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Get to know London’s new generation of painters

Amongst a digital generation, painting can often feel like a lost art form – we meet six London-based artists pushing the canvas into the 21st century

Painting can feel like the most powerful art form. Whether such power is derived from the way a canvas overwhelms a gallery wall or because of the intricate details that make something appear lifelike, there is a unique intensity to the knowledge that an image has been created solely by hand.

Often the most of the ‘best’ paintings are far removed from the general public – hanging in some elite country house that you are never likely to go to, or stowed away in a gallery and treated as relics of times long gone. Plus, large auction houses and the swing of the art market compounds this atmosphere of inaccessibility, certainly the odds of ownership.

But, changes in the way we create, consume and appreciate art means a new generation of painters are finding ways to connect a traditional art form to a digital generation – and there’s no shortage of London painters reinvigorating the craft. Below we meet six.

DANNY FOX

Initially, Dazed 100 star Danny Fox started out by selling paintings in his hometown, St Ives, without much luck. However, he is now one of the most recognised names on the contemporary painting circuit, known for his sellout shows. While he states most of his inspiration comes from Cornwall, the bold colours matched with his surreal aesthetic are more akin to Gauguin than any depiction you will have seen before of our Cornish shores.

How did you first come to art? 

Danny Fox: I can’t remember. We are all in it at the beginning, some stay, some stray. 

I noticed that at the Tate you spoke about the ‘art of Instagram’. Do you think that Instagram and new technologies help or hinder painters, and do you find that in this digitalised age people respect your art form more or do they want things to be more immediate?

Danny Fox: Painters have been a lonely lot for a long time. There is no other way to actually get it done. If you want to be a good painter you have to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself. I think Instagram appeals to painters because it can break up the solitude. I have painter friends who prefer not to put their work on it for whatever reasons but still use it as an outlet for a kind of aesthetic that makes sense with their work. It's been suggested that some owe their career to Instagram, personally, I think that's like saying Kiki the Whale owes his career to SeaWorld. You still can’t beat a real art show if its done right. For example, the David Hammons show at Mnuchin Gallery now. It's a masterfully curated and a very physical experience. 

Who is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Danny Fox: Henry Taylor. We have studios in the same building so I get to see his work being made all time. Sometimes I knock on his door and there is a woman laying naked on the sofa or someone off the street sitting for a portrait, open bottles of whisky, music playing and he is painting at the easel. He is a true painter with a style and approach that is pure. 

What is a painting everyone needs to see and why?

Danny Fox: Henry Taylor, “Eldridge Cleaver”, 2007. I asked Henry a while ago which painting of his hit the mark and he said this one. It's good to know which paintings the painters really like. 

What would your advice be to aspiring painters? 

Danny Fox: Learn to draw well. Don’t paint abstract because you can’t draw, wait until you’ve drawn so much it turns into something else. if you look at any great abstract painting, no matter how wild it seems, the skill is always there.

If you could put a piece of your work anywhere, where would it go and why? 

Danny Fox: Tate St.Ives. As a kid watching it being built, looming over the beach where we played, transformed from a gas works to a museum of art that no one seemed to like or understand, it never felt like it was for us. It would mean a lot.

DALE LEWIS

Having recently been awarded the prestigious Jerwood Fellowship, Dale Lewis is one of the most talked about painters in London. His paintings take an eerie, elongated and unflinching look at urban existence.

Your images remind me of William Burroughs “Naked Lunch”. What is it about modern urban life that made you draw out the horror in “Deep Fat Fryer”?

Dale Lewis: Modern urban life is what it is. I think we can pretend everything's alright, forget about things, get drunk or see them in an abstract way - as long as it's not our life. “Deep fat fryer” is a work based on a flat we used to go to as teenagers to buy weed. The place always smelt of chips and smoke. There was a tiny girl who never had any clothes on, there were knives lying around, a white rat that stunk in a cage, two dogs that were always shagging, a glue sniffer son etc... We didn't think much about it at the time. Once we left that flat we could go back to our lives. It wasn't our reality – they were trapped there. That's the horror. At the NADA fair last week in NY, I turned around and an NYPD officer was staring at the painting. He said 'what is this, a crack house?' I said, 'kind of,' and he nodded. I knew then that it was a good painting.

In a description of your current exhibition at Jerwood Gallery, it says that you draw things directly from memory. Why did you decide to work like this?

Dale Lewis: Memory is really powerful in the sense that it has a visual side as well as an emotional/physical one. I have to have this combination to get psyched up for the painting. I never paint from any source material - photos / collage etc... so the paintings will always be a warped version of true events. It's important to connect emotionally with the work. I've made paintings whilst crying and others while laughing hysterically all day.

What is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Dale Lewis: I think everybody interested in painting should know a little about all painters. There have been so many styles and approaches. As painters today, we come from such a complex and long line. It's important we take a piece of everyone, open up, mix that and find our own style. I can get as excited seeing a Gainsborough as I can a Guston.

HETTY DOUGLAS

Hetty Douglas’ work screams at you. With lines such as "sorry for treating you like shit & 4 fingering your best m8”, they are intimate and confronting works that echo the way we navigate and experience relationships, love and lust, today. The bright and eclectic colours challenge your eyes and force you to find yourself within the letters adorning her images. In contemporary society when so much of our interaction is carried out online or through text messages, her style almost perfectly reflects the space between connection and anonymity that a lot of us inhabit. 

Your images seem to be a mixture of materials, what do you use and why do you fuse these elements together?

Hetty Douglas: I often paint on different materials, at the minute I’m painting on perspex- it's super smooth but then I like to layer on top. I use thick lines of acrylic, straight from the tube or if I'm applying with a brush I add structure gel – which just makes it thicker and strokes more visible. I also use spray paint, it's really flat especially against heavy acrylic. I get bored and annoyed easily so I often paint over works several times before I'm happy with it.   

What image inspires you the most?

Hetty Douglas: There is not one image specifically that inspires me, lot's of things do. Accidentally coming across anything with colours, texture, composition or text that works well together. This could be anything from shit on the floor, to a car, to a building. For example, I saw this side of a building the other day that had been painted over and over. However, they’d done a really dodgy job. So, underneath it, the colours were coming through but it looked sick. So, I thought I'm going to do a painting using the same colours… that's where the colours for "BLESS YOU" came from.

What mood would you like your work to invoke?

Hetty Douglas: I want each individual person to think it’s about/for them.

Who is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Hetty Douglas: Trudy Benson, Edward Holland, Alfie Kungu, Arthur Lanyon, Mafia Tabak.

What is a painting everyone needs to see and why?

Hetty Douglas: Arshile Gorky, “The Last Painting (Black Monk)” because it's one of the first paintings my mum showed me and I've never got bored of looking at it. Also, “Pink Angeles” by Willem De Kooning is one of my favourites 

Do you think that more could be done to support young painters?

Hetty Douglas: I think more could be done for all ages, not just young. It is hard to show unless you're hiring out a space – which most young painters can't afford. I want to show because I want people to see my work not just see it on Instagram or on my website! It is completely different in person, and important to me that it's seen in real life. I want the chance for the right people to see it, who appreciate and support it because that’s keeps everything going.

BEN WESTLEY CLARKE

Artist Ben Westley Clarke is inspired by folklore. Yet, not from the romanticism of it as one might expect. Instead, he sees it as a way to subvert the ‘spectacular and celebrity-ridden culture rammed down our throats’. So, instead, with bold strokes, he documents the every day and the mundane. Due to his eye for colour and texture, a radiance sings out of his depictions of the banal providing his viewer with a fresh perception of his subject matter.

How did you first come to painting?

Ben Westley Clarke: When I was in my teens, every summer, my parents used to take the ferry, in their van, from the UK to Bilbao, and would drive all the way down to Catalunya and Valencia. We parked the van up by the side of the road or stayed on campsites. My Mum took me to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. I think that was what made me decide to be a painter. They have all of his Blue Period work. I started painting around that time – when I was about 14 – in my bedroom, and at my school. Later, I tried to actually become a painter. I moved to Barcelona for a summer when I was 18. People let me spray paint their shop shutters. I just slept on people’s sofas for about four months and painted on the beach. I had an exhibition of paintings at a gallery there that I’d done on old bits of plywood.

You also curate a decent number of shows yourself. Could you tell us a bit more about that and how it is for young/new artists to operate within gallery spaces?

Ben Westley Clarke: I have organised and curated shows for a long time. I’ve organised a group show called “Grit: 11 Painters”, which is open at Mercer Chance Gallery and runs until 6 June. Lots of good people are participating: my friend Rae Hicks, who I share a studio with; Dovile Simonyte, whom I studied with at the Slade. Billy Childish is going to show a massive self-portrait. I went to Michael Broughton’s studio a few days ago to choose which paintings to include. It’s a show about what it is to be a painter – what it is to constantly have images and painting equipment taking over your life – to be constantly at the grindstone. It’s the only appropriate way I can find to introduce my work to the world. Submitting to competitions, your work is always being instrumentalised in some way, and you always run the risk of rejection. This way, you have total creative freedom and independence. Once its over, I’m excited to get back to the studio and begin working on a new project.

Who is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Ben Westley Clarke: My friend Ed Hill. When I was in my studio at the Slade and encouraged me when I was having difficulties. We hit it off and have been great friends since. We are both interested in Folk culture and in notions of the picturesque. I think his work is funnier, gentler and more poetic, aspiring to a contemporary ideal of beauty. I’m more interested in social realism, my paintings are critical of the whole notion of taste, I like Neue Sachlichkeit and I’m interested in Sociology. Ed got me into Abner Jay; I got him into Robert Johnson. He recently had a show at the Laughing Bell in Bermondsey. It was a body of work that had its own identity – it wasn’t ingratiating or opportunistic – rather it was authentic and true. Ed’s commitment results in his self-actualization. There was a gorgeous new picture of a swan. There was a smaller pastel of a burning barrel – I said to him I’d tattoo it on my leg.

Clarke’s group show is open now, more details can be found here

FAYE WEI WEI

There is a striking uniqueness to Faye Wei Wei, a uniqueness that also found her fronting a Claire Barrow fashion show. Like the artist herself, her work has a surreal lightness to it. Beneath the delicate looking images, there is a mind full of quirkiness that we wanted to find out more about.

Did you find going to art school useful for you? What would be the most important lesson that you learnt there?

Faye Wei Wei: I went to art school to learn how to paint. I became excited that colour became more instinctive to me. Cobalt violet is like a sacred jewel of a paint, it makes everything glow. Unbleached titanium dioxide for a deep and warm clay, perfect to half sculpt boys. Golden Green for all snakes and plants, makes them look like they have real feelings you know? And kings blue light for horses.

What image inspires you the most?

Faye Wei Wei: That image of the ‘most beautiful horse in the world', it’s just the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen. Google search it!

Who is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Faye Wei Wei: I love Fra Angelico. He painted these beautiful frescoes in San Marco. They’ve got floating hands and heads and the colours are sun-stained over time, but what I love most is how he crushed up quartz and used it like glitter so the surface shines like magic.

If you could paint anything and put it anywhere what would you do and where?

Faye Wei Wei: I would find an all girl lion taming circus and make paintings of them and tigers jumping through rings of fire – although actually this is just hypothetical because I wouldn’t want them to be hurt, but I just love how tigers and lions look and girls are just cool.

Do you think or find the art world elitist?

Faye Wei Wei: “I fucked my way up to the top” – Lana del Rey 

JOE HOLBROOK

Self-taught painter Joe Holbrook, shot to the forefront of the artistic scene when his hyperreal paintings of London’s youth emerged. Most people take a disparaging sneer at those who drag their way home in the early hours of the morning or the fumbling drunk that never sleeps, Holbrook however takes fascination in the underbelly of our city.

Conventionally, people are used to seeing oil used by the ‘old masters’. Do you think it shocks people when they see your contemporary images hanging in a gallery space?

Joe Holbrook: No, but I’m sure some get angered by my chosen subject. Maybe they feel I waste the medium on the sorts of themes I cover. But for every one person who’s troubled by it, there’s another person who might get excited to see traditional techniques used to capture scenarios and memories they can relate to. I think people must remember artists and creatives do not create to entertain others initially, but actually immerse themselves in creativity to entertain themselves. My creative process, for example, mostly happens in the relative vacuum of my own studio. Any piece of art is a byproduct of an artist’s mental state – their drive to create is nothing other than a necessity in order for them to function in life, not a gesture for acceptance. If that’s your approach, then other people’s comments or opinions are nothing but noise.

What image inspires you the most?

Joe Holbrook: Honestly, the images that inspire me the most are those small moments that confront all of us on a day to day basis. Take, for instance, that moment when you’re on the tube and an alcoholic is resting, slumped to one side up against the glass divider, with his wind-burnt head hanging down rocking to the motion of the carriages, puffer jacket covered in muck, a stained grey shirt riding half way up his gut. And then there’s his can of cider slowly slipping from his grasp about to drop, waking him as the liquid splashes all over the floor and up the legs of those opposite him. What I find powerful is that exact moment when the can passes through his index finger and thumb before the commotion. I’m inspired by these ordinary moments that some people might find unpalatable or easy to ignore – they’re all powerful images to me. 

Who is a painter everyone should know about and why?

Joe Holbrook: Edouard Manet. His paintings are something you can only appreciate in the flesh, they are incredible! He went from realism to impressionism, which is something every realist painter wishes they could do because it shows an incredible level of skill and confidence. He was a pivotal factor in the development modern art and was way ahead of his time. His works were on point and very much of his time, executed in a way that I could only describe as jaw-dropping. He is an artist everyone should be aware of,  the Musee d’Orsay in Paris has a beautiful collection including Olympia. And The Courtauld Gallery in London also with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Both worth a trip to witness in the flesh.