Currently reading : ‘The Horses have been good to me’ – Danny Fox, Sue Webster and Reba Maybury in conversation
Tomorrow, Danny Fox will be opening his latest show of paintings at London’s Redfern Gallery. Collating into a years worth of new work made in London, LA and St Ives, the exhibition named ‘As He Bowed Down His Head To Drink‘ will be open until the 5th of December. Danny asked me to host a discussion between himself and artist Sue Webster for the exhibition’s catalogue where we are publishing a special preview in celebration of his new work.
RM: So how did you find out about Danny, Sue?
SW: Danny was propping up a bar and invited me to watch his band that were playing that night. I didn’t make it but I did bump into him again about a year later, and he then invited me to see his paintings. I thought, what about the band?! I didn’t realise at the time that he was a painter. When I first went to his tiny studio, it was hard to look properly through the layers of paintings that were stacked against all four walls. Most of those paintings had never seen the light of day but I was encouraged by their fluidity, which reminded me in a way of Picasso, although Danny’s subject matter was much dirtier.
RM: Did you know about Sue’s work before you met her?
DF: Yes but I had only seen it from a distance. Since then Sue has given me all of her books; now I know everything about it! The first thing I loved about Sue’s work was the guts, there’s bravery in it to me.
SW: Tim and I made all of our early work, all of those huge sculptures not knowing if they would even be shown let alone sell, because it’s just something you have to do – you have to get it out there or else you’ll go crazy. But really, when I was at school, all I ever wanted was to form a band. Being a successful artist wasn’t part of the agenda.
RM: How did you feel about art at school Danny?
DF: I didn’t feel anything about it because I didn’t really know what it was – I still don’t. I presume it’s whatever you make it to be, like anything else. All my art education came from books, but now I’m getting into the art world I’m meeting a lot of other artists so I’m learning from them. I’ve had some really critical conversations about my work recently with artists I respect. That’s what I imagine is supposed to happen at school.
RM: Which artists?
DF: Well Sue, of course, but recently I’ve been talking a lot with Torey Thornton and Henry Taylor, both American painters. It’s been good to talk about painting specifically. I’ve never really been able to do that with anyone. It has been great but also hard when things get critical, a lot of self-examination.
SW: In retrospect it seems ridiculous to think how we are expected to go to art school in order to learn how to ‘do art’. It should just progress naturally through trial and error. I guess I was lucky that my art teacher saw potential in me and bothered to guide me through the education system and onto art school. I found it very embarrassing to begin with as I wasn’t encouraged by my own family. That’s why when I met Danny I found it so refreshing that he hadn’t done any of that.
RM: I think that is why you are especially interesting Danny. When I think of people our age, people who I was at school with at Saint Martins, for example, the art world was – and is – completely careerist. What about other young artists you like, are there any young artists that you find refreshing and non-strategic?
DF: I’ve always been waiting to be a part of some kind of movement like Sue had with the YBAs, but there’s no one, I’m here on my own. I think I thought you had to be part of a group or something. I mentioned Torey and Henry before because they are predominantly painters. I’ve spent some time in the States recently and met other painters who at least appreciate the same work.
SW: The bottom line to success is to come up with something original that didn’t exist before, that’s why the YBA movement was so successful. It was like when punk exploded onto the music scene, it obliterated all that had happened before it – like it no longer existed. They didn’t sit and wait for it to happen, they made it happen themselves which is the very core of existential thinking. I feel that the new generation are trying to follow a model, but you need guts to lead.
DF: True. I mean that was true for your generation. It seemed that the only way to become successful in that time was to be ‘shocking’ and it was punk in that sense and also in the way that it created its own scene, like you said. But the essence of punk to me was the ‘do it yourself’ aesthetic which wasn’t there. You didn’t see the hand of the artist anymore, it felt like it was all made in a factory. I hear it compared to Brit Pop more often, New Labour, new money. I don’t include you that statement Sue: of all the
YBAs I think your work is the most honest and I feel like your work has kept its integrity throughout, for the record! That’s probably why we are having this conversation because you’re in it for the art, always have been, despite your success!
RM: Why do you paint horses?
DF: I just think it’s one of the greatest images that man has come up with, the horse and rider, along with the Corpus Christi. The image of a man riding a horse, because it represents so many things. I’m always looking for the image, that powerful image, I don’t know why it particularly strikes a chord with me.
SW: I think it’s the romantic in you.
DF: Maybe. Historically, though, it’s more brutal.
RM: So it’s the history? What history do you like in particular?
DF: I’m tempted to say military, but not really. Two of the paintings in this show are based on military watercolours by Richard Simkin. I was just so drawn to them that I wanted to work with them. All history is human history really. I used to work the antique fairs so I picked up a lot then. I have these two little horse models I work from, they are really old and disfigured so they help with the weirdness. Buying and selling old objects sparked an interest, anything from flags to human bones, but finding dirty, fucked up paintings by unknown painters was the best. Art history is kind of the history of everything.
RM: Is there a particular part of art history?
DF: I like to think about van Gogh, I like that time in history. It’s mad to think that when he was sitting in his bedroom painting sunflowers at the same time Jesse James was out robbing trains in America. It doesn’t seem right to me, historically speaking, but it is. And I love to think about Picasso in the South of France painting in his pants in the sunshine.
RM: Where would you like to travel with your painting?
DF: I think Asia? Also Africa, maybe Ghana? Nigeria? Back to Kenya? Go see my family at the horse ranch in Zimbabwe?
SW: Your family have a ranch in Zimbabwe?
DF: Yeah, my biological lot, it’s a long story but in short there’s a best-selling book about it. I’ve never read it. Anyway the story is that they had a farm in Zimbabwe, but when the black people took the farms off the white people they were forced out at gunpoint, so they rounded up all of the horses that were left and took them to Mozambique.
RM: Have you ever done a residency abroad?
DF: Half the paintings in this show were painted on a residency in St Ives. I painted in Patrick Heron’s old studio for three months. I also made about ten paintings in L.A. directly after that.
SW: Tim and I were invited to do a residency in St Barts in 2009, and I remember it rendered us impotent. Here was this beautiful tropical island where the sun was shining every day, there was greenery everywhere, but we both found it impossible to work in that environment. Tim just went surfing and I longed for the speed of the city, the dirt, the danger and the darkness. I couldn’t feed off the beauty, I just didn’t feel inspired.
DF: I could easily work in that environment, I would be the opposite of impotent, whatever that is.
RM: Why are you interested in rawness and debauchery so much?
SW: Because to me it’s real life – it’s what I can relate to.
RM: Danny, do you think your work is dependent on the city?
SW: I think your best work is.
DF: I’ve always been attracted to that side of life so of course it’s going to be in the work somewhere, but I try to paint it in a kind of innocent light, like the stripper paintings, they’re not sexual, just fun.
RM: How do you feel about your success?
DF: I feel that it’s deserved, I’ve worked hard. Although at this point I wouldn’t call it success. It’s just a bit of recognition. I don’t get too ahead of myself, I’m still at the beginning of my career even though it feels like I’ve been grinding for so long.
RM: Sue, what do you think of young artists today?
SW: When I look at young artists today, their vision doesn’t seem to span that far ahead of what’s in front of them. They’re not interested in changing the world. Being an artist to them is simply a lifestyle decision. They don’t understand that most of us make art because we have to and if we didn’t we’d probably kill someone. It’s that simple. Ambition to them is to be invited to all the right parties, have a Coutts bank account and a tab at a cool restaurant. Whereas my ambition was to have independence and security. The first thing I did when I had money was to buy a warehouse where I could live and work in peace. The rest is history.
DF: What you guys have got is pretty daunting for someone from my generation, it’s hard to put those dots together. Starting with nothing and ending up with a mansion.
SW: When I was at art school I was looking towards Andy Warhol. I guess my dots are bigger than your dots.
RM: Danny, when did you get to that point where you could paint full-time?
DF: I’ve always painted full-time, but had to work jobs at the same time. I was working on building sites until about two years ago.
That’s when I started to sell enough work to quit the jobs.
RM: How do you think that’s changed your work?
DF: It’s made the paintings bigger, I can afford more materials now.
RM: Where do you see your work going in the next couple of years?
DF: You never know where the work’s going to go, if you did there would be no point working to find out where it’s going to take you. I do know, though, that I’d like to carry on travelling and working.
RM: What have been your favourite themes explored in your work been so far?
DF: The horses have been good to me, I’ve only done about fifteen horse paintings so far but already people act like that’s my thing. Like Hockney said he only did around ten swimming pool paintings and that’s what you think of when you think of his work. The Cornish landscape series I worked on last winter was really interesting to me.
RM: Do you enjoy painting women?
DF: Yeah, actually I think Sue has my favourite painting of women, white girls sleep standing up, with the strippers from The White Horse pub on Shoreditch High Street with the pound jar in it. I was looking at it today and thought to myself I got it in that one.
DANNY FOX: As He Bowed His Head To Drink
17 November 2015 – 05 December 2015
20 Cork Street
London, W1S 3HL