Popular Culture and the Aesthetic Discourse
Stuart Semple is known for his wry social commentary through his colour injected works. In April 2010, he opened his new show, The Happy House, at Morton Metropolis in London.
Contemporary image-making is rife with critical debate. It always has been, in fact, that’s part of its definition, but combine that with an overarching analysis of popular culture, and the consequences of the recent recession, and this result is a new compelling sense of urgency. Following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons, Stuart Semple (b. 1980) turns popular culture on its head by critiquing it through its own vernacular, and so themes of disillusionment serve to deconstruct the very world in which we live, producing a series of metanarratives that attempt to redefine our comfort zone. Semple is a pro; he joins aesthetic discourse with the acidic residue of consumerism, which is not only thought provoking, but also serves as an acute reminder to the current state of play.
Semple’s latest offering, The Happy House, inspired from Siouxsie & The Banshees’ song of the same name (1981) will open at one of London’s newest galleries, Morton Metropolis, this April. In his first UK solo exhibition in three years, Semple returns to the city where he first became recognised for his politically charged witticisms, presenting his most personal collection to date. The Happy House offers a glimpse into the artist’s past and a much-longed return to his natural colour-fuelled style. Semple’s latest series also signals a new era, as he reveals provocatively illustrated works in which his wry social and political observations are entwined on each canvas.
In the aftermath of tumultuous recession and with the general elections looming in Britain, Semple commands the undivided attention of his audience, removing the veil of conformity from the eyes of an idle and meek society. Semple forces viewers to question the extent to which contemporary culture can impact upon everyday lives. In Comfortably Numb there’s a sense of sadness, as we say RIP to Borders, Cool Britannia, and even the mixed tape, but there’s more to it than that. Ultimately, it’s a re-evaluation of our value systems and disengaging appropriated meaning. Semple subverts these systems through a distinct juxtaposition of colour, image and text.
Semple is making images with a purpose; undercutting current trends to engage with the wider social context. Lifting the lid on the state of Britain today, Semple pushes the manipulation of image-making to the extreme; revealing the empowering effect of pictorial demonstrations in an active stand against the “middle of the road” attitude prevalent in today’s society and perpetuated through modern media. With programmes like X-Factor propagating the McDonaldisation of popular culture, it’s no surprise that Semple is angry about the complacency erupting in every cul-de-sac in Britain. His work shouts loudly and fluently in the language of a young media-soaked generation, depicting a world that is absorbing and exciting, yet precariously underpinned by the concave cycle of daily tabloids, Hollywood films, Facebook, and a little bird called Twitter. From the macro to the micro, the cultures of consumerism operate on many levels; they are almost omnipotent.
For Semple, it is crucial that his work speaks to audiences on an emotional level, inspiring a response that transcends the limits of the work itself and encourages a critical re-evaluation of daily life. In The Happy House the homogenisation of culture is the backdrop for the exhibition. At once, we must question the artifice of the image, and how it intervenes with globalisation and interrogates the associated power structures. Semple does not create work to be consumed along with popular culture but reverses and redefines the power of these memes to reveal a narrative of deeper human interaction.
At Morton Metropolis, Semple’s compilation of 10 – 12 large-scale paintings will flow like tracks on the bygone mixed-tape. Alive with intense imagery and a direct humour they make no attempt to obscure meaning.
Your work has been received with great acclaim over the past five years with Fake Plastic Love (2007) and Everlasting Nothing Less (2009) gaining widespread attention, can you tell me how it all began?
I suppose the attention started at the Fake Plastic Love show, which was pretty frightening, putting on a show of that scale would be hard not to notice. I still can’t get my head around the fact that 10,000 people came. But it really started in 2000. I started making a lot of work and I wanted to get it out there, so I put it anywhere that would take it – bookshops and cafés. Most of the time nobody bought one. While I was at university (in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park) I got really ill and nearly died – after that the work just kept coming. I started selling these works on eBay, remember in 2000 it was the bare bones of the web; we were still paying by the minute for dial up. But every night I sold three and people would tune in at the same time every night, and before I knew it there was a fledgling online community. I made and sold about 3000 pieces during that time, mostly they sold for £20 – £30, so I wasn’t rolling round like an art-star, but the landlord was off my back.
Much of your work is an analysis of popular culture, yet you critique it through its own language, can you tell me more about this decision?
When I think about pop-culture, I think primarily about images, moving images and static images. That’s the language I’m fluent in, and while English is a language for me, I think pop is another one; it might even be my first. So it’s natural to use that for me. The beauty is that it’s a shared language so it’s quite efficient at relaying a concept, more so I think than more abstract ways of saying something. The point is that most of that pop-culture world, and the images that surface from it do a really good job of pretending that they reference reality. The fact is that they are manufactured, normally with a goal focused purely on consumption, either of the image itself, a product or lifestyle choice. We start to become what we see, and we assume this environment. We camouflage ourselves to fit in. It’s self-fulfilling. The point is that I’m trying to make a definite contribution to image-making, but I’m also trying to be truthful and critical.
What are your main concerns about today’s society and how does your work define and explore these anxieties?
My main fear at the moment is one of alienation and a type of ghettoisation, one in which there’s a sort of bland, homogenised, middle-class with super safe aspirations. This is what we’re told we should be, this is what’s perpetuated. Where the fringes are reduced, where we’ll all be okay as long as we adopt a certain ideology. Fundamentally it doesn’t work like that, we still have a huge amount of poverty in this country, we still have a working class, we are part of a bright and varied community but a lot of it doesn’t conform to the ideal, so it’s hidden. I like the idea of a glossy West End gallery exhibiting an image of Poundland, and I can show something where people wouldn’t normally expect it. I’m so lucky with the gallery actually; they are probably the first I’ve found that really understands what needs to happen. They are brave; they are as much for the artist and the culture as they are for the collector. You don’t normally see that. The art world couldn’t be further away from what I’m talking about. The works are about the majority of our population, so it’s like the camera angle changes and I hope you see how limited that frame has been for so long. So in the show you see suburbia, where I was bought up, and you see me getting beaten up outside Poundland.
Your work transcends art, as you move between divides in contemporary visual culture, most notably fashion and art, can you tell me more about the fusion of these two worlds?
I can’t see a difference anymore. For me, it’s about finding a route to voice something, it’s still art for me if it’s critical. There’s no grand plan, so if I need to learn a new skill or jump over a barrier into a neighbouring discipline in order to carry on that’s what I do, and I find myself almost organically stepping back. I decided a long time ago that I would do whatever the work needed from me. One day I’ll be on my hands and knees with a tiny paint brush for 16 hours and the next I’ll be photographing a rock star or going on a mission to a paint lab to get a formula to do what the work requires. I could even have to learn new software or painting techniques. I’m not running the thing; it’s totally running me.
I am very interested in finding out more about who your influences are and where your draw your inspiration from?
There are so many and I surround myself with them, in books and music and film. In the past great painters like Van Gogh or Caravaggio, the Pop Art guys: Rauschenberg is a big one, Warhol of course and the Polke. Equally people like Lawrence Weiner or Jenny Holzer for what they do with language. With regards to contemporaries, I get as much inspiration from artists that I don’t want to be like, as I do with those I do. I don’t like art that’s driven by money, I don’t like art that’s not critical so perhaps in that way my biggest inspirations are Hirst or Murakami, in as much as I think they could say more. But the big one is always the music because music can change the way I feel, it’s like a tap into my emotions. Right now I’m listening to a lot of Blur again and the new Eminem album. Actually I think Eminem is really important. I think he might be the greatest, most critical pop artist we’ve had yet. Dylan, Conor Oberst. Van Gogh has influenced my painting more than anyone else, but I don’t think you can see that in my pictures.
The Happy House has been described as your most personal collection to date, how does it differ from earlier shows, say Fake Plastic Love?
Well the other shows look at culture, they are sociological and reference art. This one dives into very personal experiences I’ve had, the other stuff becomes the context. There’s a painting that’s a bit like a love song to an ex-girlfriend, there’s a time when I got beaten really badly outside Poundland and there’s another one called Would the Real Stuart Semple Please Stand Up where there are 10 of me in my granddad’s front garden with different phrases on my t-shirts each showing a different aspect of how popular culture has made me what I am. I am a product of popular culture. I’m here because it made me this way. At its grittiest you see me after my allergic reaction, I use the real ECG printout of my flatline, it provides the context for the portrait, it’s one of the most shocking and painful things I’ve ever had to make. This picture is the bit where Frankenstein turns against its creator or the robot with artificial intelligence tries to take over the world.
We’re definitely “recessioned out”, it has pretty much consumed our daily lives for nearly two years, so how do you feel this event has impacted on your artistic practice?
The art market has undeniably gone through one of its darkest moments, and things have been corrected I think. My practice has changed but not because of the economy, I’m still here doing my thing, plodding on. Perhaps a bit, I’m more aware of economic systems that I was before; I think I took that for granted. The work has interacted with some of those ideas, like the HappyCloud performance from Tate Modern, which was directly about recession. I think artists who had a really big elaborate production line work going on will have been changed more. It was a tough time for everyone; it was like the whole thing was put on pause for a while and nobody, not even the biggest artists and galleries, knew if they’d ever sell work for the prices they did before. I just decided to get my teeth into these pictures and keep going the best I could.
For newcomers to your work, what would you want them to experience; essentially what would you like them to take away?
I don’t know, in a perfect world, where I’d really pulled it off. I’d like them to remember the images, I think at least one or two. For me, the sign of a good picture is one I can remember. I can remember seeing a Van Gogh 21 years ago, vividly. There you go, that’s a thing to aim for isn’t it? A picture someone might remember 20 years later.
Finally, what’s next for Stuart Semple?
For once I don’t know. There’s some work for the Hong Kong Art Fair and I’m collaborating with China’s biggest fashion/lifestyle magazine on a project. After that, I’m praying it’s going to be a holiday. I never know though from one week to the next, I’ll go wherever it takes me.
The Happy House ran between 26 April – 29 May 2010. www.stuartsemple.com.