Carnemag Q&A (2011)
Where were you born? Did it have anything to do with the fact that you became an artist?
I was born in Southend-on-Sea which is 40 miles outside of London. It is the closest seaside town to London and is traditionally a popular resort for daytrippers from London’s East End. Although I left Southend at the age of 18 (as early as I could) to study in London I returned ten years ago, in my mid thirties. Although I love London I was never able to establish a creative life there, whereas being outside the city, by the water, allows me the mental space to produce my paintings. Living in an English seaside town has definitely had an effect on the type of imagery I use: the tacky gift shops full of cheap kitsch and the gaudy, vulgar amusements seem to be reflected in my work even though I try to avoid those parts of town.
Your biggest influence in life, work and art?
The biggest influences on my work are probably the cultural influences that I digested as a child, the most significant of which are comics. I always loved English comics but when I discovered my first American comic at the age of 6 I was converted. Everything about these Marvel and DC comics was powerfully exotic, from the smell of the paper (still my favourite smell of all) to the alien cultural references and strange idiomatic language. Jack Kirby is the first person I was aware of as being an artist and I still think he was a true 20th century visionary. I still read comics regularly and find them a constant source of inspiration. Unlike in continental Europe there is a residual snobbery against comics in the UK which I hope is being gradually eroded.
I lectured in Art History for 20 years before I became a full time artist so naturally the history of painting is open to me as a reference as it perhaps is closed to some contemporary artists. The period I love and revere the most is the 15th century in Northern Europe. In my view those artists, who were using oil paints as they were being invented and developed, achieved a clarity of vision and a truthful beauty that has never been surpassed. Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Deposition’ in the Prado is my favourite of all paintings; I find something new in it each time I see it. The paintings of Jan Van Eyck, Hans Holbein, Hugo Van Der Goes thrill and move me each time I see them; they somehow never become stale. I suppose some people would see a love of both comic books and early renaissance paintings as contradictory impulses. Perhaps they are, but they both continue to inspire me in all their brash vulgarity and perfect beauty.
In my ‘Secret Identity’ series of superhero paintings I was interested in the way that these plastic models exist as throwaway objects but simultaneously embody rich and complex ideas. Superman, for example, can be written off as a simple adolescent fantasy figure but can equally be used as a conduit for thinking about matters as diverse as the Jewish immigrant experience in the USA to the ways in which ancient mythologies may be transposed into contemporary popular culture.
Do you ever feel a prisiner of your style?
I never really feel a prisoner of my style as I don’t really feel that I have one. When I paint I aim to simply represent the subject as straightforwardly as possible. Any style that I may have is a natural result of my personal visual ‘handwriting’ rather than an assumed method of painting that is intended to have a connotative significance. Because I make all my subjects before I paint them my paintings could be seen as sculptures transcribed to two dimensions – it is this level of transparency that I am aiming for and the shortcomings of my skills that I have yet to achieve it.
Any artists you’d recommend?
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.
When I read artists’ statements these days they seem to be filled with verbs such as ‘challenge’, ‘question’ and ‘interrogate’. Although the best contemporary art undoubtedly does this, the vast majority is as mannered and academic as the French salon painting that the Impressionists reacted against in the 1870s. At least the academic artists of that time did not delude themselves that they were icnoclastic rebels. My aims for my own work are pretty unfashionable, I know: admittedly I do hope my images provoke some questions in the viewer’s mind, but it is equally important to me that my work delights, amuses and, dare I say it, entertains.