Brighton’s reputation as being a cosmopolitan, carefree and sometimes controversial city often attracts the movers and shakers of the artworld, keen to make their mark on it’s vibrant art scene. The city has recently seen the opening of the UK’s only permanent erotic art gallery, exhibiting work by local artists who, before the gallery opened, may have experienced difficulty in finding a suitable space for their work to be exhibited.
One half of the founders of the gallery is multi award-winning sculptor Jamie McCartney, who recently took up residence in Brighton both in his new home and in his new (and very open-to-the-elements) studio right on the seafront in Marine Drive.
Visiting Jamie’s studio is like entering another, slightly forbidden, world. The first task is to mount the steepest, tightest spiral staircase known to mankind. Once at the top visitors are greeted by an array of torso castings in various finishes, from smooth white resin to textured silver. Muscles, breasts and belly buttons take place alongside casts of babies feet and hands. Seeing so many isolated body parts perfectly cast is a strange experience; we’ve seen them all before but seeing them in isolation makes them more fascinating, beautiful and intriguing – I couldn’t help but wonder about who the owners of these casts were.
I’m really getting into using the web as a tool to collaborate with other artists. I think working within your community, wherever that community is – whether it’s a local or a global community, is the best ways to do it…it’s the fun of it, this is what it’s about. I think the concept of artists working in isolation in their studios and then selling their artwork through a gallery is long gone and so get out there and mix!’
Jamie is great fun; down-to-earth, relaxed, humorous, and instantly likeable. Which, I have to admit, comes as a bit of a relief. I hadn’t quite known what to expect from the man who has recently produced a work consisting of the casts of 200 women’s – ahem – ‘bits’, which has been featured on the Channel 4 documentary, ‘Design A Vagina’. Looking around the studio, the first question I wanted to know was ‘how does somebody get involved in all this?’.
‘I messed about with it when I was at college, casting my hands and so on but I really got into it when I was working in the film business and that’s where I developed my techniques and processes. I introduced that to my fine art practices in my studio, it started to generate interest and it went on from there’.
Looking around, I’m not surprised that such no-holds-barred sculptures would generate interest. Being a Brightonian from birth, I consider myself to be pretty open-minded but had to admit to both eyebrows raising when faced with somebody else’s silver boobs. I was interested to know how my neighbours have received Jamie’s work.
‘I definitely think Brighton is the right place for bodycasting. People down here are pretty liberal. Although I don’t necessarily view bodycasting as being particularly naughty it carries that potential and as Brighton has a reputation as being a bit of a ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ town I think it fits in well here’.
‘All kinds of people come to get cast. I’ve had people from 18-65 come to have a cast done of themselves. People come for all reasons; to get their baby’s feet done, to have their boobs done as a secret present for their boyfriend; couples come to get their torsos done and take part in the casting process together. A lot are done as gifts. There’s so much you can do with bodycasting that it doesn’t really limit the audience in what they want to do and why they want to do it’.
The longer I spend looking at the various casts (‘look, there’s the cast of my father’s face – he’s dead. I took one before he’d died and one after’), the more I get drawn in to them. The opportunity to really study somebody else’s foot, torso, buttocks or indeed death mask ceases to feel voyeuristic and becomes strangely comforting. Living in a nation obsessed with diets, wrinkle-zapping and faced with airbrushed images every day in the media, Jamie’s casts seem to breathe reality back into the world. He agrees on the therapeutic effect of the process of bodycasting.
‘I think that most people are unprepared for that, including myself when I got my bodycast – the idea of how I think I look and the reality are not necessarily the same. Most people are very pleasantly surprised when they see their cast, especially if I’m casting a part people usually don’t get to see such as someone’s back or their bottom. Also being the centre of attention and the object is a very nurturing and pampering thing. I think art is becoming more liberal. We’re so used to seeing nudity or partial nudity used in advertising or on tv. I’m giving people the opportunity to get a portrait-sculpture done of themselves very inexpensively which has only been possible in the last two years due to the materials that have become available. It’s also another means by which to capture an image or a memory of someone else which is relatively new to a lot of people and can now be done very cheaply’
He takes me through to a separate part of his studio, away from the prying eyes of children. On his work benches must be around 100 casts of women’s genetalia, all different sizes, shapes and not so much eyebrow-raising as jaw-dropping. I’m a woman. I’ve seen them before. Just not that many!
I ask him how the first section of the sculpture, now on exhibition at the Impure Art Gallery, has been received. ‘Everyone – so far – likes it! I think it’s so intriguing that everyone has a natural curiosity and it therefore gets everyone’s attention; you can see people who are looking at it get drawn into it very quickly. It’s about three years work now. All the women who have done it have been volunteers – that was very important to me. It’s easy to pay 200 women to take their clothes off but by using volunteers I know that this work has been endorsed by those 200 women and whatever their reasons were for taking part they believed in what I was trying to achieve’. I find it strange that even though I’m surrounded by so many casts of rudey bits, none of it feels ‘erotic’. Jamie agrees. ‘The line between erotica and nudity is in the head and the law doesn’t know either! At the Impure Art Gallery we use our discretion, common sense and good taste as to what we show in the window. We have an over-18’s sign. A lot of the artists that show there are from Brighton’
I ask Jamie what other projects he has up his sleeve – and discover that he must have huge sleeves because there are rather a few projects – and none of them small! ‘I’m developing an artists quarter down at the Marina. It’s very much a child-orientated art environment with workshops specifically geared towards children. Local artists will be producing work down there for Christmas presents. I’ll be doing bodycasts of hands, feet and so on (no nudes for this event!) and there’ll be a real child-focus. Working with the council setting up an artists quarter on the seafront and making this the place to come, we can create more of a force as a group rather than as individuals’.
Bringing people together in art seems to be what Jamie excels at. His next ‘biggie’ project involves collecting sand from all the deserts in the world. Erm, okay – and just how does he intend to do that? ‘I’m asking the locals to send it in. That’s building up now and I’ll be producing a website specifically for that artwork to get people around the world to send me sand. With it I’ll be building one big sculpture. I’m really getting into using the web as a tool to collaborate with other artists. I think working within your community, wherever that community is – whether it’s a local or a global community, is the best ways to do it…it’s the fun of it, this is what it’s about. I think the concept of artists working in isolation in their studios and then selling their artwork through a gallery is long gone and so get out there and mix!’
I couldn’t help but feel that Jamie’s massive publicity coverage must be owed in part to the nature of some of his work. He agreed but also admitted that a lot of it is sheer hard graft on his part and had some good advice for other artists struggling to get seen in today’s competitive art world. ‘Having something that’s excellent and interesting is useless if nobody knows you’re there. If luck is about being in the right place at the right time then find out where the right place is and hang out there a lot! Find out who the people are who write about the sort of art you’re producing and give them a call or send them an email, even just to lead them to your website. It’s very competitive and although a website is crucial you can’t tell an awful lot about a thumbnail of what you’re producing on your website. I think your website should be part of the strategy but having people talking about your work and writing about you is what’s going to push people to Google you and find your site. Take every single opportunity to show your work in public. Go to exhibitions, look for shops that might have space in their window,…it’s really about putting yourself out there and using the web as an additional help. But yes, it’s hard work to get the results’.
Looking at Jamie’s success, it’s probably advice well-worth taking. Jamie adds that he’s still looking for thirty more female volunteers to complete the last stage of his Design A Vagina project.
Meeting Jamie has been a sheer delight; there is no hint of pretentiousness and his work is both beautiful and fascinating. I’d recommend anyone to visit his studios and get involved with his projects – and become part of the ever-expanding arts community of which he is evidently a driving force.
Jamie is now looking for twenty-nine female volunteers to complete the last stage of his Design A Vagina project.