Denis Whiteside was born in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1945. After finishing school at St. Johns Cathedral High School he started work as a trainee draughtsman in an engineering factory for four years, he then enrolled at Salford Art College, 1965-1967 and a year later married and has two sons. Denis worked in industrial coatings as a paint sprayer for 32 years and after becoming redundant he enrolled at University of Bolton where he gained B.A(Hons) First Class in Fine Art in 2006. Since then he has been a practising artist, based at his studio with neo:artists in Bolton.
Below we have the neo:blog interview with Bolton Fine Artist Denis Whiteside in conversation with our very own Scott Devon:
SD. Hello, Denis. Thank you for joining us on the neo: blog today.
DW. Hello Scott, you’re very welcome and thanks for the invitation. I hope some sense may be made from this session, lets blog.
SD. I have heard you described as a text artist but also as a screen printer. How do you define yourself and your work?
DW.I don’t regard myself as being any specific kind of artist and I don’t assume any role other than presenting something that might stretch the viewer’s imagination of what art is capable of showing. That is its only purpose. Text and printing are among the variety of media I use at the present time. So if I’m to be defined, I’d say I’m simply an artist, concerned with concepts.
SD. I see. And what route did you take to becoming an artist? Did you begin with prose and over time the art side has crept in, or did you begin as a more traditional artist, painter, sculptor, etc and the words gradually became more important?
DW. I’m told that I was a slow starter at learning to talk as a young child, but an early reader. I’ve often thought that these two occurrences may have been significant in shaping my prospective creative journey. Although drawing and painting seemed to come naturally to me, as a kid I wanted to be a journalist, not an artist, and I didn’t consider then that journalism was a creative profession. It was the notion of enlightening people to ‘actuality’ that attracted me, not an escape to fiction. Since then of course I’ve realised that most journalism is closer to fiction than fact. So my creative origins were a broad mixture of typical childhood influences, radio, cinema, comics, and I read a lot of decent books, and as many rubbish books. These experiences inspired me to draw, I don’t recall being taken to an Art gallery until I was eight years old on a school visit. I still don’t consider words or painting to have more importance over each other. The ideas behind my works are more important than the medium.
SD. Of course. So do people ever misunderstand your work because there is no narrative or traditional written form they can identify with? DW. I’m certain that some people will struggle to find what they consider as ‘art’ in my work. I’m aware that some people only consider artwork that fits in with the curtains, or reminds them of nice times, Illustrates how good their draughtsmanship is, or is sentimental etcetera, and that’s ok too, if it makes them happy. It’s not a problem. My aims aren’t connected to any of these aspects, I don’t make art to clarify or instruct, there’s no meaning; they’re made to be experienced, like some poetry or music. ‘Meaning’ is what other people make of the work. Language can be instructive, constructive and destructive. These contrary aspects intrigue me, I have a contrary nature. To quote John Cage, “I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it”. Narrative is an essential part of most parts of artistic production. Many of my works explore the mechanics of semantics, they question ‘meanings’. Hopefully, my works are challenging, it isn’t my aim to produce art that you can ‘identify’ with in the sense of identifying with the hero of a play.
SD. A lot of your work features text as the main form of communication over visual imagery, is there any particular reason for this choice?
DW. I’ve used visual imagery in much more of my art output over the years than text. Text has taken priority over the last eight years or so, partly because painting and drawing is less important in my exploration of language. I really enjoy painting and drawing so I miss that aspect of my art output. If visual imagery is relevant to a work, I’d use it.
SD. Do you ever worry as a text artist that you exist in a grey area between two mediums, art and writing, and that as such you can never truly please your audience because you’ll always be seen as too arty or too prosey by the viewer depending on their own preference?
DW. As I said earlier, I don’t consider myself to be a text artist or any other art category for that matter. My art is undoubtedly in a grey area, that’s the area I’m interested in. It’s the most abundant and fertile creative territory for me to explore, it’s where all the differences are. The concept of ‘too arty or too prosey’ can only be an opinion of the viewer/ reader, not the artist/author and as such, isn’t worth the worry unless the aim is to ‘please’.
SD. I can understand that. So, and I have to ask you this, why do you create? What is that drives you to do it?
DW. I don’t really know why I create. By making artworks, it’s possibly the best way I can show some of the essence of what it’s like to be me. It may be frustration or my contrariness that drives me. I find language to be wonderfully absurd, ambiguous, clear, unclear, so I’m urged to try to show that.
SD. Very true. Now, I know you’re currently involved in an exhibition called ‘I used to dream in black and white’, at the Art Lounge, New Mills. Can you talk us through that title; it feels very personal to me.
DW. ‘ I used to dream in black and white’ is the title of one of my screenprints based on Dandy and Beano style plates of ‘bangers n mash’, one plateful in shades of grey, the other in vivid unreal colours. As a child in the 1950’s, a lot of media was monochrome or ‘black and white’ as it was known. Television, most films at the cinema, newspapers even our snapshots were ‘black and white’. In the schoolyard I remember the question being asked, “Do you dream in black and white or colour?” My answer was the title. I was probably trying to show my ‘sophistication’. Of course, few of us dream in black and white just as we don’t hear in black and white or read in black and white. But then again…maybe…
SD. Yes. So who else is involved in your current exhibition? D.W. The exhibition at New Mills has ended now but Ian Irvine, a fellow artist and friend was showing there with me. That was our third joint show, the first was at Salford Art Gallery, 2009, and the second was at Gallery Oldham, 2010. Our works are quite different but there’s empathy within both our outputs, his titles often include puns and wordplay. You’d know what I mean if you visit his website, www.ianirvine.co.uk
SD. Is it a struggle to work with another artist? Do they need to be another text artist or not?
DW. It could be a struggle to show alongside certain artists, well, not a struggle but I can imagine some art that wouldn’t be complementary. Text artist or not wouldn’t really matter. Too much of the same could be boring I suppose.
SD. Very true. I know you screen print a lot of your work. But why do you use that medium and not photography for example? Would you not get more presentation options and greater levels of control that way in this digital age?
DW. I have used screenprint a lot during the last few years but I also do etching and relief works on canvas. From the 1970’s to the first decade of this century I was a keen photographer, mostly documentary, some professionally (portraits, weddings). The wedding photography put me off the medium to some extent. I think photography is as good a medium as any to make art but its becoming increasingly difficult to be ‘original’. Digital imagery plays a vital role in my print processes. The images that I eventually screenprint or etch are often manipulated to some extent in Photoshop before committal to screen or plate.
SD. Of course, I hadn’t thought of that. So screen printing gives you options no other medium could supply? DW. Screenprinting is possibly the most versatile print process around, for instance you can screenprint onto sheet ice!
SD. Sheet ice! Have you ever printed onto ice or something just as wonderfully strange?
DW. Yes I have printed onto a small piece of ice, a test squiggle which of course melted onto the wood that the ice was placed on. It would be interesting to screenprint onto slices of bacon, I’ve block printed on sliced bread then toasted it. It lasted a few years surprisingly!
SD. The medium of print has gained increasing popularity within the contemporary art world, particularly over the last decade or so, in your opinion why do you think this is? What are your own reasons for using this medium?
DW. Fine art print departments are unfortunately closing down in several universities at the moment, superseded by digital printmaking suites, so I’m not convinced that there is increasing popularity. There are many excellent digital artists and I think there’s a great future for digitally produced imagery. Personally I think digital should be used ‘as well as’ rather than ‘instead of’ other print processes. I use printmaking because it stretches my imagination, and presents a challenge to produce art that doesn’t rely on my direct touch. I come from a family of several generations of engineers, men who’ve worked with machinery to make things, perhaps some of that practicality has surfaced in my practice. SD. What, if any, is the most memorable response you’ve had to your work?
DW. “£1200? Certainly, here you are”. Was one, another was when a seven year old child completely comprehended and explained to her baffled mother what one of my relief works was ‘about’.
SD. Excellent. So when can we see more of your work? What’s next on the agenda for you?
DW. I regularly exhibit at neo:gallery 22 in their frequent exhibitions. I also have an on-going project, ‘Lessness’ that I started around ten months ago but I can’t say when that’ll be ready. I never stop, there’s always a few projects buzzing around in my head trying to be realised.
SD. Wonderful, Denis, thank you for speaking with us today.
DW. My pleasure. I hope you have got some idea of where my art comes from without explication of the art itself. Whose round is it?
Dennis Whiteside and Ian Irvine’s two man show ‘I Used To Dream In Black And White’ was at the The Art Lounge in New Mills and ran from 7th June-15th July, 2012 his new show ENCOMPASS is at Falcon Mill, Bolton. Dates will be confirmed here shortly.