A legend in her own gallery

Sadie Coles is already well-known for being a smart cookie in the contemporary art world. Now she is putting her skills to the test with a West End gallery and an impressive roster of young artists. Hester Lacey reports on a new venture that has all the hallmarks of impending success

Hester Lacey
Saturday 26 April 1997 23:02

THERE'S A strong smell of fresh paint in Sadie Coles HQ, the most recent addition to London's collection of art galleries. But it doesn't come from the canvases on the wall, though that would almost be appropriate, as the eponymous Coles intends to concentrate on the newest and very best of contemporary art. It's because the builders are still in evidence the day before the opening. Coles's future office is a litter of paint cans, brushes and wires, but she is unflustered. "It'll all be spotless tomorrow," she says airily.

The gallery, which will have been open two weeks by the time you read this, is on Heddon Street, just off Regent Street. What used to be offices is now 1,000 square feet of cool, clean white walls and wooden flooring. "I don't like over-designed spaces," she explains.

The pictures for the opening show - a collection of seven paintings by New York artist John Currin - have already been hung. They all show uncomfortably pneumatic females in the Pamela Anderson meets Barbara Windsor meets Barbie mould. The women are tightly-sweatered, with unfeasibly enormous breast and spiky lashes. But while their arms and hands have beautifully smooth, creamy-soft skin, the finish on their faces is roughened using a palette knife; and their bizarre proportions are subtly disturbing.

"Look at this one, Twisting Girl," says Coles. Twisting Girl has swirling blonde curls and parted pink lips - "but her head's going one way, her breasts one way, while her bum's going another way." The paintings, she says, are "all about mood, they are a very personal vision." Also on sale are six smaller works. Framed advertisements from Playboy magazines of the Seventies, they show cheerily macho men riding horses or sitting in chic cafes, surrounded by gorgeous long-haired women. But in each picture, Currin has painted out the womens' adoring smiles and replaced them with grimaces and expressions of disgust. The canvases will sell for between $15,000 and $20,000, the smaller works for $1,200.

Starting up a new art gallery is no breeze, although Coles is probably in a better position than most to attempt it. At the age of 34, she is already well-known in London's contemporary art world. An Art History graduate from Middlesex University, she first worked at the Arnolfini in Bristol, then spent six years working for Anthony d'Offay, one of London's most respected gallerists, where she was appointed a director. Slight and petite, with short dark spiky hair and an engagingly enthusiastic manner, she is modest about her previous success. "I've been really lucky, I was able to get two very good jobs in succession, and in both of them I was given the chance to use my initiative, come up with ideas and see them through." One of her responsibilities at Anthony d'Offay was to oversee the space devoted to young artists. The one-person shows which she looked after there included Sarah Lucas, Richard Patterson, Michael Joo, Grayson Perry, Andrea Zittel and Nicola Tyson - "lots of girls," she notes firmly.

Working with Sarah Lucas was one of the turning points in Coles's career, although she didn't realise it at the time. "When I decided to start up by myself, I'd got to a point where I wanted more freedom to make my own decisions. To run your own gallery, you have to have a real desire to show certain people. The key person for me was Sarah Lucas. I met her six years ago in my first couple of months at Anthony d'Offay. She hadn't shown much then, but she was extraordinary. I didn't know at the time the effect she would have on me, but she is one of the people I really want to show." Indefatigable, at the same time as getting the gallery off the ground, she is collaborating with Lucas on a large-scale show in Clerkenwell entitled "The Law", which opens on 3 May. Property developer James Lynch of the City Loft Company, who is also an art school graduate (albeit in graphic design), is allowing them to use a ground-floor space.

Desire on its own, though, is all very well, but what about the nitty- gritty of getting the enterprise off the ground? "Like any business, you need money to open doors, and I have found a wonderful backer who is extremely excited by contemporary art in London." Finance in place, she was able to start hunting for premises. "There is a lot to keep in mind - dimensions, size, budget. Ground-floor space in central London is very expensive, but first floors tend to have low ceilings. It took me three months to find the right place, and another three to organise leases and stuff. I had to root around to find something to fit my ideals and my purse - I think the worst thing any young business can do is overreach itself in the first stages, so I've tried hard not to be overambitious."

It looks as though she has chosen wisely. Heddon Street is a quiet and attractive cul-de-sac off the hurly-burly of Regent Street, but Coles has two trendy new neighbours moving in shortly: Conran's newest restaurant venture, the Zinc Bar; and Momo, a hip Parisian restaurant that is opening a branch in London.

Once the space had been secured, she could turn her mind to interior design. "A friend of mine, Gregory Phillips, is an architect. He's very young, about 30, and kindly donated his services for free. He blocked out the windows at the back, and designed a two-room space - the gallery itself and my office. They are quite separate, so the gallery space is uninterrupted. We laid a new floor and put in a new ceiling and a lighting system. He understood that I didn't want a lot of details like frosted glass or sliding panels, he kept it very clean and simple. And he understood my limited budget," she adds.

And now it's all taking off. "I'm very excited," says Coles. "I can't wait to start. It's all very well having a nice space, but it's what you put in it that matters." She is kicking off with John Currin, then Sarah Lucas will be showing concurrently with the show in Clerkenwell, then Simon Periton, a British artist who works with cut paper, and Elizabeth Peyton, an American painter who reproduces likenesses of Brit Pop's stars. "They are all younger, modern artists," she says. "I like working with people who are about my age."

Although she does confess to hav-ing a few jitters, she is an optimistic businesswoman. "Being in London just at the moment is very special, there's a lot happening, and also a very good audience for art. Media interest in the arts reflects a great public interest. Look at the new Tate - it will be the first new art museum we've had for over a century, and it will be showing really important modern contemporary art. There is a predominance here of good art schools, and fashion, graphics and music are all hotbeds for the new generation, too."

Her advent as a fully-fledged gallery owner is greeted with inevitable enthusiasm by the artists she plans to spotlight. For John Currin, this is his first solo gallery show in London; but he doesn't feel that taking part in this new venture constitutes a leap in the dark. "In my experience she's always had legendary status, and I like her personally very much, so I don't think it's risky. She knows her stuff and the gallery is incredibly beautiful," he says.

Coles believes that a good relationship between artist and dealer is vital. "It's a very intimate, personal kind of relationship, and if you don't get along - well it's no fun. Some artists might be comfortable with a purely business partnership, but I would feel insecure if I thought the person who was showing my work was only in it for the money."

Another admirer is the restaurateur Oliver Peyton. Coles chose the art that hangs in his Atlantic Bar and Grill in London and his most recent venture, Mash and Air in Manchester. "Art, and especially contemporary art, is an important part of our society. Lots of artists don't get the opportunity to show their work because of its size or its format and restaurants are a great place to show works that otherwise might not be seen outside a museum. Coles is very good at ascertaining what a person likes - she never sends me examples of work I'm not interested in. She is one of the few people who has a great eye, and really understands artists - a lot of dealers pretend to, but they don't. She's a very smart cookie."

Sadie Coles, however, does not see herself as a key Important Arty Person. She would rather leave the kudos to the artists. "It seems quite weird that you want to interview me. I want to give artists a voice. The art is the thing to concentrate on, not the structures - the galleries, museums, magazines, media and all the rest of it. They are only there because the artists are there. Dealers are only as good as their artists. Let the art do the talking."

! Sadie Coles HQ is at 35 Heddon Street, London W1R 7LL (0171 434 2227)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments