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Ella Guru: Ambiguity, theatre and disguise

Over the last couple of months my blog has focused on the Stuckists. So far there have been two posts. The first looks at the history of the Stuckists. The second features the art of founder Stuckist, Joe Machine

Ella Guru: Phoenix
Ella Guru: Phoenix

This third and final blog about the Stuckists (for now at least) features Ella Guru: artist, musician, photographer and a founding member of the Stuckists.

Art school
Ella, who has been drawing all her life, grew up in Ohio. She hated high school and during her final two years, spent half a day a week at a vocational school for commercial art.

She went on to study art at Columbus College of Art and Design, on a three-year scholarship and, for the first two ‘foundation’ years, did really well. Students were graded according to the amount of work they did. Ella completed all the assignments and got good marks.

In her third year, Ella chose to specialise in ‘fine art. The feedback she received from her tutors left her feeling deflated.

‘The third year is when the tutors tell you what they really think,’ she explains. ‘I was doing large paintings of naked bodies in symmetrical mandala shapes. But because I had no ‘concepts’ or anything to say about my work, the tutors shot me down. I was a full on Goth at the time. They looked at me, my work and my lack of ‘concepts’, and basically they said I was superficial and should just go hang out in bars and clubs. That there was no substance to me as an ‘artist.’’

Ella Guru: Lucha Britannia
Ella Guru: Lucha Britannia

‘The funny thing,’ she continues, ‘is that I did hang out in nightclubs and went on to make a living from painting nightlife, so who’s laughing now!’  This page on Ella’s blog is dedicated to her nightlife paintings.

In 1987, Ella moved to London for the first time where she ‘lived in squats, went out clubbing and had a great time’. Eventually, she returned to Ohio and completed her degree in Fine Art and Photography at the Ohio State University. When she returned to England, art took a backseat as Ella got involved with the music scene.

‘My life was all over the place at that time, ‘ Ella remembers. ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in the UK or go back to the US. So, I never planned to do music rather than art at that time. It’s just that music happened instead.’

michael S marks: Deptford Beach Babes michaelm@zenfolio.com
© michael S marks: Deptford Beach Babes michaelm@zenfolio.com

Music
In the early ’90s Ella played guitar and sang in two all-girl Indie rock bands: MamboTaxi  https://youtu.be/_6sXxX_1_SU and the Voodoo Queens, who reached number one in the Indie Charts in 1993. https://youtu.be/hXXdW2PK-Uc .

In 1995, Ella formed the Deptford Beach Babes  with one of the former Voodoo Queens. The band played together until Ella left London in 2013.

‘It started as a surf music 3-piece instrumental band.’ Ella says, ‘and then morphed into sometimes having eight or nine people on stage, borrowing musicians from other local London bands.’  https://youtu.be/aN9p9IFEIg8

Sexton Ming & Ella Guru wedding
Sexton and Ella’s wedding

Sexton Ming, beehives and Stuckism
It was 1996 when Ella’s flatmate introduced her to Sexton Ming http://www.stuckism.com/ming/ who would later become her husband. They married, both in drag, in 2001.

‘I met this shy, short bloke and I didn’t think anything of it,’ Ella remembers. ‘Then I travelled round Europe for six months on my bike. I met some people in Switzerland who said, “Oh, you’re from London, do you know Sexton Ming?”. So when I got back home, I said to my flatmate, I want to meet Sexton Ming.

Ella Guru, Dusty, Queens Head Amsterdam, 1999
Ella Guru, Dusty, Queens Head Amsterdam, 1999

‘When we first met properly, it was in a Wethersoons. I was influenced by his slap-dash, freakish drag and The Offset  group that he was part of (the remains of Leigh Bowery’s Minty).  I started painting Sexton in a beehive wig and then I started painting everyone in a beehive wig. Those large close-up, almost pop-art beehive paintings captured my new relationship with Sexton and the friends we had at the time. It was a time of great fun and humour. Around the time when Stuckism formed.’

Sexton Ming was a member of The Medway Poets, several of whom, later, became one of the original 13 founding members of the Stuckists. As Ming’s girlfriend, Ella also became involved. https://duncangrantartist.com/2020/08/16/stuckism-the-birth-of-an-international-art-non-movement/

‘Stuckism spoke to me because at art college I wasn’t doing conceptual art, I was doing painting and that wasn’t conceived as being real or important,’ Ella explains. ‘So I related to the whole idea of Stuckism.’

Ella Guru: Beehive, 1999
Ella Guru: Beehive, 1999

Ella’s early paintings were made using whatever medium she could find. Her later work uses more traditional materials for ‘simple and practical reasons’ she says.

‘My early pictures were all charcoal and house paint on paper, so very fragile.  Around the late 90s, I started using acrylic or oil on canvas. I realised that if I ever intended to sell work it needed to be more permanent.’

Hanging out in nightclubs

Ella Guru: Masked Ball, 2008
Ella Guru: Masked Ball, 2008

In 2007, The Urban Voodoo Machine’s club Gypsy Hotel  started. This club included burlesque and circus performers as well as bands. It was a new time for Ella in London and she took great inspiration from this and other nightlife. The Last Tuesday Society held masked balls in a five-storey townhouse near Covent Garden and Ella began painting nightclub scenes.

‘It wasn’t a great leap in some ways as I had always been painting subjects dressed up and costumed,’ Ella remarks. ‘My early Stuckist paintings were all drag portraits in beehive wigs. Whether male or female, they were all doing drag. So making busier paintings was just a step up, a challenge.’

Ella Guru: Saturday Night at the Windmill, Brixton, 2003
Ella Guru: Saturday Night at the Windmill, Brixton, 2003

Saturday night at the Windmill Brixton was Ella’s first complex painting about nightlife.

‘It was a sci-fi theme night held by Brixton band Naked Ruby,’ Ella remembers. ‘The background figures are from my band the Deptford Beach Babes and Naked Ruby.’

It was at clubs such as Gypsy Hotel  and The Last Tuesday Society  that Ella met many of the models who would appear in her later paintings.

Ella Guru: The Chariot
Ella Guru: The Chariot

‘Most of my models have come from some kind of nightlife or performing role,’ she explains.

Because of the pandemic, the nightclubs that Ella used to frequent and paint now lie empty.

‘I heard the phrase “Plague year 1” a few days ago.  It fills me with despair that all of what I once painted will soon be no more,’ Ella reflects.

Tarot
In 2012, Stuckist Elsa Dax curated the Stuckist Major Arcana Tarot deck, where each of the 22 cards was designed by a different artist. As well as contributing a card to the project, in 2013, Ella decided to paint her own version of all 22 cards, charting her own personal and spiritual journey.  You can view Ella’s Tarot cards and read some of the stories behind them on her blog http://ellaguruart.com/?projects=tarot

The Tarot project coincided with Ella’s decision to move with her family from their flat in East London to a new home in Hastings, in East Sussex, where she lives now. This major life change heralded a change of direction for Ella’s art.

Ella Guru: The Hanged Man
Ella Guru: The Hanged Man

‘I was working on my Tarot when we moved here,’ she explains. ‘I painted half of the Major Arcana in London and half in Hastings. It was the story of my own journey and this is where the symbolism that is a feature of my later paintings began.  I did a lot of research for each of the Major Arcana and somewhere I have scribbled notes for some cards but a lot of it has been forgotten now.’

While the meaning of many of the Tarot cards is hidden to some extent because the context is personal and particular to Ella, some tell a story that can be ‘read’ by everyone. The Justice Tarot card portrays a young man in Hackney, East London.

Ella Guru: Justice
Ella Guru: Justice

‘In this painting I am definitely talking about racism and the unfairness of stop-and-search,’ Ella says. ‘It is based on a true story. The left of the canvas shows police doing a stop-and-search. This young man was so fed up with the way he and his peers were being treated that he went to Cambridge -pictured on the right – to study law so he could come back and defend them. On his first break back from university, he was again stopped by the police. He showed them his Cambridge ID.’

Reinterpreting the familiar
Ella’s later paintings are quite different from her early Stuckist paintings, featuring close-up heads in broad strokes  of house paint.

Her recent work, which resembles traditional-style oil paintings, feature scenes from nightclubs, reimagines Old Masters or retells myths or stories from the Bible. Ella describes her later work as ‘insanely complex, symbol-laden, hyper-detailed’.

Ella Guru: Head of Duncan DeMorgan, 2009
Ella Guru: Head of Duncan DeMorgan, 2009

Her first direct homage to an Old Master was Head of Duncan DeMorgan, after Caravaggio’s Head of John the Baptist.

My “twist” was to use contemporary nightclub performers as biblical characters,’ Ella says.

She also painted a version of The Last Supper featuring the Stuckists, featured in an earlier blog and then Backyard Crucifixion.

Ella Guru: Backyard Crucifixion, 2016
Ella Guru: Backyard Crucifixion, 2016

‘I don’t parody or mock, but rather reimagine the scenes in a modern setting,’ Ella explains. ‘The ambiguity in my paintings is intentional and, so far, no Christians have been offended by my biblical interpretations. One acquaintance said of my Backyard Crucifixion that it looks like the women have come to cut Christ down from the cross. Don’t mess with them. They mean business.’

Her paintings are produced in several stages.

‘I’ll maybe look at an Old Master or a selection of Old Masters and decide how I want to do my version,’ she explains. ‘Then I’ll stage them. I’ll pose the models and photograph them. Often models bring their own costumes, which become part of the painting. For Backyard Crucifixion the models were in cowboy boots and Converse, which totally worked in the paining. I like to throw these odd, modern items into pictures.

Ella Guru: Whores of Babylon
Ella Guru: Whores of Babylon

‘And then everything is laid out in Photoshop before I transfer it to canvas. Some paintings are created from just one photograph  but many others, like The Whores of Babylon are posed and photographed separately and then put together on the computer.’

Ella Guru: Siamese Twins, 2010

As you get to know Ella’s work you’ll notice that the same models reappear in many of her paintings. Look out for Amanda Steele, who has appeared as Salome, Mary Magdalene, as Siamese twins for New York writer Alex Goetchius’s Max and the Siamese Twins (left), and in Ella’s Tarot card, Temperance.

Below, Ella talks in a little more detail about three of her more recent paintings:

Le Pustra’s Kabarett der Namenlosen v3
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 54″  2019 
Ella Guru: Le Pustra's Kabarett der Namenlosen v3
Ella Guru: Le Pustra’s Kabarett der Namenlosen v3

Le Pustra’s Kabarrett Der Namenlosen is an immersive and interactive theatre show, a blending of contemporary burlesque performance and Weimar Republic Cabaret Culture. I was at the first run in Berlin in 2016.

At least half the show is in German, of which I understand very little, so I can’t actually follow much of the dialogue, monologues or even some of the songs. This does not matter to me though as I make my own interpretation of the show. It means something to me that is probably not the same to anyone else.

This show captures the dark undertones of seedy city life, the desperation for real emotion and connection, but instead we have a stage full of outrageous characters who take turns to entertain the audience as well as each other. There are always several characters on stage.

The first painting I did of the Kabarrett Der Namenlosen was bought by the theatre where the show is held. My client in Prague saw the image online and commissioned me to paint a second version. And then two years later, commissioned a third.

I think people don’t understand what goes into these paintings. They don’t understand what is going on in that room… the rooms in our heads. It’s not a mechanical thing. It’s not just doing an illustration.

In order to paint any picture I have to be 100% into it. When the client asks me to do another version of a painting, I have to change it enough to make it interesting. Painting two versions of the same painting is not that difficult. But a third? What could I possible do differently?

Le Pustra’s Kabarrett Der Namenlosen is great because it says something to me personally that may be unique to me. If others feel the same, each brings his, her or their own perspective to it. It is much more than a cabaret show. And therein lies that belief that it is up to each of us to appreciate a piece of art in our ways.

The shows and the paintings are a dark exploration of the soul.

During lockdown Le Pustra and one of the cast, Reverso, did an Instagram chat about Reverso’s performance within Kabarett Der Namenlosen. Reverso is the one slitting his own throat in the painting. His performance is called “Deceptive Beauty”.

“For me I like to hear what people have to say about it, rather than me telling them,”  Reverso says.

Reverso is saying what I think, that it’s not about the artist explaining in words what they are doing, but rather that people can bring their own interpretation to what the artist is doing.

I feel the same about my paintings. Especially the ones of the Kabarett der Namenlosen. So if you are looking for an ‘explanation’ of my art , there isn’t one. Perhaps this is why I found that 3rd year art college review so difficult. But I really do not believe that good art requires an ‘explanation’. If anything, for me good art is art that does not require explaining but reaches the soul of the viewer on more of a visceral level.

Cathedral dress
Oil on canvas, 135x 110 cm, finished May 2020

Ella Guru: Cathedral Dress
Ella Guru: Cathedral Dress

In this painting I’m wearing  the Cathedral Dress,  which is wearable sculpture by Liam Brandon Murray

For this one, the shoot was in the Truman Brewery where the dress was on display as part of the Modern Panic X exhibition. It was November 2019.

I tried on the dress during the launch night. Wearable Art Sculptor Liam Brandon Murray suggested I paint myself in his new dress. The previous year I had painted my daughter in another Liam Brandon Murray dress.

So one day before the show opened, I took the dress into the warehouse behind the gallery and had my friend and muse Amanda Steele take photos of me in the dress. I had some commissions to finish, so the Photoshop layout for the new Cathedral Dress painting was not started until 4 February 2020.

The painting was begun on 3 March 2020. All elements and symbols were in place before the pandemic broke.

All detail had been decided in the weeks before, yet the picture seems to be all about the current situation: the foreboding symbols of the candle blown out; the house of cards collapsing; the hour glass running out; the clock with no hands; the cat with a mouse in its teeth. The rhododendron and tuberose flowers also symbolise danger and impending doom. Even the dirty window somehow feels like a reference to lockdown, as does the dress itself. If we all wore dresses like this, ‘social distancing’ would not be a problem.

Lamentation at the cave
Oil on canvas, 48″ x 54″,  2020

Ella Guru: Lamentation at the Cave
Ella Guru: Lamentation at the Cave

This was the second piece I painted during lockdown and the third in the Lamentation series.

The photo shoot for this painting was in January 2019. So while the six figures shown were posed before the pandemic, the painting has added elements of our strange times.

I began this painting in May 2020. The UK had been in lockdown for two months. The people are huddled together in mourning, something that no one has been able to do during Covid-19.  Many lives have been lost, and even more people denied the process of saying goodbye to their loved ones.

The Virgin Mary is absent from this version. Drag artist Virgin Extravaganza was present at the shoot but did not join this huddle as the bloody James (Jesus) would have ruined their outfit. However, when I painted the picture, it was quarantine time and Virgin was in the USA doing drag shows from their high school parking lot. I have represented the shows on the iPhone, bottom right corner.

The cat is one of the studio cats who always wander into the photo shoots. [Ella writes about cats in her art in her blog  Put a cat in it]

A few of the added details come from a Facebook group called Zombie Nation Art Challenge. The random Toad Familiar, bottom left, is one of those. The empty bottle labelled “Djinn” (gin) is another.

The beach setting is Fairlight, Hastings, East Sussex, only accessible by water or at low tide.

The bat (top left) is a reference to Covid-19. At one point it was said that ‘bat shit’ could be one possible origin of the virus. ‘Batshit’ has other meanings, too. References to the state of the world in general, social media, etc.

The bee crawling on a piece of rotting fruit symbolizes corruption of the body or the onset of disease and death. Often depicted to remind the onlooker of their own mortality.

One final note about this painting and viruses. The day I did the photo shoot for this painting I was sick. I had arranged the photo shoot in London with about eight models and I did not want to cancel (oh how times have changed!). I was sure it wasn’t flu as I get the flu jab every year. I refused to hug or shake anyone’s hand. I use a long lens so was never too close to the models although they were close to each other. No one at the shoot, not even the people I was staying with, got sick following that weekend.


Find out more or follow Ella
Website: http://ellaguruart.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ellaguru.artist
Instagram: ellaguruart
Twitter:@EllaGuruArt

Ella still has a few Tarot decks for sale: https://ellaguruart.bigcartel.com/category/tarot-cards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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