If auction house Christie’s acquisition of art gallery Haunch of Venison in 2007 was an ‘unholy marriage’ (according to one commentator), then Christie’s closure of Haunch of Venison in 2013 must have been an unholy funeral.
The controversy was thus. If galleries nurtured artists’ careers, then auction houses were seen as predators, infiltrating the gallery’s habitat with their financial muscle. They blurred the line between the primary and secondary markets. The Frieze Art Fair refused Haunch participation, as did others, as a sign of their anger at the takeover, and while Haunch’s exhibition programme continued as normal, the gallery never recovered its full measure of respect.
It is against this background that Parafin has emerged. A small gallery on Woodstock Street, just off Oxford Street, next to the expensively revived Bonhams, it has just opened its first show under founders Ben Tufnell and Matt Watkins, both late of Haunch.
When we meet in mid-August to talk at a posh café next to the gallery – a building site having its ceiling plastered and a basement fitted out – Ben and Matt seem slightly frazzled from supervising the works. There are signs of a deeper frazzlement too. I ask them about how the gallery came about.
‘As you know,’ starts Matt, ‘we were both at Haunch of Venison both for about eight years and that came to its natural conclusion -‘
‘I don’t think it came to a natural conclusion,’ says Ben.
‘But it came to a conclusion which is what happened, we all know that story.
Although Matt goes on to talk about how dynamic Haunch was and all they learnt there, there is a faint atmosphere of frustration and forgetting. Other ex-Haunch staff have told me of a numbing bitterness at the sudden closure, so desires to move on and simultaneously not to move on are understandable.
In the year since Haunch closed, says Matt, ‘There have been a number of moments where, late at night, after a good dinner, the conversation would be, “Why don’t we?”‘ And then when the opportunity arose, friends and peers urged them to do it. It would be a chance ‘to do something in a slightly more modest way’, says Ben. With their roster of nine artists, some from Haunch, others not, priced between £5,000 and £500,000, they’re now seeing if modesty pays.
Modest also is the name. Paraffin (in its double-f version) is a ‘very simple, humble fuel’, says Matt. ‘I was thinking about a paraffin stove for cooking on… and I liked the idea of something humble, utilitarian.’ Being the art world, there are layers, of course: the ideas of paragraphs, paraphrasing, para- as a prefix suggesting a slight distance or change. ‘Fin’ has terminal connotations too. Besides, Watkins and Tufnell ‘would sound like a boring firm of solicitors’, says Ben.
Their first show, paintings by Hynek Martinec, is still lives, white objects of mortality and modernity against black backgrounds: a crab and a digital radio sit on a table and a limp octopus hangs from a basket out of which pours shaving foam (‘a contemporary substance which appears solid but which is actually fluid and mutable’, according to the press release). The photorealistic paintings are portentously named (Speak the Truth Even Your Voice Shakes; Experience of Being Alive) and not wildly original, but they are spiritual and accomplished.
It is not easy, opening a small art gallery today. First, you need a prime location. Then, you have to have a roster of decent artists (who could easily choose to be represented elsewhere); if they’re sculptors or installation artists, they can be expensive to support. (Parafin’s other artists include Katie Paterson and Uwe Wittwer.) Artists like proper documentation of their shows, which means catalogues and eventually books, at least digitally. And if you want to sell in the modern marketplace, you need to tour the world’s art fairs, which costs time and money and patience.
Ben says they intend to go to art fairs ‘at some unforeseen but hopefully not too distant point’, but his immediate ambition involves less travelling: ‘We think that if we do great shows with great artists, then people will come to us and we will be a viable commercial proposition.’ Times are, he concedes, ‘challenging’.
Matt picks this up: ‘Like any new business we just have to manage things very economically. You can spend a lot of money on the gallery if you want to… and that’s fine but we’re interested in finding creative ways to do things and keeping things a little bit more realistic.’
Publications are a problem too. While mega-galleries are opening their own publishing houses or keeping existing art-publishers mightily busy with glossy-yet-scholarly catalogues and austere-yet-intriguing think-books, this is not an option for smaller ones. Matt, who was the publisher of Tate Etc magazine and head of publications at Haunch, says digital publishing could be a good route since it has been largely ignored for art-books so far, and videos with the artists talking about their work are a neat expansion too.
If the art-fair route, as lucrative as it can be, is cut off for now, the pair have good ideas on which platforms can raise their artists’ profiles. Having both been at Tate, they know the institutional side of the art world, and understand how ‘museum opportunities’, as Ben puts it, can give an artist huge space to exhibit beyond the gallery walls. Museum opportunities also confer prestige and thus price rises. This can be frowned on by purists, who suggest the galleries are exploiting public museums’ limited budgets to enhance their own artists’ prices, but they certainly offer exposure. ‘Collaborations,’ Ben says, ‘are beneficial for everybody.’
There is no denying that the art world’s motion is expansionary, says Matt, when I talk of gallery juggernauts: ‘It feels like there’s this pressure, everyone must get bigger and bigger.’ But there’s growth and then there’s growth. Parafin don’t want to stand still, but to grow with their artists.
‘And I think,’ says Ben, somewhat pointedly, ‘there’s actually a responsibility on the people who write about the art world, collectors, museum people, to not only be fixated on the big-money stories.’
The problem, he elaborates, is that we think of one art world, when there are infinitely more. ‘People you know are sometime surprised when they say, “Do you know so-and-so?” and I say, “Well, no, I’ve never met them.” They say, “But they’re in the art world!” Well, they’re not in my art world… The problem only comes when one of those art worlds sucks attention away from all the others.’ Insuch a landscape, humility rarely catches the eye – but perhaps Parafin can light the way.
Hynek Martinec: Every Minute You Are Closer to Death is at Parafin, 18 Woodstock Street, until 11 October