My earliest memories are of fear.
Violence defines my childhood, drunks spilling out of the pubs and clubs at night fighting in the streets, cutting each other with broken bottles and Stanley knives. I remember the windows of the local night club being smashed in every weekend, the blood on the pavements, my father sweeping up the glass the morning after.
I was born in 1973 in the former naval port of Chatham, Kent. My father, a Romany gypsy had settled in north Kent and bought an amusement arcade in Leysdown, a coastal town notorious during that period for drink related violence. My parents worked long hours, as a result of this and due to the close proximity of the arcade to the drinking establishments, I was exposed to innumerable fights at close quarters. The first time I saw a beer glass smashed in someone’s face I was five years old. I will never forget the sound; it was muted somehow like glass breaking underwater. I remember the screaming, that terrible, helpless, futile sound.
By the time I began primary school, I was already making drawings of my experiences. Most of these drawings, crayon men with blood spurting out of their faces, were confiscated and destroyed by the teachers. No-one asked any questions. I was made to sit at the back of the class away from the other children. I was not allowed to draw. It was these early experiences of punishment which gave me some idea of the value of expressing myself through drawing and the effect it had on those around me. During year 2 my drawing privileges were eventually re-instated and inevitably withdrawn again.
This resulted in me stabbing my teacher in the hand with a blackboard compass. After this, I was withdrawn from primary school and placed in a private school.
My fear of violence was not derived solely from my personal circumstances but from a collective anxiety which I now recognise was endemic of British society at the time. The threat of annihilation derived from the cold war. There were public information films being aired in school which showed us what to do in the event of a nuclear explosion which I am now reliably informed, is very little. I remember the news showing images of the Soviet Union and soldiers marching in the streets. My father, who always ate his dinner in front of the television, was always talking about “Bloody communists”. Reagan told us that the Reds were our enemies. Thatcher said they were coming for us. I do not pretend to have understood any of this at the time; I only knew that people were afraid. There were other factors, social and political, which undoubtedly influenced this climate of fear. The recession in 1980, the onset of the miner’s strike in 1981, the soviet War in Afghanistan, anti-nuclear protests and Tory policies of privatisation, subsequent unemployment and the punishment of the families of those who went out on strike through benefit curtailment. Like I said, there was fear and where I lived, people solved that by drinking and fighting.
In the primary schools I attended, there was no mention, as there is now, of art history. It was only when I entered Middle School that Renaissance period painters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were mentioned and then only in a superficial sense. My only real artistic influence was derived from my grandfather, a gypsy boxer and landscape painter. I remember watching him paint when I was very young. When he died, my father kept his sketches and tracing s in a drawer and I spent many hours looking through these. Apart from this, I was never given any real education or instruction about art. Most of the drawings I did as a child and the work which came after, has been a reaction to my circumstances and environment rather than any clear need to become an artist.
The generation that I belong to was disenfranchised, punk had been and gone, the revolution had been bought off and there was no plan b. most of the boys I went to school with smoked, drank alcohol, sniffed glue or gas. Others, myself included, became involved in crime. This began very early on with me, small thefts, money and cigarettes from my mother’s handbag eventually spiralled into burglary by the time I hit my teens. My compulsion to steal was not born from a specific necessity. My parents were not rich, we had our own home and there seemed to be enough money to get by on, which should have put me in a better situation than my contempories. The problem was, it seemed that money, or the pursuit of money caused total fucking misery. People seemed to do things not because there was any joy in anything; they just wanted to get paid. Growing up, I could never understand why some people were a lot better off than others, especially when the people who had money were often as dysfunctional as those who didn’t. I had no answers for any of this, only my own fear. As far as I was concerned, everybody stole in some way. I did it to affirm myself, as a way of proving that something I did had meaning. Like any good member of Western society, I became part of the problem.
Had crime been the only outlet for my impulses, I would have certainly ended up in prison. I remember being 8 years old, at school during the week learning my times tables. At weekends I was taken to Southall Market to watch illegal dog fights. I went to church on Wednesdays to receive instruction about Christ the shepherd only to see his flock cutting each other up every Friday night.
It was exposure to these kinds of extremes which drove me to write and paint, I needed to make some kind of sense out of a life that made no sense at all.
For years, I painted primarily on paper with whatever paint I could get my hands on. During my mid-teens I started constructing my own frames and painting on wood. The wood was filched from skips or from an old army block house at the back of my father’s arcade where he kept his tools. I started calling these hand-made paintings “blockhouse” and the word stuck. I had little money, which in artistic terms taught me two things, to be economical with paint and only to buy basic colours; red, brown, yellow, blue, black, white and mix them. This is a technique, derived from necessity that I still employ today.
The image of the Sailor
I painted my experiences, the people and the things I loved, but mostly that which made me afraid. Before my middle school period, I came into contact with sailors. My school was in a decommissioned naval port where men of the sea and their families had lived since the 16th century. Many of the local seafront pubs were still frequented by matelots, then on leave from their stations in other ports. These were hard drinking men with reputations for violence. A now notorious incident occurred when I was 8 years old which informed my view of sailors and insured their place as the central protagonists in my work. I was visiting the house of a friend whose father was a rating in the navy. During the course of the visit I was shown by this sailor how to make an improvised knife to take with me to school. This incident terrified me and coupled with seeing other men of this kind brawling in Marine town, made me fearful of sailors and the behaviour of those who wore the square rig uniform.
Over a period of time, the sailors developed into an archetypal embodiment of violence within my work. Usually, when depicting disorderly behaviour, sexual or otherwise, I used sailors to do so. I began painting myself as a sailor, a process I called “becoming the perpetrator” in an effort to illustrate my frustration at becoming the kind of person I feared most.
The uniforms of the sailors began to change after I read Jean Genet’s novel “ Querelle of Brest”. The French summer rig uniform differs from its British blue serge counterpart, as it is stark white. It struck me that the uniform itself should tell a story. Its blankness offered me the opportunity to depict blood stains, the dirt of life and of fighting, to show a very personal, visual example of what the image of the sailor means to me.
The ethic of these paintings, executed on black backgrounds, remains the same. The images are representative but the actions are always drawn from my own experiences. The sailor is both lover and aggressor; the success of these paintings lies in their authenticity. Nothing is depicted that has not actually happened.
Crime and summary punishment have been informative in terms of the direction my life and work have taken. I have been detained enough to understand the futility of putting my energy into the wrong things. I am almost 40 years old and as I write this, I realise I have been very lucky. I had a weapon, an outlet that most of the boys I associated with did not have. Painting. I have been at it now for most of my life using the visual image to achieve some sort of clarity and a reflection on my past. The more prolific I became, the more my involvement in crime began to drop away. This did not occur because of any aspirations towards goodness; I merely wanted to understand my actions and the impulses that motivated me. I began attending psychotherapy in my early twenties, a discipline I kept up for 12 years and one which led to my own study of psychoanalysis, some of the principles of which frequently crop up in my work.
During this period, I met and associated with a number of artists and in 1998, at a poetry reading in Chatham, I met the painter and poet Charles Thompson. Charles told me that he was putting together an anti-conceptual art group which would seek to deliver on what modernism had promised but failed to do. At the time, the name of the group was still undecided. Charles had been to see the sensations show at the Royal Academy in 1997 and the neurotic realism show at the Saatchi gallery at 1998. After this, he coined the term “Decorative inner realism”. The name went through several other changes until during a meeting with his fellow Medway poet Billy Childish, ‘Stuckism’ was decided upon. The name referred to Childish’s previous girlfriend, Tracy Emin’s evaluation of his paintings as “Stuck, Stuck, Stuck.” I liked Charles immediately and when he asked me if I would like to be involved in the group, I accepted.
This decision affectively changed my life and attitude to work. Previously, I had painted out of a fundamental need to visualise and understand my impulses; I had no outlet or way of publishing my work. Stuckism offered me this as well as an effective method of challenging the shallow ineffectual art scene dominated at that time by Brit art. As a founder Stuckist I went on to exhibit in all major Stuckist shows including the defining Punk Victorian show in the walker Gallery for the 2004 Liverpool biennial.
The Walker Show was a pivotal point, after this my work began to move into other areas outside of figurative self-confrontational art into nature, mythology and religion. Painting expeditions into the Scottish Highlands and the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spainfollowed. Further trips to France, Austria and Germany produced over 200 nature works on paper. Throughout these travels, nothing would prove more inspirational than wondering the ancient hills of North Kent.
For many years, I have been motivated by the idea of revolution. I came to the writing of Alexander Berkman after reading the obligatory work of Marx and Engels in my late teens. When I originally read Berkman’s work, I was unprepared. The ideas, not solely his own, within the ‘ABC of Anarchism’ were positive, clear and extremely direct. Anarchy was not the chaos, disorder and rioting that the established governments feared, it was in fact, the complete opposite. I had immersed myself in communism during this period and returned to Berkman and anarchism years later in my mid-twenties. My attitude to the discipline of anarchism has not changed since then. While I do not share Berkman’s view that Anarchism is “the finest thing thought up by man,” I think it is something close. For this reason, it is often purposefully mis-represented by those who at all costs, fear legitimate progress rather than the superficial changes society is used to.
This brings me back to the concept of revolution and how it manifests itself within the world. In my life time alone, there seem to have been many such revolutions. When I examined this more closely I began to realise that in fact there is and only ever has been one. Life itself. The revolution of life is often defined in religious terms or those of scientific materialism. Both are belief systems which inform the individual’s perception of reality and most people put their trust in one or the other. Dualism represents the belief in a desired aspect, with the inevitable exclusion of its opposite from the ego ideal, which for me is untenable, as I view science and religion as part of a greater wholeness.
Painting is a symbolic language, practiced in its most complete form it can embody matter, metaphor and metaphysics. For the idea of revolution I have drawn images from the Torah and more notably, the book of Genesis. These ancient stories of creation and fall have been passed down through Mesopotamian cultures until they reached the point of crystallisation in the Hebrew tradition. The stories of Genesis encompass the material, spiritual and divine within their teachings, they form an underlying dialogue presenting the revolution of life in a holistic sense, with all of its attributes and flaws. Genesis appealed to me through my own European Romany and Russian Jewish ancestry, although the content the content transcends race, religion and even the belief in the divine, as the revolution is its purest form is all of these things and none.
Genesis, in whichever form it may take, can be seen as the point of origin within an on-going revolution, one which involves everything which has, is and is yet to happen. It is one that concerns humanity, but humanity is not its ultimate concern. Another aspect of its continually unfolding tapestry is the cycle of change, the victories and defeats which are an inevitable part of the journey. Mankind has constructed many systems to deal with this, one such system is government. To embody this I have chosen the Russian Revolution and its subsequent failure, as a further part of the revolution series. The resignation and execution of the Tsar, his replacement by Lenin, the archetypal high priest of the cult of Communism and the subsequent rise of Stalin. Thus, embodying the degeneration of Communism as a flawed ideology which failed its people. I am currently working on two paintings which show an aspect of life before and after Communism. As they are the only two within the Russian series which are almost identical, the point I am making is a telling one: The success of a revolution is gaged only by examining the state of the country after the revolution has happened.
I continue to work in much the same way as I always have, alternating between visual art and writing. I live and paint in a terraced house in the area I was original born in. I rarely travel except to the nearby hills and woodlands of north Kent to paint the regenerating cycle of nature and the Medway Neolithic monuments, many of which are as old as the pyramids. These depictions of nature, the beauty and splendour, are as much a part of my life and existence as the often horrific violence which defined my childhood. For me there is no distinction, no split into duality. All is nature.
My early acts of self confrontation began by making drawings of the things which frightened me. Fear dominated my life, it informed my actions and brought about inevitable consequences. As I got older, I tried to use the visual image and written word not only as ways of acknowledging these fears but as methods of overcoming them. I have succeeded perhaps in part, but success implies an adherence to an overall destination whereas I am more concerned with the actual journey. I have learned to live in the present rather than be deluded by some egotistical idea of myself in the future. Making paintings is a reaction to my circumstances and the broadening of the subject matter over the years is in keeping with the development of my studies, the strong belief in relationships and the connections between all things. Sitting in a police cell 15 years ago and watching a fly crawl across the ceiling, I would not have believed that my paintings would appear in the biggest art collections in Europe or that the book you are holding was even possible for me.
My position is one of perseverance, of keeping going. I have tried to be holistic where possible, to use art as a form of examination of the human condition and the revolution it belongs to. Being a father of 5 children has taught me the value of love and the importance of the family outside of the self. Being an artist does not matter in itself, it is nothing more than a categorisation, a description of profession, a form of reduction important only to those who abide by such distinctions. What matters is that the individual is part of a tradition, a revolution which is constantly striving for achievement. The revolution is both personal and universal. It rises and is overthrown, only to return again, because ideas are ultimately invincible, a testament to the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Courtesy of the artist’s website.