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On set photo from Love Lockdown, Kanye West music
On set photo from Love Lockdown, Kanye West music video

Simon Henwood's 20 Years

The multi-disciplinary artist who has collaborated with Kanye West, Roisin Murphy and Devendra Banhard is launching a retrospective book.

“If Yoda was an artist he’d be Simon Henwood." A typically big statement on Kanye West's part but Henwood's multidisciplinary reach has given him a unique career of maintaining an independent direction whilst working between multiple media platforms. He is celebrating the launch of his new book of artwork, 'HENWOOD', which covers 20 years of his work. It includes paintings, film and video stills, photography, as well as collaborations with many musicians including Kayne West (for whom he directed his Love Lockdown video earning him the aforementioned Yoda status), Kylie Minogue, Roisin Murphy, Imogen Heap, The Badly Drawn Boy and Devendra Banhart.  

Dazed Digital: I hear you have something in common with Dazed. You launched the magazine Purr around the same time?
Simon Henwood: Indeed, indeed. A magazine of paintings, comics, writing, film… in full colour. But it was taking up too much of my time… Funny that you mention that because I am revisiting, for the Venice Biennale, an old painting of Kylie [Minogue] that appeared in Dazed ten years ago. It is a full size, life version of it in oil.

DD: You have collaborated with musicians and celebrities in videos and paintings. How much of an input do they have in the work? And how different is the approach to those mediums?
Simon Henwood: People in general, like Roisin [Murphy], tend to have their own ideas or a starting point, or they may see things from a different angle. I find it very rewarding because you learn a lot from your own creativity. In this case it is a much better way to work in video; Painting is a different story because there is a huge investment, and it takes several weeks or a month to paint, and it all comes from me; it is a much more isolated process.

DD: How do you build the relationship with these other artists and what is the creative process like?
Simon Henwood: It can be quite organic. When I met Kanye West, it wasn’t until a year later that I worked with him in his tour (visuals, costumes, stage set) and with Devendra [Banhart], I bumped into him once and we chatted and I didn’t really do anything with him until three years later, when an idea for his video popped up in a conversation. But yes, the process is very very organic.

DD: In your paintings, childhood and adolescence is the main focus. Why your fascination for it? In our world we are afraid of aging and looking at the old, but with your paintings, childhood feels also slightly uncomfortable.
Simon Henwood:  Yes, and I guess with men specially, you could say we want to remain in our childhood years rather than grow up. But the cult for youth is a western issue; there are countries were old people are integrated very well and respected in their culture. I paint my subjects as they are, as they choose to pose. There is no self-awareness; it is a very raw display of their own selves and that is what I intend to communicate through the canvas. I do see why people may feel uncomfortable. Once you leave your teenage years you start having ambitions and there are certain episodes of the past that people do not want to remember or be reminded of.

DD: Tell us a bit more of your ongoing project “There for the Grace of God”.
Simon Henwood: This is a project connected to the celebrity dream. A curator in Paris was interested in showing portraits of celebrities but I wanted to focus the idea from a different angle so I instead started looking for people who wanted fame but did not reach their goals. I found people all over, Romania, Russia… actors who look like somebody famous, posing in a way that looks like a famous portrait, but none of them really made it. In the portraits you see their dreams, their hopes…

DD: Your work covers painting, design, film, visuals, animation, costumes… what medium do you find it more comfortable to work in?
Simon Henwood: None! I cannot feel comfortably relaxed when I work because it is all an adventure. It is all hard work, a bit of luck, lots of deadlines and … you have to work with what you got most of the times. The making of “The Fallen Eye”, this new short film being released soon, was a bit different. I was allowed more time and we have edited 17 minutes of film in 18 months, which happens very rarely.

DD: Any artists you follow or are influenced by?
Simon Henwood: Mainly older artists – Goya, Velazquez; but also German artists like Markus Vater; also Paula Rego and Marlene Dumas… both women – the body of their work is very profound and unique. They are not obsessed with being iconic like male artists are.

DD: What are your up-and-coming projects?
Simon Henwood: Well, the book of paintings and films is out now and also the exhibition at the Riflemaker Gallery is on. I am collaborating with some visual artists soon; there is a project in the agenda with a hat designer, Christophe Coppens; with Berend Strik, who uses photos as a starting point and then stitches the images in a tapestry; also with Peter Blake… I am also involved in a future world tour of a musician creating it all from visuals to packaging, stage set, costumes… and I also have a feature lined up on the dysfunction of childhood as a physical thing – challenging the traditional notion of childhood as an idea using the Victorian times as a setting with paintings, films, drawings (when children would work as soon as they were capable), and looking at images of my own childhood and their modern day interpretation… I must say I can’t complain – I can get up and do what I want to do.

'Henwood: Paintings and Films 1988-2008' published by Stephane Simoens Editions.