Discovering the artist: a journey into inner vision. Through this conversation, we’ve glimpsed into the soul of a young creative. Exploring his thoughts, approach to reality, and society, we’ve grasped the essence of observing and transforming things in a wholly personal way. Experimentation know no bounds, allowing diverse forms to materialise unexpected visions.
Is it possible to talk about your art as a form of activist expression? Your works convey a desire to make people reflect on reality and to consider different perspectives. Has this always been your motivation for creating art?
People are very bold with the word “activist”. I am not an activist, although I have engaged in activism in the past in different capacities, it is not something that I have dedicated myself to. I’m an artist, in the broadest sense, and am suspicious of anyone who would claim to be both. Art is inherently selfish, artists are too, we follow obsessive paths to any fault we might find without much regard for the world around us. An activist, a good activist, is selfless – acting in the interests of others. Give the credit to community organisers, hunt saboteurs, groups and individuals around the world who risk their lives in the hope of something better, artists don’t deserve that credit. When I started making art, it was really because I wasn’t good at anything else. I realised that art didn’t have to be realistic graphite drawings and just sort of muddled around for a few years. As artists, our job is to look very hard at things and then to turn them slightly, so as to make the findings of our investigation obvious – or even arresting. I like the idea of making art as sparring, a sort of testing ground in which there really are no consequences for failure. It’s an opportunity to try to think in as many different ways as possible.
How would you describe your way of making art within the contemporary art scene? Are there any artists whose way of creating art is in line with yours, anyone you admire?
I have the honour of being part of a group of artists whose work I enormously admire. Fern O’Carolan, Tom Harker, Sam Hutchinson, Maggie Dunlap, Allen-Golder Carpenter, Jack Kennedy, Edd Carr, Bora Akinciturk, KT Kobel and I’m sure many people I’ll feel terrible for forgetting make up at least part of our little international crew. Everyone on that list showed with or was involved in our project space, Screw Gallery, which up until the end of the Summer was located in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Having a close-knit group of co-conspirators is essential to making good work, without them, it would be impossible. When we had Screw, it was an amazing opportunity to work with some of the best emerging contemporary artists in the world around a time when we were beginning to have our first shows, representation, and international projects etc. It really was a fertile time for all of us, taking advantage of cheap rent in Leeds to expand our work and feed off of that shared ambition. I speak to most people on that list every single day, there is not one with whom I haven’t collaborated with in some capacity and each of them have had a profound effect on my own work – If you’re reading this now, I love you all very much.
Our society is bombarded with various influences, filtered realities, false appearances, anxieties, and comparisons. Do you believe this affects free creative expression? What aspects would you like to see more of in the field of contemporary art?
Well, of course it does. It would be impossible for it to not. What you eat for breakfast affects expression. I’m not so worried about the filtered reality thing in the sense that we should all be able to understand what is posted online as essentially fiction, the idea that we should feel bad because people are better at creating a more attractive fiction than we are feels trite. It especially feels trite when those anxieties come from real-world horror that is reduced to a token within that fictionalised (predominantly digital) environment. I’m not sure if you, dear reader, will remember the rumours of galleries and collectors blacklisting artists who choose to vocally support Palestine. If any such lists do exist, I guess put me on it and go fuck yourself. To that end, yes, it had a very big impact on Free Expression in the literal sense. Honestly, and I feel like I should probably write an essay about this, I don’t know what I’d like to see more of. A few years ago I was so sick of academic and moral posturing, art being saccharine attempts to get a pat on the back for expressing basic human decency or the most boring, dense slab of academic concrete one could imagine. I wanted a bit of glamour, fun, eccentricity, honesty, aggression – just any kind of genuine feeling. Well, the contemporary art world has re-embraced glamour, the fashion kids are out in force. They’re still so fucking boring. Peckers, the peckerdemic, bitch motherfucker in a blazer and shiny patent leather shoes hoping desperately that someone will notice exactly how well they’ve done in a pathetic contest to look the part. These are the kind of people that if you had the misfortune of trying to actually discuss any art with, their eyes glaze over and their fingers start to awkwardly scratch at wrists and tug at sleeves in the hope that they manage to get out of the conversation and back to mingeing bumps off of rich girls without revealing their utter ineptitude. It sucks, man. The pendulum swings mercilessly, its up to the viewer to see through the nonsense and pick out something real.
Your artworks exhibit a punk aesthetic, incorporating collages of diverse elements and layers, creating contrasts. Yet, there are also recent watercolor works with a seemingly softer aesthetic but still carrying a strong concept. What drives this choice and the apparent shift in aesthetics?
I actually haven’t been making a whole lot of collages recently. When I started with them a few years ago, it was really about using literal images as semiotic markers, having them bump into each other and seeing how that affects the interpretation. I had been working predominantly with collage techniques since 2018 or so, but refined it around 2020 during the various lockdowns. That time felt like things were being very heavily analysed, like everyone was an amateur semiotician attempting to decode the hidden meanings and messages in everything. Collage is the perfect medium to exploit that, we can really force people to question things about the world and themselves by asking them simply to react to an existing image, then that image placed against another image. That’s a common practice in art history, but in the post-post-modern culturescape, people (especially young people) are increasingly attuned to the practice of unconscious interpretation. I really just wanted to force that to be more conscious. A good example of that is He Will Always Be My Son, the first collaborative exhibition that Jack Kennedy and I did together (hosted by Village Gallery in Leeds). You can head to their website and check out instals/read all about it.
Your social media profile shows your tattoo works; what does this realm mean to you? Is it a world you’ve always wanted to be part of?
I was, in some way, part of tattooing long before I knew anything about art. Sweeping the floor at my local shop, getting tattooed, painting flash. I always wanted to be a tattooer, seeing people at hardcore shows with tattoos from about thirteen years old and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. In Scotland in the late 2000s/early 2010s it was almost impossible to get an apprenticeship, and in my third year of trying to find one I met a girl who was studying Contemporary Art (now my Fiance, Fern O’Carolan). Fern introduced me to art and explained that it wasn’t just Dali and stuff like that, I was 21 and immediately set up a small studio in my parents garage. I’d take the bus there after work and mess around with whatever I could get my hands or or that Fern had managed to “borrow” from her University for me. I had made various attempts at teaching myself legitimate tattooing over the years and not gotten very far with it, in 2021 I actually apprenticed properly at a shop in Leeds called Cobra Club and from there ended up relocating to London and working for Karma Yeshe Konchock (a great painter in his own right) at Dharma Tattoo, where I am now. The best parts of tattooing cross over with the best parts of art, not in a visual sense but in an esoteric, verging on hermetic, one. To change oneself permanently is important, it’s a valuable act and it affects your soul whether you choose to admit it or not. The visual language of the tattoos that I do might have nothing to do with my painting, writing, installations or other work but the act of tattooing absolutely does. We made tattoos before cave paintings, tattooing is a spiritual act – so is painting. I try to push as much positivity, as much love, as I possibly can into every tattoo that I do. I love tattooing and am immensely grateful for the opportunity to do it but I’m nothing special in terms of the craft and of no importance in terms of the history. I sit in the shop and wait for people to come in, if you’re looking for me, that would probably be the place to start.
What’s the next theme you’d like to explore in your work, do you already have a specific inspiration for your upcoming project?
I have a lot, but I don’t really want to get into it yet, as the shows are not announced. A lot of lamentation, aesthetic analysis, little pieces of Scottish and Northern European mythologies. I hope to have the opportunity to work again with all of the artists I listed earlier, to continue my relationship with the inimitable No Gallery (NYC) and look forward to announcing a bunch of UK and Europe stuff next year.