English artists James Randell, Helen Butler discuss ‘Living on the Moon,’ ambiguity in art

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This time, “Voices” speaks in a British accent. James Randell and Helen Butler are two English artists from the University of Leeds, savoring the intimacy of their year abroad at UC Berkeley. After a year’s work, their craft has given its returns, and Berkeley is fortunate enough to have access to the only exhibition they have ever held outside of Great Britain, the “Living by the Moon” exhibit at the Berkeley Art Festival space on University Avenue.

It is through a sea of paintings, collages, prints and photographs that these student-artisans attempt to depict “how the world works together in the assembling of color.” Randell draws inspiration from controversial figures from Britain’s recent past. The lies and thoughts behind the disappearance of aristocrat Lord Lucan and the surprising acts of humanity of footballer Paul Gascoigne are crucial to James’s work. Their stories and misfortunes accompany the viewer on a journey through the self and the other — sanity and insanity. Butler utilizes the written word, in its limitless constriction, to set to sail to imagination, within the superimposition of colors and imagery.

The Daily Californian sat down with Randell and Butler to discuss how it feels to live by the moon.

Daily Californian: How much of your work has been marked by the Berkeley experience?

Helen Butler: Artwork is always influenced greatly by the type of atmosphere you’re in and the type of people you’re in contact with. So I think a complete change of position has really helped my art, as it has been influenced by new people, given new ideas and given me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have done before — like being able to experiment in different media and arrange my artistic practice into a whole new sphere. I tried sculpture for the first time over here. I’m allowing my work to move into 3-D processes, and it’s very interesting.

DC: Why Lord Lucan? Why Paul Gascoigne?

James Randell: My main interest has been strange figures from the recent past in the U.K. I think by being so far away, I’ve become more interested in looking back at how things are different in England. So with Lord Lucan, it was, you know, his nobility, and, at the same time, his other side: He murdered someone. There’s this element of no one knowing where he went after that. He has this mixed narrative about him already, where there’s a lot of lying. So I thought it was fun to take that into my own fiction and extend the lies even further. With Paul Gascoigne — yes, he was a celebrity, a big time footballer, this “hero” in England. On the other side, he is a manic depressive alcoholic who interacted with another murderer due to some weird kind of chance — like a geographical quirk.

DC: What do you feel when you produce art?

JR: When I’m painting, recently, I’ve felt like I’m essentially decorating. That’s why I’ve avoided painting definite imagery into my paintings, because what my hand wants to do when I’m painting is just create a field of color or take something that was detailed into a blur or a smudge. I’m much more interested in the ambiguous, because it keeps on exciting me whilst I’m doing it — because it can surprise me, whereas, if I’m trying to lay down something which I already know. If I’ve planned out, “Yes, there is going to be a man here, and in his hand he’s going to be holding a cup,” I’m not surprised. Everything is a disappointment. It’s like — OK, well, I’ve done that cup, but it’s not quite as good as it might have been.

DC: What are you trying to make the viewer feel when exposed to your pieces?

JR: With the recent work there’s a big disconnect between what I feel and what someone without the background is feeling about them because it’s a very specific narrative. It’s not this year; it’s not an American narrative. I’m trying for them to be ambiguous and for there to be openness of interpretation for the viewer to wonder what may be going on.

DC: What do you want to make people feel when they look at your pieces?

HB: In a similar way, I enjoy the ambiguity and I think a lot of the collages work like little psychological tests, in the way that people can look at them and interpret something completely different. I mean, people were telling me stuff which they thought the work meant, which I’ve never even thought of before. I find that fascinating. I think I like them to work like poems. You have the interweaving of sense information, and things don’t work within a strict linear time frame. 

DC: Is there a special significance to sharing gallery?

HB: We’re both sharing the same experience — being a student from Leeds, coming to Berkeley for a year. We have that common ground. But, also, our work shares many interesting links with the idea of visual poetry.  

“Living by the Moon” is showing at the Berkeley Arts Festival gallery until June 12. 


Contact David Socol at [email protected].