Recently, I have been performing some much needed paper tape surgery on my rather dilapidated shadow totems, which were never intended to survive so long. Years of exposure to boisterous audiences, hazardous fluids, pigment, and all kinds of badly fitting packages, have caused limbs to drop off, eyeballs to dislodge, and organs to become adrift in a writhing sea of cardboard cadavers, bobbing with the severed heads of a very peculiar breed of creature. Originally, these entities were born from boot trampled cardboard, foraged from the streets of London’s East End, emanating from the sour reeking detritus of the city, the sort of grimy, stacked up, packaging you would normally hurry past, rather than drag home and venerate with a pair of scissors. I am inspired by happenstance recycling opportunities, to incorporate all sorts of haphazard materials into making silhouettes: tangled wire, encrusted glue sticks, leaf skeletons, weasel bristles, charred feathers, and offcuts of frayed fabric that bring to mind the 19th century sampler stitched by the purple veined, nimble fingers, of the consumptive teen in the poor school. My embryonic totems germinate from semi-automatic scribbles, their forms glimpsed in the distended stains on sagging billboards, worked up into feverish crayon drawings, in elegant, black folding pocket books, whose cover resembles a lustrous obsidian mirror in which you can just about glimpse your face – my Japanese Albums.
Primordial fetishes, dredged from the source of the river Seine, by hirsute, bespectacled, 1980s archaeologists, have captivated my craving for the clandestine world of river offerings, and the chance purchase of a dilapidated paperback, has been a constant muse to me: disarticulated wooden effigies, and their begrimed, gnarled heads, poke from the silt and mud, like strange, burbling, sentinels from deep history, when people spoke in a croaking dialect of clicking consonants, the misprinted augurs of monstrous births, stippled with reeds and striated with the crinkled fissures of brackish river currents. Flicking through this well-thumbed book, studying its grainy reproductions of 16th/17th century woodcuts of insanely proportioned, poppet-like people, and lolloping, back to front typeset, the inbred grotesquerie, adds grist to my thrumming mill, in a power house of deviation gone berserk. These pictures yearn to be inhabited by the imagination of the reader, who I consider it a deep privilege to share this unusual preoccupation with.
I first stumbled upon the grotesque heads of Pascal-Desir Maisonneuve (1863-1934) in 1987 whilst reading an article on Art Brut, or what has colloquially become known in today’s art lingo, as Outsider Art – the art of untutored, intuitive, self-taught, individuals. This stern-looking Frenchman, made a series of 15 or so heads from cement and cowrie shells, during the 1920’s, which he selected primarily for their outlandish, characteristics – the allure of the grimlich: the horrible. These obscene, disfigured heads, produced entirely from shells bought at jumble sales, are reminiscent of the monstrosities of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, that great 16th century fabricator of grottesco in mannerist painting. Apparently, Maisonneuve was so attached to his creations that he could not be tempted to part with them; not until many years after his death, when the celebrated artist, Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), bought 9 heads for his raw art collection, did Maissoneuve’s ensemble become disseminated to various custodians. Every few centuries, an artist or creative innovator, evinces an acerbic wit and a satirical gaze, which, like vitriol, burns through the burnished lens of fashion, cauterizing the so-called ‘high’ culture of the epoch, imprinting upon it something unsettling and original. Such outsiders, usually die unnoticed, and slip into the terra incognita until some bombastic intellectual, with a bone to pick and a cause to champion, resuscitates their forgotten oeuvre, celebrating it in a fanfare of pomp and posthumous praise in the form of the glossy coffee table book. Whilst Arcimboldo grappled with phantasmagorical flowers, spoilt fruit, vegetable rites, and glutinous fungi (to name but a few in his organic repertoire of trickery), his French counterpart, operating some 400 years later, found by free association, how to manufacture the bestial and the brutal, in a sculptural, (jugular) vein, from seemingly mundane seaside shells.
Following a recent visit to the enigmatic Giardino Guisti in Verona, Italy, which is a truly magnificent paradigm of Italian Renaissance garden design, my thoughts swung full circle to the creations of Arcimboldo and Maisonneuve. Promenading through the trim box hedge labyrinths, surveying the colossal needles of Cypress trees (one apparently admired by Mozart and Goethe in the 1770s) that stand erect in the grand, symmetrical layout, my attention was drawn to a parapet wall, where four statues of melodramatic dwarves reside. Eroded by the leprosy of time, these maverick characters seem to be players in some lost troupe of little people, standing in mock dramatic postures, neither pissing fountains, or gnomic ornaments, they represent the quintessentially Italian penchant for ogling the ogre within a green space. Their origin is attributed to the work of sculptor, Lorenzo Muttoni (1669-1747). Despite the sublime beauty of the flowers that punctuate this enclave with splashes of orange and violet, the verdant lemon grove, and soft patter of glittering fountains, the garden in all its manicured grandeur is host to impostors from the dark fringes of the unbidden, who menacingly encroach upon its crumbling edifice, gurning and leering at the bemused onlookers, with a haughty impertinence that seems to say catch me if you can. Tucked away, in some fake cliffs at the back of the giardino, there are shell impregnated concretions in man-made grottoes, festooned with the chipped relics of antiquity, offerings to the sprites and cloven-hooved gods, that watch over this little haven. Pools of sun light accentuate the giggling, chubby faced putti, and towering high above the main pathway, a bridge boasts its own fanged monster, hewn from marble to tremendous comic horror effect. The enduring grimace of this curiosity is that it gives birth to all the stupendous miscreants that populate this fallen Eden. Further comparative study has revealed the origin of another elusive shell head, made some time in the 18th century by an unknown hand, and I am left pondering if Maisonneuve saw reproductions of Arcimboldo’s paintings in books, or this metamorphic visage, which would serve to embolden his own trajectory into the world of the disquieting carapace. Evaluating Maisonneuve’s heads is something akin to a mixture of folk art, a decorative, unskilled, hobbyist approach, tinged with a more sinister, ritual mask making. With their affinity to gargoyles, these shell heads boast all manner of eruptions and pitiful deformities, from goitres, to a ripe crop of boils, varicose viands, whose rubbery lips, blow silent raspberries at the coterie of art historians who have elevated these ganglions up onto the pedestal of high art. These are craniums that no calipers could measure, which are beyond the scope of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel. Part of the attraction inherent in these objects is their venal hideousness, their estrangement from reality, their disgusting protuberances, probing the boundaries of our comfort zone with a disfigured, suppurating, conk. One can easily imagine their sound: low guttural utterances, the whinnying self -love of nasal vibration, lascivious mouth smacking. In short: an infernal choir. Whilst Arcimboldo said it with flowers big time, Maisonneuve is stating the obvious, with the malevolent aplomb of the prankster through shells and mastic. How to appraise this peripheral part-timer, who is only marginally known by those in the trade? Whilst his technique is not genuine, and there were definite precedents in earlier centuries making anthropomorphic heads, he is by virtue of his craving for anonymity an odd fish, floating upright in a small tank, banging his head (and others) against the glassy sides, peering out at us through a murky history of cracks, along the threadbare route through modernism and post modernism, to the bleak and apparently meaningless hinterland that art now inhabits called money. The notion of being outside, is a cunning ruse, invented to create another category in which to pigeon hole an ‘artist’. By not calling it culture, and by pretending that it’s not mainstream art, the whole premise of Art Brut is a divisive marketing ploy for an off-shoot throng of New York art dealers and their lank-haired, bespectacled supporters. It’s a band wagon (one wheel on my wagon?) for a smattering of so-called outsider artists, who attract attention to the fact that their dealers have generated another mini-movement within a vortex of ever-changing fads and foibles. It is just another commercially driven commodity, in an art market constantly on the prowl for a new gimmick with which to part the fool from his proverbial gold. The chances are that there are a hundred unknown Maisonneuve and Arcimboldo imitators mooching about in the tattered shadows of obscurity. The fact that their work punctures and arrests our attention is a testament to its ongoing power of surprise, which is rather like witnessing an octogenarian involuntarily break wind half way through a conversation about etiquette. Beyond that, the world of art is swamped with a plethora of copyists and chancers who will stop at nothing short of depravity to achieve an albeit, short-lived notoriety in the name of art.
In my lifelong hunt for the grottesco – I have travelled far and wide, both physically as a sort of acquisitive eyeball, or as a metaphysical tourist, and mentally, in my daydreams and reveries. I pray fervently to Fortuna for a moment when everything will coalesce and form a great fugue. Such incidents are rare, and one could number them on a wizened hand of Glory dug up from a graveyard in Mainz. Fortune smiled upon me one morning though, in a narrow alleyway in Ortigia, in South Eastern Sicily. I had come here to paint and to think, to escape the continuous babble of London’s teeming, psychotic microcosm. In finding my calloused feet, I traipsed around the narrow passageways of ancient Syracuse, where fate took me to a heavy wooden, studded, door. Entering the gloom of a vaulted arch, I soon realized I was in a bric-a-brac shop. The proprietor spoke no English and told me, ‘tutto e antico’ gesticulating wildly like a shadow puppet ablaze, at the heaving charity shop clutter all around us. My eye was entranced by a large blown glass object, partially emerging from beneath a pile of broken crockery. It seemed ancient, ruinous, and Baroque. There in the palm of my hand, I was holding a fantastic head, the like of which I had not seen before. Something on a par with Arcimboldo, and characteristic of all things Moorish during the 17th century, I convinced myself that this was a one-off ornament for adornment – an oversize bauble worn to ward off the evil eye. And so after no cogitation at all, I bought it. This was my first excursion into the entrapment of the grotesque, the first of many adventures in curiosities to come.
Back in London in the thick of it: apart from the blackened slurry of steaming excrement, and evacuated foetuses, with balloon shaped heads, that slide into the river via a series of mechanical chutes and sluggish arteries, there are unexpected prizes to be extracted from the ichor and churned stench. Trudging the treacherous squelch of shore, with inadequate footwear, sinking ever further into the quagmire of filth that London’s armature is founded upon, the keen eye eviscerates with some precision, an inventory of objets trouvees that speak of battered, demented histories, in rhyming riddles, penned in runnels of gore. London is a great carcass, a behemoth, a limbless bulk, her stoppered orifices trickle and ooze repugnant secretions, and foul mouthed hexes dissolve in the toxic slipstream. Here is the enigma of the river fetish, a bronze object of uncertain function and application. It came to me via a circuitous journey, passed back and forth by various ringed, avaricious, and nail bitten hands. I did not find it, it found me. I incubated it in my dreams and willed others to help me possess its captivating allure by stealth and cunning . It was neither sold, nor given to me, it did not arrive in a brown paper package, and I do not know the name of the person who extracted it from the mud with a stick. However, it travelled through time and tides, being washed up shore and downriver by the endless rumble and musique concrete of the riverbed. When I finally held it, I could not determine if it was a post-medieval buckle, or a slave driver’s cap insignia. Who are these three odd beings that have surfaced from the primal slop of undrinkable soup, languishing alongside the hurled shopping trolley and cleaved bones of sacrificed beasts? For how many centuries have they resided alongside the slithering eel, the gluttonous catfish, and the grizzled snout of the rat? Two female deities with exposed breasts, stand aside a smaller, central figure, sporting a feathery head dress and grass skirt. What do this trio of grotesques symbolize and the central figure brandish in its upheld arms? Could it be a sheaf of wheat, tobacco, or sugar cane – pointing a finger at the darker history of colonial slavery? Or is it something archaic and emblematic of an invading tribe from Scandinavia? The spectral allure of this object lies in the fact that it defies classification and has so far eluded identification by so-called, head-scratching experts, who despite their unsightly, patterned jumpers, and rank, smokers breath, have published copious articles on the trinkets coughed up on the shit-strewn foreshore of the Thames. This triumvirate of river gods has filtered through, into my watercolour paintings, and I have been incorporating them into expressionistic excursions of a delectably macabre bent. In my dreams, I see them rising up through the coffee coloured waves, dripping with the sputum of the plexus, egregious in the swirling U bend of the river’s virulent bilge. Like some dimly remembered horror film that surfaces only to tantalize waking consciousness, I hear these totems bubble and rasp in a seething, demonic rattle, singing of their hermetic transport by the tides in the lilting litanies of the undrinkable ‘drink’. With their gawping, blubber chops and oval eyes, I liken them to the art of the insane, the banished, and the peripheral. It was almost one year before I spotted a fetish on ebay that linked this artifact from the river’s sludge to the art of Africa.
During 1984 I lived in Camberwell SE5, a leafy zone of crumbling Victoriana, crawling with pickpockets and petty criminals who looked you up and down at every street corner. In the front garden of one house on Flodden Road, I stopped on a daily basis to take in the shocking vista of many discoloured, dismembered, dolls that festooned the forecourt on makeshift stakes. With matted hair and inward looking eyes, blemishes too hideous to elucidate, these urban deities were the work of an unknown hand, an anonymous outsider artist, a lunatic? The display kept changing to dramatically accommodate more dolls, including the occasional rain-sodden stuffed toy animal, a teddy bear spewing its entrails onto the paved circumference of the weedy patio. The place became known in local circles as the ‘House of Dead Dolls’. Nobody ever saw the person who lived there, and it was rumoured that any alterations or additions to this presentation were made under cover of darkness by someone who was probably a Satanist.
Ortigia, Sicily – London 2017