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Joe Clarke of Goldfish


Joe, we tend to start these interviews with a bit of biographical detail. Can you say something about yourself - particularly about what you did before you came to Cornwall and what it was that brought you here?

I moved to Cornwall at the age of 18 with my then girlfriend and now wife Hollie, who I have been with since school. I knew I didn't want to be a part of the real world, and after coming to Cornwall on family holidays since childhood I guessed that Cornwall would be as near to the sort of 'not-so-real-world' that I might be able to get. It was the quality of light that drew me here. Yeah right of course it was - as an 18 year old the surf had something to do with it also. I was actually also drawn to the celtic history of the place. As a child I would wander in grave yards alone, I used to find it important in someway to be reminded of my insignificance. I guess on some deep level Cornwall provided me with a similar thing...

Had you any experience of running a gallery before you opened Goldfish? What did you expect it would be like, and did it match those expectations?
My experience has been odd, and one of continual self-challenge. I was given a bit of money when I moved down. Not a lot, but a start. It was handed to me in a note card which read 'make use of it'. I took my 'A' level paintings knowing that I would not find a place to exhibit and hired a place of my own in St. Ives. I made loads of mistakes, lost all the money, worked my arse off all hours and that was the start of that. Many years later, lots of hard work later, many stories later and a few quid lost in the mean time, I am still here, still passionate and seem to be doing OK.

Hollie has been on the end of my tempestuous moods for years, and I know it has been difficult because the challenge has been so great. From the start I wanted to do something of cultural importance - I would often give works away to people that I liked rather than sell them to those that I didn't. I know I am not the best business model, but in turn know that integrity is more important to me. This has led to a life time so far of frustration but now much more joy, because it is nice to have these things recognized. Expectations are always difficult because my boundaries always move. I try not to have expectations. I honestly just please myself and do the very best that I can.

What is your perception of private galleries in Cornwall? What are the particular difficulties and challenges they face?
I think that this is getting much better, although we know that there are many in the business of selling pictures rather than showing art. I think that it is difficult to express my views without coming across pretentiously, which I don't feel that I am. I am after all for choice.

I do know however that there was not a gallery showing the sort of work that I like until I started doing it. That is not to say that I don't like other galleries now. I have a lot of respect for those that take risks and try to show where Cornwall is going rather than just where it has been.



So you were conscious of the need to do something really different, and to try and make a clean break with the art of the past? That's quite a risky thing to do.

As a good forward-thinking gallery there is a constant battle to stand out from the rest. There are very few platforms or mechanisms to do so - the press won't do it and there is little in the way of critical attention to point the more discerning at artists doing the good stuff. This must and will change, it is a bit of a mission for me.

I do think that the establishment down here have seen the private galleries as purely commercial, and therefore not worthy of real attention or respect. This really pisses me of because I know that it is not true. There are a few people that run galleries who put blood, sweat and tears in to what they believe in - this is an asset to the area and should be very very appreciated.

Not all galleries are parasites. Andrew Litten gave me torn out article the other day, from the Times written by Waldemar Januszczak  about Annely Juda, praising the role of a good gallerist for highlighting art work that otherwise may not reach the public arena. I was really moved by it, that Andrew had thought that I might need it, and really inspired actually. I think that London gallerists are perhaps more respected by the establishment than Cornish ones. Perhaps this will change.


When you say the establishment I 'm guessing you mean the Tate, Newlyn and other public galleries. I think over the last couple of decades they've tended to see it as their mission to bring art into the county from outside - which is part of their remit after all - but there's a danger it happens at the cost of recognising local art. Its a difficult balancing act for them.

In terms of moving things on down here it absolutely doesn't help that the art journals, art critics and the rest of the structure that supports and validates new art doesn't penetrate much further than Bristol. Its easy under those circumstances to presume that things that happen further West are not so important or good - whereas in fact its simply an accident of geography. Would you agree? My own view is that we have to do what we can to recognise what is important and unique about Cornwall - and work with that. But, and this is a complex issue, you can't necessarily apply the same criteria for judging work down here.

I absolutely agree with this. I hope that it will be clearer what is unique about Cornwall in time, as you know I have my views.

I honestly believe we are on the verge of an exciting climate of change. I have met and spoken pretty openly with Mark Osterfield from the Tate on numerous occasions and I have to say that he seems open and enthusiastic. I do believe that Tate see the need to recognise and I think that the appetite is there. I believe that the same applies to James green from Newlyn, and I have been assured that Martin Clarke the new creative director of Tate at Ives will also be enthusiastic, bold and passionate. I look forward to meeting him.

What I believe to be vital is for artists to live up to the challenge, to push themselves. If ambition is present then I am sure that the Tate and the Newlyn are much more likely to show recognition from now on. There is a lot at stake, a lot could be lost, if there is no support to continue the legacy of the place. Although it was in my opinion faulted, Art Now did seem to indicate an appetite to give recognition.

Talking of recognition, do you find many of the art-collectors you have dealings with are from outside Cornwall, if so what proportion? Is this a situation that you have encouraged or influenced through your own efforts?
It is a challenging choice to be based here. Press problems, heritage problems, you battle with people's fake idea of what art in Cornwall is or supposed to be... We do seem to have a real problem to galvanise the intangible thing that can move us on. When we go to London, to the London art fair we have phenomenal success on a big stage, it is almost easier to make a splash there than here.

I often feel that the lifestyle press in Cornwall are much more interested in froth than things with weight that could get us taken very seriously as an area of creativity. I'm thinking hard and hoping to work hard on this. Serious collectors need faith in order to jump in, we need to sort a lot out locally to aid this.

Perhaps one solution is to work harder to get a publication (not unlike this website) visible on a local and also national level e.g. by advertising in the Tate members magazine, the Sunday papers that kind of thing. I think its important to recognise and work with peoples expectations, but also to shape them too. I mean how do you deal with people e.g. from London when they say 'this doesnt look like Cornish art'?

I do not see this as a solution to a problem with regards local serious arts coverage, but a vital missing ingredient. If we can't give serious critical coverage to serious art practice taking place down here then how can we expect it nationally? This has to change before anything else can. How is it that an area with the largest concentration of artists outside of the East End has no serious arts press? This is completely bizarre and seriously depressing.

You are, to you credit I believe, gaining a reputation as one of the more outspoken of local gallerists. You often say that its important to have a passion for art and I could n't agree more. Can you expand on this?
Its difficult to speak objectively about this, as I am me and don't know any other way. I like a challenge. I remember when I was younger, about 12, getting a friend to tie my ankles to my wrists I then put on welly boots and jumped in a swimming pool, because I knew I could escape. I didn't have a lot of fear and I had a weird kind of belief in myself.

To be moved is a major ingredient in life. I need emotion, and maybe I need a roller coaster of it. I will work hard and relentlessly for what I believe in, either that or I wont lift my head from the pillow. I am finding that my need for passion within the art world is more frenzied lately. There is lots of talk of projects , statistics and such like - this wears me down. I like the more intangible aspects to the arts, which leads to passion.

Talking of passion, how did you feel the discussion regarding Tate's Art Now Cornwall went? I spoke to one of the artists in the show a couple of weeks ago who said that much of the debate happened on this website (on the forum). It was through putting on Art Now Cornwall? though that you did more than anyone to help this process. In fact, though the Tate show did n't get as much national press as we had all hoped, the debate that ensued was heated and at times confrontational, but I think positive in the end...
I think the discussion was vital in all meanings of the word. I think the forum was useful in galvanising a debate that many were whispering and shouting about. I think that it was controversial but debate and energy was created, I would hope and am sure that lessons have been learnt. But I would also add that it is the job of creative minds to question the world around them. I hope that this process continues. I do think that it turned out positively but would hope that it could be seen as a start rather than an end.

Moving on to talk again about the gallery: do the artists represented by Goldfish have anything in common?
I guess they do. I often feel that the artists that we show are all saying something that I want to say myself.


I always think of artists like Andrew Lanyon and David Kemp and a number of the other artists as re-presenting elements that were repressed, purged or eliminated by the modernists of St Ives, that are specifically to do with the human body and the human condition: eg mortality, sexuality etc. These modernist expressionist/surrealist aspects have come back with avengence for many of the Goldfish artists.

I know your point and I kind of agree, although I'm not sure its that simple. Perhaps it was repressed by the packagers not the artists. You see I would not call artists like Hilton repressed, and there was Karl Weschke and I'm sure others also that demonstrated expression, the dark as well as the light. Wallis himself was quiet free in his work, so maybe it is a case of each following there own path rather than this one rule suits all. I like the idea of opening it all up again a bit. So we can see the past more clearly and then in doing so embrace the future more freely.


People also talk about Outsider Art in relation to Goldfish - and I know you have a sympathy for artists that are somehow outside the system. Is the concept of Outsider art useful in this sense?

Outsider has been said, and I think that this is true in the purest sense of the term.

It is about being aware of ones own patch, one's own life rather than the art-world as a whole may be. This has nothing to do with naivete: it has far more to do with free-thinking. I see it as more to do with primitivism, getting in touch with our own base humanity and our place amongst things, not to do with art at all. This is affecting for me. The concept of Outsider Art is often used as a category. I am much more interested in the individual than I am the category. The more free-thinking the individual, the more there can be to learn from them.

Can you also explain a bit between the link between the Outsider and Cornish art in general - because I know this is something you are interested in?

Some things can be difficult to summarise with words, even from someone like me who can at times rattle on a bit!

I believe in Cornwall as a place of refuge for those that need it, a place to escape the mainsteam, but also a place to discover our purpose. I think that this was the pursuit of many of the postwar artists, coming to Cornwall to search for clarity. I see this as the link between those who come here, a kind of primitive exploration or need to clarify, as a place this seems to inspire perfectly my understanding of the inquisitive creative spirit. This is a psychological theory maybe which I find more useful in piecing things together than any aesthetic theory.

If we follow this thread then it allows to follow the chronology of the place right up to the present so that people could understand and see why something may have a cornishness about it. It is my aim to put together a book and public exhibition as soon as I reach a point that I can explain it better. The working title is 'primitive complexity': about the strange, poetic, obsessive and deeply personal task of walking your own path and looking for your own truth away from the spotlight. I guess it is my understanding of what is special about Cornwall and the asylum that it offers.