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Simon Munnery on his first exhibition, buying vegetables and a new form of art

Simon Munnery with Tazzy, his over-large lap dog, out shopping for vegetables in Bedford…

It’s Tuesday today.

Last Wednesday, I went to Bedford for a chat with ever-original comedy performer Simon Munnery. He travels about 11 miles to Bedford every Wednesday to buy his vegetables.

Since then, I’ve either been busy or lazy or I’ve been waiting for the coronavirus panic to settle in some way to find an angle. Take your pick.

But there is no angle. Simon’s first solo art exhibition What Am I? has opened in Bedford at Andy Holden‘s suitably quirky Ex-Baldessarre Gallery. It runs from noon to 6.00pm every Saturday until 9th May, coronavirus allowing.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested everyone in the UK should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and cinemas and that people who did not absolutely have to go out should stay at home – an end to “all unnecessary social contact.”

London theatres have already started to close. Who knows if smaller, intimate exhibitions like Simon’s will close? As of this morning, the art exhibition continues but his Alan Parker Urban Warrior ‘Farewell Tour’ comedy show is pausing, with luck recommencing in April, perhaps later. Just a week is a long time in a virus pandemic. This is what happened last week…

Simon’s first solo art exhibition is taking place in the character-filled Queen’s Park area of Bedford


JOHN: You live in a village in the countryside. I thought you were a city boy.

SIMON: Born in Edgware, raised in Watford, died all over the place.

JOHN: So why are you living in a village?

SIMON: It’s cheap. 

JOHN: This is billed as your first art exhibition? Surely not.

SIMON: I had stuff in Arthur Smith’s art gallery at the Edinburgh Fringe one year. He turned a house into an art gallery. That was it. 

JOHN: So this is your first solo exhibition.

SIMON: Yes. 

JOHN: I’m surprised you haven’t been approached by a major London gallery before this. I mean, you’re a ‘Name’. The Scotsman described you as “The closest that comedy gets to modern art.”

SIMON: Well, a jacket of mine is in the Museum of Comedy in London: the jacket with cider cans all over it. And this art exhibition is booked to go to Edinburgh.

JOHN: During the Fringe?

SIMON: Yup.

JOHN: If there IS a Fringe this year because of the coronavirus…

SIMON: Well, we don’t know at this stage. If there is, I’m doing a show called Trials & Tribulations.

JOHN: Because…

SIMON: Because you have to think of a title. I think the art exhibition may also be going to Stroud. Maybe it might go to London after that… The idea of a show that can tour without you is good.

JOHN: This sounds like a rounding-off-your-career type of exhibition.

Simon Munnery, in his youth, billed as “The Next Shakespeare”… though with an interest in science

SIMON: Not really. It was Andy Holden’s idea. He’s an artist; he uses some of the space he has in his studio for a tiny gallery and he said: “I shall do you.” So I said: “Alright.” And that was it.

JOHN: There’s something in the exhibition which you did when you were nine years old.

SIMON: There’s a poem. Something about The Fog.

JOHN: The Fog?

SIMON: I can’t remember it. I got a text from a neighbour that Mrs Nunn, my primary school teacher – there was some dispute at the time – says: “I still think you cheated on that poem.”

JOHN: How?

SIMON: I don’t know how. I didn’t. But it’s been following me round for 40 years.

JOHN: What’s in it?

SIMON:
Just things that rhyme with fog, I think. The fog lingers… I can’t remember.

JOHN: I can’t remember what you studied at university.

SIMON: Science. Well, “Not much,” is the real answer. In the last year, I ended up doing ‘The History and Philosophy of Science’.

JOHN: Is that actually Science? Or is it History and Philosophy?

SIMON: I don’t know. I didn’t go to any lectures, so I have no idea what the course was like. I just slipped through the net and no-one noticed, really.

JOHN: This was at Cambridge.

SIMON: Yes. I met my Supervisor a week before the exam. Because I had never been to anything, he hadn’t written any reports about me saying how well or badly I was doing and I said to him: “Can you recommend one book?” and he recommended Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge by Paul K Feyerabend.

So I read that and regurgitated all his arguments – which was basically saying there’s no such thing as the philosophy of science, along with some really good examples about Galileo… And I passed on the strength of reading one book.

JOHN: Did you get a good degree?

Simon leaves no stone unturned in his Bedford-based search for originality in Art… soon to tour

SIMON: A third. It goes First, Second, Third, so Third is the best.

JOHN: It’s the best because…?

SIMON: Because it’s the highest number. If you are utterly brilliant, you can get a Fourth.

JOHN: Why did you do science? You’re very arty.

SIMON: Am I? To be honest, in school subjects, I was quite good at everything. But when you got to ‘A’ Levels, at that time, you had to choose one or the other.

JOHN: You must surely have wanted to be an artist as a kid. You’re not usually doing straight stand-up in your shows. You’re always trying to work out some new, original, unique angle.

SIMON: It’s just to keep myself busy, really…

JOHN: But you could keep busy by doing the same old stuff over and over again.

SIMON: Well, I AM touring Alan Parker: Urban Warrior again. It’s billed as a ‘Farewell Tour’. But it has resurrected very nicely. I think it’s funnier played by someone in their mid-50s rather than their mid-20s, when I first did it. He’s still anti-Thatcher. The fact she’s dead now doesn’t make any difference to him. It’s like a bedrock. But there are new bits. Climate change. Extinction Rebellion and all that.

Reflections on a much younger Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, in one of the art exhibition’s videos…

JOHN: You performed for Extinction Rebellion…

SIMON: I played Piccadilly Circus, Waterloo Bridge and Brockwell Park in South London.

JOHN: Anyway, to get back to the exhibition… Andy Holden decided you were going to have an exhibition. So how did you choose what to include in it?

SIMON: I didn’t. I submitted things and he chose what to put up… I did have this massive canvas in my shed, which had been there for years… When I was spray-painting buckets, they rested on the canvas, so there were strange patterns on it. I tried to get that in the exhibition, just to get rid of it out of the shed, but he REALLY objected to that.

JOHN: Couldn’t you claim it was post-modern…?

SIMON:  That’s what I tried. But no, he wouldn’t have it.

JOHN: There must be phrases. ‘Post-modern’ is usually a good one. ‘Meme’ is a good one now. I suppose ‘Zeitgeist’ is a bit old-fashioned.

SIMON: I might have got away with just ‘Abstract’, but I feel it’s destined to stay in the shed.

JOHN: Couldn’t you have claimed it was about the Iraq War or something?

SIMON: A good title might have saved it. But no. He gave me some canvases and asked me to fill them and I printed out some stuff and he selected what he wanted. I did make an Alan Parker from an Action Man doll.

JOHN: That’s the mobile.

Simon addresses Extinction Rebellion in a video while his Alan Parker doll takes flight in the gallery

SIMON: Yes. Did you notice how padded its tummy was?

JOHN: Was it pregnant?

SIMON: No, but your standard Action Man isn’t the same shape as me.

JOHN: But you’re slim…

SIMON: Less so now…

JOHN: There was the wall with lots of quotes on.

A wall of quotes from Simon’s AGM show surround one of his always inventive television videos…

SIMON: That is only two-thirds of one year of my AGM show. I have sacks of those.

JOHN: So you were just trying to empty your house. What’s next?

SIMON: I came up with a format for a new form of Art… Roadside placards.

JOHN: Discuss…

SIMON: You often see an advert at the side of the road but you could put a sentence… then another sentence… and another sentence… and it would build up into a paragraph. Or maybe not even a sentence or a paragraph; just an image and then another image that replies to the previous image. You could prove Pythagoras’ Theorem entirely in images. People could learn as they drove past. Your experience would alter depending on the speed you were travelling at. You could design it for cyclists or car drivers or something to make people slow down. I dunno.

I was imagining green-on-brown so you would have to know it was there, maybe. Secret Art.

JOHN: Pythagoras?

SIMON: Pictorial proof of Pythagoras’ Theorem. It could be done. The format of roadside placards has not been fully exploited.

JOHN: More immediately, what next for you?

SIMON: I’ve bought eggs from the egg lady. She’s not shaped like an egg; she sells eggs. I’ve got my fruit and veg. I was supposed to be getting toilet rolls. We are running out at home. I went to the supermarket – none. Other people’s houses must be full of toilet rolls.

Simon Munnery’s exhibition What Am I? runs in Bedford every Saturday until May 9th, probably.

…Simon about to catch a wreath at a funeral staged in his back garden…

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I mistook someone else for me in comic Janet Bettesworth’s pre-novel ‘doodles’

She studied Fine Art & Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

Everyone inevitably makes instant judgments on people’s characters at first sight: solely on their looks. But we seldom see ourselves as others see us.

Comedian, art connoisseur and Grouchy Club regular Janet Bettesworth recently announced: “I’m going to write a novel by doodling the characters first.” She studied Fine Art and Photography at Hornsey College of Art.

She is currently posting drawings – she calls them ‘doodles’ – on her Facebook page and asks three questions for Facebook Friends to answer about each unknown person sketched. For example:

  • What is his name?
  • The love of his life?
  • His taste in furniture?

I recognised the 25th sketch was of fellow Grouchy Club regular Peter Stanford. Janet’s questions were:

Peter Stanford – airlifted to safety after a farming incident?

  • What’s his name?
  • His most recent airborne experience?
  • Way of organising a picnic?

Answers included:

  • His name is Nils, he was airlifted to safety after a farming incident. Picnics for him are rye bread & herring & fermented ale.
  • He used to get gigs as a Brian Blessed looky-like until he accidentally boarded an EasyJet to Finland, where he found a lot more work playing Santa to tourists, and now he drinks mulled wine all year round.

And, from Peter Stanford himself:

  • Definitely one of the gods in your novel. Cranach looks down at the mortals giving the Deserving pieces of good luck and mugs of tea. He is rarely airborne as he can transport himself between the godly and earthly realms instantaneously. His worshippers organise ‘Picnics’ (feasts held indoors in the colder months and only outside in high summer) for the poor and homeless – and anyone else – in his honour as part of their devotions, instead of building temples. When he was appearing on earth, he drank mugs of tea, which he shared with other people. “Don’t build any temples”, he told them. “Just organise picnics and tea.” The cult is always in danger of dying out.

A few days later, Peter pointed out to me that No 30 in Janet’s series looked a lot like me, though with different-shaped spectacles. I had a look and thought: Well, bugger me, that does look like it’s me!

The three questions Janet asked of her Facebook Friends were:

Is this me? – or Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge?

  • What is his name?
  • His opinion of Boris Johnson?
  • His chances of winning the Lottery?

The answers seemed to reflect more on the personality of the commentator rather than on me and tended to reflect British people’s somewhat unhealthy continuing obsession with Brexit and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

  • Glenn Thoresby. What he really thinks of Boris Johnson is unprintable here; enough to say he believes that the British people have been lied to mercilessly by this entitled upper-class toff who doesn’t give a monkey’s: a feckless, narcissistic, utterly irresponsible public school product, a marionette of Dominic-whom-nobody-voted-for-Cummings. Glenn’s chances of winning the Lottery are nil as he doesn’t buy the tickets. He believes they are an exploitative tax on the poor who, (like Brexit voters) think they have a chance to turn their fates around on a million to one statistical odds. This doesn’t stop him from buying raffle tickets occasionally, though, especially when the prize is a good bottle of plonk and/or the beneficiaries’ cause is a good one.
  • This is a cracking picture. I think his name is Peter Egg and he’s a foodie: a London restaurant critic who is zealous about plant-based foods to the extent that the smell of animal products cooking now makes him gag. Restaurants where he dines now have to put him in a separate room and block the doorframe with towels and wet loo paper to stop the offending molecules reaching his nose. He thinks Boris is an execrable pig or walking pork roast. He has no chance of winning the Lottery as he never enters. It only penetrates his consciousness when he goes to the theatre and sees its logo at the bottom of programmes for plays it has funded.

Janet Bettesworth – Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

  • Dimitri Dennis Zabaroski. He won’t win. He doesn’t do Lottery. Hates the foreign man who won up the road… they should fuck off back home. (Both parents immigrated to Luton in the ’50s.) He works at car plant locally and knows a lot of foreign people abuse the system. Likes Prince Andrew and his confidence. Likes Borris and wants to have a flag pole outside his house with Farage and Union flag. Council refused planning application. All foreign.
  • This is Piggott de Pfeffel-Partridge, known to his closest friends as 3Pee. He is a second cousin, once removed to Boris. He is immensely proud and fond of his childhood pal, with whom he roasted chestnuts and netted little jars of frogspawn when the families got together for camping trips. They frequently got their shorts mixed up, being almost identical in size and shape. They still swap Christmas jumpers, particularly the ones gifted by Rachel as she seems to find the ones with the rudest slogans… Piggott has enjoyed a varied career, which includes a brief spell as a fluffer in a Hollywood porn production company (he was sacked for making badly edited and shaky copies on his secret camera which discreetly attached to his paisley patterned cravat). He also worked as a rickshaw driver in Hong Kong, normally stationed outside the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon but few tourists engaged his services due to his extremely eccentric hats and comedy Chinese moustaches… He eventually made his fortune writing haiku messages predicting the purchasers’ marriage prospects onto extremely dark and gloomy canvases which sell for many dollars all over the USA. In his own way, therefore, he has already won the lottery so has no need to buy tickets on the weekly National Lottery, which he disdains with a passion – matched only by that of his antipathy to the unelected bureaucrats of the European Commission.

I contacted Janet, because I thought it would make an interesting blog to run her drawing of me with strangers’ character assessments of what this unknown person might be like.

But there was a snag…

She told me it was NOT a sketch of me at all: in fact, it was a sketch of her husband! She said he found the comments amusing – He does despise Boris Johnson, but he does do the Lottery.

Now Janet HAS included a sketch of me. Sadly with less interesting comments/suggestions. 

Does this Jewish man appreciate a good, well-shaped calf?

Her questions were:

  • What is his name?
  • His over-riding passion in life?
  • Way of dealing with problems? 

The responses include:

  • Manny Silverman. Loves small investments. Still dining out on making £35,000 on ‘Britcoin’ a couple of years ago. Cigars and coffee are how he copes with life’s complexities. Don’t mention the time he passed on Apple shares, though.
  • Godfrey was a prostate specialist and his hands could reach parts that others… but now volunteers at his local city farm delivering calves – His approach to life? He always gets stuck in and is happy to get his hands dirty
  • This is Howard Silver. He’s a nice East End Jewish boy now living in Southgate. He’s a life-long socialist and lives in a rented housing association flat that he got through Rachel, one of his cousins who works there. He doesn’t own anything, aside from the clothes on his back and a few sticks of furniture, all the books on Communism he’s read were borrowed never bought. He’s lifelong Labour, red through and through but was recently upset by the growing anti-Semitism in the party so he voted green for the first time ever in protest. He’s what Yiddish speakers would term a poor old nebbish.
  • His name is Frank Gibbins. He thinks that the world has become strange, impersonal and unnecessarily complicated… He seeks solace in the simplicity of nature and its instinctive laws, eg. the way that the ducklings follow the mother duck, the unquestioned authority of the silverback gorilla in setting the direction of his troop and keeping it in order… He likes to sit in the park for hours, observing the behaviour of humans as they centre themselves in selfies against the backdrop of the beautiful autumnal leaves or wander around oblivious to the creatures of the forest…Sometimes he’ll draw them in his book and imagine their thoughts.
  • Constantine Gras – because he looks the spit of a friend of mine called Constantine Gras. Well, what he’d look like in about 30 years. He’s tall – maybe 6’2. He’s an artist/filmmaker.
  • Who are these people? (Photograph: Jez Timms via UnSplash)

    Clive Earnshaw. Son of a bookkeeper and an apiarist, he has inherited a calm demeanour in all kinds of crisis situations, which served him well in his job as an emergency medical technician. His overriding passions in life are his sibling’s children, for whom he would do anything. His search for meaning led him to a retreat in the North African desert and he converted to the Sufic branch of Islam. His way of dealing with problems (apart from whirling) is to quote soothing aphorisms such as: This too will pass. He is deeply peaceful.

The trite lesson to be learned from all this?

People see totally different characters and backgrounds in exactly the same faces. Initial assumptions about people can – and very often are – wrong.

Peter Stanford’s view my sketch was:

  • This is Derek Milchman, a friend of No 30: that one which looks like him. They sometimes swap glasses and pretend to be each other. If this is a humorous book, with hilarious results; if a grim book, this leads to a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.

Janet replied: “I am not entirely in agreement. For students of phrenology and physiognomy, it may be observed that No. 30 has a receding jawline, whereas No. 39 has a protruding one. I do like the idea of a tragedy which ruins everyone’s lives.”

Comedy critic Kate Copstick, recognised me: “This is John Fleming!!!” And Peter Stanford asked Janet: “So what role are you going to give him in the novel?”

A “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait

She replied: “If you’re referring to the author of the Malcolm Hardee biography, the hands are too big and seem to be coated with some kind of white substance.”

Janet also told me that she had included a “slightly caricatured” very loose self-portrait – No 31 in the bunch.

And below are three more of her drawings.

Janet tells me: “I do two types of doodles – one where I’m basing it on a real person, and the other where I do random scribbles with my eyes closed, then a face gradually emerges out of the chaos, like seeing faces in the fire – that way is by far my favourite…”

One final comment and query from one of Janet’s Facebook Friends sums it all up, though: “I keep wondering why you’re writing a novel when you’re so ‘geniusly’ good at drawing – Or are you even better at writing?”

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Striking Kamp – How the Wolverine of British art creates his layered emotions

Vince: The Wolverine of the British art scene

British painter Vincent Kamp was named Artist of The Year 2017 by Talented Art Fair.

In yesterday’s blog, he talked about his upcoming short movie about a heist at the Ritz Club in London. It is based on a series of paintings he created.

He has also been collaborating with singer Sam Smith on a series of paintings.

But an earlier success was another series of linked-narrative paintings.


JOHN: Barber shops. You went round barber shops and created a series of paintings… Why?

VINCE: I was at a motor bike show and there was a barber shop there. I was there to research the bike guys, but I saw this barber shop where there were three or four guys with a fantastic look – tattoos and all the rest – and they had this 1920s feel about them. So, even though I was there to photograph motor bike guys, I asked if I could photograph the barbers too and then I started painting them and the paintings went down really well on Instagram – people were really excited by them – so then I went to see those guys in their shop in East London and asked: “Are there more guys like you?”

“…There must be other things going on…”

And they said: “Yeah.”

This is a massive community of really creative, interesting people.

So I started to think more about and visit these barber shops. And these guys are doing quite well, have a fair bit of money but, I thought: They can’t be making this money from just cutting hair! So I started thinking: There must be other things going on. And I came up with ideas of crime behind the scenes.

Guys just cutting hair is not necessarily THAT interesting but, once you imagine these guys are doing something else… When you get your hair cut, you end up telling the barber everything, so maybe they are hearing about all sorts of stuff…?

JOHN: And this barber shop series was a turning point for you?

VINCE: Yes. I had been selling art for a long time, but…

JOHN: Selling it where?

VINCE: Just around. There are lots of art fairs around London. Manchester and places. You hire a space, a little booth. I had a booth. You put your paintings up and people walk past turning their noses up, because people love abstract art and pretty colours. They see Renaissance Art type stuff and they think: Oh! Old-fashioned rubbish!

I thought I would never get anywhere but, when I started painting the barbers, that’s when it started resonating with people and I started to get a lot more interest. That was about two-and-a-half years ago.

“It started resonating with people and I got a lot more interest”

That was when I could quit working at my full-time other job. So I have been a full-time artist for about two years.

But, really, I think another major turning point was just before I did the barbers stuff, when I studied in Rome for a couple of weeks with one of my art mentors, an American artist called Sean Cheetham, and he gave me the feeling I could do something. That gave me self-belief, but I just kept chipping away. That is the thing; you have to keep chipping away.

JOHN: You’re not interested in abstract art – random triangles, Picasso and all that?

VINCE: No, I’m not. I appreciate that people like abstraction, but…

JOHN: The Renaissance is seriously complicated, detailed stuff.

VINCE: Well, I’m a realistic painter, a representational artist.

JOHN: That’s more difficult than painting triangles.

“It is the ‘idea’ people buy. That is where the art really exists.”

VINCE: Yes but, at the end of the day, that is just ‘craft’. The ‘art’ is the ‘idea’. There are tons of people who can paint way better than me and representational ‘craft’ will get you so far, but only so far. It is actually the ‘idea’ that people buy and that is where the art really exists.

Even the old masters would maybe paint face and hands and have students filling in everything else… but they had come up with the original ideas, the composition.

Love him or hate him, Damien Hirst comes up with the ideas, the marketing, the brand and he has other people do the work. But why should he do the work? Someone else can repeat what he tells them – the spacing of his dots, the colours that are used, any number of different things. People say: Oh, my 5-year-old could do that… Yeah, but your 5-year-old DIDN’T do it. And YOU didn’t do it. HE did it and HE was successful.

There is so much more to it than just producing a piece of art that’s impressive. There are so many people who are brilliant at painting dogs or children or whatever else. But it’s only the people who own the dog or own the child who want to buy their painting. Because there is no real story; the idea is not interesting enough; it’s just a piece of craft work.

JOHN: Painting is dead, isn’t it? You do reference photographs and you can do creative changes with Photoshop and you can sell prints of your work successfully – which you do. Why bother actually painting at all?

“…Prints are just not the same… They flatten everything out…”

VINCE: Prints of paintings are just not the same. They flatten everything out; there’s only a certain dynamic range you can do with a printer, so a lot of subtleties in the darks and the blacks and the shadows will just get turned to black by a printer. You won’t see all those different subtleties.

Oil paintings are painted in layers and, because light goes through all these different layers of paint and reflects back colours, it has a very different feel when you see an oil painting in real life compared to a print of that oil painting.

One of the big things about my art is it’s expensive. The people buying it like the art, but also they know that there is only one of these. When you buy a Lamborghini, ten people down the road could have the same car as you. You have spent £250,000 on a car and you don’t have the only one. Whereas, when you buy an original oil painting which has had many hours of thought and work go into it, it’s a completely different investment.

“…People really get quite emotional about my paintings…”

People are emotionally attached to it. People really get quite emotional about my paintings, which is the greatest thing ever for me; it’s the biggest rush; I get goosebumps when I think about it. When they tell me how much the painting I have created means to them… well, a print of the painting will never mean the same thing.

JOHN: So I can’t appreciate your paintings as prints?

VINCE: You can still appreciate them, of course, because the story is still there in each print, but you know the artist’s hand hasn’t been involved. There’s a different emotive, visceral thing that comes with an original that has been created by a human being. A print is a photograph of an original that has been reproduced. It’s not quite the same thing.

TV and film spoon-feeds you everything – the characters, the plot, the story, the whole thing.

“What happened leading up to the instant captured by that?”

But a painting is one instant and you decide what went before and after and what the back story is…

What happened after that moment?

What happened leading up to the instant captured by that paining?

And that is what people do. They write to me to tell me what they think is going on. Everyone sees something slightly different.

JOHN: Do you take commissions?

VINCE: No. I haven’t got time and I don’t want to paint someone just because they want to be painted. I’m very busy and I paint what I want to paint.

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Vincent Kamp – The representational Renaissance artist of UK underworlds

Painter Vincent Kamp is unusual in that he sometimes creates not just one painting but perhaps six or eight separate scenes from an single imagined narrative story.

His PR man told me that Vince is “fascinated by the dark, gritty, underground world of urban subculture. His paintings delve beneath the surface of social class, creating intense portraits of charismatic people in a fused background of atmospheric lighting, sexuality and impending violence.”

“Fuck me!” I thought.

So I went and had a chat with him.

Vincent Kamp: “For me, it’s all about stories… it’s all just about stories and journeys and character.”


JOHN: Someone must have said Hogarth when describing your paintings?

VINCE: I think Hogarth is much tighter than me. I think I’m much looser. If you see my paintings up close, there’s much more evidence of brushstrokes and paint.

JOHN: Hogarth did lowlifes and scum-of-the-earths. That’s what he did. That’s what you’re interested in.

VINCE:  A little bit. Yeah. Absolutely.

JOHN: But your background is ordinary middle class life?

VINCE: Pretty much. I worked at my parents’ company for a long time. My father is a designer of scientific instruments. And I’ve got my own family – two kids – So I painted in the evenings and at 4 o’clock in the morning. I was struggling away like that for many, many years.

JOHN: Any artistic influence from your parents?

VINCE: My parents are both from Holland. I have never lived in Holland, but there is a very strong connection to North Holland – that Flemish style. We were always taken to museums and art galleries. My parents have quite a few oil paintings. So I grew up with that. It has always been my sort of sensibilities: that sort of Renaissance style painting.

JOHN: So why the attraction to down-market East End of London type people?

VINCE: For me, it’s all about stories. Whether it is a glamorous story or whether it is just some scum-of-the-earth guy stealing and robbing… it’s all just about stories and journeys and character. That’s what I’m interested in more than anything.

“…a story with a whole cast of characters”

The first thing I do is write a back story with a whole cast of characters. Then I use a casting director to find the people I need. Actors. Then I find the location. So, essentially, it is like I am making a film and I paint a storyboard, essentially, for the narrative I have already written down.

JOHN: You use actors for faces? Not real Faces? Have you encountered genuine naughty men?

VINCE: Let’s just say I’ve brushed with that world a little bit.

JOHN: Very appropriate. Brushed. But why not use genuine dodgy men? 

VINCE: I am trying to create a narrative scene and, if you’re not an actor and I am trying to tell you the narrative, you may just look a bit wooden… If you could catch them in the middle of a deal or whatever else, then maybe that would be interesting, but actually a gangster being photographed when he’s not ‘gangstering’ is just going to be a guy sat there looking nervous because you are pointing a camera at him.

JOHN: You take photographs?

VINCE: Oh yeah. Yeah. I explain the background of the scene to the actors. I’m talking to them, directing them and snapping away with my camera.

JOHN: You paint from photographs?

VINCE: Yes. For me, if you ask a person to hold a pose for a painting, that is never reality. But, when you snatch that moment in time in a photograph and then paint from that – That is much more real than asking someone to pose for a certain amount of time while I paint for however many hours.

JOHN: And you may alter what is in the photograph to change the person’s emotional look.

VINCE: Of course. Yes. Absolutely. I take hundreds of photographs. I might borrow the hands from one; the face from another. I do charcoal studies and then think: You know, what I’m gonna do is tweak this guy to look a little more gnarly or more apprehensive or whatever. So I change subtle details here and there… and create my own lighting.

JOHN: Between the photograph and the painting, there might be Photoshopping?

VINCE: Loads of Photoshopping… Tons… 

JOHN: Why don’t you, in your head, do what the Photoshop will do? Wouldn’t that be quicker?

VINCE: Oh my God, no! Your reference is the most important part: getting that absolutely right. The painting, then, becomes more mechanical. Painting is very, very time-consuming. To hold an idea in your head for that length of time to get it exactly right is REALLY difficult. I have done it. But it is much better to use the tools that are available.

JOHN: With all this photographing of narrative stories, can a feature film be far off?

VINCE: I am directing a 15 minute short which we hope to start filming in mid-February. But it is at the early stages yet. It’s a screenplay I have written based on a show I did at the Ritz last month.

JOHN: That was a series of paintings…

“Being a director must have been in the back of your mind…”

VINCE: Yes. Called Diamond Roulette – six paintings… A heist thriller. The story is about a couple who are stealing from the high-end gamblers at the Ritz Club. People can lose £2 million or £3 million in a night – they have £10,000 chips there… In fact, they have £50,000 and £500,000 chips there… And these girls are often in the casinos and subtly take chips from the guys and someone spots this and sees an opportunity and that’s where the story starts.

JOHN: Being a director must have always been in the back of your mind.

VINCE: Of course I’m a massive film fan. I’ve always been fascinated about telling stories, always been writing stories.

JOHN: So, if you do shoot in mid-February, the short film will be ready for screening by…

VINCE: …by May at the latest, I hope.

JOHN: You are linked to a gallery near The Ritz.

VINCE: Yes. Clarendon Fine Art in Dover Street, Mayfair. They represent me. I’m exclusive. DeMontfort Fine Art, who own Clarendon, has 55 galleries around the country who sell my prints as well.

JOHN: You have made money out of art. You have supported a wife and two children – aged 12 and 9 – not cheap. Yet you have no art school training at all. How did you build a career?

VINCE: Well, you sell a load of work first of all. Then you start getting people talking about you. And, pretty soon, the art galleries come knocking.

JOHN: How did DeMontfort know you existed?

VINCE: On Instagram.

JOHN: Was there a turning point when you started being really successful?

VINCE: Well…

… CONCLUDED HERE

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What happened when award-winning Becky Fury went to Berlin for a week

Becky possibly possessed by a dead actress.

When Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Becky Fury told me she was going to Berlin for a week and offered to share her insights with me, I leapt at the chance and said Yes.

Though it is always a risky strategy saying Yes to anyone who has won a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

I have just received this missive from Becky which is more a thesis on support of the arts but is worth reading for the unexpected (at least by me) twist in it…


I woke up in Berlin yesterday. 

I meant to. It was not some happy, drunken accident.

I woke up in an arts space which calls itself the new Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles) and I put my coat on – the wrong way round, I was informed. But the coat served its function that way for a few more hours, so maybe it was not the coat that was the wrong way round but the perspective of how the coat should be on that was inside out.

Facade of Kunsthaus Tacheles at Oranienburger Straße, Berlin

‘Tacheles’ is a word – רעדן ניט בולשיט – meaning ‘speak no bullshit’ in Yiddish. So I had broken the only rule of the space before breakfast.

The old Tacheles grew out of the rubble of the Second World War, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in a space in East Berlin.

It was named in Yiddish as a memorial to its pre-War Jewish inhabitants who had never returned.

The new space is beginning to be like the old one but the artists there are having to deal with just making the space habitable rather than being able to create art. Putting into place the basic blocks of the artistic ecosystem which develops in a space which, like a rainforest or peak bog, has taken years to evolve. In the same way that you can’t just make a rainforest from scratch, you can’t do that with a creative space.

These spaces should be protected as important habitats to protect cultural biodiversity.

PROTECT THE PUNK is unlikely to be taken up as a campaign by the World Wildlife Fund. But something needs to happen. The eviction of the Freespace ADM in Amsterdam (Becky blogged about it here last year) was halted by the UN, who said that the space was a protected reservation.

If the World Wildlife Fund can’t do it, maybe one of the charities that allows you to indirectly adopt a child could run an adoption campaign for alternative artists. You could get updates on how well your alternative artist is doing, if it has been successfully released into the wild and how global re-population is doing. 

The British government used to run a similar scheme. It was called the dole.

If you have an issue with people claiming the dole, then throw away most of your favourite music because those artists were funded and had the space to do what they were doing because they were at some point in their career scamming the dole.

A staircase inside the Kunsthaus Tacheles building in Berlin (Photograph by Shaun7777777 on Wikipedia)

However, really, the most important fundraising needs to go into  protecting spaces where this art is created. Pop stars would do well to think less about the Rainforest or Africa and more about cultural reservations in the developed world, because it is in these places that the sounds and styles that go into the creation of commercially manufactured music are poached.

The commercial stylists and producers and ‘creative team’ are essentially poachers that go into these wild raw spaces and poach ideas. They return with skins and trophies that go into creating the latest look for whoever is being pushed to the top of what is left of the singles chart. Without these spaces, they wouldn’t have a career. They would do well to encourage people to save them.

Really, the important issue is the space. The individuals there can support themselves in lieu of the government doing it. The government never does anything that shows foresight beyond preserving their next term. It needs a charity which deals with protecting habitats like the RSPB.

 We need a  Royal Society for the Protection of Artistic Birds. 

Birds and Blokes.

I am using birds as the collective noun.

These artistic birds are endangered and they need to have their habitat protected otherwise the diversity will decrease and all the beautiful, wild, exotic, interesting species will die off and we will just be left with the equivalent of pigeons and seagulls – less sensitive, aggressive species that can survive in the barren cultural climate and environment that we have manufactured. 

I am not suggesting that Rentokil should be called in to deal with infestations of pop stars. 

I would just like to see pop stars on the list alongside rats and wasps on the side of the Rentokil van. 

If Rentokil could turn up at a Justin Beiber concert and trap him in a big net, I would pay for an overpriced stadium ticket to see that gig.


When I received that missive from Becky, I asked her if she had any photos she had taken of herself at the Kunsthaus Tacheles. She replied:


A Becky selfie on a train in Berlin

I didn’t take any there. I do have one of me on a tube train.

And one (above) that makes me look like maybe I was possessed by one of the former inhabitants of the Tacheles – a minor Hammer horror actress that died there… on stage in a dance interpretation of the Communist Manifesto.

I left some photos with the guy that invited me to Berlin, who has taken way too much acid and didn’t really think about the logistics of inviting people to make art there. So I decided to get a plane back to London after I went into Berlin itself on a psycho-geographic ramble.

I told you when I left for Berlin that I would see where it might lead me… Back to Berlin Airport, apparently, and then back to London.

Anyway. Now I can learn lines for my next show or just fanny about on Facebook in London. So that’s what I’m doing.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Artists PUSH THE BOAT OUT in South London and talk about rock & toy cars

Tin Tin in Elephant & Castle painting by Harry

I usually tell people that appearing in this blog will not get them paying bums on seats to see their productions, but it may – or may not – get them noticed.

I was going to post this blog about a week ago, to basically plug a week-long London art show titled PUSH THE BOAT OUT – EIGHT SOUTH LONDON ARTISTS. It was previewed last Wednesday, opened on Thursday and runs until Monday this coming week.

Complications in my life plus my dead MacBook Pro laptop and, this week, a cowboy almost destroying my iMac desktop computer for several days intervened.

But the two people who set up the exhibition are so interesting in their own right that I think this blog is well worth a read. And, at the time of posting, the exhibition is still on. Just.

PUSH THE BOAT OUT is an exhibition of mostly-new work by four painters and four sculptors at the Art Academy in what used to be the library of the town hall at Elephant and Castle. The two people who organised it are Harry Pye and James Johnston and I met them in Harry’s studio in New Cross, South London.

Obviously, in what follows, I digressed.


Artists Harry Pye (left) and James Johnston

JOHN: So you live in New Cross…

HARRY: No. This is my studio. I live in Lewisham and work at Tate Britain. I’ve worked in the bookshop at Tate for 22 years – so half my lifetime. I like working there. Hearing people enthuse. It keeps me going.

Like you, I do a blog where I interview creative people. It’s like therapy for me. There are so many terrible things going on in the world that I find, if I pick out a few people and say “Tell me about your project,” it calms me down.

JOHN: I’m the opposite. I just get people to tell me all the terrible things that have ever happened to them. Very cathartic for me. But why organise an art show? Indeed, why bother painting or doing anything arty at all?

HARRY: I think, for a lot of artists, the answer to the question: “Why do you do things?” would be: “Because we’ve got rocks in our heads.” It really doesn’t make sense financially.

JOHN: Ah! Rock! James, you’re a musician. What’s your connection with art?

JAMES: Well, I’ve done touring for years and years and years.

JOHN: As a session musician?

JAMES: Just joining different bands.

JOHN: What instruments?

JAMES: Different stuff in different bands: organ, guitar, violin.

JOHN: Proper bands? Not pub bands but touring bands?

JAMES: All sorts of things really. I had my own band which I started in 1990 – Gallon Drunk, based in London. Then I did big tours with Nick Cave, the German band Faust and, recently, PJ Harvey.

JOHN: Faust? German heavy metal?

JAMES: No. They started in the 1960s as a German hippy band.

JOHN: Hippy?

JAMES: We would turn up at a venue and, to create the right atmosphere, we would all go out and have to pick up a load of stuff in the street and bring it into the venue in binliners to create ambience. We took a threshing machine on tour to blast a load of stuff out into the audience.

JOHN: Isn’t a threshing machine rather large?

JAMES: Massive. We were travelling round in this hopeless old van, sleeping underneath it at petrol stations. It was such a wild experience. One of the things that the bass player would use while we were playing was a chainsaw. I still have a huge great cut in my guitar from when he was waving it around. Mostly he would be carving things with it. Another interesting thing with them was when I went to stay on their farm.

JOHN: They have a farm?

JAMES: Yes. To focus before going on tour, it was suggested that we go around picking all the grass out from between the cobblestones. So we went round the farm on our knees pulling it all out by hand before we went in to rehearse.

JOHN: Because…?

JAMES: It got you into such a different mindset.

JOHN: I imagine it would.

HARRY: One of Faust’s biggest fans is Julian Cope. He said when you write the song it’s a brilliant buzz and then everything else is boring. So he started going into the recording studio naked and then the next time he got a giant tortoise shell just to try and make it exciting. In the same interview, he talked about collecting toy cars. He said if you have no control over your life then have that little hobby and you can say: “Well at least I can control my toy cars”.

I think art is a bit like that. If you have a life that is all compromise, then art allows you to be you – it allows you take a line for a walk.

JAMES: Art is like playing a song for the first time. Each time it’s totally new.

JOHN: But why put on an exhibition?

Harry has a message in one of his distinctive paintings

HARRY: We liked the idea of getting these particular people together. We could be completely wrong but, in our fantasy delusional heads, the show will be even bigger than the sum of its parts. I do feel, in order to make this show as good as it is, it did need all the different elements the eight people bring to it. We think we have the right combination to make it very interesting. We think with these south London artists we have enough differences and similarities to…

JOHN: Is South London particularly arty?

HARRY: Well, William Blake is very much a South Londoner. Lots of curious characters in South London. In the pub James goes to, there’s a Charlie Chaplin booth.

JOHN: What? Like Superman? You go into the booth, twirl round and turn into Charlie Chaplin?

JAMES: I think he was born round there and ran off when he was under ten to join a clog troupe.

HARRY: Nicola Hicks, one of the artists in the show, used to live in Fred Karno’s house. He was the one who got Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin to America. Did you know Vincent van Gogh was a South Londoner?

JOHN: What?

HARRY: He lived in Stockwell for a bit.

JOHN: Did he paint while he was here?

HARRY: He was trying to sell other people’s paintings.

JOHN: You could be the new Vincent van Gogh. Don’t you get frustrated being surrounded by other people’s art at Tate Britain?

HARRY: No. It’s inspiring. Even if you sometime see something you didn’t like, that can be inspiring because it makes you want to do the opposite.

JAMES: The last 2½  years I was involved in this enormous though very creatively rewarding music tour. But, on tours, there is an enormous amount of downtime – just sitting around in hotels and what not – and, during that time, I was admiring a friend’s art and, almost as a challenge, they said: “Why don’t you try doing a picture a day?”

I had no idea if I had any aptitude at all, really, because I hadn’t drawn since A-levels at school.

“Much more rewarding than being part of a rock machine”

So I just packed some art stuff and I had hours and hours of spare every day to do art. It turned into a daily practice and, when I got back, I thought: “This feels so much more rewarding in a way than being part of a big rock machine.” I do love that too but just going straight from that and locking yourself in a room and being insular about how you’re creating something is…

When I got back, I got a studio and I just spend all day every day in there and it has become a complete change of direction. Making a record has so much compromise and diplomacy in it. I quite like the idea of doing something and being totally responsible for everything, whether it’s a success or failure.

JOHN: So have you stopped being a musician?

JAMES: I have a few gigs booked for later in the year.

JOHN: Art is quieter than rock music.

JAMES: Yes, well apart from the raging tinnitus. That is pretty bad. I was on a plane taking off to go on tour and I thought: Christ I can even hear my tinnitus over this!

JOHN: Is that through being too close to big speakers a lot of the time?

JAMES: Yes. Rocking like a bitch.

JOHN: It’s interesting the changes people go through.

HARRY: I was at primary school with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. He was very quiet. He and I and another chap all had birthdays in August and our mothers got together and made us Mr Men cakes. I remember him bring a very gentle soul, so it was strange he tried to blow up a plane with a shoe. But, then, he wasn’t very good at being a shoe bomber. He is going to spend the rest of his life in an American prison, Which is a waste.

JOHN: It’s a shame to waste your life.

HARRY: Yes.

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Banksy, the Lawyer and the Gangster – and the confusing matter of copyright

Micky Fawcett – art lover – at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London.

My last blog was about an artist who was interested in gangsters.

This one is about a gangster who took an interest in art. 

The word gangster is faintly meaningless. It just means someone who is in a gang. So schoolchildren could be gangsters if they are in a gang, if you wanted to use the word in that context.

In the UK, the Kray Twins are another type of gangster. And, if someone was a close associate of theirs – if he was part of their ‘gang’ – then I suppose he could be called a gangster.

Micky sips a quiet coffee while perusing a shot of himself and ‘Brown Bread’ Fred Foreman in Brian Anderson’s recent photographic book

Micky Fawcett was a close associate of the Krays.

In Lock Stock and Two Smoking Cameras, Brian Anderson’s recent book of photographs of British crime figures, shot over ten years, Micky Fawcett is described as “a man who would not hesitate to use guns and razors, a well-known associate and part of the inner Kray circle in the 1960s. Author of Krayzy Days, which is said to be the best book written about the Krays due to Micky’s first-hand knowledge”.

(In the YouTube video above, Micky Fawcett appears at 1 min 03 secs.)

Krayzy Days tells of far more than just Micky’s life with the Krays. He was and is a man of many interests. Around 2006/2007, he took an interest in art and was involved with the Smudge Gallery in Spitalfields Market, London.

Page One of the letter from Banksy’s lawyer

On 17th November 2006, the street artist Banksy’s lawyer, sent a three-page letter to Micky. It started: “It has come to our client’s attention that a number of our client’s copyright works have been used by you without our client’s permission first being sought or obtained.”

The letter referred to “the continuing flagrancy of the infringement complained of (within the meaning of Section 97 (2) of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998)”.

Particularly miffing – Banksy art ad

Banksy – who is, lest we forget, famous for painting graffiti, usually uninvited, onto walls owned by other people – seemed to be particularly miffed that ads had appeared saying: 

PSST!

WANNA BUY A BANKSY?

VISIT SPITALFIELDSARTMARKET.CO.UK

A couple of days ago, I asked Micky about what had happened:

The Smudge Gallery in Spitalfields Market in London in 2006. It is no longer trading.


JOHN: Have you still got the shop?

MICKY: No.

JOHN: Because?

MICKY: The market was completely redeveloped and we no longer had the premises. So that was that.

JOHN: How long were you involved in the gallery?

MICKY: A couple of years, maybe.

JOHN: What had you done to incur the wrath of Banksy’s lawyer?

MICKY: We had hired a cameraman to go around taking pictures of all the Banksies, which we then transferred onto canvas and sold and we were very, very busy. The one with two policemen kissing was very popular. They all were, really. It was a tremendous business.

JOHN: That’s surely legal? You were taking photographs of something on a wall in public view from the public street so that’s in the public domain, isn’t it?

MICKY: No, it’s not legal at all.

JOHN: Surely, if it’s outside in the street, I can take a picture of it, can’t I? And the photograph is my copyright.

MICKY: You can take a picture of it, but you can’t put it onto a canvas as if you’ve done the picture.

JOHN: Banksy never put them on canvas, though. He put them on walls. So it’s not masquerading as his work. It’s your original work of art – a canvas print of your original photograph of something Banksy did on a wall in a public place.”

MICKY: When he puts it on a building, they can sell the building.

JOHN: So that’s private property. But, you could surely take a photograph of Wembley Stadium and then sell a canvas of your photograph. I think you should go back into the art business again.

MICKY: No, I don’t want to go into the art business or any other business. You do it.

JOHN: But you might sue me for stealing your idea. Banksy is famously secretive. What was your response to the lawyer’s letter?

MICKY: Eventually, via a barrister, a straightforward Who is this Banksy? We never heard another word from them.

JOHN: Nothing?

MICKY: They came and put a sticker on our window saying NONE OF THE CONTENTS IN THIS SHOP ARE GENUINE BANKSIES. THE ONLY THING BY BANKSY IN THIS SHOP IS THIS NOTICE.

JOHN: You should have taken a picture of the notice, printed it on canvas and sold it.

MICKY: I know. We should have kept the notice.

JOHN: Come to think of it, how do I know you are not Banksy?

MICKY SAID NOTHING AND JUST LOOKED AT ME.

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The Australian pop artists, a Canadian A&E and tripping over steaks for dogs

This week, my blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, Anna Smith, has been in the Accident & Emergency Department of St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

She sent me an email headed:

An unusually quiet night at St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver

THE POLICEMAN AND HELEN OF TASMANIA

The e-mail read:

Happy Aortic Dissection Awareness Day.

Today is a good day.

and then there was a description of what had happened.

Sort of.

Well, not really.

Well, not at all.

She preceded her description with the comment: “It’s pretty disconnected. I am too sleepy to make sense. It is about a man in uniform with Helen of Tasmania – the doctor and the cop.”

This is what Anna wrote:


It was an unusually quiet night at St. Paul’s A&E. A weird Sunday night. I was the only patient in the ward where I was and most of the doctors were dealing with a patient in the trauma ward. The nurse said it had been more interesting the night before… “Lots of drunk people with facial injuries,” she said.

It was very cold and a young newly graduated nurse was pacing back and forth wearing a flannel sheet like a shawl to keep warm, which obscured her identification, so I wasn’t quite sure whether she was staff or perhaps a mentally distressed patient.

Policeman & Helen of Tasmania, seen from Anna’s bed

And there was a lady in a yellow gown.

When I asked her name, she said “Helen”… though it appeared to me that she was my doctor. I asked if she was English because I didn’t catch her accent. She said she was from Tasmania. 

So I said: ”Oh, the Franklin River…”

She said: “You have got a good memory.”

I didn’t correct her but, actually, it wasn’t a matter of memory. My friend Harold The Kangaroo painted hundreds of banners for the environmentalists (including himself) who prevented a dam from being built on the Franklin River, which was being maligned at the time as a “leech ridden ditch”. So it was not something I am likely to forget. I am not against all development, but calling the Franklin River a leech ridden ditch was too much.

Harold The Kangaroo also made a very interesting painting – a portrait of Dr Bob Brown combined with a documentation of the protest. 

The painting is fantastic. It is called Dr Brown and Green Old Time Waltz and it now hangs in The National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

Dr Brown and Green Old Time Waltz – the 1983 paining by Harold (The Kangaroo) Thornton

I met Harold (The Kangaroo) Thornton and his fiancée Ms. Bean the first time I visited the artist Martin Sharp’s grand home, Wirian, in Sydney. When he was a kid, Martin’s route to school was to walk across his own garden, which would have taken about ten minutes.

Martin Sharp, who was described as “Australia’s greatest pop artist” by the Sydney Morning Herald

Martin let Harold The Kangaroo and Ms. Bean stay at Wirian whenever they wanted. 

When I was staying at Wirian, I could always tell when Harold and Ms. Bean were there because they bought huge steaks for Martin’s dogs and I would trip over the steaks in the dark when I came home from working in Kings Cross (in Sydney) at five in the morning. They used to just throw the steaks out on the doormat outside the kitchen entrance. It was a little weird, tripping over steaks, but I didn’t mind because it was a signal that my friends Ms. Bean and Harold had arrived.

Harold (The Kangaroo) Thornton in front of The Bulldog coffee shop in Amsterdam. He painted the facade of the building,

I loved Martin Sharp (we all did, because he was so kind and generous) but I thought it was kind of funny, the way his former school and neighbour, the elite Cranbook School, was inching towards his Wirian mansion. He was determined that they would not get their hands on the rambling house and grounds in one of Australia’s most affluent postcodes. I am not certain but, as I recall, when Martin had to pay property tax, he would sell a couple of inches of land to the school. 

When I dislocated my shoulder and broke my humerus, I was in St Vincent’s Hospital (in Sydney) for a month. About three weeks into my recovery, Ms. Bean and Harold liberated me from the hospital for an afternoon and brought me to some apartment to watch the Mae West/W.C.Fields film My Little Chickadee.

After I got out of St Vincent’s I went back to stripping in Kings Cross, with my arm in a sling. I dressed as a friendly sexy clown and wore hats by Mr Individual when I stripped.

I had three hats which were by far the finest hats I have ever owned. 

Anna Smith on her release from hospital in Vancouver this week

Ms. Bean was a visual and performance artist. She also designed clothing sometimes: one-off pieces for herself and her friends.

She told me that, if I was going to be seen in Sydney, I needed to be seen in something sexy. So she made me a cute little punky miniskirt out of artist’s canvas with a matching top and I wore it everywhere, on stage and off. 

I would ride home from Kings Cross on my bicycle in it.

The top had no sides, just a front and a back and it tied at the waist with stringy shreds of pink Lycra. The top and the skirt had splattered paint patterns – orange, pink, black and droplets of neon green on the unfinished canvas. 

It looked like maybe someone had thrown a birthday cake against a wall. 

It was very beautiful.

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25 Years of Shooting Comedians and the recent new devaluation of artistic talent

Rich Hardcastle has photographed comedians for 25 years.

Now he has a Kickstarter campaign to publish a large-format coffee-table book of 110 extraordinary photos and text: 25 Years of Shooting Comedians. Ricky Gervais has written a foreword for it and says: “Rich has a way of making even a rainy day spent standing in a muddy field look glamorous and important.”

Fellow photographer Idil Sukan recently wrote on Facebook about Rich Hardcastle:

“His photos of comedians are completely amazing. His work was the only reason I thought there was hope for the industry instead of just wacky head scratching photos of needy boys wearing red shirts. His photos are beautiful and touching and always stand out, always.

“He, like all of us comedy photographers, has done so much work under such high pressure circumstances, not always been paid at full rates, been messed around by producers, but regardless, consistently, always produced incredible work that supported comedians, sold tickets, made fans happy. The comedy photography industry really only opened up because of him, because he was taking risks and doing things differently.”

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan (Photograph: Rich Hardcastle)

Some comedians are in the National Portrait Gallery because of Rich Hardcastle – Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Phill Jupitus et al.

“25 years as a photographer,” I said to Rich when we met. “Ever since you were at Edinburgh College of Art. So you had decided back then you wanted to be a professional photographer?”

“Well, I wanted to photograph rock stars and celebrities. I wanted to do Terry O’Neill type shots: beautifully-framed shots showing the real person behind the facade. This was back in the day when celebrity meant something.”

“But you didn’t,” I asked, “want to be an ad agency photographer shooting pack shots and well-lit plates of food?”

“No. though I’d love to be in advertising now, because of the money…”

“Of course,” I said.

“Though there is not,” he added, “as much as there used to be.”

“There isn’t?” I asked.

“No. There’s no real money in photography. In terms of me in comedy, I think I’m the Ramones. I’ve influenced loads of people. I started something, but I haven’t made any money from it and I don’t even have the revenue from T-shirt sales.”

“So why, 25 years ago,” I asked, “did you start shooting comedians and not rock stars?”

“They were there, they were easy to get to and I liked comedy. I love the comedy industry. They’ve been very good to me and a lot of my success has been through things that happened in the comedy industry.”

“Why a book now?” I asked.

Director Terry Gilliam, as photographed by Rich Hardcastle

“25 years. I was there for 25 years, documenting that world opening up. I want it to be a big, beautiful, important book. It’s a snapshot of a generation of British comedy.”

“Surely anyone,” I prompted, “can photograph comedians? You just get them to open their mouths and wave their hands about in a zany way.”

“But I wanted to photograph them like rock stars,” explained Rich. “To try to make them look cool.”

“So what did you decide to do instead of wacky comedy shots?”

“Photograph them like I would a musician or a movie star. Nice, cool portraits of people who happen to be comedians.”

“There must have been,” I suggested, “no money in photographing people who were, at that time, relative nonentities.”

“I was an art student when I started (in the early 1990s); then I started photographing other things – editorial stuff like GQ; but I kept photographing comedians – maybe 90% was not commissioned. I did it because I was interested. No, there was not really any money in it.”

“There’s little money in anything creative now,” I said. “It started with music being free, then books, then videos. People expect all the creative stuff to be free or dirt cheap.”

Greg Davies (Photo by Rich Hardcastle)

“I used to do posters for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,”  said Rich. “The greatest thing was when people would steal the posters because they were such lovely images. It changed around the time digital cameras took off and people were using almost snapshot photos of themselves. Russell Howard had a poster which was just him standing in a Vietnamese street market or sitting on a wall or something, obviously when he was on tour.

“Things changed around then. It looked like a bit of a movement, but it wasn’t. It was just someone’s tour manager taking a photo and thinking: Oh, we don’t have to pay a photographer to do this and you can take like 3,000 on one card – so one of ‘em’s going to be good. Phil Nichols said to me: The problem is what you do is now considered ‘Art’ and people now baulk at the idea of having to pay someone to come up with a concept and shoot it.”

I suggested: “Maybe all creative things are undervalued now. Everyone thinks they can write novels because they can type on their computer and self-publish a paperback book. And anyone can take a free photograph now because they have a smartphone.”

“This is the thing,” said Rich, “you can take 6,000 photos on your phone and print one up that might look good. But I can do it with one shot.”

“Everyone thinks they can be an artist,” I said.

“Yes,” Rich agreed. “The creative arts have been de-valued.”

“To create a music album,” I said, “you used to have to rent Abbey Road Studios for a month and pay George Martin to produce it. Now I can record something for free on GarageBand on my iPhone and upload it onto iTunes for people to hear worldwide.”

“In a way, though,” said Rich, “it’s quite nice because bands are finding the only way they can make money is to play live, which is what they are supposed to do and sort-of great. Rather than a manufactured pop band who have never actually played live selling out the O2…”

“But then,” I said, “anyone can write a novel, self-publish it and call themselves a novelist…”

“…And that devalues the word ‘novelist’,” agreed Rich. “Brooklyn Beckham is a ‘photographer’ and has a book out and a show.”

“Have you seen it and do you want to be quoted?” I asked.

Rich Hardcastle (Photo by Sarah M Lee)

“I actually feel a bit sorry for him,” said Rich, “because, if he’s serious about wanting to be a photographer and he actually develops any talent over the years, then that’s fucked him. That book and that whole launch has fucked his career because people are going to think he’s a joke and real, creative people are not going to want to be associated with him. Which is a real shame.

“It’s like the Australian actor Guy Pearce. It has taken a long, long time for people to forget he was in Neighbours. Now it’s ‘Guy Pearce, Hollywood actor’ whereas, at the start of his career, it was ‘that guy who used to be in Neighbours’.”

Malcolm Hardee,” I told Rich, “used to say that any normal person who practises juggling for 10 hours a day, every day, for 3 years, can become a very good juggler. Because it’s a skill not a talent, but…”

“That’s what I hate about jugglers,” said Rich. “I think: You’re doing the same thing that every other juggler does. Yes, you are standing on a chair and the things you’re juggling are on fire, but you are still just juggling.”

“But,” I continued, “Malcolm said, without talent, you could practise forever and never became a great comedian because performing comedy has a large element of talent involved; it’s not just a skill… It’s the same with photography, I think. To be a great photographer, you need talent not just skill. It’s an art.”

“Yes,” said Rich. “You can take 3,000 photos on a camera and call yourself a photographer, but you are not. You’re just like a monkey taking 6,000 photos and one of them could be a good composition by accident.”

Stewart Lee, photographed by Rich Hardcastle

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Comic performer-turned-painter The Iceman suddenly outsells Van Gogh.

The Artist formerly known as The Iceman: a brush with fame

I have blogged before about the comic performance artist legend that is The Iceman. The last couple of times he has cropped up, it has been as a fine artist (I use the words loosely) not a performance artist. As a stage performer, he has been described as:

“…a living saint” (Stewart Lee)

“…incredible” (Mike Myers)

“A figure of mythic proportions” (Independent)

“inexplicable” (The Stage)

“shit!” (Chris Tarrant)

“brilliant” (Simon Munnery)

“truly a performance artist” (Jo Brand)

AIM’s painting of Jo Brand (left) understanding The Iceman

He sent me an email this morning asking if I wanted to write another blog about him because he feels my blog-writing style has “sort of subtle undercurrents where sarcasm meets genteelness” and, where he is involved, has “a mixture of awe, bafflement and sneaking respect.”

Those are his words.

He added: “I think you should keep it short and pithy. Do you do short blogs? As my sales increase I am going to keep you very busy indeed so, for your own sanity, it should be more like a news flash.”

Eddie Izzard/Iceard (left) upstaged/icestaged by The Iceman

The Iceman – who now prefers to be called AIM (the Artist formally known as the Ice Man) – measures his fine art success against van Gogh’s sales of his art during his lifetime.

He told me that, yesterday, he “nearly tripled/then quadrupled/then quintupled van Gogh’s sales record… but, in the end, I just tripled it as the buyer couldn’t stretch to it…”

‘It’ being an “confidential but significant” sum.

Buyer Maddie Coombe overawed in the presence of the AIM

He sent me photographs of the buyer – “discerning collector” and dramatist Maddie Coombe – who topped an offer by another buyer who desperately tried to muscle-in on the art purchase.

Ms Coombe says: “I bought a very colourful and bold piece of the Iceman’s work. I loved it because of its colour, composition and bold brush strokes. I will keep it forever as a memory of the time I have spent being his colleague – a man unlike any other!”

Comedian Stewart Lee (right) and poet John Dowie carrying The Iceman’s props with pride – a specific and vivid memory.

The Iceman says: “The sale was a formal business agreement born of an authentic appreciation of AIM’s art/oil paintings in a secret contemporary art gallery south of Bath – It’s in a valley.”

Explaining the slight element of mystery involved, he explains: “Being a cult figure I can’t be too transparent with anything,” and adds: “AIM is now painting not from photos but from specific and vivid memories insice the ex-Iceman’s head, resulting in even more icetraordinary imagices.

“One gallery visitor,” he tells me, “was heard to say It looks like it’s painted by a three year old which, of course I thought was a huge compliment.”

AIM’s most recent painting – Stand-up comedian, activist and author Mark Thomas (right) gets the political message of The Iceman’s ice block at the Duke of Wellington’s public house many years ago

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Filed under Art, Comedy, Eccentrics, Humor, Humour, Painting