An Interview with the Artist Declan Jenkins

20th September 2017

This September, Sims Reed Gallery, which is located in the heart of London’s historic St. James’s district, has an exhibition of works by the British contemporary artist and Royal Academy alum Declan Jenkins. Taking place from the 6-29 September, the show consists of a new series of twelve monumental hand-coloured woodcuts in Jenkins' signature graphic style. Candid Magazine’s Issey Scott sat down with Jenkins to discuss the show, and where he found his style.

Issey Scott: How do you feel that woodcut printing fits into the contemporary art narrative, especially within London's art scene?
Declan Jenkins: The woodcut is already well assimilated within contemporary art with Andrea Büttner, Georg Baselitz, Gert and Uwe Tobias among its most notable exponents. Remember the so-called contemporary art narrative is unbounded, plural, overflowing with myriad contradictory tendencies, approaches and media. I’m not sure any of it really joins up, I think the narrative is what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore.

There’s a printmaking world which exists in pockets of studios, workshops and galleries but the use of printmaking as a medium is far wider, with non-printmaking specialists turning their hands to techniques like woodcut with often exciting results. There was a recent Mamma Andersson show at Stephen Friedman Gallery showcasing her first body of work in the medium. I think they were very successful prints in how they utilised the painterly potential of the woodcut – the grain of the wood but also how she used various colour combinations to tease out different nuances from the same image.

In respect to the current trend toward maximalism and the desire for a fast and high output of work, my devotion to the woodcut is perhaps polemical in that it represents an embrace of slowness. With the world speeding up, and the human mind at more and more pains to process what is going on, I believe there’s a collective cry to ‘slow down’ (think of Norwegian slow tv). Perhaps the woodcut is the image of this seemingly impossible dream.

Discomfort Cabinet III (yellow) 110 x 84 cm Woodcut Print edition of 5. Courtesy Sims Reed Gallery.

IS: How do you feel it diverges from other media and contributes something new?
DJ: Well wood is an organic material, as opposed to copper (used in etching) or linoleum. So there’s this softness of grain but also an irregular texture with knots or slight bumps and dips. Woodcut is drawing through carving- this is one of the most laborious but also exacting ways of creating an image. There’s the resistance of the wood, and the direction of the grain that must be considered. Mistakes are more or less final, it’s a very unforgiving medium- everything that you do will tell in the final image, there’s no erasure unlike in painting. It’s a subtractive way of constructing form, as with three dimensional carving. I find something enjoyable and economical in this.

It’s an old medium and carries the weight of certain associations – the creation of facsimiles, illustration, political posters (especially agitprop) etc. Historically it has been a medium of the hand although now laser cutters are etching out extremely accurate blocks. I’m not sure how the medium can of itself contribute something new. ‘Newness’ may come from how the medium can be used-Büttner for example deploys woodcuts as elements in large scale installations or meta pictures, a more or less novel application of the medium. For me the woodcut is a fantastic way of making images, which are all new in their uniqueness, at the moment of their conception.

Infinite Gun 55 x 85 cm Woodcut Print edition of 3. Courtesy Sims Reed Gallery.

IS: How instinctive is the use of colour in your prints?
DJ: My use of colour is highly instinctive, but I’ve certainly a preference for direct, high key primary colour that ‘slaps you in the face’. Albers talked about colour as a form of aggression as well as movement- this resonates with my own attitude. I use colour in a very spatial manner, to create different depths as well as frequencies and that might be why I really enjoy looking at people like Malevich.

IS: The evident entrapment of bodies and faces in this new body of work is striking and arresting for the viewer. Are you influenced by psychological doctrine at all, and if so to what extent?
It’s true that I’ve read some of Carl Jung’s books and bits of Lacan and Freud. However I remain sceptical as to how well purely linguistic structures can describe the workings and manifestations of the mind. I would say that elements of psychological theories can feed into my work tangentially but I don’t consciously consider them while dreaming of my next work or image. My work is generated out of physical activity.
As to the entrapment of figures, I arrived at this idea again through the intuitive back and forth of drawing and looking. I do feel these images relate to Bacon’s work, with the human figure trapped in these bleak, forbidding space frames or even Giacometti's cage structures that served to imprison or hold the figure, like an actor trapped on a stage. More than space and freedom, existence seems to offer restriction, inhibition and stasis. So I would say these cabinets of mine belong in a lineage of existential claustrophobia.

Discomfort Cabinet I (red) 120 x 84 cm Woodcut Print edition of 5. Courtesy Sims Reed Gallery.

IS: How do your surroundings in London influence your subject matter? The claustrophobic nature of some of the scenes in your work are somewhat reminiscent of living conditions and spatial awareness in the city.
DJ: It’s difficult for me to say to what extent my immediate physical surroundings shape the character of my work- as I believe this is a largely unconscious process. Perhaps the city has something to do with geometrical patterns that structure so much of my work. My imagery has a lot of sharp, jagged, edges and abrupt transitions from one plane to another. So these may well echo the physical quality of the built environment and the experience of moving through it, the abruptness, the discontinuity…
Again there might be an autobiographical aspect in that as an artist I inhabit fairly cramped and awkward living spaces, with my body living out an existence contained (and governed) by architecture and furniture. It would certainly be interesting to see what sort of work I might make if I was living on a wide plain or by the sea under a different light and immersed in another language.

Declan Jenkins.

IS: Which artists influence your work, both contemporary and historical? I am particularly interested to know which artists working outside woodcut print have inspired you, as there are flavours of Aboriginal, African and European modernist aesthetics evident in your practice.
DJ: Over the last year I’ve looking at the work of Susan Rothenberg, I’m particularly drawn to the softness of her paintings. With the horse paintings the figure holds this monumental presence which is at the same time soft and smoky. Her figures have a shadow like quality that is not dissimilar to some of my prints (which can resemble silhouettes). Her work marks a return to the hand in the wake of minimalism and is a reminder that repressed ways of making and thinking do not disappear but only wait to return. In that regard Art History is far more cyclical than it dares let on.
I agree there’s a strong link between Aboriginal, African and European aesthetics and I believe it transcends the narrow and politically sensitive notion of appropriation. I believe that all these aesthetics aim to create form from pattern and rhythm. There’s no perspective or tone and this is also the difference between Geometric and Classical Greek Art. My images are structured out of rhythmic pattern hence their resemblance with these types of art- a formal rather than symbolic one.

Finally my work has a considerable debt to minimalism, as my prints are about the position of the block on the paper as well as the content of the imagery. In that sense they are spatial and invite the viewer to move around them and to consider them as objects in the world. They are minimalist too in that they are built on a few precise decisions, preferring an economy of means to an embarrassment of riches.
By Issey Scott

I Sing of Armories by Declan Jenkins is open until 29 September at Sims Reed Gallery, 43 Duke Street, St. James's, London.
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