Elms Lesters Painting Rooms: in from the cold

Unique on the London art scene, Elms Lesters is giving a home to artists who learnt their trade on the streets….

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The Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, which can be found in the back streets behind London’s Charing Cross Road, have an eclectic history. This past is reflected in the architecture of the space, which is far removed from the typical ‘white cube’ design of many contemporary art galleries. Instead, it consists of two large galleries on two floors, divided by a vertiginous spiral staircase.

The open-plan upper floor gallery also contains a double-height section, which offers a clue to the space’s former use as a studio for painting theatre backdrops. Paul Jones and Fiona McKinnon first bought the lease for the building in 1983, when it was semi-derelict, and, after four years of renovation, began exhibiting art shows on the ground floor, while funding the space through the re-establishment of the upper studios as a thriving business creating backdrops for both theatre and advertising. Over the last two decades, Jones and McKinnon have exhibited a range of art styles in the gallery, including Pop Art and Tribal Art, before they settled, in 2004, on the form that is proving the most successful for them: street art.

The relationship between the contemporary art scene and the world of street and graffiti art has always been a tense one, though it now stretches back over 25 years in the US, when graffiti artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring crossed over into the galleries with well-documented success. Last year also brought two events that seemed to solidify the genre’s acceptance into the mainstream. Tate Modern staged its exhibition Street Art, which saw contemporary street artists including Blu, Faile and jr paint huge murals on the river façade of the museum building, and the documentary film Beautiful Losers was released, providing a history of the Alleged Gallery in New York, which brought artists including Shepard Fairey, Mike Mills and Barry McGee to public attention in the 1990s. It appeared that street art, finally, was being invited into the establishment.

Certainly Elms Lesters has achieved huge success in the last few years by showing a number of the US and Europe’s most recognised street artists – including Phil Frost, Futura, José Parlá, Mark Dean Veca, Stash and WK Interact from the States alongside Dutch artist Delta and French mosaic artist Space Invader. Despite this, Jones and McKinnon express both bemusement and frustra­tion about “the parallel course” that their gallery seems to run on in comparison to the rest of the London contemporary art scene, which has seen them left out of art events in the city such as the annual Frieze Art Fair. Not that this is particularly affecting interest in the gallery, however, with visitor numbers higher than ever.

“It’s exciting,” says Jones. “People go and look at other work elsewhere and then they come here and something’s happening, instead of looking into the past. If you go to somewhere like Frieze or something, it’s a rehash of conceptual art basically, they haven’t moved on. Even the Turner Prize is still on the same thing.”

While this defiant stance perhaps perpetuates the division, Jones’ criticism of the Tate Modern exhibition for not showing any work by the artists inside the building – “it was still that outsider thing” – was one shared by many. He is keen to take the artists he works with further into the art world, while acknowledging their street roots, which he feels are crucial to their development as artists. “They’ve not got anything to do with critics or colleges or anything,” he explains of their early days working on the street. “They’re all working away and no-one knows what anyone else is doing. All they have in their heads is to do better than the person who’s working next to them. So they came up with their own styles like that – not through art history, they’ve just evolved.”

A major influence on this evolution of the work of many street artists is advertising and graphic design, which is perhaps another reason why many are initially shunned by the conventional gallery scene. Brands and advertising agencies have reiterated this association by regularly working with street artists on ad campaigns, and advertising was, in fact, how Jones and McKinnon first became involved with the street art scene. During a photo shoot in the painting studio, someone from Nike asked them to suggest a graffiti artist who could do a painting for them. A friend suggested Andrew McAttee, and the resulting painting sparked off a general interest for Jones in street art. Jones acknowl­edges the influence that advertisers have had on the scene. “One of the major reasons this has kept going is [that] clothing companies such as Nike have paid them to do trainers or something so that’s like their grant coming in that allows them to be painting,” he says. “It would have been swallowed up and died without the money coming in to allow them to give up their job and paint full-time, as opposed to being in the system.”

Jones sees the internet as providing the other major change in the fortunes of street artists, and the gallery website has proved a lucrative vehicle for selling prints. There is some irony in this, as the arrival of the digital age also heralded the end of Elms Lesters’ scenic painting business, with virtually all of this work now done using Photoshop or other computer technology. The gallery is now more than holding its own, however, and the artists occasionally make use of the enormous paint frames that remain in the studio. The internet also provides a way for artists still working mainly on the street to share their work with a wider audience than those who may pass by. All of which again circumvents the usual art world methods. “The internet has changed the whole face of it,” says Jones. “And that’s why the art world doesn’t know anything about what’s been going on … all they know is the Banksy name. These people have been selling – or had been until the credit crunch which has tightened it all – without anything to do with write-ups in the art world.”

While the art world press may be reluctant to cover Elms Lesters, the national press recently picked up on an event orchestrated by the gallery for the artist Adam Neate, one of a handful of British artists that show at the space. Despite having only exhibited in a gallery space for two years, Neate has enjoyed a rapid rise, in part due to his habit, as an unknown artist, of leaving paintings on the street for people to find, and then keep, if they so wish. In doing so, Neate was attempting to both circumvent and critique the nature of commerce in art, but as his name grew, he found that it was harder to continue with this custom without the paintings rapidly appearing on eBay, which rather under­mined the whole enterprise. He decided to do a mass drop of 1,000 artworks across the city, in homage to his early days as an artist but also to reiterate the roots of street art, where the art is offered for free to passers-by. The paintings, all of which use reinforced cardboard instead of canvas, were distributed across the city over a number of hours, creating what must have been the largest, in geographical terms at least, exhibition of art ever in London. The paintings soon disappeared, and some inevitably ended up on eBay, but Neate has also received various letters of thanks with stories of where individual works ended up.

Neate is one of the few new artists that Jones has decided to work with in recent years. He is passionate about the artist, describing him as “the painter of his generation”, and keen to see that he, along with the rest of the gallery’s artists, be taken seriously within the art world, rather than cordoned off as just a ‘street artist’. He hopes that the Elms Lesters book (see facing page) will help with this process: “There’s critical talk about them as artists [in the book], as opposed to anything to do with the street,” he explains. “I don’t think this is the street – I think this is fine art and they’re painters. What they did was learn how to paint on the street.” Jones does acknowledge that not all street artists are able to cross over into the gallery environment, however. He is ambiguous about what does make it possible, but looking at the artists Elms Lesters shows it is clear that most of them create works that are as arresting in the gallery as they would be when discovered unexpectedly in an urban environment. The affect on the viewer may be different, but the artworks hold up in both worlds.

Interestingly, despite his obvious enthusiasm and devotion to the work that Elms Lesters shows, Jones is frank in confessing his rather narrow, and potentially conservative, field of interest in the arts. In a world where art can appear as installation, film, photography, sculpture and in a plethora of other forms, it is only painting that absorbs him, and it is largely only painting that he will show at Elms Lesters. It is partly this that he sees as having kept him on the fringes of the art world until now. “I even went to Goldsmith’s College for Damien Hirst’s degree show,” he says. “Fiona quite liked his medicine cabinet. But I’ve always been into painting – Fiona’s a potter, a ceramicist, so she’s into 3D. She probably would have bought it but I steered her away from it, because I was looking for paintings.

I could have gone along that path if I’d wanted to, but it never interested me really. Film doesn’t interest me, photos don’t interest me, and concep­tual art doesn’t…. I like what Damien Hirst does but I didn’t want a shark in the front room. I always like a picture – that’s why I was quite in the wilderness when all that was going on.”

This approach sets Elms Lesters apart from other galleries such as Deitch Projects in New York, and the now-defunct Alleged Gallery, both of which have shown how design and film can work with other forms of art in the gallery environment, and offer up new ideas and perspec­tives on all disciplines. Jones acknowledges that such ambitions are not for him, and perhaps this is indicative of his nature as a collector as much as a dealer. He admits too that the success of Elms Lesters, while exciting, does come with some drawbacks. “This is my little bit, I’m not after five galleries – I’m not interested,” he says. “Now it’s successful but it was probably more fun when it wasn’t, because it becomes all serious. All of a sudden I’ve got to think about it – all I’ve thought about [before] is putting the painting up, and ‘does that hang well?’”