Stuart Semple is a British artist who has been wading through the visual soup of contemporary culture since the millennium. In 2009 he caught the attention of a country in economic crisis with his ‘HappyCloud’ project, which sent over 2000 grinning foam clouds floating from Tate Modern over to the financial district. Since then, he’s been painting lurid, crowded canvases, clamouring with the incessant noise of our current image world, from social media and song lyrics to nineties cartoons and advertisements. It’s an approach that led the Financial Times to proclaim him ‘the Basquiat of the noughties’. Semple has just wrapped up a solo show in LA, and another art project in Denver, Colorado, and his works can now be found in the Art on a Postcard shop, and in this year’s Secret Auction.
AL So, your postcards from last year are finally stocked as limited edition prints in the Art on a Postcard shop! Can you tell us a bit about the thought process, and making process, behind the works?
SS Those pieces really came out of some explorations I was doing in my sketchbook last year. I was playing with ideas around things that image makers were promising us, and how discordant those things were with actual products. For example - fashion ads selling the idea of a beach and a pretty girl off the back of clothing. Most of that stuff speaks to a sense of worthlessness and I think that’s really dark.
AL How would you describe your art practice in general?
SS That’s a difficult one. I’d like to think it’s critical but not in a cynical way, and heavily focused around image-making. I’m all about making pictures. That’s so against everything that’s thought of as intellectually sound but the most honest thing I can think to do is to make representational things that reflect the cultural landscape we’re in. I’m so straight up about that. I’m into dealing with the visual quagmire of the here and the now. I enjoy it and I’m not ashamed that my practice is fun.
AL What’s your studio set-up? Can you paint a mental picture for us?
SS It’s basically me on my own for about 10 yours a day listening to music. The painting space is always quite clean and like a science lab. Really just focused on the one picture I’m painting. Then here’s more of an office bit which is full of all sorts of magazines and ideas and computers and stuff.
AL What do you enjoy about working with paint? Particularly since you’re depicting things from digital or technological realms which are seldom given form in paint…
SS I love paint because it’s quite limited as a material and you really can’t control everything about it. It’s good because it can keep gesture; it’s lumpy and runny and tactile. It’s funny because it’s so ridiculously old fashioned and obsolete compared to other technologies. It was the Hollywood special effect of its day and now it’s so limited. It actually feels really rebellious to be locked away painting pictures in this day and age. There’s something really punky about spending time doing that. It’s like sticking two fingers up to a lot of stuff.
It does stand the test of time though! In terms of digital representations it’s interesting because when you move them into paint they become much more permanent and whatever you do they end up taking on some kind of personality. They start to get very physical defects. I like that. Paint pulls things out of the flow of time, but unlike photography, we can have multiple simultaneous moments. It’s lovely. That’s what I love about Warhol’s paintings: he mastered this time-shift possibility. Hockney’s really into it too. Picasso started it. I really like getting covered in paint and coming home with the stuff under my finger nails - it feels like I’ve done a day’s work. I enjoy the physicality of painting. I make quite big things so it’s like a workout. I like going home feeling knackered.
AL You’ve been working with paint manufacturers to design the substances you work with - what drew you to focus on paint colour so closely, and what are you looking for when you’re designing new colours?
SS All my colours have their own uses I suppose. Really the more you work with paint the more you know what you want out of it as a substance. In the old days artists would have their apprentices mix up colour and prepare it. What I’m doing isn’t that much different. It’s nothing clever - it’s just really practical that when I come to use the paint it needs to behave in a useful way. The paints I use aren’t just about the colour palette, they have properties. They are super-flat, ultra-matt, very high pigment. I’m always striving for more violent or extreme colour.
The thing that paint can do that photography and screen-based stuff can’t is colour. You are playing with chemistry and real pigments with paint. A screen is made up of red, green and blue pixels. I’m yet to see decent greens in photographic prints. No book has reproduced a cadmium well in my opinion. Look at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, then look at it in a good book. No comparison. Colour really is at its best in paint because good paint comes from nature.
AL So, in terms of what you use that paint to explore on the canvas, ‘the death of the teenager’ has been a theme in your work. I wondered if you could explain what you mean by that term.
SS It’s not so much that the teenager is dead. It’s more like the concept of a teenager is dead. The way I see it is that as a society we have an unhealthy obsession with youth. This came from the birth of the teenager [in the 20th century]: they had spending power, a freedom in fashion and were clearly removed from the seriousness of their parents. I think now that the teenage moment has grown to consume age groups either side of it. We have children dressing like teens and older adults acting teenage. There are 50 year olds, and 6 year olds, wearing hoodies and listening to hip-hop.
So teenage is no longer defined by physical age - it’s an ageless attitude. Teenage has been consumed into the entirety of culture, so it loses its counter-cultural rebellious edge. Actually what happens is it becomes ineffective as a challenge to the status quo.
The things that used to be teenage, specific physical places to meet up, unique languages and fashion styles, have been absorbed into online heavy surveillance spaces such as Facebook. The privacy that teenagers enjoyed in which to express themselves is now being played out publicly online. This puts a pressure on them to act in predictable and accepted ways.
AL Maybe that ubiquitous term ‘millenial’ is more useful than ‘teenager’ now. Do you consider yourself a ‘millenial’, and how does that word make you feel?
SS I think I do because pre- and post-millennial definitely has a marked difference. I remember standing on the beach in the year 2000 as a 20 year old and feeling like things would be different. I felt that end of the millennium anxiety and it was weird. I think there could be a real optimism and possibility in the millennial idea. Maybe what it is and where it goes hasn’t been defined yet.
AL Spending so much time examining our wider image world, you must have an idea of where it’s headed. What do you think adolescence will be like for your own young child?
SS In all honesty, if it carries on like this… It will be dangerously safe. Prescriptive to the point of boring; lived out in commercial VR spaces, which rather than empower and transcend, instead run on a misguided belief in consumer satisfaction. Basically everything you love will be right in front of you all the time. Experience will be so tailored that you’ll never some across anything other than that which you already know.
AL I’ve really enjoyed reading about your recent exhibition My Sonic Youth in LA. You incorporate a lot of song lyrics into your thought process and practice, often huge tunes from the nineties and beyond, but your head also seems firmly in the present. I wondered if you also listen to new releases to influence your work, and if so, what are you listening this month?
SS It’s so eclectic - it’ll be Tchaikovsky one minute, then a rare Lou Reed, or an 80s hit. It was all new once and the good stuff still works. The classics are classic because they transcend a moment. The Cure will never be old. I’m always open to new stuff. The new Conor Oberst [Ruminations] is good. There’s a great piano set by Francis and The Lights on YouTube - it’s really strong lyrically. I think Christine and the Queens is interesting even though she’s so mass. She’s fun. I like her!