The Artist is Absent, Or, Everywhere All At Once

The morning might have been a whir of action. A grab at materials; a rush to get something down; to start work. But now, things have settled. The artist has stepped out, or simply stopped for a moment.

Now, in this still and silent room, all that remains are scattered colouring pencils, a selection of citrus fruit, and a sketch.

David Hockney, ‘Two Lemons and Four Limes’ (1971). Courtesy of The Katrin Bellinger Collection; Photo Matthew Hollow

‘Two Lemons and Four Limes, Santa Monica’ (1971) is the kind of image that could easily go overlooked. Its scale is small: a wooden desk and chair, some pencils spilled over the table’s surface. The symmetry between the fruit balanced on a sheet of paper and the simple still-life of them is satisfying, but could also easily be noticed, and then just as easily forgotten. Unless, of course, you knew these were David Hockney’s pencils; his lemons and limes. Then, the small, brown, vaguely childish scene transforms; it takes on the sheen of celebrity.

In Absent Artists, however, Langlands & Bell work to resist this sheen. Inside the exhibition – the first the artist duo have curated – you’ll find traces of Annie Leibovitz, Lucien Freud, Rembrandt, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jasper Johns (alongside Hockney’s pencils). But, you won’t find their faces, or even their names. With no gallery text, the exhibition conceals its cast. The artist is not present.

‘Instead, the focus is thrown entirely onto the spaces where art is made, and onto the objects and materials that make up the work of art – its dailiness and disorder.’

It is a simple conceit. Yet, it prompts a voyeuristic frisson akin to pulling back a theatre curtain, or peeping behind a puppeteer’s booth. So this is where the magic happens. Here are some colour-coded pastels; here is a crocodile hanging from a ceiling. Here are the props; here are the strings.

Send the artist away from their studio, strip back the sheen of celebrity, and you are left with the mysteries and murkiness of everyday reality. You are left with what is often neglected or overlooked. In the artist’s absence, different concerns come to the surface. Are you still an artist when you’re not making art? Is everything an artist makes, art? What if no one sees it? Where does art work end and The Artwork begin? Can art transcend the conditions in which it’s made? What if the studio is not private, or permanent? What of the hotel, the underpass, or the street corner? What of the prison cell? The attic, or the barn?

Across the gallery’s hall, in Ideas of Utopia, in a glass vitrine set in a stark white table, the dried up body of a rat is twisted head-first into a loaf of bread. A rolling pin, a dried cauliflower and a fragile skeleton of a baby bird lie nearby. It is clear, just from looking at ‘Traces of Living’, which Langlands & Bell first made in 1986, that the artists have always been drawn to the overlooked and the everyday.

‘Their artistic vision is both singular and expansive – throughout their career their focus has extended from street ‘detritus’, to global flight networks and the communication systems that shape our contemporary world.’

A dead racing whippet sold for a few pennies at an East End market (now mounted on a wall in their studio in Kent) and Apple’s architectural plans are equal sources of interest. They have created digital artworks of J.M.W Turner’s house, and of Osama Bin Laden’s.

Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the two artist studios the duo move between seem poles apart, almost as if they represent two distinct styles of artistic existence (or, perhaps, of two artists’ existence). The first is tucked down an alleyway, a stone’s throw from Whitechapel Road. Langlands & Bell acquired the property as a wreck in the 80s, and as such it is a portrait of London’s changing East End – of urbanism and gentrification. When they first moved in, a rag-and-bone man lived in a shack opposite; now, a group of Deliveroo riders congregate nearby.

Their second studio is ‘Untitled’. It is off-grid — somewhere in Kent, but also, as Bell puts it, ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ In many ways, it seems as far from an East End alleyway as it is possible to be. Yet, despite outward differences, what connects these house-studio-gallery spaces are two principles that have run through Langlands & Bell’s practice since the beginning: salvage and transformation. In the 80s, as students, Langlands & Bell earned money by renovating houses; only a few years later they did the same to their own building in Whitechapel. For ‘Untitled’ they went a stage further, designing and building the entire space themselves. Rather than a receptacle for creative labour, then, in this case the artist’s studio should be considered an artwork in its own right. Indeed, Langlands & Bell’s attention to the spaces they work, live and display in – and to how our environments shape and influence us – acts as a reminder that, wherever it may be or whatever it may look like, the artist’s studio is never just about creating art, but creating the conditions that make it possible to live a full, creative life.


“Untitled” Langlands & Bell’s studio, Kent.

Soon after building it, Langlands & Bell found themselves marooned at their Kent studio. They were forced to inhabit the space differently, largely ditching city life as the pandemic pressed on. And, of course, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant also found themselves sheltering in the English countryside at a time of crisis. Charleston is another house-studio-gallery that was carefully forged in an attempt to protect and preserve a space for creative experimentation in a hostile world.

So, walk across from the gallery space and into Vanessa’s house. Follow the steps she might have taken each day, through the kitchen and up a narrow staircase into the attic. This space – usually kept private even in what is now a public building – was Vanessa’s studio. Now, the artist is absent. Now, for the first time, a contemporary work of art is installed in the house. Langlands & Bell’s installation, ‘Near Heaven’, is another work that both highlights the dailiness of artistic work, and simultaneously transforms it. Now, the ceiling of Vanessa’s attic room is lined with mirrors. Another simple conceit, but also a work of alchemy, giving the impression that the artist’s studio extends from the floorboards into the sky itself – that its limits lie far beyond the horizon. Now, the artist is everywhere, or has simply stepped out for a moment…

All exhibitions and commissions are open until 29 August 2022