The life room used to be at the heart of every art school until the last decade of the 20th century. It was the staple of every adult education art programme and foundation coarse until they too almost became extinct. Both Alan Brooks and myself where perhaps the last generation of artists in the UK to have this as a compulsory part of our art educations. We saw them as outdated modes of practice in our youth and rallied to the cry in favour of their phasing out, yet it is with a fond nostalgia that I think back to my time drawing or painting from the life model in my late teens and early twenties. Far from being an erotic experience it was a practice to be endured and dropped as soon as one got into the art school of their choice, but the discipline that hours of staring at flesh beyond its prime was learning to look. Struggling to make it relevant or contemporary, young artists would try and claim something new from the repetitive dulness of this tradition.
Being flung back into such restrictive repetition has been the downside of the last eighteen months and many artists found that enforced lockdown strangled their creative flow. Alan Brooks found himself in such a predicament, unable to continue the paintings that he had been working on. When he gets to these junctions in his career he often goes back to the basics of pencil and paper and turns to his personal archive of photographs for inspiration. Brooks collects images of art schools, some of which he attended. Married to an off-hand comment from a friend, that life drawing might break his creative block, that, whilst an appalling concept for Brooks, did sow the seed for a series of drawings of life rooms taken from the photographs in his archive. Rather than study the model Brooks would spend the next few months studying the artists and students captured in these rooms from the past.
Alan Brooks makes micro-intricate drawings and paintings from photographs, rendering every grain or pixel by hand in a laborious process that takes many months to complete. What arrives are facsimiles that have passed directly through the artist, turning the mechanical process back into a way of seeing something afresh. It is in this process that Brooks discovers the image and makes it his own. These works are always part of a conceptual series and never one-off, gymnastic flourishes of his skill. It is the process of spending time with an image and studying every blemish and scratch, the whole only being revealed on completion, that Brooks seeks. For the viewer there is the initial suspension of belief, that these are actually drawings and then the image unfolds tempting us to spend the time looking, that Brooks himself has sacrificed. Once the mind starts to question what it is looking at, interpretations start to arise beyond the source material.