Interview with Stuart Semple


Stuart Semple is a contemporary British artist. Known for his large scale canvases incorporating text and found imagery, Semple’s practice addresses ideas sparked by immersion in popular culture and combines contemporary figurative painting with pop art. Semple’s work has strong links with Richard Hamilton’s Pop Art, but have a contemporary emphasis on latent fear and threat rather than Hamilton’s consumer culture and glamour.

Could tell us a little bit about your practise, please?

I’m a painter. I paint pictures and the word pictures is important to me. I don’t just do that with paint sometimes I do it with film or sculpture or illustrations, maybe with text. I make pictures. I’m interested in lots of stuff, but what tends to re-emerge is an obsession with childhood, the loss of youth. Nostalgia, and then anxiety. It comes down to a dialogue with noise and silence, the individual within the culture.

How do you define Pop art today? To what extent has the understanding and perception of ‚Pop‘ changed in today’s society and would you see yourself in the domain (if there is one) of Pop?

Pop is tricky to define I think it fluctuates and it moves, I think over the years it has expanded and grown to encompass almost everything within our lived experience. All the arts have been swallowed by it now. We live in one big pop world. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing what I am focusing on is our humanity inside that, who we are in comparison. Yes I live in Pop, we all live there, I don’t have a choice the histories were there before I started. If you are talking about Pop Art as a movement, I don’t identify with that. Yes of course there was a British and interestingly Spanish element to that but really for me Pop is about post war America, that was 70 years ago, I can’t identify with that. We are in a global time, an interconnected time, yes there are I suppose dominant ideologies in groups of people that make things but there’s no fixed movement like that any more. I don’t want to be penned into a narrow box like that. I’m just interested and confused by the world I live in.

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You have an art piece on iTunes (a music platform) you have worked on some music videos, you are seeing each major exhibition of yours as an album and the works as the tracks, you name your works: ”Would the Real Stuart Semple Please Stand Up?” or ”Killing me softly (with her sound)”;“, you recently started a collaboration with a music band of which your are an official part as an artist. Are music and art equally important to you? What influence does music have on the outcome of your work?

Music is vital to me, growing up it was really the only accessible form of contemporary art I had, the work of musical artists. I identified with that. I think the act of writing a song or composing a picture are similar processes in a way. Music is very powerful in conveying emotion and transporting us back to a feeling of a time or a place. If anything I am jealous of the power it has and I wish visual things had that direct cerebral impact. Painting in a way is like a recording of a moment, a live moment, where you were what you did, how you physically moved your body. A music recording is the same. I can think of a series of paintings that go together like an album, that make thematic sense that sit together, that’s useful for me. I can get a little phrase, or a hook or a melody in my mind. It’s an image idea though and I live with that and churn it over, I might draw it or just remember, then I’ll get in the studio and put it down. Sometimes I make a little study, I guess that’s like a musicians demo of a song. Then I work them into bigger finished things. Collaging is the same as musical sampling. Layers in a painting are like layers in a mix.

Do you listen to music while working in the studio? And if so what is on your play list?

All the time, it’s vital and it’s everything. From jungle to pop, rock, electronic, classical. Across all genres really. I use music like a fuel to get me into the feeling I need for a particular passage of work which I find I can channel into what I’m making. I’ve been collecting music for decades, there’s everything.

Besides your music collaborations, you have entered the corporate sphere many times. You have installed and directed the gallery for the fashion label Aubin & Wills, for who you even designed a cardigan lately,  you have designed a football boot for Umbro, worked with the retail store Selfrides on projects, you have your works across the stores of the fashion brand Moncler and introduced your own accessory line. Do you use these channels to make your art accessible to the masses or is it purely about a creative exchange between art and other industries?

It’s both really. I’m always into new challenges and pushing the edges of things so the opportunity to explore these places is exciting. I think that artists should engage with the wider culture, we don’t need to be narrow we can contribute and discuss and collaborate and share. I really believe in collaboration, there’s a lot of it going on right now, it’s almost a trend in itself. I’m not into that I’m talking about a genuine meeting of minds where both people bring something and both leave with more than they started with and often the most valuable thing I take a way is an education I learn something. However, accessibility is vital for me, I believe art should be available and democratic. I don’t believe that by crossing over into the mainstream it needs to be dumbed down, I think it can thrive in other contexts, I think quite often those contexts can give new perspectives that enhance it. Plus life is very short and I like to say yes to doing things if I can. I’m keen on taking risks, moving forward creatively. I’m not bothered about covering the same familiar safe ground in some kind of perpetual loop.

Are these collaborations operating on a different level than your art exhibitions and works? Or do you see everything equally important?

I put everything I can into everything I do. I think that’s confusing for some people, but to me in all honesty whether some foundation or museum has a giant painting or an installation or a kid has a digital download or a little print, or even a fashion piece, to me they are all my work and all as good as each other. To me each is important. There’s as much of me in a CD sleeve as there is in a film. For that moment in time it’s where I was and what I was doing. At the end of the day art is about generosity, it’s about sharing. I’m not trying to keep my stuff locked up and preserved, I want it out.

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To keep it brief, Andy Warhol stated, that with Pop Art  what you see is what you get. In comparison your work operates on many levels and presents depth beyond what you can see. At the same time you are constantly compared to Warhol or on another level the street art style of Basquiat. Where do you think the comparison comes from and how are you defining your work?

To me it’s always a stupid comparison, on one hand Warhol is pre-meditated, mechanised, calculated a piece of performance. Then you have Basquiat who is spontaneous, discussing history thinking about his ethnicity. He has a political sub-context and he’s pointing his finger at the art trade as well. Both were of a different time and place. How can I be like two completely different people. I’m me, I’m interested in different stuff than them. I’m British. I’d argue with Warhol and I think there’s a depth of meaning there even if you could argue there’s a deliberate absence, that’s a stance. That stance is not reflected in the surface. But yes I like to make things that have a depth to them, things to uncover particularly in way of narrative or the actual application of materials. I think on the surface normally my work has a kind of hook, a surface element that you could almost dismiss the work as being about. It’s like a lot of pop songs they may get stuck in your head but if you stop and actually consider the lyrics or the arrangement maybe they are actually doing a bit more than was first apparent. At least I’d like to think so, I don’t always pull that off.

You have started to work as ’nancyboy‘ by selling almost 3000 of your paintings via eBay at the beginning of your career. Can you tell us a bit more about this time?

It came when I was very young and I had a very bad experience where I died for a few seconds due to a sudden allergic attack. I couldn’t breath and really I was as close to gone as you could get. My body recovered but my mind didn’t. I ended up with a whole string of psychological issues, major panic attacks daily. Phobias of food and unable to be alone with myself. There was no help for me really so I turned to my art. I made a couple of pieces a day, almost like a diary helping me to deduce where I was and what was going on. It was like I was seeing the world for the first time and trying to familiarise myself with it, but they were funny. It was like a stupid alien making mistakes because they didn’t know the rules. Anyway I put those works on eBay every day and people seemed to like them and started to collect them, and once I realised that they were connecting with people all over the world, I felt that I now had a job and a duty to keep making these things for them.

Lately you have started the daily doodles under the synonym of ‚mister semple‘. In this project you are painting one work every day, which is being sold on eBay for one year. What are the motivations behind this project this time?

There are a few. Initially I was thinking about new years resolutions and I thought rather than give something up I would challenge myself to do something new. I almost feel like making all those Nancyboy pictures is a lifetime ago and that it would be impossible to repeat, so this is a good challenge. Above that, my work has become frustrating, things are much slower now in the studio. Last year I only finished one big painting, and the ones I am fighting now I’ve had on the go for 8 years and they still aren’t finished. I wanted to get back to a place where I saw something finished every day and opened myself up to a flow of inspiration which I could grow. Once you make a statement that you will put a piece on eBay every day at the same time and people are watching, there’s no going back. I have to do it. Already I have found that I am feeling much more inspired; that I am tuned into that source of ideas. I make one and more comes, it’s wonderful. Creative block is really the most frustrating and painful thing. This is a way to deal with that I suppose. I’ve never bought into the idea that artists really come up with stuff. The best things I’ve done have come through me, they’ve come to me from I don’t even know where.

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There is a strong discourse of art and the Internet at the moment, questioning new ways of collecting, the value of things, ways of distributing and the possibility of loosing its personal relation. How are you seeing the current development, as you are quite actively using the Internet?

There’s a lot to discuss on that. I’ll have to keep it brief. First of all the genie is out the bottle, art is on the Internet: There are images and videos everywhere, it has already happened. The art world is playing catch up much like the music industry has done. Art is about taste, your own personal taste and preferences, just like food you need to try lots of it to understand what suits you, that’s how you develop a taste. I grew up in a small seaside town I couldn’t cultivate that, I wasn’t bought up in a big city so exhibitions were not an option for me. The Internet enables us to learn about art as it’s created. Artists can build upon global ideas, art lovers can see what is going on. The art market becomes a bit more transparent, and kids can see what is possible. I think interestingly the frontier now is for our artists and creators to seize it and take it to a new place where online experiences are not just functional but could be aesthetic, could be a work in their own right. That’s why I made EXIT for iTunes, which is a digital work, created digitally from the start, made to be engaged with digitally, that can only ever live digitally. That’s the future of it, beyond utility. Do I think it kills the one-on-one experience of artworks, not at all. Well maybe a tiny bit, but only in the way the printing press did to paintings. I see it more like music. A kid in their bedroom might record an album, they might share it on facebook or soundcloud, and people might decide they like it. Before that people were limited to seeing the top 20 cd’s in the supermarket or whatever. That was their choice. Now we can choose from millions of musical artists. We discover them and you know what, live music is massive. Gigs are packed every night. This is what will happen for art, the Tate is bulging with 5 million visitors a year. The Internet is helping the cause of getting people to want to go and see art. They know it’s for them, they understand it better. It transcends class, and the elitist ‚cannon‘ of what’s good or bad and the individual is empowered to make those judgements themselves. More than that what I love is that I can communicate and share my work immediately with people, we can have a discussion.

You told your parents you were studying medicine but instead sneaked out to the art campus once arriving at Uni. Are your parents now happy that you did not follow their advice?

I’m not really sure, I think my mum is now understanding that it’s not about what I chose to do but who I was all along. I didn’t choose anything, I just couldn’t be someone that I am not.

You latest exhibition was entitled ‚The Cloud‘ in De Meese, Netherlands, where you presented your project ‚The Happy Clouds‘. This work releases foam clouds in the form of smileys and it was first shown at Tate Modern on the day the Lehman Brothers bank crashed. Especially the clouds, released into the air and being blown over to the City in London created then a huge discourse. Yet what effects do the clouds intend to have today, when shown outside this link?

I think the Netherlands show is about artists who have used clouds in different ways. And there I am showing the documentation of the London happy clouds so, of course when the moment has gone the political context shifts and the work inevitably loses some of it’s content. They were clouds, it’s a temporal thing, they float by, they evaporate I think that’s the point.

What’s coming next and where can we see your work in the coming month?

Well, I’m working on new stuff every day but it’s slowed right down. I’m hoping there will be a show in London this year, I was hoping to have stuff finished for last year but I just wasn’t ready. It’ll come but I’m in no rush.

 all images © Stuart Semple

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