15 Minutes With Studio Leigh Director Tayah Leigh Barrs

15 Minutes With Studio Leigh Director Tayah Leigh Barrs

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Installation View “Environmentals”. Photo: Studio Leigh

Studio Leigh is a London-based contemporary art gallery situated in the heart of Shoreditch. It serves as a commercial gallery and commissioning platform, which allows artists to create works that explore the space between use-value and art for art’s sake. Spearheading this exciting new gallery is the daring visionary, founding Director, Tayah Leigh Barrs. Here she discusses what led her to opening up her own space and what she has in store for 2016.

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Portrait of Director, Tayah Leigh Barrs. Photo: Studio Leigh

Art Report: Tell us about your art background and what led you to this point in your career.

Tayah Leigh Barrs: I studied at Central Saint Martins after which I went to work for Mario Testino as part of his creative team. I was always intrigued by Mario’s art collection – the way he fused art into his personal environment which ultimately led me to think about how we live with art and how it works in a domestic context. This interest coupled with the appeal, immediacy and recognizability of a functional object led me to create Studio Leigh as a way of uniting both art and design together.

AR: What is the most important first impression that this space should have on a visitor?

TLB: Well Studio Leigh is housed in an 19th century varnish factory with a plethora of original features from when it was built, so normally people look at the ceiling first! But in general I consider it a space which presents a middle ground. It feels part domestic environment, part gallery and so the works sit comfortably within the space.  We invite visual artists to extend their practice into a material, and essentially functional form.  The responses from Studio Leigh artists have been unexpected and surprising. Even artists used to making physical works have produced intriguing results. Our upcoming show in March by Gabriel Hartley, a painter, will feature glass tables and lights. Aaron Angell, an artist who makes ceramics, came up with a wooden clinker boat for Studio Leigh’s inaugural exhibition. Unsurprisingly, artists with immaterial practices, who don’t produce physical works, have responded in equally fascinating ways. Florence Peake, a performance artist, dancer and choreographer produced an interactive ‘massaging wall’ with a mirrored surface which offered up a physically intimate experience of the body. These are just a sample of the unexpected, exciting responses which visitors can expect from future exhibitions. 

AR: What do you have planned for 2016?

TLB: We have a full program now set for 2016. As mentioned, next up we have Gabriel Hartley, an talented painter and sculptor, an abstractionist, with a solo presentation over two floors of the gallery that opens on March 10th.

AR: How did you become interested in this idea of creating useful art and the overall concept for your space – what prompted you to curate an entire exhibition on it and why do you think it is important?

Well, I’m not entirely sure if I can lay claim to creating the idea of useful art. Art doesn’t generally really tend or need to be useful.  It is produced and then it exists on its own terms.  I think the Studio Leigh project is just another way of looking at art – albeit in a way that invites use – and interaction certainly appeals to everyone. The artist Claes Oldenburg in 1961 once said, “I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all. An art given the chance of having a starting point of zero. I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.”  I like to think along these lines – how art and what is useful or quotidian works in tandem. 

Even though all the invited artists may follow the Studio Leigh rubric, it’s not just a case of an artist simply outsourcing elements of their practice and trapping it in a functional object. Their conceptual interests and the use of the object must work in tandem and the work will always and forever be part of the artist’s oeuvre. Studio Leigh is another way for artists to extend their practice. For example in Gabriel Hartley’s upcoming show, the artist is using glass for the first time as a medium – using characteristic painterly or sculptural techniques specific to his practice. The gallery asks all invited artists to do what they do best with their work already – and to provoke, invite reflection and surprise amongst other things but also facilitate use in intriguing ways.

AR: What is the most important thing your gallery can do to gain recognition? What kind of online presence is important to you?

TLB:  We like to let the work speak for itself  – that’s the best way. Of course, it’s also vital to maintain and build relationships – particularly in person and talk 1-2-1 particularly in this digital day and age. The works at Studio Leigh are physical objects which require interaction, so being in the gallery space is key. Our Instagram account is where we like to show the world what’s happening in the run up to shows, what artists are up to, the actual works and the best way to reach new audiences.

AR: Following on from that, as a result of social media, there seems to be a new breed of artistone that’s playing both the role of creator and promoter? What’s your take on these digital platforms? Is the art dealer/curator fast becoming a dying breed?

TLB: I feel if an artist can be successful in promoting their work and gains recognition and can sustain their practice in this way, then why not! It’s a hard industry, and if you find a way to make it work for you, then I have no qualms. I do not, however, think the dealer/curator is becoming a dying breed. I think the way we will engage with art and its potential trade will develop and change quite dramatically in the near future. Buying and selling online is becoming an increasingly popular mode of business. Even with Studio Leigh, we have an “enquiry” option on the website, but the dealer/curator will always be present—it just depends in what form.

AR: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

TLB: Our inaugural show being included in Artnet’s Top 10 Exhibitions in Europe 2015 was a good moment. To feel people are understanding and responding to the concept and works and believing in them is always a high.

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Installation View, Environmental. Photo: Studio Leigh

AR: What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you opened your gallery and what advice would you give any young gallerists on opening their own?

TLB: Dedicate and believe! In both the artists, the works… don’t expect it to be easy and keep engaging. Also having a decent knowledge of number crunching is useful! Somewhat daunting as a young gallery—it’s hard to forecast exactly—but it’s still good practice. Everyone I spoke to when opening told me to “know my numbers” and there’s a reason it kept being repeated!

AR: How do you choose the artists that you work with?

TLB: All the artists I work with either have a thread within their practice that I feel would engage with Studio Leigh’s concept successfully, or we have spoken and recognized an element of their work or idea they have that could be brought to fruition with assistance from the gallery.

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“Im crying…”, Elias Hansen Blake Hudson. Photo: Studio Leigh
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“Bird Cage”, Ariane Schick. Photo: Studio Leigh
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“Hyper real flower blossom”, Adham Faramway. Photo: Studio Leigh

AR: What is the best show you’ve seen recently?

TLB: Condo is currently taking place in London, which is a collaborative exhibition hosted by 24 galleries across 8 London spaces, so I walked through that last week and really enjoyed it. I’m yet to complete the full map but Rob Chavasse at The Sunday Painter, Jala Wahid also at The Sunday Painter but shown by Seventeen Gallery were stand out. Than Hussein Clark at Carlos/Ishikawa. Also, Philomene Pirecki at Supplement Gallery.

Mary Ramsden, RadioPaper is currently on view at Studio Leigh. 

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Radio Paper, Mary Ramsden. Photo: Studio Leigh
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Radio Paper, Mary Ramsden. Photo: Studio Leigh

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