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.
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.
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?
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.