Interview with Ben Tufnell @ Parafin Gallery

Published Feb, 2015

By Jenny Judova


Ben Tufnell is known to many at a curator at Tate and director at the now closed Haunch of Venison. I met Ben at his new gallery Parafin a few hours before the opening of Hugo Wilson’s exhibition, the fourth show in the current space. We spent the morning discussing his new venture, Parafin, and Hugo Wilson’s work.

Ben Tufnell at preview of Hugo Wilson, Parafin. Photography by Mary Ashton Ellis.

On the Gallery

Jenny: Right so, the first questions are about the gallery. Parafin is new, it’s very new [Parafin opened its doors in September 2014, just of New Bond Street on Woodstock Street, W1C 2AB]. How did you choose this space and how did a new gallery come about? Were you planning to open a new gallery after Haunch of Venison closed down or did it just sort of happen?

Ben: What happened was that Haunch was closed down very suddenly. I’d been working there for 7 years with Matt Watkins [Ben’s partner at Parafin] and on a number of occasions late at night after too many drinks we would muse that we should open a gallery. When HoV closed, there was a big question mark about what to do next. I talked to a few big galleries but it became obvious very quickly that I didn’t want to go back into that same situation but just at a different place. It was time for a change. So it was either going to be the moment I became a mountain guide or an apple farmer or something like that, or do this [open his own gallery]. And the funny thing is that a lot of people expected me to do this. I had letters and emails from artists, from curators, from museum people saying, now Haunch is closing, are you going to open your own gallery?

It quickly became clear that we should do this because there was a gap in the landscape in the art world here in London. We felt that there were artists that we wanted to work with who didn’t have a platform to show here. And it felt like there were a lot of people who were supporting the idea that we would do something.

We started to make our plans in the spring of 2013. By the summer, we had found this place. We had all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle: we had great artists who wanted to work with us, we had a space, and we had potential investors. However, it took a long time to actually get into the building. Although we’ve only been open for four months, actually there was over a year of planning before that moment.

Private View Hugo Wilson at Parafin Gallery. Photography by Mary Ashton Ellis.

Jenny: Were you looking specifically at Mayfair or other areas as well? And why did you choose Mayfair, when there has been so much talk about the decline of Mayfair and the raise of Fitzrovia, Clerkenwell, and the South.

Ben: Well, it’s funny; I think probably we did what most people do when they are starting a new business venture. You think, how can we do it differently? How can we completely rethink the gallery model? Where should it be? What should it be? In the end, we’ve ended up with what probably looks like a traditional gallery in the heartland of old London, but we went through a long process of why it should be there.

We looked at south London, we looked east, we looked at Fitzrovia, we thought about different places where the gallery could be, about the kind of space we wanted. We also talked to a lot of international collectors and curators and they told us that when they come to London, this is the area [Mayfair] that they focus on. So if you’re beginning a gallery and you have an ambition to work at a certain level, I do think this is the best place and we were really lucky to find this location.

Jenny: The building is really great.

Ben: I am loving working with this space, and on this scale, because previously I was a curator at the Tate, and Haunch of Venison had big spaces and also a period when we where in Burlington Gardens so we working with huge exhibition spaces. And this is really great because its focused, its big enough to do something substantial, but its not overwhelming.

Jenny: In one of your interviews you raised a notion of there being different art worlds, could you tell me more about this? And how did your own art world change throughout your career from Tate, to Haunch of Venison, to Parafin.

Ben: I think what I was trying to say was that we all have our own art worlds. You and I are meeting for the first time today and you have your own art world and I have mine but if we sit and talk for long enough we’ll find areas where it overlaps and we have mutual friends or contacts. But the way the media portrays the art world is monolithic: that there is one art world and if you’re not a part of that, you’re on the outside. Well, I don’t think that’s true. Nowadays, there are so many galleries, so many artists. It’s impossible to know everything that’s going on and why would you wan to anyway?. To be honest, I gave up trying to know everything a long time ago.

My art world has changed and is always changing. When I was a curator at Tate it was very different to now, but there are elements that stay the same. With the gallery I am still very focused on museums and curators because that’s the world that I come from. It’s really, really important for me to try to bring museum curators to the table to talk about our artists, to introduce their work. So there are still parts of my art world from Tate that continue, but its always changing. And I am always meeting people I have never met before. Does that ring true to you?

Jenny: Yes, yes it does. And I am very happy that you pointed out that there are many art worlds and that every one has their own, because I find the media’s portrayal of one homogenous art world and art market very damaging. As there are so many ways you can be an artist or a curator, there are many ways of selling your work and making a living within different art markets.

Ben: Yes, and increasingly its focused on the fairs. For example, this idea that if you are not in Miami at the fair then you are not in the game. But not everyone is in Miami. While Miami is happening I might be talking to someone in Italy or France or South Africa about something exciting and that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Its all valid.

Jenny: And then there are multiple fairs happening at the same time.

Ben: Actually Miami is an interesting example because I went there and visited all the satellite fairs a few years ago. I was really curious because of course we’re going to start applying to fairs soon and so I wanted to educate myself. There were eight fairs that were happening alongside the main one in Miami and each one of those is its own little world and its own market. So even within Miami, in one city of the course of a few days, there are different art worlds.

Jenny: I find the relationship that fairs have to each other very interesting. In London Frieze and Sunday are the best example. The majority of galleries taking part in Sunday will probably be at Frieze Projects the next year.

Ben: It’s the structure isn’t it? If you do this then you can move on to do that.

Jenny: Yeah, it’s almost like a career progression for galleries. Will you be applying to Art Fairs?

Ben: It’s difficult to say to what extent we’re going to be able to do this differently but we’re very clear that we don’t want to just do lots of small fairs, we’d rather wait and establish ourselves and show people what our program is and then do a few very good fairs. I think a lot of galleries do lots of fairs that becomes the focus of their activity I really don’t want to be like that. For me, the reason for doing this is to to work with great artists and make great exhibitions. I’m a curator. I want people to come here and see Hugo Wilson’s exhibition, a complete presentation of a body of work that he has worked on for over a year, rather than come across it in the compromised context of a fair. An exhibition offers a far more meaningful relationship encounter — a more meaningful kind of engagement.

Hugo Wilson and Ben Tufnell at preview Hugo Wilson, Parafin. Photography by Mary Ashton Ellis.

On Hugo Wilson

Jenny: Could you tell me more about Hugo Wilsons’s current exhibition? How did your relationship with the artist start? How long was the exhibition in the planning?

Ben: Hugo is someone I’ve been watching for a long time. I first met him and his work I think in 2009 and we kept on talking over the years. It was always obvious to me that he had huge talent but he was very young and hadn’t really found his focus. It started to feel a couple years ago that he was moving on and coming to the next level. So we started talking about working together. When we launched Parafin Hugo was one of the first artists to say ‘yes, I want to be a part of that’. He was one of the first artists to come and see this space and he developed this new body of work with this gallery space in mind.

For me, with this show, his work has reached a new level of complexity and sophistication. He has created a complete experience where all the works are interconnected: oil paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs. The key idea that he is exploring in this body of work is the way ideas and beliefs are encoded and structured in culture and persist through time.

Hugo Wilson, Hunt 3, 2014. Oil on prepared panel. 180 × 142 cm. Hugo Wilson, Parafin

The paintings quote from old master paintings, in particular hunt scenes by artists like Rubens, and do so to comment on how those images have changed in meaning over time. In the 18th century, a wealthy patron might commission an artist to paint these fantastical scenes with leopards and tigers attacking elephants and rhinoceroses as a way of saying ‘I’m powerful, I have power over nature’. and then In Hugo’s paintings all the human figures are redacted out, so the images become strangely powerless. The other thing to reflect on is that these hunts are totally inconceivable in the present day. The idea of hunting rhinos is so unacceptable and yet there are paintings of rhino hunts hanging in the great museums around Europe.

Hugo Wilson, Parafin. Photography by Mary Ashton Ellis.

The sculptures do something similar in that they take quotations from different sculptures throughout history. In this case, it is representations of the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Likewise, the photographs show the way ideological structures persist. You have these churches that are marooned in the middle of big commercial developments. The reason why that happens is that the church stands on consecrated ground, so you can’t build on it. These developers can knock the church down because its not listed but once they do they can’t build anything in its place. So you get this spiritual structure which is now powerless because its no longer used as a church, yet it persists into the 21st century.

Hugo Wilson, Untitled, 2014. Photograph on Dibond, waxed steel frame. 66 × 89 cm. Hugo Wilson, Parafin.

Hugo Wilson, Mithraim 2, 2014. Charcoal on paper, waxed steel frame. 86 × 113.5 cm. Hugo Wilson, Parafin.

And the drawings are interesting because these are drawings of Roman friezes from the ancient cult of Mithras, and they have been eroded by the weather over 2000 years so they became abstracted. And you and I probably have no idea of what the cult of Mithras was all about but somehow some sort of remnant of that cult survives. And these friezes are now in museums a kind of exalted artefacts from the past.

So it all connects.

Jenny: It’s almost like this bizarre typology. It’s the same, but different examples from different eras.

Ben: If you are a very, very well read art historian, you could walk around this show and pick out the different references, and sort of piece it all together. However, that’s totally unnecessary, to do that actually misses the point. Hugo is not interested in us looking at his painting trying to guess which references he is using, because we get it in an unconscious way. All this is part of a cultural memory bank that we all draw on.

Private View Hugo Wilson at Parafin Gallery. Photography by Mary Ashton Ellis.

On Ben’s Career

Jenny: Coming to the third part of my questions — about your personal career. Most of our readers are early stage artists and curators, who have graduated recently or a few years ago. Today when you finish university there is that idea that ‘oh it was better a decade ago or two decades ago and now it’s awful’ is it actually like that? Is there any reassuring advice that you could share with young artists?

Ben: I can only really talk about my own experience. It took me a long time to work out what I wanted to do. I worked in a museum in Leicester, then I did a Museology masters, then I worked in a museum in Norwich. I knew I wanted to work in a museum but I didn’t really know what kind. I loved art but hadn’t found the thing that would be my focus. That was true even after working at Tate for a few years. I was working on fascinating projects but I hadn’t found my path.

So my advice would be to take your time — I think people are always in a hurry and today’s culture is so accelerated. I would like to try and slow things down. So much of looking at art and thinking about art is slow life. If you are going to do this, you need to be able to look and think. But its probably useless advice for someone who is in a hurry and looking for their big break.

Jenny: I think its a good point and good advice ’don’t be desperate, slow down’.

Your career on paper or on Linkedin looks perfect — a seamless progression of great institutions and galleries: Norwich Castle Museum, Tate, Haunch of Venison, now Parafin. I know that any journey, no matter how perfect is messier than it looks on paper, so were there any independent curatorial attempts on a budget?

Ben: Yeah, I did a couple of things in Norwich way, way back. But I feel very lucky as I’ve always had platforms that I could use to pursue my interests — beginning with my job at the Castle Museum in Norwich where I was actually curating exhibitions from Tate’s collection, which was an amazing opportunity for a young curator to have.

I guess my equivalent of a low budget project is writing rather than curating. I would write for magazines or for catalogues when I didn’t have a platform to do an exhibition. The thing I love about writing about art is that it’s a process of clarifying what you think about something. It becomes a very useful tool for figuring things out. When I was at Tate, I had much less ability to initiate projects so I always satisfied that curiosity by writing reviews, or essays for catalogues.

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