ben wilson chewing gum artist

14 November 2010 § Leave a comment

Interestingly the name of Ben Wilson bubbled up again this week. Ben has been busily painting his tiny artworks over the blobs of chewing gum that mess up our pavements since about 2004, and every few years the newspapers notice that he is still out there. Starting near his home at Barnet in North London he has been steadily working his way outwards, occasionally venturing father afield. His minor masterpieces can also be seen in, for example, Manchester, Berlin, Paris and New York.

Immune from police prosecution, as he is actually painting the gum and not the pavement, he feels that he is reclaiming public spaces. He has commented that ‘Kids are not allowed to feel any connection with where they live.  The only imagery that children see around them are billboards and TV; every part of their environment is out of bounds or sold off. That’s why they don’t care about their streets. This is a small way of connecting people.’

Raw Vision, the Outsider art magazine, have featured his work, he has been filmed by the BBC, interviewed by the Observer and Telegraph and is a minor celebrity in South Korea after appearing on TV there. See him at work on a little bbc video here.  Apparently he does ‘commissions’ – if I spot him at work one day I may well try to persuade him to brighten up my local pavement with a few of his minor masterpieces.

A touch less tasteful as a way of  ‘reclaiming public spaces’ are the bubble gum ‘walls’ that can be seen in a number of places around the world including Seattle and St Louis Obispo. Strangely resembling some sort of cross between a Barry Reigate and Jackson Pollock canvas I guess that they could be categorised as graffiti art? But moving swiftly on…

Whilst Wilson uses single blobs of used gum as his canvas, Maurizio Savini goes a little farther and uses somewhat more for some remarkable sculptures. Some have sold for over $60,000, although Senza Titolo (the shoes pictured) were sold at auction for a more modest $2,000 earlier this year.

Represented in London by the Testori Gallery in St James Savini has said about the gum that ‘it seemed to me an amazingly versatile material compared to those used by the traditional arts such as painting…I believe that in my work … this material is redeemed and acquires a capacity and it has an expressive dignity of its own.’

It certainly possesses a certain power, the pink colour lending an air of unreality whilst the transformation of an ephemeral foodstuff  into sculpture lends a slightly disturbing quality.

the folk outsider naive craft painting revival?

12 August 2010 § Leave a comment

A previous post on Harry Hill the Idea Generation Gallery briefly discussed the term outsider art. This was mainly in respect to some basic ‘outsider’ credentials of Hill’s work. In retrospect however the term is rather difficult to use so briefly and I have been itching to expand on this brief mention, but focusing on contemporary art and adding traditional crafts into the mix.

Grayson Perry - Walthamstow Tapestry 1995


This is not an overview of ‘outsider’ art since the terms attached to it are so broad, have been so widely misused and applied in a casual manner. Outsider, Naive, Folk, Visionary, Neuve Invention, Art Brut, Marginal, Intuitive are all variously used in connection with it, and have been used in varying ways in different places. Raw Vision has done a good job of definition on their website, even if the  terms are frequently misused elsewhere.

Tracey Emin Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1995


Most interesting to me is the steady resurgence in interest not only in the more ‘traditional’ definition of this art but its latest incarnation within recent contemporary art. The deeply unfashionable nature of the naive/folk/craft tradition within the post-war art scene was especially attractive as a basis for rebellion for some British artists of the 1990’s. The award of the Turner Prize to Grayson Perry in 2003 brought this theme to the fore and, despite her disgust at the award to Perry, Tracey Emin’s wall-hangings and tent also betray the same craft origins.

Harry Hill has already been discussed and there are many other artists that could be added to the list of those who draw on, or are inspired by the same traditions. In particular are those painters of ‘amateurish’ style whose star has been on the ascendant in recent years. Coming to mind immediately is Alice Neel (above) with her current retrospective at the Whitechapel. Neel uses a casual style to portray the famous as well as marginalised and vulnerable of society – immigrants, children and the elderly. The title of the exhibition, Painted Truths, demonstarates the widely held view that this more natural ‘folksy’ style somehow allows Neel a deeper psychological insight in to he mind of the sitter. The portraits cerainly reveal a fragility and the paintings are delicate and sensitive. Interestingly Neel herself led a troubled life which included mental breakdown and attempted suicide.

Karen Kilimnik


Karen Kilimnik’s loose and ‘awkward’ style, is outwardly similar although she paints not from life but using appropriated images of celebrity. She is currently showing at Sprueth Magers, London. Elizabeth Peyton paints small, intense and colourful portraits of friends, celebrity and monarchy. Like Kilimnik and Neel she has found broader acceptance only since the 1990’s. More recently there are artists like Ryan Mosley who combines multiple traditions to create mysterious quasi-mystical worlds and Lynette Boakye who produces naive and dark portrait of imaginary characters, have also appeared on the scene amongst many more.

Harry Hill - Time is Running Out


None of this adds up to a movement, and many of the artists have of course been successful and well established for many years. Nevertheless the trend is there for all to see – the Whitechapel has had major shows featuring Neel and Peyton in the last twelve months, Kilimnik was at the Serpentine a couple of years back and features in the current Saatchi imagazine, which also includes a substantial article entitled ‘The Folk Spirit in Contemporary Art’. Last but not least, the subject of the original posting, Harry Hill manages a few pages in the latest isue of Tate etc. I could mention many more artists and more exhibitions, but it is clear that the influence of these traditional and ‘outsider’ styles is here to stay – at least for a while yet with investment in this area less speculative and more reliable.

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harry hill at the idea generation gallery

20 July 2010 § 3 Comments

A couple of weeks back I snuck my way through the achingly trendy back streets of Shoreditch to visit an auction in aid of the Ray Lowry foundation. Manchester-born, Lowry began his career drawing for publications like Punch, OZ, NME and Private Eye creating a cult following for his illustrations and cartoons. Most famously he designed the memorable cover art work for The Clash’s seminal album, London Calling

Hosted by the Idea Generation Gallery a mix of artists, performers and writers were invited to donate a work using the album sleeve as a starting point. Amongst these was a colourful acrylic painting by Harry Hill where the members of the Clash are represented by subterranean heads from which the ‘tree’ of Big Ben prospers in a barren desert and mountain landscape – fantastic, surreal, witty and yet straight to the point. I thought it brilliant.

At this juncture I need to explain that a couple years back I stumbled across his art tucked away in a gallery page on the Harry Hill web site. Sitting amongst links to the latest tour dates, merchingdice (sic) and video clips was a page featuring Hill’s paintings. I was instantly bewitched by their naïve style highly reminiscent of ‘outsider’ artists like William Hawkins, William Blayney and, most obviously Howard Finster.

Howard Finster

I am a great fan of ‘outsider art’ (the term overlaps with folk/naïve/visionary art) and the highlight of last years exhibitions was, for me, the Museum of Everything. A free, curated show in a ramshackle venue, it brought together the best of ‘secret creativity by the unknowns of society’. Currently touring in Turin, I urge everyone who is able to jump on a plane and visit!

William Hawkins

Clearly Hill is not an ‘unknown of society’ – except perhaps in Summerville Georgia, the hometown of Finster – but the term ‘outsider art’ has now tended to be applied to all those painting in a ‘folk’ or ‘naïve’ style. Humour has also played a big part in 20th century art from Duchamp’s original ‘joke’ – the fountain/urinal – via Manzoni’s sh*t, and Prince’s jokes. A good current example is David Shrigley, who is a quoted influence of Hill, and categorically proves that blatant humour is not a turn-off in the art world of today. The same folk and craft traditions  have also snuck their way in to the contemporary art scene by way of other highly regarded artists like Grayson Perry, Simon Starling and Tracey Emin (I will write more on this in coming weeks). Ultimately though, Hill, whether painting as an ‘outsider’ or with post-modern humour, there is no reason that he should not be accepted as a quality artist and I personally would welcome the chance to view an exhibition of his work.

David Shrigley

Oh, and by the way, in a ferocious auction bidding war, I managed to win the Harry Hill (and a Humphrey Ocean) – and all in a good cause!

If you liked this post please make a comment or like it. If you like the blog please subscribe for regular updates (top right of page). Many thanks! akuta

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