By Emma Geliot

Painter Simon Callery’s works emphasise the physicality of paintings, informed by collaborations with archaeologists. Earlier this summer, he was artist in residence at DOLPH projects in Streatham. Emma Geliot went to see his new, site-responsive work and talked to DOLPH co-founders, Tash Kahn and Paul Cole, about their innovative residency programme.

I first met Simon Callery some thirty years ago, at Cardiff School of Art and Design, a few years before he was spotted and included in the seminal Sensation show. Our paths diverged, and it was an unusual confluence of events, which brought us back together again. Firstly, I had an invitation to his solo exhibition at Fold Gallery last autumn, where he was showing Flat Paintings. Then, out of the blue, I had a phone call from artist Stefan Gant to tell me that he had been collaborating with Callery and a team of archeologists at Moel y Gear in Denbighshire. Finally, as if the universe wasn’t sending me enough signals, I met Tash Khan and Paul Cole from DOLPH Projects, who told me Callery was going to be artist in Residence in May. Too many signs and signals too ignore so I went to Streatham in South London…

Callery’s temporary studio space was filled with canvases, torn, coloured, or waiting to be fixed in the hastily rigged up washing machine which whirred as we talked about the work and the residency project. The large swathes of cloth, dyed in earth colours, made the space feel more like a tannery than a studio. Several phases of making were evident, although the first, the direct working of canvas on the local streetscape, had already been completed to the bemusement of local residents.

Before launching in to questions about Callery’s paintings, I wanted to know more about DOLPH. Paul Cole explained that he and Tash Kahn had met when they were both working out of the same studios in Streatham Hill. “We’d been meeting up at private views with mutual friends and chatting afterwards in pubs about the shows we had seen and such, which led to ideas about how we might put on exhibitions.” Kahn picks up the thread, “We were wondering if we could do something in the project space at our studios, but we didn’t just want to put on a series of themed exhibitions with wordy titles. We wanted to do something different. We’ve always been interested in how and why artists do what they do and the idea for DOLPH was born out of this curiosity. We want to find out what makes artists tick.”

They found a laboratory to put their ideas into practice in Streatham, which until they set up DOLPH, had no contemporary art provision. “We have a project space in the front of our block and we began to wonder if we could use it in a more interesting way”, Cole tells me. “The space was essentially, another studio within a block of 40 in an old warehouse. It’s hardly a white cube gallery: it’s a functional space. These ‘limitations’ almost dictated what DOLPH was to become. There are plenty of spaces in London better suited to host formal exhibitions, and in better locations. We were clear from the beginning that would not be our remit. We wanted to do something that would engage both the studio artists and local community alike, and would be an intriguing challenge that would entice artists.”

Their ethos clearly appealed to Simon Callery: “DOLPH are ambitious to reveal the complete process of art making and not just focus on the end results. As an artist-run project they care about why artworks take the form they do, and as an artist I do too.”

Kahn describes the DOLPH residency programme: “We came up with the idea of setting artists a brief that drew all this together. We’ve always said that they can do anything in the space as long as it answers the brief and I think that that gives them a certain freedom that they don’t get in the traditional gallery environment.”

Cole expands on this, “As an artists ourselves, we’re interested in how and why others go about their craft. Where do their ideas come from and what processes the ideas are put through before they come out the other end as finished things? It seemed logical that this same question could be asked of everybody and so we decided to write one brief for all. Their task is to tell the story of what drives them; to share their inspirations and influences, and present them in an intriguing, cohesive exhibition. How the artist does this is up to them. They set their own terms. They are their own curators.”

Exposing all the elements embodied in a work make for a more intimate and direct experience,” Callery believes. “DOLPH’s call for clarity in the process connected with my need to make work that revealed all evidence of its making as an ambition of the work.

There are no clearer signs of what shapes an artwork that the revealing of all the marks made by the artist, the assistants, and all the intentional or unintentional signs of contact with the physical location during the making process.”

But how did Callery begin to think his way into the residency? “I set out to design a way of working in the streets around DOLPH studio that would record everything that happened to the material during the making of the painting. Whereas a traditional oil painting arrives at a perfect impenetrable final surface, I aim to fend that moment off and retain a sense of flux or change. This is closer to my sense of reality and I think it is true about landscape itself, urban or rural, as well as our relationship to it.”

“For Simon, it was logical to use the space as his studio for the month because he was going to use the local area of Streatham as his subject”, Cole explains. “Simon was here six days a week, for four weeks, working in the space and local area. He had several students from Wimbledon UAL painting course assisting him, mixing and applying pigments, drawing and shaping the canvas out on the streets.

“I particularly like it when responding to the brief provokes the making of a new work. For Simon, it was essentially what he’s been doing for years – developing ways to expose the evidence of the making process in the work itself, only this time he was working in a DOLPH goldfish bowl.”

I remember my phone conversation with Stefan Gant and ask how Callery’s work relates to archeology? “I’ve worked with archeologists on excavation sites since 1996”, he tells me. “What’s important to point out is that the works that have resulted in from collaborations don’t take archeology as there subject. It is the impact of the excavated landscapes, the tangible sense of temporality and the experience of landscape as material that has shaped the work. Being a witness to excavation led me to recognize the limits of image-based works to communicate the experience of landscape. This led to subsequent development of paintings that aim to involve viewers in a broader sensory experience. It is worth remembering that the development of western painting is entirely bound to the development of image. It should be no surprise that painting is well placed to critique our image-saturated culture and perhaps now it can offer an alternative.

“Recently, I’ve been working at Moel y Gear with Stefan [Gant]. The Institute of Archeology have been excavating an Iron Age hill fort in the Clwydian Hills. I was able to lay my canvases out on the surface of excavated trenched and run my hand over the fabric and mark the points where I could feel contact with features and surface loose of the trench underneath. These marked cloths were then cut into, pierced and torn. I took all the material back to my studio where I could assemble the parts into large-scale paintings. “They refer to landscape but do not depict it. I have called them ‘flat paintings’ as they have a different formal character to preceding circular and elliptical works I call ‘pit paintings’. I am aware that this work is being made in a part of the world where the relationship to landscape is particularly deeply embedded in the culture: this is an ongoing project.”

I’m getting a better idea of what he’s been up to on the streets of Streatham. “I like the idea that a painting starts out as a form of field recording”, Callery says, “…albeit, in the context of Streatham, an urban field recording. I want signs of this initial contact to remain evident and to characterize the work. Recently, I have made a number of works in the landscape and when DOLPH invited me to work with them I was keen to confront the urban environment again. Working in the urban environment is entirely different from a remote landscape. You are forced to lower your guard, lift your head and look around you and take the work onto the streets. Inevitably, there were a couple of interesting moments with a disgruntled drunk and a suspicious shop owner, as well as some genuine interest from fellow pedestrians.

“Finding the right place where we [Callery and his student assistants] could lay out the canvases and cut, mark and puncture them wasn’t so easy. We had 50 meters of coloured canvas, which we would transport from place to place. In this part of the city there are very few overlooked or neglected places left. We did find a spot at a major traffic junction with Streatham Hill and Brixton Hill. There were some steps that led up to an area of level ground and other steps that simply led down again. Canvases were laid out over the steps and adjacent walls for marking. This stepping was an element incorporated later into the physical form of the paintings. Another usable location was behind some shops off the Streatham High Street. On a practical level, and many decisions are based on practicality, the best places were the ones where we would get an hour or half an hour of intense activity without attracting too much attention.”

The pigment, soaked into the canvasses which are draped like pelts around us in the DOLPH studio, adds an incredible textual quality to the marked, cut and gouged cloth. I want to know how Callery makes decisions about colour.


“I tend to choose colour for it’s material quality”, he says. “Different pigments have different sized particles and some are better for the process of embedding into the fabric of the canvas, to be caught and held in place by the cotton fibers. I soak the coloured distemper into washed and dampened canvases. I’ve worked a lot with Cadmium Red Deep and Chromium Oxide. Both these pigments have tiny particles and form compelling matt surfaces. More recently, I have been using specific local colour from the places where I have been working. In North Wales, I have been using Mars Yellow and Lamp Black, in combination, producing a range of greens. The yellow is an iron-based pigment and Lamp Black derives from burnt oil. It is one of the earliest known pigments. In the Streatham paintings I used Mars Red, an iron oxide similar to the colour found in the local architecture of Leigham Court Estate, and a blue; a ubiquitous colour used for street furniture in town planning.”

Then I point to works that are more advanced. They are obviously three-dimensional, as they protrude into space, but they are also absolutely painting, not sculpture, aren’t they?

“I am a painter so everything I do is within the context of painting,” Callery is emphatic. “Since these paintings don’t operate in the same way as image-based paintings, I try to make works that encourage a viewer to move around, to navigate from side to side and to avoid the passive nature of looking at pictures…When we move, we use all our senses and this creates the balanced and unmediated experience I value over a single point and solely visual encounter with painting.”

I wonder if this project has influenced DOLPH’s future residency programme in any way? Kahn thinks it has. “The main thing is that Simon got as much out of it as we did. By doing our project he returned to a subject that he had been away from for a while with fresh perspective, one I hope he continues to explore. And DOLPH did that. It’s amazing to think that our project has supported an artist’s practice in that way. And if we can keep doing that, even in the smallest way, it’ll have been all been worth it.”

Cole agrees, “Yes, we learn from each one we do. Though the residency format is not for everyone, it’s a really good way for the public to see what goes on and to chat informally with the artist at work. I love the fact that artists will come and make work here under these circumstances, it’s very brave and incredibly generous, but equally it doesn’t suit every artist to answer the brief in the from of a residency. I think the beauty of this project is that we never know how the next artist will respond. Each will answer the brief in their own inimitable way – and each time it is different.”