Today I met Iconoclastic Artist Neal Fox at Daniel Blau in Hoxton Square, where his ongoing exhibition ‘Beware of the God’ is situated. The exhibition consists of twelve 2,5 meter high Stained Glass Windows; twelve alternative apostles who aimed a firm kick towards Christianity and kicked hard. Next door, at the White Cube, the Chapman Brothers have carved away patches of skin in the face of both Jesus and Mary. The sculptures are numerous and very well made, but I doubt that “Jake or Dinos Chapman” are the sculptors. They are (probably) the messengers, which is fine, but it is more fascinating to see Neal Fox’s work next door because he is the creator – from sketch to final product. To create Stained Glass Windows is an intricate process with a thousand-year history.
It should have been expected: Neal Fox turned up an hour late for the interview with drowsy but sparkling eyes and invited me to a coffee in an apologetic manner. He fits perfectly into the artist stereotype – always slightly absent as if constructing intricate drawings in his mind as we speak. Neal is gifted with a great sense of humor and a sharp mind, no one else had pointed out to me with a smile on the lips that the recent rioters made sure to leave KFC in an impeccable state. Why would they demolish their favorite restaurant? This is exactly why we love Neal’s art; he looks at the world and goes ‘this is/was going on, whether we like it or not. To me it is comedy, because I want life to be fun.’ Then he adds eight more dimensions to the story to make it even more fun. Many times the world is based on his grandfather’s debauched life story, but there are also more recent characters depicted.
I understand that your grandfather, John Watson, who was a debauched Soho socialite, has had remarkable influence on your life, although he died when you were still very young. Who was Mr. Watson?
My grandfather was a bomber pilot in WW2, a writer, a TV-host and a heavy drinker. I grew up surrounded by my family’s memories of him. After WW2 he was tortured by awful dreams throughout his life, until he eventually died from his heavy whiskey sessions at a fairly early age. We can’t imagine what they all went through, back then there was no therapy for soldiers. The torturing nightmares with dead children and innocent civilians drove him to seek comfort in the bottoms of a thousand empty whiskey bottles. I read his auto-biographical book when I was 21, which is the same age that he was in at that time, up in the air, dropping bombs. It is strange to think about now, when young people are stuck in front of their PlayStation.
My grandfather also wrote American-style detective paperback books and he was the one to publish Burrough’s Naked Lunch in London. I have always been fascinated by his life and he has guided me through an imaginary world of excessive behavior; a world where I imagine them all to meet and there is always room for new characters to enter. Whenever I read a book, watch a movie or drink; it is research! My grandfather used to call it drinking research. It is all feeding my brain and my future drawings.
Who has told you the tales of your grandfather?
My grandmother, who is an amazing old lady, has told me everything about my grandfather. My grandmother is still going strong; always up for a laugh and drinking plenty of whiskey although she is 88 years old. She is in my grandfather’s Stained Glass Window at the exhibition, on the top; they are dancing. Hopefully my grandfather would have been proud to see himself there depicted like an alternative saint.
My father, who is a great painter although he is not commercially focused, has also told me endless stories and introduced me to many great authors. In fact, I am named after Neal Cassady who was Jack Kerouac’s friend and the inspiration for Dean in On the Road.
I can see the resemblance! Did your grandfather meet any of the others in person?
I don’t know and that has always been a great source of inspiration for me; that question really fuels my imagination. Most of my work has been an investigation of the dark realm of my grandfather’s experiences, or that is at least where it all begins. Soho was very different back then and there are few places that have been left untouched. Most if it is gone now, but no-one can touch my inner world!
I am sure you could have chosen to create the Stained Glass Windows without using as much color as you eventually did. Have you travelled somewhere recently that infused all those colors in you?
It is more likely to be related to an amazing psychedelic trip at the house of late Paulita Sedgwick, late cousin of Edie Sedgwick; one of Andy Warhol’s superstars. Paulita was a painter and her colorful, intense and magical paintings were all over the place; they came alive and served as windows to a different world. We ended up staying inside for several days, because we were too afraid to go outside. A bumper sticker on her front door said ‘Beware of the God’ and I decided to make it the title for my exhibition at Daniel Blau. Paulita was an extraordinary and generous woman, who suffered from brain cancer and tried to cure herself with magic.
I used to work mainly in black and white, but life has been more colorful since that experience. Also, working with stained glass as a medium sort of required it of me and it is still just a few but strong basic colors.
Jean Genet, Neal Fox, 2010-11, Leaded stained glass in steel frame
How would you describe the impact these strong personalities have had on your life; did you ever inject bug powder or “sit in your house for days on end staring at the roses in the closet”?
No, not yet. I’ve never stared at the roses in my closet, but maybe I should! I have mainly been inspired by the strong integrity and self-belief in these iconoclasts; they did it their own way, completely untouched by present ideas, restrictions and beliefs. They broke new ground and although there is a small portion of irony in my exhibition of Stained Glass Windows, (a hint towards today’s celebrity culture) I feel that these are the people that deserve praise and honor for the impact they have had on writers, musicians and artists.
In earlier exhibitions you have gone wild with the interiors; covering everything in patterns. I imagine that stepping inside must have been a real trip. The show you are having now at Daniel Blau is pretty straight forward in comparison. Was this your decision or did the gallery limit your expression?
Well, it is when we create shows as the Le Gun Collective that we tend to go outside the frames and all over the place, because we accelerate each other and improvise like musicians. But you are giving me ideas now!
Your big drawings suggest novel sized narratives; do you ever write stories connected to your drawings?
I write when I work on pieces, it is a part of the creative process, but I haven’t included any written narratives in my finished works so far. An image says a thousand words, as they say. The mind-map sort of drawings that I create suggest narratives, it is a crazy trip through my mind with references to pop culture; it is a mind within a mind within a mind! It all makes sense to me, but I’m not sure anyone else gets it. It could perhaps be interesting to write a novel.
That would be a mad, mad adventure. In the interview with Dazed and Confused you mention having strange dreams in the stained glass factory. Please tell me about those dreams!
I was staying in a flat above the stained glass factory, working at night all by myself in this huge space full of medieval Stained Glass Windows depicting angels and saints. I was told that there was a lady ghost haunting the factory, which kind of freaked me out. This one night when I was working on the Aleister Crowley-piece I was haunted by him in my dreams. Crowley was pissed off at me for doing this window and put a curse on me. Earlier that night when I was leaving the studio downstairs I heard a loud crash behind me; I turned back, but nothing had happened. I don’t know what that was all about.
There are many stories woven around Crowley’s persona involving ghosts, demons and curses. Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin used to live in the Boleskine House, Aleister Crowley’s old residence next to Loch Ness, and he said that the house was haunted by a decapitated head. There are also some who believe that the Loch Ness monster was created by demons summoned by Crowley during one of his seances. We don’t know what is real and what has been imagined in people’s heads, but no matter what; Crowley not the kind of person you want to piss off.
He should be proud if anything to be in there with the others, I understand that it was a delicate procedure to create the Stained Glass Windows.
Yes, I like to believe that he sees it as a compliment.
I came across James Unsworth’s Turtle Sex movie at the exhibition Parallel Connections at Wayward Gallery in June, curated by my friend John Angel. It is a truly mind-blowing piece of work and can easily be compared to your work. Have the two of you ever thought of collaborating? It would be an exponential equation.
That might be a good idea actually! We have never collaborated, but I do admire James’ work and he has been one of the contributing artists for Le Gun. We are both inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and communicate similar ideas; he goes all the way.
Since I am half Swedish I am really curious to know what “wishy washy Scandinavian” means?
Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to insult all Scandinavians, but I just find that a lot of the art being created today is wishy washy, sort of IKEA-style. It is just made to be pretty on the wall; decorative stuff. I can’t stand it.
Can you tell me more about the Le Gun “theme park”-dream mentioned in the Crane.tv video? That would be amazing.
All journalists tend to ask ‘What are you doing next?’ and the Le Gun theme-park is our standard answer to that; a bit of a joke but not really. It is something we have been dreaming about.
(Details have been censored)
Do you think that the spirits of the dead linger around in our world on a different dimension?
I believe that all great personalities who break new ground by taking on the world in an unapologetic manner are a part of our collective memory; they break down frames of thought and extend the horizon.
After a couple of drinks it was time to leave, because of a rumor that the riots were approaching. Gallery Director Brad Feuerhelm was mildly impressed as he was forced to show an interested collector out the door.
Elinros Henriksdotter, 09.08.2011