Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

Installation View. Photo: Stephen White

I’ve always liked Sarah Lucas. I both envy her clever creative wit and admire her ability to piss a lot of people off just through honest artistic communication. To offend meaningfully can be an inert skill in itself, often misused and derided by many but undoubtedly a significant catalyst in the creation of conversation, dialogue, debate and sometimes venomous expulsions. Tracey Emin, whose very name has become a dirty word among some cliques, is a contemporaneous example of this type of artwork; honest, too honest for most, but her works are the results of sad and poignant catharsis, sifting chaotically and urgently through the memories of a troubled childhood and beyond. Sarah Lucas, although addressing similarly taboo notions of sex and society, does so with far less heart-rending effect. Her works intend to provoke, flinging an upturned middle finger at critics and misogynists. Viewing them feels a bit like how I would imagine watching the Sex Pistols live would; a vicious, funny but unsettlingly serious piss-take.

Lucas’s recent retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery placed many older, familiar pieces alongside her current offerings. Well-worn but still fabulous classics such as Au Naturel quietly stole the thunder of recently completed wall prints, but in general the work continues with the subject matter and treatment she became famous for in the 80’s and 90’s during her time as a key member of the YBAs. Lucas treats her materials as punk musicians treated their lyrics; their presentation harsh and biting but ultimately forcing you, the recipient, to confront uncomfortable representations of a very everyday thing: sex, sexuality, the human body (or in the punks’ case, political and societal affairs).

Au_Naturel, 1994

Au_Naturel, 1994

It’s interesting what still makes us gasp today. In a tale as old as time (even beauty & the beast were at it in the end) it’s still sex which raises eyebrows and fuels the raging psychotic fury of Tea-Party loons, with half a second of nipple at the Superbowl inciting the blisteringly outraged complaints of half a million Americans. So despite our entirely natural urges and the booming global porn industry indicating that perhaps we should just give in to this one, it’s still, amazingly, a prime subject to ignite controversy. In some pieces Lucas uses skulls and teeth to represent the vagina, tapping into a commonly held belief that men are in fact afraid of it and highlighting the fact it is rarely positively portrayed. She’s certainly not the only person to call attention to this, feminists across the world have been saying it since the 60’s and actress Evan Rachel Wood recently made a similar complaint about public attitudes to the vagina following the editing out of a scene from her new film in which her character received oral sex “Accept that women are sexual beings, accept that some men like pleasuring women,” she said. “Accept that women don’t just have to be f**ked and say thank you. We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves”. Facebook reactions to my sharing the artwork of avant-garde artist Casey Jenkins proved to be similar, consisting of a surprising (to me at least) mix of disgust, shock, anger and hilarity at the use of the vagina in art. Lucas challenges and mocks our repressed and discriminative stereotypes of sexuality through often brutal parody. Teeth as vaginas; scared of it now? A huge wall of penises; shocked yet? She cleverly references the insulting colloquialisms of popular culture with objects such as fried eggs and kebabs, transforming the slang from verbal to visual. Through forcing us to confront images which may embarrass us or which address negative stereotypes through distasteful representation, such as the sloppy fish for a vagina, she desensitises us to the very ordinary reality of our own bodies. Her less explicit works continue to explore sexuality, with humour abounding in pieces such as the headless self-portrait, which I at first took to be a balaclava, the exposed nipples staring brazenly at the viewer like the squinty eyes of a post-party raver.

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992

Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, 1992



My trip around the exhibition concluded with overhearing a fellow visitor whisper ‘is she a lesbian?’. I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear this as her sexual preference had not even come close to crossing my mind, although the fact it came up at all serves only to hammer the point she is making about sexual stereoptying and association. Because although her work deals with this topic, it is not, unlike Emin’s work, primarily concerned with the emotional aspect surrounding sex, or even about relationships in any way. It is almost primeval in its exploration of our sexual selves and speaks to me virtually exclusively about social stigma and attitude. The day a carefully situated kebab fails to cause offence is the day our society will have finally learnt a valuable lesson. But what would Lucas teach us then?


Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?


A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

DSC_1275 DSC_1268_b&w

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee

MK - Lady with Hole, 2009 Image from Wellcome Collection

MK – Lady with Hole, 2009
Image from Wellcome Collection

Art Brut: is visual creation at its purest – a spontaneous psychic flow from brain to surface

Outsider Art: has been used increasingly loosely and can often now refer to any artist who is untrained or with disabilities or suffering social exclusion, whatever the nature of their work

source: Raw Vision Definitions

Outsider Art, or the more aptly-named Art Brut (raw art), has always been the genre which fascinates me the most. Its methods and theories are born of the same basis as my own values regarding art production and criticism. Its outputs never fail to fascinate me, conveying in often cryptic form inherent emotions and opinions through a direct outpouring of expression. The genre seems to be having something of a renaissance recently, with the intense Koestler Trust ‘prison art’ shows at the Southbank, the very in-vogue Hayward Gallery hosting the Museum of Everything at their current Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition and of course Souzou; Outsider Art in Japan, which finished at the Wellcome Collection on Sunday. Outsider Art hasn’t been this fashionable since Basquiat in the 80s. Good. Lovely. But although almost every facet of it strikes a chord with me, I’ve also always been a tad dubious about the label and its use, or misuse, in the separation of art and artists.

Even in an exhibition about art from a culture I know very little about, I can see stylistic riffs running throughout many of the works which would probably help to classify them as ‘outsider’. One such example is that of smallness and intricate detail which can often, but not always, be linked to introversion and a lack of confidence. I can use the case of a student at Artbox as an example of my experience of this: 3 years ago Chris, on encouragement to put material to paper, would almost always begin a detailed and creative scene in the furthest corner of the paper, using up often only about 4cm2 of an A4 page. It was 2 years before we realised the significance of that technique, as Chris gradually opened himself up to us and to his own artistic expression; he can currently be found sweeping brushstrokes across A1 sheets blindfolded whilst listening to music. Transformation. Many people don’t emerge from the cocoon in the way Chris did; for some, the lack of confidence and fear of opening up continues to manifest through their works. Norimitsu Kokubo’s intensely detailed city scenes, Yumiko Kawai’s intricate embroidery and Shota Katsube’s army of tiny twist-tie figures are all examples of this style. A preoccupation with size also features in other works such as ‘Mother’ by Takako Shibata; a poignantly ever increasing and subsequently disappearing-off-the-page portrait of the artist’s absent mother.

Takako Shibata - Mother Image from Getty Images via The

Takako Shibata – Mother
Image from Getty Images via The

Shota Katsube - Untitled, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Shota Katsube – Untitled, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo -  The Economically Booming City of Tianjin Image from Wellcome Collection

Norimitsu Kokubo – The Economically Booming City of Tianjin
Image from Wellcome Collection

Outsider Art is sometimes defined as being produced by those who create spontaneously, without the influence of the establishment and art culture and without a commission. This is almost only ever partly true. Prison artists for example have often been very much informed by culture and are aware of the established market. But you can see the general idea ie. they’re not fresh meat straight out of St Martin’s, sitting in a South London studio tearing their hair out in a dramatically melancholic search for the inspiration to win this year’s Turner Prize. Outsider Artists are usually those who have come to the practice through somewhat ‘anti-social’ means; they are often incarcerated in a prison or mental health institute, but by no means always. Art therapy would fall under the ‘Outsider’ classification, but in art therapy the artists can be from any walk of life and in any situation, eg.divorce, depression, rather than necessarily prison-based or mentally ill. So if the scope can include Art Therapy and definition is therefore not reliant on any specific life situations, it follows that inclusion in the Outsider Art category must be more focused on the means of production.

Art Brut, Outsider Art, Souzou – Raw Art. Art by means of immediate and direct expression, an outpouring, art from the soul. I see what the categorists are trying to do through this definition, but although part of me agrees, another part doesn’t. In some cases it is possible to distinguish fairly easily between types of people, situation and production style, eg. the difference in work and means between a graduate art student trying to pay the bills and a lifer in prison extracting some cathartic relief from art production, but what about in an instance such as between Paul Gaugin and Vincent van Gogh? One a manically depressed recluse who cut off his own ear in a fit of rage (allegedly), the other considered to be, although perhaps not entirely straight-laced, a fairly well-balanced traditional artistè. Despite fitting most of the criteria for an ‘Outsider Artist’ van Gogh is not generally included in this grouping and was also producing art for recognition, for money, as was Basquiat in the 80s even though he was classed as Outsider.  In parallel with this, many artists in the Souzou exhibition contradict the classification by creating works influenced by cultural tradition or are known for their work and have sold pieces. Through social and charitable initiatives such as Artbox or Centerpieces (I’m lucky to own a fabulous ‘outsider art’ piece by Rich Zyzanski) this is actually more and more common, and not at all a bad thing. Does this then diminish from their ability to produce a direct expressive outpouring through artistic production? I don’t think so. Surely these rigid boundaries of definition cannot meaningfully apply to all artists without diminishing their individuality? Our very human obsession with labels and boxes leads us to the point where we ignore the essential grey area, the blurring of the boundaries and as such, the system files in error. Is it about time to de-compartmentalise art or should we step up the factioning to create a more meticulous framework? Either way by its very nature one size does not fit all when it comes to Art Brut.

Yumiko Kawai - Circles, 2009 Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Yumiko Kawai – Circles, 2009
Image from Social Welfare Corporation Yamanami Atelier

Nobuji Higa - Naked Woman 10, 2011 Image from Wellcome Collection

Nobuji Higa – Naked Woman 10, 2011
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda - Untitled, 90-00 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryoko Koda – Untitled, 90-00
Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji - Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Takashi Shuji – Telephone and Water Jug and Roller, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji - Okinawan Lion, 2010 Image from Wellcome Collection

Ryosuke Otsuji – Okinawan Lion, 2010
Image from Wellcome Collection

Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, Rabbit’s Skin Leggings, a Brave Nez Percé, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, Rabbit’s Skin Leggings, a Brave Nez Percé,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

It’s a fairly rare occurrence when I find myself in London with nothing specific to do. Living in Kent but working in London I’m almost always en route to something pre-planned. But when such a lovely occasion does arise I am almost overwhelmed by the possibilities and can feel myself potentially heading into headless chicken mode, unable to make a sound decision due to an over-abundance of choices. On this last particular rainy Tuesday in London I had only an hour to spare and an empty pocket. Standing in St Martin’s Lane I made the decision to develop my underused sketchbook within the confines of the National Portrait Gallery, not a very regular haunt of mine and so a welcome change. Climbing the marble staircase I was pleasantly surprised to spot that the current exhibition is in fact free and, as it turns out, more than worth a visit.

George Catlin’s portraits of Native American Indians are both strikingly powerful and sinisterly suspicious. I was shocked initially by the wall text which stated that Catlin’s images are almost unique, a rare insight into the life inside the tribe and as such, largely what our representations of Native American Indians are still based on today. It could well be the cynic in me, but at a time when Native American Indians were considered savages and being driven from their homes and their settlements, how likely is it really that a white American contemporary could paint them and their lifestyles entirely unbiased by his own experience?

I’m not the only one to have thought this of course, even those at the time accused Catlin of exaggerating for effect which, if true, casts doubt on the accuracy of his portrayals. Although there is no reason to suggest that Catlin had entirely, lets say, unsavoury motives, it’s almost certain he was not acting purely in the interests of the Indians. As the exhibition points out, Catlin was, as well as being an ambitious painter, of an entrepreneurial nature. Working hard to get himself established he set up his own shows, made continuous and increasingly desperate efforts to sell his Native American Indian collection and highlighted the sensational aspects of his experiences to acquire an audience. He did, in effect, exploit the culture he claimed he was trying to protect. Certain members of the tribes were understandably wary of trusting and becoming involved with a white outsider but, after seeing others pose for portraits, became intrigued and were won over. Catlin’s practice, well, portraiture in general I suppose, does appeal to some of the less impressive aspects of human nature; vanity, power, self-importance. He essentially infiltrated them, infecting both them and their culture with practices embodying western concepts and hierarchies. He wasn’t the only one. Not the first and certainly not the last.

It’s possible, or even likely that Catlin proceeded with generally good intentions but, like many philanthropic objectives, ended up being patronising and ultimately damaging. His work Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington is clearly a morality tale, intentional propaganda for the good of the tribesmen. A tribe member posing in traditional dress is shown on one half of the canvas alongside a portrayal of the same man on his return from treaty talks in Washington; suited, swaggering and complete with cane and pipe. Catlin, in his eagerness to captivate his audience at home and to commercialise the image of the Native American Indian people, succeeded in using them for his own advancement.

The paintings themselves are spellbinding. Entirely accurate or not, an overwhelming sense of personality radiates from the works, each, despite western poses and potentially characterised representation, conveying the depth inherent in a people whose history outranks the immigrant Americans by thousands of years. The voyeuristic, sensationalist aspect of their attraction is still relevant, the brilliance and beauty of their dress still captivating. Whether or not we believe he was truly a force for the good of the tribesmen themselves, we can’t deny that his paintings brim over with an intensity of expression and now, as then, do not fail to mesmerize their audience.

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Medicine Man, Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man Blackfoot/Siksika, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Medicine Man, Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man Blackfoot/Siksika,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, Wife of the Chief Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, Wife of the Chief Blackfoot/Kainai,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Shón-ka, The Dog, Chief of the Bad Arrow Points Band Western Sioux/Lakota, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Shón-ka, The Dog, Chief of the Bad Arrow Points Band Western Sioux/Lakota,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin – American Indian Portraits is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd June and is free entry.

A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton-wool are factors having equal rights with paint

From my own experience, it is rather rare to find an artist (and certainly not an art critic) who has no preconceived ideas of what is art or what is not art; what is good art and what is bad art. I have always felt this to be an indulgent delusion, an often defensive reaction to the simple fact that art is subjective and that contesting this is usually an attempt to force control, system and structure upon the art world. And it works. Just as we used to have the salons, the grand tours, now we have journalist critics, art fairs, the Turner prize. The art establishment is considered by most people to be an authority on art. They have managed to convince a whole populace of the notion that they know best. Not so. It is an impossibility. As with the spoon, there is no right or wrong. I do have some limited experience on which to base this; after spending long hours in lectures and discussion groups at university listening to my art history tutors regurgitate the opinions and thoughts of many others before them, I soon realised that this staid and elitist subject was actually mostly, how do I say this…Bullshit. I’m not sure what I was expecting really, and I don’t doubt my experience there enhanced my writing skills, but it did feel intrinsically snobbish and narrow-minded. The same snobbery I hear from many an ‘educated’ person and repeated back in acceptance by the ‘ uneducated’ ie. non-academics who have been conditioned to believe artistic experience is reserved for a select group of people which doesn’t include them. The belief that to appreciate art you need to know about and/or be able to produce art, is perpetuated throughout the art establishment; trickling down from the publicly educated directors of organisations such as the Tate and National Gallery, and despite the valiant efforts of some to broaden the boundaries of inclusion. Unfortunately, the roots of these attitudes are mired deep in the dusty old vaults of The English Class System and its partner in crime, Entitlement. To cut them at the source requires more than even a barrage of well-meaning education programmes.

This ranting tangent does in fact have some relevance to Kurt Schwitters, who was himself something of a non-conformist, challenging the traditional status of paint in a way many would have seen as blasphemous for an artist. The Nazis certainly saw it this way, branding Schwitters ‘degenerate’ and forcing him to flee his native Germany in exile. Through developing the Merzbau (a large sculptural installation first constructed in Hanover, then re-explored later in Norway and the Lake District; utilising the very structure of a house as part of the work), Schwitters developed a term to describe his artistic practice and beliefs: Merz. Essentially Merz encompasses the basic principles of what I also believe – that is, it is not only traditional techniques which can produce works of art; objects all around us are both art materials, art medium and art pieces in themselves. Instead of using line for line, he used materials and objects to convey their own qualities in accordance with his requirements; wool to express softness, metal to communicate line, and specific arrangements of 2D materials which denote areas of space, in a manner reminiscent of Richard Hamilton.

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932
© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

A large proportion of Schwitters’ work is made from collages of used paper elements from his own, or other people’s, lives. It makes sense. Why should art be a copy of life? Why not made from life; life as it has been lived? After leaving Germany for Norway in 1940, his work flourished as he started construction of two new Merzbau’s, but not for long. As the Nazis advanced across Europe to Norway, Schwitters decamped yet again, this time to Britain, Edinburgh to be precise, where he was promptly classed as an ‘ enemy alien’ and sent on to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Despite the incarceration, a modest silver lining became apparent; the camp allowed, nay even encouraged, the pursuit of the arts. Whilst at the Isle of Man, Schwitters engaged in prolific production, using whatever materials he found laying nearby. The results tell a story, a lesson in imagination and creativity. Pieces made from old newspapers, painting on linoleum; the things most people would class as rubbish and yet Schwitters could see their potential for expression and their uses as communicators of formal aspects. Pieces of seemingly random ephemera are actually carefully placed and thoughtfully chosen, such as in Half-Moon, where a pink flamingo takes centre-stage but conversely, it’s semi-translucence suggests it’s presence as negligible. After being released from the internment camps after 16 months and with over 200 works completed whilst inside, Schwitters moved to London in 1941. His later works begin to move away from the sharp lines of paper and wood, and towards the suggestion of a fascination with the curve. In a lively dialogue between the canvas and the forms protruding form it, he began to move further and further outwards from the flat surface, eventually going so far as to leave the canvas altogether and produce freestanding sculptures. At this point, Schwitters is encompassing all aspects of his work at once; painting (of which he produced many traditional representative pieces, sometimes to make a living, sometimes as artistic practice), sculpture, and his own unique marriage of the two.

doremifasolasido c.1930Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

doremifasolasido c.1930
Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947
© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District and began working on a new Merzbau. Continuing the semi-sculptural collage techniques, he began working on a wall relief, incorporating nearby objects and intending to extend the work throughout the abandoned house in which it began. Sadly, his death at this point meant that the installation was never completed, but the subsequent efforts to transport it and the battle over its purchase, denote the importance Schwitter’s work has to many people. As for me, anyone who challenges the traditional closed-mindedness of the art world is as close as you’ll get to a hero in my book.

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943
© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

All images are by Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters in Britain is showing at Tate Britain until 12th May 2013. See here for more information.

At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.

I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.

I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.

                 The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.

So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.


Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?

But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?