Breaking taboos in the art world by depicting the heady drug culture of Britain’s youth with oils and acrylics
Joe Holbrook is painting a portrait of young British life, yet the image he gives us might not be one we expect to see immortalised in oil. Drugs have become normal to many, encounters with narcotics are ubiquitous in contemporary life and, according to Holbrook, it is time that the experiences were recorded.
You will undoubtedly have seen most of these scenes with your own eyes before. But fine art, Holbrook says, is the last art form to depict drug culture. To capture the quality of memory, the paintings show people and objects lit up with the flash of a camera. Holbrook lovingly illustrates each crease in the surface of every piece of material. And that material, more often than not, has been used to hold cocaine.
Pyramids of white powder tower over film, music and the tabloid press, but when Holbrook was looking for a gallery to host his work, his subject matter got him into trouble: “No one would touch me with a barge pole,” he says.
For this reason, last weekend, the series had to be shown in an independent space and funded by Holbrook himself. He is tired of the generic gallery opening – where people walk around and say “yes” blandly at every work. You have to be ruthlessly strategic to survive in the art world. It’s like chess, he says, and it’s a game he’s bored of playing.
Holbrook is a self-taught painter. He did an art foundation, but stopped short of university, after he was caught painting graffiti on trains. His drawn out court case for criminal damage and the hours of community service they gave him got in the way. He ended up going to Amsterdam for five years and teaching himself to paint instead.
With this series, he has become accustomed to derisive remarks from others. People react to his work in remarkably different ways. And it seems that Holbrook himself is not entirely sure what message his work sends out. He says that he is drawing attention to a problem multiplying in society and that we should perhaps do something about it. But his paintings are beautiful. Some might say they glorify the same action that he is condemning. This contradiction seems to be something he is comfortable with, perhaps even revels in. His mission, regardless of opinion, is to document.
What were you hoping this series would achieve?
Joe Holbrook: I wanted to do a series of work that isn’t censored. I wanted it to be in your face so it either made you feel uncomfortable because of being repelled, or because it brings up memories or something that you can relate to. There are a lot of drugs around. People work all week and the thing that excites them is going out with their mates. It's true, but it's really frowned upon.
I feel the need to document things my generation and what's going on. The painting of the chips on the floor, for me, that's England. When I was sixteen that was the end of the night, at the kebab shop someone gets their chips knocked out of their hands and there's a fight. I think I have captured a moment.
Are you saying something political?
Joe Holbrook: You don't work so that you can have a nice lifestyle. For our generation, especially in London, you get up for work so you can pay your rent. It's terrible. You’re paying £800 for a room. A room. And I think I'm touching on that desperate case. People need an escape, that's why people go out. They need an escape from their shit life. It is so bleak.
Is your work showing those weekend moments to be full of joy or of tragedy?
Joe Holbrook: Sometimes it's tragic. I did 300 small black and white paintings of cocaine to show the repetition of abusing yourself. To have it in front of you is overpowering. You think, shit, I've probably done that.
“I feel the need to document my generation and what's going on. The painting of the chips on the floor, for me, that's England” – Joe Holbrook
How have people reacted?
Joe Holbrook: This current series that I'm doing, people are pretty stand offish, because of the subject matter. But galleries are supposed to be representing what's going on and documenting it. The people who appreciate it the most are in their early 20s. They want my work and I want them to have it. I don't want to sell it to some 70-year-old man who's just buying it in the hope that it's going to be worth more money. I could die in like ten years so I don't care about the long run I guess.
Young people don't have the money to spend, you know, like £3000 on a piece of my artwork so my series of black and white paintings are all the price of a gram. A London gram is £60. I think what I'm trying to get at is if you're willing to spunk £60 on a gram of gear at the weekend, why don't you just spend it on a piece of artwork that will last and will bring you happiness. Buy art not cocaine.
Do you think this series glamorises drug use?
Joe Holbrook: I don't think I'm glamorising it. I’m trying to put a spotlight on the situation. You could look at it and think it's cool and go and do coke because of my paintings, but I think it's highly unlikely. And I'm not boasting about selling it or anything like that. I'm just documenting what I see.
Would you explain the name of the show: ‘Ten Hail Marys’?
Joe Holbrook: Our generation are a big, big old group of sinners. And we're all going to be asking for forgiveness. But no matter how much forgiveness you ask for, you're not going to get any. Often you're asking for it because you've lived a certain lifestyle, which is apparently bad. But who's to say it's bad? It's your life: you live it how you want. Just sort it out with yourself.
How important is the process of photography to your paintings?
Joe Holbrook: There's something about that harshness (from a flash). I’m trying to pluck at your memories and try and give you a painting that you've seen before, basically, (as if) it's just a memory.