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XL Catlin’s guide — a catalyst for art careers

Above: Adeline de Monseignat's 'Mother HEB Loleta' 2012.

In just six years the guide curated by Justin Hammond has become a key indicator of emerging young artistic talent — and a genuine boon for their CVs. Jo Caird reports.

The book’s all about locating potential,’ says Justin Hammond, curator of the XL Catlin Art Guide 2016. ‘You can tell within 30 seconds if that artist has got what it takes to make an impression in the art world. You can go to a degree show and see something that really blows you away, and then you meet the artist and you realise that actually that’s the best thing they’re ever going to make; there’s no scope for taking it further.’

Launched in 2010, the Catlin Art Guide is now regarded in Contemporary art circles as an indispensable tool for identifying talent and longevity among the legions of young graduates from UK art schools.

Hammond surveys the work of approximately 2,000 artists at around 50 degree shows each year, taking recommendations from collectors, curators and course tutors, and following up with studio visits. Thirty artists are profiled in the 2016 guide, which was launched at the London Art Fair in January, with a further selection process seeing seven or eight recent graduates shortlisted for the Catlin Art Prize.

The prize, now in its tenth year, invites artists to create a new body of work for exhibition in London (5-28 May at the Londonewcastle Project Space). For Lexi Strauss, who was listed in last year’s guide and took part in the prize exhibition, the ‘visibility’ afforded by her selection has made a ‘huge difference’ in terms of exposing her to collectors and curators.

It’s still early days in terms of sales of her work, but Strauss has had lots of people ‘getting in touch and offering opportunities’, she says. ‘It’s definitely something that has an impact on the CV.’ This is a sentiment echoed by collectors too. ‘From our point of view it’s been incredibly helpful,’ says Jo Baring, curator of the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art, a private collection of more than 650 works spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, installation and video.

‘Degree shows are not our area of expertise. We’ve gone round the degree shows; you can pick out things, and then see what Justin [Hammond] has picked out. What’s been particularly good is that he chooses an array of artists. It’s not just a guide to what Justin likes, it’s actually a very good cross-section of what was produced at the degree shows in the last year.’

It’s gratifying for Hammond that the Catlin is seen as a signifier. ‘When I did the first book, no one knew,’ he says. ‘When I approached the artists for the first time, there was nothing to show them and there was no history, so that was a leap of faith on their behalf. But now there’s definitely this self-fulfilling element that if they make it into the 30 they’re ones to watch. I’m quite proud that it’s got that reputation.’

For some collectors, buying work by artists straight out of college is a question of getting in there early while prices are low in the hope of making a good return on investment a few years down the line. That’s not really what motivates Baring when buying for the Ingram Collection, however. ‘It’s about being involved at this stage of their career,’ she says, contrasting the excitement of talking to a young artist with that of dealing with the estates of deceased artists. ‘Our motivation is having a relationship with the artist, getting to know them, supporting them, finding out what they need, whether it’s networks, contacts, advice on exhibitions, maybe helping out with the studio space.’

Hammond’s preoccupation, from the beginning, has been about providing young artists with the support to get through what he calls the ‘problematic’ period after leaving art school. ‘Straight after the degree show all those artists are really hot, especially in the UK, with this infatuation with the new,’ he explains. ‘But two or three months down the line you could see that a lot of them were starting to struggle a bit without the infrastructure of art school, without going into the studio, having their peers around them, getting feedback, having something to work towards.’

The Catlin Art Prize gives them just that. The support (both financial and moral) from Catlin was crucial for Adeline de Monseignat, who finished an MA in fine art at the City & Guilds of London Art School in 2011 and won the public vote at the Catlin Prize exhibition the following year. ‘It gave me the opportunity to be more ambitious and produce work that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise,’ she says.

‘There are many prizes that are given as cash prizes directly to the artist as a result of their degree show, but there isn’t necessarily such a thing as an opportunity to make new work and a platform to show that. With Catlin it was there on a silver platter.’ De Monseignat went on to win the Royal British Society of Sculptors Bursary Award in 2013 and has since exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery and Victoria Miro.

Association with the Catlin is particularly helpful for graduates of the less starry schools and for those based outside London. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Lexi Strauss returned to her native Worcester. Her involvement with Catlin kept her ‘embedded in the London scene’, she says, at a time that could have been very isolating.

Philip Mudd, a private collector, was intrigued by the work of City & Guilds of London Art School graduate Oliver Hickmet at the launch of the Catlin Guide 2015 at the London Art Fair. It was what he did for the prize exhibition that made Mudd pull out his cheque book, however.

‘The pieces [Hickmet] had at the art fair were all of a muchness,’ says Mudd. ‘There was a theme he ploughed very strong. But then four months later he came up with an incredibly strong yet very different body of work.’ Mudd would never have come across an artist like Hickmet without Catlin, he says.

Hammond doesn’t have a crystal ball, and being picked for the Catlin is no guarantee of future success — a fact that the curator is keen to acknowledge: ‘You’re not going to pick someone and three years down the line they’re a household name.’ But in the notoriously tricky world of talent-spotting, Hammond’s record is pretty good: ‘If I ran through the previous winners, the fact that they’re all still carving a living from making art is an achievement in its own right. I’m pleased about that.’

xlcatlinart.com