Hi Ben. How do you create your incredible works?
I went to art school aged 15 and have basically been in my studio ever since (over 50 years). I am always trying to find new subjects, exploring and questioning my process, trying to find the most appropriate method to convey my enthusiasms.
I have increasingly pursued more detail and this has lead to intricate stencil making. For example, in The Room of the Revolutionary there are two chairs. Each chair is made up of 40 stencils and each stencil takes 2 days to prepare. This means 160 days of preparation before the painting starts and the chairs are just a small area of the canvas. In this sort of situation I will work with assistants to share the workload. They are usually recent art graduates or students. I see this as a mutually beneficial collaboration and I feel privileged to be able to work with people just beginning their lives in the world of art. I put in the hours- 9 – 8, 5 days a week- and then visit museums and galleries at the weekend.
You’ve exhibited all over the world- from the Pompidou to the Dubai Art Fair, to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Have you noticed any differences in attitudes towards art?
Each country has its own historical culture that will tend to influence its acceptance of ideas but what I have witnessed is the growth of interest in museum going. They are not seen as ivory towers but as places for social exchange open to all. This is all very positive but the gallery scene does bewilder me (I am still quite naive). Art has increasingly become merged with commodity; signatures are traded and made objects of investment at certain levels.
The Mall Galleries champions figurative art by living British artists. What are the most exciting developments you’ve seen in British figurative art during your extensive career?
When I was at the RCA painting school, abstraction dominated. There was a sense of hierarchy and exclusivity as some painters only respected and looked at others that were commited to their particular area of abstraction. Additionally, painters did not talk to printmakers, printmakers did not talk to illustrators, illustrators did not talk to industrial designers etc… This has all changed for the better. Today there is much more collaboration and exchange of ideas.
Also, an awareness of the social responsibility of the art community has developed. The form and language of a painting is not the main concern, but the content is of greater importance and all forms of communication are legitimate.
What is your favourite type of commission or project?
Big, ambitious, challenging – a commision that forces me to look at and consider a new aspect of life outside the studio and then puts me back in the studio to explore my methods and materials.
My most important project was a commission from the city of Liverpool and the Walker Art Gallery – a cityscape that took 3 years to complete, with a full time team of 6, and the last five weeks completed in public, with an open studio in the gallery. Fifty-one thousand visitors came to watch. I gave a talk every day – to school children, women’s groups, asylum seekers, children with learning difficulties, architects and diverse groups; and for many of them it was the first time they had been in a museum. They had not come to see art but to see how someone was presenting their city that they love so much. Many projects were started in schools and community groups as a result.
It was a very humbling experience. I still have many good friends from that time in the great city and the painting has now been seen by many millions visiting the Museum of Liverpool.
Do you have any tips for art purchasers, both big and small?
Only buy if you love the work and the work is the by-product of love.