MAN WITH THE WORLD ON HIS SLEEVE:
THE LOVELY, ANGSTY POP OF STUART SEMPLE
Let’s say Stuart Semple is embarking on a new painting. Picture this: he dives down his own personal rabbit hole and emerges—exhausted but triumphant—with a handful of inspiration and memory. His catch, so to speak, is then served up as a painterly pop culture cocktail for all to imbibe.
Of course, this is partly a fairytale. In reality Semple’s spectacular acrylic-and-mixed-media on canvas works require months of planning, a variety of techniques and, strictly due to the massive scale of the major pieces, several assistants.
Working from his belief that “pop culture is the most efficient language” for any meaningful communication, Semple creates proud artistic landscapes by culling from the legends of his own past as well as the flotsam and jetsam of our collective pop cultural seas. Overflowing with subject matter, they’re held together by the inherited anxiety of the generation into which he arrived.
Born in 1980, the worldly young artist unearths buried treasures from the decades at the end of the last century. The captured impressions come from mass media—Hollywood movies, tabloid news shows, the cultural elite and chart-topping bands. Semple’s paintings are dark and dreamy, nervy but questioning. They act as his own brand of existential time capsules. But if hell is other people, it’s also true that reality is where you find it.
Stuart Semple’s life is an often glamourous and sometimes risky archeological dig.
“It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.”
Music and painting are inseparable for Semple. His hybrid creations are, in essence, songs made “just like tracks on an album.” They’re occasionally disjointed and always memorable. Most importantly, they sing themselves.
Marilyn Monroe, or someone like her, features in many Semple works. For the artist she’s a symbol of style, status and surface. A brand name to aspire to, just as the Chanel logo instantly signifies hope and aspiration as much as any symbol for currency or religious icon.
Now as the American notions of fashion, fame and femininity have become absorbed into the pop culture of the world, everyone can find depth in the superficial. But more than that, Monroe (the troubled siren) epitomizes the synchronicity of tragedy and beauty that so engages Semple. She was inventing and destroying herself long before there were coke-fueled discos or our beloved MTV. For the artist, Monroe is a ghostly idol whistling a pop song in an effort to mask her fear. Marilyn’s perfume of anxiety pervades his thoughts of her. Years after her death, he still breathes her in.
“Went over to the Criterion to see Breathless (tickets $10). It’s strange to see Richard Gere doing this. If it’d been somebody like Matt Dillon it would have been like a James Dean movie. It’s that Sartre way, the nothingness thing. You would think existentialism would be still modern, but it isn’t.
–from The Andy Warhol Diaries
Like the silver-wigged master from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania before him, Semple is a born colorist. His paintings boast the most spectacular hues and richest blacks. The artist has many of his acrylics specially mixed and names them: “Ray Gun Red, Dick Pink…and I forget what the green is called.” If you cut Stuart Semple, he might bleed a day-glo rainbow.
Since color so expertly plays its spectacular role in the pop transmissions Semple gives birth to, it’s easy to grasp the sharp surface of his paintings. However, the more time spent with each canvas we watch it become darker in subject. Like Uncle Andy’s “Death & Disaster” series, where the candy-coating is seductive and tricky, Semple’s friendly colors get more and more intense.
Warhol’s greatest gift to future generations of artists was his nervy knack for appropriation. He made it cool to pilfer from pop culture’s readymades. Newsworthy gossip, celebrity calamity, bits of songs and graphic design all find their way into Semple’s work as well.
With a post-sexual, Warholian approach, Semple’s theme is Fame in all its incarnations. But his process is something quite different. As we know, Mr. Warhol used silkscreens in part because they were fast and assistants could do it for him, and claimed that he liked making movies because “the camera has a motor. You can just turn it on and walk away.” Semple (and his assistants) on the other hand, utilize a painstaking method of painting these new handmade mythologies. Notions of reproduction and mechanization in art, which Semple often sees as insidious, are turned on their swollen heads. As the artist puts it:
“The machine is at the start of my process, not at the end. The print function is disabled. Within the works there are expansive meticulously detailed hand-painted elements that mimic printing techniques from silk-screening to lithography. I reinstate the personality, the defect, the humanity. I’m painting print, not printing paint. Mechanization and fast printing reduced design to the level of the disposable. Images are churned fast, we are bombarded: millions per second. If print is temporal, paint is eternal.”
Significantly, once the path of a painting has been decided upon, Semple doesn’t allow himself to veer too far from it. Alterations are rare. Erasing? Never. “I prefer to work without that safety net,” Semple explains. Still, one couldn’t be blamed for wondering if the artist/poet/composer Semple feels that the act of erasing is too symbolic of death.
“This note should be pretty easy to understand”
–from Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter
At some point on his journey, Semple began adding text to the works. Bold characters act as anchors in almost every piece now. Though forceful, they add a dose of cryptic to each collage of images. Vaguely melancholic lyrics that have lingered in his head (“Scared to sleep alone,” “Can’t Handle Love,” “Thunder in Our Hearts,” “Slow Decay”) are rescued and given permanent, if shaky, new contexts. They’re liner notes in limbo.
Semple’s “diaries” are not as private as most. In fact, it’s as if his are being read over a loudspeaker. Just as the Pop singer finds something universally recognizable amid fleeting thoughts, Semple’s autobiographical canvases say, “I was here” for all of us.
“It is not because other people are dead that our affection for them grows faint, it is because we ourselves are dying.”
Semple’s subjects are selected from among those who have influenced him—often by dint of a famous demise. In addition to Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe, the artist has depicted dead child-beauty-queen JonBenet Ramsey and that ultimate sacrifice on the altar of Fame, Edie Sedgwick. Like Proust chronicling a remembered life from his sickbed, Semple wants us to commit to memory his fallen stars.
Whether oversized or compact, scale is one way in which Semple makes his works unforgettable. The artist requires that his visions loom as large for us as they do for him. The newer room-sized panels are startling. Other works, only the size of an LP record jacket, draw you in close to study their layered and sincere components.
If life is the path of gravity that pulls us from the womb and into the grave, Semple’s paintings can be thought of as signposts. Popular pop-ups for the population, if you will. They inform and conceal, as do most things in the world. Stuart Semple’s wild ride is right there for all of us to see. Like a rare album with a most compelling sleeve.