For over a decade, Kevin Francis Gray has created compelling marble sculpture. In his most recent body of work, The Breakdown Works, he pushes the possibilities of stone carving, creating artworks of ethereal yet dark beauty. Ahead of our collaboration with Kevin, The Breakdown Work Studies, we caught up to talk about art, and the legacy of 2020.
Kevin Francis Gray was born in Northern Ireland in 1972, and now lives and works in London, UK.
In your recent works, you have shifted away from representation towards a more abstract and expressive style. What has the process been like in this development in your practice?
Kevin Francis Gray: When I started working as a sculptor, there was definitely this unspoken pressure to make representative work. It’s almost like a rite of passage – proving your worth with the material and the skillset. But over the years, I’ve gained the confidence to push away from that, to push the work further into abstraction. To me, that’s been a truer evolution of my ‘voice’ as an artist – to allow the meaning to emanate from the abstraction, and not to root myself in figuration. As that changed, my process became more focused on the materials, their physicality and what they can do. In the newest body of work, the Breakdown Works, there’s a real return to the potential I see in sculptural materials.
You’ve talked about how growing up in south armagh during the troubles had an effect on your work. To what extent is your life in your art? Do you think, as an artist, you can separate your life and work?
Kevin Francis Gray: Historically, I think it’s hard to separate artists’ personal lives and histories from the work they make. As I get older, and as I get more confident as an artist, I find that my work becomes increasingly imbued with influences from my personal everyday life. Growing up in Northern Ireland, during the Troubles as you mentioned, had a profound impact on me. It always did. But perhaps that effect is making itself more consciously known now, whereas in my younger years as an artist, I think that impact was much more subconscious – it’s always been part of me but it hasn’t always had an outlet or a place in my work.
The fists and fingers dug into the faces of your sculpture are incredibly visceral, and, like a lot of your work, have a feeling of violence. What does violence in your work mean to you? How do the themes of your work relate to the processes you use to create them?
Kevin Francis Gray: I’ve always been intrigued by the extremely fine line between beauty and darkness, and I think that’s what your question is getting at. There’s definitely a visceral-ness to my sculptures, but I hope there’s a tenderness, too, because the works can’t just be violent-seeming. To be honest, I don’t feel violence at any point of the process. I understand the question, because the final result of the sculptures carry marks of my hand which look intense, and at times, aggressive. But the entire sculpting process is so long, and attentive-to-detail, and intimate that there isn’t a big moment of ‘violence’ or ‘intensity’ that people perhaps expect. The works I’ve made in recent years really carry that tension of the mark of the artist in opposition with the interpreted effect. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe that form as ‘violence’, I definitely feel a sense of release in those new works, almost as if they’re freed from the constraints of classical sculpture.
In your work, individual figures represent themselves, but also wider socio-political themes. How do you see the relationship between the individual and the collective in your work?
Kevin Francis Gray: This is an incredibly nuanced question, but, in the context of my sculptures, I view the individual as collective. For instance, in some of the recent works from the last year or year and a half, I feel like I have created a new cast of ‘characters’ and their main defining trait is being in a position of listening. They’re stoic and strong but the rigidity of the physical marble belies their openness. In the catalogue essay for my exhibition at the Bardini, Kate Bryan wrote really beautifully about this: the idea that while the work is of course physically frozen, the figures maintain a sense of gentleness, of movement, as if they want to engage with the viewer.
Your relationship to your sitters is really interesting. You blend a very traditional role of the sitter (to sit and be created into art) with a much more personal approach to the bonds you create with them as people. What have been the challenges of this artist/subject dynamic? Where do the boundaries cross between yourself as subject and creator?
Kevin Francis Gray: This is an interesting question, because it’s made me think back on the changes of my relationships with sitters. In my early days, for example with a work like Twelve Chambers, I was working with people who existed on the edges of society, and the work was about that relationship between me, the artist, and them. Later, with works like Reclining Nude I, that representation shifted: for each piece, I was using 2, 3 sometimes 4 models. The bodies and the figures became anonymous amalgamations of different bodies, genders, identities. Now, for these new works, the model does not even come into play. I made a lot of these works by just engaging with the materials directly. In that way, the idiosyncrasies of an individual sitter get blanketed into the abstract.
Where do you see yourself in contemporary art? How would you like to be remembered?
Kevin Francis Gray: To be honest with you, I don’t give too much consideration to ‘my place within contemporary art’. The truth is I’m just incredibly privileged to be able to work as an artist at all. To have a sense that people are connecting with the work today is the truest reward, but I don’t give too much weight to thoughts about my ‘artistic legacy’ or where I rank within the contemporary art world.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Breakdown Work Studies? What inspired these pieces? How did you create them? What do they represent?
Kevin Francis Gray: This collection, to me, is the perfect percolation of the overall Breakdown Works series. It’s a chance to reconnect with the final, raw elements of a sculpture. It encapsulates my favourite elements from the wider Breakdown Works [on view at Pace, London, until 23 January 2021] but it was a chance to explore working within an edition format. Each work is ‘technically’ unique in that it is hand-carved and finished by hand, and I think the whole suite connects very beautifully and logically with where I am in my career at the moment.
The Breakdown Works are a beautiful manifestation of a larger conversation about societal breakdown and personal struggle
Don’t forget to check out our collaboration with Kevin, Breakdown Work Studies. His work is currently on view at the Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence, Italy until 21 December 2020; at Pace Gallery in London until 13 February 2021; and at Sculpture in the City in London until Spring 2021.