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“It's just the material I see the world in” - Ian Berry on his denim installation at The Smallest Gallery In Soho

Image: Ian Berry with record collection (denim Record Shop)

Stroll down Soho's Dean Street and you'll discover The Smallest Gallery in Soho (TSGiS), an outspoken gallery fighting against the rapid change in the area by putting on free exhibitions that celebrate the creativity of its locale and the wider arts community. For the next project, co-curators Philip Levine and Andreia Costa invited artist Ian Berry to create a new installation, made entirely from denim, called 'Soho Records’.

The exhibition, and indeed the gallery, comes to an area whose enduring charm and rebel rousing has taken a few knocks of late, notably with venue closures like Madame Jojo’s which was shut down in 2014. A breach of its license was the official reasoning but many have noted this was predated by plans submitted for the site to be redeveloped, as is the case for much of Old Compton Street, Berwick Street, Dean Street, Beak Street and Lexington Street.

But amongst the turbulence there are gems staying true to Soho’s place in history. Just as Madame Jojo’s closed, Soho Radio launched, and fast became the go-to place for established and emerging acts, broadcasting from the studio on Great Windmill Street. The digital station’s arrival links to the colourful and gritty make-up of the area's community, past and present. Neon sex and salty-flesh aside, it was a buzzing centre-point for the music industry. Think of Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) and album covers like Oasis’s ‘What's the Story (Morning Glory)’ and Bowie's ‘Ziggy Stardust’ - all shot in the area and immortalised on iconic album covers.

To this backdrop of a changing community ‘The Smallest Gallery in Soho’ is another gem, staying true to its locations past of artistic endeavours and characters. By hosting Ian Berry’s work they are following the thread that made Soho what it was and, to some extent, still is today.

Famed for hyper-real pieces made with denim, that often focuses its gaze on community, Berry creating a ‘record shop’ with his favoured medium makes sense when you consider the material - which like Soho - is so connected to music. It leaves no doubt why the gallery will be filled with tee shirts, records and album covers from the likes of The Beatles (who were famed for white denim), Bob Dylan (a nod to his folksy denim look), and Jimi Hendrix who represents a time when “you either wore your jeans or went naked”.

So, read on to hear about how ‘Soho Records’ is Ian's ode to the vinyl hubs of the past, the high streets they inhabited and the people that frequented them. He deftly sews together denim’s place throughout music history.

Image: Record sleeve artwork, Ian Berry.
Jayson: The Smallest Gallery in Soho is one of those amazing Soho ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ finds, how did working with them come about?

Ian: We've been talking about it for a long time. I met Phil Levine (one of the curators) while we were both doing some work with the charity Calm. He asked if I wanted to do something in the space - with it being in Soho it was a really interesting location for me. Most people will focus on the fact I work with denim, but look closer and you'll see at the heart of it is an acute observation of 'communities' and and how they change. Soho is a very good example, for better or for worse. I've seen most shows at the gallery since they launched in 2016. They're doing a great job at bringing creative energy to this corner of Soho.

I'd also met Sir John Hegarty a couple of years ago who set up The Garage Soho (where TSGiS is) as I had made a body of work on the London launderettes closing down. Sir John is the ‘H’ in BBH, one of London's leading advertising agencies. He was involved in making the most famous denim advert ever - the Levi's 501 commercial in 1985, where (male model) Nick Cayman walked in and stripped off to Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'. The sales of Levis skyrocketed - as did the boxer short.

In short, I believe in what Phil Levine, Andreia Costa (co-curators) and Moira Rizopoulos (Gallery Manager) are doing with the space and what they're creating - they do it well. Curating shows with interesting artists and having a good set up with the great lighting designer Ana Stajadinovic (Syntax Lighting) are all part of their wonderful alchemy.

Image: 'Waiting For My Steve McQueens', Ian Berry
Jayson: What’s ‘Soho Records’ about for you?

Ian: For years I have looked at issues with changing communities and, ahem, the changing fabric of our urban environments. The pubs have been closing down, the launderettes shutting, and house prices have been going through the roof. All these places where people would feel part of the community are vanishing. A symbol of that is if you look at the high street, and while London seems to grow, most provincial places outside seem to be suffering. The record shop had proved to be another such 'location'. When I started this project a few years ago, not only were the independent record shops closing, but the big ones were collapsing too.

Soho is the perfect place to make the Record Shop. It's famous for its music heritage, from Tin Pan Alley, venues that made bands, and even a few album covers - like Oasis’s ‘What's the Story (Morning Glory)’ on Berwick Street and Bowie's ‘Ziggy Stardust’ on Heddon Street near Carnaby Street. It's also been home to many a record shop - now declined in numbers - but some are still going strong.

But it's not just about record shops, this change is a symbol of losing these interesting places from our high streets. The culprits mostly being the internet, the cost of rent, and the big retail chains making most high streets look the same.

Jayson: In a time when streams equal record sales do you think vinyl has a place in the modern music game?

Vinyl sales have shot up and have had a resurgence over the last few years. In fact they are in a 25-year high. Like streaming, it is accessible online and with big internet players and even at least one major supermarket getting in on the act, it puts pressure on the independent stores. In fact the resurgence has hit smaller labels as a lot of the numbers are coming from people buying the so called dad bands and big names, so they can dominate the orders in the presses (interestingly, most are done in Europe) however Sony are planning on making their own plant.

I believe that the tangible nature of the album has drawn many in, as well as the better sound quality. If you think buying a print from an artist can run into the hundreds (of pounds), people can frame their albums or display them at a much cheaper rate too and of course some of the most creative visuals in history have come from album covers. Again, it's this hands-on nature that people can feel, and also I'd like to think for some they can support the individual or band as well as being seen as a collectable.

To compare this to the art world, I know in the early 2000's I felt that computer aided art work, and really, computer software led art was taking over but now I have noticed people want things that are hand made and crafted.

Jayson: Is this a bit of a dedication to the record shops of yesteryear, are you being nostalgic?

Ian: I probably look back with rose tinted glasses really, as I'm in my early thirties, I often look at the 60's and 70’s with envy. Nostalgia does play its part. I do look back and imagine of an era when there were so many record shops around the country, with owners and staff that knew everything without having to consult a computer. It would be a place where like minded people could meet and talk over a latest release or find some obscure band.

That said, most of the main albums in this installation have been chosen for their connection to denim. Sometimes the obvious denim clad covers like The Rolling Stone's ‘Sticky Fingers’ by Andy Warhol, and Bruce Springstein's ‘Born in the USA’ shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz.

But others were connected to a whole movement and style of jeans, like what happened down the Bowery in New York (one period I would love to have lived through).

Where, in places like ‘CBGB's’ and ‘Max's Kansas’, city bands got up with attitude, and that attitude was also represented in their ripped jeans. Bassist, Richard Hell, of ‘Television’ sparked the onset of punk denim style when he paired his cropped hair with a combination of ripped t-shirts and jeans. Spotted by Malcolm McLaren, who was over in New York to revive the New York Dolls act, McLaren was so taken back with this distressed aesthetic that he worked with Vivienne Westwood to build on it - this experimentation was carried into the next band he managed - The Sex Pistols. Thanks to that we now have Punk.

I must say, it isn't all doom and gloom as there are many good record shops left here in London and even in my hometown of Huddersfield with Vinyl Tap. They have also been rightly celebrated with events like Record Store Day.

Image: 'Ramones', Ian Berry
Jayson: I’m such a fan of texture and layers in work, I wonder if that’s the reason you chose denim as a medium opposed to acrylics, oils or pencils?

I'm always drawn to works that are made out of unusual materials and love texture, depth, layers and also craftsmanship in work. I used to be able to paint with acrylics and oils and draw cleanly with a pencil. For 12 years I have seen denim as my medium and see it as the material of our time: we all wear it and it represents our age - so for me there is no better material to use. The depth and texture I can create with it is just a bonus, there are sometimes over a dozen layers making up my works. So, to carry on with the puns, I do like to show the many layers of urban life, and see denim as a very urban material that stems from rural beginnings. 

Jayson: Would you consider your works collage, sculpture or painting?

I've always struggled to fully categorise the work because it is kind of collage, but with one medium, yet it is very layered, often like a sculpture.
And then there are the installations, which are more sculptural just in their dimensions. All my work is three dimensional (no matter how flat they become when viewed online). That said, the way I work is I imagine I am painting with denim. With the portraits, I imagine I am using a palette knife and the scenes are like photorealistic paintings. The work isn't all about it being in denim however. In fact, I try and use the denim to hide what it is, and many people don't realise until very close; like a painter uses light and shade, I just construct in the same way.

Jayson: What about the ethics of denim, it’s not the best when it comes to workers rights or the environment?

How long have we got? It is a difficult argument really with many layers and noble thoughts could not foresee how they could affect other things.
For example take a look at Cambodia (I've been, and love it there). At one point 85% of the countries GDP was linked to the garment industry. To many a western eye we'd think they were running sweatshops on very low wages. However in the area the wage is good and can help support families. If someone was suddenly to declare this as all bad (in a black and white way) and the garment industry was to leave, it wouldn't be good at all for the country. That is not to say there isn't a lot, lot more to do.

One major issue are the people in the west: the fast fashion, the throwaway society and the demand for cheap clothes you can wear just a few times. This allows big brands to dictate because of the volume of product. Many brands and mills that make the denim are trying to be more sustainable now, while for others it's just a marketing strategy. However, if the consumer isn't demanding this they won’t want to pay the added costs. For example some may have a sustainable jean when the rest of their range isn't. It is at least good that many are trying and competing to make their products more sustainable.

The other issue is the volume. In the past we would wear clothes, repair them, and pass on to other people. I was recently at the Levis archive in San Francisco and I saw one jean that had signs that it had been worn by four different people. There are now brands around the world that do use old denim and remake things, like E.L.V. Denim here in London.

As for ethics, I don't want to say too much; I didn't get in to making art from denim because I knew so much about denim. You don't need to be an expert to wear jeans. One of its beauties is its mass appeal and democratic nature: we all wear it. I am increasingly more and more around experts or industry people, and like in most industries there's the good, and I know many good people, but you know, much of the denim is from places with different ethics but I will end that there, they don't deserve my time.

Luckily here in London we have a very good growing scene with many exciting brands. Blackhorse Lane up in Walthamstow are really embedded into the community and they look after their workforce - they even make the jeans here in London.

Image: Photo of Debbie Harry with portrait by Ian Berry
Jayson: Throughout your work there seems to be, in my eyes at least, a lot of lonely, melancholy and lost elements; is this you and Ian do you need a hug?

Very, very few have noticed this, but in a way yes, especially the last main body of work ‘Behind Closed Doors’ even though most show women. Portraying perfect homes, almost torn out of an ‘Elle Decoration’ spread, while the person is juxtaposed against this. The homes would be the dream for most and enviable, many would think “you made it” but (and sorry for the third unintended pun of the day) a materialistic life doesn't lead to happiness. While I saw an observation people saw in me always traveling around the world exhibiting, spending a few moments with a celebrity or reading about it in a magazine, they didn't see the hard work behind it and the many hours, often alone, working away in the studio.

But I'm certainly not alone, not in this. The show was amazing to see peoples reactions. So many people saw themselves in the scenes, many cried, there was some connection between the people looking and the work, I often think there is something familiar in the denim that draws them in - many said, “that's me” and they opened up.

So yeah, perhaps I do need a hug, but so do so many people around. We need more human interaction and away from all this social media crap where we see the best snapshots of each others lives online, but not often the mundane day-to-day.

While I may have fallen into some mild puns here, the work is not really about it being made in denim, in fact sometimes I hate that it is. Often the press will write of me with puntastic headlines and well, after 12 years I hope it has been pushed away from a gimmick. As I said it's just the material I see the world in, both the good and the bad.. like denim itself.

Jayson: For people to really appreciate your work I think it needs to be seen in person. Come on sell it to the readers.

The difference between seeing my work online and in real life is just so dramatic. I had people write about my work for years without ever seeing it in real life, and when they finally do they are like “ahhh, now I get it”, when the layers, depth and the subtle tones and details can be seen away from our iPhone, zombie machines. And OK, most of the the time this will be seen behind glass, but to see it all together in one of the best areas of London and purpose built for the space will be pretty cool and if someone was to walk past several times they will see something different each time, especially as it will evolve with new things going in and moving around, as well as closer to the closing, the fictional closing down of the record shop.  

Also, as the work is very time consuming, I don't show that often, so it will be a good chance to get to see the work here in London. And as I say, while it celebrates the record shop and comments on the closures, it's a fun space and everyone should find their perfect album.

Jayson: And finally, using one word for each describe these music video denim moments: George Michael ‘Faith’, Beyoncé ‘Crazy In Love’ and Ramones ‘She's The One’?

Tight, Tighter, so tight they ripped (and thank you for a good ending with The Ramones)


Ian Berry: 'Soho Records'
27 November - 20 January 2019
The Smallest Gallery in Soho
62 Dean Street, London W1D 4QF

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