Mikey Cuddihy on how her important work Scarlet’s Torn Curtain mysteriously ended up on YBA artist, Gavin Turk’s studio wall.
As an artist, you have no control over what happens to your works.
They can be damaged, hung upside down (or not hung at all), creased, battered, badly framed, cherished (or not).
Sometimes you’re glad to see them go: you needed the money, or the work was gathering dust. Or maybe it’s gone too soon and left an aching gap. If money was exchanged it feels both too much and too little. The money is never right. And what about those exchanges with other artists that left you feeling unsure: a signed poster for an original watercolour; a photograph for an oil painting? Once the work is gone you just hope for the best.
Last year you caught sight of your painting on a bestselling author’s Instagram post. It was on her dining room wall at Christmas time. You didn’t know she had that painting.
Long ago, you saw a billboard, advertising a popular brand of Vodka. It included a drawing of yours. It was hanging over the mantelpiece in a sleek living room. You were angry about that.
Some stories I’ve heard from other people come to mind: an artist confronted his own paintings in a Cork Street gallery with ‘Artist Unknown’ on the label. How did that happen?
And a boyfriend, back in the 1980’s decorated his council flat with paintings by an up and coming artist, retrieved from a skip outside their shared studio building.
This brings me to the question of value. How does one artist’s cast off become another person’s treasure?
It’s July 2011 and I’m clearing my house. It’s the house in East London that I’ve lived and worked in for over 30 years. I’m clearing out the rack above the stairs, piled high with canvases. Anna, who was our lodger for 3 years, has come over from Stockholm to help. She allows me to reject some. Into the skip they go. Others are carefully lined with tissue paper, rolled up, sealed with polythene and labelled.
We tackle the work under the stairs next. I drag out a heavy framed piece, some 130 x 150 cms. Scarlet’s Torn Curtain had remained under the stairs since it returned from a touring show in 1983. It is a drawing in red and black conté of a pair of curtains. They are pulled back theatrically, mirroring each other, on two long sheets of paper – side by side. Pointing towards the gathered insert in each curtain, I’d drawn an old-fashioned tin opener – like a spear. The drawing was so vigorous that the paper had torn in places.
I was exhausted. Packing up my work and life, my whole adult history, and moving to a small town, to an even smaller house, with nowhere to paint. I knew I wouldn’t have room for the work, and, I had other pieces from the same period that I felt were better. Anna agreed, and she helped me carry Scarlet to the front of the house where we leant it, in the hope it might be useful to someone else.
I heard later from a friend that Scarlet had been taken in by Stephan, who lived a few doors along from me. I thought no more about it until last year when I received a Facebook message from an ex-student, whose girlfriend was working for Gavin Turk. The ex-student attached a photo of Scarlet. There she was hanging on Gavin’s studio wall next to his neon lobster. How the hell had Scarlet been moved from Stephan’s house to this new and unexpected location? I was intrigued.
My friend Pete, who is also an artist, and lives in my old street, uncovered the mystery for me. He bumped into Stephan’s wife. They had separated, and his wife was making some changes - having a clear out. Maybe she never liked the drawing and was glad to get rid of it. Who knows? Of course, I imagine her, dragging Scarlet outside and slamming the door behind her.
The following week, Pete saw Gavin at an opening. He asked about my work. How had Scarlet ended up on his studio wall? ‘Well, I was walking along Mare Street one morning on my way to the studio,’ he said… And he’d spotted Scarlet, outside the Salvation Army charity shop, close to my old street. Gavin paid a small sum for the work, and, with the help of his assistant, carried it down the road to his studio.
Gavin added, ‘That drawing is a great example of feminist art from the 1980’s.’ I’ve never been comfortable with labels, but I could see what he meant. Of course, I’m still curious to know how the work ended up at the Sally Army charity shop in the first place. It didn’t walk there.
Earlier this year, I received an email from a man I lived with a long time ago. He lives in another country now, but we keep in touch. He’d just come back from his honeymoon in Mexico, married to the woman of his dreams. He attaches a Jpeg. I’m anticipating a wedding photograph to mull over. Instead, there’s a murky image of an old painting of mine; it rises up, a vertical rectangle, covering a wall in his living room from skirting board to ceiling. It’s not on a stretcher, and there are horizontal creases running across the canvas, which make me feel sad. A familiar work, but there is something odd about the image. I realise, after a couple of seconds: it’s hanging upside down.