This interview first appeared in Torpedo Issue 5, 2009
I was in London last August and went to the Tate Modern, and you were everywhere.
Yeah, I did some promotional work for them. I didn’t think too hard about it when I was doing it, and somehow I ended up all over the Tate.
They were hawking your books pretty hard in the shop.
It was kind of a nice thing to do in a way, although it’s much better being in the actual collection, than just doing the drawings to encourage people to join the Tate.
It’s hard to imagine the National Gallery here in Melbourne housing anything like what the Tate has. The collection is pretty conservative – they still make a hoo-ha about the Jackson Pollock they bought back in the sixties.
Well I suppose the Tate is a major national collection. In my mind New York has a much greater collection though.
You’ve been in a few New York shows recently – the Kern Gallery for example.
Yeah, I was in a few shows at that gallery. I was in a show at MOMO actually, about a year or so ago. They had some of my printmaking.
Do you enjoy those sorts of shows, getting invited to openings and so on?
Sometimes. When I’m involved in a group show, I don’t tend to go but when I’m doing a solo exhibition, I usually go. I’ve been to New York quite a lot and shown there quite a number of times over the past few years. I kind of enjoy it, but I guess it’s part of what I do. The first time you have a solo exhibition in New York it seems impossibly glamorous, but after a few times, it becomes business. I love New York though.
Your books were fairly flying off the shelves at the Tate. It’s a bit of a long-standing tradition for an artist to have a ‘chapbook’, which is essentially what you’re doing.
The publishing is quite a small deal. I’ve been published by the same guy for more than 10 years now. It’s sort of a tradition with me. I do one book every year. They don’t sell a huge amount, but they go pretty far afield. As far as artist’s books go, they probably sell pretty well. I guess the payback for that is that I can do whatever I want, whereas if I published with someone bigger, I’d have to toe the line a bit more.
You must be pretty prolific to be able to produce a book every year. Do you draw every day?
No, not every day. I go through stages where I don’t want to do it all the time, or I’d just get bored of it, but when I’m working on something I go through quite intense periods of making the work, then I stop for a while. I mean, I draw a lot.
Are you disciplined? Do you keep a routine if you’re working on something particular?
Yeah, I try to put the hours in, eight hours a day, six days a week if I’ve got something to do. That usually seems to nail it. There’s one thing I do everyday though, and that’s check my emails.
The whole world’s addicted.
It is. That’s the one thing I’m glued to is the computer, like it or not. Look, I haven’t really done an intense period of drawing for a while, just because I’ve been involved in exhibitions and 3D work. I’ve got a residency coming up in Stockholm and I’m kind of saving my next book for that period. I do like drawing though, it makes me happy.
I was watching the video you did for Blur recently, which is very funny.
That was a while ago. I did a few back then, but that was it. No more record company work for me.
Have you ever thought about collaborating with writers?
I do collaborate from time to time with other artists, but it’s generally just a social thing. I did a title sequence for a movie a few years ago, Hallam Foe. That was directed by a friend of mine and they edited it just around the corner. I’m not really a collaborator in terms of my work. Most of the work I’m well known for is done in a solitary fashion, without anyone else being involved. I mean, there are certain people I’d like to collaborate with. I really enjoyed doing the Blur video, because that was a collaboration with the animators. I’ve got about a squillion projects to do at any given time, so apart from all the things I’ve said I’ll do with people, there’s a list of things I actually should be doing. Collaboration is a way of meeting people and enjoying their company, because sometimes you can be a bit too solitary as an artist, particularly the kind of artist that I am you end up in your own company all day and it’s probably not very good for your mental health.
What’s it like living in Glasgow these days? I lived in Scotland in the early nineties and I remember Glasgow being named ‘European City of Culture’, much to the amusement of everyone.
I think Glasgow’s changed. The art world has flourished and become a lot bigger. There are many more artists and artist-run spaces. There’s still no art infrastructure, there’s no good museums, no good art galleries, there’s very little there. The museum of modern art is very provincial – it’s a curious legacy from a previous arts regime, really nothing to be proud of. On the surface Glasgow probably appears more affluent because there are certain parts of the city that have posh shops and posh apartments, which is much like most British cities but I think the city is generally as poor as it ever was and I’m not sure where all these supposedly affluent people have come from. Glasgow is still a bit of a jungle on a Friday and Saturday night.
I used to be in fear of my life walking up Sauchiehall Street at the weekend.
It’s not pleasant, there’s no two ways about it. I’d much rather be walking up the street in Berlin. In a lot of ways it’s a real dump. But then again, there’s a DIY arts culture here which is really engaging and engaged. For me, I have a lot of friends here, a lot of things to do, a lot of bands to go and see, young artists doing small exhibitions. I’ve lived here for 20 years, so it would be quite hard to go somewhere else. But then, nowhere’s perfect.
I lived in Newcastle in the north of England for 3 years and at the time they were opening up the Baltic, a huge old mill that had been regenerated into a contemporary art space. Do you think that has the effect of allowing working class people to realise they can make an impact on the art world?
I think the opening of a space like that does change a city. We could really do with an arts centre like that in Glasgow. It would be a very positive thing, but then again the fine art community in Glasgow has flourished without there being any support network from the city or the state. The art community here has produced and continues to produce many fine artists who go on to exhibit internationally, and it’s not just to do with the art school either, it’s the fact that people stay after school because they’re supported by this self-perpetuating network.
What’s your studio space like?
I’ve got a room in my apartment with a big desk where I do all my drawing. I’ve also got a bathtub in there at the moment, because we’re renovating the bathroom. Then I have a workshop space in a studio complex a little way from where I live, where I make sculptural work. I can do most things I want down there. I go down and make a mess and it’s really cold. What I have is quite modest, but it seems to work.
Have you seen any imitators of your work? Do you think you’re at the stage where that is starting to happen?
I don’t really care, to be honest. I pity people who do, put it that way. People say ‘I saw an advert on TV, either you did that or they’re ripping you off’ and then I’ll see the advert and to me it looks nothing like my work because I’m not really into the stylistic aspect of what I do, it’s not really supposed to be an illustrative style, it’s more about content. I just try to render the content as economically as possible. I’m not the first person to draw in a childish way. There are generations of children drawing that way and I really don’t lay claim to originality as far as my graphic style is concerned. The content is mine and that’s something I’m perhaps more precious about.
Do you forget about your work after you’ve done it?
I always feel that the next thing I’m doing is going to be great, so everything I’ve just done I tend to forget about a bit and I have to be prodded to make sure it’s documented. Perhaps I’ll only appreciate it when I go back a couple of years later. The process that you go through all the time is this one whereby you’re working on the next exhibition, the next obligation, which is a good way to be. If there was nothing coming up, I guess that would be a bit depressing. Otherwise I don’t know what I’d do. Sit at home and play on the internet all day maybe. Or watch Prison Break.
What writers or artists do you admire at the moment?
I have quite a voracious appetite for all forms of culture. One of the last shows I saw that I really enjoyed was an exhibition in New York of David Altmejd. He made these giant figurative sculptures that were ornately detailed. It was beautiful work. That was the exhibition I enjoyed most last year. The last thing I read was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. I think I’m a bit of a snob, in that I won’t read any pulp – only middle brow literature, no Carl Hiaasen or anything like that. I’m a big collector of music though. I buy a lot of records and see a lot of bands.
I do want to ask you about Adam and the Ants.
Yes, I was an antperson.
So was I. I remember getting in trouble for painting a white stripe across the bridge of my nose with Tippex and having to take the day off school.
Yeah, we all did that. They were a great band. I was looking on Wikipedia recently to see what had happened to all the members of the band. I think Adam Ant is now blind, and bipolar, in a terrible state.
Yeah, I read he hit someone with a shovel and was committed to an asylum for a while. I guess there’ll be no Adam and the Ants reunion.
Well maybe there will. But he is actually blind now, I think.
Have you got fond memories of the early ‘80s?
That was when I first started listening to music, buying seven inch singles at Woolworths. Not that I think very fondly of the eighties. I don’t really understand the resurgence of twentysomethings buying Huey Lewis. I never liked him at the time and I’m certainly not going to listen to him now. I mean there’s obviously something deeply ironic in youngsters listening to that stuff – it’s hip to be square.
Have you seen that Altman movie, Short Cuts? Huey Lewis plays one of the three men who find the dead girl in the river and keep on fishing. Here’s Lewis in his first movie role, standing atop a rock, taking a piss into the river. So you actually get to see Huey Lewis’s cock.
Well you know, method acting.
That was it for me. I could never look at Huey Lewis the same way again.
Now you’ve seen his cock.
I never thought I would.
Look, I don’t wish Huey Lewis ill. I just never liked his records.