Monday, February 05, 2007

Art Space Talk: Paul Harvey

I recently interviewed artist Paul Harvey. Mr. Harvey is a British musician (the band Penetration) and Stuckist artist, who is a major exhibitor with the group and whose work was used to promote their landmark 2004 show at the Liverpool Biennial.

In 2001 he joined the Stuckists artists and founded a Newcastle branch. He has curated Stuckist shows at the Newcastle Arts Centre and with Hiroko Oshima of the Ryu Art Group at the Bailiffgate Museum, Alnwick.

His images are often derived from pictures of film and singing "stars" in magazines, and reworked into a new context, sometimes with an obvious reference to the work of Alfons Mucha. The incorporation of modern symbols poses an ambiguity as to the amount of irony present, though the artist has claimed that he does not intend this.

Possibly his best-known work is a painting of the singer Madonna. The elements mentioned are clearly visible, with small dumbbells around the border, for example and a lively, provocative Madonna, contrasting with Art Nouveau curves and languidity.

Q. You co-published-and-drew Mauretania Comics with comics artist Chris Reynolds. How did that experience influence your future work?

A. "I think it influenced it quite a lot in many different ways. I found drawing comics very difficult and realised I was really only enjoying doing the covers and the title pages, although it took quite a while for the penny to drop.

Chris was also a much better storyteller and comic artist than me and I felt at times a pale shadow of his quiet genius. The themes from Mauretania still crop up in my paintings though- I have just completed a painting called "Ford Anglia with Tent and Giotto Tree" which very much revisits the ideas we explored in Mauretania Comics, ideas very similar to what artists such as Jane and Louise Wilson went on to explore later.

We occasionally painted as a team at that time; we invented the term "Psychetecture" and produced four 8’ x 8’ black and white paintings based on man’s relationship with architecture. Incidentally Chris was also an excellent painter."

Q. Mr. Harvey, how did you become involved with the Stuckists? How did you meet Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, and the others?

A. "I saw an article on Stuckism in the Sunday Times magazine and was struck by both the paintings and the ideas. It was like hearing "Anarchy in the UK" for the first time, it was that immediate.

I was painting at that time (2000) and felt like the article really reflected my thoughts on the contemporary scene at the time, so I contacted The Stuckists, stating that I thought I was one. Charles suggested that I start my own movement called "Stuck in Newcastle" or something like that, as they weren’t looking for any new members at that time.

It was six months later that Charles got in touch again and I eventually met up with him and became a Newcastle Stuckist. I’ve never met Billy, although we have corresponded briefly by email. I do plan to meet up with him this year though as I need to interview him so hopefully he’ll be willing to do it.

The other London Stuckists I met one by one over a period of time, and I interviewed most of them for the "Stuckism… it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it" DVD which was directed by my partner Carol Lynn. That was a good time, and it was a great experience to meet artists who I considered were producing exciting work."

Q. You were involved with the landmark 2004 show at the Liverpool Biennial. He were a "featured artist" in The Stuckists Punk Victorian show at the Walker Art Gallery during this event. Care to share your experiences of this event? What were your your feelings going into it and how did you feel afterwards?

A. "By the time the show opened a massive amount of work had already been done, mostly by Charles I hasten to add, although honourable mention should also go to John Bourne who did a lot of work at the Walker itself.

Relations with the Walker were very strained at times and this in a way negated the excitement leading up to the show. We were determined to represent Stuckism in the way we knew would work and that took a lot of hard graft.

Issues such as which artists and work to show, the hang, the catalogue, the publicity; all these areas were debated and argued over. In the end though, we mostly got what we wanted and the show was a great success, both artistically and in terms of visitor numbers. Whether the Walker really appreciated that fact is open to debate.

I thought the show worked, and it’s an important event because there will probably never be such a diverse and intense exhibition of Stuckist work again for a while. It really captured the moment.

On a personal note, to see my paintings on huge banners outside the Walker and Lady Lever galleries was a big thrill for me, and I don’t mind admitting that."

Q. Your painting of artist/model Emily Mann (image above) was used to promote the show. Why was your work chosen to represent the exhibit at the Walker?

A. "The story of that painting is related in the Punk Victorian catalogue. It was originally painted to advertise "The Real Turner Prize" but I ended up having a run in with Gina Bold, who was both Charles’s partner and a Stuckist exhibitor at the time.

She objected to the use of S&M imagery to promote Stuckism, although I have to say that when I look at the painting now it’s not the first thing that springs to mind.

When the Punk Victorian show was announced I got excited by the title of the show and repainted parts of it to document the event. It was Charles’s idea to use it to promote the show, and you will have to ask him why he wanted to use it over others artists work."

Q. You are the founder of the Newcastle Stuckists. How many artists are involved with your group? Do you have any exhibits planned in the near future?

A. "The Newcastle Stuckists are comprised of one member, which is me. I did ask someone about 4 years ago to join but they politely turned me down. I haven’t seen any work since then that would really benefit from being in the group, and I don’t have an army of poets and painters to turn to, unlike the London group of artists that Charles was able to recruit (the Medway Poets of course).

When I was at college most of my friends (me included) were trying to learn how to play Buzzcocks songs, or starting up "Avant garde" post punk groups in the style of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. There was a lot of that at Polytechnics in those days."

Q. Your images are often derived from pictures of film and singing "stars" in magazines, and reworked into a new context, sometimes with an obvious reference to the work of Alfonse Mucha. Why did you decided to work in this manner? What else influences your art?

A. "As an artist it’s hard to talk about specifics because there are so many ideas all interrelated. For example I can’t talk about Mucha without talking about college days, holidays with the family, previous relationships, accepted views within the art establishment about beauty, decoration etc.- they all interlink.

Painting for me is a document, a visual diary and things will drift in and out, and I tend not to worry about this too much. A large amount of self-analysis can lead to concepts and styles developing for the wrong reasons.

I don’t work from old film magazines as much now but I still like the feel of publicity photographs from the mid Fifties to early Sixties- they’re "modern" but 50 years old and that’s interesting to me. When artists such as Peter Blake were using similar sources they were contemporary.

I like the line "Nostalgia for an age yet to come" from the Buzzcocks song and I’ve often considered ideas relating to that line. I actually ended up playing that song (Nostalgia) with the re-formed Penetration, which was another big thrill for me."

Q. How do you decide what celebrity to use in a painting? Is it random?

A. "It’s fairly random, as I often have no opinion on them as people or personalities. Just lately though the decisions have been more considered.

For example, Nigella Lawson I painted because she’s beautiful and the partner of Charles Saatchi. I have actually spent so much of my time debating and arguing about Saatchi and Serota that I have finally painted them- but they are an example of what I was talking about before (the visual diary). I needed to get them out of the way so I can concentrate on other things.

Serota I’m working on now; he’s surrounded by elephant dung and relates to the Stuckist investigation into the purchase of the Chris Ofili work."

Q. What is your opinion about artists such as Damien Hirst? Can you share your personal opinion about conceptual art?

A. "Hirst is an artist with one idea, and this idea is not new. It has been explored by artists for many years. I have no problem with the idea of conceptual art- the problem I have is the poverty of concepts contained in so much contemporary work.

Some of it is so banal I’m staggered when I read critiques in the Sunday papers. How can these critics be bothered- it must be really difficult to write 3000 words about nothing, although I suppose they are pretty experienced in doing it by now.

It reminds me of Prefects punishments when I was at school, you know, if you pushed in to the front of the dinner queue they made you write 500 words on the sex life of a ping-pong ball. Perhaps these types of punishments were popular in Public schools and that’s why art critics can manage to do the job without too much complaint."

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "Since I was a child painting pictures of footballers. Painting and music have been the two constants in my life."

Q. In further detail, what are the social implications in your art?

A. "The professor at John Moores University suggested that some of my work had similarities with union banners, particularly those from mining communities, and I thought that was interesting because it would be an implicit connection.

I think about ethics a lot as part of my PhD and I would hope that my method of working takes ethical issues into account. I think it would be true to say that an artist would not pickle a shark in a huge tank unless they knew there was a buyer for that piece.

Stuckists paint pictures because painting pictures is what matters. In more self important moments, I sometimes feel we are fighting for the soul of British Art. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "It really depends on the painting and it’s probably not that important. Gallery owners always ask that question as that is often how they like to price a work, but buyers never ask. Being as you asked though it can take from 2 days up to 2 months. I can paint stripes a lot faster now. I have to say though that all the paintings have taken about 46 years to paint as hopefully they are the sum of my experiences so far- and that doesn’t even take into account former lives!"

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "The Stuckist manifesto puts it so much better than I ever could. Painting is mysterious, and it’s hard to pin it down. I like the idea of that moment in time between the colour being squeezed out of the tube and it landing on the canvas. What happens in that gap is a profound question, and the brush is just a small part of that.

Giotto is an artist that I constantly return to for guidance and inspiration."

Q. Has your art ever been published? If so, where?

A. "All over the place: all of the quality newspapers have featured images of my work, and lots of magazines too. A couple of companies have professed an interest in producing prints from my work but I don’t think I want to go down that route yet."

Q. Aside from the Walker exhibit, what was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "I think my first exhibition with the Stuckists, which was the opening of the Stuckist International Gallery in Hoxton. I was too shy to talk to any of the artists; I got the train from Newcastle, hung around a bit and went home again without talking to anyone, apart from a couple of friends that came along. I remember Peter Blake looking at my work and wondering what he thought."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "I find I don’t have to build myself up to paint- I can do 10 minutes while I’m waiting for a taxi for example. Sometimes I need a whole day though because of the complexity of the decision-making and subsequent colour mixing.

I usually listen to Radio 5 Live, as I like the banter and particularly the football commentary (unless it’s Alan Green). I have listened to live football on the radio ever since I was a child so it’s very comforting.

I have a fairly large vinyl collection but I have to force myself to listen to music now although I always enjoy it when I do. I still love listening to The Adverts, and I still listen to The Stranglers because of their total commitment to the job in hand and I also like the dry sound they have- it’s very confident. Again the PhD is involved here as it’s concerned with relating Punk Rock to Stuckism.

In the old days when I was drawing comics with Chris we listened to a lot of Eno including the early Ambient stuff, although it took me a little longer to appreciate it than it did Chris. We also listened to John Cale a lot, particularly "Paris 1919"- and I still love that record.

For some reason I still listen to Family a lot when painting- I have developed a theory about their album ‘Fearless’ which I see as an example of "Deep-Psyche". I like inventing music genres and others include ‘Progressive Garage’ and ‘Happy Rock’. The deep-psyche one upsets my pop-psyche friends- they think I’m mad but I know what I’m talking about. I’m yet to find another record that fits into that genre however."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "I don’t know who bought my pieces from the London show so it’s hard to say, but I would suggest most of my buyers are intelligent, sophisticated, complex individuals with a deep connection to their own spirituality. Some of them are also punks like me where the aforementioned qualities are a natural by product of our shared experiences."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "Ok, let’s talk about the Nigella Lawson painting (image above). She seemed to be visible at the time I decided to paint her but I didn’t analyse the idea too much, I never do. I did think though that it might be fun to paint Charles Saatchi’s partner, as he has so much control over other artists, and this was a way for me to have control over him- but it’s not about power, not for me anyway.

Research goes into all my paintings of well known public figures/celebrities but in this case it was fairly easy. I’ve talked about the banal in terms of conceptual art, but the banal can be used well if you know how to do it. I like to use the most obvious imagery I can think of in these paintings so in this case it was food- the more obvious and banal the imagery is, the more mysterious the end result can be. I don’t try to force meaning.

The circle of poppies just came into my head one evening so I drew it before I forgot it. I don’t know where it came from though. The hand is based on the way Giotto painted hands, and the four-leaf clover was sent to me by a friend because she has a garden where loads of them grow and I’d never seen one before."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "Purely practical reasons as regards the use of acrylic paint, specifically Liquitex soft body. I like the opacity and the feel of them on the brush. I’ve tried other makes but they don’t have the same appeal.

As for oils, I’d like to use them in some ways because I like the idea of it, but it’s not practical enough for me. Charles paints with oil however, and he has a similar style, but I’m a messy worker and I lean on the canvas so I need the paint to dry quickly.

I always use sable brushes and for larger paintings Japanese brushes, but they’re expensive and acrylics destroy brushes quite quickly.

I’ve played about with gold leaf but I dropped it fairly quickly because it was putting meaning into my work that I didn’t want, and besides, acrylic gold paint works very well for me- I give it an undercoat of Turners Yellow and that gives me the colour and flatness that I want.

I love to work on linen even though it has imperfections, but I often have to make do with cotton because linen is so expensive."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "There are permanent displays at the Cluny, Head of Steam and Tilleys Bar, all bars in Newcastle where the owner is a collector. Some of the paintings are quite old however.

I have just had a one man show at the Opus Gallery, also in Newcastle, and have a small spring show at the Biscuit Factory from about the middle of March.

There’s also my website which is ok but needs updating a bit which I plan to do very soon."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "In the short term more superficiality and more interest in the artist as a celebrity. The art establishment is not yet ready for Stuckism as it doesn’t understand it.

Punk has been around 30 years and it hasn’t even got it’s head around that yet, as can be seen when the work of such artists as the Chapman Brothers are compared to Punk when they have as much in common with Punk as the Anti Nowhere League and The Exploited."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "My aversion to the cult of the ego-artist does not allow me to be so self obsessed- the toughest point for me is always when I’m trying to quit smoking. Charles has told me I’m looking at it the wrong way though when I talk about quitting- he reckons the secret is to keep smoking but not actually have a cigarette."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "Because I can and I like to do it"

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "In the North East there is a lot of money spent on very bad public art- like the Angel of the North for example. The quayside is littered with terrible art- we need an army of volunteers with hacksaws.

Whitley Bay where I live is what you'd expect- lots of watercolour painters. There is a move within the town towards developing a more bohemian vibe- perhaps it’ll become Brighton without the middle class hippies. Whitley Bay is brilliant and I love it, and the coast is a great place for a painter to live.

There’s also a lot of talk about ‘Underground Art’ whatever that is. Actually I know exactly what it is as some of my best friends (as they say) are graffiti artists and the work is very much related to that area. Much of this interest has been generated by the success of Banksy and galleries are looking to cash in. Some of it is ok, and "The G Word" show at the Baltic was good (although their ‘Spank The Monkey’ show was appalling), but a lot of it is thinly disguised illustration, produced digitally in Illustrator and printed onto canvas, I call it "The Illustrator Crisis’ and it’s infecting graphic design too, where everything looks the same."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "I really don’t know the answer to that question. As you probably know, there are elements of the Kabala and Buddhism in the Stuckism manifesto, but I don’t practice either of those. I look at a lot of pre-Renaissance work and I’m fascinated by it but that fascination may be just to do with painting. In the end I have faith in painting I suppose."

I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Paul Harvey. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.

Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I'd like to know what contemporary artists Harvey looks at, as most of his inspiration seems to come from the past. He also talks about Punk a lot, and I'd like to know how he thinks that comes across in his work. And is it fun being a Stuckist?!

wagnoir said...

Fantastic article. I really like Paul Harvey's paintings.

wagnoir said...

very good!