WORDS: MIKE VON JOEL
PORTRAITS: DAFYDD JONES
THE NIGHT OF 14 NOVEMBER 2008, was certainly a memorable one for the small team that run one of Soho’s more idiosyncratic galleries, the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms. They, along with a small team of volunteer helpers, orchestrated a city wide give-away of an artwork by one of the most respected artists in the graffiti and urban art milieu. And one practically unknown outside the semi-underground, maverick world of spray can and stencil street artists.
The project (The London Show) was to leave a total edition of one thousand cellophane wrapped silkscreen prints – each slightly different and thus ‘unique’ – in random locations across the whole of London, one borough at a time. At nightfall, the gangs started work on the outer regions of Merton and Bromley, eventually moving inwards to encompass all of the 32 boroughs plus the City of London itself. Completely spontaneous, the prints were located in obvious places by the team – sort of hidden in plain sight.
The works were screen prints on cardboard of a man, with stamping. A master image had been created in stencil, professionally screen printed allowing for a slight variation in each image, and rubber-stamped with the artist’s signature. However, as Paul Jones of Elms Lesters remembers, word had got around and their vans had to dodge the many hundreds of people out on the streets searching for one of these highly desirable artworks. Within 24 hours, they were appearing on eBay and an estimated 50,000 people took part in the overnight picture hunt.
The print was by Adam Neate, who had presented his first solo show (Paintings, Pots & Prints) at Elms Lesters only the year before – it had been a sell out within hours of opening. That startling debut exhibition – in August 2007 – was reinforced later in December when Sotheby’s sold Neate’s painting, Suicide Bomber, for a reported £78,500. It was a level of success that freed Neate up to concentrate solely on his art and give up his day job at a digital design company.
Adam Neate was born in Colchester in 1977, but grew up in Ipswich, Suffolk. For his generation, hip-hop and graffiti were the trending modes of expression and he easily became engrossed in the medium of spray can art through videos and books on the subject. His chosen course at Suffolk College was in design, not fine art, a more exacting discipline that chimes with Neate’s precise way of working, certainly evident in the complex artworks he creates today. However, upon graduation, he joined a London company as a graphic designer.
Like many design students, the impulse to paint – and maybe the comparative freedom it offered – attracted Neate and he began working on found materials, primarily cardboard. His method of stapling this material together and creating multi-dimensional surfaces would be a precursor to the intricate paintings that have evolved into his current Dimensionalism series. For dedicated followers of the artist, these early years are the stuff of legend. Neate would regularly leave bin liners full of paintings outside charity shops as his small flat ran out of space – only to find them dumped unceremoniously out with the rubbish. This encouraged his habit of leaving individual pieces around the busy streets of central London for anyone to take away, which in turn led to the grand give-away on that notable November night. He estimates he has gifted thousands of paintings in this way over a five-year period, deliberately remaining faithful to what he views as the ‘Warhol idea’ of blurring the boundaries between art and product, and ‘challenging the notion of art as a commodity and its worth in society’.
Until receiving an overture from Paul Jones and Fiona McKinnon at Elms Lesters, Neate had also eschewed the gallery situation. But Elms Lesters, located in an old building traditionally used for creating huge theatrical backdrops, was different. They had a long and creditable relationship with the counter-culture, and with urban artists of the street, especially from New York. Jones was also one of the first UK dealers to champion the desire of urban artists to make and show more permanent works – as early as 1997 he gave a solo exhibition to Central St. Martins graduate, Andrew McAttee (entitled Suck it and See). And, in 2004, he staged two milestone exhibitions: Iconography of the Spray Can Movement, with New York based artist Stash; and Icy Grape No. 1924(2)with works by Stash, Futura, Delta, Snug, Stet and Salter. In 2005, Elms Lesters followed with Last Exit to Brooklyn,(3)a group show by heroes of the New York Counter Culture: Stash, Phil Frost, Ron English, Mark Dean Veca and WK Interact, which attracted a record number of international visitors.
The interesting thing about the Elms/Neate collaboration is that the artist decided to take a new direction for work to be shown in a gallery environment. And, indeed, the move into new ways of painting is a regular feature of Neate’s art as he explores and leaves behind each series of images despite their having been commercially successful. His interest in Cubism – he cites Picasso as an influence as well as New York graffiti painter, Daze – combined with the layering of cardboard in the early years, has matured into complex works with Perspex, collage and metals. 3D pieces – always figurative – which follow a theoretical aesthetic he has developed through painting. ‘It has become a whole new way of thinking and learning,’ he has been quoted as saying. ‘In some ways I feel like I have pushed it so far […] that people who know my work might not recognise it now.’
His latest direction has again taken a leap into the unknown with series of paintings made under the umbrella style and theoretical premise of Dimensionalism. This indicates the latest evolution of Neate’s complicated visual orchestration of space and the dynamics of colour and form whereby he constitutes a one man movement. When discussing this, Neate refers to the ‘mathematics of composition’ and the ‘rhythm and harmony’ that cause a reader to engage with the picture. It is an interesting counterpoint to the freedom he demands for himself, as he told Hossein Amirsadeghi: ‘I’m a great lover of chaos and everything it has to offer us. Chaos is the most beautiful maths equation/form of art there is.’ (4)
The Dimensionalism series has to be witnessed in the flesh and photographs cannot convey the complexity of these 3D sculptural paintings. Nor the fact that the various standpoints of the reader form an integral part of the experience. Perhaps the only useful parallel might be found in works by veteran American artist, Frank Stella (b.1936) – paintings such as La vecchia dell’orto (1986) or Mosport (1982). And it comes as no surprise that the current enthusiasm for Neate’s art is from collectors based in the emerging art markets in China, Singapore and the Far East, who more easily engage with art in the moment and are necessarily divorced from the strictures of art history. This is something that Neate readily appreciates as he values his ‘outsider’ status and his direct interaction with people from the streets, as well as a facility for hard work and exploration.
The French House, Soho.
London, August 2014
State: It was quite contentious when ‘urban artists’ started exhibiting inside galleries and joining the ‘system’. Did you feel part of the ‘street’ sensibility and what were your thoughts on coming in from the cold?
Adam Neate: All subcultures and movements eventually reach a zenith in their life spans. Usually, after that point, what once felt groundbreaking and innovative slowly deteriorates into overfamiliarity; what was once fresh seems stale, the soul and integrity is slowly lost. Personally, my zenith was reached with street art around 2006. In the years prior to that, I had left thousands of paintings around the streets of London. The best part of any movement for me is at the very beginning, when the energy and excitement of the unknown gives you that buzz and feeling that you are doing something different.
As soon as something becomes popular I have an inbuilt urge to walk away from it. In this case, when street art had become formulaic, I knew it was time to do something else. I wanted to get that initial buzz again doing something different. It would have been all too easy for me to enter the gallery world and trade off my name as a street artist, but I made the decision to close that door and start afresh. I saw my time on the streets as my art education, learning to use paint, compositions, styles etc. Street art has now become an established movement. In theory, as long as the world has a combination of walls, spray cans and angry teenagers with something to express, street art will continue to perpetuate itself.
You repeatedly turn your back on the comfortable place in favour of taking a risk, going beyond the limit. Would you consider yourself a loner or introverted personality? Do you think there is an element of self-destruct in your creative make-up?
At some point, every artist has to ask himself the classic question: Do I paint to live or do I live to paint? If the answer is the latter, you will inevitably put everything on the line for what you believe in, be it your career, health, family or friends. I have found within the risk lies my new buzz. As painting gradually takes hold of you, your time belongs to the painting, which results in less and less socialising and more and more time spent with your own thoughts of self-justification. I think my self-destruct make-up comes from my constant urge to keep changing what I do. Time has become my precious enemy.
Your work is now being valued in cash terms and individual paintings are being analysed and praised by critics. Do you still hold the ‘Warhol factory’ view about mass production and art available to all (sometimes for free) – which of course Andy Warhol himself never actually subscribed to?
For me, there has been quite an interesting change in how art is viewed by people. At the beginning of street art in 2000, an artist could work on the street, photograph it and promote it online with a personal website. Then, a few years later, the dawn of content driven websites was perfect timing for street art. The movement could only mushroom with user-generated content from around the world – by anyone who wanted to give it a go. Now we have entered a new phase of sharing content and images. The interesting upshot of this is what a person chooses to share, whether it is deemed worth sharing with others. We are currently living in a sea of visual imagery from everyone. So it all boils down to the strength of the image. There is no longer a need for an artist to repeat thousands of identical images in self-promotion, when one single image can be shared. I find it fascinating how artists are having to adapt to these changes.
Do you have a plan for the immediate future? Many artists who begin to enjoy success think of relocating, to the sun or New York or Berlin. One can understand such a change might be stimulating. Is leaving London on your agenda?
I love London, it’s always been good to me. We’ve got the best art museums and best pubs! But it would be nice to have a change of scenery one day…
- The Daily Telegraph 2008
- The show’s title Icy Grape No. 1924 would be instantly recognisable to graffiti aficionados as the name of the rarest of the discontinued, vintage American KRYLON spray paint cans
- Last Exit to Brooklyn, named after the banned and controversial novel by Hubert Selby Jnr (1964)
- Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and their Studios. Hossein Amirsadeghi (Editor), Maryam Homayoun Eisler (Editor), Robin Friend (Photographer) Thames & Hudson 2014