Stephen Willats

‘The Lunch Triangle’: Pilot work B. Codes and Parameters


Not on display

Stephen Willats born 1943
2 photographs, gelatin silver prints on paper, gouache, typed text and ink on card, printed papers, pencil and string with clipboard
Unconfirmed, each: 762 × 508 mm
Purchased 2010


‘The Lunch Triangle’: Pilot work B. Codes and Parameters consists of three panels mounted on the wall and a clipboard holding response sheet questionnaires that invite the viewer’s involvement. Each panel bears a photograph at the top, below which are fixed a range of texts, the arrangement of these being the same in each one. The first and last show a photograph of three people at different stages of lunch, while the second, central panel bears a blank dark space, which is intended to bridge the two scenes, providing an opportunity for the viewer to project their own imaginary response to the images. The text cards below each image present ranged boxes that ask questions concerning context, identity, intention, action, effect and reflection. A thesaurus is also provided to help answer the question of shifting behaviour or relationship between the three people. The response sheet on the clipboard describes the intention of the work in the following way: ‘The Lunch Triangle formalises the way in which perceptions are constructed of complex interpersonal situations from limited coded information. Three scenes are presented in a sequence, each one involving you in constructing part of a perceptual model of the relationships between three depicted persons.’

For Willats, ‘the construction of models is central to man’s ability to represent the infinite variety of his world in a tangible form ... The formation of models is a basic internal cognitive process, that is essential to constructing a coherent picture of the world.’ (Midland Group Gallery 1976, p.4.) In a career that has evolved and developed over almost fifty years, this attention to symbolic modelling has remained a constant theme underpinning the various shifts his work has taken.

The early 1970s marked a shift in Willats’s working practice, away from works that initiated a viewer’s perceptual involvement with shifting abstract structures, to work that engaged in a much more direct way with social structures, by seeing the artwork as a social model through which the viewer could actively participate in the construction of meaning. From 1972, under the auspices of the Centre for Behavioural Art that he had situated in Gallery House, London, Willats initiated a series of projects that sought to put forward the notion that ‘an artwork can function as a social model, and become a stable feature in a person’s social reality, whom normally would have a low priority for attending to art. These works took the form of projects which were designed to function as a symbolic activity in which a person regularly engaged as part of their behaviour routines.’ (Ibid., p.14.)

The earliest of these community-based projects were The Oxford Insight Development Project and The West London Social Resource Project, both 1972, and The Edinburgh Social Model Construction Project 1973. Willats then developed the strategies embodied within these projects, firstly in a computer work Meta Filter 1973–5 (Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris), and then, from 1974, by the creation of a small group of what he called ‘wall works’ that, unlike his previous projects, were intended for display in art galleries. ‘The Lunch Triangle’ is one of these works, which were first exhibited in 1976 at the Midland Group Gallery in Nottingham in an exhibition titled Life Codes and Behaviour Parameters. One common aspect of the majority of these works is the presence of a questionnaire that invites response from the viewer and also encourages an engagement with the artwork from panel to panel.

Further reading
Stephen Willats: Life Codes and Behaviour Parameters, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group gallery, Nottingham 1976.
Stephen Willats: Concerning Our Present Way of Living, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1979.
Stephen Willats: Art Society Feedback, exhibition catalogue, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe 2010.

Andrew Wilson
May 2010

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