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’.
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 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.
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….’
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.’
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.
‘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”.
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.’
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.
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’.
From then on, the Turner Prize at Tate Britain became a key rallying point for the Stuckists.
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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!’
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)
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
Interview with Jasmine in 2014
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