Meadhbh McNutt: Can you give us a glimpse of the processes behind ‘Tricks of the Trade’?
Jan McCullough: I have a longstanding fascination with spaces of construction and assembly – industrial sites, workshops, garages and so on. During my recent residency at IMMA, I became particularly interested in their arrangement and the ad hoc structures created within them. The larger studio at IMMA encouraged a sculptural approach, and when the residency was suspended due to the pandemic restrictions, Peter Mutschler and Alissa Kleist were exceptionally kind in providing space and support to further develop the project, as part of the PS² Freelands Foundation Artist Programme. My process always begins with images. When I’m in a smaller space, I make maquettes and project tiny collages on the walls, to see what they would look like scaled up. It’s nice to create an immediate, large image that can be changed in real time – a kind of 3D collage.
MM: The installations actually struck me as 3D collage, even while walking through them. You’ve tapped into home design forums and vision board workshops in previous research. Did it feel different to explore a space so directly related to your own practice?
JM: It really did. It was the first time I used my own photographs as a starting point for my research. I have an evolving archive of found images that I use for notes, collages and preparatory sketches. I’ve always exhibited [my own] photographs as final objects but I had a strong feeling that this exhibition wasn’t going to be just a narrative photographic series. I wanted to move beyond that to recreate the tactile experience of sculptural objects.
I’m interested in the camera as an instrument for dissecting space. I use a powerful flash gun which reduces objects to outlines and colour blocks and singles out selective details. A lot of the abstract shapes in the show come from flash photography collages – the torqued metal and the steel and wooden constructions. It’s strange to look back at the source photographs. I sometimes remember them as though they all belong to the same space, even though they were taken in different locations. The structure in the middle room for example, is based on photographs of various workstations, scaffolding and ladders. I noticed, when looking back at the source images, that the process of collage had altered my memory of the original structures.
The only photographs in the exhibition make up a triptych from a 2011 series called ‘Garage’, taken years ago in my grandfather’s DIY workspace. I held on to those photographs because there was something that kept bringing me back to them. It wasn’t a sentimental study; it was simply one of the first construction spaces that stood out to me. There was something intimate and almost childlike about that experience of walking around those objects. It was like walking through somebody’s den and you weren’t sure of the function of the machinery – things laid out on tables and floors. I wanted to reflect that in the work, referencing but ultimately moving beyond functionality.
MM: How did your collaboration with Wendy Erskine on the booklet, Instructions for the Assembly of Workspace, come about?
JM: I wanted to provide an abstract response to ‘Tricks of the Trade’ that would leave room for viewers to bring their own interpretation. The collaboration with Wendy was so nourishing and exciting. We had never met before, but I loved Sweet Home (2018), her collection of short stories. There was a particular story called Locksmiths that had really stayed with me.
I posted Wendy a package of items so that we could have a tactile, collaborative experience. The package contained photographs, collages and a list of things I had in the studio that I had been using as a menu for the project: boiled linseed oil, timber battens, plywood off-cuts, gloss paint (eraser pink and biro blue), screw boxes… I wanted her to have complete creative freedom to do what she wanted with that inventory. Her brother has a workshop, and she phoned and asked him to describe to her all the things that lay on his desk. She came back to me with the text and I loved it. It’s as if you’re being dropped into the place; you can almost smell it.
I’m obviously interested in the instructional quality of photography and how it prescribes a certain way of interacting with the space but it’s so great to collaborate with someone like Wendy who can take that in a different direction. The booklet was funded by Freelands Foundation in London and designed by Sean Greer at Nongraphic studio. I knew I wanted the text to be a tangible thing for the viewer to take home, and for that tangibility to translate in the digital version. Sean and I exchanged photos of hardware packaging in terms of the colours and fonts, and DIY instruction pamphlets for folds.
MM: What’s next for your practice?
JM: I have just completed a month-long residency with Light Work in Syracuse, New York, in partnership with IMMA – remotely, due to the lockdown. I was very lucky to go to America for a research trip last year. Lockdown struck just two days before I was due to fly back to shoot new work. It would be great to get back out there but the initial research certainly won’t go to waste regardless. I will continue exploring the rituals and rhythms of construction in other locations. For me, photographic collage is the most practical way of drawing. I’m intrigued by the way the camera reconfigures forms. In February, I went completely back to basics and dedicated the whole month to sketchbooks. I’ve always made photographic sketches and collages but I’ve only recently realised how important the process is to the final work. It’s maybe best described in gardening terms: you plant the bulbs in winter, and they come up as something somewhat unexpected six months down the line.
Meadhbh McNutt is an Irish art writer whose work traverses criticism, creative writing and critical theory.
Jan McCullough is an artist from Northern Ireland working with photography, sculpture and installation.
‘Tricks of the Trade’ continues at CCA Derry~Londonderry until 1 May 2021.