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David Spiller Pours Out His Heart

The legendary British artist discusses the conceptual genesis of his latest show and tells us why he means every word he paints

David Spiller is a veteran of the British Pop Art movement and has been creating canvases that defy easy categorization for over 40 years. Although he shares the Fluxus artist Ben Vautier's fondness for words, he relentlessly redefines the boundaries of word art, taking language itself into the realm of abstraction. Spiller has always incorporated familiar icons and lyrics from pop culture into his uniquely personal language – one that references everything from Auerbach to Warhol – and his forthcoming show at Beaux Arts is no exception, but it's important to note that there is no sense of knowing irony in his appropriation, he is as sincere in his depictions of Mickey Mouse as he is when he scrawls the Coldplay lyric 'Look At The Stars, Look How They Shine For You'. On the eve of his latest show, Dazed visited the legendary artist in his studio to find out why what the world needs now is love.

Dazed Digital: Where are you coming from with your latest work?
David Spiller:
I myself don’t know what I am doing sometimes and I just see where see where it takes me. I’m a little bit at that stage. This is the beginning of something: I’m going to be lost for a while and that’s good. I think one of the fantastic things we’ve got now is that you can do anything. I like it when people push the boundaries: If you are a landscape painter you can’t go on painting the same landscape year after year after year. I don’t mind just pushing it all aside and seeing what comes next. Part of me thinks, ‘Fuck art. Art is a load of bollocks.’ It’s just about making something very simple and saying, ‘That’s fucking art: there’s a brush with paint on it and you do that.’

DD: What inspired you to use all the song lyrics?
David Spiller:
 Whenever I was working on these there was a song in my head, and it’s as though what I was doing was a response to the song. It’s a matter of just saying that: saying what is actually there. I do feel at the moment that a lot of artwork is becoming almost like furniture. It’s very beautifully made but there doesn’t seem to be energy or a passion for the materials. Last December, I went to see a show of Frank Auerbach’s paintings at Somerset House and they were the same paintings I saw as a student. They were fantastic. It was like you were standing in front of something that had presence. The structure of making something that is as strong as that... I don’t know, I guess it’s what turned me on to painting. Sometimes you will watch a singer and tears will come into their eyes as they are singing a song, and that happens to me when I am painting.

DD: Do you think of the words you write as abstract forms? In that the way we each respond to a word may be very subjective?
David Spiller:
 Lots of my work went to China last year. I can’t read Chinese but Chinese words are beautiful in themselves as forms, and I wonder whether Chinese people see these words in that way. I suppose I wanted the words here to be very important though. I mean, when I made these I did think about tablets of stone, as if I could be Moses coming down from the mountain bringing the message to the people. Of course, I am not really saying that, but I did remember the simplicity of an exhibition I did in Holland some years ago where I made works inspired by my top ten pieces of music.

DD: Why do you use icons from cartoons?
David Spiller:
 They are people that I know. I mean, if you want people in there, it has to be somebody! These are people I know well enough – they are part of my history, just the same as the songs really. I take the characters and paint them as well as I can. They live within the confusion of the whole lot coming together and that is something I enjoy. I work on the floor in fragments, so I can be working on one thing and then I’ll start on another and I’ll forget where I was and then come back to the first one. It alters how you work. One of the things I do love about cartoons though is that kids get it straight away. They don’t say it’s Pop Art. They say it’s Mickey Mouse. What I am saying really is judge it from your feelings, not from what you think about art and all of that, just be young about it. 

DD: There seems to be an overriding a desire to communicate or express love in these works?
David Spiller:
 If you say that then yes... I mean them. When I write ‘Sweep me Off My Feet’ I would love somebody to come in and sweep me off my feet, but I would love to sweep people off their feet. When I write ‘Wild Thing’ it’s because I really love people that are a little crazy or just overstep the mark. For me painting is about performing – you are making things for people to see and you are taking them on a journey. What is important to me is not telling people what it is but saying, ‘You look, and you tell me what you see.’ And sometimes it is exactly what I intended or what I saw as well. It’s a bit like looking up at a cloud and seeing the same face or the same story. That is the bit that I am kind of interested in: trusting yourself.

David Spiller exhibits his latest work at Beaux Arts, Cork Street, London, W1 from Nov 10 – Dec 11