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Interview: Frank Laws' exploration of East London's social housing

The beauty of London has been widely represented in portrayals of its grand buildings and sweeping skylines but artist Frank Laws takes a different approach. For over ten years, Laws has focused on representing East London's social housing architecture and the remarkable qualities of buildings that are frequently ignored or viewed in a negative light. The importance of social housing is immense and Laws' paintings encourage viewers to recognise and reflect on its value. His latest installation, Monuments, is currently showing at The Smallest Gallery in Soho through March and Run-Riot caught up with Laws to learn more about his artistic process and inspiration. 

Kerenza Evans: What are the leading themes behind the Monuments installation?

Frank Laws: The leading themes are essentially a celebration of social housing and what it, idealistically, stood and stands for. I'm trying to present the buildings as subjects to be admired and even as far as worshipped, especially in the current housing climate. I'm seeing these buildings as future relics, something standing in the face of change that may not exist in the future. I've used shapes from altarpieces to create a space in which the paintings sit to give a sense of worship and something of beauty, though they are buildings that people may just pass on the street without thinking about.

Kerenza: Can you describe your artistic process? Which materials did you use to create Monuments?

Frank: I usually go about by starting from taking photos on my phone, just from either something that catches my eye or something I'll have in mind. Then I'll go back to the same spot in different light or times of day. After this I usually edit colour and composition digitally.

The paintings are in liquid watercolour with touches of acrylic. I stretch large sheets of paper on board and then slowly build up washes and washes of colour until finished.

Kerenza: You have been creating art based on East London's architecture - specifically its social housing - for over 10 years. What made you decide to focus your attention here? 

Frank: I started to notice huge brick built houses or estates that really caught my eye as they were designed in the 1920s and being built in the 30s onwards. There was no technology to build them quickly or throw them up overnight, so the attention to detail and man hours that had been put into building them made me really see them as something special and something to be taken notice of. Also, I had worked for a year with a bricklayer so this had made me really pay attention to how things are constructed and how much time and hard work must have gone into them.

Kerenza: How do you hope that people will regard social housing differently upon viewing your work?

Frank: I just hope that they stop and think about what they were built for and what has been going on with housing and to maybe see them in a more positive light. 

Kerenza: You and the curators have displayed the two works on brick columns. What made you decide to exhibit them in this way as opposed to hanging them up like a traditional gallery?

Frank: This came about from a discussion with the curators Phil and Andrea about how we could display. I quite like the reference of Chris Ofili resting his paintings on dung and there was a suggestion of using bricks in some way or another. After some back and forths with designs, we settled on the single column with the painting appearing to be balanced on top. We managed this as the Gallery isn't entered by the public so there's no risk of the pieces being bumped into.

Kerenza: Do you prefer to stick to representing buildings or would you consider creating art based on the inhabitants inside?

Frank: I prefer sticking to buildings as I want to create some sort of question as to what they are representing and also a hint of narrative that is left up to the viewer to consider. I had a strong influence from film noir so I like to leave some sort of mystery or intrigue for the observer.

Kerenza: Do you have a favourite of all the buildings you've represented?

Frank: I still think the Pembury Estate is a big one as it was the first place I really started to notice and focus on. There is also the Stamford Hill estate which, when you're there, has a real sense of history surrounding it. You can really feel how it was designed to have a lot of space in-between buildings for communal use and the buildings just stand very proud and tall.

Kerenza: What is the relationship between the space in which an installation is housed and the installation itself?

Frank: A lot of the time I'm working with getting my paintings to the place I want, both aesthetically and with what I hope they put across, so unless they are created site-specifically, then the installation is worked out post creating the body of work.

Kerenza: Can you tell us a bit about The Smallest Gallery in Soho, the space that will be home to Monuments for the next two months?

Frank: The Smallest Gallery is a grade-listed space facing Dean Street. It's a historic shop front so the works installed face Dean Street and all its passers-by. The viewing of the work takes place from the street which is an interesting view point and ties in nicely with these works. Now the viewer is looking from the street, into a window and onto a building.

Kerenza: Do you think artists have a duty to politicise their art? Should art always have a message to tell?

Frank: I don't think they do particularly. I guess I didn't consider setting out painting these buildings to be political but as the work developed and I became more engaged so did my voicing and thinking behind what I was doing. I think artwork should engage on multiple levels and speak to a wide audience, not being exclusive, but I don't think there is a duty. 

Kerenza: Which subjects are you planning to tackle next?

Frank: I think I'll continue on this path. I'm planning new paintings but pushing the thought of future relics further into a fantasy future and not so based in the here and now.

Frank Laws: 'Monuments'

The Smallest Gallery in Soho

62 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4QF

February - March 2020

thesmallestgalleryinsoho.com | Instagram | Twitter

Monuments' is curated by Philip Levine and Andreia Costa.

About the Curators and Managers of the Gallery:

Philip Levine

Philip has been working in the creative and cultural industries for the last decade as a producer. This has ranged from exhibitions, events, publishing, talks and creating his own unique artwork under the title ‘Headism’. He has gained a MA in Culture, Policy and Management at City, University of London. Being from London, his passion is knowing ‘who and what’ is up and coming in cultural trends and being involved within them. Read the Run-Riot interview with Philip Levine, here.

Andreia Costa

Andreia is an Associate Architect at Jamie Fobert Architects. She studied in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto and practiced for 3 years in her native Portugal. Before moving to the UK Andreia decided to explore her contemporary art interest by working in Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art as an architecture and art lecturer. In 2010 she joined Jamie Fobert Architects, where she has been involved in several projects including Selfridges and Tate exhibitions.

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