somewhere that might lead our conversation in unexpected but fruitful directions. Should I travel up to Hartlepool, the town in the north-east shoulder of England near where he was raised, and where he now lives for part of the week in a cottage by the sea? Or would it be better to visit the art school in nearby Sunderland, where he has taught for the past nine years, and where his office currently doubles as a studio, allowing cups of tea and tangerines to drift into his sculptural combinations? When this became too complicated to arrange, I considered something closer to home: a trawl through London’s second hand shops, where I imagine he finds much of his raw material, or a trip to an out of town D.I.Y. store (it turns out that Greg Hilty already had this idea for an essay he wrote on Bainbridge’s work in 1990).1 Perhaps a market would be appropriate, or, given his interest in the global circulation of goods, a spot out on the Thames estuary where we could watch cargo ships dock and unstack their coloured metal containers.

Self Portrait No. 5, from the series '6 Self Portraits', 1996, melamine, 49x68x55 cm. Courtesy: Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, and the artist; photograph: Thierry Bal

Eventually, pragmatism won out, and I met him at a quiet cafe near Liverpool Street Station in London. The walls were unpainted, the bare plaster attempting a ‘truth to materials’ shabby chic. Ironically we had ended up in an anti-Bainbridge environment; this is an artist who, since the late 1970s, has concerned himself with surfaces and disguises. Whether it’s the synthetic fur that he glued onto sculptures based on grotesquely enlarged found objects in the 1980s, or the wood-effect laminated chipboard that he has used in more recent works, Bainbridge is fascinated by the post-industrial age’s compulsion to dress one thing up as another, and in the way that our attempts to cosset ourselves in a state of perpetual newness tend to fray and unravel at the seams.

Eric Bainbridge uses cheap materials because they 'elicit a kind of sympathy... an identification in the viewer that this is what we are'.

If Bainbridge’s work has been hugely influential over the past three decades – as, for instance, Ryan Gander acknowledged in a catalogue essay for Bainbridge’s recent exhibition at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art – it is perhaps not for these formal reasons so much as its deployment of humour as a weapon against itself. ‘Puncturing pomposity’ is a phrase that has become something of a cliché in discussions of his work: in fact, he himself uses the expression early on in our discussion.2 I ask him what kind of pomposity it is that he fears: the smugness of the autonomous object safe behind its barricade of academic discourse, or the humourless formal pomposity exhibited by any number of sculptures that, for one reason or another, lack a sausage or a bottle of Noilly Prat vermouth? Equally, could the pomposity belong to a self-satisfied bourgeois museum visitor, or is it rather the self-regarding and patronising parts of the art world that are the targets of Bainbridge’s scorn? ‘It’s all of the above’, he replies. ‘But mostly, it’s my own.’

Bainbridge was born in 1955 into a mining family in County Durham, in the highly industrialised north-east of England. When his father was singled out for a managerial post at work, they moved from an estate to a superior semi-detached house nearby. The Bainbridges’ new home had ‘picture windows’ and a plastic door-chime that resembled a miniaturized Ben Nicholson sculpture – aesthetics co-opted by social aspiration. The young Eric despised this culture of petty one-upmanship, in which a new coat of paint on the garage door was an ostentatious challenge that demanded a response in kind from the neighbours.

'Eight Bronzes' (detail), Bum, 1993, bronze, chipboard, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, and the artist; photograph: Thierry Bal

Bainbridge’s escape to art college in London in 1978 was, of course, not only an exit hatch, but also, he now concedes, a mode of class-peregrination not dissimilar to that of his parents. He was hugely excited by the rigour of Conceptualists such as Joseph Kosuth, and by the idea that art could free itself from the demands and constraints of the market, and be serious and intellectual. His earliest works were physical manifestations of philosophical ideas, but were nevertheless informed by an emphatically formal sensibility – an abandoned sofa piled high with sods of turf (Couch, 1977), for example, or cartoony objects formed from clay (Large Head with Memory, 1981). He was also clearly influenced by the Surrealists, and by the potential for mundane objects, through unlikely combinations or nightmarish disruptions in scale and material, to be hilarious as well as alarming. He looked (and still looks) more to European and American artists than to his contemporaries in the UK. While his work was often shown alongside that of British artists such as Anish Kapoor, Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, he felt more affinity with the Arte Povera of Jannis Kounellis, the drawings of Joseph Beuys, or Julian Schnabel’s ‘last gasp, heroic attempt to deal with the madness of the modern world’.

‘I must be the only person left in the country who still likes Schnabel’ he says. I’m taken aback. Surely Schnabel is the very epitome of pomposity in an artist? ‘True’, he replies, ‘but, like so many things that are important to me, I have opposing and conflicting feelings for him’. This is an example of the restless and troublesome duality that runs throughout Bainbridge’s work and thinking. If there is a sense that he works with certain materials, forms and cultural references because he finds them ridiculous, repellent or pathetic, there is also the sneaking suspicion that he is drawn to them because he acknowledges their qualities in himself. As he says, he uses cheap materials because they ‘elicit a kind of sympathy … an identification in the viewer that this is what we are’. We talk about Jeff Koons – and how his engagement with American kitsch would be less convincing if he himself did not claim to be in thrall to its sickly charms. When Bainbridge first took what he saw as his international style of sculpture to New York for an exhibition in the early 1980s, he describes feeling utterly deflated at how English it looked, in its moderate scale, self-effacing humour and domestic frames of reference. 

Dark Style Swan, 1985, fur fabric, wire, plaster, 269x163x272 cm. Courtesy: Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, and the artist; photograph: Thierry Bal

I sense that he has always felt a little uncomfortable at how much of himself is made manifest on the surface of his art. When, in 1994, he exhibited at London’s David Gilmour Gallery a group of works that broke away from his hitherto signature fur-covered sculptures, the show was announced as being by the Cavendish Group. Each work (the media of which ranged from bronze and chipboard to a bed frame and hotdogs) was attributed to one of four artists: Tommy Cavendish, Tommy Ferzackerly, Tom McAnally and Europa T. The names were, of course, all made up. Dodging and dispersing responsibility for this eclectic new work was Bainbridge’s way of trying to occupy what Hilty termed in an accompanying wall text ‘the common mind’. ‘We don’t all choose our neighbours but they affect us. We don’t always choose our thoughts but they also have a bearing.’ One series, ‘Eight Bronzes’ (1993), was a line up of eight diminutive bronze casts of wax models based on a swan, a Barbie doll’s limbless torso, a frankfurter, a toppled Snoopy figurine, a miniature Cornish tin mine, and three roughly formed letters spelling the word BUM. The last two objects, a doughnut shape and a stack of four small spheres, were titled Ring and Balls. They might well have been drawn from the ‘common mind’ via his invented artists, but the selection, as with the colourful names of the credited artists, was entirely Bainbridge’s.

This exhibition was the point in Bainbridge’s practice when humour began to explicitly direct his work. He describes his delight at realising that Grand Bretagne (1993), a giant, brown fabric frankfurter atop a chipboard plinth, is ‘a mashed up animal sitting on a mashed up tree’. For Bainbridge, this is complex reasoning. Usually, the scatological and sexual jokes in his work are so obvious that it hardly seems necessary to acknowledge them, let alone analyse them. After all, why is a sausage funny? Is there really no more sophisticated reason than that it is shaped slightly like a penis, and slightly like a poo? And that we find this a suitable shape for something to eat? I can’t think of one. 

I have imagined spending whole days doing exactly the opposite of what my intuition tells me,' he says. 'What would happen?'

Two years later, Bainbridge began work on a series of sculptures made from found scraps of chipboard, melamine and blockboard. Despite setting out to produce a series of abstract constructions ‘without thinking’, he was surprised to notice that each one bore within it the basic elements of a face. He was still more surprised when he was forced to admit that the face they most resembled was his own. I suggested to him that perhaps he was making self portraits before his series ‘6 Self Portraits’ (1996); that maybe the only way we have of telling when a work of art attains harmony, when it is finished, when it is right, is when it starts to resemble an image as familiar as our own. He agreed that this might be the case. We talked about other decisions that inform the production of his work. The objects on which he bases his furry sculptures are often mass-produced knick-knacks he finds in junk shops or in markets – a swan-shaped soap dish, for instance, or a novelty corkscrew. He particularly enjoys it when objects become stranded from their original use-value: a detached doorknob, say, or a part of a tap. Once they are enlarged and uniformly covered with the fabric, they often start to resemble sculptures by mid-century artists such as Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth. In fact, Bainbridge says, the harmony that those artists strived for is of limited interest to him. What’s really exciting is the mysterious logic in the form of a piece of polystyrene that once cradled a television or a fridge, for example; without its contents the packaging is purposeful and deliberate but off-kilter. A determined but misshapen face set against the wind. We’re back to self-portraiture again. We move on. 

He tells me about working as a refuse collector in Chingford when he was a student. He came to delight, on his dreary morning rounds, in what he identified as ‘the perfect dustbin’. ‘It sounds ridiculous, but some houses would have a gate that opened cleanly, the bin was left in the right place, it wouldn’t be too full, nicely packed, you could lift it onto your shoulder and it felt just right. I came to understand that the sublime could exist in the most unlikely places.’ For instance, white fur fabric, he insists, ‘far outstrips marble in its ability to convey the subtleties of light on form.’ It is this material that he used to cover a vast, double-door-sized recreation of the hated Ben Nicholson doorbell cover from his childhood home. It is a surprisingly beautiful and stately object. It even gains something close to dignity through its grand title, Spatial Concept (1990), Bainbridge’s preposterous homage to Lucio Fontana whose work he claims to adore.

Untitled, 2006, Ceramic, concrete, 20x23x13 cm. Courtesy: Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, and the artist; photograph: Thierry Bal

‘I’ve spoken to Italians about the humour I find in Fontana, and they have been disgusted. But to me, the idea of a painter getting all serious and slashing his canvas is so funny. It reminds me of Tony Hancock in The Rebel (1961).’ The British comedian and actor, Hancock, is a huge influence on Bainbridge. Aside from his unique tone of morose intransigence and inadvertent profundity, Hancock, in his subtle use of personas, has provided a rewarding tactic for the artist. ‘I don’t think I gain anything by seeing myself’, the comedian once said. Both Hancock the on-screen character and Hancock the performer edited (or exaggerated) versions of themselves that permitted them to reach beyond what is ordinarily acceptable in everyday life. Bainbridge talks of constantly trying to outmanoeuvre himself when working, of forcing himself to make (and then come to terms with) the decision that seems most wrong or most counterintuitive at the time. It is this principle that guides him in his latest works: a series of collages, which connect unsettling blobs of skin, fur or hair cut from fashion magazines. The urge isn’t necessarily limited just to making art. ‘I have imagined spending whole days doing exactly the opposite of what my intuition tells me,’ he says, ‘in every social encounter or environment. What would happen?’

It’s natural then that Bainbridge should employ alter-egos as intrepid scouts to forge ahead where he can’t yet. Elsewhere his use of surrogate selves is less a defensive strategy than a way of placing himself more explicitly in harm’s way. A limbless clay figure that turns up in a number of works has poked holes for eyes and surprised mouth and tiny sausage (or phallus) for a nose. We learn his name from the title of a work from 1996 – Bob – in which he is held captive in a white drawer. In another sculpture Bob is lashed, terrified and unblinking, to a steel girder (Girder, 1995); in a photograph, Figure in a Garden (2002), he is stranded in the sunshine on a table, seemingly paralyzed by the intrusion into the picture frame of a woman’s hand (with varnished red nails) grasping a bottle of water. Of course, Bob stands in these works not just for Bainbridge, but for us too. My laughter comes from a sense of hollow shock, when I discover how easily I can empathise with a clay sausage.

Despite his attention to the synthetic, Bainbridge in fact creates deeply humanised scenarios. This is undoubtedly down to his compulsion to upset what he sees as harmony and order – to add, for example, as the finishing touch to an elegant teak and melamine structure, a row of felt stickers (New Modernist No. 2, 2006), or a slowly changing coloured lightbulb (New Modernist Post Bangkok, 2007). Such inflections are not simply acts of vandalism – after all a vandal aims to leave his subject broken and useless – but rather indications of ways in which we might occupy these forms; they are the difference between a newly-built house and the same building after it has been lived in for a few years.

Figure in a Garden, 2002, inkjet print, 102x127 cm. Courtesy: Workplace Gallery, Gateshead, and the artist; photograph: Thierry Bal

Bainbridge is fascinated by the way things age, and disturbed by the lengths we go to in order to deny the processes of time. He cites the example of his grandmother’s ‘show cushions’ – brutally hard, fabric-covered lumps that were not for sitting on but for placing about the furniture in order to give the impression of lavish comfort. Bainbridge’s own ‘show cushions’ which he scatters through his work – sausages, or junk shop paintings, or light bulbs – are similarly useless. Recently he has started using fist-sized lumps of concrete that he finds washed up on the beach in Hartlepool. While they look at first like rounded rocks, they are actually pieces of harbour defences that have broken off, clattered around on the sea floor for a few years, and then been spat back out onto the beach. They are remarkable things: unexpected gifts from the sea. Bainbridge’s response to these offerings is to pass them into the care of other objects: to group them around two found paintings, for example, or to crown one with the lid of a teapot. I am reminded of the practice of the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, first described by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and famously cited by Marcel Mauss in his seminal book Essai sur le don (Essay on the Gift, 1923). The islanders have developed a ceremonial form of gift exchange in which shell necklaces and armbands – ‘thin red strings and big, white, worn-out objects, clumsy to sight and greasy to touch’ – are passed in a circular motion around a group of small islands.3 The value is not in the object, but in the significance of giving and receiving, of circulating both the gift and the histories and anecdotes that wrap it.

What goes around comes around. Items are discarded, then wash up somewhere else. For a number of years now Bainbridge has collected a certain type of painting that he finds in bricolage sales in the small French town where he goes on holiday. The paintings are almost identical – a blustery landscape, featuring three white houses at the mouth of a river. The scene could equally be East Anglia or Scandinavia. Subtle variations in the mixed blue and grey paint result in changing atmospheric conditions across the series. What is extraordinary about them is their journeys: produced in a factory in China, they were imported to France, hung in people’s homes and then resold when they became unfashionable. Seen together, Six Chinese Paintings (2006) is like a time-lapse film that is not only temporal but geographical. The distances travelled by these objects and the processes of removal that they’ve undergone connect with the sense of melancholy that is present throughout Bainbridge’s work. It amounts to an acknowledgement that even the most exotic, fancy objects conceal the mundane and familiar, and, conversely, that the things closest to home can occasionally reveal themselves to be strange, foreign and unknowable.

1 Greg Hilty, ‘Do It All’, Eric Bainbridge, Exhibition catalogue, Riverside Studios, London, 1990, p. 17

2 All Eric Bainbridge quotations are taken from conversations between the author and the artist, on 26 February and 9 March, 2009, London, UK.

3 Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, 1922, Routledge, London p. 68

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.