Interviews

Stuart Semple Talks Art After Death

By David Jenison

Several years ago, British artist Stuart Semple painted a green line across a new piece titled Nut Job. The same line appeared on his electrocardiography (EKG) graph when Semple momentarily died from an unknown nut allergy. That experience changed his life, and Semple poured new emotional energy into his art with results that were equal parts terrifying and mesmerizing. Collected by a long list of tastemaking celebrities, the 35-year-old pop artist famously incorporates found imagery and text on enormous canvases that he transforms into radical explorations of modern youth culture. 

How did your major health scare impact your artwork?

After I died in the hospital, my whole life changed. They couldn’t tell me what caused it, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to die the next day or when. My mouth was swollen so I couldn't speak, and I sat there painting. That first piece I made was completely different than anything that I ever made before. It scared the hell out of me that thing. But that work changed it.

Tell me about your artwork now.

Each show is its own body of work. A lot like a musical album, the pieces fit together, so there is a theme for each series I make. For instance, this show is about what I see as the death of the counterculture and the death of the teenager. It’s the way counterculture or subversive culture has been changed and commodified. In the ʼ90s in England, we had a new criminal justice bill that basically said you could not get together with your friends and listen to repetitive beats. If more than three or four people get together listening to repetitive beats, it was a criminal offense. It was a way to kill acid house parties and raves, which completely changed everything. The last sort of big U.K. counter-cultural movement was raves, free parties, acid house. When that closed, people were forced into their bedrooms, and things changed a lot. This show is very much about that. The way we used to go out in the public expressing ourselves, coming together, listening to music, sharing, was all swept under the carpet. It all became underground in a different way.

Were you part of the acid house scene?

I was a teenager, I didn't know, but I saw the impact that it had on culture. Great new music came out of that, huge expression, people coming together. It was almost like a ʼ60s moment but for my time.

Your current show is titled My Sonic Youth. What does the name reference?

The soundtrack of my youth, what I grew up with. I grew up in a very small seaside town. There was very little culture there, and certainly no art. Music was something I could connect to, and those counterculture voices told me that it was alright to be me. To be listening to [David] Bowie and REM and Joy Division and the Happy Mondays and Morrissey and all that stuff, it [told me it] was alright to be a weirdo. There was someone else like me. All that music gave me permission to do what I do.

Your pieces commonly include pop culture iconography, and you have described your process as a remix. Would you still describe your process that way?

That still works. I like this idea of hybridity. I don't think we can create new things, but we can create new combinations of things. That idea of remixing culture to tell a new story is something that really excites me.

Slider Images: Kill Your Idols, Zombie-Head, The Assassination of Kurt Cobain, My Loneliness Is Killing Me, MK Ultra, You're Not Alone, Death of the Party, Pictures Came and Broke Her Heart, I'm a Weirdo What the Hell Am I Doing Here? (Afraid) 

When you combine different pieces, do you try to show contrast?

No. I like these works to be their own thing or something as new as possible. You don't need to recognize where the song lyric or symbol is from, for instance, for the work to be effective. They are like ingredients in a cake. If you like the cake, you don’t say, “That is an egg, that is flour, what is that?” You just say, “That is a tasty cake.”

In the 1950s, British painter Richard Hamilton helped launch the pop art scene. A critic wrote that Hamilton encapsulated a love-hate relationship with consumer culture and glamor, while artists like yourself use the same medium to explore the current climate of fear and violence. Is that an accurate assessment?

Definitely so. Hamilton is interesting because he happened at the start of pop. We were starting to see the consumer brands and fetishizing these cars and consumer goods. That has played out for 50 years now, and I am seeing a generation of kids brought up on things they cannot have. You can't afford those sneakers, the flat-screen TV, all the stuff MTV sold us. There is a whole load of kids that never attained that, and they are really pissed off about it. When they rioted on the streets of London a few years ago, they went out to steal sneakers from Footlocker. They didn't go to New Bond Street and steal a Gucci handbag. They stole a pair of Nikes, and that's the aspiration that they have. What Hamilton almost predicted has happened and worse, and I think these marketeers have taken no responsibility for how they left this generation of children. My generation.

How does this idea manifest in your artwork?

There're a lot of sneakers in the new show for that reason. There is a painting of a car on fire and a kid in a hoodie (Children of the Revolution image above), and that image is taken directly from the London riots we just had. We think of these kids as benign sitting at home playing video games and consuming, but to go out and riot and burn things is very active but completely misguided. It's not like my parents’ generation protesting against the Vietnam War. These kids are almost protesting against consumerism without realizing that is what they're doing.

What puts you in the right mindset to create art?

Music does it. When I am stuck, it is music, but I cannot put my finger on exactly what. It might be a lyric or a certain emotion in the song, and it will trigger something, but normally I have to be very isolated and alone. You sit there and wait for it. It is like surfing. I can sit in the studio for months waiting for the wave, and you got to get up on it and get as much as you can before you come off it.

You talk about the death of counterculture. What about the death of cannabis counterculture?

That goes in lots of ways. It probably parallels the death of the teenager. It comes out in the promise of the ʼ60s in a lot of ways for me: the music, the freedom of expression. Maybe it shifted with the music. Different drugs became popular, and we saw the rise of ecstasy and things like that. And now we have these legal highs that are absolutely horrendous. Lots of kids have died in England from stuff being made in weird factories in China. I think cannabis has had a resurgence from people who realize how useful it can be or who remembered how useful it is. Has that culture died? I don't know. I understand that there is a commercial side to that now that wasn't there before, but even growing up, we had things like Cheech and Chong movies. There was always that culture.

Have you seen cannabis play a role in promoting creativity?

It gives me panic attacks, unfortunately, but I think it is very different in England compared to here. I understand the medicinal, therapeutic and spiritual aspects of it, and people often overlook the potential that it has for consciousness and connectivity. I think I get to a similar place through quietness and meditation. These ancient [plants] have been given to us as a gift, and we should use them for what they were intended, but it doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with me personally.

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