001. Claire Undy

Claire Undy, Self Portrait as The Irascibles, 2013. Digital photograph. 

Claire Undy is an artist and curator based in London. The first installment of The Exchange Project, her three-part curatorial venture in partnership with APT Gallery, London, opened in July. With the third and final chapter of the project currently on show, Undy speaks to Traction about what it means to her to be an artist-curator in London’s thriving art scene.


What are the main threads running through your practice?

Overall, I would say that my main interests could be summarised as communication and belief, however, these ideas manifest themselves in many different forms. I’m interested in language and non-language based communication and the way in which art functions as a language. Belief interests me in terms of both the way we interpret or understand something to be true, and as faith - particularly faith in the project of painting.

Most recently these ideas have become focused on the role of the artist in establishing belief in artwork and the studio in creating the role of the artist. I have been playing with images that use both the language of the real world and the constructed language of painting, and exploring the idea of the artist as a ritualistic performance.

Your work flits playfully between painting and photography. What is it within this duality that interests you?

Although my recent work has been photography, I see it as somewhere between performance and painting, using photography as a means of communication. I’m interested in the implication of truth inherent within photography; we approach it as though we are looking at something real, which contrasts with the suspension of disbelief required when approaching painting. I’m interested in how a photograph alters the exchange between artist and viewer, and how this can be manipulated.

Claire Undy, Suspension of Disbelief I, 2012. Digital photograph on wooden panel; 30 x 40 cm.

I have been trying to consider some of the language of painting- particularly abstract painting- from a perspective of tangible experience, which is when I begun re-making recognisable abstract paintings with physical objects and photographing them. This series of work brings compositions created in a fictitious world on the surface of a canvas to a practical place of real objects in time and space.

You bring a welcome dose of irony to your recent series of self-portraits dealing with the identity of the artist. Is humor important to your work?

Humor seems to me to be a failure or a dismantling of seriousness, and I’m interested in how our image of the artist as a person with ‘serious’ intentions affects our willingness to approach a piece of art with belief, or acceptance of what it is trying to communicate.

I would say that humour is important to me, though I am cautious of irony. Humour seems to me to be a failure or a dismantling of seriousness, and I’m interested in how our image of the artist as a person with ‘serious’ intentions affects our willingness to approach a piece of art with belief, or acceptance of what it is trying to communicate.

However irony implies a cynical or critical perspective, which is not really where I’m coming from. I enjoy and want to believe in painting, but am cynical about my own attempts at playing the part of the artist. I have been thinking of it as a performance, with its own rituals and belief system, something like a religion, so I suppose the cynicism comes from questioning this system.

You are currently undertaking a curatorial fellowship with APT Gallery in Deptford. What is the basic concept for the trio of exhibitions that makes up the ‘Exchange Project’?

Exchange Project explores the exchange between artist and viewer. The artwork in the three shows is grouped according to the nature of its interaction with the viewer as opposed to a visual or thematic connection. With no disinterested motive linking the works, each can explore its own subject matter, and the nature of the exchange is considered within the show as a whole.

These are the the three shows:

Overt Exchange: Artworks which convey or communicate: the visceral experience of an action on the body; the weight and materiality of an object; a concept or message; an atmosphere or sensorial understanding. The artist gives and the viewer receives, the exchange is direct.


Installation view of Overt Exchange.

Obscured Exchange: Artworks that play with the viewer, often alluding to a message, yet the exchange is teasing and the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit. The miscommunication is deliberate: ambiguity leaves the viewer questioning whether what they are looking at is truth or fiction.

Oblique Exchange: Artworks that appear to be silent or unconcerned with communication: the only message within the work is the work itself, the thoughts of the artist are consciously hidden or abstracted. The viewer’s experience is incidental; the exchange between the artist and the viewer is private and unique to each.

Installation view of Obscured Exchange. 

How has the project developed since its launch in July?

As the work in each show is so different, it was impossible to draw any connections between the works until they are all together in one place, so it’s been really interesting to watch each show develop its own character and style. As the theme of each show is not specifically the theme of any of the works, just an angle which they could be viewed by, it’s been surprising how many connections have arisen between pieces.

There have been quite prevalent moods in each exhibition: Overt Exchange was very physical, but also quite lyrical and bodily. Obscured Exchange was a bit of a bombardment of image and text, with many works utilising repetition or ambiguity of message and medium. Oblique Exchange is different again- quite surreal, playful and slightly sinister in places- it’s definitely the most colourful of the three shows.

How does your curation affect your artistic practice? Are there strong links between the two roles?

For me they are quite separate ways of working, which do not directly feed into one another, however I think of them both as part of my artistic practice. I began curating simply as a way of getting more involved in exhibiting art, and in order to meet and have conversations with more artists. I was frustrated spending all my time in the studio alone, and feeling as though exhibiting and curating was somehow part of a separate world to that of the work itself.


Installation view of Obscured Exchange.

In some ways, the concept behind Exchange Project developed from concerns I had within my own work about how to communicate with a viewer- whether it was ever possible or relevant, or if so what kind of communication that should be. Curating an exhibition with that in mind has helped me to see how thirty-one different artists address that question.

The figure of the artist-curator is becoming increasingly prominent in today’s art world. In your opinion, why is this unification of roles particularly successful?

I think that as artists we ought to take some responsibility for making the shows we want to see happen, and creating dialogues amongst ourselves that we all gain from.

I think artist-curator is quite a natural way of working, I definitely don’t see any kind of hierarchy between the two roles. I think that as artists we ought to take some responsibility for making the shows we want to see happen, and creating dialogues amongst ourselves that we all gain from.

I tried to approach the curating by thinking as an artist how I would like to work with a curator. Much of the work in the Exchange Project was made or developed specifically for the exhibition at A.P.T Gallery. It felt like a risky approach as some of the work I never saw finished until the day it arrived in the gallery, but an exciting one. This was a mutually beneficial situation as it benefitted the exhibition giving it a lot of energy and exciting new work, and meant that often the artists were able to do something larger or more ambitious to what they might ordinarily make.

Lastly, where can we next see your work?

Nowhere in the immanent future! I’m about to start studying at the Royal Academy Schools, so I will be getting my head down and making some work rather than exhibiting for the time being.


Oblique Exchange runs until 20 October at APT Gallery, London

More information on Undy’s practice can be found at http://www.claireundy.com.