“JUST WHAT MAKES TODAY’S STUART SEMPLE SO DIFFERENT, SO APPEALING?”
~ Ben Lewis
Most of the words I would like to use to describe Stuart Semple’s paintings have – as they say about pretty girls – already been taken: Pop Art, Neo-Pop, Britpop and Sub Pop. Even Pop-Up.
But Semple’s art is clearly very Pop-something. Or something-Pop.
Semple paints Pop in a British High Street vernacular, as if James Rosenquist, Mel Ramos, Tom Wesselman and Robert Rauschenberg had crammed into a Prius and gone on a road trip around our medium-sized towns. The occasional open pouting lips are a frank homage to some of that vehicle’s occupants. Just like Rosenquist’s paintings spill over with the glamorous imagery of American capitalism, Semple’s are full of ’UK-world’ – printed T-shirts, Heinz tomato ketchup, pound stores, photos from hairdressers’ windows, the squiggles of graffiti tags, lyrics from pop songs, official acronyms, union jack underwear, glitter and designer trainers float in the indeterminate and oneiric spaces of his paintings, which are not so much a window onto the world, as a shop window onto the world.
Semple’s paintings are based on digital collages he has composed on photo-shop from a collection of thousands of images he has taken himself or occasionally found on the internet. This collage principle that underlays all his work links him back to the first Pop Art-work of them all, which took place in London in 1956, the one that even American art historians credit with launching the international movement, Richard Hamilton’s ”Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing.”
Just like Hamilton, and the movement he launched, Semple is engaged in a ”delirious crossing of fetishisms – sexual, commodity, technological” (Art Since 1900, Kraus, Buchloh, Bois, Foster, T&H 2004). Today, over fifty years and several generations on, we can ask: ”Just what is it that makes Pop Art so relevant today, and still so appealing?” It’s become one of the classic styles of modern art, like Expressionism and Abstraction. Its subject, consumer society continues to spread and mutate, inviting us to look at and analyse it over and over again. But, above all, it’s longevity is based on its failure. Hamilton asks a question that has never been, surely can never be answered. What is it that makes the design of consumer society so seductive, so mesmerising and hypnotic?
Semple’s paintwork jarringly combines the hand-made and advanced technological processes, both the heritage of different Pop traditions (Kippenberger vs Warhol). The meticulous blow-ups come from the world of advertising, but the illogical combinations of images and scalings from the aesthetic of the fan-zine. The texts in his paintings are first written on a computer and enlarged . A lasar-cutter is used to make a stencil of the texts, which is overlaid on the canvas, and Semple paints through that in layers of acrylic. Passages of loose ’bravura’ brushwork are interspersed within a razor-sharp, relentlessly uninflected graphic style. If you asked Stuart ”What is that makes your paint so matt, so flat?” he would tell you that he works with the manufacturers to design the formulae for some of his paints, with an eye for banal and opaque hues, and a smooth consistency which makes brushstrokes invisible.
There are other ways in which Semple is a pop artist. His art has the feel of pop music – and not simply because he uses lyrics from pop songs . He sees each exhibition as an ’album’. He’s on the ’cover’ in one painting, ”Would the Real Stuart Semple Please Stand Up?”, whose theme is also saturated with the teenage identity angst of the Top Twenty (the picture’s title is a quote from Eminem’s ”The Real Slim Shady”). There’s a love song – ”Killing me softly (with her sound)”; a couple of tracks about contemporary British society, including ”This land…was built for you and me”, with its out-of-shape swinger and saucy messages; there’s the rousing anthem of ”Walk Unafraid” and, finally, moments of autobiography. ”Poundland” shows the moment when Semple was violently attacked, aged ??; ”Quiet Desperation” hints at another incident, when the artist found himself surrounded by scores of magpies, but, fortunately, was able to escape without injury. One day, I am convinced, the contemporary art world will resemble the culture of pop music. There will be a lot more of it about. You’ll donwload it on your mobile. Artists will have images like bands. Best of all, it won’t have to be weighed down with the excessive theoretical baggage, which it seems obliged to carry today. (In fact, I would prefer it if you viewed my text here not as a catalogue essay but as sleeve notes)
The pictures have a new mood, different from the work Semple was making two year ago. Then, Semple was swept up on the giant wave of the contemporary art boom. He sold pictures from Berlin to Hong Kong. He had assistants. He flew first class. He flew his friends first class. He hired a publicist. His galleries wanted to send his pictures to auction, to boost his prices. He declined the offer.
Today Semple and most of the rest of us live in a different world – yet not one that is defined one-dimensionally by economic collapse. If you asked Stuart, ”What is that makes today’s Britain so different, so melancholic?” he would tell you that it was the sensation of change of circumstances but not of attitudes, of emotions disconnected from events, of after as before. In ”Comfortably Numb” there’s a graveyard in the bottom part of the paintings with crosses adorned with memories and losses, not only the very recent ’Our Price’ and ’Borders’ and ”Last Orders”, but somewhat older stuff – the VHS tape, ’Cool Britannia’ and, curiously the Belgrano, the Argentine warship that we sank in the Falklands War in 1982, with the loss of 368 lives, allegedly as it was steaming away from the war zone.
The question is not so much what do these diverse events, technologies and brands have in common, but what is the effect of bringing them together? Semple creates a calculatedly diffuse and illogical mood of nostalgia, fusing the demise of Thatcherite jingoism and a puritanical Britain (the Falklands War and end of pub closing times) and the implosion of capitalism (indicated with great banality by defunct high street chains). He invokes a world of instant, artificial nostalgia, where technology moves so fast, that the only permanent sensation we have is of a melancholy for the past.
The counterpart of the modern narrative of rapid technological progress and permanent cultural innovation – of news (the new) on the quarter hour, every hour – is that anything more than 15 minutes old is history, in the form of repeats or archive. The media are already organising how they will repackage today as yesterday tomorrrow. That yesterday is always quaint, backward, simple. Today we are in a permanent and pleasurable state of experiencing the loss of our innocence. We love being told and sold that sensation – the documentaries on BBC4 with their archive footage histories of women, lefties and folk music are archetypes. It is, in the words of an old cliché ’the warm bath of nostalgia,’ but a nostalgia that is accelerating towards our present, surely in danger of overtaking it.
Above the graveyard of ”Comfortably Numb”, a female figure stands proudly, paradoxically, hands aloft, wearing boxing gloves, in a posture of victory. Cartoon eyes, surely from a Nickelodeon series, dot the pictures, and the horizon is marked by the skyline silhouettes of typical terraced houses. Semple has scrawled a line from a song ”Nothing ever happens” above the huge skewed word ”Happy.” It’s about a world where everything has changed and nothing has changed at the same time. There’s still glamorous models and a sprinkling of diamond dust in Semple’s paintings – but this time they are surrounded by images of recession. Like the T-shirt in his multiple-self-portrait says, ”Gordon Gecko was wrong.” We are at the moment before impact. Roadrunner is still running as hard as he can, but he hasn’t noticed he’s gone way out over the end of the cliff. Similarly our mindset and moods have not yet registered the bad news we have been watching and listening to. It’s as if everyday we are reading our own obituary in the newspaper. It is Semple’s ability to describe this contemporary moment which makes his Pop Art so different, so appealing today.
On the large bottle of tomato ketch-up in ”Quiet Desperation” Semple has replaced the Heinz logo with another word: Wait.
Yes, folks, just wait.
© Ben Lewis 2010