Guy Denning Discusses Anarchy, Political Art, and the Current Ideological Climate with Prox from Inside the Rift.
After getting involved with the Punk and Anarchist movements of the 80’s, artist Guy Denning found himself absorbing the tenets of ideological dissent and acquired the ability to distinguish poignant political art from propaganda. This would eventually come to define him as a critical thinker who wasn’t afraid to deviate from the status quo and “go there” whenever necessary. While he most certainly had no qualms about exploring divisive themes, his hefty subject matter was a bit too real and on the nose for many art establishments during that time. He found himself on the receiving end of several rejection letters and sought out other ways to differentiate his talents from what was normal at the time.
The decision to forgo traditional higher education was the foundation and impetus for his beautifully-ugly works as it created an atmosphere for the man we see today.
The pain and grit (aesthetically or otherwise) that can be gleaned from Guy’s visual musings touch on existential and psychological themes embedded into the collective human psyche.
Self-taught, driven, and imbued with a genuine love for the arts, Guy has become a favorite for many aspiring creatives and thinkers.
Prox: There is a gritty proletariat feel to your work. What do you think contributed to your decision to produce imagery that has this aesthetic?
Guy: I like portraying people. It’s as simple as that. I think art always says at its core ‘this is us’ – even when it’s abstraction or high-conceptualist installation. It boils down to ‘I made this’ so it stands in for the artist, or an aspect of the artist’s conception of how they wish to be perceived.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the physical presence of the body in all its forms and I love the presentation of emotion that the theatre of the body performs on an everyday basis.
When you say ‘gritty’ I’m not sure if you mean in its physical, messy making or the literal subject matter I’m depicting. Subject matter is easy and I just always draw or paint what interests me at any given moment and that generally involves a subject that could be considered political – if that’s what you mean by gritty.
If it’s the nature of the use of the media – well that’s just an extension of the art historical idealism of Greenberg’s Modernism (but without the anti-literalist dogma). I love the medium. I like moving the conte, pencil, sharpie, and chalk around the paper and then erasing it just to remake it. I like avoiding clean lines when a clean line is too easy and a broken pencil will give a more interesting line. Drawing on packaging is more interesting than drawing on crisp, fresh, ‘artist quality’ paper. I want to create and destroy in the same piece of work and let the viewer see, not just the finished result, but all the work and chaos that led up to that point where I decided to leave it before it was too broken or too finished.
Prox: Is there anything that you’re trying to say symbolically with the high-contrast motifs that you like to use? Do the colors say anything about life from a moral perspective in your opinion?
Guy: I don’t think so. I’ve grown up with the western canon of art and, following that, the punk aesthetic of early crude photocopied zines, posters and art. It’s just a personal choice that I’m comfortable working within. I choose the visual impact of Carravagio and not Titian, CRASS and not Duran Duran, Expressionism and not Impressionism, Kline and not de Kooning. And drawing underpins my painting. It’s the basic architecture – line and tone. Personally, in my art at least, colour is an adjunct to the impact of line.
Prox: A word that often comes to mind as I examine your work and story is “fuel” (your pieces even remind me of the outstanding fumage art that is being produced by Steven Spazuk). While in the past it was anger and various substances that helped you create, what fuels you now?
Guy: The main driver is the knowledge that I know I can do better. I don’t want to drop into a signature style or get trapped making the same thing over and over just because it pays the bills. I’ve only just started and I’ve got more ideas than I’ve got time.
I want to explore my media more, investigate new avenues of creativity and pull them all together as a cohesive unit that means something important to me, and hopefully those that get to see it… or read it, or hear it…
I want to make work that remains relevant to future generations. I want the families of the people that have bought my work to see a relevance in what their parent or grandparent bought and to keep it – even if only out of respect to the memory of that lost family member. I’m essentially modeling dirt and I want to give it significance.
Prox: Pain seems to be a theme you’re interested in exploring with your work. What do you think pain (if anything) can offer to the developing artist and human being? How did it help you?
Guy: I’m averse to pain. Pain doesn’t figure in my work – unless you’re considering emotional pain. I used to suffer from manic depression and was medicated to near oblivion until my wife got me off the cocktail of chemical warfare. I was pretty fucked-up and for me the pharmaceuticals were just exacerbating the problem. The issues underpinning my mental state weren’t being addressed and to top it I was worried that if I was ‘cured’ I would lose my ability to create. It was not a healthy state to be in and was damaging to all those around me as well as myself. I now deal with depression in a totally different and very personal way. I watch myself and police myself and have my own therapies that keep me where I need to be mentally.
Prox: You’re no stranger to political artwork but I’m curious about the gradation and subtlety of such a discipline. How do you get your message across effectively without being disrespectful or hokey? Does one need an in depth knowledge of the issues they’re attempting to analyze?
Guy: I think because I’m just honestly painting and drawing out how I feel in the moment. It’s rare that I’m considering a social issue and then think ‘Oh – I must respond and make art about this to change the world…’ Back in the eighties when I was writing and pasting up on town walls it didn’t matter about being disrespectful and hokey. (I had to look up ‘hokey’- we don’t have that one in the UK. The only ‘hokey’ we know is in an old time family/community dance called ‘the hokey-cokey’ – left arm in, left arm out, shake it all about sort of thing… very erm… community…) Anyway… I didn’t sign the street work so it didn’t matter how the message was taken. I think I got the directly, blunt political work out of my system because I spent ten years basically taking the piss on street walls (usually at the expense of government policies, fascists, etc) and friends would tell me whether I’d hit the mark or missed it by a country mile. I was also mixing with a lot of very politically informed people through the eighties, and this was very pre-internet. I was talking with people a generation older. Trade-unionists, communists, anarchists… some of them were artists and they’d explain the difference between propaganda and effective political art. This was a political education too. If you wanted information outside of the mainstream it had to be searched for and one particularly rich vein was the Bristol anarchist and north Somerset crusty punk and traveler set. My ideological anarchism, first fired up by the lyrics of CRASS, were given more critical weight by blagging copies of newspapers like Black Flag and free pamphlets from the Bristol Anarchist Bookfairs. That formative time was responsible for my having a broad knowledge and an inquisitive nature when presented with the mainstream media – which then, I think, was just called the media. I don’t know, I’ve never analysed that aspect of my learning too much. I know my anti-war stance was formed by visiting the WW1 war cemetery in Verdun, France when I was a kid. And my eighteen year old head was opened to all manners of ecological carnage being inflicted on the planet by a thirty-something hippy-punk who called himself Stig with a seemingly endless supply of photocopied leaflets from his inside coat pocket.
I think these people, and others along the way, made a pretty naive, safe, country boy challenge what he was told or read before accepting it as any kind of truth. That’s still always critical in my work. And I try not to be specific, but general in my approaching of any potentially contentious subject. Find the connections with related problems or injustices… and they’re always there. Don’t be didactic – let the viewer do the work too.
Prox: We’re living in some pretty divisive times (at least stateside). What do you think art can do to help us get through this tumultuous era?
Guy: What it has always done. Offer some sense of light in the dark and prove that humanity isn’t hurtling off the precipice in unison. Art won’t change the world but it can highlight a society’s and culture’s problems and sometimes even by unwittingly being part of the problem itself. Look at the lunacy of the top-end art market where novelty and high price are the sole signifiers of worth. Its extremes have been considered the aspirational norm for the hyper wealthy and I think we’re now seeing increasing challenges to that.
I’ve noticed a change in what’s coming out from the art colleges lately and I think the recent excesses of the last few decades are going to become irrelevant in the longer term. Artists seem to be placing more value on the importance of craft and the validity of accessibility again; they want their work to talk to a broader audience and for it to also be appreciated for the work that’s been put into it. That’s a good thing in my book.
Humanity has been making this art stuff now, in one form or another, for more than 35000 years. I like to think that it’s the artists, musicians, singers, and story-tellers that have contributed the most to stop us from eating each other.
Prox: Any new artists, books, music, or shows you’d like to recommend?
Guy: The last non-fiction book that I bought when it was published was Naomi Klein’s No is not enough. I’d recommend all of Klein’s books and think they deserve the broadest audience possible – if I had the money I’d buy a copy of each for every school library out there. Also Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber is a fascinating and informative read that turns up some interesting perspectives on our assumptions about the histories of human and political economies.
Music this year has to be Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s new album Luciferian Towers. I know it’s been criticised as being more of the same but in my opinion you can’t have too much of a good thing. Personally they’re the most wonderful band to work to when I’m busy in the studio.
The only TV show that I was really looking forward to was the new Star Trek series – I’m a total sci-fi nerd and Trek just takes me back to my childhood when there was that naive joy and associated expectation that the future (in our lifetime) would deliver the goods (jet-packs, peace and endless prosperity) for humanity. Needless to say that optimism was soon knocked out of me! Another film that I enjoyed this year was Villeneuve’s Arrival. Perhaps that was the equivalent optimist sci-fi for a new generation. I’m still waiting for Frank Herbert’s Dune series to be made as the multi-series epic it deserves.
Prox: Would you like to share some information on any upcoming releases you have on the horizon?
Guy: I’m always working on new ideas. Some will progress to a coherent exhibition set and others won’t. Currently I’m making a set of drawings that refer to a particular historical moment that I feel exemplifies the significance of graffiti in our current world. I don’t really want to say any more for fear of it not working out as I’ve planned, but if it all goes well I hope to show them in Paris in the first half of 2018.
Prox: Final Thoughts?
Guy: That perpetual hope that humanity (or the leaders of humanity) will realise that our current economic model should be consigned to the ideological waste bin as a very failed experiment. I always hope that change will come about through rational thought and consideration so that it’s unnecessary for a violent switchback. But I know I’m whistling in the wind with that, and that depresses me – particularly on a personal note now that I have grandchildren who stand to inherit the mess that we could have changed.