Sheffield born artist, Stuart Sandford, was in London to attend the opening of his two-week takeover of Dalston-based gallery The Invisible Line. He now resides in LA having graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with a Fine Art degree in 2006, and divides his time between America, Germany and the UK where he exhibits his work. I caught him on the opening night of his exhibition, Teen Dreams, a retrospective of his photographic and sculptural work, which uses the male figure as its focal point.
Seated on two chairs in one corner of the exhibition, and surrounded by photographs of partially undressed men, I begin by asking Stuart how he found himself in this position within the artistic world.
"I started as an actor," something that's understandable given how measured and direct Stuart’s speech is, "from that I wrote and directed my own stuff. I didn’t have the budgets to make my own films, which was my original ambition, so I turned to the cheaper medium of photography. That led me into Fine Art, in which I got my degree in Sheffield. Working with photography and video during my degree, I began to see myself working in the art world, which in turn led to the creation of sculptures, (Stuart’s most recent piece is a 1.5 foot bronze statue of model Sebastian Sauvé) and everything else you see around you."
Stuart’s progression, it seemed to me, stemmed from enforced limitations. I wondered what it was specifically about photography that drew him in ahead of other mediums; was it just the next best thing after film? "I liked how I was able to create a narrative with a single image. There isn’t always a necessity for a full-length film to get your point across." The one piece of video in the exhibition is only a few seconds long and is on a continuous loop; it shows Zac Morris from Saved By The Bell with an expression hinting toward sexual pleasure. "You can take the photographs also as a whole body to form a more cohesive sense of work. I’ve just produced a series of Polaroids in Los Angeles about my time there and the people who I was meeting, and they were purchased by a gallery in LA – they bought the whole set. The reason why is because on their own they don’t have as much value – they belong together and they work together as a body."
At the mention of ‘body’, I’m reminded of Stuart’s sculpture Sebastian, which sits in the corner opposite us. He cites the Roman figure Antinous, supposed lover of Emperor Hadrian, as his main influence. More likenesses of Antinous were created than any other in Greek or Roman History. "Through that process he became almost like a deity, a god-like figure. People started to worship him, he even had a city named after him. The idea with Sebastian was therefore to create lots of different versions of him, small sizes, large ones, bronze, marble and also many images to create this idea of an icon." The process of the 3D imaging itself involves thousands of pictures taken at different angles to capture the minute detailing of his figure: "I wanted to make him more famous by doing it."
Sebastian appears to go against much of Stuart’s work, which is largely concerned with gritty realism, capturing intimate and fragile, off the cuff moments. Sebastian is more of an idealized and purposefully poised representation of man. "There are two reasons for this," Stuart assures me, "I was getting bored with photography mainly. I thought it needed a fresh approach." With Stuart’s cum face selfies – a project whereby he asked subjects to capture their own face when reaching sexual climax – whilst keeping a gritty raw reality, an element of orchestration was added in giving the photographic power to the subject as they took their own picture, perhaps representing more of an idealized version of self.
This led onto a series called untitled where Stuart began his appropriation of other’s photography by gathering and exhibiting photos from the website guyswithiphones.com (devoted to selfies in the mirror of guys being sexual). "Sebastian is the final product of this selfie idea I’ve been working with. It is different as it’s sculptural, but you could argue that it’s an extension of photography, especially due to the process, which uses cameras to scan the model."
Sebastian has a very definitive pose. Unlike Stuart’s other photographic subjects, who are captured in moments that imply motion before and after, Sebastian is frozen in 3D form and forever sedated in a singular pose. "It was a classical idea, other than Antinous, an inspiration of mine was also narcissus, that famous image in which he is frozen, glaring at his own reflection."
As we start to wander around the gallery, I wanted to find what it was about the male form that fascinates Stuart so much. Is it something more than just a sexual attraction? "My work is all about identity, masculinity, sexuality, and those ideas stemming from adolescence, it’s a crucial point in your life when you’re figuring out who you are, what you’re going to be, who you’re going to be. That’s a crazy time in terms of hormones. A lot of these appropriated images are people that I was looking at when I was that kind of age, so I think I am taking them towards sex, but I don’t think I’m making sexual work – certainly not pornographic. It’s not made to turn you on, but I am wanting you to think about sexuality more than sex itself." Although Stuart uses homosexually charged imagery, through their link to adolescence they become a vehicle for teenage curiosity and insecurity regardless of gender or sexual orientation. These images represent a stew of emotion that is experienced by teenagers universally.
Stuart has appropriated most of these photographs, and has re-contextualized them. He has abridged the collections to mark his point of view, instead of taking his own photos that are influenced by them. "As I said before, I was getting disillusioned by photography. There are already enough photographs in the world, there doesn’t need to be any more. It pre-exists, so why not use it for what I want to say?"
Teen Dreams is imagining what it would be like to live in Malibu at that time during the 80s – a fantasy of sorts. Stuart’s appropriation of images that pre-exist represent nostalgia, a dream that belongs to a very specific time period, which would only be tarnished by extending upon it with his own photographs. A teen dream can never be fully revisited in adult life, which is perhaps why Stuart thinks the images are best left as they originally were.
Words by Patrick Benjamin