November was a big month for Brian Dawn Chalkley; he was preparing for his latest exhibition, ‘The Untold Depth of Savagery’ which opens at the Lungley Gallery on 4 December 2020. It also marked his thirtieth year of teaching at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, where he is currently BA (Hons) Fine Art Senior Lecturer.
Lungley Gallery director Mark Lungley is a former student of Brian's. It was whilst Mark was completing his MA Fine Art at Chelsea that the two bonded over a shared interest in the work of gender and queer theorist and author Jack Halberstam.
Brian Dawn’s work is intrinsically linked to identity; where the development of the female persona Dawn allows the artist to create work that is not tied to the same restrictions as Brian. Education also plays a large part in his practise too, as we found out when we spoke to Brian and Mark recently.
Brian Dawn Chalkley
Brian Dawn, this month marks thirty years of teaching at Chelsea. You’re also a graduate from the College, so you’ve seen the College through a lot of different phases. How has it changed? And has anything remained the same? What has been the highlight of your time at Chelsea?
I started at Chelsea on the BA painting course in September 1969 at the age of 21. I had few academic qualifications, however, I was allowed in under a clause for exceptionally talented students. During this period Chelsea was based in Manresa Road just off King Road which was the coolest place to be at the time. Coming from Stevenage, I felt like I had made it into a world beyond my wildest dreams.
The studios were divided into a broad range of disciplines, with appropriate staff teaching in each studio. The studio cohort was made up of first, second and third-year students, which when I look back was very challenging but amazing at the same time.
My first real encounter with a tutor asked me about my work. He eventually said 'sorry but I don’t have anything to say to you', which was a big learning curve at the time. After 6 weeks, the first year students were transferred to another studio with a different discipline and approach to teaching. I ended up in the mainstream painting studio, as it was then called, where I stayed for the next three years. I was being taught by Mick Moon, Jeremy Moon and Malcolm Hughes, all serious mainstream artists with international reputations. They all proved central in the development of my practice and my future career in teaching. I then went on to do my Post Graduate at the Slade, which fortunately for me coincided with Mick Moon and Malcolm Hughes taking up teaching posts at the same time.
I took up a full time Senior Lecturer role at Chelsea in November 1990, where I became third-floor studio leader for the BA course; before going on to develop the Post Graduate Diploma course. This was followed by a time as Program Leader and MA course leader. In addition to working closely with the Development Department at Holborn. I am now back where I started teaching BA students which is great.
The College has gone through what can be described as substantial development during my time there, in particular, moving sites to Millbank and becoming part of the University of the Arts London (UAL). However the main principle set by Lawrence Gowing (headmaster of Chelsea School of Arts, 1958-1965), that students should be taught by practising artists has remained central to the teaching philosophy at Chelsea. For me, this is the bedrock of what Chelsea is about. Together with a strong critical approach to help and encourage students to develop their own language/practise. It’s important for me that the student can engage with the idea of fun as part of a teaching and learning tool. My Post Graduate Diploma course was entirely based on this principle, which was quite radical at the time.
My main highlight at Chelsea is being privileged enough to be taught, and now teaching at Chelsea. Chelsea has a star studied history that I am honoured to have played a role in.
Alongside your teaching, you’re a successful artist in your own right, and your work crosses a lot of different media. Can you tell us more about your practice? How has your work changed and developed over the years?
It is important when discussing my practice that a strong element of that practice is teaching. Teaching has given me a platform to exchange ideas and creative processes with a younger generation, they have been vital in my development as an artist.
A major turning point in the practice was the creation of a female persona named Dawn. Dawn allowed me to take on another identity that was not subject to the same historical backdrop as Brian. Adrian Searle wrote, “Obsession, repression, sexual fantasy, secrets, solitude and a very bleak kind of humour are among the artist’s subjects. The work is full of character, and the character is the artist’s best invention”. The idea of being someone else was exciting and allowed for new opportunity’s to be explored in the practice for example storytelling, the performative, identity and above all dreaming of being someone else.
Your current exhibition ‘The Untold Depth of Savagery’ is currently on at the Lungley Gallery in Dalston, London. The works you’re showing include handmade crafts such as embroidery, portraits, as well as handwritten and stitched text, all presented on pillowcases and fabric. Can you tell us more about the works?
The current work uses domestic materials such as pillowcases, felt pens and embroidery to create a narrative of dreaming, in some cases a nightmare narrative. My mother used to make me shirts when I was in my teens, which was exciting as no one else had one like it. So this current work looks back to a pre-art school-age of homespun myth and expression, allowing for a broader range of representation and methodology.
The late work of Phillip Guston has always been a major influence on my practice, together with American folk art, Antonin Artaud and Samuel Beckett.
Brian was your tutor whilst you were studying your MA at Chelsea, and your gallery is exhibiting ‘The Untold Depth of Savagery’. How did your relationship develop from that of professor/student into a professional one?
We have been planning 'The Untold Depth of Savagery' since Brian Dawn's first exhibition 'Missing' at the Lungley Gallery, in November 2018.
Brian and I shared a common interest in the work of Jack Halberstam which is how we were first introduced to each other. At the time Brian was preparing for a solo show in New York and he asked me to help him in his studio pick the pieces for the show. We first worked together on an exhibition when I was running a space called Side Room with Ilana Blumberg at Chelsea. The exhibition coincided with a new book titled 'The Alterity and Identity of Trans Imaginess' and we have continued to work together ever since.
I don’t think of myself as a curator but as a gallerist, and the relationship between artist and gallerist requires a great deal of trust and respect, it is my job to promote the work of the artists and also generate money through the sale of work to enable them to sustain their practice and keep the gallery afloat without compromising the work.
You're a triple UAL graduate, having previously completed a Foundation year at Camberwell College of Arts in 2002, and your BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in 2005, before getting your MA Fine Art at Chelsea. What was your experience of UAL like?
It was eleven years after graduating from CSM before I decided to pursue an MA at Chelsea. The world had changed significantly in that period of time. The cost of living in London was at an all-time high and with the scarcity of government funding, it was becoming increasingly difficult for artists to sustain a career and for galleries to support them.
I have seen the difficulties facing institutions and students alike and the need to evolve. I think all these concerns were important to me which inevitably ended with me rejecting a studio-based practice in favour of Side Room. UAL provided me with the time, space and opportunity to work through concerns.
As director of Lungley Gallery, can you tell us more about your experiences of running your own gallery; what has been your proudest moment?
I love what I do!
It’s a privilege to work with artists and spend time with their work. In 2018 I was invited to co-curate an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Taipei titled ‘I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin’.
In October 2019 Lungley was invited to participate in the Manchester Contemporary, our first art fair which was an incredible experience.
Brian Dawn Chalkley's 'The Untold Depth of Savagery' is being shown at the Lungley Gallery from Friday 4 December 2020 - Saturday 6 February 2021
Wednesday to Saturday: 11am - 6pm
Sunday: 12pm - 5pm
The Lungley Gallery, currently in residency at Seventeen
270-276 Kingsland Road, London, E8 4DG
(Entrance on Acton Mews to rear of the building).