An Oxford artist explores the world of Oz

A British sculptor, Ruskin graduate, and co-curator of the recent Royal Academy sculpture show, Keith Wilson is a coherent, warm and convivial artist, having recently embarked on the Oxford-Melbourne fellowship. Funded by Arts Council England, the residency programme allows the artist to visit Oxford for two months, before spending four months in Australia to continue their study. After staying in Oxford as the artist in residence at Lady Margaret Hall last term, Keith has just spent his summer in Melbourne.

“When I have research time, I carry on as usual, and open up one extra imaginative space in relation to that project,” Keith begins, when I congratulate him on the fellowship. “I have been thinking about the studio space as it relates to the kunsthalle, the art school, the historical museum, and how it exists in the wide public consciousness.”

Working in Australia led Keith to question his everyday habits, as he is removed from his ordinary studio life. “I find myself thinking about the very studio practice I am separated from,” he reveals. His host institution in Melbourne, The VCA, was an art school located between the National Collection and the contemporary kunsthalle, which he acknowledges was perfect. He goes on to observe, “My apartment overlooked the scene, so I could literally see who chooses to cross the road, and, in terms of the old gag, wonder why.”

Keith curated the RA Modern British Sculpture exhibition alongside the Tate Britain Director, Dr Penelope Curtis, last year. “We work well together, and come to similar decisions, even if by rather different routes,” Keith recalls, when I ask what it was like working on such a huge project. “Neither of us would have been able to disentangle curatorial ideas at the end. I do remember that in the early months it took me the full train journey to mentally wake up the whole project. After two hours of concentrated thinking I could arrive ready to work on it. I daresay it took Penelope all of about ten minutes, so perhaps there’s one difference!”

The show did receive, amongst a lot of praise, some criticism for the omission of important British sculptors like Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley, and Keith admits that he was disappointed by how the press responded. “Some wanted a traditional survey show, and that was never our intention,” he explains. “We put together one story of British Sculpture, and told it by exhibiting selected works together, in what I think was a visually dynamic, critical and thought provoking exhibition. To simply get a lot of ‘well I would have shown X or Y’ type reviews revealed a remarkable lack of engagement with what was actually there in the galleries. There were whole decades missing, never mind one or two artists!”

When I ask what makes a successful exhibition, he replies simply, “An exhibition. Just as if you want to know what makes a successful sculpture, you need to look at a lot of sculptures, and answer the question by making a good sculpture.” He insists that he wasn’t particularly inspired by any individuals, but was rather drawn to the space of art when he decided to become an artist himself. “I thought it looked like a good, hard game, with its own glorious and troublesome history,” he confesses. “I am still fascinated by the spaces opened up by art, and equally how they are closed down again.”

Keith’s own work explores the collision of art with the everyday, balancing wit and humour with a sincerity of logic – rather like the man himself. He does, however, claim that he has no idea what influences his artwork, but concedes that he finds that reassuring. “It must be in my nature,” he decides smoothly.

Keith himself studied Fine Art at The Ruskin, graduating in 1988, before completing his MA at The Slade. He describes art as having a “formidable, even daunting history” when discussing the visual arts within the circles of university. “Students are up against [that history] from the first mark they make. Just think of the history of the image-filled rectangle!” Recalling the LMH art show that he exhibited in during artsweek last Trinity term, he continues, “It was also reassuring to find that students were very good, as ever, and great fun to show work with. I really enjoyed being back in the wider university, going to graduate discussion sessions, writing in the Bodleian library…”

The jovial artist finishes with some humorous but truthful advice, meant for people trying to make it in the art world. “Do what you do if you believe in it. Ignore external indicators if you can. And live in your head, but don’t go mad.”

That seems some perfectly solid advice to me.