Interviews

Between the Mystic and the Mundane: Charles Thomson Defends Stuckism

Skull, rabbit and cat
Charles Thomson, ‘Crazy Over You’ at Trispace Gallery in London (June 2014) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Eighteen short months ago, Charles Thomson, the world’s most vocal champion of figurative painting, nearly hung up his brush. After some 30 years painting thick black lines and flat planes of color (“I called it Cloisonism, which was a 19th century practice which Van Gogh was involved with for a time”) the artist considered himself stuck. But this was only what the art world elite had always said about him.

Thomson is after all co-founder and figurehead of Stuckism, an international school of painting. (Their name is taken from an insult from Tracey Emin, who told former boyfriend Billy Childish that he was “Stuck, stuck, stuck!”) Since 1999 the Stuckists have become the shadowy other of British art, painting with emotion rather than theory, preferring the personal to the conceptual.

It might sound reactionary, but Stuckism cannot be ignored. They have a presence in 52 countries. There are 40 affiliated groups in the US alone. They can be found protesting outside many a Turner Prize show. And in 2011 they got a rubber-stamped place in art history when Penguin books included them in much talked-about anthology 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists. A certain amount of vociferousness clearly pays off.

Charles Thomson pictured at his show at Trispace
Thomson at Trispace Gallery

Thomson arrives at the gallery with a bagful of books about the world’s latest –ism. The titles tell you much of what you’d need to know: Stuckism International, Stuck in the Emotional Landscape, Stuck Between Prague and London, An Antidote to the Ghastly Turner Prize and The Enemies of Art. The artist and spokesman is a youthful and energetic 61-year-old with a measured way of speaking and a poet’s gift for metaphor. (His former sister-in-law drops by halfway through our session and confirms he is also a very talented poet.) He also asks for a full spec on the coming interview: how long, how many questions, how many minutes per answer. So he was the most methodical interviewee this writer has yet come across.

So much for nearly quitting painting: his June 2014 show at Trispace in South London featured no less than 100 new works which have been hung, often two deep, on every available space of wall. Thomson tells me there are about 100 more works at home. After grinding to a halt with Cloisonism, he has discovered a talent for raw, disharmonious colors which call to mind Expressionism and unserious serial motifs which call to mind Pop Art. There is a fusion of art history in Thomson’s output, a fact you gather he rather thrives off.

“It’s been a real renaissance,” says the artist of the current works. “I’ve never done anything like that in my life before. The steam train started and it went faster and faster until it was just speeding down the tracks.”

Indeed Thomson conveys the excitement you might expect from a man whose swapped a trusty horse and carriage for a locomotive. “I am expanding into other areas just away from personal and relationships into history for example, the bigger picture. I just want to explore and don’t really want any restrictions on my art.” Whether or not this is anachronistic, the excitement is refreshing.

Thomson’s confidence and clarity is also refreshing: “I see Stuckism as the future of painting, because if painting is going to survive it has to communicate. It has to be something that people love.” He compares conceptual art to Victorian painting, insofar as he expects the current hegemony to be sidelined by history. “The bottom line is something survives because people appreciate it and respond to it.”

Crazy over you exhibtiion installation view 2
Installation view, ‘Crazy Over You’ at Trispace Gallery

I suggest that there are many people who do enjoy visiting contemporary or conceptual art exhibitions, but Thomson expresses skepticism. “Let me take the Turner Prize, which is the embodiment of what you’re talking about. A lot of people do go there,” he admits. But having staged protests against the Prize and the show for some 14 years, Thomson has met plenty of visitors who approach the demo to say they “totally agree … It’s a load of rubbish.” And the rabble-rousing artist is surely correct to say that in the country at large “most other people haven’t got the slightest interest.”

So with what do the Stuckists oppose Tate’s annual celebration of cerebral art? “We’re very keen on, if you like, self awareness, self analysis, looking honestly inside, not using art as an escape or a mask but actually as a revelation, which we can share with other people.” Thomson says that art theory can quite often be an “evasion” and when he does offer a snippet of abstract thinking he quotes CS Lewis, the British theologian and author of the Chronicles of Narnia. It’s a far cry from the art world’s enduring interest in post-structural thought.

“In fact,” says Thomson, “we’ve launched ‘re-modernism’ to oppose post-modernism.” The artist has no time for moral relativism, irony, or cynicism, and his alternative is as reductive as it is convincing. “Rather than saying ‘There is no truth,’ I’m saying, ‘Sorry, but there is a truth. There are lots of truths. You can see them all the time. We are sitting here with a cup of tea. That is a truth and if you don’t think it is a truth I’ll take your tea away and drink it myself.’” Then he points out with a laugh: “You’re nervously reaching for your tea.” It’s true.

Crazy over you exhibtiion installation view
From ‘Crazy Over You’ at Trispace Gallery

“It’s very easy to be sophisticated and analytical and academic and intellectual and neurotic and totally tangled up in your thoughts and complexes,” Thomson continues. “It’s much harder to get down to the essence of something and sum it up.” In the same breath he cites atomic scientist Ernest Rutherford (who said: “An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”) and Jesus Christ (“He said things which resonated down the centuries, whereas other people have come up with much, much more complex things which are totally forgotten.”)

Nevertheless, many argue, myself included, that contemporary theory has debunked the myth of a heroic outsider who speaks truth to power. In which case what would Thomson say to the notion that, as Joseph Beuys suggested, “Everyone’s an artist.” “No I’m sorry,” says the confirmed painter, “I don’t think everyone is an artist. That’s ridiculous … not everyone is a dentist, not everyone is a plumber.” He expands on this by saying: “The artist to a certain extent is a seer or a visionary,” somewhere between the mystic and the mundane.

The discussion comes round to street art and Thomson’s reminiscent use of a skull motif. “Well, the thing is a bullet doesn’t have to be a million miles to miss you, it just has to be a milimeter away to miss you and the same thing with street art, it can be a millimeter away” He says that whereas anyone can paint, say, an old man, not everyone can do so like Rembrandt. Unlike street art, he says of his own work, “I hope it will be something you’ll look at today and you’ll feel a resonance on a deeper level and that is the magic of art. If I can do that then I’ve succeeded.”

Thomson’s words resonate at least as much as his works. Both are engaging and lucid. Neither are likely to put conceptual art fans off their standard fare. You might, however, bear this in mind: “The work is the theory. If it doesn’t itself communicate, it doesn’t work.” And then, in one more irrefutable analogy, Thomson sums it all up: “If you listen to a song on the radio you don’t need the presenter to sit there explaining it for half an hour.” Ironically, our interview lasted half an hour.

Crazy Over You: New Paintings by Charles Thompson took place June 7–18, 2014 at Trispace Gallery (Drummond Road, London).

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