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Joe Machine: From Marine Town to The Holy See

My mum was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1930. She lived there until she was about 12, when her family moved to Gravesend.  At the age of 90, she remains one of the town’s biggest fans. She acknowledges that Chatham is ‘not what it was before the dockyard closed’ but she still has fond memories of a lively town full of  sailors in their crisp uniforms, on shore leave. Very much On the Town.

My mum (aged 4) on the beach at Margate with her sister, mum and Gran

Just up river from Chatham, at the mouth of the River Medway, is Sheerness, another former naval town and seaside resort. Mum remembers day trips there with her dad. They used to set off from Sun Pier in Chatham, sit on the front eating rolls with butter and cheese, which they brought with them. And then they’d have their dinner at the Co-op cafe  – fish and chips –  served with ‘real tomato ketchup’, which was  really hard to find, apparently, and so was a real treat.

It’s funny how those impressions of places that we have as kids or as visitors to a place can contrast so starkly with the experience of the people who live there – how we can miss the more threatening undertones that are everyday reality for others.

Like my mum, Joe Machine (born Joe Stokes), one of the founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog) was born in Chatham, but over 40 years later, in 1973. But there, any similarities with my mum’s experiences end. As a child, Joe was exposed to extreme violence and had every reason to fear sailors.

Joe Machine: I'll Cut You
Joe Machine: I’ll Cut You

Growing up in Marine Town
‘I was brought up in pubs and clubs and my father’s business was near to some pretty unpleasant pubs,’ Joe remembers. ‘By the time I was 7 years old, I’d seen a lot of alcohol fuelled violence. Sailors to me were men of violence. I used to see fighting in the pubs, windows going through, pretty unpleasant stuff for a young child to see.’

Joe went to school in Marine Town, in Sheerness, where he was badly bullied.

A lot of the kids at Joe’s school had fathers in the Royal Navy.  Joe tells an unsettling story of going round to a friend’s house to play when he was just 8 years old.

‘I went into this terraced house and his dad was cooking in the kitchen,’ Joe says. ‘I can remember seeing his dad’s blue serge Royal Navy uniform and square rig hat hanging up there. That really did make an impression on me.

‘So I went upstairs playing with this kid for a while and when I came down to use the toilet his dad said, “Come over here”. He asked me if I got bullied and when I said I did, he said “Look I’m going to give you something that will stop the bullying”.  So he got a toothbrush and held it over the gas stove and he melted one end of it. Then he got two razor blades and he set them in the melted end. He said, “Look lad, I’m going to give his to you. Take it to school with you and if anyone upsets you, slash them in the face with it”

‘I was absolutely terrified, completely and utterly terrified. I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn’t take it home, so I dropped it down the drain. The next time I saw weapons like that was many years later, when I was 16, in young offenders institutions.’

Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest
Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest

Drawing on experience
Young Joe’s way of dealing with the violence he witnessed was to draw.  At first school he drew scenes from his own experience – pictures of the things that scared him.

‘While other kids were drawing what they were supposed to, I was the kid drawing people with blood jetting out of their necks, people getting glassed in the face, people getting their eyes popped out,’ Joe explains. ‘I think making drawings of the kinds of violent acts that I’d seen was a pretty healthy way of dealing with things, but it wasn’t seen that way at school. They stopped me drawing and I had to go and sit at the back of the room away from everyone else.’

Things got worse for Joe as he moved to the next class. He wasn’t allowed to draw at all without having the subject matter checked first. Things came to a head when a teacher humiliated Joe in front of the class. His drawing of the incredible Hulk had spilled off the paper and he had coloured in some of the table as well. Joe couldn’t take any more. He grabbed a blackboard compass and stabbed the teacher in the hand with it. He was removed from the school aged just 6.

Throughout the rest of his, sometimes chaotic childhood, Joe continued to draw. Outside school, he worked for his father in the arcade, but when he wasn’t sweeping up or cleaning fruit machines, he was doodling and drawing.

‘Drawing saved me,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I would have done without art. The things I saw as I grew up really did affect me. They worried me. They disgusted me. I produced thousands of drawings, most of which ended up in the bin. Drawing for me was a kind of therapy.  It was like an externalised part of what was going on inside my head. It helped me make sense of it.’

Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house
Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house

Thievery
As well as showing an early talent for drawing, young Joe also showed an aptitude for theft. Even as a very young child, when his dad took him shopping, Joe was caught putting things into his pocket.

‘I’ve got no memory of it but my dad says he picked me up and shook me and a load of batteries fell out of my pocket,’ Joe says. ‘Most of my friends, their parents were alcoholics or drug addicts so they’d be out stealing. Everybody was at it. It was just natural – and I took to it like a duck to water!’

Joe started with easy targets – he stole from his mother’s purse, his dad’s arcade, local shops – but as he got older, he got more ambitious and took more and more risks.

‘It was like a drug to me,’ he reflects. ‘I think I kind of justified it as, I was trying to claw something back. I was trying to make something of myself in a society that I thought wasn’t up to much and had failed me at every level.’

For a while Joe made good money from a ‘pretty foolproof’ method of breaking into arcades. He bypassed the alarmed steel shutters on the front doors by dropping down through a hole cut in the felt and baton roofs . But his luck finally ran out when he tried to steal a till from a greengrocers in broad daylight. He cut through the electric cable but didn’t realise that the till was also secured to the wall by a chain.

Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink
Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink

‘I eventually managed to get away with the till,’ Joe recounts. ‘I got round the corner, where I dropped it. So I had to leave it there and run off. But, of course, they knew who I was. I got grassed up and about a day after that the police came to my mum’s flat and that was it.’

In 1989, Joe was convicted of theft and sent to  Borstal, Young Offenders Secure Training Centre where he was allowed to paint.

‘I carried on painting sailors and things like that,’ Joe says. ‘But I still couldn’t quite paint what I wanted to because everything was highly censored.’

Bill Lewis, the Medway Poets and Stuckism
After two years in prison. Joe went straight back into crime. But things had changed while had been away. His parents had split up and Joe was living with his dad. He was still paining but also writing.

‘I’d been writing for years as well as painting,’ says Joe. ‘I had this silly idea that I was going to be a novelist and I’d written loads of stuff all of which was rubbish – really, really bad.’

Fed up with him hanging around and getting into trouble, Joe’s father suggested that he join a creative writing class.  The class was taught by Bill Lewis – member of the Medway Poets and, as it turned out later, another founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog)

The creative writing class folded after a short time because numbers were low so, instead Joe and two others met at Lewis’s place in Chatham. After a while, the other two students dropped away, leaving only Joe and Bill who became good friends. Bill introduced Joe to the Medway Poets and, in the early 90s, Joe started writing and performing with them.

Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize
Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize

Through that connection, Joe met Billy Childish and Charles Thomson and with them and others, went on to found the Stuckists. It was possibly an unlikely alliance. Joe was one of the only members who hadn’t been to art school. But although his background was in crime, rather than punk, he identified with the punk ethic of the Stuckists – rebelling against the established order. He also enjoyed being in the company of other compulsive obsessive painters – ‘people who just couldn’t do anything else’. And he shared their contempt for conceptual art.

‘The more I thought about  Brit Art, the more I thought that it was utter rubbish – contrived, prefabricated rubbish,’ he explains. ‘I was painting stuff from my life. I didn’t know how to do anything else. What they were doing was as far away from honesty as you could possibly get. It was nihilism. It had no belief whatsoever. They were doing it for awards. They were doing it because they wanted to be famous.’

Joe Machine: Blonde Strippers
Blonde Strippers

Joe started exhibiting with the Stuckists. His work was given prominence and he did well. He became known, particularly his ‘sailor paintings’, depicting the violence of his childhood and the sex and pornography that he was exposed to too early, in the homes of his friends’ parents. In 2006, he had a sell-out show at the Spectrum Gallery in London, where most of his paintings were acquired by the David Roberts Art Foundation

Through the Stuckists, Joe finally had an opportunity he craved to work through his early experiences through his art. The more he painted, the further away he became from being involved in crime. 

‘I realised then that I had no need to be doing some of the things I was doing,’ Joe explains. There was no point in me putting my energy in that direction, it was either going to end up with me being dead or in prison fo a long time.  So I slowly turned more to painting than the other criminal stuff and once I started giving my energy to that, it gained its own momentum and it worked out very well for me.’

Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You
Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You

Family matters
Joe’s mother was an Ashkenazi Jew and his father was an English Romany Gypsy. They were both from East London originally.  Joe’s great grandfather was a professional bare-knuckle boxer, fighting in a travelling boxing booth owed by the family. When he retired, he became a boxing promoter.

His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer, but he never spoke about his career with Joe.

‘He never talked about violence but I knew it was there because that was his life,’ Joe explains. ‘All my other relations, my cousins, were terrified of him because he had this kind of glowering violence about him. But that never came across with me. He was always kind to me. I was his favourite grandson and I loved him fiercely.’

The subject matter of Joe’s early paintings, his previous criminal activity and his post-jail work as a bouncer on the violent rave and ecstasy scene have caused some commentators to mark him out as a tough guy too.

Joe says they’ve got him completely wrong: ‘I’m not a tough guy. I’ve been involved in violence but whatever I’ve done has been a reaction to the things that I’ve seen. I certainly didn’t feel like a tough guy when I was a kid. I felt vulnerable and that fear of violence has never left me.’

Joe Machine: Diana Dors
Joe Machine: Diana Dors

Spirituality and sucess
Becoming involved with the Medway Poets and then the Stuckists were key steps on the road to a new ‘more holistic’ life for Joe.

In 2000, after exhibiting with the Stuckists, Joe was announced as winner of the Stuckist’s Real Turner Prize show and his painting of Diana Dors, painted in response to a chance meeting with Dors as a child, was used as the cover image for the original Stuckist book. He was gaining recognition as an artist and able to devote more time to painting.

‘It was a big thing for me. I’d gone from seeing all the stuff I’d seen, being in prison, working in situations where I was threatened with guns and knives, to sitting in rooms where I could be at peace, I could paint, and it had a restorative, cathartic element to it,’ Joe says.

Fellow Stuckist, Charles Thomson describes Joe as a very spiritual person and Joe himself talks about his ‘great faith in God’.

‘I’ve always had the sense of the hand of God in what I was doing. Even as a child I knew there was something else, something was there, a very definite presence,’ Joe explains. ‘There was no epiphany or red pill moment, the realisation has gradually crept up on me that it has always been there.  I’m not a religious fanatic. I don’t do organised religion. I’m not born again. But  I speak the truth when I say I don’t believe in God, I know God is real because of my experiences of Him.’

Joe Machine, Edward Lucie-Smith
Joe with Edward Lucie-Smith, Machine Evolution show, 2013

The Stuckist protests against the Turner Prize and the wider art establishment (see previous blog) grabbed the headlines and attracted a lot of publicity for the movement. Many art critics were hostile, but independent art critic Edward Lucie-Smith took an interest in their work and in Joe’s work in particular. He described Joe as his ‘favourite Stuckist’. Lucie-Smith has gone on to hail Joe as ‘one of the most important British Artists’ and ‘the successor to Francis Bacon and William Blake’.

Joe too holds Lucie-Smith in very high regard.

‘There’s nobody like him,’ says Joe. ‘He’s incredible. He’s a legendary art critic and he’s a maverick. Although he works with the art establishment, nobody tells him what to do.’

Joe met Lucie-Smith for the first time at a Stuckist exhibition in 2008, and from 2012, the pair began to collaborate more closely. Lucie-Smith promoted Joe’s work and encouraged him to broaden his artistic horizons.

‘Edward sat me down and said “I like most of your work, but I don’t like all of it”,’ Joe laughs. ‘I think Edward wasn’t very keen on the sailor stuff – the sex and violence – because he thought I was going to be pigeon-holed. He helped me see the potential of working in other areas.’

Joe Machine: God and Tree
Joe Machine: God and Tree

Joe  has since illustrated two volumes of Edward Lucie-Smith’s poems, Making For The Exit and Surviving.

In 2012, Lucie-Smith encouraged Joe to enter the Cork Street Open Exhibition in London. Joe won the Grand Prize for his religious painting God and Tree. The painting shows God standing next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from Genesis. The idea came from some work that Joe had been doing with Charles Thomson about Kabbalah, matters of spirit and meditation, but it was Joe’s son, Joseph, who finally gave him the confidence to paint it.

‘My son said, “You do this stuff so much in your life, why don’t you paint God?”‘ says Joe. ‘I told him, I can’t. I’m not really supposed to depict God. I’m Jewish. But Joseph said, “I don’t think God would mind”. So I did. I took his advice and painted it, and that’s when things really started to take off for me, artistically.’

Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring
Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring

Religion and mythology
Spurred on by his success and supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe gained the confidence to tackle a greater variety of themes in his painting, themes as diverse as the Russian Revolution and landscape paintings, inspired by Kentish woodlands.

In 2013, again supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe held  a solo, retrospective exhibition Machine Evolution, at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, beneath the Tramshed restaurant in Dalston, featuring some of his Russian Revolution paintings. The restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mark Hix, recently went into administration.

The Tramshed restaurant

Ironically, the gallery was named after an installation by artist, Damien Hirst, bête noire of the Stuckists. The piece, a Hereford cow and a cockerel preserved in a steel and glass tank of formaldehyde, was on permanent display in the restaurant.

‘The irony wasn’t lost on me,’ Joe laughs, ‘and I think Edward could see it as well!’

 

The exhibition was a great success and, in conjunction with the show, Russian investors brought out a major hardback book of Joe’s work.

Joe Machine, Steve O'Brien
Joe with Steve O’Brien, Brittanic Myths book launch, Mayfair

It was at a private view of Machine Evolution, hosted by The London Magazine  that Joe was introduced to magazine editor, academic and mythographer, Steven O’Brien, who is now his agent.

In 2015, Joe and O’Brien collaborated on a book Britannic Myths  which retold ancient stories from Britain and Ireland through text and painting. The collaboration generated a number of London-based exhibitions of the  paintings included in the book.

Also in 2015, Joe was invited to become artist-in-residence for the Prometheus Project in Trieste, Italy.  This  project,  the brainchild of Italian concert pianist Claudio Crismani and Edward Lucie-Smith, was based around Alexander Scriabin’s last musical work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, reinterpreting it through music, visual art, literature and history.

‘It was a great time and resulted in three wonderful shows for me,’ Joe recalls.  ‘I had a sailor show but also new paintings of Greek Gods and the myth of Prometheus were exhibited in the Arts Centre at Trieste harbour and at various other venues around Trieste.’

Joe Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons
Joe Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons

Joe now refers to myth as ‘his preferred genre’.

‘Over the years I’ve done so many paintings working through he stuff about sex and violence,’ Joe remarks. ‘But  more recently, my work has moved further and further into religion, spirituality and mythology so that is now about 90 percent of what I do. There’s no way when I was first involved with the Stuckists that I would have painted some of the stuff I’m painting now. I still do the other stuff sometimes, but now I’m more whole than I used to be.’

Joe is now working on a series of 30 paintings showing  scenes from the Arthurian legends for another of Steven O’Brien’s books,  and has been commissioned by mythographer and author, John Matthews, to produce a series of paintings featuring the characters from the old English poem Beowulf, which will be used to illustrate a series of oracle cards.

Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea
Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea

Among his other roles, Steven O’Brien is a curator for the Vatican Arts Trust. Through him Joe has been invited to exhibit a new series of paintings Saints of Britain in the Vatican, Rome and Certosa di Tresulti monestary, Collepardo. The exhibition is planned for 2021, pandemic permitting.

Joe is still astounded by his success. ‘Who would have thought that a boy from the back streets of Kent, with no prospects, no hope, a criminal record, would through art and through his own momentum, propel himself into getting a show in the Vatican,’ he says. ‘And that’s pretty much because I followed my star. I kept painting because it is the only thing that ever helped me. And it’s only by sticking to my guns that I’m in the position I am now.’

Bedtime stories
When Joe first met the Medway Poets it was as a poet, not a painter and he has recently returned to writing, alongside his art.  He still writes poetry and he has recently written that novel. It is called DeadTown Boy and and tells the story of Joe’s childhood up to the age of 18, when he was released from Borstal Young Offenders Secure Training Centre.

But Joe now lives in Somerset with his wife and five children. His current writing project is a novel for children The Invisible Kingdom based on the bedtime stories he made up for them when they were very young.

Joe Machine: The Krays
Joe Machine: The Krays

‘It’s an allegory of World War II, where my children are characters in the story,’ he explains. ‘When I was a kid, my dad used to sit on the end of my bed telling me stories about the Kray twins, who he was friends with in London during the 1960’s. It wasn’t the kind of Rupert the Bear stuff most kids got.’

Joe is trying to use his past experience in a positive way these days, including  through working with charitable groups and young offenders.

‘I have to square my past  with being a father now and doing the right thing by my children,’ Joe reflects. ‘There’s no way you can be be involved in the kind of life I had and maintain a good relationship with your family.’

Now Joe feels positive about the future.

‘It’s wonderful, I do feel very happy and very, very lucky now,’ he concludes. ‘Because I’ve been able to turn around an obsessive, compulsive need as a child to produce work that was based on my experience.  I’ve gone from having to do that to that, to wanting to do that and then absolutely loving doing that. It’s an obsession in another way I suppose, but it’s a good obsession.’

Website
You can see Joe’s work on his website: https://www.joemachineart.com/

His most recent show Unseen Spring was a virtual exhibition with the London Magazine

The Arthurian Cycle exhibition will be at the David Game College, Aldgate, London in November/December

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stuckism: The birth of an international art ‘non-movement’

I am painter (sometimes) but I’m not really a ‘joiner’ so I’ve never considered joining the Stuckists. Being any kind of ‘-ist’ doesn’t suit me. I like being a ‘me-ist’.

Ella Guru: Ten of Clubs for 'Hand of Artists' community art project for charity
Ella Guru in ‘Hand of Artists’

But I come from Kent, where Stuckism originated. One of the founder members of the Stuckists, Sexton Ming, lived just around the corner from me in Gravesend.  The art world is a small one, so we all run into one another in person or online from time to time.  I sometimes post my art on the Stuckist Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/groups/stuckism/

And I’ve been given some great art opportunities from my association with the Stuckists. Some years ago, I was invited to exhibit some of my paintings in a Stuckist exhibition at the View Two Gallery in Liverpool. I also recently sent some (possibly never to be seen again, as I don’t think they’ve turned up) drawings for a Stuckist exhibition in Iran. And it was through an introduction from the Stuckists that I got involved with Art on a Postcard  https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/06/26/art-on-a-postcard-urban-contemporary-vs-street-photography/ 

When we did the community art project Hand of Artists, five years ago now, Stuckist founder member, Ella Guru, painted the ten of clubs for one of the packs. It depicts her packing up her art things and moving from London to live in her new home in Hastings in Kent.

In the Hand of Artists project, different artists were asked to design their own playing card based a card they were allocated, at random, drawn from two decks. The ‘designer packs’ were then sold to benefit local art charities. Coincidentally, Ella also designed her own set of tarot cards, inspired by a similarly collaborative project http://ellaguruart.com/?projects=tarot 

And in a more recent collaboration, my art will also appear on the cover of Charles Thomson’s forthcoming poetry anthology.

So who are the Stuckists? Over the next three blogs I’ll tell you a little more about the only international art movement to come out of the Medway Towns, and feature the stories and art of a couple of the founder members, Joe Machine and Ella Guru.

This first blog looks at where the Stuckists came from, where they’ve been and where they might go in the future.

The Medway Poets circa 1979: Miriam Carney, Bill Lewis, Sexton Ming, Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, (Rob Earl absent)
The Medway Poets circa 1979

The birth of an international art ‘non-movement’
In the late 1970s a group of six arty, young poets – Miriam Carney, Billy Childish, Rob Earl, Bill Lewis, Sexton Ming and Charles Thomson – were performing anarchic, punk-inspired poetry at festivals and in pubs and colleges in and around the Medway Towns in North Kent.  After about a year, The Medway Poets as they were known, went their separate ways. But a chance meeting between Charles Thomson and Billy Childish, nearly twenty years later, was the start of a quite different collaboration – an international art movement known as ‘Stuckism’.

It was the late ’90s and Britart and the Young British Artists (YBAs) were the new darlings of the art world. Advertising mogul and art collector, Charles Saatchi, widely credited with Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory with his slogan Labour Isn’t Working, used his considerable financial and media power to fast-track the artistic careers of YBAs by buying, exhibiting  and promoting their art. ‘Conceptual art’ was in vogue. Artistic concepts and ideas took precedence over the more traditional concerns about aesthetics, technique and materials.

The Medway Poets 1987. From left Sexon Ming, Tracey Emin (guest), Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, (other members absent). Photo: Eugene Doyen
The Medway Poets circa 1987 with guest, Tracey Emin

One of the most successful conceptual artists at that time was Tracey Emin once, as an 18-year old fashion student, associated with The Medway Poets through her, then, boyfriend, Billy Childish. Emin’s celebrity artist status and the way it changed her, appalled and concerned former Medway Poet Charles Thomson. He believed that the Britart ethic (or perhaps lack of it) signalled a dangerous decline in artistic values.

‘Tracey Emin became a celebrity in the nineties because she got drunk and said “fuck” a lot of times on television; she backed it up with a novelty line in embroidered tents and unmade beds,’ Thomson wrote in his 2004 essay,  A  Stuckist on Stuckism. http://www.stuckism.com/Walker/AStuckistOnStuckism.html The celebrity caucus of YBAs promoted by Saatchi  effectively excluded all who were not part of it. Art students now saw their goal not as producing good art but as producing art which they hoped Saatchi would buy….the main requirements are art gimmick, shameless self-promotion and getting to know as many of the right people as possible….’

Philip Absolon: Job Club
Philip Absolon: Job Club

Any artist speaking out against the brave new art establishment was dismissed as traditionalist or reactionary. Thomson felt that his own painting and those of other artists he knew and admired, like Billy Childish, Philip Absolom and Bill Lewis, were becoming marginalised and excluded, and he found that outrageous.

‘The art that we were doing, painting, was not establishment art and I knew we’d really have to fight a battle for recognition,’ Thomson remembers. ‘Billy [Childish] had read out this poem in which he recalled that Tracey Emin had insulted him and said that he was “stuck, stuck, stuck” because he was not doing conceptual art. So I suggested to Billy that artists that I liked and thought ought to be promoted join forces and call ourselves Stuckists.’

Ella Guru: The Last Supper
Ella Guru: The Last Supper

There were 13 founding Stuckists – Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and Sexton Ming from The Medway Poets, joined by Philip Absolon, Frances Castle, Sheila Clarke, Eamon Everall, Ella Guru, Wolf Howard, Sanchia Lewis, Joe Machine and Charles Williams. The group appear around the table in Ella Guru’s painting  The Last Supper, with Thomson depicted as Jesus and Childish as Judas. Behind them are some of the other Stuckist groups that emerged later, alongside the original group.

When I say group, I use the word loosely. The Stuckists are more of a network of individuals who come together from time to time to exhibit their work. They are not required to subscribe to ideas in a manifesto (although there is a manifesto, more than one). They don’t necessarily like or agree with each other’s work. And you’re unlikely to recognise a Stuckist by the way they paint.

Charles Thomson in front of Ella Guru's last supper
Charles Thomson features as ‘Jesus’

‘Stuckism is not a style that everyone subscribes to, it’s an ethic, it’s a feeling,’ explains Ella Guru, one of the founder members. ‘Stuckism is about expressing what is happening now using a very old medium, paint. It’s usually figurative and it’s very important for it to be sincere, not gimmicky like conceptual art. It’s about doing your very best.’

The Stuckist Manifesto
After six months in which ‘not very much happened’ things began to move for the Stuckists.

In 1999, They had their first show called Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!  in Gallery 108 in Shoreditch, London. And Thomson and Childish launched the first Stuckist Manifesto, which sought to define who the Stuckists were and what they stood for (and against) http://www.stuckism.com/stuckistmanifesto.html

‘We got completely engrossed in it…rephrasing every sentence…because we knew what we wanted to say about things, but we didn’t know how to say it because nobody had said it before,’ Thomson remembers. ‘And as soon as we launched the manifesto, other people said, yeah, that’s what I think too. They were thinking it but they hadn’t said it, but we said it.’

Some aspects of the manifesto proved controversial. For some,  one statement in particular Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists smacked of arrogance. It seemed to say “if you don’t paint you aren’t an artist”.

Charles Thomson: Pointing Woman, Owl, Knight
Charles Thomson: Pointing Woman, Owl, Knight

Thomson points out that that was never what was meant.

‘It’s  a complete logical contradiction, because if you are an artist how can you not be an artist?’ he asks. ‘If we’d wanted to say “if you don’t paint you aren’t an artist” we would have said it. The manifesto was a real mixture, some of it was deliberately provocative, some of it was profound but there was nothing there that wasn’t meant in some way or another. But with that particular statement we were appearing to say something but simultaneously contradicting it, knowing full well that people would make a superficial interpretation of it.’

Jasmine Surreal: Alien Cat
Jasmine Surreal: Alien Cat

Nonetheless, painting is at the heart of Stuckism and the Stuckists are all painters first and foremost, although some also work in other media. For example, Jasmine Surreal, founder of the now defunct Merseyside Stuckists, which also included Liverpool artist Andrew Galbraith http://andrewgalbraith.co.uk/ has recently moved from painting to video because her health makes it increasingly difficult for her to continue painting. https://youtu.be/-YTn4Vohqjk

‘I became a Stuckist in 2008,’ Jasmine explains. ‘I’m a surrealist and there weren’t many outlets for my whacky, eccentric paintings and I wanted to be part of an organisation that had a broader outlook on things.’

Since then, Jasmine has been involved in over 30 shows including, in 2014, her own show Fantasy Reality: Paintings by Jasmine Surreal and Her Toy Cats at the Trispace Gallery in Bermondsey, London, curated by Charles Thomson. https://youtu.be/rMDdW6LHwyc

If some aspects of The Stuckist Manifesto are open to interpretation and debate, there is no mistaking what the Stuckists were against – ‘Britart’, ‘ego art’, conceptual art.

Charles Thomson: Man in Top Hat 10
Charles Thomson: Man in Top Hat 10

And while some Stuckists can see something of value in conceptual art – Ella Guru admires Grayson Perry’s pots and has written in her blog (2017) that when seen in real life Rachel Whiteread’s installations  were ‘cast in materials that take some knowledge and skill’ http://ellaguruart.com/?p=1371 – for Charles Thomson and many Stuckists, conceptual art has no value.

Thomson cites Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s basic psychological functions – intuition, sensation, thinking and feeling – to explain the balance that must be present for him in a ‘complete art work’. He claims that conceptual art can never be complete and can never, therefore, be ‘good art’.

‘Conceptual art cuts out emotion because there is this theoretical background to it that justifies its existence,’ Thomson explains. It cannot justify its existence by itself. It negates emotions and emotions are the heart of art and of human life. There’s obviously a spectrum, but the closer you get to a complete art, the closer you get to a painting, until, eventually, you end up with a painting.’

 

Protesting against the Turner Prize
Charles Thomson: Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision
Charles Thomson: Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision
The Stuckists received significant media attention for their Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!  exhibition largely because it  was a reaction to the Tracey Emin insult. Also, by coincidence, during the same year, Tracey Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize.  Charles Thomson’s painting Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision (2000) satirised Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize nominated installation My Bed (1999).

From then on, the Turner Prize at Tate Britain became a key rallying point for the Stuckists.
In 2000, they launched their own alternative event The REAL Turner Prize Show and, as an adjunct to this, staged their first anti-Turner Prize demonstration outside Tate Britain. These demonstrations, which were held each year from 2000, whenever the Prize was staged in London, had two aims: to declare the movement’s serious opposition to conceptual art and, at the same time, cynically perhaps, to drum up some valuable publicity for their movement.

 

Stuckist Turner Prize demo at Tate Britain, 5 Oct 2009. From left: Shelley Li, Edgeworth Johnstone, Jane Kelly, Anon, Daniel Pincham-Phipps, Joe Machine
2009 Turner Prize demonstration

‘It’s no good relying on good art to win through by itself,’ Charles Thomson asserts. ‘If you want anybody to take any notice of the art, you have to get the attention of the media. We just took advantage of that. The Tate gets the press along. We turn up and do a demo and they feature us.’

This entertaining piece written by Jasmine Surreal for 3:AM Magazine, on behalf of the Stuckists, juxtaposes a Stuckist’s view of the 2010 Turner Prize contenders with what the Tate had to say about them. http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/abandon-art-all-ye-who-enter-here/

 

In 2001, Billy Childish left the Stuckists saying that there was too much of the work and public persona of the movement that he couldn’t relate to, as he explains in this brief interview with Charles Thomson https://youtu.be/ND5JfGLaZP4

 

But the public face of Stuckists was in fact extremely effective in drawing attention to their work. The press coverage of their clown demonstrations  generated interest, although the reaction of art critics, with a couple of exceptions, remained extremely hostile. Undeterred, the Stuckists continued to paint and exhibit.

 

The Stuckists Punk Victorian, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2004.
The Stuckists Punk Victorian show

In 2004, a curator from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool who had heard about the Stuckists through their protests, got in touch with Charles Thomson. The Stuckists Punk Victorian exhibition was held at the Walker as part of the 2004 Liverpool Biennial. It was the first national gallery exhibition of Stuckist art, featuring over 250 paintings by 37 Stuckist artists from the UK and around the world.

Cleaning up the art establishment
Of course, as Charles Thomson concedes, the clown protests were never a serious threat to the Turner Prize but other Stuckist interventions have hit harder.

In 2004, claiming a shortage of funds, the Tate appealed to artists to donate work to the gallery’s national collection. The Stuckists offered a donation of 160 paintings previously exhibited at the Walker Gallery. Tate Director Nicholas Serota said that he would put the offer to the trustees. In July 2005, Serota replied, rejecting the offer and commenting, “[The Board of Trustees] do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection”.
Stuckist demo at Tate Britain, Dec 2008. From left: Steve King, Charles Thomson, Jane Kelly, Shelley Li, Edgeworth Johnstone
2008 Turner Prize demonstration

The letter angered Thomson and prompted him to look into the Tate’s acquisitions procedure. He discovered that, at the time the Stuckists’ offer was being considered, the Tate had been seeking funds to buy The Upper Room, a work by Chris Ofili, one of the Tate trustees, who had rejected the Stuckist donation. Thomson contacted the press about what he saw as a conflict of interest. The Charity Commission launched an investigation and concluded that the Tate had broken the law. The Tate trustees were forced to apologise and to reform their acquisition policies.

Charles Thomson continues to be exercised by ‘the way things are done’ in the established art world. He quotes Robert Hiscox, art collector and former chairman of Hiscox Insurance, who referred to the art world as “the last unregulated financial market”.

‘You can do things in the art world that would get you in prison in the financial world at large,’ Thomson remarks.

'Crazy over You', Charles Thomson solo show, TriSpace Gallery, London
Charles Thomson solo show ‘Crazy Over You’

But Thomson’s appetite for protest and publicity has waned. These days he prefers to leave the politics to others, and to concentrate instead on his poetry – he is planning a new collection of over 400 poems written in the last few months – and his painting. His style has changed over the years from meticulous outlines and flat colours, to a more spontaneous style with broken colours and broad brush strokes.

‘After 20 years of Stuckism I feel jaded at the moment with some aspects – the publicity, the interviews, you can only do so much of that,’ he explains. ‘During the last demo at the Tate, two years ago, I turned up as an observer but I refused to hold a placard and I felt such a relief at not having to protest.’

Joe Machine: One from his 'Sailors' series
Joe Machine: One from his ‘Sailors’ series

Becoming ‘established enough’
The Stuckists are now established enough not to rely on the publicity their political activities provided.

‘I’ve always known that all the media stuff was ephemeral,’ Charles Thomson reflects. ‘It was a launch. It was like a booster on a rocket that catapults it into space and then drops away. And that has been done.’

After 20 years, Stuckism is on its way to becoming recognised as a major, mainstream art movement.  ‘It is phenomenal to have an art movement that has lasted that long,’ Thomson observes.

Painting has had something of a resurgence, partly because of the Stuckists, who Thomson believes were ahead of the game.

Ella Guru: Lamentation at the Cave (2020)
Ella Guru: Lamentation at the Cave (2020)

Members of the original Stuckists, such as Ella Guru whose painting was disparaged at art school as ‘shallow’ because she had no concept to explain,  and Joe Machine  who believes that painting saved him from a life of crime, now enjoy successful careers as artists.  Paintings by the Stuckists have become sought after by some significant collectors.

‘Even the people who have left and now want nothing to do with Stuckism – Stella Vine, Gina Bold, Billy Childish – will still be seen as Stuckists,’ Thomson claims. ‘Salvador Dali was kicked out of the Surrealists but, it doesn’t matter what you say, he is still a Surrealist. Billy, Stella and the others, their work is so embedded in Stuckism, what else can they be classified as?’

Even the critics – or at least Jonathan Jones of The Guardian newspaper – has conceded that the Stuckists might have point in their defence of painting https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2011/mar/31/painting-stuckists-modern-british-art 

There are over 250 Stuckist groups in over 50 countries now and Stuckism is included in the curriculum of many mainstream academic art courses. The Stuckist Manifesto is featured in the Penguin Classic, 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists (2011)

Charles Thomson believes that Stuckism now has its own momentum and ‘is just established enough’ no longer to need his leadership and direction to survive.

‘Stuckism is like a ship – the hard part was building it – but now it is launched,’ he states. ‘It’s got its own engine. It’s got its own crew and it is sailing!’

Links

Ella Guru and Charles Thomson in front of 'The Last Supper'
Ella Guru and Charles Thomson

In this blog post, Ella Guru, explains the back story for her painting The Last Supper which is the feature picture for this post https://youtu.be/ND5JfGLaZP4
There is also an extensive and detailed analysis of it by Charles Thomson in the book An Antidote to the Ghastly Turner Prize (Victoria Press, 2010)

 

 

 

Stuckists
Stuckism on Wikipedia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuckism
Stuckism template on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Stuckism_International
Stuckism website  http://stuckism.com/
Stuckism website contents http://stuckism.com/index(contents).html#Contents

 

 

Charles Thomson
http://www.stuckism.com/thomson/index.html

 

 

 

 

Ella Guru: Cathedral Dress


Ella Guru

http://ellaguruart.com/
Coming soon to this blog, Stuckism 3: Ella Guru talks about her art. Here’s a taster https://youtu.be/Qwpan5iIXsU 

 

 

 

 

 

Joe Machine
https://www.joemachineart.com/
Coming soon to this blog Stuckism 2: Joe Machine talks about his art journey. Here’s a little taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YmnGqMNf2k

 

 

 

 

Jasmine…….and Felicity

Jasmine Surreal
Interview with Jasmine in 2014
http://www.criticismism.com/2014/11/19/interview-jasmine-surreal/#sthash.0dFRpZta.dpbs
Work
http://stuckism.com/Surreal/index.html
Toy cat/spoof videos:
Rod Cat Stewart, Do Ya Think I’m Sexy toy cat parody!  https://youtu.be/gED4v2hyts0
Wet Paint! Parody of David Bowie Let’s Dance – Serious Magnolia, the serious Magnolia! https://youtu.be/L1hFL0A4gE0