Meet the artist who operates like a glitch in the algorithm Matrix.
“We’re fast becoming a society of flesh and bone androids dreaming of electric tweets.” I meet artist Michael Pybus in his Hackney Wick studio located inside his own home, where he showed me around his latest body of work: ‘Reality Apathy’, to be unveiled in a solo show at Tatjana Pieters Gallery in Belgium, during February. Paralleling to his own artistic career, in these new works, Pybus reinterprets highly successful global brands, artists and artworks, in order to explore the circulation of the art market, the commodification of artists, and his own identity as an emerging artist, navigating through his artistic career within in a society that often focuses on the ‘legacy’ generation. His practice, often incorporating pop-like motifs combined with profound political and social commentary, lies between two opposite poles. This multi-faceted approach might seem different in subject matter but is equal in content: the work uses a seductive vocabulary to unravel the many issues and problems we face today, including virtual emptiness, or the reduction of human interaction and communication to keyboard and screen inputs. The contradictory nature of the works made me wonder if I was being corrupted with his fantasy versions of Pokémons, in the same way that our highly curated social media feeds do. At the core, Michel Pybus is in essence optimistic, and in this interview, we talked frankly about wealth, societal breakdown, and (over) abundance.
Michael Pybus (b. 1982, Darlington UK) graduated from a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London, and an MA in Sculpture from the Royal College of Art, London. He has exhibited in Tatjana Pieters, Ghent, Belgium; LUNGLEY Gallery, London, UK; Johannes Vogt NYC, USA; Amor, Mexico City, MX; Depart Foundation LA, USA, amongst others. Residencies include The Cabin Residency, LA, USA. Michael Pybus currently lives and works in London.
You studied at Goldsmiths and the RCA, having graduated in a period of economic recession. In that context, a minimalistic art aesthetic was popular at the time, and your work was somehow disregarded by your peers, public, and the art market. Would you agree in saying that you’ve stayed true to yourself throughout the years?
Yeah for sure, I can only make what I make, but that’s not to say I haven’t got better at saying what I need to say. As I’ve grown older, having more life experience whilst continuing to make art has sharpened my ability to communicate more succinctly through my work. My awareness of what I want to say has also become clearer to me, as has my confidence in trusting my creative and intellectual instincts with what I should explore through my work.
In what ways was growing up in the 90’s in northern England’s countryside influential to your thinking?
Well it was really barren, pretty nihilistic. There were 4 TV channels and no internet or mobile phones. Ever since I was a kid, I had a sense there was something else out there for me, but I had no idea what or where that was. The lack of stimuli and boredom really forced me to work with what little I had to keep myself entertained though. Growing up with little means actually gave me an edge later on in life when it came to problem solving and finding ways to creatively express myself as an artist. It also imparted me with a huge sense of gratitude for where I am now, living in London, making art 7 days a week, with the wealth of the globes knowledge and products all streaming on super fast broadband 24/7. I think many children today are over catered for, and over stimulated. They aren’t really allowed to be bored and find their own entertainment. I think that hinders the development of their imagination, and creates a kind of buzzed out headspace where any moment of downtime induces stress and frustration.
From 2013 till 2015 you curated 18 shows at your studio in Hackney Wick, under the name of ‘Wellcome Screen Gallery’. How has this dialogue with other artists and the curatorial decisions at the time shaped your practice?
I started that at a time when I had no art career and was unemployed. Previously, I had curated exhibitions online building basic html pages and introducing other peoples art into the website. Social media was starting to become more normalised around this time, and I connected with many young artists around the world through it. One day, I just got the idea that I should use part of the studio in my home to host exhibitions, and then that was that. There was no budget for Wellcome Screen Gallery, and nearly all the artists had never shown in London or Europe before. Sometimes they posted their work over, and other times they came over and stayed with me, it was a fun couple of years. I learnt a lot about the logistics of putting on exhibitions and documenting them which proved very valuable once I started being invited to do shows of my own work.
Can you tell us more about the turning point of your career in January 2014? Was it directly or indirectly related to the opening up of your Instagram account?
That was the month I admitted to myself that nobody was interested in my work, and I had to accept that. Surprisingly, by doing so I found freedom. From that point on it was like a switch clicked in my brain. I realised that if no one is paying attention to me, why the fuck am I making work trying to get their attention?! I gave myself permission to go full force with whatever I was drawn to, regardless of what I thought the art world would consider ‘correct’ content. This led me to start painting things like Pokémon and IKEA. I had little money at the time, but had been given £100 for Christmas, so used that cash to buy some cheap paints and canvases, and got to work. For months, I painted away, and it was ok but something was still not quite right. I was being a little precious with the paint. Then in August, my flat mate moved out, and I couldn’t find a new one, so was left having to pay all the rent for that month, which basically wiped my bank account out. I was feeling pissed off and broke. Looking to be distracted, I went to the £1 shop and bought a load of cheap children’s craft canvases, and decided I was just going to hole up in the studio for a month and paint. That agitated mind space really helped, as I stopped focusing on making the paint look nice, ordered, and neat, and began applying pigment like I was scratching and scrawling onto the canvas. It was a little like a painterly exorcism, and by the end of the month, I had over 30 small paintings. My sister suggested I should go on Instagram. I thought it was for teenagers but joined anyway, and started uploading my new paintings. Within a month, a gallery had contacted me and I began to sell my work. Things have just developed on from there. It’s a very counter intuitive lesson to learn, but by not caring about making art to please an audience, I actually ended up finding one?! You don’t find your audience, they find you.
At first, your work could be seen as cheap, light, cute, and excessively pop-like, given your use of colours and 90’s cartoons. Do you use these globally recognised symbols as a marketing tool to play around with ideas of taste and value systems?
Yeah for sure, that plays into what I learnt from just following my instincts with what I wanted to make. Culturally, art is seen as ‘high’ and entertainment and mass production is seen as ‘low’. I shape shift between the two, but it’s not like I’m reinventing the wheel. Historically, artists have explored this, like Duchamp with his Urinal and Warhol and his soup cans. Today things have gotten much more blurry as the internet has flattened time, context, information, and imagery out onto a seemingly infinite plane. Now, practically everything is at hand to be sampled, enjoyed, remixed, and memed. Social media though has added a new layer of confinement to taste and value systems. Initially it seemed to be giving everybody a platform for their own individual expression, but this was a trap. These digital platforms introducing a public social scoring system in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ – this transformed personal expression into personal PR. Our lives, our looks, our interests and opinions have all been gamified. The content that gets the most ‘likes’ is now seen as the gold standard. We’re on a runaway train and it’s removing peoples confidence in their authentic selves, and encouraging us all to replace that with a curated hyper-real fantasy version of ourselves, optimised to gather as many likes and follows as possible. It’s fucking terrifying, and people are falling for it hook, line, and sinker. Everyone is posting constantly about how authentic and real they are, and you step back and they are all parroting the same things, liking the same things, and making the same things. Do taste and value systems even matter in the Age of Being Liked, above all else? I don’t know, I hope so. I try to operate a little like a glitch in the algorithm Matrix with my content and art, but we’re fast becoming a society of flesh and bone androids dreaming of electric tweets.
Scrolling through Instagram and encountering your works, they are visually flat, bold and colourful. However, looking at them physically, they have a strong crafted quality. Are you interested in preserving the ‘human hand’ touch?
I love our digital age, but we are beginning to lose much of the human tactility that we took for granted in analogue age. Communication is now mainly reduced to atomized messaging and augmented images. As a society, as a culture, we are starting to lose the ability to relate to one another on any level deeper than what a binary algorithm allows. It’s alarming to witness. As much of art (and imagery) now is primarily viewed through digital platforms on digital screens, I’m seeing a lot of painting go super flat, airbrushed and Photoshopped. Many painters actually just print out a JPEG onto canvas and call it a painting because it’s stretched over a wooden frame. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I can’t accept that as painting, but in my mind very few digital painters are actually successful with this approach. The work usually ends up flat, dead, and they often list the works as something ambiguous like ‘archival ink on canvas’ making no reference to it basically being an ink jet print. This seems deceptive to me, like they haven’t got the confidence in it’s materiality to state what it is, and well let’s be real, they call it a painting because works listed as paintings sell for more than works listed as prints. In regard to my own making, much of the images I sample from are as flat, impersonal, and plastic as you can get. Global iconography designed to appeal to and be consumed by the largest consumer base possible. When using this imagery, I find it important to impart my hand into it as a way to claim and re-narrate it. Transforming it from the corporate to the autobiographical. In person, my works are tactile and textured, my ‘fingerprint’ is all over them, but once photographed and posted back out into the digital world, they once again appear flat and mass produced again.
Is the fact that Pókemons evolve, are reborn, and have adapted themselves throughout culture for 23 years a conceptual stimuli for representing them?
Nintendo managed to tap into a hardwired drive in us, collecting, and then ran with it to the extreme, resulting in Pókemon becoming the most successful entertainment franchise of all time, grossing $90 billion since it’s launch in 1996. Every few years it releases new games with new Pókemon to collect and you Gotta Catch ‘Em All! It’s relentless, constantly reinventing and finding new ways to monetize. As an artist who openly explores ideas of wealth, money and (over) abundance, I find the Pókemon phenomenon a fertile space to explore. Providing me with a pop culture vocabulary to reflect upon how artists and art are commodified and circulated in the market.
RuPaul, Puppies Puppies, Jordan Peterson, Martin Kippenberger, Alex Jones, Candace Owens, and Erika Jayne are all people you spoke about in my recent visit to your studio. What do all of these names have in common for you, and in what ways do you find them having an effect upon your work?
Because we live through binary algorithms today, people are being reduced to good or bad, right or wrong, with no grey area or ability to change, share and evolve their thoughts. There’s a huge pressure on us as individuals to pick one side and then stick to it dogmatically with the notion that you should consume information, news or support people across a spectrum of politics and opinions, it is somehow akin to treason. I refuse to adhere to this reductive rhetoric, and get a lot of shit thrown at me for doing so. This has been a great lesson to learn though, that much of the liberal cultural world that constantly virtues about caring and diversity actually in fact loathes diversity of opinions and ideas.
We are continually being reduced to data points today by the digital platforms we use. Advanced as they are, they can no way grasp the complexity of the human experience (yet) however they mould and direct so much of how we live today. The result is we now have a huge swathe of the population who is unable to deal with people as individuals who are in a constant state of change with flaws, differing perspectives, and different ambitions. Instead, they campaign with their mob tactics to reduce us all into ‘data points’ based on a limited set of identity criteria which is then justified to tribally set one group after the other. It’s disgusting but these people are loud, and they scare others into silence, which then encourages this reductive culture further creating a feedback loop that is going to tear us all down.
I want to make the best art I can, I want to be as informed as I can. I’m not going to achieve this through only consuming ideas and information from the very narrow metropolitan, wealthy, often over educated liberal bubble that I inhabit as a working artist. I have nothing against cities, wealth or education, but I come from a background that is the polar opposite to this, so I’m very aware of a completely different experience and way of thinking. I grew up in a socio-economically, culturally deprived environment, and then ended up moving to London and studying and subsequently working amongst wealthy, privately educated people who’ve travelled the world. I’m used to that now, but when I first started mixing in these circles I was floored by how people lived, and what they had experienced. I don’t want to lose that sense of multiplicity in my life.
So yeah, I religiously listen to RuPaul’s weekly podcast, but then equally enjoy listening to Jordan Peterson and Candace Owens on YouTube. I think deplatforming Alex Jones was a dangerous thing to celebrate. With him removed, we’ve all just hopped one step closer to being classed as alt right and thus being justified in censoring our voice. I found Erika Jayne’s casting in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills a genius move. She exploded into that show interpreting herself as a hyper aware, hyper meta version of what we expect a reality TV housewife to be, and she did so with an aesthetic approach boarding on costume that introduced a wealth of pop cultural references into the day to day ‘reality’ of these women. She understands our culture, she understands her product, and she delivers every time, she’s a pure joy to watch.
Many people really struggle with how I can sing the praises of a 6ft4 gay black drag queen like RuPaul, and then also do the same for a straight white Christian middle aged man like Jordan Peterson who makes no apologies for his distain of identity politics, and Candace Owens a young black woman who is at the forefront of the Black Conservative movement, whilst seriously celebrating a pop cultural reality TV star like Erika Jayne, but I do. They have so much to teach us. They openly share their thoughts, experiences, and deliver them in a form the mass market can engage with. I don’t expect them to align exactly with my worldview in order for me to appreciate and respect them. The fact they often have pushed me out my comfort zones and prejudices is what I love about them.
You recently started contextualising your work through your written sketches. Has this helped you to achieve a more layered and intellectual understanding of what you do?
Yeah for sure, it has added new layers of depth and reading to the work. At first, I think people found the mix of my cute pop imagery alongside more serious political and social commentary a little too jarring, but I kept up with it, and I think people have come round to it now. On a personal level, the writing has definitely helped me gain a greater understanding of my own internal thought processes, and led me to becoming a lot more active in my consumption of information, opposed to just passively going with whatever my social media streams feed me.
Through Instagram, one can read about your thoughts on politics, social, and cultural concerns. As an artist, have you encountered a lot of controversy for sharing your honest opinions through this platform?
I have had a lot of vitriol thrown at me for honestly sharing my thoughts; instead of being someone sharing thirsty platitudes in order to collect likes and follows. When I first started sharing my texts, people were very vicious. That was a real shock. My network is basically highly educated, middle class, left, cultural, and well mannered, so to see many of these people throw angry and disgusting accusations and language at me was startling and eye opening. It revealed to me that people often aren’t the caring, open, and tolerant versions they post as personal propaganda on social media. I’ve had threads suggesting I am a tiki torch carrying white supremacist, and a curator messaged a gallery I work with trying to sabotage my working relationship with them, and made a public call for people not to work with me because I shared a Jordan Peterson video?!
I didn’t back down though, not once. I have been given the gift of an active art career, and I highly respect the position I have worked my way up to. With that, I also highly respect all those that work, collect, and support me. I take my role as an artist deadly serious, and part of that role as I see it is I am to express my thoughts and ideas freely, so I do, and will continue to do so unapologetically. I’m supposed to challenge the status quo and explore areas of culture and conversation that are looked over or seen as ‘untouchable’ or passé. If people don’t like that, though shit. I don’t work my arse off 7 days a week to be someone else’s mouthpiece puppet.
You described waking up to the reality of social media through a book entitled “Ten Reasons To Delete Your Social Media Account”. How has reading through it changed your perspective on what we conceive as an ‘open’, ‘liberating’ and ‘free’ online space?
I cannot recommend Jaron Lanier’s book enough, I think it is crucial reading for navigating this brave new world we unwittingly find ourselves playing the role of guinea pig in. It drew my attention to the invisible scaffolding behind social media. How the algorithms discovered that an angry or aggregated user spent more time on the website or app. Once the platforms understood this, they optimised them to encourage communications between users that would likely result in a negative interaction. Tailoring your feed to present you with information and opinions that would rile you. They have reduced human interaction to keyboard and screen inputs, and in doing so; have encouraged us to speak to each other in inhuman ways. I mean the things people have said to me, or called for online are absolutely atrocious, and bear no resemblance to any kind of interaction (even negatives ones) that I have experienced in face-to-face communication.
The social media platforms want us on there as much as possible because we are working for them. They provide a ‘free’ service, but it isn’t free. Our most intimate data is being constantly mined by them. The more data they gather the more money they make, so they are constantly tweaking the software to be more and more addictive. Likes, notifications, little ping noises, animated emoji comments are dangled like little dopamine treats, and we have slept walked into accepting this virtual emptiness as payment in exchange for access to our personal lives on a level that is historically unprecedented and continues to be more invasive. Now my whole career relies on social media, so I acknowledge it is a useful tool if used actively and cautiously, I’m just very conscious now that passively uploading any and all information to it and spending time mindlessly scrolling content is a very unhealthy behavioural habit to adopt.
Your work (and yourself as a person) sits between a variety of contrasts, these being, harsh facts filtered via appealing motifs, reality and fiction, right and left views, or the ‘White Cube’ settings of the work vs the decorative and playful element of it’s curation. Can you go through some of these contradictions with us?
I wonder if this question would have been asked before the introduction of social media, which has flattened our being down to binary values. I don’t think I’m unusual in having a multi faceted approach to how I think and express myself, and how those qualities, opinions, and delivery of them can change with my emotional state, my environment, my age, how much sleep I’ve had, if I’m hungry etc. I haven’t met a human yet that isn’t a mix of contradictions and values. The issue today is we voyeuristically communicate through computers, and these systems cannot cope with billions of unique individuals, so are forcing us into narrow lanes. I get the feeling we as humans can’t cope with it either. I don’t think we evolved to have access and updates on such huge networks of inter connected people, it’s fucking us up.
I can see this bombardment of information is overwhelming and many people are regressing into collective groupthink as a way to simplify the information in the hope of simplifying their life. However, I don’t think you can simplify humans and culture. We only need to look into the recent past to see when as society we try to categorise and simplify people it always ends in a huge amount of suffering and bloodshed. We live such luxurious and abundant lives today that we think that could never happen again, but the reality is we are never more than a few steps away from complete societal breakdown. To not acknowledge this is foolish.
So yeah, I guess when I’m viewed through the filter of todays hyper-real landscape of fake projections, I may appear contradictory or problematic in my broad approach to ideas and art production, but really, all I’m trying to do is work out what it is I am attempting to creatively express. I can only achieve this by allowing myself to be open to consuming, processing, and working with the full spectrum of ideas, possibilities and opportunities this world affords me.
I’m interested in your use of overlapping works when displaying them. It indeed makes one think about their revealing and unrevealing. Is there any particular reason to why you’ve composed your recent works in that manner?
I was thinking about my computer screen and how many tabs, screens, and windows I have open constantly. I’ll be working on something like this interview here in Pages whilst a strip of Gmail shows underneath and then behind that a folder with thumbnails of my paintings poking out. I wanted to emulate this idea of multiple spaces, activities and information co-existing in the 2-dimensional space of the computer screen, so in my recent exhibition ‘soft play’ at Lungley Gallery, I overlapped the paintings so they began to ‘compete’ with one another to show their full composition and gain the viewers attention.
Let’s talk about the art market at large, and your market in particular. How does your work’s reception differ between the UK and the USA? What about the Asian market? And do the works adapt and change depending on its commercial response?
For the 14 years before my career actually gained traction, there was basically zero market for my work. I think I’d sold a total of 5 paintings and a couple of drawings in that entire period. The game changer for me was social media, as it allowed me to connect to a global audience. That was a great thing for me, as in London is pretty much impossible to have a career in as a non brand name artist. It’s so expensive, there are barely any young galleries, and it’s still pretty conservative when it comes to collectors. So, through social media, I’ve been able to connect with galleries and collectors abroad, and that has lead to some great opportunities. The US is pretty receptive to me. I think the American spirit is much more open to the kind of bombastic way I approach art. The Asian market is a bit trickier to navigate as the cultural and language links aren’t as strong as they are between UK – US, but I have started to be collected there too.
Going back to identity politics, the first time I sold to an Asian collector was through Instagram. I had an exhibition in NYC and an American collector had visited my show and posted an image of one of my paintings of Nurse Joy from Pokémon. Someone commented negatively trying to play the cultural appropriation card, saying ’another white artist painting Pokémon’ – a ridiculous statement, as Pokémon is a Japanese brand specifically designed to be exported, consumed and integrated into every culture around the globe. Anyway, the very next day, Takashi Murakami shoots me a message having seen that post and asks to buy the piece. That was funny, it really highlighted to me that the delusional dogma online bears little to no relation to the actual working mechanics of real life.
I always paint what I want to paint, and construct an exhibition around a storyline of my own choosing, but for sure the commercial response to my work is a factor in my production. I mainly exhibit in commercial galleries and they need to make money (as do I), so when planning an exhibition I try to include many different sizes of work to accommodate the various budgets a galleries collector may have. For instance, I did an exhibition that included a 2x16m and 1.5x10m painting, not the easiest to sell, but I balanced them out with smaller paintings, works on paper, and sculptures that could be priced at a more accessible point. This is not a very ‘art’ thing to talk about, but I think so many artists, especially in art school are discouraged from addressing the financial and business realities of having an art career, to their detriment. If a gallery can’t make money from you as an artist, it’s unlikely they will work with you. If collectors don’t buy your work, then the work fails to launch into the world and become part of a bigger more complicated system that then returns more energy and opportunities back to you. Also, and this is the big thing if your art doesn’t make money and you don’t live off someone’s else’s money, then you are going to be stuck doing a job you hate that takes your time away from the studio. The art market is critical to an artist’s success; dismiss it at your peril.
I’m intrigued about the introduction of new characters at your show “Reality Apathy” at Tatjana Pieters Gallery in Belgium, such as Calvin Harris, a variation of Pepe the Frog, Yoshi and The Koopalings, Mr. Hanky, Sponge Bob, and Littlefoot, in addition to your more recognisable ones. What led you to this extension of motifs?
As a painter or artist in general, it can be very tempting to just to just work with the same images and paint the same thing. Whilst I think coherence is important to a practice, I also think the element of surprise and adding new bodies of work, ideas, and images is crucial to keep the work developing and away from collapsing in on itself.
An assemblage of Koons, Murakami, and Warhol are directly referenced in these works, artists widely considered as the most ‘rich’, ‘famous’ and ‘popular’ within contemporary culture. What’s your position with this?
Those assemblages also include a 7th generation Pokémon called Mimikyu who was introduced to the franchise in 2016. This character wears a costume to try to emulate the most beloved and recognisable mascot Pikachu in order to attract some of Pikachu’s popularity through aesthetic association.
Mimikyu’s backstory in many ways runs parallel to my own when approaching art, in that I often sample and reinterpret hyper successful global brands, characters, icons, and artworks in order to tap into the recognisability that they have in our collective consciousness. These brands etc. are in a sense the most successful memes we have today, and in the spirit of meme culture, I take them and re-narrate them in order to interject my own ideas and creative expressions before ‘re-posting’ them back out into the art and consumer world. I first started working with the image of Mimikyu in 2017, with a series of paintings featuring the character spliced into works that reimagined three of my favourite Josh Smith paintings as day-glo garish facsimiles.
For my exhibition, ‘REALITY APATHY’ at Tatjana Pieters Gallery, I have further reflected on Mimikyu with a series of new sculptural works which feature him inhabiting mutant combines consisting of consumer products that reference some of the biggest global super stars in the art world. In a sense, the ‘Pikachus’ – Murakami, Koons, and Warhol. By ‘dressing’ my work up in their aesthetics and brand identity, I, an artist of much lower status, take on the role of ‘Mimikyu’, with these works operating as personal portrait exploring my own identity and status as a ‘new generation’ artist ‘Pokémon’ at the early stage of my career, navigating my way into an art world focused on legacy generation Pokémon’s like Murakami, Koons, and Warhol.
As viewers, should we trust everything that is seen through your works?
I’m not sure what trust would mean in this circumstance, but I would say anyone approaching my work can be sure of the integrity of my work and thoughts. I genuinely love art, and what I do. With that comes great respect for my position, and I prioritise expressing a point of view which is truest to what I feel it needs to be, in order to speak to what I want to say. I’m not really focused on being liked or popular, but I understand the importance of being able to connect and communicate with an audience. I’m not concerned with making pretty pictures, but at the same time have no aversion against utilising beauty in my work. I do my best to ensure that when a viewer encounters my work they experience it as an authentic one regardless of whether they like it or not.
Of course I couldn’t miss out a question on your enthusiasm towards IKEA. What draws you to this brand?
I grew up in a village in Northern England in the 90’s. There was very little visual stimulation at all. Everything felt tired to me, but then the IKEA catalogue started arriving, and I couldn’t believe what was inside. I know this may sound ridiculous in 2019, but remember this was pre-internet times; new imagery was extremely rare to come across unlike today’s climate of image over saturation. Flicking through the catalogue felt like I was looking at the environments of some alien land. The colours, the shapes, the sense of humour, and freedom in the interiors and furniture sparked my imagination and introduced me to a new way the world could look.
I couldn’t afford any of the IKEA furniture at the time, but I would take a 2.5hr journey on 2 buses to go and visit their branch in Gateshead, just to wander around, and see the stuff for real. 20+ years on, my home is nearly entirely furnished with IKEA furniture that I have collected, spanning from the 1970’s to the present day. Many of them pieces that I originally wanted as a teen from those mid 90s ranges. They bring me great joy to live with. IKEA’s flat, humorous, graphic, colourful approach to design is something that has proven pivotal in my aesthetic development as an artist, and even today I love to go visit the store and check out their new collections and enjoy some meatballs. There’s this quote from one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland “In the future, IKEA will become an ever more spiritual sanctuary. In the future, your dream life will increasingly look like Google street view. Everyone will be feeling the same way as you, and there’s some comfort to be found there.” It’s kind of twisted to think about, but at the same time I kind of get it!
A mishmash of furniture, toys, and ‘valuable’ items such as trainers or replicas of artworks comprise your sculptures. In this sense, are you curious about the merging of high and low culture?
Opposites and extremes colliding interest me. I’d hate to be one of those artists that puts on one note shows that feel like they are flat lining, it sucks the life out of the work, and the viewer. A gallery is a ‘high’ space; a painting is a ‘high’ object. I enjoy fucking with that, and installing IKEA showrooms (low) in the gallery or painting (high) Pikachu (low), against a background of 24ct gold leaf (high). It’s like writing music; I channel various notes through my individual works and exhibitions to create a greater overall harmony.
You mentioned being scared of where we’re going in today’s ‘advanced technological emptyness’. In that sense, where is your work ‘going’ or moving towards?
I’m very conscious of the many issues and problems we have today, but at my core I am creative, and creativity in its very essence is about optimism and celebration. I purposely stay as open as possible to allow myself to explore any direction or path I feel drawn to. This often leads me to completely unexpected places. Right now, I have just completed a painting that includes a cat from a Robert Gober sculpture and Mr.Hankey the Christmas Poo. I had no idea that was the painting I was going to paint when I started it.
On his podcast, RuPaul often speaks about the universe having ‘stage direction’ and it’s the purpose of the individual to tune into your frequency, look out for the clues as to where it’s nudging you, and follow it. It may sound a little New Age crazy, but connecting to the creative spirit or whatever you want to call it has a way of taking you to places you only find out exist once you manifest them into reality. The more you do this, the clearer your purpose in life becomes. I find that really empowering.
When I was younger, I was very specific about what kind of artist I wanted to be, where I wanted to exhibit, what I wanted to achieve by a certain age etc. but as time as passed, that outlook has evaporated. Now, I focus on going full force in the present, and putting faith in that will take me to where I’m meant to go next. That said, there are two things on my fantasy checklist of life achievements for me and my work, I want to represent my country at the Venice Biennial, and design a range of furniture and accessories for IKEA!
You seem to be introducing hints of abstractions in your latest pieces. Is this a new direction of work that you’ll continue to develop?
Abstraction is the easiest thing to do, yet is insanely difficult to do well. It often ends up repetitive, formulaic, and primarily decorative, like with the Zombie Formalist phenomenon. It is a language I am very drawn to, and have begun to explore it through my paintings by digitally disassembling and reconfiguring images before painting them. This results in paintings that appear to be collapsing in on themselves, like a corrupted JPEG. This is definitely a direction I am pursuing further. I’m taking my time with it though, as I am very conscious I don’t want to fall off the cliff and end up painting expensive wallpaper.
Words by Vanessa Murrell