Photograph by Martin Crook
Mark Welsh on his own work, Anatomy of an Audubon
GB Tell me why you chose this.
MW I’ve chosen this multi-media collage I made, not so much because of the work itself but because of what the work is made on. It’s a piece of plywood that was once a wall in the studio that I shared with the sculptor James Salaiz, (who, like me, is represented by the Cristina Grajales gallery). We got the studio primarily for James to work on his ceramic forms because it had a kiln just down the hall. The studio symbolised for both of us, but particularly me, a time of creative explosion. Up until then I’d only expressed myself as a writer, but with James’s guidance and support, suddenly I was cutting up 17th and 18th century naturalistic books like Cabinet of Natural Curiosities and Insects of Surinam and making fantastical collages. When the time came to leave the studio, James took a chunk of plywood wall, put it in frame and said, “Here you are, go for it”, and that’s now this piece “Anatomy of an Audubon”. Cristina recreated our studio in a group show recently – work tables and all – and hung the flamingo among James’s sculptures. So it really felt as though the piece of plywood had gone 360 degrees. It’s very symbolic of our journey. I’m no sap but to me that’s a lovely story.
GB And it sounds like you wouldn’t have done any of this without James.
MW I wouldn’t. He was extremely instrumental and patient in nurturing me. When you think of artists who have lived together, it often seems they’re a bit competitive, but he’s done nothing but encourage me.
GB So do you like birds in particular?
MW I’m deeply ambivalent towards birds. I grew up on a farm in New Zealand so I have a more unsentimental view of wildlife. I’m drawn to birds but fearful of them too. Blue Jays are pure evil. But I’ve always loved Audubon’s flamingo. The specimen he painted didn’t actually come from America. It came from Argentina. The story of how these birds were killed and packed and displayed in order to be painted is extraordinary. Today Audubon’s flamingo is so universally popular that it’s almost kitsch. It’s printed on Tee shirts, fridge magnets, back packs, you name it. My idea was to recreate the iconic Birds of America watercolour using muscles and bone and sinew from the Atlas of Human Anatomy and Surgery. It subverts the picturesqueness of Audubon’s original and mirrors our more apocalyptic, less environmentally friendly times. I was amazed when I saw how the musculature around the heart looked just like feathers.
GB What do you think about the difference between art and design? Is that bullshit to you?
CG Certainly in Cristina’s world it is and has been for years. I’ve never related to the hype and inflated prices of a lot of the work that’s shown in Chelsea galleries. Sometimes it just feels like a scam. Cristina just loves things because they’re beautiful. You can see the hand of man in the work she responds too. Obviously I’m all about that too. I think people aren’t compelled by beauty so much right now but it will come around. Art and design are in constant flux and who knows if that will settle down. But there are galleries like Cristina Grajales that see this fusion of art and design as a positive thing – in fact, as the future – so I think we’re in a good place.
GB Do you believe that man can create something universally beautiful?
MW To me, nature is universally beautiful. Nature is like God. And Van Gogh.
GB When you sell a piece do you worry about where it ends up?
MW The first piece of mine that Cristina ever sold was of a three-headed bird on top of a massive coral with serpents lurking beneath. It was quite dark. My friend, Paul Morris, said it looked like it had been made by a Victorian housewife on laudanum. A very fancy-pants guy bought it and he recently cleaned out his residence and it was among the things due to be auctioned off so I bought it back. Then Cristina sold it again for twice the money!
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
MW Something that stops me in my tracks, something that catches my eye and keeps me there. In a city like New York there’s beauty everywhere but you have to pay attention to see it.