What do you get if you take the poppy sensibilities of Andy Warhol, the anxious teen spirit of Kurt Cobain, and the omnivorous media intake of millennials? Something like Stuart Semple.
The 37-year-old artist paints canvases, curates exhibitions and creates installations, drawing on song lyrics and politics to produce vivid visual works and smart contemporary interventions such as his Happy Clouds: smiley face-shaped, helium-filled suds, which he first floated over London in 2009, in response to the deeply gloomy financial crisis. As he wrestles with his Secret 7” commission, Stuart describes the role music plays in his art, and why some Pink Floyd records look better than they sound.
You’re an ambassador for Mind. What led you take up that role?
It’s just something I really care about. It all started when I tried to initiate a creative therapy fund. That was founded to give people experiencing any kind of mental ill-health problems access to therapies in their local communities. We did a huge auction underneath Waterloo: Tracey Emin and the Chapmans came out. We raised a lot of money, and I’m still helping the charity.
How well do those sort of art therapies work?
They work fantastically well. OK, they’re not going to cure everything, but take something like the Hackney choir. That helps people get out there, and realise they’re not alone, get together and be creative.
Mental health is a hard thing to treat, as it’s not a straightforward medical problem, is it?
No, from my point of view, it isn’t solely medical. Also, you’ve got to bear in mind that GPs are very hard-pressed; they’re facing funding shortages, and dealing with someone who is feeling down, it’s more difficult than dishing out some pills.
What role does music play in your work?
A huge one. I’m obsessed with music. My music collection is so vast. Growing as I did on the south coast of England, the only real art I could access was music. That was how I discovered poetry and visual arts. Album art was the first art I ever had; I grew up buying 12” vinyl, which I bought because they looked cool.
Which ones do you remember liking?
Factory Records were big for me; I loved all Peter Saville’s album covers. I like Roger Dean’s amazing psychedelic ones for 70s bands like Yes, and Neville Brody’s punk sleeves, too.
Sometimes a Yes album sleeve can look a lot better than a Yes album sounds. Have you ever found yourself liking a record cover, but disliking the music?
Totally. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time with Storm Thorgerson, who designed a lot of the Pink Floyd sleeves. He was telling me about flying sheep out to Hawaii, and the freedom he got from Pink Floyd. Some of those Pink Floyd records are a bit boring, but Storm’s sleeves are mind-blowing.
It's amazing to think that British rock bands could once afford to do things like fly sheep out to the South Pacific, just for an album shoot.
Yes. That period is gone now. It’s all done by in-house designers now; it feels as if a lot of the artistry has come out of that.
Do you ever wish you had been a musician?
Yeah. Music is pure emotion; as a painter I’ve always been so jealous of musicians. If I could have sung or played an instrument I would have done that, because you can just convey emotion in a song, and you can’t in a painting. When you see a performer or hear a very powerful piece of music, it just has that effect. I find it really hard to do that with works on canvas. You know all my paintings are inspired by songs?
Yeah, I have this huge blackboard in my studio full of song lyrics, and they will eventually find their way into a painting. It’s kind of normal for me to jump into a work from a song.
What lyrics are you working with at the moment?
I’m picking quite political lyrics, actually, from the 1990s. Stuff like [the punk folk band] the Levellers.
What else are you working on?
Quite a lot. We’re about to do a huge project in the centre of Denver, Colorado. We’re shutting off the centre of town; we’ve got a big inflatable dancefloor one weekend, and letting off these Happy Clouds [helium-filled soap suds in the shape of smiley faces]. We’ve also opened the world’s smallest contemporary art centre in an old police phone box in Bournemouth. Oh, and I’m doing my Secret 7”.
After such large-scale projects, is it nice being limited to a 7”x7” square?
Yes, but it’s difficult, as I’m doing the [singer/band’s name removed in the interests of secrecy] and it’s such powerful music. You’ve got a small amount of space to express it all. It’s hard, but it will come.
This article originally appeared in The Peninsulist in June 2018. All images courtesy of Stuart Semple.