Together in Electric Dreams
This project formed Stuart's second exhibition at The Riflemaker Gallery in 2012.
Featuring a set of meticulously-crafted works whose technical virtuosity flirts with high mannerism and heroic realism. The scene is set somewhere between Bow, Dagenham, Ancient Greece and William Shakepeare's Denmark.
These works emphasise Stuart's pre-occupation with the motif of the smile and its traditional role in the history of portraiture as well as its use in advertising, popular culture and the mass media as a signifier of a successful life. His work explores the process of transformation which takes place both privately and publicly when a camera is pointed at a subject and what the artist describes as 'the collective, hysterical conspiracy to appear happy that blights our visual world with endless images of overt disingenuousness'.
Stuart argues that adult consciousness and experience is rooted in a feeling of melancholy. The smile has evolved to convey an unfortunate sense of fakeness and insincerity. In spite of these notions, the artist’s obvious enjoyment of the sheer sensuality of paint and surface coupled with an undeniable empathy towards his subjects mean that the project avoids an overall sense of cynicism.
Included is a sub-series of tattoo-portraits. The subjects of these paintings were sought out by the artist and chosen for the way in which they represented a number of pre-existing old school archetypes such as the strongman, the tattooed lady, the Coney Island freak-show performer and the rockabilly coolcat. However, Stuart’s powers of acute observation as a reluctant portraitist circumnavigate these familiar characters to create genuinely moving and perceptive portraits of real individuals.
The works are presented in neo-baroque jesmonite frames which have been hand-sculpted by the artist. The painting’s lush surfaces are peppered with real diamonds, other precious stones and metals, pearls, real hair, make-up, sequins and glitter.
In the painting Together In Electric Dreams, Keira Knightley waits in a sodium-lit, Lynchian backstreet. Her mascara is running down her cheek, her self-conscious and unlikely hand-on-hip pose reminiscent of a knitting-pattern cover. We are entering Stuart's world, where vaudevillian melodrama and high camp rub shoulders with a feeling of suburban unease. A dark, underlying melancholia surrounds the subject.
Alas Poor Yorick casts Stuart in a parody of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Role-play and self-parody are a continuing theme in his work and this painting brings to mind the series of self-portraits-as-cowboys that peppered his body of work, I Remember You.
Teardrops Can Never Drown the Flame evokes the moment where Snow White wakes up in the forest, surrounded by animals. Snow White is here replaced by a resplendent naked woman, tears made of real pearls rolling down her cheeks.
Stuart employs the air-brushed aesthetic and disingenuous tone of Hello Magazine and applies it to a sardonic panoply of smiling, blonde, female pseudo-portraits. The repetition of the smile motif generates a sense of hysterical disquiet: a collective, empty rictus.
The paintings reflect the artist’s concern with the masks people wear, the way people like to be seen and the artifice they employ to convince us of that. Everyday gestures and expressions are scripted and performed and our lives lived in quotation marks.
STUART PEARSON WRIGHT IN CONVERSATION
with Fiona Shaw
FS I have been looking at your work for over ten years now so I do feel that I know bits of it. Your skill is so dazzling: the play of light on feet and hands. You are absolutely classical in that way aren’t you?
SPW It is funny you should say that. I have always considered myself a bodger. I feel that true dexterity with a brush eludes me but I can usually bodge something that looks reasonably convincing.
FS It is the artistry and the light. Look at the light on that girl’s shoulders or the light on the inside of that jersey. You are often making a kind of joke, very expensive jokes. You could make the joke without the light but you don’t because the light demands that you don’t.
SPW I think expensive jokes always need light.
FS Well it makes the joke very expensive.
SPW You can’t make light of an expensive joke.
FS No you can’t! There are a lot of references in the pictures.
SPW There are. This exhibition is a bit of a mish mash. The last one [I Remember You] had a quite a concise set of ideas. It made sense as a collection of pictures. But this exhibition has been difficult to tie together because the pictures here represent different things that have been going on in my brain over the last year and a half. If there is a common thread it is something to do with the way people wear masks in their daily lives. The tricky distinction is between the series of portraits of tattooed people and all the other work. The tattoo portraits are what I would call ‘straight’ portraits; in as far as they are uninflected. I am not trying to play any witty games with them at all. The only thing I am doing with them is referencing the sort of images you would associate with tattooed people: the Victorian photographs of the strongman and so on. The other pictures in the exhibition are very different. They are much more camp and parodical. You might say they are sarcastic. I think of some of them as ‘pseudoportraits’ because they are masquerading as portraits but they are not real people. Although real people posed for them. The real people who posed for them were engaged in a game of dressing up, which I was directing. I was saying “can you wear this wig, can you hold this pose like this woman from Hello magazine?” and “lets light you in such a way”.
FS Looking at those girls [the five blonde girl paintings] reminds me that there is a sort of panic in American-smiling that has now bled to English magazines. The girls occupy a faux-innocent world and it’s funny having them juxtaposed with the tattooed men as it suggests the guys are waiting to pounce on them. People smiling like that are unnerving. It’s hard to believe someone would hold that kind of smile whilst posing for a portrait.
SPW I am so glad you used that word panic. That’s exactly how I have been thinking about it. To me there is kind of collective hysteria at large. The smile is a signifier of numerous things: wealth, happiness, beauty, youth and fulfillment. On the front cover of any ‘lifestyle’ magazine: Hello or OK, you will have some flaccid, Z-list celebrity, smiling. Everyone in those bloody magazines is smiling. “Welcome to such-and-such’s house, here he is with his wife and his dog”, smiling of course: presenting to the world that they are happy. That is the fiction of our time. For all we know his wife is having an affair with the neighbour, he is having a nervous breakdown, she’s an alcoholic etc… and their lives are a tatter. And yet they present to us the fiction of the smile. The smile is the thing that for me manifests a certain kind of bullshit that is being continuously slung out of the window, into our faces. There is definitely a kind of panic.
FS The smile is meant to reassure you that the world is nice and it does the absolute opposite. Girls smiling in wigs: murder is just so near. I wonder if that came through the thread of your last exhibition.
SPW There was a painting in the last show called I Remember You, which was a small portrait of Polly, my wife, smiling. She was posing as a 1950s woman from an advert of the period. That was the seed for this current series of smiling blonde ladies. Even in the 1950s the panic had begun.
SPW Bettie Freedman said that 1950s housewives ran through streets screaming because they suddenly had dishwashers and Hoovers. They went completely mad because they were meant to be happy.
SPW Well look how happy women are today. Now they ‘have everything’…
FS Movie careers, nice hair, eternal youth, huge breasts if they want them.
SPW They are all a size 8, have wonderful teeth and beautiful hair. They are “happy in themselves, at a better place”. They have everything they want, at least that’s the bullshit we are fed, that these things do bring happiness.
FS Did you decide on these poses before these women took them up or did you allow them to find their way into those poses?
SPW No, I directed them.
FS So you already knew in advance the picture you wanted?
SPW Mostly I had a clear idea. Otherwise we improvised.
FS There are three very worried women on this side [of the studio] almost like they have made a mistake: far too much make-up. God, you are really on to a lot of things that are very disquieting. Black underwear…
SPW This is what I call the Debbie and Paula series. The smiling blonde girls are a different set of works from these. There is a cross over of course but these come form a very different source.
FS The use of the oval canvas is something of a theme.
SPW It has been difficult to escape from.
FS It creates a halo around every girl or man.
SPW It creates a real pain in the arse when it comes to framing because you can’t find oval frames easily.
FS Our famous star, [Keira Knightley, in the painting Together in Electric Dreams] is crying but the other two girls [Debbie and Paula] are not. They are very upsetting, those two girls.
SPW I don’t know if they look like real people.
FS They do! They look like people who think. However, there is something about the women colluding not just with the painter but with their desire to be the thing that you have made them.
SPW They were very pleased to be painted even though they were engaging in a game of my construction I had imposed on them. They are all friends, all those blondes, or people I know.
FS You have never been unsympathetic to women but these pictures [of the blonde ladies] are almost hostile. You are not unsympathetic to them, but you are lampooning your own suspicion of something…
SPW Suspicion of portraiture. I have always had misgivings about portraiture and what it sets out to achieve. I have always been worried by the agenda of portraiture because in essence it stems from a person’s narcissism and is a form of propaganda. You are making an image of someone, which by its nature is affected: something is being presented. That is a kind of mask in itself. There is a layer of fiction that exists in all portraits; there is always an agenda for the artist to transform the sitter into an image, which will convey a certain set of ideas. There is always something at stake. There is a level of bullshit whichever way you approach a portrait and that is what intrigues me. I love drawing and painting people, but I am perturbed by the idea that as soon as you make a portrait of someone you are entering into a game of trying to convince other people that this sitter is ‘such-and-such a person’: they are being transformed. You can’t help but enter into the bullshitting process. Portraiture is actually all about bullshitting. That is its key idea.
FS But you could have gone the other way and say “I am going to really eviscerate these women and really see who they really are.”
SPW To present the truth: that is what I used to do when I approached a portrait: for example the one of John Hurt. I tried to make it utterly unaffected by removing any reference to social status or context. It was just a head: no clothes. As soon as you show someone’s clothes you reveal where they shop and by extension, how much money they have and what class they belong to. So just by painting his head I was denying him a context. The face will tell its own story. I didn’t try and improve him in any way. Every little line was included. I was presenting the truth. But I could only continue approaching portraiture in that way for so long. Now I am interested in presenting the fiction that other people present and in doing so, parodying it: flinging the shit back through the window, one might say.
FS It is our job, the viewer, to interpret, so with your smiling blonde girls I see the fiction but also I see the real girl behind the fiction. She is working hard to tell us the fiction. There is another game at play: the sitters know they are part of a game but some of them are hoping they aren’t. They are hoping they look as nice in reality as the fiction might have you believe.
FS You once said to me it is all about the measurement between the eyes.
SPW The likeness?
FS Likeness, but also expression. You haven’t finished that picture yet and the huge personality of that person is present already. It is something to do with the tilt of the eye and I am riveted to see that you establish that so early on in the process.
SPW It’s interesting that you can decode her personality from just a few brushmarks.
FS She is there in essence.
SPW That is down to her. I just try to depict her. She is the only one who can take credit for her personality.
FS Can I just ask you about textures? That seems to be another bullshit area. You have a velvet-dressed girl opposite a sequin-bra girl and then this awful salmon pink jersey: it is very much what film designers put on actors to make them appear ‘real’. I wondered whether you just hate everything about our culture, that everything is bullshit?
SPW I do and on another level I love it as well. I sewed those sequins on by hand and it took days. I really enjoyed the process and the effect. One thing you will notice when you get closer is that she has real diamonds stuck in her eyes that twinkle. That is part of an approach, which has been developing over the last few years. The first painting to get diamonds was Tom Jones. He also has real pubic hair stuck on to the canvas.
FS But you aren’t making a big thing of it. You are not making collages.
SPW They are still paintings. The painting of Keira Knightley there [Together in Electric Dreams] has a lot of texture. It has a real pearl, diamonds, make-up, and a lot of wax. I have actually carved in to the wax. There is more attention to the surface of the painting than there ever has been in my work.
FS The painting is dominated by the wonderful cityscape behind her with the double yellow lines, and her marvelous sweater which is like some kind of 1950s DIY fair-isle effort and yet not really because this is ‘a movie’.
SPW The picture originated from a fair-isle knitting pattern. Fantastic that you picked up the reference.
FS Oh my god! [She is looking at ‘It’s not unusual to be loved by Anyone’]
SPW What? Tom’s pubic hairs?
FS That is disquieting, and you have given him this weird, failed colour, the colour of Wales: singing in something. You said these are diamonds? [in his eyes]
SPW Yes, they have diamonds stuck in their eyes. You can see them as you move from side to side. They catch the light and twinkle.
FS You use all your skill and then you do something horrid.
SPW It is interesting you say ‘horrid’ because I feel a lot of these paintings are like shooting myself in the foot. I am playing a game with taste: they are veering away from good taste into bad taste. If that goes horribly wrong it could be disastrous, so bad taste is dangerous territory. You have to get the balance right.
FS Ten years ago you were wary of a lot of things and you are still wary. These paintings suggest wariness but they are also full of fun and celebration.
SPW It is funny you should say that because they are on one level sarcastic and critical of our culture and the collective conspiracy to smile and appear happy, but at the same time, on another level, they are a celebration of my own happiness. It’s ironic that the faux joie de vivre of these paintings hides my genuine jour de vivre.
FS Very wise to hide it. In case anyone might see it and do something to you. You hold on to your jour de vivre.
SPW I can hide my own genuine satisfaction with life behind a smokescreen of someone else pretending to look happy.
FS I am almost more worried about her. [Hasta Manana] This girl is quite desperate. The smile is just on the turn. It has just been there a second too long and it could be that something awful is about to happen, but she has lovely kind eyes. She is a searching person.
SPW You are pointing out elements of the sitter Melissa’s character.
FS Keira has been famous for so long that she has sculpted her own features so that she looks bloody good from every angle. Why have you gone for this sort of a world?
SPW The pose for the painting began as you guessed, as an 80s knitting pattern that I found on eBay. I asked Keira to pose as the person from the photograph and we lit her theatrically and I just began painting her from life. The background was something that was improvised later. I imagined that there was some kind of Vaudevillian melodrama that was being enacted here. She has been crying and her mascara is running down her face. Her expression and pose are very theatrical and posed. I just needed a setting for this all to be taking place in. It is actually just around the corner from where I live. I enjoyed the fact that we know it is an actress playing the part because that reveals something of the fiction of the painting.
FS But you got Keira Knightly to pose as an actress, posing as an actress and she has been very good at doing it, as opposed to this desperate creature [Hasta Manana] who is just not holding it enough. They are very good together.
SPW There is quite a strange tension [in Hasta Manana]. The sitter is revealing a lot about her own character through the painting.
FS You have quite a lot of patience. You never get fed up once you have committed to your subject do you?
SPW I always get totally fed up. I nearly threw the painting of Keira out of the window on numerous occasions but fortunately I don’t have any windows here so I had to carry on with it. It wasn’t Keira’s fault but my own process of over-working and destroying what I have done.
FS So you do get fed up with the story you are telling?
SPW No, it is the process of painting: my frustrations with my own technique.
FS You always do something very challenging. That is really hard to paint.
SPW It was a tricky picture to paint: the head was very hard and I really struggled. You come back to a painting a few days after you last worked on it and the paint has dried. You try and mix a new tone in and it doesn’t blend with the dry paint that is already there. So if you are trying to get a beautiful sfumato, it is very difficult to achieve if you are not doing it in one session. An astonishing painter friend of mine Phil Hale will work on a head all day long and if it hasn’t worked by the end of the day he will remove it and start again the following day. He will repaint the same head over and over again, sometimes for several weeks. That takes balls. I can’t work in that way.
FS You stay with it even though it drives you insane.
SPW It does drive me insane.
FS Tell me why you opted to paint him. [Tom Jones in ‘It’s not Unusual to be Loved by Anyone']
SPW I found an old press photograph of Tom at an antique market. What drew me to it is this pose: the hand on the chin. It’s very affected. It is the sort of pose you could only find in a publicity photo. No one would actually sit in a room full of people and hold their chin like that.
FS He is in an Indian restaurant talking to some lady he has just picked up and we hope we are that lady. [she moves over to the Debbie and Paula series] I can see close up these are from a very different world. They are upsetting and darker.
SPW They are. These came from some homemade slides from 1981 that I found. Some seedy bloke probably got hold of these girls and said, “I will give you a fiver, just sit there…” Strangely enough, there is a parallel between his photographic process and my painting process with these blonde girls. The difference is that the blondes are friends of mine and I am playing a different game. Debbie and Paula, one could assume, were being exploited in some way.
FS She is really hoping that this picture is going to make her a star.
SPW Or she is hoping the photoshoot is going to pay for her shopping so she can feed her six kids... I was born in 1975 so when this picture was being taken I was six years old. I remember women who looked like this, so I feel I kind of know them. I don’t know whether I am presenting them as victims or not, but the paintings come from a point of empathy and familiarity.
FS What is very good is this aspect of face you get, highly suggestive of the period. It’s a way of holding the head and a lot of actors get that wrong. Now we associate this kind of look with Eastern Europe.
SPW But to me these look very much like English girls.
FS Yes they do. They are making their living from desperation. That is very English, the hold of that lip… And then some rather graffiti like doodles over here.
SPW This is a series of monoprints I have made. Part of my problem is that I have such a flurry of ideas and it’s impossible to realise them all. It’s frustrating.
FS You should make a film.
SPW I did make a film last year. [Maze]
FS That’s true and you starred!
SPW And also recorded a Country and Western album, so I do manage to get a lot of things done. This year has been quite intense: I got married, my wife nearly died on our honeymoon and just as she recovered from her illness she became pregnant and now we have a baby son. In between times I have also been renovating our house to prepare for the baby’s arrival. I have lost a lot of painting-time and so it’s been a real panic to get the work finished. It’s been frustrating trying to tie the various threads of my ideas together when I haven’t had time to develop each of the threads fully. The monoprints are a useful way for me to tie the threads together in some way.
FS Over Jung’s psychoanalytic door was written, ‘Bidden or unbidden, the God will be present’. So I don’t think it matters whether you have had your baby or not. The bit of your imagination that this [body of work] comes from has nothing to do with baby or home. It is another part of you.
SPW Of course the baby will feature in my next body of work.
FS These gentlemen are marvelous! [the tattooed portraits] I love the fact that you can put tattoos on skin. There is something strange written about a man with tattoos. When he finally covered his entire body he committed suicide... The only person allowed to see your tattoos is someone you are intimate with.
SPW Yes, often most tattoos are hidden.
FS He is a lovely man. [Martin, the Cabbie]
SPW I went to a tattoo conference in Brighton to find some sitters. At the back of my mind I had a series of tattooed figure archetypes I hoped to find living embodiments of. I never thought I would actually find a Victorian strong man but I did. His name is Andy and he is from Ipswich.
FS He could be from 1848. Did you put these tattoos on him?
SPW No these are all his. His left arm is completely covered.
FS He has a lovely imagination hasn’t he? …something botanical...
SPW He does. These are all angry vegetables. There is a carrot and a brussel sprout and all sorts of other angry vegetables.
FS There is a discrepancy between the person’s self image and who they really are. He is actually a nice ordinary bloke but his drama is all here [in his tattoos] This man [Cabbie] hasn’t quite got the confidence to really go for it so he has done a bit and then he has stopped but he’s got a dalek and Dennis the Mennis. He is a handsome man, though he is sad and sorrowful. They would be kings and monarchs but of course they are not. They are cab drivers and dock-workers. They want to be gods. We all want to be gods.
SPW That brings us back to the idea of the mask.
FS It does. It comes back to Keira. She is the goddess she wants to be. There was never a time when she was not successful and beautiful. He [Andy from Ipswich] actually wants a bit of her life and he does, every time he takes his shirt off.
SPW I am excited because you have created a link between the portraits and the pseudoportraits.
FS It is self image at play.
SPW The reason I didn’t need to manipulate the tattooed people’s images in any way was because they have manipulated their own images already. They have transformed themselves into pre-existing archetypes.
FS Andy from Ipswich has done the same thing as the blonde girls doing the smiles, oddly. He is pulling off a kind of look that you had in 1890. He may remember his grandfather. There is a period thing about him that this man [Cabbie] hasn’t got. I can see the 1960s and 70s in him. But Andy has really got the 19th century about him. What’s going on in his face tells you what is going on in his head. He must be thinking Victorian thoughts! He has succeeded in making himself look Victorian. The aspect of the head, the way it sits on the neck even. It is such a good thing for actors to study. Getting the period right is not about clothes; it is about an attitude of head, and innocence. He has got the innocence of the period. Every period is more innocent than our own… Now, very rarely do you give us the male figure in full form. [She is talking about ‘Olympian’]
SPW No. I am not sure where this one came from really. It started off its life very much like Keira’s one did, as a knitting pattern, a man holding the same pose, but with clothes on. He looked very much like a friend of mine who I asked to pose for the picture, though I gave him the hair from the original knitting pattern photo. He looks like someone from A-Ha circa 1984. I can’t quite get my head around this picture and I am not sure anyone else will either. It sounds like an absurd thing to say but before I painted in his genitals, I didn’t realise how conspicuous they would be. Now I have painted them, the picture seems to have become about his genitalia. His pose frames them. So I have inadvertently made a painting about a man’s genitalia. Having realised that is what I had made, there was no turning back, short of putting a fig leaf over him. I realised that I had to run with it, so I have decided to add a merkin made of real pubic hair. It will seem to grow out of the canvas. When I decided to make him naked, the link with the Olympics was an obvious one since it’s going to be exhibited in the year of the Olympics. He is an ancient Greek athlete. I thought it would be an interesting alternative way of thinking about the Olympics and its origins.
FS You have done beautiful work. I love these veins coming through and his gentle soft skin. He is like a piglet. He really is like a little plucked piglet. He is not bullshitting. He is not trying to do anything. He is merely posing the way you told him to. He is not telling us anything, he is just being.
SPW I think the setting and the fact that he is naked are both red herrings in a way, even the fact that he is an Olympic athlete, and even his genitalia. For me the painting is about the pose and about the fact that he is holding a pose, which no one would ever hold. For me that is the link between this painting and the one of Keira. In spite of them occupying different visual worlds, I think of them as a pair of paintings. They are both holding ridiculous poses that were borrowed from 1980s knitting patterns.
FS Advertent seemingly, when in fact entirely inadvertent. Whereas she [Mistress Jezebel] really does know what she is doing. She knows that she is posing.
SPW Mistress Jezebel. She is a dominatrix.
FS She almost doesn’t want to be there but she is not trying to pull a fast one on us.
SPW I found her on a tattoo website and emailed her, so when she turned up here I had never met her before. It was quite an intense scenario to then say to her “would you mind taking off your clothes?”
FS She is less undressed than your lady in the negligee. [Debbie] She is just without clothes.
SPW I don’t think of myself of an artist who paints the female nude as a subject. That is down to people like Ken Howard and other nice people who are in the RA and spend lots of time in Venice.
FS There is something about you never ever really painting the thing you tell us you are painting. This is a hugely emotional painting about a man, but that is not what you are pretending to do.
SPW The cab driver?
FS Yes, I think it really is a portrait.
SPW I think all of these tattoo figures are portraits.
FS I think this is a fantastic painting. [Mistress Jezebel] Her wariness of you, her wariness of her discomfort whilst appearing to be relaxed. The fact that you have managed to capture the weights of bodies is breathtaking. She is very interesting and you have made her interesting.
SPW She is a very interesting character. An interesting person I should say. ‘Character’ is a misleading word. It suggests a role is being played.
FS She is beautiful in her physique but she is angry in the face. Her face is older than her body. It is very good that you are not lampooning the sitters or the characters that they are portraying. Your critique is of society: everyone feels like they have to make a statement, even if it is only his wife or lover who sees it.
SPW So the tattoos are a statement?
FS It is a big statement to say, “I need to be more than just my body”.
What is going on in tattoos? Why do people wear studs in their breasts? To draw attention? She has got a crown on her chest, suddenly a very conservative element, wings that suggest something baronial, then a tiger over here. Everyone is conjuring something subconscious.
SPW This man [Steve Inky Chambers] has a rare condition called arthrogryposis, leaving him with no muscles in his arms though he can drive a car using his elbows. He is an extraordinary bloke. He is an artist and paints by holding a brush in his mouth. He is particularly interesting because the combination of his condition and his body being covered in tattoos unavoidably references the Coney Island freak show. He’s like a character from a Tom Waits song. Rather than hiding his condition and his body, he has turned it into something infinitely more conspicuous.
FS I had met a bearded lady in America who was in Coney Island who had been written about in the New Yorker and she was incredibly proud of the beard. She had made a living out of it. He has become a cartoon of himself and it is probably a wise thing. It is decorative.
SPW It is a performance piece. He is transforming himself into a living work of art in much the same way Gilbert and George did when they stood on a table and sang and referred to themselves as a living sculpture. He is a kind-of living sculpture or a living painting: whichever way you look at it.
FS I am very interested in the painting of Keira: the weird passivity of the one hip and the hand, the potential victim about to be attacked on the corner of the street. You have caught it and she has caught it and the sweater gets it completely.
SPW It was great fun making that sweater. There is all kinds of stuff stuck on it.
FS There are hints of 3D happening.
SPW It is in low relief you might say.
FS And then these weird flat elements of East London meets America. That says something about where we are in Britain at the moment: meeting America.
SPW How does it meet America?
FS Because American magazines have forced this pose on us. I don’t think women made that pose previously. My granny never did a pose like that. It would never have crossed her mind to.
SPW People made different poses then.
FS They did. They did demure or emotionally restrained. They weren’t pushing. There is a kind of emergency in these poses: a sense of panic. There is real confusion in your bouffant hair and your gorgeous masculinity, but it is foolish and the media has already made it foolish. I think it all adds up rather swimmingly. I love the fact that your references are never political. They are never about issues. They are much more like a state of being.
SPW I am not sure whether I am very interested in issues as such.
FS So even the film star who comes here is no longer a film star and yet poses as a person in a movie. That painting will be of no use to Keira on her wall as a portrait of herself. But in another way it will be a portrait of her time. I think the women in your paintings are having a better time in the world than this group of tattooed men. The blondes are panicking but they are really going somewhere. Someone is going to buy them a drink and it is all going to be marvelous. There is a disappointment in the men that you don’t see in other countries. This is very English.
SPW Can you explain what you mean by disappointment?
FS In their vision.
SPW Just in their expression?
FS His mum never loved him quite as much as he would have liked, he had a girlfriend but she ran off and anyway they are all slags. He is upset because he isn’t quite sure that what he is doing is coming off and he is disappointed just because he is English. He is sad: see his eyes are watering. He drinks too much. The girls have still got hope that it will all be great.
SPW Well, the blonde girls are ‘living the dream’. That is the catchphrase of our times that seems to suit them and make sense of them.
FS It is all terribly commercial isn’t it? It is all about hair product, pose, lipstick and a kind of availability and not appearing like you ever do any kind of work. They are not trying to split the atom are they, these girls? There is energy in the game. This [tattooed man] is sadder because you haven’t asked him to perform. We are seeing him as he is. I wonder how you will hang them?
SPW I think it would be a very strange chemical reaction if I mixed the blondes and the tattoos together. I will probably put them in different rooms. They will all incidentally have these frames I have sculpted and cast.
FS You are really making a picture, not just painting it. This is a major portrait.
SPW Mistress Jezebel? It’s funny but I have real misgivings about that painting. It’s not the subject. It’s my handling of paint and it is the fact that I am just painting somebody as they are. It is a description.
FS Well, Tarkovsky says “if you describe something accurately, the truth of it will explode”. What a marvelous thing to say! She is greater than the sum of your work, isn’t she, this woman?
SPW As a person she is.
FS But as a portrait you may have unified things that have exploded from our eye.
SPW But I have a personal issue with portraits. That’s the problem. I look at it and think “but it’s just a portrait”.
FS If you put her in a daffodil field or a nightclub or... I don’t know… a sauna, would you be doing anything more with her except placing her?
SPW It would be introducing some kind of narrative so it would become a performance of some kind. It would become a play or a film still. A portrait couldn’t ever be a film still. Mistress Jezebel couldn’t occupy the same street that Keira is in because she is part of another language.
FS Maybe you don’t need to give her a narrative because we are fantasizing narratives about her already: she clearly doesn’t lead a 9-5 life.
SPW Maybe the act of making the frames has been a way of reconciling myself to the fact that I have just made portraits. I have such agonies about making portraits.
FS But you are not doing academics sitting in Oxford colleges. You are always choosing your subjects. In this instance this woman has painted her body in order to say something about herself. You’re capturing that. You are not copying her. You are releasing her.
SPW That is an interesting way of thinking about it, however if there is anything compelling about that image, it is not down to me. It’s down to her, because of who she is. That’s not a kind of faux modesty. Painting skillfully is something a person can teach himself. All I have done is depicted her. I don’t even think the pose is particularly interesting or necessarily works very well. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with her, so I just said, “why not sit on the arm of the chair”. It was quite a vague process.
FS However, few people could paint her as well, and I don’t mean that either with any false praise. The faded velvet, the right knee which has got a child-going-to-a-chilly-seaside-town skin colour, the love with which you paint the human: the kind of sad love of it, on top of a woman who is in some ways quite hostile. You are giving her to us. Also because there are tattoos on her skin it means we are being forced to think about paint on the body. I love that skin. It is really English, and then the sofa, which has a strange, crushed… You are just very good at calling the person up. It is not the same as a portrait of the chancellor of a university. I am being asked to think lots about her.
SPW Am I putting those questions to you or is she?
FS You have already put the question by choosing her. It is a very odd choice of person. You could have picked a nice lady from the street. Instead you have gone to great trouble to pick a subject who has poetry in her being.
SPW So the choice of subject is the key element?
FS The choice of subject and the fact you didn’t know what to do with her, which is obvious. It’s a choice of subject who you are not trying to seduce. You say, “Would you mind sitting there and doing this” and during that dialogue she is thinking “I wonder what time I can get my bus…” So you’re already relating to her subconsciously and consciously. You are already in the picture.
SPW So the narrative that exists is the narrative of how the picture was made.
FS Yes and what is she doing in a portrait? She is not the usual subject for a portrait… This man says something about your mind. He is Olympian and yet hopeless.
SPW I don’t know what he is really. That painting [Olympian] continues to elude me. I take solace from the way I painted the rocks. They are nice rocks.
FS Isn’t there a bit of the Picasso two ladies running along a beach?
SPW Yes, there is an element of that.
FS There is a kind of Übermensch.
SPW But the Übermensch didn’t have clearly delineated, wispy, blonde pubic hairs growing out of their scrotums, which he has. As far as I know this is the first painting of the human form, which has featured very highly detailed pubic hairs, coming out of its scrotum. I have to tell you: I was here by myself in the studio and I was in fits of hysterical laughter as I painted those hairs because I realised how absurd it really was, but at the same time I recognized that I was telling the story as it is. I was subscribing to a certain kind of truth and that also made me laugh: because hairs do grow out of scrotums.
FS They do and he doesn’t shave them off and they used to serve a genetic purpose. But also, ‘man is the sack of his sperm’. It is there waiting to make another Olympian.
SPW I still don’t know where this painting comes from and why I painted it. However interesting those facts are about scrotums I don’t know why or how.
FS It is in a different style almost.
SPW It was made in a different context. The chap who was posing for this came in for a couple of sittings and then went to Australia to live. I caught him just before he emigrated so I didn’t get many sittings. I have had to work from photos predominantly, so there is a layer of removal from the subject.
FS He is certainly a more commercial looking creature than this woman with this wonderful light on her breasts. [Mistress Jezebel] Those weird breast decorations, which give me the chills actually. I can’t even work out what the decoration does to the viewer except to make me go “ouch”.
SPW I think that is probably the point.
FS Yes, ‘Ouch’ forged by sexual desire. I would say, “Why don’t you take them out and sit by the fire and have some coco”. We are funny creatures like that, this self-mutilation thing. But of course there is a bit of that here. [Together in Electric Dreams] Keira just has lip-gloss and a pearl, which is the more suburban version. You are very loving in the way you do skin: the blue tones. Is this made of many layers? [Thank You for the Music] There are hints of things coming through here, lovely blues and skin and bone. You have done the teeth very well.
SPW I have added a few extra teeth. She actually has very nice teeth. I have made her more toothy to emphasize the smile.
FS The paintings make me think about childhood in spite of the fact they are all adults. This man’s [Steve Inky Chambers] ailment, this man’s [Cabbie] disappointment from being a bonnie child who, within a few years, saw something that he wished he hadn’t seen. This man is a beta. He is not an alpha male. The only alpha person is Keira. This man [Andy from Ipswich] would like to be an alpha but isn’t. Jezebel is presenting herself as an alpha female but isn’t quite because…it’s not the psychology of it but the spirit of it. She has to be a dominatrix but she would possibly like to run away and run a bar in Corfu. The Olympian is trying too hard. Keira is the only alpha who can play at vulnerability, because she is safe from it.
SPW Why do you think she is safe from it?
FS Her desire to be that person is her only vulnerability.
SPW So the only threat to her is if the position she is in begins to elude her in some way or become impossible to maintain.
FS Though I think she has had it for so long she will survive but she won’t know who she is perhaps. Her vulnerability might lie ahead.
SPW And Tom Jones’ vulnerability? Does he have any?
FS: Yes, he does. We all do. I mean these are pictures of all of us: that is the point. I am that man, that man, that woman... Because of her parents, Keira was brought up knowing the business: showbusiness. I never knew the business. Tom Jones really didn’t know the business so he has borrowed poses and methods. Your two girls up there have had to borrow a whole culture called Hollywood, which has infested every magazine in the supermarket. What is mad about England is we are trying to do this whole ‘LA thing’ and yet we don’t live in the climate, so the girls are frozen all the time. Any gesture that is an attempt to disguise vulnerability is actually a wound. They look wounded with their vulnerability. They are like scars.
SPW That is at the heart of my reservation with painting portraits: in doing so one enters into a process of revelation about a person’s character. A significant part of someone’s character is the tension between their vulnerability and fallibility: ultimately their mortality, and their efforts to disguise those things: the mask. But a mask will only hide the truth for so long. This is quite telling: I find the idea of painting my mother very difficult. Because I know my mother so well and I know the chinks in her armour. The layers of pain that are revealed to me, in spite of her mask, are so overwhelming that if I painted her I think it might destroy me. It would be an intensely painful process to look too closely at my mother. I don’t want to think of her as vulnerable. I want her to live forever and to be happy. When you grow to love somebody you learn what their vulnerabilities are and that makes them easier to love because it becomes more possible to relate to them. You love the element of yourself that you see in another person. With someone like my mother, her sense of vulnerability is palpable to me because I know her history and who she is. I shy away from revealing her truth, that she is fallible. It’s the kind of truth that is too painful to relate. If I tried, there is the added danger that I might catch myself out doing something ‘serious’. At the moment in my work, there has to be a level of cheekiness and play. Post–Modernism is to blame. Rembrandt could have sat in his studio and painted an old lady beautifully and revealed to us something tender about that old lady. It’s not possible to do that nowadays in England in quite the same way, without conveying cheesiness. The problem is with sincerity. If you catch yourself being sincere there is a sense of seeing yourself being sincere. We have a layer of post-Freudian, post reality-TV self-consciousness to deal with and the weight of art history and everything’s-been-done-before bearing down on one’s shoulders. It’s tough.
FS I wonder whether you are preparing yourself to do your mother’s portrait and this is all a deflection: to work through your layers of irony because actually the portrait you need to paint is your mother’s.
SPW I wonder where that would go, if I did paint my mother: if I set out and spent a whole year making the most beautiful picture of her that I could. I just wonder.. I would be terrified of how people might respond to that.
FS You could paint her and keep it of course, but maybe the point of a painting is that we all see it. Maybe you should turn round and look at her.
SPW I think you are right. It is a process of deflection but that process is, as I said, a response to living in a Post-Modern culture.
FS It is also England, which has a problem outside of irony. Europeans can take themselves more seriously and we say, “They have no sense of humour”. It is actually because they dare to take themselves seriously.
SPW Look at the French.
FS They would say “Ceci est important. This piece of pate de froie gras matters”. We go “Oh, just put it on the plate”. They go “non, it matters that it is there” and they are not wrong.
SPW There was a reason why Monty Python were in England and not in France. It is true that continental Europeans can take themselves more seriously, and I think Americans can also but the English would say that they get it wrong when they do.
FS Now I want to see a painting of your Mother. Do you think we would judge her if you painted her?
SPW No, but in order to paint my mother I would have to become French. That’s the truth of it. Being English at this point hamstrings me: I have to engage in this process of deflection. I have painted quite a few images of saccharine blonde ladies here which, I admit, have left me feeling somewhat soiled. I need to spend three months in Florence or just sit in the Tuscan or Scottish hills in isolation and paint landscapes. I read something about Lucien Freud: at times of great crisis in his life he would just paint landscapes, he felt too much to paint portraits of people. I feel I am somewhere near that point.
FS England is balled and chained with its own irony but behind the irony is a very sophisticated game where you do see the truth as well. You see the game and the truth. Why are you so interested in insincerity? You don’t strike one as a suspicious person. You aren’t watchful or guarded in conversation.
SPW It just comes down to this idea of masks and performances and lives lived ‘in quotation marks’: that post-modern game. I have always been interested in learned behaviour and how humans construct their ideas of themselves. I am interested in observing how seven-year-old boys stand just like their dads. They are enacting a process of imitation, and in doing so, constructing an identity.
FS I don’t think the process is psychological. It is cultural. Culture desires us to be other than who we are. I don’t feel I remember that from my granny. I remember her being entirely forthright and being who she was. She wasn’t trying to be someone else. She wasn’t trying to be Madonna or Sarah Bernhardt. She was authentic and she wasn’t trying to smile and she wasn’t trying to pose.
SPW But is it possible that the ‘pose’ she was enacting was one imposed upon her by her mother and her mother’s mother before her: the pose of being authentic, of not smiling? We cannot help but pose. The pose is what we are. Think of the ascetic, standing aloof from worldly matters and pleasures, the kind of guy who says to himself “My appearance is of no consequence. I am not going to care about what I wear” and he goes around in sandals and dirty trousers and grows a ragged beard. One might assume that he doesn’t care about his appearance at all, but there’s the rub: that’s exactly what he wants you to think. That’s his pose. He has decided to look disheveled in order to convince us of a truth he wants us to believe about ‘who he is’ He works very hard at not-caring about how he looks.
STUART PEARSON WRIGHT IN CONVERSATION
with Andy Hussey, Tattoo Revolution
SPW Would you like you a drop of rum? I’d offer you a beer but I don’t have any beer I just have rum and it’s Sailor Jerry as well. That wasn’t intentional. It’s like I just have Sailor Jerry rum in case some one from a tattoo magazine comes to interview me just to prove my credentials.
AH How and when did your love of art first materialize?
SPW Erm..From the earliest stage or age. I don’t think it marked me out in any way but I think all little children love art don’t they? Sticking shapes on paper so I guess it started when I first began holding a pencil and learned not poke myself in the eye with it or stab the dog so I was three and half or four years old probably. Quite a long time ago.
AH Did you feel your time at art college was of benefit or did it institutionalise you to some degree?
SPW Did it benefit me? I’m sure it did. Not in ways I would have expected. It was quite an odd experience and it gave me something to kick against which is always helpful because I couldn’t kick against my step dad forever more because he was getting too old for it. So art school was the next best thing. No is an easy answer to the second part of your question.
AH Have you always been a fan of Realism?
SPW Again going back to when I was three and a half I’m not sure I knew what Realism was but I always enjoyed personatude in paintings. I remember when I was a kid going to art galleries being impressed by the Realism of paintings. Now I can recognise that it is just another ‘ism’. I can see it for what it is, that it has limitations.
AH I love the appearance of your paintings, which have an oil-like, photo realistic quality that is incredible. How do you achieve such a smooth finish? Do you have smooth people sitting for you?
SPW Because I’m a smooth operator and because I drink Nescafe smooth blend. (laughs). I spend far too long painting and I don’t have a television or much of a life outside of my studio and bouncing my baby son up and down.
AH But you have taken a bit more time out for yourself now? When I came to see you, you turned up at 2 o’clock.
SPW That’s terrible! That’s because I hadn’t sleep at all that night.
AH I know so many tattoo artists that keep saying now I have the baby I am going to do this or do that and it never happens. They still keep taking more and more appointments on, working their days off just for special friends and they never get to see their family.
SPW That’s my problem at the moment. I don’t get to see my son very much at all. It’s because I have this exhibition in January, which is imminent. So after January I can take it easy for a little bit assuming I sell a few pictures. Otherwise I will have to sign up at Burger King.
AH No, Ugly Models.
SPW Thanks! To come back to your question, how do I achieve oil like finish? I use oil paints.
AH How do you achieve a smooth finish?
SPW Sfumato, which is a careful blending of tones using a soft brush and practicing.
AH Did you just make that up?
SPW No it’s an Italian word. That isn’t really an answer. It is paraphrasing the expression smooth finish really. That’s not to convince anyone I am well read. I just remember random Italian words.
AH What would you say is the essence of a piece of ‘Stuart art’? You have done the semi-detached house down there next to a semi naked lady.
SPW What is the essence? Erm…Overworking. Not me overworking. I mean me overworking the painting. I generally over work my paintings.
AH Are you never happy with it or just never know when to stop?
SPW Occasionally I am happy with it. But I do overwork them generally. That is a difficult the question. I need to think about it for a minute. We will come back to that one.
AH What is it about people with body adornment and modifications that you like?
SPW I said I would be asked that question and I wouldn’t have an answer to it.
AH Are you like me and just like characters
SPW There is an element of that but I like tattoos as well. When my niece learned I had some tattoos she was shocked. When I asked her why she was shocked she said she thought I wasn’t the ‘sort of person that would have tattoos’. I thought it was an interesting comment because it makes a number of assumptions, 1: that there was a particular type of person that has tattoos and 2: that I wasn’t one of them. She is my niece so you would expect her to know me reasonably well. It made me realise that one of the reason why I had tattoos because I also felt when I was about 18 that I wasn’t the kind of person that had tattoos so in order to convince myself that was a crock of shit I had a tattoo to prove myself wrong. I was also the kind of kid that didn’t take drugs and didn’t smoke and didn’t even drink at that point so I was a sort of goodie-two-shoes so I had to do something not necessarily rebellious but I wanted to do something that felt ‘bad’. So that is my personal reason why I have tattoos but doesn’t say why I am interested in making images of people with tattoos.
AH Just what is it about people with body adornment and modifications that you like?
SPW One trail of thought is High art / Low Art. The art world is very hierarchical and I guess tattoos are often historically considered to fit in to the low art category. Partly because they are associated with the working classes, villains, vagabonds, sailors, the like. Portrait painting historically is associated with kings, queens, princes, dukes and other people with plums up their arses. I guess deep down for me there is a degree of pleasure in taking figures with whom historically speaking, you would associate with vagabond and placing them in the context of a portrait painting which is a process of elevation. Arguably you are historically elevating some one in some sense by painting them, which is a process that takes a long time. You are making something, which has an intrinsic value because it takes a lot of man-hours to make. So you are investing a lot of attention by making a portrait of somebody. There is a degree of enjoyment and a slight cheekiness there. Here we are regular blokes, women with tattoos, portraits that are taking weeks and weeks to make in big frames that take even longer to make. So there is a degree of cheekiness there and for me it was way of exploring the aesthetic of the tattoo that follows on from my last exhibition. There was a lot of 1950s based imagery so the paintings related to 1950s western B-movies so I have a feeling for the 1950s as an era. My personal associations with tattoos, the tattoos I like tend to be the old school tattoos and I like the whole aesthetic of the sailor with the anchor, the circus strong man, that you embody. That is why I stopped you because I felt you embodied a particular archetype of tattooed man I wanted to paint. So I went searching for you and found you. Kind of like a love song. So I had in mind a number of archetypal tattooed people that I wanted to find. Like Rich with his Elvis tattoo on his neck. He is the sort of groovy handsome young guy with his infinitely cool tattoos. My mother fancies him kind of thing. I’m not sure if that answers your question in a round about way. You will have to do a lot of editing.
AH Do you work in any other mediums other that paint?
SPW Lots. Ukulele is one of my mediums. In terms of art materials I do a bit of print making, a bit of sculptures, film making with a small ‘f’. It always sounds preposterous, ‘film making’. I am not James Cameron.
AH What is your preferred medium?
SPW Oil. Love oil. I would never use acrylics. I don’t like the smell and they dry too quickly. Pain in the arse. I am thinking of getting a tattoo kit actually.
AH I was going to ask that actually but we couldn’t put that in the magazine. They would expect you to be a trained tattooist, trained as an apprentice learning all about the health side of it but it you do. Give us a shout. I will save this leg for you.
SPW Ok. I will practice on your thigh.
AH It doesn’t hurt too much on the thigh. It should be all right.
SPW I am thinking about it. I was talking to Rich about it. He works in Leeds.
AH We can take a trip to Leeds. Take one of the VWs. Do you find it difficult to select a medium when you have an idea for a piece. Is it sometimes tricky to decide whether you can bring an idea to life best with a paintbrush or pencil.
SPW I don’t find that difficult or tricky. It’s not an issue.
AH I didn’t think you would. You just jump out of bed and do it.
SPW The selection of the medium suggests itself. An idea pops in to my head and sometimes it presents itself as a film but usually it’s a painting. Recently I am thinking more of sculptures. It depends on what I have been thinking about and looking at. Because I have been making sculpted frames it has lead me to think much more in sculptural terms. I spend an afternoon in the V&A and suddenly I want to make heads, physical heads rather than paintings. So it is really a question about what I have been thinking about or seeing really that influence those decisions.
AH The day isn’t long enough is it?
SPW No the week isn’t, the year isn’t. Nothing is. It’s atrocious.
AH Do you take on any commissioned work? Of course you do or you wouldn’t eat.
SPW No, not at the moment. I am too busy with my exhibition.
AH I have just thought of this one. Do you let the sitter have much input in how the painting is going to be? When I was sitting for you I just went with however you wanted to do it.
SPW Generally not, no. When I approach some one to paint them I usually do that with a very clear agenda in my own head. Usually. I know what kind of painting I want to make. So I start out with a clear set of intentions. So if some one says ‘can you do me a bit like that’ that is always going to clash with my own agenda. It doesn’t really arise though. It would only arise if it were a commissioned portrait because it is a different chemical set up. Because some one has asked you and instigated something and they are also paying you for it.
AH So if some one asked you to paint them with a crown on you would do it?
SPW Not really. It depends. This comes to the question of integrity. Do I have any artistic integrity? I wouldn’t give a hard and fast answer to that. It depends. Since I have had a baby I have less artistic integrity. When I realise how expensive baby’s clothes and furniture are I become slightly more fluid when it comes to artistic integrity. Generally, I think it is a question of having an ego and if you have an ego you try and impose your worldview on other people generally. Regardless of painting pictures or not and I think I have a big ego. Well, I am shit at playing football and crap running around a training track. I have lots and lots of limitations but I also have a vague awareness of my strengths so if I feel I know what I am doing I try to put my point of view forward. When it comes to portrait commissions people often make suggestions for the wrong reasons. They are often guided by their own narcissism which is usually a very bad way of guiding the direction of a piece of art work unless you are being ironic then you can have a really good time with narcissism because if you are sending someone’s narcissism up that is great fun but that is another story all together. Generally if people are saying ‘can you make my nose a bit smaller’ it is not because that is going to improve the painting it is because it is going to make them feel their nose is smaller than it is not how I have painted it if that makes sense.
AH Whose art do you particularly admire for its composition, execution and attention to detail?
SPW Composition. Execution. Attention to detail. That is three different questions really. Composition and execution. A couple of my contemporaries whose I really like are Phil Hale who is a genius and lunatic. There is a painter called Brendan Kelly whose execution is probably second to none but Phil is the guy with the compositional skills. Attention to detail, probably my mum actually. Her attention to detail is something else in her painting. That’s a few people.
AH How do you see your personal style developing and in what direction would you like to take it?
SPW My personal style…the evolution of my personal style is an ongoing battle with my own quite anal way of going about things and trying to resist that. If I am left to my own devises I get very small brushes out and sit there for three years painting something. That is not when I produce my best work. I produce my best work when I am under very severe restrictions. I don’t mean being tied up I mean time wise. If I have to paint something really quickly I am generally on much better form. I painted my son the other day and I had one hour whilst my wife visited the osteopath so she left the baby with me and he was asleep and I had one hour to make the picture. I was really pleased with it because it had a freshness that I often lose when I over working. Also I am quite a lazy painter. I let my pallet get quite grubby and I let the paint dry and then I scrape at it with a finger nail to try and breathe life in to it. If I really had any metal I would scrape it off the palette and squeeze some fresh out. Reputable painters do that sort of thing. I am generally too lazy to do that. I can’t be bothered. I come in in to the morning and think shall I scrape it all off and start with a fresh palette and I cant be bothered I just rub a bit of oil on it and see if I can get some colour on it. I tend to make quite muddy tones and then spend the next 3 months trying to get the freshness that was there with in the first 5 hours. So that is my battle. What was the question, how do I see my style progressing? I hope that it is becoming less anal and less tight arsed and more fluid. Your painting was very tight arsed. The actual rendering of the way the thing is painted. Nothing to do with you at all. It is just a question of my approach to painting and … just trying to work faster and spend less time on things. It yields better results.
AH And what direction would you like to go in?
SPW In that direction. Less tight arsed, more spontaneous and fluid using softer brushes with more sfumato and less hard edges.
AH What is the essence of being an artist?
SPW I can try and answer that question. I think the essence of being an artist is the essence of being a human being. I think human beings are instinctively artists. The only reason people become non-artists is because they go to school and their teachers teach them to do something ‘useful’. I have never encountered a child that doesn’t get a paintbrush, given an opportunity, and make a picture with it. For me that is an entirely human activity. It is just expression: singing, dancing, making pictures are all innate human activities I think so I think the essence of being an artist is being a human being but society sort of teaches us not to be human being but to get a job which is not being a human being it is having a job which is something else really. I mean I haven’t had a job for years so I am probably not qualified to say very much about having a job but I remember when I did have a job I didn’t like it and I have done some shitty jobs. I have opened letters for a private health care company, cleaned toilets, scrubbed potatoes. I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me because I did that. I am just pointing that out as I have some experience of having a job and I felt at the time that wasn’t being a human being. I think being an artist is responding to your experiences in a way that recreates them or enables you to process them. It is processing what happened to you and what you felt about that and in doing so hopefully communicating something of what you have experienced to other people.
AH The second time I met you, because I was hung over the first time, I thought I wish I was like Stuart and had a job I loved doing. You could tell that you did because you do it seven days a week. I am lucky enough now to have walked away from the rat race and hopefully I can continue doing that. I thought it was brilliant that you seemed so happy even though you worked such long hours.
SPW It was because I wanted to do it. I wouldn’t have worked long hours at doing something I didn’t want to do. It is funny, when I went for my careers interview at 17 my careers advisor laughed at me because I wanted to be an artist.
AH What did he suggest in its place?
SPW Well he didn’t. He didn’t even have any ideas. He just laughed at me because I said I wanted to be an artist. I do sometimes think would I turn this all in to work in Eastbourne College giving careers interviews? I am not being snotty but the point is I made the right decision in the end. He was hoping to steer me towards something useful. But I had a sense of conviction in doing what I wanted to do.
AH You were lucky you decided at 17. I was 45 before I did.
SPW Well the system beats you down. It’s hard. The system is decided to beat you down. That is what school is for. It is there to bash you around the head and teach you not to do the things that are very instinctive or if you do do them it is within parenthesis, a certain context. You can do this. You can go to the art room or write a poem but only in your spare time and it is for fun really.
AH Yes, because you will never make a living out of it.
SPW That is what I was told. ‘ You will never earn any money out of it’. My step dad said the same thing. I earned more than he did and he worked in an office. People give you a lot of bad advice in conclusion. I guess the essence of being an artist is partially having a sense of conviction about doing something and sticking to do it and sticking two fingers up at anyone says it is a bad idea. They are probably exposing their own limited worldview rather than having a bearing on you or your abilities.
AH I think a lot of time people are jealous of it and they are too scared to do it themselves.
SPW Exactly. They are exposing their own fears and inadequacies generally. That is what most people tend to do when they are giving other people advice.
AH How would you define success for an artist?
SPW I guess it depends what kind of artist you are. For me, I think if I managed to get a painting in the Tate or the Museum of Modern Art in New York then I will believe I have been successful.
AH So the National Portrait Gallery isn’t good enough for you?
SPW It is not that it isn’t good enough it is that the National Portrait Gallery has a very specific remit, it collects portraits. So if you make a portrait you are already half way there and if you make a portrait of some one well known you have your foot in the door at that stage. Whether or not you are any good is another matter and being any good is a question of practicing a lot. I am not trying to under value the National Portrait Gallery it is a very important museum and does a great job but, if your work is selected it is not necessarily just on the basis of it being a good picture. You know if the Portrait Gallery buys a picture of JK Rowling that I have done it is no small factor that the picture of JK Rowling if you see what I am so if I got a picture of the Tate it wouldn’t be that it was JK Rowling, it would be because I have made the picture and some one thought it was good enough to be in one of the most important art museums in the world. So it is a slightly different thing. The National Portrait Gallery collection is a historic collection and it is not about the artists whose work is in there, it is about the sitters so that is the difference in short. So if I get a work in the Tate that would be the time to open a bottle of bubbly.
AH Or a bottle of Sailor Jerry.
SPW Or a bottle of Sailor Jerry. There was that earlier question.
AH What is the essence of a piece of Stuart art?
SPW Err…really it is the things that fascinate me. I am intrigued by the human figure, people, but I am interested in the games that people play with their appearance. I think the essence of my pictures is probably something fairly subtle. Although the pictures themselves aren’t subtle. They are often silly, melodramatic, exaggerated …
SPW Occasionally rude, very occasionally obscene, dark. I think that what is at stake is a sort of game that has to do with falsifying, a game of dressing up and pretence. Not pretension but pretence.
AH In what way dressing up? Everyone that you have painted down there besides Kiera has got most of their body out so we aren’t hiding anything are we?
SPW No, the series of tattoo portraits are slightly different because in a sense they are straight portraits and I am not talking about the sexuality of the sitters I am talking about the fact that there is very little intervention on my part. I am not asking the sitters to pose in a particular way. In a way I have a slightly ambiguous feeling about the paintings because they are straight portraits. I don’t really like making what I call ‘straight portraits’. The other pictures there are sort of pseudo portraits. They are not genuine portraits in as far as the subjects are adopting a pose in some way. I have dressed people up, put wigs on them, told them to wear a particular outfit, put make up on and told them to sit in a particular way. I am trying to recreate an image that I have seen some where else and make a kind of ironic comment on that image, set of images, that have inspired that picture. There is quite a distinction between the two bodies of work that make up the exhibition in a way, the tattooed portraits and the other work. In a way the other work is more typical of what I do because at the moment I don’t make straight portraits very often because I don’t like taking myself too seriously. I don’t like presenting something that simply says ‘here it is. This is it’. I feel I have to make some witty back handed gesture or comment and be flippant about something otherwise I am scared about being caught out being sincere which is one of the worst things people can do, be sincere.
AH I am thinking about your picture with the ducks flying across it.
SPW Yes, that is a good example. I am interested in the way that people like to be seen. That Tom Jones portrait over there is based on a found photograph of him and I guess the photographer would have said to him ‘can you touch your chin, Sir Tom’ and there is something really disingenuous about it gesture that I really enjoy. That really gets to the heart of the matter, it is about disingenuousness. I have also painted some pictures of some young ladies...just to go back my wife found a box of home made slides from the 1980s, which were quite rude, a lot of them and I selected some of those slides to make paintings from them. They are sort of 1980s ladies with frilly negligees on and they are trying to be ‘erotic’ and what interests me about those is… the one particular image called Debbie is just a sort of portrait of a girl and she is sort of smiling and what interests me about that is that was some young woman that some sleazy guy had said ‘I want you to be this photo shoot. I will give you £50.’ In some of the pictures she is getting it on with the girl there, who I have called Paula, and you can sort of tell she is not really enjoying it. She is trying to convince the viewer that she is enjoying what she is doing and some sort of erotic game and actually it is not working. I can see that she is possibly a mother of two from Croydon who has a day job and her husband has left and she isn’t making ends meat, she has to do this sleazy photo shoot and so when there is a shot of her just standing there smiling there is something for me that is very compelling about that because I know the smile is fake. There is a pose and that is what interests me, people posing and that permeates almost everything I do. I am always interested in the fakeness of things. Even when I paint a big landscape like that one there. I have tried to make it look unreal, I have tried to make the mountains not look like mountains but look like stage-flat mountains so they don’t quite look real yet they are painted on a convincing way so there is a discrepancy between reality and something that isn’t real. In affect I am trying to take the viewer to a kind of place where a filmmaker like David Lynch would to take you. He does it very well he is trying to dislodge your sense of the familiar and the real so that you feel slightly uncomfortable because you are not quite sure if something is real or not. It is a very strange part of the psyche and I guess I am trying to tap in to that. In time I hope I can do that with as much subtlety as David Lynch because at the moment my pictures are pretty brash and clumsy I guess because I have not been doing it as long as David Lynch has been making films and also I am not David Lynch. That is what I am trying to do. I would hope that would be at the essence of a Stuart painting. Maybe I am only the person who can see t because only has access to my brain, thank god. Me and my therapist.
24 November 2011