Gallery Talk: Riflemaker.
As you’re going up Regent Street, detour into Beak Street, pass Carnaby Street and you’ll hit one of the most exciting locations in London. Here art is in the air, you can feel it sweeping from side to side in the narrow streets of the area. Look for door number 79 and you’ve just arrived at Riflemaker, one of the many fresh art galleries in this part of town.
Riflemaker has been putting up shows since 2004. Recently I had a chat with one of its directors, Tot Taylor.
Riflemaker. How did the name come about?
It’s just above the door. It’s the oldest commercial building in the West End. It was a gun-maker’s workshop. You can see from outside, it says ‘Gun maker – Riflemaker’. We didn’t want to put our names on the gallery, so it’s not like, for example Victoria Miro Gallery. The idea was that we worked with what we found. We saw ‘Riflemaker’ above the door and we left it there. Everyone told us that it’s a terrible name, it has nothing to do with art, it reminds me of guns… It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if a name reminds you of guns, going to the loo or being in prison. Eventually it will become known as a place.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and your role in the Gallery. Maybe you would like to share with us something that a gallery owner does, that goes unnoticed or unseen.
We run the gallery. There’s two of us. Nearly everything you do when you run a gallery is unseen. It’s the nature of the business. People who own galleries are very busy and stressed with a lot of work, and nobody really realises, I suppose.
You organise talks and gatherings; what happens during these events? And where do they take place?
Every Monday, at the gallery. We do performances, we have music, we show films. Quite a lot of poetry. We’ve done one off performances. Yoko Ono gave a Bagism performance. Andrey Bartenev had an evening where everybody had to wear masking-tape across their mouth for four hours; it was about censorship. Last Monday we had Catalina Niculescu’s performance. She collaborated with musicians to create a cut up score of Wagner’s Siegfried. The gallery has been open for five years and we’ve done about 400 events.
Before you became a gallery owner/director, did you ever think of becoming an artist yourself?
I am a composer, music composer. I worked with films in Hollywood film companies. I’ve done all that sort of thing.
How many artists do you represent? And how many of them have come to you, and how many did you find yourself?
We represent about 18 artists. We don’t really have artists coming to us, and we don’t really find artists. The shows and exhibitions come together organically. I want to mention something: One of the most important thing is the format of the gallery, which is different from other galleries, it’s totally unique. A gallery format is that you go into a white walled space and they’re all identical, all the same. The reason you have a white walled space is that the art doesn’t have anything to mix with, doesn’t have anything to fight with. Basically you’re trying to make the space as bland and neutral as possible. We think that this is absolutely ridiculous, because life isn’t like that. And it’s false and old fashioned. So when we moved into there we decided not to paint the walls white. We decided to leave the horrible aspects of the room. It’s a room from 300 years ago, with lots of dust and bullet holes. We didn’t want to start another white gallery. Something else different from most galleries is that usually shows last for four weeks. Ours last for twelve weeks. The idea was to build up the interest in the artist and make that cumulative, so that the artist can benefit. It is a space for artists, it’s completely artist orientated. It’s not a business space, it’s not a commercial space. Sometimes we have a lot of work that isn’t for sale, because we want to promote the work, rather then necessarily sell the work.
So how do you pay the bills, when things aren’t for sale?
We have very good clients, who have supported the gallery and bought from each show.
The current recession: something we can’t avoid not talking about. Are you working at a loss, and waiting for the recession to end or are you still making a profit?
I never wait for anything, so I’m not waiting for the recession to end. We haven’t really taken notice of the recession. I think it might be a government plot. There’s a lot of strange things happening with the government in England at the moment. As you know there’s huge scandals. They’ve been taking money for their expenses. They’ve been buying petrol for cars that don’t exist, renting out their homes for people who don’t exist. That tells you a lot about England. So I don’t think there is a recession.
Maybe this can be a one word answer question: Why are gallery owners generally rich, while artists generally poor?
Because they are stupid. That’s what I think.
We had our conversation in a tasteful little snack bar around the corner from Riflemaker. Around here, every other shop is either a gallery or a cafe’. Throughout the chat it was easy to notice the sense of community in the area. Tot was frequently saluting people who passed us by. On our way back to the gallery, I asked him where would he want his photo to be taken, but he explained that he prefers not to have his photo taken for such press, because there’s no need for promoting himself. He told me how the gallery should only promote the artists. Which, I have to say, makes sense.
As I was leaving, Tot made sure I visited all three floors of the gallery, as I did. The ground floor has a cosy setting, and just as Tot had said, there were no white walls in sight. From the outside one could see a piece by Kara Walker and inside there were works by Peter Blake, Gary Hume, Julie Verhoeven and Francesca Lowe. These were all works on wool tapestry, as part of ‘Banners of Persuasion’, which is a commissioning group for artists who work on textile. The piece by Gary Hume struck me the most. I had never seen it before. It had three female faces, in his typical outline depictions, with floral patters in a variation of deep greens. As I was standing in front of the art piece, I could sense that something wasn’t right, but it wasn’t the image. I felt as if I wanted to cancel everything else around it to view it on its own, maybe even, dare I say, on a white wall. The ambiance’s strong character throughout the ground floor made it hard for me to distinguish my thoughts from one work to the other. I felt I couldn’t see the artworks individually. It was as if they were just details, engulfed in the building’s defined personality. Apparently even the gallery’s web-site is not your typical, minimal, black-text-on-white-background interface, like that of other galleries.
On going up to the second floor I could sense a drastic improvement in the atmosphere, because the interior’s colour cooled down and the space was more lit. In the room there were frames with embroidery on old photographs and three sculptures that looked like towers. The largest two were the size of a person and made out of hair, yes hair. As I looked around for the artist’s name, I had only one name in mind, ‘Rapunzel’. But they’re not by Rapunzel. These are by the Italian artist Maurizio Anzeri, whose work is truly a delight to see. I suggest you look him up as soon as you finish reading this.
On my visit, the underground floor had an array of video projections and a slide-projector, all whizzing away, showing videos and stills of the artist Catalina Niculescu. The space is a dimly lit, low ceiling, expression space. For a moment I closed my eyes and brought to mind the crowded performances and music sessions Tot had mentioned. I’m sure this is were they happen. You can still feel the art infused thrills reverberating in the room from previous gatherings.
Tot Taylor clearly has a good eye for up-and-coming artists. On this basis alone, the success of the gallery is well deserved. The artists represented by Riflemaker are well curated, and looking at previous exhibitions, this seems to be standard. Artists of Riflemaker should be proud to be in Tot’s hands, and even though, when it comes to financial decisions, he calls them ‘stupid’, I’m sure the admiration is reciprocated.
words Michael Xuereb
Riflemaker, 79 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SU.