ADAM NEATE INTERVIEWED by BEN JONES : 13th March 2008, Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms.
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“During the Brit Art years I was thinking what could be more shocking than selling halved sheep for a hundred grand? Giving art away for free, would that be shocking? Breaking art down to its constituent elements, devoid of commerce, would that be possible, to separate art from commerce? For me as an artist, losing that sense of preciousness about what you do as you throw things out on the street is really important. The whole concept when I started the free art thing was challenging the notion of art as a commodity and its worth in society blah, blah, blah, and then classic human nature is that people want to make money from it. Years later, people are selling my free paintings for thousands of pounds on ebay so the whole concept collapses in on itself, it’s a weird feeling.”
At the 2007 Frieze Art Fair, American cultural critic Dave Hickey gave a keynote lecture about the state of the contemporary market and selling art without selling out. “This is a great moment for young artists”, he observed wryly, “there are collectors out there who like art more than money, and there are a lot of artists who like money better than art. This is kind of a problem, but consider the benefit. There has never been a better chance to draw attention to oneself by acting honourably, honestly and meticulously. Now is the time for young artists to stand out”.
It’s already a well-established chapter of urban lore: the gift that Adam Neate made as an unknown artist to London’s streets in the form of paintings left on pavements over a period of years, leaning against traffic lights, stacked against lamp-posts, lying perilously close to bins at the side of the road, or propped up against the low walls and benches frequented by street drinkers.
At heart, Neate is in many ways the antidote to the contemporary art market’s increasing emphasis on product over process. Made on cardboard, these vulnerable art objects, often depicting stylised tribal-looking heads and figures, must have seemed other-worldly to the few passing pedestrians who stopped to consider their careworn demeanour. Were these remnants of a geographically removed street culture, like the votive offerings known as milagres (miracles) you’d expect to see at a roadside shrine in South America, home-made paintings and sculptures put there to thank a deity for its miraculous intervention into an illness or injury? Curious coincidence that years later, after marrying a Brazilian street artist whom he met doing graffiti on the South Bank (Neate’s 2004 mural Moving Units – long since covered over – was signed “to Picasso and Waleska”), Neate now divides his time between London and Brazil where the ex-voto paintings of anonymous artists, with their mix of Catholic folk art and residual African tribalism, are a daily sight.
“For my paintings in the past, when I would spend a month doing a hundred pieces for the streets, it would just be a flow of painting and pure expression and feeling going into the work and just getting it out there. It’s a weird addiction if you like, just to keep being on the street with it. Painting in the studio now, like with the large five-by-four-foot pub scene The Big Game, I’ll spend a month on a single work and it’s completely the opposite way of working to being in the streets – so labour-intensive and time-consuming – but it teaches me a different way to paint and I love having that chameleon sense of being able to change depending on what I’m doing. And if I spend a month doing a piece like that, then I’ll do a few things for the street which are completely different. It’s a constant movement of style and feeling, otherwise I’d just stagnate into being a portrait painter or something. I don’t fear change, I enjoy it. I’m not afraid of the first idea. You think it’s not going to work until you dive in and just start it, then you have to see it through – you love it then you hate it, you wish you’d never started it, it’s completely different to doing quick things.”
His one-man exhibition at Elms Lesters in 2007 entitled Paintings, Pots and Prints was Neate’s first solo show, the first time he’d had a chance to think about how gallery-sized framed paintings would work together and speak to each other across the interior of an exhibition space.
“This time I was painting knowing what paintings I’d already done would be in the show. It was like doing a concept album: each painting I finished I would photograph and look at the colours and composition and try not to repeat it or at least attempt to give the next one an alternate style, trying to keep the work as rich I could, exploring different media as much as possible within that timeframe. It’s all too easy to have a theme and just repeat it slightly differently. I’ve tried to have each painting as its own separate entity with its own little story, almost like you’re tuning into a TV channel in front of each work.”
In parallel with his social comment, Neate channels art history. Making Baked Beans on Toast partly evokes the linear precision of Pop Art’s love for isometric kitchen design that Richard Hamilton investigated, combining it with the somnambulant flesh-creeping qualities of paint at work in Georg Baselitz’s Expressionistic spatterings. The Cyclist replays the pure dynamic force of Futurism by rooting the composition in two perfectly judged spraycanned ellipses, in themselves a tantalising pictorial nod to another seminal moment in Italian art history, Giotto’s “O”, and so bringing us full circle to an artist who was discovered on the street in the 21st century.
“I love cocktail combinations of ‘isms’, I like to see whether it works if you put Expressionism and Futurism together or mix Cubism and Fauvism.”
The latter two “isms” – plus a large measure of Francis Bacon – play off against each other with a bruising emotional resonance in Fluoro Orange Portrait “Cuidado” where the Guantanamo orange and heavily collaged face, with its Baconesque lacerated daubs and dislocated cardboard jaw hanging by a lone staple, have their violence reinforced by the printed warning, visible tattoo-like on the figure’s breastbone: CUIDADO-FRAGIL (Portuguese for “with care – fragile”).
“With cardboard it’s great because I can do a face and if it’s not right I can rip it in half and move it this way. It’s like a physical version of Photoshop where you’re literally moving layers, it’s more malleable and has that distressed energy to it. All the staples are put in by hand – the gun’s no good because it bends the staples and pushes them back. It’s tough on the thumbs, but I get a real feeling for the cardboard and its weak spots which dictates where the staples are placed.”
The clash of materials that are so characteristic of Neate’s work – gold leaf on cardboard, cheap clothing material draped over a painted figure against a digital photo background blown up onto foamboard, spray paint layered over oil paint – suggest he is keen to emphasise themes of tactile connection versus disjunction, bonding versus breakdown, employing materials of impermanence to produce images of longevity.
“For years I worked as a graphic designer as a day job, working in layers and effects where with the history button in Photoshop you can go back and change things. It connects to graffiti, like the layering in New York 1980s’ lettering. My experience of Photoshop filters has rubbed off on me in the way I make my gallery work, constantly breaking up previous ideas and laying things over.”
In the painting The Ring on the Table, a forlorn man puts his head in his hand in the aftermath of a row. His now absent other half has discarded her gold wedding ring on the restaurant table in front of him and it’s as if the disturbed air currents of her departure have whipped up the wood grain of the veneered table so that the precious ring appears to float precariously in wood-effect wavelets like an abandoned inflatable.
On the cardboard packaging that forms the support for this painting, the words and icons for the oven it used to contain (fogão in Portuguese) take on symbolic poetic effect. The umbrella icon (do not get cooker wet) suggests tears, even though the hooded shadow of the bloke’s furrowed brow plunges into darkness any detail in the eyes. The shape of this darkness acts as a shadowy arrow pointing to the ring on his hand, echoed by the diagrammatic arrow sign (keep cooker upright) above him. The broken glass icon (caution, cooker is fragile) alludes to the war of words that has just ended, whilst the do-not-exert-sidewards-force-on-cooker icon indicates the pressure in this young guy’s head. The word filhamento (filament) emerges through the paint on his forehead, suggesting electric overheating in his brain. At the same time you double take, thinking you’re reading the English word “lament”.
For his own personal symbol Neate uses the insignia “A” from the Iron Maiden font, turned through 90 degrees. He had it tattooed on his body whilst still a teenager, and as signature to his work it began as a way of marking as finished the small street paintings which he was working on in confined spaces, sometimes 20 at a time.
“Even though conceptually the paintings left on the streets could easily have been left as anonymous work, I felt like I needed to mark them in some way.”
Since that time it’s become an iconic signature which isn’t just restricted to his paintings, pots and prints, but inscribes the pavements themselves.
“Every time I see wet cement I have to put my finger in it. I still feel like I’m a child when I paint. As Picasso said, every child is an artist, the problem is how he remains an artist once he grows up. Painting on the streets and doing all those thousands of paintings, at that time no one was watching me doing that and I was painting purely for myself and for total enjoyment, not to be precious about it at the same time. It’s a kind of Buddhist thing – in making work for the gallery now it’s given me the inner confidence to try things and not be scared. I look at fine artists like Picasso and Bacon but also cultural icons like Madonna and Bowie who constantly change their persona. It inspires me not to be afraid to reinvent myself, to switch and just try something else.”
The way Paul Jones at Elms Lesters has curated Neate’s exhibitions has certainly encouraged Neate to make new discoveries in the themes and materials he works with. Paul paired Adam up with potter Dan Kelly to great success in his first show, where calligraphic brushmarks swept over grogged textured stoneware. The way Neate allowed the black slip lines to flow and feel out the volumetrics of these simple, elegant pots carried with it an echo of the traditional Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, enshrining asymmetry, simplicity and modesty in natural process.
“Traditionally, the modern artist would have their 10-year period of doing one thing and then move on to something else. I like the whole idea of constantly going round in different periods all the time learning from one thing and instead of it being a five-year period it’s two weeks and I’ve learnt something and tried something else and I haven’t completely mastered it – it’s like Shaolin Kung Fu, I never will – but I’ll go back to it another day.”
On the street you can work on a large scale all the time, but there’s a speed to it and a simplification of the visuals required for long-distance viewing that don’t come into play in the gallery, where the viewer is more likely to look for longer and examine detail.
In Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Neate jumped in at the deep end of a Western tradition of History painting.
“The size of it worked for the idea, you were head height to the middle of the painting and I wanted the impression of the viewer being stampeded. I’m not an artist who copies photography. Doing the horses I thought, well they’ve got joints and wild hair, and took that naïve aspect and tried to draw horses. In terms of the historical painting aspect, I’m really drawn to the apocalyptic idea of media headlines. If you look closely at the eyes of the horses and riders you’ll see Victoria and David Beckham and Anna Nicole Smith amongst others.”
The former Guess Jeans girl committed suicide shortly before the painting was made. So going back to the Four Horsemen theme, was Anna Nicole Smith an allegory of death and Posh Spice pestilence?
“Yeah, maybe. Anna Nicole was just one of those tragic figures that the tabloids focus on playing out the tragic soap opera of their lives, and to me that comes across as a kind of apocalyptic warning.”
The cardboard used on such a large scale underlines Neate’s critique of our throw-away, ADD-afflicted flatscreen culture and is framed in a burning orange echo of the painting’s hellfire background.
The Test, however, was a subject whose tension and intimacy he felt were more suited to canvas.
“For me, in this channel-hopping culture, for painting to evolve and survive amid the digital it has to be more dynamic, to switch and change.”
The de Chirico symbolism of the empty plant pot on the window sill connects via an imaginary diagonal to two similarly vacant ovals of the woman’s belly and the cat basket. It feels all the more anthropomorphically barren for being set against tiling that’s just about to collapse into the gulf between these two people.
Many of the paintings are autobiographical, of course, but which ones and to what extent he’s reluctant to say. Is Adam Neate the constant outsider making a comment on the group? “I guess I’m always kind of looking in on things.” Sometimes he’s even experienced looking in on paintings of his that he doesn’t recognise.
“Someone will come up to me and say ‘I’ve got one of your paintings, it’s the blue one with the thing’ and I say ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’.”
Neate estimates having photographed 80% of the works he left on the streets, but occasionally he’ll come across someone else’s photo of a painting of which he kept no record.
“It’s a nice feeling for me that I’m shown something and I don’t remember making it, and yet looking at it I can see that it was done in a certain order and it has my signature so it must be mine.”
Ben Jones, April/August 2008
First published in ELMS LESTERS BOOK 2008