Friday, October 27, 2006

Art Space Talk: Charles Thomson

I recently interviewed Charles Thomson about his work with the Stuckists. Mr. Thomson is a founder of The Medway Poets and co-founder of the Stuckists art group.

The views of Stuckism has spread throughout the world since the early days of its conception. Members worldwide convey the need for a focus on figurative painting and have a pro-painting mentality with their work.

Many of the Stuckists I've met (There will be other interviews.)strive to redirect the direction that the current artworld is heading. In other words, they oppose conceptual art. Mr. Thomson's vision paved the way for this movement.

Mr. Thomson creates paintings that reflect the energy of his personality. In my opinion, he uses the figure to give insight into the world around him. A few of his paintings seem to reflect his opinion of the current 'artworld'. I see them as a warning to young artists who may become influenced to the point of 'creative imprisonment' by conceptual art.

Now for the interview...

Interview with Charles Thomson
by Brian Sherwin on 10/23/06

Q. You are a co-founder of Stuckism. Can you tell our blog readers about the original Stuckists? Who founded it and why? What part did you play?

A. "The Stuckists started in 1999 with 13 artists, no backing and no resources, just an idea (and paintings). It is pro-figurative painting with ideas and anti-conceptual art. It was formed to promote our work and our ideas. It aims to replace Britart in this country and change art worldwide (it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it). The core of the group had worked together on and off from 1979, when we had a performance group called The Medway Poets. It was my idea and I asked Billy Childish to co-found it with me. He left after two years and now calls me the founder. I coined the name after Billy told me that his ex girlfriend Tracey Emin (who was part of our entourage in the mid 1980s) had said that he was "stuck"."

Q. Can you characterize the Stuckists as a group? What generation do they belong to? What is their message?

A. "They are an individualist, honest group of people, mostly "outsiders" to mainstream society, as a lot of artists are. There’s a bit of an influence from punk and some from 1960s counter culture. Age range is early thirties to mid fifty. However, there are now 153 allied groups in 37 countries, the youngest member being 15 years old. Their basic message is painting pictures."

Q. In your opinion, what is wrong with conceptual art?

A. "Its lack of concepts. It has one main concept, which is Marcel Duchamp’s idea, namely to take something which people do not think can possibly be art, put it in an art gallery and call it art. This, of course, is guaranteed to create an immediate furore, is very easy to achieve, and has no lasting value. It is an art of mundane materialism, which is why it is described so fully in terms of its materials. It is then dressed up with significance which it does not intrinsically possess. If it did, then there would be no need to dress it up. A dead shark is not a comment on death and does not address the issue of death: it is simply the result of death, which Damien Hirst has exhibited. To make a comment, you have to use a medium capable of manipulation in an expressive manner. Paint is such a medium. A fish corpse is not such a medium."

Q. Is the British art scene watered down with conceptual art? Do you think it will harm the next generation’s view about what is art and what is not?

A. "It is completely debilitated by conceptual art, and this affects even painters, who are ashamed of simply painting pictures and have to create something conceptual. So Chris Ofili attaches lumps of elephant dung, and Jenny Saville draws pretentious marks on her impressively painted bodies (and calls her paintings "pieces"). This detracts from, not enhances, the communication. It’s harmed the current generation, let alone the next. It’s harmed my view of art. We can’t escape from its pervasive effect. However, there will be a reaction, as there always is. Something which is empty will be discarded by time."

Q. Does the popularity of the Young British Artists reflect the aesthetic tastes of the public? Or are they being 'forced down the publics throat'?

A. "The YBAs aren’t popular and their work isn’t popular. It’s just got a lot of media attention, because it’s a novelty and makes good copy. It’s had the benefit of some supremely effective PR from some very talented people in that department, primarily Charles Saatchi, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin."

Q. Stuckism has received a great deal of criticism. Is it stressful for you or do you just laugh it off?

A. "It is an accolade. It shows that people recognise its existence. It also demonstrates how much of a challenge it is. Study history: this is nothing new. The Impressionists are a classic case. I think I would feel very worried if the people that criticise it, didn’t. I don’t have much respect for them."
Q. Damien Hirst is greatly opposed by the Stuckists. Do you think he will ever break away from conceptual art? Or is he locked-in, so to speak?

A. "I don’t know what he’ll do, but it’s highly unlikely to be anything other than academic formalism. He is the contemporary equivalent of the leading 19th century salon artists."

Q. What do you think about former Stuckists, such as Stella Vine, who now reject the group? She now expresses hostility toward the group, but it seems she had no problem exhibiting in the Vote Stuckist show in 2001. Do you take said rejection personal?

A. "Stella had just started painting and was overjoyed to be exhibited in the Stuckist show. She was exposed to a lot of artists there, who have subsequently had an influence on her (see ). Her painting of Princess Diana was based on the same idea as my painting "Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision" – namely to imagine what a famous person is thinking and write the words next to a portrait of them. She has made an intelligent, innovative and personal interpretation of influences to form her own identity, which is what all artists do. It is only fair and honest to acknowledge there was this help and there has been an influence, but she doesn’t do this, and I think it’s because she can’t see it, even though it’s obvious to others.

There is a strong personal element with Stella as we were (briefly) married. I don’t take it personally, as she seems to reject everyone. I don’t take it personally with other artists either. I can see why people want to change circumstances in their life, to explore a new route. I’ve felt like that myself very strongly at times.

It doesn’t matter if people reject the group. Historically they still have to be evaluated in terms of it. Monet left the Impressionists group, but that fact is of minimal significance: he is still the leading Impressionist. Stella is a Stuckist artist, as is Billy Childish for that matter and other "ex Stuckists". The group is a means to an end, which is the art. The incredible thing is that there is still a core group after 7 years. That period has defined Stuckism, regardless of what happens next."

Q. What do you think of Charles Saatchi. Is he doing more harm than good as to the advancement of art?

A. "He has made art a major mainstream media subject and I think that’s a good thing. He has also been very instrumental in boosting a lot of artists’ careers (Stella Vine being one example). With his Your Gallery space on the Saatchi Gallery web site, he has created a level playing field, where anyone can show their work. (See ) All in all, an amazing and unique character. The downside is that he is a self-confessed neophiliac and his obsession with "newness" results in a lot of superficiality, as well as taking the limelight away from older, more established artists."

Q. The original 20-point Stuckist manifesto states, "Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.". There seems to be some confusion over the meaning of this statement. Care to elaborate?

A. "Our manifestos are not dormant intellectual documents. They are designed to have an effect and work for their living. They are a collage of different approaches. The text you quote is a direct riposte to the statement "painting is dead". If people want to say that, then we can equally say our statement. It is deliberately provocative. It asserts the importance of painting, or at least appears to, but it is also a nonsensical statement from a logical point of view, as it is self-contradictory. People can make of it what they want. It is both serious and an act of buffoonery. It seems to have got attention at any rate, and most people seem to think we wrote "If you don’t paint, you’re not an artist", which is fine by me."

Q. How have art schools threatened the advancement of painting? Do you think attending art school (in the current art school system) is a waste of money for people who are serious about their work?

A. "Art schools on the whole are complete disaster zones, full of blinkered prejudice from egocentric tutors imbued with fashion (which is now conceptualism and new media), at the expense of the students whose growth they are meant to be fostering. Like all disasters, some people are damaged and others emerge with a strengthened vision. The Stuckists are in the latter camp. It’s a good training ground for the wider art world, and, if you’re prepared to fit in, it can be a helpful career step. It’s also a place to meet people, and the trouble is that there’s nowhere else to go at that stage in your art development. Some of the Stuckists have never been to art college, but they’ve had the benefit of working with a group of artists, most of whom have been to art college."

Q. In your opinion, what kind of artists are coming out of academic settings?

A. "Academic settings are production lines and encourage conformity in order to achieve institutional success. If it’s a good production line, then people emerge with the benefits of learning and the inheritance of knowledge. Today the production line is geared up to junk culture, so that’s what emerges – lost souls. I keep on meeting them. Some are lost because they believed everything they were told, and some because they couldn’t relate to it at all."

Q. Art schools today seem to be very much against figurative work (I can think of a few that told me, "That is not done here." Would you agree?

A. "I keep on meeting those as well. It is a widespread (thought not universal) phenomenon in my experience. That’s not a situation of education; it is one of indoctrination and duplicity, posing as freedom and liberalism."

Q. Many people find conceptual art intellectually stimulating. Is there a risk that a return to figurative art will be under-stimulating mentally? Does accessibility mean dumbing down?

A. "Conceptual art is intellectually stimulating in the same way that a crossword puzzle is – i.e. ultimately producing nothing of greater value beyond itself. You have to have a very limited application of intellect in the first place to find that intellectually stimulating. Figurative painting – at least the form of it advocated and practised by Stuckists – is far more intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and experientially demanding and testing. It also needs an equivalent capacity in the viewer to understand it properly, which is why a lot of people write it off easily: they are only capable of looking at it superficially. It’s easy to apply intellect to the limited arena of art innovation, but a far greater achievement to interpret life experience (at all levels) and give it a convincing and powerful symbolic form, i.e. to make an accurate picture of it. The result is revealing, and, if done properly, evocative and compelling in a unique way, which found objects can never attain, because their mundanity is always apparent."

Q. Do Stuckists focus on the human condition in order to convey a form of 'pure truth'?

A. "I don’t think so. That seems to be an over-grand statement. Just "truth" is good enough – truth about what is really going on in us with certain experiences and states of mind, when that is often hidden behind what we’d like to think is going on in us."

Q. Do you think this 'truth' is missing in the current art world?

A. "Of course. There is endless bullshit and self-deception. This is encouraged in all sorts of ways, not least economic and social pressure to conform."

Q. It has been said that the current 'art world' is dead due to works that lack any sense of emotion. Do you think so?

A. "Conceptual art by definition is thought-based and of necessity devalues emotion. Any art predicated on that is bound to be dead. That’s fine for the sciences, but art is the area of the psyche and emotion is fundamental. The simple test of art is whether it enhances or depletes your emotional being. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes you happy, but that it makes you feel more whole, which often means accepting the negative aspects rather than denying them. Conceptual art is a form of denial, i.e. deadness."

Q. Do the Stuckists seek to bring life and energy back to the 'art world'?

A. "We already have with all our activities. It’s there for anyone that wants it."

Q. In August 2005 Stuckists were represented in a Remodernist show at CB's313 gallery in New York, along with Defastenist artists, and Remodernist film makers and photographers. Did the general public embrace the show? Did you take part in the show?

A. "I didn’t organise it. It was done by Jesse Richards and Tony Juliano. I don’t know much about it. I did have a painting in it. I was co-curator of The Stuckists Punk Victorian show at the Walker Art Gallery, a national museum, in Liverpool in 2004. That got a fantastic public response. There was no need for the art to be interpreted. It spoke for itself directly. See"

Q. Do you think people once again have faith in the revolutionary power of art due to groups like Stuckism? If so, was this a goal of Stuckism?

A. "Revolution for its own sake is a bad thing. Revolution is only valid if there is a situation that needs to be changed, which happens to be the case at the moment. A lot of people have found Stuckism inspiring, because it shows that artists can assert themselves without any backing or establishment approval. That is a very good thing because it is empowering and affirms people’s trust in themselves. Stuckism has very clear about its agenda from the outset to effect a change. However, I’ve always seen Stuckism as the establishment, which has to be the attitude of any responsible revolution."

Q. How did you feel when Billy Childish left the group 2001?

A. "Slightly disappointed, but mainly relieved. He made a great contribution and helped to get the whole thing going, but, as he admits, he’s not very good at working with groups, unless he’s in charge and they are done his way. Things needed to be done to promote the group that he would have been increasingly uncomfortable about (he didn’t even like a lot of the art). We have continued to collaborate privately."

Q. How many members are involved with the movement at this time? Is there a great deal of networking involved?

A. "There are 153 Stuckist groups in 37 countries. They are all independent and self-directed. Some are probably defunct and others have staged solo, group or international shows. The people involved are artists, not impresarios. There have been some strong connections made. The German Stuckists have collaborated on two shows recently. The Triumph of Stuckism show and international symposium at Liverpool art college and university included international work and speakers from the UK, Germany, Greece and Australia."

Q. How can one become involved with the Stuckists?

A. "Simple – join or found a group: - then what people do is entirely up to them. Or come along to our Turner Prize demo at Tate Britain (NB not Tate Modern), Monday 4 December, 10 am – 2 pm and 6 – 8 pm. It will be the seventh year."

Q. Do you think the ideology of Stuckism will continue to grow? Can you foresee future generations of Stuckists?

A. "It is growing all the time. That’s because it’s got a valuable message – be true to yourself. It’s also got a good product, paintings. Would you rather have a picture in your living room or a dead sheep? Effectively there are already future generations. Recent graduates and even people still at school (as with the Underage Stuckists ) are identifying with the Stuckists. It will presumably go the way of all art (and other) movements, reaching a pinnacle of influence and being absorbed into the wider culture. It is still at the beginning stage of that process."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about Stuckism or art in general?

A. "When Stuckism started in 1999, I was on BBC2 Newsnight, and the presenter, Jeremy Paxman, was very worried in case the whole thing was a joke. This year Sir Nicholas Serota said on BBC Radio 4 that the Stuckists "have acted in the public interest" and was forced to change Tate policy as a result. That transition is something nobody could have predicted. Edward Lucie-Smith commented, "Saatchi "has begun to rely on the intuitions of… the Stuckism movement." Stuckism is now studied in schools, colleges and universities. We have already had a telling effect on art in the UK, but one that has not been acknowledged. That effect is growing and in time the acknowledgement will come. People respond to Stuckism because it is an art made by human beings for human beings, and not, as with the current dominant mode of art, an emotionally and spiritually sterile commercial exercise."

I hope you have enjoyed learning more about Charles Thomson and the Stuckists. Be sure to visit the Stukist website to learn more:

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

No comments: