Talk Art: Interview

  • Photography and Interview  Max Barnett

Inside the ever-expanding universe of social media, podcasts have fast become one of the largest platforms, catering to a wide selection of interests. With a seemingly infinite selection of shows to choose from, finding the good ones is becoming an increasingly hard task. With an inclusive approach to the art world, Talk Art has fast become a favourite podcast of ours, and in January our Editor-in-Chief Max Barnett had the pleasure of interviewing and photographing its hosts, actor and art collector Russell Tovey, and gallerist Robert Diament:

MB: …There’s a Martin Parr picture of a guy in a rainbow top like this. I think he’s either in a car or in a back garden. It’s one of his many famous pictures and the top really reminds me of that… How did Talk Art come about?

Russ: We started Talk Art in October 2018. Me and Rob have known each other for twelve years now; we met at a Tracey Emin retrospective in Edinburgh. She sat us next to each other because she thought we were both geeks and we’d get on, which we did. We started this podcast because our mums listened to us on another podcast being interviewed where it was meant to be us being asked questions, and we just took over. And they said, “you both finish each other’s sentences and you’re both geeks, so why don’t you try and do it yourselves?”

Rob: Also, my mum said that she felt that she finally got to understand what it was that I do and that struck a chord with me because I realised that, actually, the art world is sort of opaque. We suddenly had this quick idea of art for everyone, to take away the elitism and the mystery.

Russ: We love it. It’s changed our lives and we came at it from a non-academic route. It’s made us very happy and we found our friendship, and it’s something we want to celebrate and make, kind of, gossipy. To make it really accessible – there is so much art out there. There are so many free museums. We’ve got amazing public art in the UK, so why not appreciate it instead of being intimidated by it?

MB: That’s something that you take away as a listener of the show. You get that sense that it’s inclusive, that it’s for everybody. People obviously know Russell as an actor, which is interesting to me as a listener to hear you speaking about art in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated.

Russ: I find it really weird when we did a live podcast a little while back with Helen Cammock, who’s a Turner prize winner. Afterwards, people are like, “Oh I really liked you in Years and Years, can I get a selfie?” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m an actor.” It’s really weird when I do Talk Art I feel like I’m there, but it doesn’t feel like Russell Tovey the actor. It feels like we are there as Talk Art facilitating that artist, and that artist is the one people should be interested in. It always knocks me out a bit because I’ve got a different hat on. It feels very separate.

Rob: Yeah, totally. The thing that I think is good about it is that he’s not a presenter. We’re not really presenters as such. If he was presenting a show about a different topic it would be a different thing. Because it is just us being us, there’s something almost documentary about it, but through audio. I think that’s why it’s authentic.

MB: Rob, you used to work in music. Could you explain a bit more about your transition or journey from music into galleries?

Rob: I was originally really into art, but I never officially studied it so I used to teach myself in the library. I didn’t do a lot of sport growing up, so I used to spend a lot of games times in the library just reading about art.

Russ: You used to be able to get out of P.E. to do that?

Rob: Yeah because I had that problem with my Achilles tendon that I told you about the other day.

Russ: Oh, that really, really, really painful Achilles tendon. Were you like that as well, Max?

MB: No, I just had a really good copy of my mother’s signature!

Russ: Oh I see, right. Nothing wrong with your Achilles!

Rob: But the weirdest thing was, I never signed up to do Art History. I stopped making art at the age of eleven. I just taught myself about it, got really obsessed with it. Started making music professionally and did that for fifteen years. But art always took over. I went on tour in America with my band, Temposhark, and I remember telling my manager to make sure we’d booked in museum visits in every city we went to. It was odd, I was more interested in art than in music in a way.

Russ: Do you remember what museums you went to?

Rob: Yes, the ones that really impressed me were the ones in Chicago. I remember going to the big ones in Chicago and being like, “These collections are insane.” I got to see a load of contemporary art that I’d only read about.

Russ: Was the Anish Kapoor “bean” there then?

Rob: I was there when that was there, but I’m not sure if that’s when I was touring or not. I remember my mum telling me that the sun used to make it burn things. I was obsessed with Frida Kahlo when I was growing up and I remember going to the Tate show in the early ‘00s in London; I spent almost the whole day in the Tate Modern and I kept walking around and around, back and forth through the rooms the wrong way and the security guards were so suspicious about what the hell I was doing, but I just couldn’t leave the exhibition. I loved seeing her work so much. That’s the sort of geek I was.

MB: Have you both seen or experienced the elitist side of the art world? You’ve both said you’re not educated in that area, so has this elitism played out in front of you?

Russ: When you are documenting art, or it’s being talked about when you watch stuff, it feels like there are references you’re supposed to know and if you don’t know then you feel like an idiot; you’re locked out. And there’s no one there to say, “For anyone who doesn’t know what fauvism is… or doesn’t know what this or that is, this is what it is.” And you’re supposed to just assume what it is and it feels like an elitist club and if you don’t know what the reference is you might as well just leave.

Rob: The worst thing that I have realised when I started doing the podcast was that Russell would ask, “What does that mean?” I remember initially being shocked because normally when someone says a term or makes a reference, like some ‘60s filmmaker and everyone goes, “yes, yes, yes…” and you’re like, “Actually I don’t know who that is.” It’s okay to admit you don’t know everything because how the hell can you? By being honest like that, you actually learn more and everybody listening learns more. Now, even if we do know things, if we think that others might not, Russell has got to the point where he brings it up a lot more, which is really helpful.

Russ: We did that with Michael Stipe didn’t we? When we were talking about the Beat Generation.

Rob: Some people listening might not know what the Beat Generation is, especially if they’re younger. I think it’s nice that you can be open like that. But, I must say, I remember going to galleries really early on – we used to save up our money and go and buy artworks – I remember they were so shocked by the level of enthusiasm that we had. I bought some Tracey Emin drawings from a gallery in Rome called Lorcan O’Neill and Laura there, when she first met me, was so shocked that I didn’t drink alcohol. I’d never drank alcohol until two years ago, and she thought I was an alcoholic because the emails I would send to here were so long and I used to ask so many questions. She was so fascinated that I was just this enthusiastic.

MB: Maybe it’s something that’s engrained into us through arts education, that we should downplay everything and play it cool.

Russ: We never apologise for enthusiasm.

Rob: I used to go to parties in the mid-2000s and nobody looked like they were enjoying themselves and it was sort of painful and it’s not honest. I feel that at least now, whether you like us or not, we’re being ourselves and I don’t care.

Russ: We have so much fun doing it and we’re upbeat and enthusiastic and that’s our vibe.

MB: You can tell that. I’ve got a guest highlight that I wanted to talk about and I wanted to ask you yours as well. Mine is London Hughes, because it was the funniest fifty minutes, I thought it was brilliant.

Rob: Really?

MB: I just thought that she was so engaging. And, it was obvious she didn’t have a vocabulary with art and that it wasn’t as much a part of her history. We can all talk about Picasso, and it was funny when she did actually talk about Picasso… but for me, that’s when everything clicked for me with this podcast and I got it more.

Russ: Wow!

MB: I understand interviewing artists and people that are esteemed in that world, or people who have buying power and can buy art throughout their lives. But something is exciting about having someone from a different field who didn’t know so much about art, but who is completely engaging.

Rob: That episode was quite important because she was so honest. For example, she doesn’t believe that photography is necessarily an art form, but then at the end of the interview, she was open to learning more. She wants to learn more. She was even talking about a big sitcom she’s doing in America and she was saying that with her first paycheck she wants to buy an artwork of an undiscovered female artist who has been overlooked. The fact that she is now thinking of investing her money in buying an artwork, it’s genius! She’s a super-intelligent, pioneering character and I love the idea that she’s now going to get more involved with art.

Russ: For us, it was one of our first live podcasts and that’s hopefully an ongoing thing that we will keep doing. It’s testing the water trying to find out who we are and how we navigate everything.

Rob: The surprising thing about doing it live is that you have an audience and these are people who have travelled from all over the country, from Europe. So, you’re suddenly meeting these people who are messaging you on Instagram and they tell you amazing stories. There was one guy who had been studying law and he was really bored as his parents had made him do it. He decided to change his course and study art law, so now he wants to be an art lawyer having listened to our podcast. I said that it can’t just be us, but it’s not, it’s part of his journey. If we have helped to show people they have a choice to do something that means something to them is brilliant.

Russ: We’re encouraging people to experience art in a really gentle way.

MB: It’s interesting that the social media generation has brought people together and I think your podcast is doing that too. Who were your guest highlights?

Russ: For me so far Caroline Coon was an amazing one.

Rob: Oh my God, I love her.

Russ: She’s one of the best responses we’ve had of any of the guests. She’s an artist who has been overlooked. She was around in the ‘60s and makes these incredible paintings that look like nothing else. Kind of very non-binary, fluid, figurative works that are inspiring. But her story is fascinating. That for me was a highlight and what we love about that is archiving these voices. It’s like field recording. You’re going in and you’re capturing these moments. A perfect example of that is Joyce Pensato, who was an artist we love and a dear friend of ours. We flew out to New York because she got cancer and it came on quickly and she didn’t have long to live. She said she wanted us to interview her from her hospital bed. That was an incredible gift of her to give us and an incredible thing for us to have as part of Talk Art. We have that message from her and it’s completely life-affirming and a totally beautiful moving interview. That is something that – if Talk Art didn’t exist – then that wouldn’t exist in the world. We’ve got that as a gift to everybody else.

Rob: It’s been really enjoyable to meet super-star artists. We’ve interviewed people like Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, David Shrigley – people you would know already. The great thing about that is that we’ve admired them for a long time, but that also brings in quite a big audience. From there you can use that platform that we’ve built up to highlight and promote voices that haven’t necessarily been heard or given airtime. The other day we interviewed an artist from the UK called Lucy Jones. She’s grown up with cerebral palsy and has only had one radio interview in the whole of her career, as far as I can tell, from BBC Radio 4. It’s with one of her friends and he mainly speaks through it. We did an hour interview with her and it’s incredible. Her paintings are equally as good as David Hockney. Then, sometimes you can get well-known people – we interviewed Lena Dunham – and it was surprising because she talks about things that she never talks about; her childhood, her parents, them both being artists, but that she also makes watercolours herself. I’m really into that idea of different creative people and how we can all be creative. The world tries to limit you or pinpoint you as say, “That’s what you are, so stick in your lane,” but I just don’t agree with that. We also just interviewed Noel Fielding, who I think is incredibly talented. His paintings are all part of his Mighty Boosh universe and the sets and costumes he made as part of that universe. He’s creative and I think that is a great artist.

MB: I like that you touched on that point. In one of the episodes, you talked about us having to define ourselves in a succinct paragraph and that we’re told: “this is your lane.” I like that you’ve both explored various avenues and now you’re here. That’s personally how I see the world and I appreciate that you have that perspective.

Rob: It’s about making yourself vulnerable. Lena putting her watercolours out – she did an exhibition recently with Christopher Kane’s shop or something – but it’s quite a terrifying place to put yourself.

Russ: It’s exposing.

Rob: I really respect that and I think that’s how great art is made. It’s by taking a chance and risking things. Even for us, doing the podcast was deeply scary at the beginning because we didn’t listen to other podcasts, it just kind of happened. Sometimes I get stopped now; I went to the Royal Academy and I got stopped during one of the exhibitions and someone that stopped me that night said they went to the exhibition because of the podcast and he had never been to the Royal Academy before. That is genius. If you’re making people engage it’s worth it.

Russ: David Dawson, who was Lucian Freud’s assistant and friend and now looks after his estate, has a show of Lucian Freud self-portraits and we walked around the show with him. Someone said they listened to the podcast then went to see the show. Then listened to the podcast while walking around the show and said it was an incredible experience. We’re like a tourists guide.

Rob: We had that with the Tracey Emin one, walking around her exhibition and we recorded it as an episode. I went on the last day and loads of people were stopping me because they were listening to it as I was there.

MB: There is a joyfulness to the podcast. What things are you grateful for on this journey?

Russ: My friendship with Rob and connecting on a level that I do with nobody else in the world. The willingness and openness of people to come on as guests, as we wouldn’t have a podcast if we didn’t have amazing guests. And people are really up for it even though a lot of them haven’t done it before. They’re vulnerable, they don’t like talking about their work, but they’re doing it because they like us – they’re doing us a massive favour! We’re so grateful. And I’m grateful for art.

Rob: I’m equally grateful for my friendship with Russell, but mainly because he’s made me laugh more and not take myself so seriously. I’m grateful for having a platform and people are listening to it around the world in fifty countries or something. It’s insane. This idea that we can help to promote people that haven’t been heard of before. We interviewed a young Canadian artist, who is originally from South Korea and studying in London, called Zadie Xa. She’s now got a big solo show coming up at the De La Warr Pavilion. She said to me that she’s grateful to us for having invited her because she’s an unknown artist in a way – she’s emerging still – and now she’s having the respect she might not have.

Russ: She’s positioned in a different way.

Rob: I feel that is a gift, that people are listening and paying it forward. I’ve also enjoyed involving people from the world of fashion in the show, which was quite a risky thing in a way. In the art world, even though you have these collaborations – and some people do it incredibly well, like J.W. Anderson and Loewe, or Kim Jones at Dior – you can do it really well, but it’s not always good. Interviewing Alasdair McLellan, he’s an artist. His output is through magazines, but he’s an artist. I love his vision. And Jamie Hawkesworth. They’re two interviews I found fascinating because they’re from a different world.

Russ: And for Jamie’s episode it was fascinating to see the response and who came to Talk Art to listen to it.

Rob: At that point, it was one of our biggest episodes. What’s brilliant is a lot of people who make or love fashion also love art, and they also sometimes feel shut out from it. I’ve always been mates with the creative side of the fashion industry and my friends, who work in big brands, love art and it’s nice for them to get an insight into what we do.

MB: It is similar to the reasons we do what we do at PYLOT. It’s bringing these things together when in reality everybody is so interconnected.

Rob: It is comparable – the experience of being creative. The experience of Russell being an actor, or me when I was a musician or even as a gallerist, it all takes creativity. I think that’s what the nub of the whole thing is; we love creativity and we want to understand why we as humans are creative. One of the things I discovered last week is that David Bowie said that he thought art and artists are created out of social dysfunction and that you have to be dysfunctional in order to make art – that’s why it’s interesting. All you actually need as a human, really, is to build a home, get food, protect your family, educate your kids and try to move the family forward. But Bowie was like, to step outside of that norm you are going to be seen as dysfunctional, but that’s where all the beauty and poetic side of life lies. I love that idea of social dysfunction because I suddenly realised that we’re really dysfunctional.

Russ: But highly-functioning!

Rob: Yeah, we’re highly functioning socially dysfunctional people.

You can find Talk Art on all Podcast platforms by searching for ‘Talk Art’, also click the link here to check out their Instagram.