LONDON — Whether or not they have ever been to Luton, people who know of the place feel they need little introduction. The town is a regular on lists of the worst places to live, the kind of urban black hole that represents all that’s worst about modern Britain: lack of amenities, lack of culture, lack of cohesion, and social problems to spare. But among the pound stores and the liquor stores, a local artist has flourished. His name is Dominic Allan, more usually known as Dominic from Luton.
The first thing you learn from an interview is that the 39-year-old artist does not really live in Luton. His live-in studio, in Whitechapel in East London, couldn’t be better located. But once you get past the geographical twist, the space reveals itself as an ample home away from home, with an impressive bookshelf, a sofa bed, and a rudimentary kitchen with a heavily used coffee machine. By far the most space is given over to his art preparation: Reebok trainers hang from the rafters, a Burberry cap is hooked on the wall, here a picture of his dog, here a vertical rack for a pair of racing bikes, and, strung from one corner to another, a banner reading “You’re Scum.”
This array of semiotics will tell you that you can take the boy out of Bedfordshire, but you can’t take Bedfordshire out of the boy. Rather than languish in small town doldrums, Allan got on his bike and carved out an art career. He has studied at the Chelsea School of Art. He has sold much of his work to Charles Saatchi and he has forged connections with some of the biggest names in British art. He has even brought some of them back home to Luton. We spoke on the eve of a group show in Allan’s childhood home, in which Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed is making his Luton debut.
“I just wanted it to be really, really plain and straightforward. The artists are doing something ‘at my mum’s house’; interventions, you might call it,” says Allan, who has a conspiratorial way of speaking when the subject matter is art. “It’s just a three-bedroom semi in suburbia, about a 10 minute walk from the train station,” he says, continuing his pitch. And yet it sounds as if the journey will be worth it. Works include a 10-foot-square wall in the garden by Creed, a text piece in lace by 2006 Turner-nominee Mark Titchner to be hung in the bay window, a film about Indian cuisine by Jasleen Kaur, and a grand giveaway of risographs by MFA students from the unaccredited art college School of the Damned (at which Allan volunteers as a teacher). Other commissions include glassware made by Grizedale Arts and, keeping it domestic and familial, ceramics made by rising star Joe Fletcher Orr and his mother Lynda.
“Anyone is very welcome to go in there if they just drop us a line or ring me first,” Allan says. “But I’m totally about breaking down the hierarchies of art viewing — at that point where you push a bell and you walk up a stairwell and then walk into a whitewashed gallery space. That’s not what this is about; it’s within someone’s home.” It soon emerges that Allan is a romantic when it comes to his home, his town, his parents, his football team, and his “notion that anyone can do it, with a bit of funding.” And, as he says of his local collaborators, “We’re doing it for ourselves and very gently it just underlines the sense there’s not really provision or any framework for these large [art] practices in the town.”
It is always illuminating to consider an artist’s roots, even more so when he wears them on his sleeve. In 2014, Allan created a piece titled “Call Mum,” which consisted of a flag on Cardiff Castle emblazoned with that very decent piece of advice. In the 1960s, Allan’s mum was in the girl band The Mysteries, signed to Decca Records. His father was a casino owner whose circle of acquaintanceship included The Beatles. The couple met while she was working for him as a croupier. “They’re not artistic, my parents,” Allan says. “But I think they’ve always been around [artistic] people, they’ve always been curious about the arts.” All the same, galleries were “never” on the agenda for the young Allan: “I was taken to football matches and playgrounds.”
But there is a certain showbiz inheritance in the art of Dominic from Luton. He has dressed up and given performances, both as ‘80s pop idol Paul Young (also from Luton) and the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In each case, his absurdist appearances transcended the gallery and translated into a good yarn that could be comfortably related in a pub. I ask Allan if he really does set out to entertain and, after a pause, he concurs: “I think more and more the work is going toward the relational and dialogical. It’s quite simply about completely considering the viewer and the collaboration with the viewer and taking art off its pedestal.”
The artist does however, also make “stuff.” He has sold photographs (of his dog, of his tattoos) and self-deprecating text-based work (“White Pratt from Luton”) to Saatchi. So after pinning his colors to the mast of relational aesthetics, I ask him if the famous collector could ever persuade him to concentrate on shiny art commodities. “I might do it,” he says with a laugh, pointing out that the rent is always due. “I’ve still got an incredibly good relationship with the Saatchi Gallery,” he tells me, clearly grateful for the support of what he calls a “very professional” team. “I hope history is kind to Charles and his people there. Because his contribution to contemporary art can’t really be doubted.”
After two or three hours talking to Allan, it becomes clear he dreams of contributing something Saatchi-like to Luton. He speculates about a capital funding bid to build a gallery from scratch in his hometown: “I would set it up and then I would walk away. It would be my gift to Luton.” In a town with a “complete lack of visual art provision,” that would be some gift. Allan claims to have backers and architects in place. “Luton is the pregnancy that never gives birth,” he says, somewhat mystically, “and I’m its forever midwife.” In the next breath, he says this career-long endeavor has been giving him gray hairs. “I’ve been painting the ceiling,” he laughs. Later, upon reflection, he adds, “It’s time for other people to dissect Luton”.
But it strikes me that Allan’s relationship to his hometown is as unbreakable as his relationship to the local football team he supports. The artist is a diehard follower of underachievers Luton Town. “Football and art are so divorced, they’re aliens,” he admits. And yet, Allan appears to draw inspiration and strength from the community he finds on the terraces. The paradox of Dominic from Luton is that he is at once a man of the people and a well-networked fixture in the world of contemporary art. And from that strange relationship, perhaps contemporary art stands to gain the most.
Sunridge Avenue Projects continues in Luton, England, through June 4. For directions and a viewing appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seems like a tough nut to crack. Luton seems to reflect some of the suburbs in Massachusetts. No art in elementary schools, no idea what art can be, how it happens, or that without art human society could not exist at all.
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