Charlie Warde
Concrete Artifacts

18-20 May 2018

Platforms Project 2018
Athens School of Fine Arts
256 Pireos Str.
Athens, Greece

There are many different art traditions. For example: recasting the meaning in a found object or appropriated image by placing it in different context; minimalism’s concentration on materials and shape for their own qualities independent of representation; the hyper-realistic depiction of the world ‘as it is’; and art as political or social protest. Those probably sound like contradictory approaches, and, of course, they often are. Yet it is perfectly sensible to claim that Charlie Warde’s work in ‘Concrete Artifacts’ utilises all four.

Let’s take Erasures 1, 2 and 3. Arranged on each panel, the blue of a particularly intense sky, are sections of concrete from the Trellick Tower walkways, as designed by Ernő Goldfinger, completed in Kensal Town, London in 1972. Presenting that in a gallery context might make us think about the end of such a building, the point at which it is broken down into its constituent elements and passes beyond use. The memento mori of a building. It also suggests that we should look at component elements as aesthetic objects in their own right, not simply as functional parts of a much larger architectural whole. The aesthetic is closely allied to minimalism: Carl Andre’s way of pointing to the qualities of bricks, for example, and their possible arrangements in simple, grounded combinations. Likewise, Warde’s fragments float free of the utilitarian reasons for their production just as they celebrate its material presence, and propose that art and industry aren’t in the simple opposition one might assume.

Those first two traditions (of found object and minimalist language) aren’t really present, however. They are ghosts, and play their role with ghoulish effectiveness – for actually, in the clarity of the morning light, a closer look reveals that these are paintings. Everything Warde makes, he makes from paint – paint, indeed, which he makes himself. No stone, no sand, no concrete was harmed in the production of these facsimiles. So the hyper-realist tradition is fully present and correct. Warde wants to push painting as far as it will go: first he sets up the archetypal response to contemporary art – why, anyone could grab a chunk of wall! – only to pull away the rug of scorn – wow, the work in that, and the skill!

That counterpointing of the contemporary and the traditional is very much to the point of the fourth mode of art: housing is a political subject. Indeed, it has rarely been as political as it is in Britain now, where three factors are at the root of severe problems. First, there aren’t enough homes: successive governments have set targets to increase the rate of building, but have failed. Second, many homes are not up to standard, the poor having been corralled into under-maintained stock. It took the Grenfell Tragedy to bring that to attention. Third, what homes there are – especially in London – cannot be afforded by those who need them. That’s a function of short supply, the distorting effect of foreign capital flowing into the market, and the drying up of public investment in social housing – all given added bite by the disastrous changes being introduced to the welfare system through universal credit which, if it is rolled out fully, will trigger a spike in UK homelessness well beyond the doubling of the last few years. The Erasures speak to all of those issues. They act as memorials for high rises which – rather than being modernised and made safe – are demolished to make way for new developments which cannot be afforded by people like those who lived in the blocks. In Warde’s words: ‘Brutalism is part of the Zeitgeist again because it harks from a time when the state provided. It represents a muscular return to strong core values.’ The new, as in Warde’s layering of conceptual and realist approaches, may well need to incorporate former ways.

Warde’s title for this presentation of his practice, “Concrete Artifacts”, alludes to the inspiration of Greek architectural fragments both in Greece and in Britain, as well as the endangered remnants of Britain’s Brutalist heritage. He explains that all of the paintings are based on areas of the Trellick Tower walkways that are threatened by demolition to make way for unaffordable housing, and ‘the 3D parts of the paintings are sections of the tip of the wall (too brutally sharp and abrasive to be a handrail) of the walkway; Breach and Fissure are of the face of the wall, the three Erasure panels, Incline and Decline are of the end cross- sections or fractions thereof’. Those gaps in Breach and Fissure exist, he says, and form archer like slits. They contribute to the fortified bunker aesthetic, which carries a ‘delicate sense of terror’ as architect James Dunnett, who worked for Goldfinger, has put it. The background colours are all landscape based, according to Warde: ‘that of Breach is of Trellick Tower’s exposed “golden aggregate” concrete, Fissure and Erasure are of different sky blues, Incline of a dirty grey sky and Decline of green trees. These colours are all inspired by post-war dye-transfer postcards’.

Warde’s other works expand his politically charged documentation of London’s disappearing Brutalist heritage, focusing on Robin Hood Gardens (Alison and Peter Smithson, completed 1972 in Poplar) and Balfron Tower (Ernő Goldfinger, completed 1967 in Poplar) as well as Trellick Tower. Despite many attempts to save it, the demolition of Robin Hood Gardens has begun, and significant parts of Trellick Tower’s curtilage are also scheduled for demolition. Warde has also shown pigment jars of aggregates (made from solid 3D acrylic paint) that are based on examples Warde has found at the base of Trellick Tower that have ‘spalled’ from the surface of the building, and collaborated with the sound artist James Torrance, who has spent years recording sounds from modernist housing estates, on films and radio programmes which combine visual and explorations of Goldfinger’s utopian drive to build for a better world. Those enhance the atmospheric and documentary suggestiveness of Warde’s project, which Torrance summarises piquantly as ‘a thin veneer of fake brick cladding and the bitter sensation of loss’.

Warde is not alone in his concerns. Working in Britain now, David Hepher has often used real architectural materials like concrete in forty years of engagement through painting with the high rises of South London; Mark Leckey, the 2008 Turner Prize winner, has channelled a dark poetry through his reconstruction of a 1970’s motorway bridge as the portal to his past; and the 2011 prize winner Martin Boyce typically investigates a faded modernist dreamscape. Two interesting younger artists, Jessie Brennan and Evy Jokhova, have investigated the interplay of communities with sixties-built housing. Internationally, too, leading artists like Monika Sosnowska and Cyprian Gaillard could be cited. Such commonalities indicate the reality of the resonance.

Perhaps we can take ‘Concrete Artifacts’ as a proposal that we should look to the past to inform the future. Warde depicts and mourns the decline of the physical integrity of the social housing schemes conceived fifty years ago, while retaining enough of their innovative aesthetic to celebrate what they were. That physical decline stands in for and also mourns the parallel loss of empathy represented by recent housing policy. We need to move forward by moving back: in physical terms through reparation, not redevelopment; in moral terms by replacing the narrow financial and parochial perspectives of the new century with an approach more akin to the ideals of the sixties.