THE SECOND COMING OF ADAM NEATE by Sophie Leris, December 2010 :
Drinking tea with former street artist Adam Neate beneath the soaring eaves of Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, surrounded by pieces of work spanning his three years at the gallery, it is difficult to imagine him ‘unable to see his way into the art world.’ On the contrary, it is easy to chart Neate’s extraordinarily swift, confident progress as a gallery-based artist through his powerful early portraits in poster paint on cardboard; vivid scenes in oil on cardboard and canvas encompassing riots, football matches, barbers’ shops, lonely phone calls, a deathbed, a concert pianist and a pregnancy test; remarkable, luminous faces and figures – Self Portrait, Madonna, A Reclining Nude – made of twisted Perspex and paint; and his latest, ethereal, ‘4th dimension’ portraits on layers of Perspex sheets which resemble high-tech Francis Bacons.
What I am unable to see on the walls – Neate’s work sells extremely fast – I pour over in catalogues. Each piece seems to vibrate with movement and his paintings remind me of the Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. They are so angular, muscular, yet emotional, full of life and death, and like those Russians, Neate’s materials are diverse and experimental – earlier (2008/9) pictures feature false teeth, telephones and Victorian glass eyes, retrieved from retired dentists and ebay attic caches. Nowadays (2010), he cuts his teeth and facial stubble from Perspex, heating the plastic, moulding, turning and layering it like so much 3-d paint. Aertex shirts are made of metal, ears and skulls outlined in neon, eyes are floating circles of aerosol paint, light and shade depicted by overlapping shapes of coloured Perspex.
‘I see the Perspex works as paintings,’ says Neate, ‘and I strive to be a modern day painter, painting with light. The computer is an important tool – I can photograph work to see what the colour change would be before I waste the materials. I have the past, present and future on my computer but I must be sure not to let the tool take over. I’m striving to bring painting forward in three dimensions, to literally bring it out, while maintaining the human touch, the painterly and artisanal.’
Taken from the 12th century French meaning of an army or flotilla that marched in front, ‘avant-garde’ suggests a courageous surging ahead into the unknown. Neate is unapologetically derivative yet keener than any artist I have come across to embrace technological advances. ‘I’m a great fan of the isms,’ he says. ‘Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, and I use elements of these to push forward with my art. I want to create something new, to visualise in a new way. The art world has to reflect the changes in technology, the richness of the new media. Kapoor does it; he can create a sensation using new materials. I’m after the magic element that hooks people in, so they wonder how I’ve made that, and look closer. Just like they did with Constable 200 years ago.’
At the same time, Neate is quick to point out the drawbacks of too much technology, the inherent passivity of a culture that is given so much freedom and choice that nothing gets done: ‘We have created a generation of Twitterers and followers and not many doers.’ But argues that, in the face of such inertia, the need for anyone of ambition to summon massive drive and self-motivation has resulted in a great well of energy and, for him, this began during his years as an urban artist. His transition from the street to this central London gallery with its polished wood floors and astonishing proportions took him by surprise. ‘I wanted to be a traditional painter,’ he says, ‘but the way the art world works, you have to go to college and I didn’t go. I couldn’t imagine being able to make a living as an artist so I went for something more down to earth and studied graphic design.’ The huge leap of faith required to fund a place at art school with no promise of a career at the end is enough to deter many a budding artist. But if it’s the real thing, creativity will out and, as an underpaid, fledgling graphic designer, Neate chose the only media available to express himself: cardboard that he found on the street, and cheap poster paint.
‘I’d do a full day’s work designing what other people told me to, and then come home and paint. It was a release.’ His Ipswich flat was full of work. ‘My friends would come round, like what they saw and my confidence grew. I did portraits of everyone I knew.’ Eventually, the paintings took up so much space he decided to take them to charity shops, leaving them outside in bin bags as he’d seen people do with clothes and bric a brac. ‘The next morning, they were still there. It was my first critique and a funny feeling of pride came into play. I thought, “Well, I’ll have them back, then,” but on my way home I decided to leave them hanging all down the street. I leant them against lamp posts and walls, it was surreal.’ In Ipswich a decade ago they hadn’t heard of Banksy and street art was not a feature of urban East Anglia. Neate’s decision to ‘drop’ his art came from a ‘purist feeling that art should be for the people: It was a Utopian ideal and they all ended up selling it on ebay anyway,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘Humans are humans. I gave it free and they turned it into a business.’
In search of more cardboard and more streets, Neate moved to London. ‘I felt part of something,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t so much a movement, but a microcosm of a movement. London was a blank canvas and there were only a handful of us. The down side is there’s no one helping you, no guidance, no knowledge passed on.’ This is street art as opposed to graffiti, an older form of urban art that has developed its own etiquette. ‘It’s 80 years old, the spray can, and rules have sprung up fast. You must never touch the wall – it’s very traditionalist. But street art broke boundaries.’ Neate spent 10 years working on the streets, ‘dropping’ his cardboard works for anyone to pick up and take home, but also painting on walls, before he felt he’d learned all he could. ‘Those years were my art school. I learnt about colour and composition simply through practice. You absorb a lot of what’s around you but you mustn’t repeat other people. The critics are there every day and they’ll let you know.’
By 2005, he had developed a following and begun producing prints, and Fiona McKinnon, wife of Elms Lesters’ founder Paul Jones, happened to have bought one for £20 on ebay. ‘It kept working on us,’ says Jones, ‘the more we looked at it.’ The couple met Neate by chance, sitting next to each other at a graffiti film, and got chatting. Paul rang Adam a year later and offered him a show. On the street, Neate was producing 100 works a month: ‘That’s the mentality, to be the biggest, the best, to produce the most.’ Now he was able to channel that amount of concentration into making 10 pieces in the course of a year. ‘I was just painting for the sake of being creative and to have fun. But when I know people are turning up expressly to see my work, I feel I need to have something to say.’
The first painting he produced was ‘The Haircut,’ mixed media on cardboard, a big narrative piece of a barbershop on Brick Lane that he used to pass every night on his way home. ‘I started painting on cardboard out of necessity and grew to understand it. In a gallery I could turn it into sculpture, moving into 3-D, and then I saw I shouldn’t limit myself to cardboard, I tried metal, glass, whatever I could get my hands on. I was like a monkey with a typewriter.’ Paul Jones says he was ‘knocked out’ by how fast Neate learnt: ‘He’d never painted on canvas before, and suddenly there was an Old Master. When he started to bend the Perspex, the framer couldn’t believe he was doing it himself. He’s working with 3-D as it’s entering the public psyche and his decade is coming.’
Neate’s influences are wide-ranging but include David Hockney and Matisse. ‘I saw a programme on Matisse, his stained glass windows in a church, and I wanted to catch that vibrancy. If I’m doing a portrait I’ll use fluorescent Perspex and the light shines through, picking out the edges, giving the painting an outline.’ Aside from the obvious beauty of his work, its success lies in the authenticity of the emotions it evokes. ‘Experiences are bookmarks in memory, you can taste the moment, feel the air. Good art is conveying those experiences. You could live like a rock and roll star and still not experience that one thing that you might find at a car boot sale when you see a family eating fish and chips and think, “That’s my painting.”’ In spite of his recent success – Elms Lester took 3 of his works to the Hong Kong Art Fair and collectors were falling over themselves to buy them, according to Jones – Neate is refreshingly down-to-earth. His desire to stay one step ahead of the game, developed on the streets, is as powerful as ever, but his Utopian ideals are also very much alive.
In 2008, Neate put on The London Show, in which he enlisted helpers to distribute 1000 signed prints, with an estimated collective value of £1 million, all over London. His followers travelled up from Suffolk, Scotland and elsewhere to scour the city overnight, causing a Twitter and internet art frenzy. At this point, a large work by Neate was fetching up to £43,000, so his decision to ‘put back in what I got out at the beginning of my career,’ was a meaningful one. Now 33, he works in a garage in Brighton, where he lives with his partner and child, and takes a very long time to produce each work. He sighs and says he wishes he had an assistant. ‘No you don’t!’ says Jones. ‘He’s old school, he wants to understand his materials, everything is self–taught,’ he adds proudly. Neate seems to have a solid inner confidence, and it has paid off. ‘Investors want to know your track record, your college, tutor, the provenance of the artist,’ he says. ‘That doesn’t change. But if you’re lucky, you can break through and make a loud enough noise.’ Paul Jones may well be right in thinking the next decade belongs to Adam Neate.
First published in GQ Magazine September 2010