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Where's the frame

Jean Watt

February 23, 2023 8:25 AM


‍Tom Bull’s seductively shiny bitumen-covered sculptures are both warmly familiar and strangely unsettling. A log burner and a chair are dripping in black, oozing with a living presence in Des Bain’s newly opened Hackney space. Their forms are recognisable but obscured under layers of a sticky entombment. Drawing from a vernacular of rural living, Tom’s work finds a still point between absurd sculpture and functional object. where’s the frame? had the pleasure of talking to Tom at Des Bains where he is showing works as part of their opening group presentation. 

Tom Bull in front of ‘Cottagecore’, 2023. Cardboard, expanding foam, tape, newspaper, bitumen, wood, 115 x 30 x 70 cm.

Tom grew up in Northamptonshire and his relationship to the rural is at the heart of his work, drawn to objects and processes which he sees as quintessential of the countryside. This relationship is complex: a combination of the lived experience of his childhood and the distance which studying at art school in London gave him. His sculptures emerge from this encounter between the personal and the critical. Wary of the dangers of glorifying rural life, which can produce a romanticised version of Britain and its conservatism, Tom’s engagement with folk culture maintains a critical edge. Yet he also pushes against the negative, city-centric narratives about living in the countryside, maintaining a crucial sensitivity in his world-building. “There is a kind of horror around the countryside… but there’s an importance of being in touch with community, with the land, and with play”. This dualism pushes out of his work: the horror and the homely, the horror of the homely.

Tom Bull, ‘Can We Be Sincere When Much Water Has Passed Under the Bridge’, 2022Wood, plaster, clay, soil, hay, treacle, golden syrup, bitumen, pipe, varnish, 220 x 75 x 90 cm.

The log burner has become symbolic of these ideas in Tom’s practice, attracted to “the seductiveness and archaicness of an object which holds fire” and its power to also hold history, heritage and nostalgia. Cottagecore is a version of a log burner in its entirety: its angular flue pipe emerges from a low-legged cuboid and is fastened to the wall, the surface glimmering in black bitumen. Other works feature elements of the burners. In Can We Be Sincere When Much Water Has Passed Under the Bridge, selected for this year’s New Contemporaries exhibition, a long tube grows out of a miniature mock Tudor house. A similar pipe features in And All That Haunted Nigh Had Sought Their Household Fires, coming from the textured roof of a bitumen-coated thatched cottage. This time there’s a stool in front of it, which complicates the scale of what we imagined to be something inhabitable. “Interested in confusing what the house is”, Tom’s world of sculptures produces furniture which outgrows its cottage, and dwellings which are too small to inhabit.

Tom Bull, ‘Bothy’, 2022. Playhouse, clay, straw, stone, soil, PVA, log burner, 200 x 180 x 170 cm.

Playing with scale in this way comes, in part, from Tom’s attraction to the miniature and how enticing a tiny version of an expected object can be. The miniature also contains the possibility that it could become full-sized. Perhaps it has not, in fact, been shrunk from normal-sized, but has the potential to grow: a proposal or a model for an object which is yet to exist. “What would this house be if it were to be bigger?”, Tom asks. So far, he has left this to our imagination. Bothy and These Dark, Strange and Untrustworthy Times come the closest to being conceivably inhabitable.

Tom Bull, ‘These Dark, Strange and Untrustworthy Times’, 2022. Steel, wood, fire. 150 x 40 x 65 cm.

Yet even here, they’re child-sized, taking us back to a time when we were small enough to clamber inside a plastic house in somebody’s garden. The desire to pin down the blurriness of this type of childhood nostalgia focuses much of the work. “If you ask someone, why are you so nostalgic about that? Why are you so fond of that time when you're younger? People really can't understand why, or can’t truly describe it.” The sculptures encourage this introspection, harking back to a remembered time while containing something eerily uncanny. 

Tom Bull, ‘And All That Haunted Nigh Had Sought Their Household Fires’, 2022. Cardboard, polystyrene, expanding foam, soil, clay, hay, straw, glue, plumber’s putty bitumen, plaster, pvc, interior varnish, 290 x 100 x 75 cm.

Across the body of work is a balance between concept and material, a focus on the process of making and consideration of the why and the what of a particular material. For Cottagecore, which is made out of cardboard, expanding foam and bitumen, there is an intentional irony in using such flammable materials to make a log burner. These materials are also unwieldy: “you’ve got the sogginess of the cardboard covered in bitumen and the expanding foam which takes a long time to cure… you can’t control it all. And sometimes it doesn't really work, it kind of falls apart. So the sculpture takes its own agency over what is possible.” That’s the goal, Tom says, to make objects which hold their own presence and in doing so, become all the more confronting for the viewer. 

Tom Bull, ‘Acts of Vandalism in the Name of Historical Learning’, 2023. Photo insert fridge magnets, fridge.

The shininess of the bitumen-covered works further plays into the acknowledgement of the viewer and the livingness of the object. “Whenever you move around you get to see things move in it. It feels alive.” In the same vein, the surface allows you to see a version of your own reflection: slippery and blurry, sensed only through the motion of your own body and the proximity to the object. Just as you think you remember this object from time’s past, you see a suggestion of yourself in its surface. 

Acts of Vandalism in the Name of Historical Learning is Tom’s most recent work: a collection of fridge magnets featuring images of children burning cardboard houses to learn about the Great Fire of London. Created only a few weeks before the show’s opening, Tom wanted to make the most of the access to a fridge. “There’s not many fridges you get in exhibition spaces”, he laughs. The photographs are charmingly funny, whilst also being somewhat disturbing and ritualistic. They play into Tom’s interest in fire and its strange, burning power. The images also feature as slides in Fed Fat on Rural Hopes and Dreams, a chicken hutch with a hay covered, expanding foam roof. An opening in the roof of the hutch reveals the slides playing inside. 

Tom Bull, ‘Fed Fat on Rural Hopes and Dreams’, 2022. Wood, used chicken hutch, expanding foam, cardboard, hay, 35mm slide projector with slides, 95 x 130 x 50 cm.

The fridge magnets, both in their traditional use as the site of family photos and in these repurposed burning images, show us “how we learn through the home”, says Tom. This could be said for much of the body of work. Across it, the spectre of the home looms, sometimes in the physical shape of the house, and sometimes in the jogging of a distant memory of a thatched cottage, or the process of building a fire: a collective understanding of domesticity, of reminding ourselves how we have come to be. Tom’s practice bursts out of a known history into an unknown future.

You can follow Tom on his Instagram and website and you can follow Jean on Instagram.

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