Interview with Andrew Stahl
Head of Undergraduate Painting at UCL The Slade School of Fine Art
Andrew Stahl’s often large-scale paintings approach cultural differences and connections using pictorial language, imagination and figuration. Images become vehicles to carry painterly the experimentation. Much of his work reflects on travels to Japan and Thailand and addresses the conflation of time, space and cultures that long-haul travel brings.
ART.ZIP: Could you please introduce a bit of yourself?
AS: I am an artist, a painter. Everyone teaching at the Slade has their own practice. I actually went to the Slade as a student; after graduation I went to live in Rome on a scholarship for two years and on my return I started exhibiting my work widely at home and abroad, and started teaching at Chelsea College of Art. I taught on both the graduate and undergraduate programme there for 12 years. Then I came here to the Slade and have been running undergraduate painting for 14 years.
My practice is associated with painting; I would say my painting came out of a particular time at the end of the 70s when postmodernism surfaced and was part of the questioning of the modernist discourse. I experienced a number of early 80s painting shows that encouraged me to develop scale and more expressive possibilities within painting.
Since leaving college when I did the Rome scholarship I have been aware of the incredible opportunities that residencies offer so I’ve done residencies in China, Australia, and Sri Lanka funded by a number of bodies including the British Council; I have done a number of residencies in Thailand – one seemed to lead to the other – and I travelled on a Wingate Scholarship for quite a number of months around Thailand and to Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam in the early 90s – I made a lot of works and came back to show here at the Angela Flowers gallery. I’m very concerned with the possibilities that the transcultural offers for artists and art. I found Asia – East Asia particularly – so full of energy and so exciting. I think art is like an international language, and artists can borrow from each other. It’s an exchange. In 2006 I was invited to a residency in Bangkok with three or four English artists and three or four Thai artists, and we all worked in the same space at Bangkok University and showed at the Bangkok University Gallery. What interests me is the excitement of intercultural interaction – how being put in situations like this challenges your thinking and being in a very different culture affects your understanding of yourself. After this two-month residency, it seemed essential to reciprocate so I got one of the Thai artists to come to the Slade to be artist-in-residence and the same group of artists had a show in London at the Bischoff Weiss Gallery. We are in fact having a third show this June at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre (funded by the British Council and UCL) so a kind of interaction and network has developed.
Having artists-in-residence has showed me the importance nowadays of having a more global approach to the art narrative; art schools can’t be merely western-focused; they need to be more global. So I established a series of art residencies at the Slade. We have had artists from China, Palestine, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Uganda. The artists come here, and they get studio space, participate in seminars, exhibitions and so on – I am really involved with this way of trying to globalise the curriculum. I was brought up to believe that art was focused in New York, London and Paris. Art was so western-centred. I remember being taught in art history that shadows were first painted in the Renaissance; that this was a discovery of the Renaissance. But when I went to the Forbidden City in Beijing, I saw those paintings with beautiful shadows on them. I looked at the dates – they were from 60 BC! More than a thousand years before the Renaissance. I think that our focus can be so limited. To me, there is little more exciting than to see something from another cultural perspective, to experience the stimulation of pushing your boundaries to their cultural limits. I find it encouraging that the Slade and UCL also considers this important.
AS: 我是一位藝術家。幾乎所有斯萊德藝術學院的老師都有自己的藝術實踐。很多年前我也是在斯萊德藝術學院接受的教育，畢業後我獲得一筆不錯的獎學金讓我在羅馬遊學了兩年，回國後我就開始進行國內外的畫展，也開始了在切爾西藝術學院（Chelsea College of Art）12年的教學生涯，包括在本科和碩士課程授課，然後我來到了斯萊德藝術學院，在這裡工作了14年，主要以教授本科課程為主。
我的藝術實踐都與繪畫有關，比較關注70年代末後現代主義興起時質疑現代主義的那個特定的時期。在80年代早期我舉辦了很多畫展，而這些經驗讓我更有勇氣去嘗試大尺幅的作品和進行更多表達可能性的嘗試。斯萊德畢以後，我在羅馬的藝術家駐留經歷讓我體驗到了非常不一樣的經歷，所以我在得到包括英國文化委員會等機構的基金贊助後陸續到了很多其他國家進行藝術家駐留項目，當中包括中國、澳大利亞、斯里蘭卡等等。我還在泰國做了好些駐留項目，而這些項目又令我有機會開展一些新的項目。90年代初，在獲得溫蓋特獎學金（Wingate Scholarship）之後我還到了泰國週邊的國家，例如老撾、柬埔寨、緬甸和越南，在這過程中我創作了大量的作品，這些作品回到英國在安琪拉弗拉爾斯畫廊（Angela Flowers Gallery）進行展出。我十分重視這些跨文化交流給藝術家及其創作帶來的可能性。我發現亞洲充滿了活力和激情，特別是東亞地區。對我來說，藝術就像是一種國際語言，藝術家之間可以互相借鑑。這是一種交流與交換。2006年我和三、四位藝術家被邀請到曼谷與幾位泰國藝術家一起合作，我們都在曼谷大學提供的空間裡一起工作，一起在大學畫廊裡舉辦畫展。最吸引我的是這種跨文化交流所產生的碰撞，在自己國家和文化以外的地方挑戰自己、反思自己。在這兩個月的進駐項目後，作為報答，我邀請了其中一位泰國藝術家來到我們斯萊德藝術學院進行藝術家駐留項目，同時把當時一起參與這個進駐項目的藝術家聚在一起到比肖夫·維斯畫廊（Bischoff Weiss Gallery）舉辦群展。可喜的是，我們得到了英國文化委員會和倫敦大學學院的支持，今年六月，展覽會到曼谷藝術與文化中心（Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre）展出。就是這樣的互動交流促成了我們關係網絡的建立。
ART.ZIP: How would you describe the strength of the Slade?
AS: The Slade is a very exciting art school. It is a gigantic argument about what the possibilities for making contemporary art should be. It is a stimulating place where students are encouraged to develop their individual directions and strengths. We treat them as artists from the beginning. In applicants, we’re looking for students able to initiate their own work. Another thing we encourage is experimentation. Skill is absolutely essential, but it is a vehicle to realise your ideas, not necessarily an end in itself. A typical situation that reflects this is when undergraduate students first come to the Slade, we give students a work space and ask them to make something to present to us in perhaps one weeks time – we don’t set projects or push certain technical learning skills at them; we expect them to access the skills as they require them to make their work. I think maybe this is a big difference between the Chinese system and our system.
We typically get around 1,300 applicants for our undergraduate course. From them we interview about 200 and we have only 40 places. So it’s probably the most difficult undergraduate Fine Art course to get into and the Slade ranks No.1 in the Guardian. We are part of UCL (University College London), which is an amazing institution. Often credited as being a key influence on the founding of UCL, Jeremy Bentham argued the doctrine of utilitarianism saying that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people was the right position for government to take. UCL was founded on that principle and also has a tradition of interculturalism; it was the first university to accept people regardless of race, creed or political belief. So we are very international. We are very lucky to be in central of London, so that we can walk down to National Gallery, British Museum and so on.
The other thing is, the studio programme for the BA and BFA is structured around three studio subject areas: painting, sculpture and fine art media. Interdisciplinary interaction is essential, and the staff have tutor groups from across all three areas. Each tutor would have three or four painters, two or three sculptors, two or three media students, all of whom attend cross-area seminars, do critiques, discuss works and so on. No area is isolated, though they do make their work in spaces based on which of the three areas they have chosen. In addition, we have a very rich programme of visiting artists. We have visiting artists coming in all the time, and very often they give lectures and tutorials to the students; we also have a programme of lectures where critics, curators and theoreticians as well as artists give lectures.
ART.ZIP: Will you say there are big differences in education model between China and the UK?
AS: I get the feeling that in some art schools in China – not all I’m sure – the focus on arrival at art school is that you have to acquire skills. I’m not saying which system is worse or better – it’s a different system. In China, there’s an emphasis on acquiring a level of skill before you decide what you want to do. But here, we provide the workshops for whatever you want to do. If you want to draw feet, we provide the model. If you want to make a video, we provide the video-editing workshop. It’s about servicing the student. As I said, experimentation is important at the Slade. I think the common thing between UK and China is all the teaching staffs are artists themselves; we all have our own practice and research.
ART.ZIP: What differences do you see between Asian students and western students?
AS: I am against pigeonholing people due to nationality, but I do think some of my very best students have come from overseas. Students from China, or Korea, or Japan are often brilliant and very hardworking. Maybe partly it is because they know their parents have paid quite a lot of money for overseas tuition fees, so they are very focused, it is also I think that the fact that they are outside their usual cultural context gives them a freshness and ‘out of box’ approach to the subject, they have to deal with intercultural dialogue from the beginning. I think all my colleagues would echo that absolutely wonderful students/artists have come through here from outside the UK.
ART.ZIP: What advice would you give to the oversea students if they want to apply for studying at the Slade?
AS: My suggestion for their application is that they should show us lots of work and a broad selection of the kind of artworks they are making. For the Slade, if they are not in the UK they should make a digital application. When we’re looking at portfolios, we’re not looking for evidence of any proof of skills in particular though it’s always good to see; we’re looking to be amazed or convinced by the work and to see applicants can really take initiative and benefit from the course. Sometimes people get set projects in foundation course; of course this can be interesting, but it can also be limiting for the portfolio. It’s very important for us to see self-initiated work. If we are interested in the work we always invite people to interview, but non-UK students always have the choice whether to come or not to interview if they are not in the UK. I think digital applications can sometimes be quite difficult to judge on their own. I advise people, if they are asked, to come to interview if they can. If they don’t come, we don’t exclude them, because it would be unfair; not everyone can easily afford to travel here for interviews. We consider people who attend the interview equally at the end of the process in just the same way as those who simply make the digital application but obviously we have much more to go on when we have met them.