Sunday, 5 April 2009

Harry Pye talked to Articulated Artists on Thursday, 2 April, about his new show. 'Getting Better' is at Sartorial Contemporary Art, WC1

AA: You do lots of things don't you; you facilitate things, you organise events, write, make paintings and collaborate with friends.
HP: Yeah, there are 42 paintings in the show and only 10 of them done by me so its kind of my second solo show but it could really be a group show because there is so much work done by other people.

AA: Collaborating in a piece of work suggests an open attitude towards painting which is generous - the painting isn't too precious. How do you arrange that with your friends?

HP: It's a funny thing because with Rowland Smith you can say 'I don't suppose you'd be up for painting a crystal and a glass of champagne with an ice cube floating in it?' And he can do all that whilst rolling a cigarette and having a chat. It's a gift he has. Like some musicians can hear something on the radio and play it just from one hearing. I think that maybe Rowland sees working with me as a kind of hobby. Whereas Marcus Cope loves painting and will say 'ok, well if you're going to insist on doing that then I'm going to do silhouettes and if yours is going to be block colour then I'll do patterns'. It was interesting again with Billy Childish and Geraldine Swayne because they really dominated the painting.

AA: Really, I wondered about that, about how much control you allow them?

HP: Well, I'd never done an oil painting before and originally I said it would just be like a lesson, you know, it doesn't have to be exhibited. Billy was saying 'you can't teach art, you know, its experience' but he started me off. Geraldine and me thought the first painting was ok. Billy was 'well yeah its ok but lets change it' and then it became almost all Billy. He was just painting over us and pushing us out of the way. Geraldine stood up to him and swore at him a bit. But yeah, I wanted those two particular painters to be very different from the others. Obviously I wouldn't have put anything up in that show if I hadn't liked it.

AA: The show is stuffed with art world references. 'The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' for instance.

HP: There was a show at Tate Britain with Sarah Lucas, Damian Hirst and Angus Fairhurst and they're all friends and when Angus Fairhurst died I was thinking of the Frida Kahlo painting 'Diego On My Mind'. Angus Fairhurst did this piece of work like a big hairy ape - I got Rowland to paint the ape's arm comforting Sarah Lucas and so the message in the painting is although you die you don't really die. His work will always be around. Using Damian Hirst's title and his skull on the shirt was a bit cheeky but then I am a cheeky monkey.

AA: I get the feeling that if you were around at the time you would have asked Botticelli to come and paint that angel in the corner for you. Your imaginary world is full of friends creating things.

HP: Do you find that a lot of artists and musicians feel like friends in a way? There are certain people who do an album every year or do a film every year and it's like they come round to your house for tea. When I was growing up I really liked this guy called Barney Bubbles who did all the Stiff Records things like The Blockheads so I use loads of his things. 'Whose Go Is It? (After Miro)' is a painting of me as a little boy and my dad playing chess. My dad used to drink Strongbow cider and Barney Bubbles did the logo of the Norman knight with the chain mail. I was into those kinds of people and then when I went to art school I found that people weren't interested in talking about a graphic designer or a typographer. They were really snooty.

AA: Was that an attitude to popular culture in art school generally?

HP: Well, on foundation it was fine. One tutor said I should do printmaking rather than painting and he could tell by the look on my face that, like all the other students, I wanted to be a painter because a painter was a proper artist. He said this thing about Picasso saying that a bullfighter was as good as an artist. I think that's true. But when I did my printmaking degree I was shocked at how narrow some tutor's thinking was.
There is a new book out on Barney Bubbles called 'Reasons to be Cheerful' and they have people like Peter Blake saying 'he was a better artist than I was'. They say he was the link between pop art and culture. He was a clever man but sadly some people will just say - yeah, but he's just a designer. It's the same with cartoonists. Anyway, most tutors will tell you 'you have to learn how to draw properly first' and 'you have to learn the rules before you can break them'. However, sometimes you can make your own rules. I feel I've created my own thing by using friends. It's a bit like Ringo Starr playing drums in The Beatles ... I know everyone makes jokes about Ringo but there are aspects of his drumming that are very good indeed. Sometimes he makes complicated things look simple and other times he just doesn't know what he's doing but it's just more interesting. Phil Collins said there are fills Ringo does on some of the Sgt Pepper stuff that are beyond him but there are some really basic things, like drum rolls, which other people find very easy but that Ringo seems to struggle with.

AA: So are you saying that you get people to do the bits that you think you can't do?

HP: Yeah, the tricky bits, definitely.

AA: Is that a cop-out? I kind of want to see Harry Pye tackle those bits. You have this cartoon style from your printmaking background and I want to see what it would look like if you painted say, the waiter's tray or the tower blocks.

HP: Well, maybe one day I will do a show and it will be all oil painting and it will be entirely me. And I've also got plans for a few shows that don't feature any paintings at all. A lot of people are very limited and very good, you know, Johnny Cash can only sing low and he can only really sing about trains or being in prison but I guess we feel we can trust him and that counts for a lot.

AA: Perhaps you become better because you've accepted your path instead of constantly trying to do something that isn't really anything to do with you.

HP: Like Benny Hill used to say he'd always get the person in rather than trying to do an impersonation of him. He said it was simpler just to get Michael Caine in instead of going 'my name is Michael Caine'.

AA: So you're painting mostly from your recent past?

HP: Well the painting I was talking about, 'Whose Go Is It? (After Miro)' - when I was about 13, my mum and sister went on holiday to Barcelona and brought me home a Miro t-shirt which I really identified with and wore every day. I kind of forgot about Miro for a while. Then, last year my dad's health took a bad turn. He had 7 days to wait until he found out the results of some tests. Instead of waiting for his results in London, pacing up and down, he spent the week in Barcelona. He wandered into a Miro museum and sent me a text saying 'I'm thinking of you' and obviously I was thinking of him because of his big operation so it brought back all of these memories. I found myself getting out the Taschen book on Miro because you do forget the people and artists that touch you and shape your life when you were in a much more malleable phase.

AA: Especially when you feel like you've grown out of them, or they become unfashionable.

HP: Yeah, people like Miro and Rousseau. Again, it's that art school thing; you kind of feel embarrassed about it. If someone asked 'who is your favourite artist' and you said 'LS Lowry', they'd be 'oh no!' like you'd sodomised their pigs or something.

AA: Another painting that appears to be from a childhood memory is 'God Save the Queen' from what I would reckon is the Silver Jubilee 1977 which would have made you 4 years old.

HP: I've got these photos of me at primary school and we had a street party, which now seems unbelievable. Do I remember it, I don't know? But I remember being told about it from the photos and that made me think I remembered it. But then in actual fact I've blurred two memories because the coin I was given was actually from the 1981 Charles and Di wedding. I thought that coin was worth enough to buy a house and the fact that they were handing them out to everyone didn't seem to matter. I lost it playing football and running around and bawled my eyes out. Then this girl, Sophie Newman, said I could have hers and I slowly realised it wasn't worth much. In the show, next to 'God Save the Queen', is a painting of Ian Dury.

AA: You've made him a saint.

HP: Yeah, well that was one road that the show was going to go down. I was thinking that I could have saints and a word of wisdom from each one. With Ian Dury it's this thing about 'don't feel sorry for yourself'. That's what I get from him. Because he had polio and various things and he just said you've got to get out there and be wonderful. Likewise, Lynval Golding from The Specials has a scar down his face from a racist knife attack but he was able to find it in his heart to forgive. He always said that he wanted racists to come and talk to him and get to know him and find common ground. There's a painting of Jerry Dammers in the show called, 'Enjoy Yourself - It's Later Than You Think' which is one of the songs he and Lynval sang with The Specials. So, it was nearly that but I just didn't do it. But I never ever had any religious beliefs. I never found the bible stories very touching. I always saw a flaw in them. I think about how I bear grudges over people for the smallest things. But then you realise that so many people put up with so much more - and achieve so much more.

AA: You describe yourself as an atheist and I'm curious about the religious images in your paintings; 'Jesus Washes The Feet of his Followers' for instance.

HP: There is a really nice old painting of Jesus having his feet washed and I liked the perspective.

AA: That is an actual existing painting? Who painted it?

HP: It's by an unknown artist.

AA: Jesus looks so chuffed to be going to do this and his disciples look really uncomfortable with the whole idea.

HP: That was the key thing. The people who were told about Jesus wanted him to perform miracles and he came along and said 'consider the lilies' or 'it's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven' and they were furious. He said to the disciples and fishermen 'I am never more important than you and to prove it I'm now going to wash your feet' and they all said 'oh no, please don't'.
Do you know the Woody Allen line from Hannah and Her Sisters? This guy has been watching a TV evangelist and he turns the set off and says 'If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up'. In the last few years a lot of Tony Blair and George Bush type people are claiming religion. I saw George Bush on David Frost's In the Morning programme and Frost was saying 'there are some protesters outside the building now' and George was saying 'I don't care about them I just listen to the man upstairs'.
It's a Christian virtue to do as you would be done by so I was trying to think of a way of getting some of Jesus' messages across in a powerful way so that people would say 'oh I agree with that'. Maybe it's slightly patronising. Obviously, some peoples' knowledge of Jesus far outweighs mine.

AA: I saw George Shaw talk last night at Wilkinson Gallery. He talked about Ash Wednesday and linked his show to the religious calendar - it runs for the period of Lent. He also said that he 'had no contribution to happiness whatsoever'. You seem to be at the other end of the scale. Your show has a really happy vibe.

HP: Good. That's what I wanted. There is a cliche about how the best work comes from the artist's tortured soul and I was thinking this last year or two, being invited to Brazil to do a solo show and problems within my family resolving themselves and my sister having a baby and blah blah blah. Things are pretty good now and I can't complain. I admit to being a late starter but I think I'm starting to get less selfish, less bitter, less rude and as a person and as an artist I am slowly getting better.

'Getting Better' is at Sartorial Contemporary Art, 26 Argyle Square, London WC1H 8AP
25 March - 18 April 2009, Tues - Sat 1.30 pm - 7 pm


  1. These here ARE joyful paintings. Sorry I'm limited to the JPEGS (geographically challenged). The deer one I saw on londonpainting site put me off a bit, so I'm glad to see these and read the interview.

  2. The show is huge, it's two floors of paintings! On the press release there is a painting of the walking wounded (The deer with the artist's head on it)next to a painting of Jesus saying consider the lillies in the field. I think the artist is saying he has grown up a bit and no longer feels sorry for himself. Praise the Lord!