Art In Isolation
Art connects us and reflects our stories. As we collectively shelter in place across the globe, many artists are using this time of enforced isolation to make work that responds to the pandemic and the abrupt changes that it has brought to daily life.
Charlie Godet Thomas is a British/ Bermudian artist whose work includes writing, painting, assemblage, photography, sound and video. His 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Short Poem (Threadbare) marks the sixth time that the artist has been included in the exhibition.
We caught up with Charlie to discuss the autobiographical nature of his practice, the intersection between words and the visual arts and how the pandemic has inspired a new body of work.
BNG: You are currently living in Mexico City. How is the pandemic affecting day to day life over there?
CGT: There are several restrictions in place, but they are not as severe as in other parts of the world. A major issue is that so few people in Mexico City have the luxury and stability to be able to remain at home. Many of the trades here rely on a steady stream of people in the streets – food stands, open air markets, shoeshine stalls and what have you are still operating. Only yesterday, a Marimba was set up outside our block, it was played for about an hour, so we haven’t witnessed the dramatic changes which seem to have taken place in other major cities.
BNG: How has the current situation affected your artistic practice?
CGT: I’m not using my studio at the moment, but as many of the shows and projects I was working on have been postponed indefinitely, there is thankfully no pressure to do so. Part of being an artist is realising that any parameters given to you are an opportunity to focus in on what they will allow, or to see how those parameters can be subverted. I have very few materials at home, so I have focused primarily on my writing, I am currently putting together a proposal for a publisher, a collection of poems which would be paired with works from my series Illuminated Manuscripts. I am also working on small scale sketches in paint, mainly in my notebooks. They might later manifest into works but essentially they are just a way of thinking through some of the thoughts and feelings that come with living through a large scale global pandemic.
BNG: Your 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork Short Poem (Threadbare) is a wood cut print that takes inspiration from home-made posters. What attracted you to this as a device?
CGT: I have always been interested in any format where language and imagery meet, be it in illuminated manuscripts, graffiti, subtitles in films, foam funereal letters, in signage or in advertising of different types. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my dad was a copywriter (who wanted to be a writer) and my mum an art director (who was an artist). Everything pointed to the fact that I would inevitably sit awkwardly between the written and visual arts. When I made Short Poem (Threadbare), I was looking closely at those home made posters that you can rip a phone number off of, the idea is so simple but ingenious. It’s a very sculptural approach to using a two-dimensional piece of paper, and I have always had an interest in the relationship and interplay between two and three-dimensional media.
BNG: Did you put the posters up across the Mexico City?
CGT: I did, because I like to draw attention to things which feel overlooked, but which deserve to be studied more closely. The block print I made meant that the essential function of the poster, to convey and distribute information about a service, was removed. My intention was that the removal of information would allow the format could be considered without distraction. Interestingly, some of the tabs from the bottom of the posters were removed, so people were still performing the action expected of them. Absurd, but funny and unexpected.
BNG: This is your 6th Bermuda Biennial. How has your inclusion in the exhibition over the last 12 years impacted your career as an artist?
CGT: It has had a huge impact. I was still studying my Bachelors degree when I was first selected for the Biennial in 2008 and it gave me more confidence in the direction I was going in with my work. Much further down the line now, I can see the development of my work through the prism of the biennial which is strange, it’s rare to have the opportunity to see such clear incremental shifts. I have also met some wonderful artists and curators through the Biennial, the Bermuda National Gallery have supported me in innumerable ways to date, none of which would have come about without my inclusion in the Biennials.
BNG: You work across many different mediums – painting, poetry, photography, sculpture, film and sound. Your most recent works, including those made in isolation, mark a return to painting. Why is this?
CGT: I painted from a very young age, but because my mum was a (brilliant) painter I felt that I wanted to explore other avenues away from what felt like her specialism, if only so that I could return to it from a different angle at a later date. I have always had a painterly approach to all aspects of my work, so I don’t see it as a return as such, but it has become more prominent in my practice in the last couple of years. One of the practical reasons for this is that when I moved to Mexico City, I didn’t have any materials and the easiest and cheapest things to get hold of were paints and paper, so writing and painting took centre stage.
BNG: Study for OXXO / OH NO, was the first piece that you made in isolation. Could you please talk us through it?
CGT: This came from an evening when I passed my local OXXO convenience store and saw it full of people eating together and chatting. I had friends in Europe under total lockdown, so COVID-19 was really concerning me. At that time here however, the government were playing it down because they were worried about the effect it would have on the economy. That scene really troubled me, and in my head I kept exchanging the name “OXXO” and the words “OH NO” until I had to get them out on paper. OXXO are the biggest chain of convenience stores in Latin America, so it felt like a good vehicle to express my frustration at what I saw as an impending disaster.
BNG: Your most recent work, Study for The World Curling at its Edges, elegantly sums up the current situation. Could you please tell us about it?
CGT: This was a notebook sketch of an empty restaurant interior, it allowed me to play with text, with the mirror script “CLOSED” on the outside of the windows. Oddly in September I had made two large scale works which depicted an empty office and an empty supermarket which have taken on a new significance now, I suppose the sketch came off of the back of those works. Also, the caption “Pretty Vacant” seemed appropriate, after all, who doesn’t like The Sex Pistols.
BNG: What else are your currently working on?
CGT: I had just set up an upcoming series of projects under the name No Soy Basurero, that were going to be held in my studio, but which have had to be put on hold. I had programmed in some really exciting artists: Georgia Horgan (UK/Mexico), Carla Lamoyi (Mexico) and Wendy Cabrera-Rubio (Mexico). Whilst they aren’t going ahead at the moment it has given me more time to refine some of the details and give more consideration to how the programme will work once it can go ahead.
With my own practice, I am working on a commissioned work from the series of sculptures “Cloud Studies”, these are weather vanes which make use of the trope of the personal storm cloud which is often found in cartoon strips. One of these works was just shown in Regent’s Park, London, as a part of Frieze Sculpture and this commission came as a result of that exhibition. I’m looking forward to seeing how the piece comes together. It’s a much more collaborative approach, working with fabricators, architects and structural engineers which is something new and exciting for me.
There are a few other projects which I am a part of, but I need to wait patiently for the world to start turning again before they happen.