Gallery etiquette? Nah. Jamie Fitzpatrick subverts the stale highbrow art world, all the while poking fun at the British sociopolitical system. His sculptures may look sloppy and slap-dash, but the reality is far from it. Rich with history, these grand figures swell with pomposity only to explode with colour and texture. They look good enough to eat, but the sour truth behind them might be difficult to digest. We talk to Jamie about books, wax, sausages, and all things absurd.
We’d love to know a bit about your life and work, and what it was that made you want to become an artist – could you tell us?
Funnily enough, I was talking to someone about this the other day and a memory came back to me. I first started getting into making art when I was a kid – I used to be quite disruptive in class, and my school dealt with behavioural problems by remedial art classes. So about once or twice a week, I’d go off to this broom cupboard-like room with the teaching assistant and there’d be all these blocks of beeswax on a table and I’d be asked to make these amorphous shapes – the idea being that the therapy of handling material and modelling was supposed to calm you down.
This genuinely hadn’t occurred to me until only a few weeks ago, but I think the process of handling materials this way must be a learned behaviour – as a way to funnel emotional and (as I’ve got older) socio-political frustrations. I guess the classes worked because, within a couple of years, the school ended up giving me a set of keys to the art department to lock up after myself, as I was spending all night in there.
You often use symbols of authority or wealth such as busts, plinths and valiant military men on their horses. But instead, you turn them on their head by using ‘lowbrow’ materials such as wax, expanding foam and polystyrene. What brought you to use these materials, and could you explain the process?
It isn't so much the idea of ‘lowbrow’ that I’m going for, but rather a sense of fragility. I like the way that a room can be filled with tall monument-like sculptures, but because they’re made of foam and wax, the heftiness and permanence associated with large objects are gone. Bits fall off and there’s a mess all over the place. Throughout my work, I’m always attempting to undermine something, and it’s that permanence, or the arrogance of permanence even. The works loom over the viewer but because the materials are relatively light, they gently bounce and bob on their internal frames. When you’re standing underneath them, there’s this really tense moment when you think things might come tumbling down on top of you at any minute.
But the use of wax is a very pragmatic choice – I’m quite an impatient maker and don’t have the attention span to stay focused on small details or processes for long periods of time. So I use materials that have a sense of immediacy about them, where their application leaves the trace of the hand. Things like wax, clay or wood; these traditional modelling and sculpting materials have that ability to record the gestures that I’m looking for.
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When I look at your sculptures, I see them as having a cake-like quality; with the creamy foam, thick icing-coloured wax, and dripping chocolate-y browns. Do you try to conjure up an aura of sweetness to conceal darker themes and meanings?
I think that the work is intentionally attention seeking, it’s trying to visually seduce the viewer, either with their bright colours or the way that the material is applied. I read Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Power a few years back and was really struck with this notion of ‘seduction’ of simple and non-complex ideas and ideals, and the desire to seek figures of authority. This is also clearly visible in the rise and acceptance of populist waves and policy at the moment.
It’s not so much the food analogy – but there is something intentionally and viscerally seductive in the work that is aiming to be attractive in a very non-complex way. Using Reich’s ideas about the attraction of authority, the works are built from a very straightforward visual language that plays directly with the emotional. They don’t require any pre-knowledge to understand them. They are dynamic, they are colourful, they are figurative; surface level simplicities that seduce the viewer whilst intentionally mimicking the same visual rhetorical used politically to seduce opinion and seek attention.
One of your sculptures, Memorial to Sausage Politics, references a quote from Otto von Bismark, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” With the current state of British politics, are you a cynic?
I’m not going to lie, I have never heard that quote before, but it’s great, and from now on, I’m definitely going to pretend that I knew about it all along. I think with that title I’m referring to the constant cock measuring that directs so much of the agenda and reporting of current news and media. Am I a cynic? I’m not sure that cynicism is a particularly productive position to take. I would say that things, generally speaking, are not the way that I would wish them to be in the world. But I am always optimistic about the possibility that things will change and move in the direction of what I see as good – so in that case, no, I'm not a cynic.
Plinths are traditionally used to further elevate a sculpture by lifting them above the viewer. But by having your sculptures melt, dribble and drip down their plinth, are you literally bringing them down off their pedestal?
I haven’t really thought about it like that. Take the pieces from the show in New York, for instance – the plinths are part of the sculpture, built and modelled out of the same materials, so there is a conscious intention that they are not two separate things. What interests me about the kind of work I make is not particularly statues or public artwork in and of itself but the visual language of rhetoric that is built around it.
Quite possibly, the plinth is the most powerful of all these rhetorical devices, in as much as it creates a literal hierarchy that places the intended object above its viewer, as you’ve said. But in bleeding the two as one, it’s more the visceral human leakage sticking the two elements together and acknowledging the role of the plinth in that whole process as opposed to removing it.
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You’ve mentioned before that your inspiration comes from the theatre of the absurd, British satirical cartoons, Dickens, and even Punch and Judy. Is it because of their distinctly witty and mocking form of storytelling?
Very much so! I’m influenced mostly by the tradition of British satirical art, people like William Hogarth and this use of narrative. Narrative and storytelling play quite a large part of my practice, and my work often emanates from an audio or script-writing process. More recent work has tied together elements of sculpture, animatronics, video and audio developed from previous individual projects, towards creating more ambitious and complete environments within which sculptures can narrate and sing.
I use the studio space as a kind of set-cum-stage, like in the video The Transformative Stag-Do, made for a recent show at Vitrine in Basel. These narrative installations enable me to not only reflect on the broader issues of social class and authority which inform my work, but also allow me to consider and externalise ways of dealing with life through the logic and illogicality of inner worlds.
Some of your pieces have really intriguing names, such as Your Wives are at Home Having Sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds. How do you come about naming them?
Often, they will just be lifted from something I’ve read or a phrase that comes to me while I’m making the work. For example, if I’m remembering right, I think that title came from a Jon Ronson book I was reading at the time about some propaganda that was dropped over United States camps to humiliate troops and lower morale. At the time, it tickled me.
Thinking about it now, there’s the possibility that it comes off as Westernly patronising, but I guess I was interested in the oddly sweet result of what was intended as quite a violent military gesture. The sculpture itself is a kind of refashioning of an equestrian statue, so that sense of poetry in the confused aggression of both the work and the phrase seemed to go together at that point. So, unless they are referring to something more directly associated with a narrative that accompanies the show, most of the titles are born from the same process.
Do you find that a wider variety of people engage and enjoy your artworks because of their humorous quality, and do you encourage accessibility in art?
I think people engage with my work because it purposefully plays to sensibilities that demand to be engaged with and are, by extension, accessible. And by this obvious attempt to undermine, mimic and mock, it comes across as humorous. But I don’t think that I set out with the intention of being funny in the way that something like a satirical cartoon intends to be. For many people, there can be something intimidating about art, particularly within a gallery environment. There is something reassuring about work that is visibly comfortable with being laughed along with. Humour is a leveller. But I think equally there is often a suspicion around humour in the gallery, and it’s quite rare to see something that is actually funny. So within some of the installations, there is this tension between the comfortable and the wariness that I like.
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Theatrical by name, theatrical by nature; your pieces not only reference narratives but also become them by revealing the studio process all the way down to your own footprints. By exposing how the sculptures are made, does it help the audience further understand them?
Yes, but not just ‘how’ they were made but also the fact that they ‘were made’. The works are all about the surface really, they’re quite literally a façade – and the footprints, fists and deep finger gouges in the material are all records of that act of making. Showing the physicality of the materials moving around the surface has its own inherent violence – which I’m trying to capture – because it’s something of a fight to form these large bulky things together. There might be the odd footprint from when I have to tread on it to reach something up high. Showing this battle and sense of vigour, in a sense, is like a moment of chaos or a fight has been frozen and then preserved within each work.
I’ve read that you often use unusual motorised elements in some sculptures, and one even featured a sporadic wiggling tongue. Tell us more!
This is something that I have been lucky enough to develop more recently. Initially, I began using motorised elements as a way to break the expectations of permanence that people have around monuments. But, as I mentioned before, I’ve become more interested in bringing narrative into the sculptures, and the use of animatronic elements has been one way of doing that. For example, in Until You see the Whites of their Eyes, a recent piece for the show Hope is Strong at Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, three heads sing together a cartoonish medley of victoriously bombastic final overtures from colonial films. They glorify the idea of the British overcoming the odds to defeat (either in battle or morally) a non-white threat. On a loop, the animatronic heads run through songs from films like Zulu, Guns of Batasi, Storm Over the Nile, etc. Through the traumatically torn faces and the childish style of singing, the pomp of victory is turned instead into a pathetic, meaningless grandstanding of a nationalistic narrative.
Earlier this year, you exhibited in Basel with fellow 3D artist Lindsey Mendick. Your works really compliment and lend well to each other! Were you paired up as an artistic match made in heaven or are you two friends who just ‘get’ each other?
It was a little bit of both really. Lindsey and I have been friends for a while and had spoken about working together at some point. Then, at the same time that Vitrine had been speaking to Lindsey, they approached me with the idea of exhibiting in the summer programme. So we took the opportunity to work collaboratively on the show and the whole thing started from there. It was amazing working together. Especially because it came at a very odd time – the week before we both flew to Basel to set up the exhibition, I got married.
As a result of the emotional intensity of this period, it’s no surprise that this ended up informing the outcome of the exhibition. When we began discussing the work for the show, we would often end up talking about the wedding, and the idea of it as this ceremonial performance of two stereotyped gender roles within society. The show then took on the form of this kind of second wedding that we put on together, in which we had our own very gendered works and a selection of collaborative ‘kissing’ sculptures of us, literally coming together.
Could you let us in on what’s next for Jamie Fitzpatrick, and where will your glorious statues be sailing off to this year?
I’m now working on a show that should open towards the end of the year. It’s going to be loosely based around the story of Moby Dick, taking place over three rooms. Through audio, video and sculpture, the works will be installed as a kind of diorama around which the narrative of a raft of characters set adrift in the sea is told. I’m interested in the psychology of hysteria and the struggle for power in an environment of shortened resources and tightening borders.
The central theme is this looping event of the characters being hunted by Big Dick, an off-stage pink, patriarchal whale/deity that constantly threatens to eat them. In the confines of the raft, the castaways are forced to recreate and institute a social community of conformity and hierarchy. It turns to cannibalism, and in so doing, imbibes one another until there is a single pyramidal, hierarchical bloated mega-man in the image of a whale. It’s in its early stages, but if everything goes to plan, I’m really excited to put the show together.
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