On Monday morning, I roused myself as I used to and hopped on my bike for a cycle to Clifford Chance on Upper Bank Street, Canary Wharf. I was heading down to see this year’s Annual International LGBT Art Exhibition. This is the ninth year Clifford Chance have hosted a global exhibition across 8 offices across the globe on 4 continents. When I arrived, I was met by the charming Nigel Frank, art consultant for the firm. Unlike many companies, whose corporate art collections consist of vast canvases which could disparagingly described as ‘lobby art’, this international law firm has a large and respected print collection.
‘Art provides an amenity to staff and visitors. It’s about making the office environment interesting.’ Nigel Frank, Art Consultant
On the journey up to the gallery on the 30th floor of the building, I asked Nigel about the thinking behind the Pride exhibitions. The original idea behind these shows stemmed from Arcus, Clifford Chance’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employee network, and was a way of promoting the importance of diversity within the company. As the shows became an annual global event, they grew in visibility and became a way of highlighting the companies support of the global LGBT community.
‘Diversity is a cornerstone of our success, and this annual celebration of the creative talent of the LGBT artistic community is a testament to our commitment to fostering and supporting a multifaceted workplace in which everyone can thrive.’ Malcolm Sweeting, Clifford Chance senior partner
This is the second time I have visited Clifford Chance’s penthouse exhibition spaces. My first visit was in the olympic year, 2012, with the show ‘A Question of Sport: LGBT artists and their relationship to inclusivity’ including work my my friend the photographer James M Barrett. I was blown away by both the work on display and the stunning views of London, north, south, east and west. Following a complete refurbishment, the exhibition space now just sports a panoramic view south. I suppose it distracts less from the art on show, and as the artist and curator Michael Petry has remarked, a new gallery requires a new way of thinking. The 2012 show was a group exhibition of 28 LGBT artists, and by contrast, this year showcases the work of a single artist, the painter Peter Jones.
‘We are for the first time giving a solo show to a well known and respected mid career artist, who will have use of all the gallery wall space, allowing visitors to view the work in a fuller context.’ Michael Petry, curator
The exhibition consists of 40 of Jones’ small canvases, featuring paintings of shells, enamel toys and, of course, portraits of vintage stuffed animals. After my visit to the show, I met up with Peter at his studio in Hackney Wick to discuss the exhibition and his work. Chatting for over four hours, our conversation ranged from Brexit to Egyptian Mummies, and nearly everything in-between.
Firstly, Peter, you’ve moved studio since I last visited you here.
I know it seems odd as this space is half the size of my previous studio, but the main reason is that it’s so much warmer than the old one. I was asked to show some prospective artists around the vacant studio space, and after my third showing, I realised that I wanted the space myself. My old studio was always freezing, and this one is so much cosier. It makes a huge difference when you’re working in the depths of winter.
I remember – I had to put on a jumper last time I visited, and it was the middle of the summer, but you’ve really downsized the space you have. I know your canvases are small but…
It was quite a challenge. I had to rationalise and get rid of a few things including a precious plan chest, and rather a lot of my books in this move. Of course I kept all my art books but now I regret getting rid of some of my history books, especially the ones analysing the English civil war. After last weeks vote to leave to the EU, I think that they would have been fascinating to reread. I doubt many people still think national referendums are a good way to govern a country.
I was speaking to a Dutch friend on Friday, and he says that they are always having referendums in the Netherlands, and if the government doesn’t like the outcome, they just ignore them!
That would definitely be a way forward…
So how did you get involved with the global Clifford Chance Pride Show?
I’ve known Michael Petry for years, we met through mutual friends. When he first approached me about the show, I thought I would be exhibiting as part of a group so said yes right away. He then explained that he wanted to exhibit my work in a solo show, which is definitely a bit more nerve wracking.
But lovely to be asked I would imagine, and a great opportunity.
Oh absolutely, and Michael and I have a good working relationship, I wasn’t too worried. I also have work in a current group show (and accompanying book) ‘Nature Morte Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still Life’ that he has curated. The show is currently touring and will be coming to London at the Guildhall next year.
What first drew you to old toys as a subject matter?
The whole thing started with a postcard of a mummified cat from the British museum. As I was painting the linen bandages that had been used to mummify these ancient Egyptian animals, I realised how much they reminded me of old toys. So I started looking for antique monkeys to paint.
I’m used to being called out over my subject matter. I suppose you could say it’s a historical snapshot of ordinary people’s lives, though my work has never really been about following what’s fashionable
Fashion is a strange thing – the fight between the individual, and the desire to ‘belong’. A painting of a live monkey would be a completely different to the works you’re producing using antique toys, I’d imagine.
It’s funny, I’ve no desire to paint real monkeys. Toy monkeys don’t look real, they look like what they are – toys, that’s a completely different concept for an artist. The old toys I paint are often made from wool, real fur or goatskin, and they almost remind me a fetishistic objects (in the original sense of the word). I suppose when you think about, it the real success or failure of a painting of a monkey, or it’s toy equivalent, is whether the artist has captured the essence of monkey!
A thought struck me walking round the show this morning – am I looking at portraits or still lives? Each monkey has it’s own distinctive character, and the canvases are full of life. The irony of course is that these stuffed toys have never been alive.
That’s true, and this is something I realised as the paintings progressed. The inanimate objects in front of me were coming to life on the canvas and the paintings were metamorphosing from still lifes to portraits before my eyes. Conceptually, the monkey series always dealt with the specific symbolic meaning of the monkey – that of a primitive or pre-civilised version of man, the barbarian if you like. I had always wanted to create a large series of these monkeys paintings, a troop of them in fact, and one of the great things I discovered is that there is such a wide variety of old and antique monkey toys available – the different materials, the condition and character, and their age and where they were originally manufactured. As I continued working on this series, I experimented in how I was portraying the toys. Initially I was aiming for a realistic vision of them, in all their tired and torn glory, but as they progressed, they became more vibrant and colourful.
I followed the monkey paintings with two complimentary series of lambs and dogs, which I often placed in imaginary landscapes. As before I searched for them on eBay, and was delighted by the variety available. These animals traditionally represent faith and innocence and could I suppose be seen as the monkey’s alter egos. I suppose you could accuse me of flitting between Freudian symbolism and the traditional, but I don’t see that as a problem.
I think artists can get very bogged down with symbolism, and this results in some heavy handed works.
Sister Wendy, all those years ago, classed that sort of work as ‘comforting’. Weak visual puns and one-line jokes may provoke a forced smile initially, but after that first view, there is no depth in the works to hold your interest. Spelling things out completely results in single note works. Imagine Surrealism without wry wit or intelligent smut? It wouldn’t be remotely interesting.
In creating this series of paintings, was the repetition part of their appeal?
Yes, artists have always enjoyed exploring a subject through multiple canvases. The most famous I suppose being Warhol and Monet, both of whom produced series of paintings throughout their lives – electric chairs, disasters, Marylin and Elvis for Andy; haystacks, lilies, London and Rouen Cathedral for Claude. In both cases, these artists planned for these series to be exhibited as a group or a complete body of work, even though their specific reasons for painting the series’ were completely different. In popular culture, Warhol’s work is almost defined by the repeated image, and yet it’s ubiquitousness hasn’t diminished it’s ability to captivate or irresistible power. The repetition in a painting like 100 Marilyns, (on show again in the new TATE Modern galleries) is almost like a wonderfully symbolic performative gesture about faith and commitment – the repetition directly relating to repeated prayer. I wonder if anyone else has looked at the painting as a metaphor for the rosary? Warhol’s choice of subject matter was always subtle, complex, deeply personal and seemed to me equally inspiring as his extraordinarily beautiful painting style.
And yet Warhol’s portraits can sometimes have a tendency to strip the subject of their individualism – your monkey portraits imbue each toy with their own unique character. Were there other influences at work?
The First World War works of Henry Tonks were a great initial influence on this series. He had studied medicine, and spent the the war working as both a plastic surgeon and subsequently an official war artist. His portraits of the wounded and disfigured young men are deeply moving and unflinchingly honest. The first monkey toys I started painting were moth eaten, torn and crudely repaired with stuffing escaping, and I recognised the parallels between the work I was producing and Tonk’s pastels. Interestingly, I learned later that the disfigured soldiers made soft toys as part of their therapeutic rehabilitation.
You’ve said most of these toys have come from ebay? Does the social history of an object effect the choices you make as a painter?
No I don’t think so. When people look at the monkeys paintings, they tend to project onto them; what the viewer brings with them is almost as influential as the what they see in the painting. I suppose you could view them as self portraits exploring different facets of my personality, but like the toys we are given as children, I think of them as blank until we create our own characters for them.
‘The Small Things Matter’ at Clifford Chance finishes on the 15th of July and can be seen by making an appointment with Nigel. Email him at email@example.com.