‘Sink or Swim’ – Tyler Lurks Interview by Charlie Spot

‘Sink or Swim’ – Tyler Lurks Interview by Charlie Spot

Tyler Lurks

It was a warm winters’ day in Elephant and Castle. I am meeting with Tyler Lurks, a young and welcoming emerging painter who recently graduated from Central St Martins. We meet at his studio across from the derelict railway arches servicing cars, to take some photographs, discuss his works and look at his latest pieces.

Tyler is a calming presence, much like his paintings. His words are thought out but not calculated, he has a genuine warmness and sensitivity when talking about his process and the meaning of his work. His studio is shared with another painter, both of them, alongside the other graduates in the building were selected after an arduous application process.

The moment you walk into his studio the works stand out, although they are bold in colour the experience is gentle. Tyler’s main medium is painting, using oil paints exclusively, he retouches his work constantly. The process he undergoes to choose his subject matters are meticulous as he scours Ebay for vintage photographs, often from the Vietnam war (1955-1975). Thereafter he paints these photographs onto wood, often reclaimed from various sources, including reclaimed wood from an amish barn.

He explains that during the painting process he manipulates the characters in the photographs, giving them a new lease of life, adding more expression to their faces and personality, as if you were there in the moment with them.

After admiring his latest work and taking some photographs of Tyler inside and outside of the studio, we sat down to discuss his career thus far, experience of going to art schools and his advice for other students and emerging artists.

Tyler Lurks 1

You have just finished at Central St Martins (CSM) – when did you apply and why?

I initially applied at the end of A-Levels at the last minute, I was going to do a social work degree, but then I applied for the foundation course – but then I did not get in – but then reapplied for the BA the year later and got in.

What type of social work did you want to do? And how did you decide to apply elsewhere?

Youth-work, social work stuff. However through the hand of fate I had an experience with social workers in the latter stages of school. I learn’t to see that it was far more bureaucratic that I thought and less people based.

When I did not get into CSM I went to do a foundation at the Royal Drawing School. It kicked the doors off of my brain. What you get taught at school is wrong, they know nothing about art. In the way that they push you through this treadmill of how to get an A*, there is nothing creative about it, unless you get lucky and get a great teacher, it is all about the grades.

What are the top three things you learnt in the foundation year?

The scope of what art is, how it can be. Having this constrained idea that artists make paintings full stop. Then you see mad performance art. You unearth this whole layer of nuisance and subtlety. Coming from this very heavy handed world of GCSE art, it was mind blowing.

Would you say it gave you a different idea of what art could be – opening up your mind to new ideas?

Definitely, how I saw art completely changed. I could suddenly see the art in things that I could not see before. My idea of it changed.

Tyler Lurks 1

As your eye adapts, to complexity, certain elements, suddenly you understand more, you can see see works from a different perspective. It must be amazing to have that in your first year, enabling you to develop your craft. What changed the most in that year?

They have this policy in the first year to break down your idea of drawing. They teach you the technical faculties of observation of drawing and painting, on a really fundamental level. Loads of life drawing, drawing from observation, landscape, it is very traditional. If you want to make different art they are also happy to engage with you in the conceptual. However they try to give you the skills of physical making first, including composition and drawing. What they are giving you is a more skilled based approach to then make conceptual work from.

Would they advance your conceptual ideas during the course, or were they purely giving you the core initial skills which could then be advanced in a BA?

You would gain the basic principles in painting and drawing, but at the same time they are nurturing this conceptual, analytical approach to art and art history. You went to galleries every Friday to see another show and they would make you draw a piece from the show. You would sit there for three hours drawing it. They taught you the idea of slow looking at pieces, rather than the scrolling you do on the internet. In doing so you would give the piece a piece of yourself.

Did you meet other artists on the course/did you befriend them?

Yes, with the foundation being five days a week and with lectures every evening, we spent an enormous amount of time together, there were only 35 people on the course. We were all in the same building five days a week, 9 to 5, you have to be in. It is the strictest foundation I have ever heard of. Therefore you naturally grow together and form a bond.

It sounds like a very disciplining course, were they are gearing you up to be like you either want this or you don’t? Are you still in contact with your friends from there?

Yeah, definitely, it was like – if you are up for it then come and do it, if you are serious about it then come and learn. It is a bonding experience, we spent so much time together, we had similar interests, developing your craft and learning together, it is a very bonding experience – so we are still in contact.

You then get into CSM. What is it like/what are the courses like?

Not an awful lot, it is very self directed – which is why I was grateful for the foundation. CSM is a very hands off teaching style. They basically give you a studio and you have access to the workshops. They almost say, you are 20 years old at this point, you have got this far to get into CSM, so make some work and we will give feedback to you every two to three weeks.

Can you make whatever you want to make – do they give you all the tools for it?

Yes – but you pay for the materials. But you can go into the wood workshops for free and tell the technicians what you want to make. You find and pay for the wood, unless it is scraps, but they cut it for you and make it for you for free. They have three sculpting workshops, wood workshops, screen printing workshops, different types of printing, digital etc. They do not teach in an organised way, you have to seek it out. It is like “we are CSM, chase us, make the most out of it”.

That must be hard at 20 years old? You must be able to get completely lost there?

Yes some are desperate for structure, looking for someone to tell them what to do. Some get really lost and realise it may not be for them.

Tyler Lurks 3

Do they teach you there?

There are tutors, who organise critique sessions and a series of lectures you can go to which are optional.

Is it not like the foundation where you go to galleries etc? Were there exams?

There were a few gallery days like that in the first year, a few big projects, for the most part however it was self led. Not a lot of art history either, maybe a critical studies lecture. They did have a guest artist come to CSM every Monday to give a lecture. Really good artists, sometimes big artists. For the exams you would make a portfolio every year at the end of the course and they would grade your portfolio for that year.

Did you do summer shows/open studios?

We had COVID in second year so we did not. We did have CSM open studios on the other years, they open up the whole university, in the summer and you can put your best work up in the studios to get exposure. It is rammed. Thousands of people go through the university. These range from families, tourists, collectors, whoever, a lot of people come it is open to the public. There is no selection process for the summer show, everyone just puts their art up in the studios. It is quite an event in itself.

Did you meet other great artists there?

Yes definitely. I would go and listen to other peoples critiques when I was not scheduled to be in. It was the most frustrating thing when other people did not come to the critiques. What are you here for if you are not going to discuss it with your peers?

How does a critique work?

It is a group of students and a tutor. Each student presents their work and the tutor would field the discussion and the other artists would hopefully engage in a discussion. The more you give the more you get. It is a reciprocal thing. If you turn up, give your time and energy and try to really understand their work and give them helpful feedback and promote an interesting conversation then you find that people do the same for you.

You must make friends on the course, on the last year you must discuss what the next steps are in all of your careers. Does CSM to give you any advice on the next stage of your career, introducing you to galleries or are you just left to do what you want?

No there was no real career advice.

You have had some success so far, being in the studio here and getting into other shows. What advice would you give others to get themselves into a position to be involved in shows, if they were in year two, how do they get into a position to get involved in shows?

Be in the studio, make as much as you can, speak to as many people as you can. It is a daunting institution that comes with a lot of hang ups. However by spending more time at the university people begin to recognise you, your face and then they speak to you and you will make connections. I got into a show in Shoreditch as I spent most days at CSM when I was not working, from morning till closing, then someone who was a tutor at CSM happened to be there, saw all my work out in the studio, wanted to work with me and offered me to be a part of the show further down the line.

For aspiring artists reading this – what is the best way for them to spend their time when joining an art school?

Spend time in the school even when you are not making works, talk with people, just to have conversations, turn up to the critiques, go to other peoples critiques, go to as many shows as possible. This is all pretty cliche but these are things that other people do not necessarily tell you when you join, which you wish you would have known at the start.

Your work has progressed a lot throughout the years there are a lot of social elements to your work, juvenile expressions in a way, youths are often grouped together in your imagery. Has your interest in social work and art merged in a way?

Not specifically however there is this idea of the humane, empathy and compassion that run through my work. There is a slippage. The slippage is through some of the precepts of what you may think of when you think of social work and then through what runs into my own practice and own motivations of making art.

Do you have empathy for the people you paint?

Not in a direct way, but the way I handle the subject matter is with empathy and that is what I am trying to imbue within the work.

If someone does not know you and saw your works, of course everyone has their own perception, however what message would you like to send across?

I am very wary of making people trying to feel certain things. I am against that. If anything I am trying to encourage people to take their time to consider things. In that way there is not necessarily a considered message, I am not trying to make people feel one emotion or another. What I am, if I am honest with myself, is trying to make people feel something, to take that bit of time and try to engage with something on a deeper level.

In my opinion the work is a capsule of time, taking the pictures, and archiving, would you look at pictures that are modern pictures too?

The original source material is all from a certain time, I try and retract certain elements to try and make them less time specific. I try and make them less immediately readable, I remove detail – I could say I demilitarise the images. I am shifting the focus, removing certain things so that other things comes to the fore.

Where is your work taking you and do you think it is heading in a certain direction?

I have no idea and I would like to keep it that way. I do not want to know what I am going to do, I enjoy the not knowing.

As we finalised the interview, we shook hands and made a joke. I left the room thinking that it was the unknowing which makes Tyler a unique artist. When he paints, he does not know where it will take him. His collected vintage photographs become his paintings, serving to coalesce the past and the unknowing future as he adds elements of soul and personality to individuals.

Tyler’s intrigue and respect for his craft separate him from the commercial artists of the 21st century and I am excited to see how he continues to develop.

Charlie Spot – January 2022

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