Bedford Gallery - 'My Hero' Exhibition Q&A (2016)
Why have you chosen the superhero as your subject matter?
What is the conceptual idea behind the work in this show?
‘Secret Identity’ is an ongoing series of paintings, each representing a plastic model of a famous superhero contained in a clear polythene carrier bag. Superheroes are icons of male power and potency whose comic book and film adventures see them engaged in epic battles across the universe, yet these mythic figures have another life as consumer objects to be found in commercial and domestic contexts. Placed in carrier bags and hung on a hook in a domestic space they become recently purchased objects, robbed of the enormous power they wield in their narratives, their dynamic energy stymied. Despite this reduction they remain irresistible in their cartoonish rage and pride.
Every Superhero has a secret identity, a civilian persona where they may lead a normal life temporarily free of superheroic pressures. When seen in reality the transparency of the carrier bags reveals clearly the superheroes within, yet in the paintings the light reflecting off the bags serves instead to obscure the characters. In this way they are doubly masked; the bag conceals the superhero who in turn conceals their alter ego. These observations may be seen as roughly analogous to the situation of the painter. The visual fantasies which fill a painter’s head must inevitably be reduced to an image, robbed of much of their superpower. Similarly the multifariousness of an individual’s persona is condensed in the studio to that of the artist: a secret identity in itself.
Tell us how your work is made. What are the steps in your process and describe your materials, machines, tools, etc. and what you use them for?
I work on wooden panels rather than canvas; I seem to need the strength and rigidity that wood offers. Whenever I try canvas or linen I am continually worried about it sagging or getting dented. Recently I have started producing drawings and for those I work on paper stretched over board so I can get a similarly stable surface . Primarily I use alkyd paints and mediums as they dry rapidly with a consistent surface and glaze beautifully. I am continually amazed that alkyds aren’t more widely used, they are absolutely brilliant and I would urge any oil painter to give them a go. Up to this point I have worked exclusively from life using natural window light rather than from photographs. This approach has many problems attached to it, not least the shorter winter days and, much worse, the terrible moment when I accidentally brush against a plastic bag and forever alter the pattern of the creases. Now that I am working on a much larger scale (my latest paintings are 63 inches tall) I am using photographs much more but I hope that my years of experience working from the subject itself will prevent the paintings from become identikit photorealism. Each of my paintings takes a few months to complete as I build them up very gradually with thin, translucent glazes. If I used traditional oil painting mediums rather than alkyd they would probably take over a year. I have always been a big admirer of traditional signwriting so I take a special pleasure in always using a mahl stick, a traditional signwriter’s tool. This is a long metal stick with a chamois covered cork ball on one end which affords me a hand rest allowing me to keep the brush at 90 degrees to the painting surface and thus produce the marks I need to make.
Which artists inspire/influence you and why?
My constant touchstone is 15th century Northern European painting typified by Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, et al. The fact that the Van Eycks arguably invented oil painting and also mastered it in a single generation, producing paintings that have never been surpassed, always amazes me. When I first saw Van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’ in the Prado in Madrid I had such an intense aesthetic experience that I was subsequently unable to take anything else in, breezing past Velasquez and Goya with a cursory glance - I think I need to make a return visit.
My first realisation that there was such a thing as an artist came through encountering the comics of Jack Kirby, and he remains one of my all time creative heroes. As a very young comic book fan I noticed that some stories looked different from others, and Kirby's were more distinctive than any. The
way his figures flew, leaped and fought was always charged with crackling energy and in creative terms Kirby himself represents pure energy. The level of invention that he brought to popular culture over the 50-odd years of his career is as significant and enduring as any artist working in a popular medium.
Whenever I run dry I think of Jack hunched over his drawing board in his Long Island basement inventing whole universes with a number 2 pencil and it all seems possible again.
Most of the contemporary artists I really admire happen to be sculptors and installation artists. I tend to be drawn to those artists who transform everyday reality in a surprising and witty manner. Artists such as Richard Wentworth, Tom Friedman, Ceal Floyer, Charles Ray and Tara Donovan always refresh me and give me a thrilling sense of possibility, both as an artist and a viewer.
Please include a narrative bio (around 150 words) which includes where you live/work, schools attended, important exhibitions and awards, etc.
I live and work in Southend-on-Sea, Essex which is about 30 miles outside London. After foundation study at Southend School of Art & Design I attended Camberwell School of Art & Crafts in London. Soon after graduation I started teaching art history in various colleges in and around London. Despite loving teaching I eventually felt an urge to resume painting so after a 15 year gap I restarted my practice. In the ten years since I have exhibited extensively in the UK, Europe and the USA in both an academic and commercial context. Notable venues in London include the Royal Academy of Arts, the Courtauld Institute and the Royal College of Art. I am currently signed to Alida Anderson in the US and Galerie LeRoyer in Montreal and have shown at Scott Richards / Tangent in San Fransisco as well as many art fairs and other venues in the USA.
If you could have any superpower what would it be and why? What would be your superhero name?
This is probably not very psychologically healthy but I would love to be able to travel in time, especially to the past. The opportunity to go back and experience the sights, sounds and smells of past times is something that I really yearn for. Sometimes as I paint I daydream about what it may have been like in Victorian London or Quattrocento Venice but just as often I think about the environs of my studio 100, 50 or even 20 years ago. Perhaps I should be called Nostalgia Man although it’s hard to imagine how I could help anyone with such a self-indulgent power.