Darren Coffield (a.k.a Darcoff) studied at Goldsmiths College, Camberwell School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London. During the nineties, he worked alongside his friend, the curator Joshua Compston (d.1996) to establish the influential gallery space, Factual Nonsense, which was a key presence in what has been dubbed the ‘yBa’ scene. Compston exhibited Coffield’s work in The Courtauld Loan Collection (1991), alongside pieces by Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and Fiona Rae. In 2010, Coffield participated in Exhibitionism, the ninth biannual East Wing exhibition, the series of shows established following The Courtauld Loan Collection. Coffield’s work is frequently selected for the National Gallery Portrait Award where his portraits have garnered considerable controversy. His work is characterized by a formalism akin to British Pop and a darkly humored investigation of political extremism.
Let’s begin by discussing your inverted portrait paintings. Have you given the series any sort of title?
No, I prefer not to give the series a title. I find that people’s first reaction is always to try and identify the figures, but they’re not always well known. The work is really about portraiture itself. I started using figures I found in old Hollywood magazines because they were the easiest to use. I’ll use whatever comes to hand, it’s easier than commissioning photographs myself. The portraits came out of this fascination for celebrity culture. Everyone always says that Warhol was truly prophetic when he said that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes but some remain famous far longer than that.
Even though your figures are distorted, they remain recognizable. The works demonstrate that these figures have become pervasive commodities.
Well someone like Marilyn Monroe has never been allowed to rest in peace. She now has an agent who sells her to be used in digital products. So she could still turn up in films. Even the dead don’t sleep anymore. There’s endless discussion about the range of digital communication but most communication is given through the face. You’re picking up messages all the time when you pass or talk to people in the street. Most of it’s subconscious. Now everyone wants to use Skype, everyone wants to be seen. It’s because of the connection to the face. A lot of contemporary fine artists aren’t really engaging with that. It’s a challenge to portray a face in the age of mechanical & digital reproduction, an age which has negated the whole reason of painting portraits.
How do you choose your subjects? Do you find that you’re drawn to particular people?
You can’t choose who to paint because it never works. I really wanted to paint George Orwell because I conceived of the portraits as embodying a sort of Orwellian ‘doublethink’. I wasted about a month trying to find the right picture of Orwell. Not one single picture of him works when you try to invert it.
You found that he wasn’t recognizable?
It just didn’t suspend your sense of disbelief when you first looked at it. It looked completely jarring. The works look best when they’re not completely jarring. The Hitler one works quite well because it looks like he’s got a black mark in the middle of his forehead which is actually his mustache. He was the first one. It began with the difficulty of doing portraiture in the twenty-first century. That’s why the painting is titled Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’). It’s a bit of a joke. It’s my struggle to paint portraiture in the twenty-first century. It has nothing to do with Nazism, history or politics, just the contemporary situation that we’re in.
How long does one of your portraits take from conception to finish?
They can take months. After the George Orwell debacle I realised I could spend my whole life looking for the right images. Generally it’s complete serendipity. Even the act of painting them is serendipitous. I’ll only paint them when I’m in the right mood. You’ve got to limber up like an athlete to achieve the right brush marks. I paint very very quickly. If they don’t work I’ve got to scrape them all off. If I am not in the mood to paint I will sculpt instead.
The sketch like quality of your brush marks suits the material very well.
I want them to look effortless and off the cuff. It belies the work that went in to it. It’s a bit like those fluid ink drawings of heads by Matisse, you don’t see the twenty heads of the woman he did beforehand because he ripped them all up in exasperation. You only ever see the final fully formed yet effortless looking one.
When did you first begin the portrait series and how did they come about?
A lot of these things just sit in your subconscious. I thought of the inverted skull about a year before I painted it. I tend to think of an idea and then it takes a while to percolate. I was painting a jigsaw puzzle of Picasso and I stuck his nose upside down in the wrong place and I realised that the shadow underneath his nose worked really well with his eyebrows and created a new sort of space, punctuating the preconceived space of the face. That’s where the idea came from. I still didn’t start to make the first picture until several months later.
Your new portrait of David Hockney is well timed given that he’s being heavily discussed at the moment.
I was interested in putting a hand into the picture, to play with gestures a lot more. I wanted to widen up the whole field of what I was doing. I came across a picture of Hockney having a cigarette, which is completely the ‘wrong’ thing to do these days, completely anti political correctness. He was having a cigarette outside the Royal Academy, literally thrown out of his own exhibition, the only person having a cigarette. It’s his two fingers up at contemporary manners.
How do viewers tend to react to the works other than try to recognise the figure? They can be very disquieting and creepy.
Some people are freaked out by them. A dealer took some to the Far East and the galleries just wouldn’t have them. They were quite superstitious. There is this whole notion of evil concerning inverted crosses, symbols and heads. I am not remotely superstitious myself, I was searching for a Mary Magdalene or a Madonna to invert but I still can’t find one!
There’s a definite connection between your celebrity portraits and the vanitas pieces of skulls that you began with. Most of the figures you’ve painted are already dead and celebrity itself is our deliberate psychological evasion of death.
Well the other thing about the portraits is that I became sick and tired of hearing artists like Damien Hirst bang on about death all the time. He’s been lecturing everyone about death since the age of 23. It’s always been a paradox to me that people obsess and meditate on death so much when they don’t know anything about death. It’s something you’ll only experience once and you’re not gonna be telling anyone what it’s like.
The smiling grimaces of the skulls are a nice touch. The colours are also untypical for a vanitas. They’re bright and acidic as opposed to ashen grey.
Well that’s the paradox again. You’re alive and looking at something dead. The paradox is made explicit by turning the face upside down. It’s also part of the paradox of even painting those things in the first place. I wanted it to be a satirical reposte to Hirst and this ridiculous fashion for skulls. Skulls are everywhere at the moment.
You’ve had a number of politically active people sit for you. George Galloway, Yvonne Ridley and Peter Tatchell.
Peter Tatchell was my favourite but we had to destroy the picture. The painting became very political and I was already very wary. I had done some work with Galloway and the anti-war movement and was having problems with my mobile phone. I’m convinced that I was being bugged. I decided to get rid of a lot of political work. I still have his (Tatchell’s) head. I cut it off! Tatchell attempted a citizens arrest of the Zimbabwean President & Dictator Robert Mugabe whilst in London. He stopped his car, opened the door and the British police just stood there and watched Peter getting beaten up by Mugabe’s cronies on the street. I admire his courage. He’s an exceptional man. The people I choose to paint are usually those slightly outside of the system and though a few may be well off, they’re essentially underdogs. The next person I want to paint is Barry Miles, an author & friend of many of the Beats, William Burroughs and so on. He also introduced the Beatles to dope. He cooked them all hash cookies when they went round to his house. He’s a quiet man but an exceptional character. No one else is going to paint these people because there’s no money in it and they’re not considered to be ‘establishment’ or bankable. Lots of people paint Kate Moss but she’s an obvious choice. Why paint Kate Moss when there are so many great photographs of her? I paint people who I think should be painted and who should be in the National Portrait Gallery.
How do you feel your work has developed through your career? Your early work tends to be very abstract and inspired by design.
I was more into being a virtuoso when I was younger. A painting would take months and I’d endlessly work on several layers. As you become older you do get a lot freer. Now people say to me ‘oh you didn’t spend much time on it’. Oh well!
What was your experience of The Courtauld Loan Collection?
It was my first institutional exhibition. Jeremy Fry commissioned me to make my picture (see image above). We had a frame cut for it. It was going to be for Robert Fraser, the famous art dealer. It was made of solid blue plastic with white running through it. Ordered from a place in Atlanta. It was quite trippy. I didn’t enjoy making it at all. I spent my summer trying to cut this huge interlocking jigsaw by hand and I was using photographs. There was no digital technology I could use then. I’d try to stick the photographs down and they’d just get stuck to my hand with perspiration. The whole show was very stressful and Joshua (Compston) didn’t enjoy it either. I was told the night of the opening by a Cork Street gallery that they wanted to sign me onto their books. They said the Courtauld picture was very good but I’d have to make three of them, one for Paris, Tokyo and another for New York. I thought that doesn’t sound very good, I’m not going to sign on with you. I said no for my integrity, but of course financially I should have just done it. If you don’t do these things people assume that you’re ‘difficult’ and won’t exhibit you.
What is the scope of your recent book on Joshua Compston’s life? – Factual Nonsense: The art & death of Joshua Compston.
The book follows Joshua’s whole life. I’ve written the book in a filmic manner. The book starts when I meet him at 17 at art school and ends when he’s 17 and about to go to art school. In between, he starts off at art school, goes off into the art world, starts to get ahead and then is ‘killed’ by the art world. I set out to find out why he died as no one has really explained why, and to look at his early life. He definitely had some form of autism or aspergers, which in those days wouldn’t have been diagnosed. He was just seen as a particularly unruly child. He was a complete utopian. If he were alive today he’d be pricking the social conscience of many of his art world contemporaries in the press, lambasting them for not putting enough money into philanthropic projects and helping out more. He was trying to put Abstract Expressionist paintings into poor inner city schools. He believed it would spiritually elevate the kids and improve their lives. The irony was he could get the Mark Rothko paintings but he couldn’t get anyone to insure them. He would endlessly hit a brick wall. ‘Oh no no, you cant put those paintings there, not with those poor children around!’
Reading about him, it seems that though he always had precise plans, money was an endless obstacle. He was exhausting himself daily to maintain the financing of Factual Nonsense (Compston’s East London gallery space).
He was living under siege basically. He couldn’t leave the gallery for months on end in case the bailiffs came round. It’s ironic given that the local government has made millions off his artistic legacy and yet they were hounding him to his death for a few thousand pounds.
There are two difficulties in studying Compston’s life and work. One is that the circumstance of his death (Compston died of an ether overdose after attending a Basquiat exhibition) was eagerly lapped up by the British press and heaps of mythology was suddenly piled on top of him. The other is that he continuously struggled to convey his curatorial projects to others. His ideas were often willfully contradictory or absurdist and I suspect many people didn’t know how to react to them. It also didn’t help that he branded Factual Nonsense with a highly charged military aesthetic.
A lot of people assumed he was a fascist but the imagery came from anti-fascist propaganda published by the British Communist party during the war. Many didn’t understand the context from which these images came from. He was saying that fascism is the enemy. His posters of Nazi’s goose-stepping didn’t equate with any sort of Nazi sympathy! He was one of the first artist-curators. Now you have dozens of curating courses so one is able to get an adequate sense of what has been done before. There was nothing like that during his lifetime. He was incredibly precocious. He was hanging out with Maureen Paley as a student. He knew a lot of big players including many who had yet to be a part of the art world. He met Cecily Brown within a few weeks of me starting art school. He had exceptional antennae. He knew who was interesting even if he didn’t agree with them. A lot of people didn’t get on with him. He was very divisive. Factual Nonsense was a form of insurgency. When he died, it was discovered that he had been stockpiling dynamite at the gallery. He was planning to blow up public art sculptures that he didn’t like.
Do you think he really would’ve done that?
Oh yeah. He would have. If Joshua said he would do something, he would actually do it. He never posed like many of his contemporaries. A lot of yBa’s posed as hard, working class and being on the edge. But they weren’t. They wanted to become Royal Academicians and be part of the establishment. They didn’t have to sell out because had already done so long before they had even left art school.
That’s one of the observations of art historian Julian Stallabraas. That despite it’s self-image, the British nineties art scene remained inherently elitist.
They like to go to the Groucho Club where members of the public can’t go. They all go on about what a wonderful place it is. Well I suppose it’s because you don’t have to deal with the proletariat. They can sit there and say ‘oh look it’s Bono from U2’. They’re not interested in meeting ‘ordinary’ people. That is what’s fascinating about Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and the other artists of their generation. They would socialise and drink with ordinary people, life was their teacher. For example, Francis Bacon loved travelling everywhere by public transport, he liked watching people’s distorted reflections on the underground trains.
You spent a lot of time in the Colony Room with the likes of Francis Bacon.
Yeah Joshua and I met Bacon a few times. You’d have to go at a certain time of day. If you met him in the afternoon he was very charming, pouring champagne for everyone. If you met him late at night after he’d been drinking for quite a while, he was a nightmare. He was a magnetic character. He was a living legend. People went to find him and they could. It was very easy to access and meet people in those days.
Let’s discuss your experience of art school. You attended Goldsmiths, Camberwell and the Slade.
Art school was incredibly different then. We didn’t have to pay to go. It was genuinely bohemian. Now you’re paying to be educated. I was shocked at how academic it’s become when I went back to lecture recently. It’s become more about saying the right thing and reading the right books and regurgitating a certain script. People go in wanting to make a perfect, tidy product. When we were at art school we used to make a mess. We’d smoke and paint with turpentine and frequently set ourselves on fire. Of course there were many people who went in treating it as a finishing school. You’d never see these people again until your final degree show. The benefit was more studio space and resources. I knew one guy who only ever did abstract paintings that looked like squash courts. His father was a squash player who bought all his squash buddies over to the show. He was the only student who sold all his works!
Who were some of the tutors you particularly admired?
Euan Uglow, John Hoyland, John Hilliard. We were very lucky. We also had great visiting tutors, Peter Doig and David Hockney for instance. The quality of teachers has changed for many reasons over the years. You have to remember that even Lucien Freud was teaching at Ravensbourne School of Art. That’s quite funny isn’t it? It isn’t a flashy school like Chelsea. Most people don’t even know where it is!
You’ve received a few death threats over some of your works. I’m thinking specifically of your ‘Insurgent’ series.
Yes I have (laughs).
Do you want to talk about it?
Well that’s a sensitive area. Like I said, I believe that my phone was definitely bugged. I’d phone people and couldn’t get through to them. I’d leave a message and within a minute my phone would ring and tell me that I’ve got a message. I’d play it back and it would be me talking. It was bizarre. It was like someone was bouncing your calls back on to you to let you know, that they know, they’re out there, listening.
Do you have any idea who it was? I assume it wasn’t News International…
Yeah maybe I was being hacked! I doubt it was Rupert Murdoch, I’m not big enough! But it was truly bizarre. It went on for weeks.
Your ‘Black Rain’ series of family portraits, including the Kennedys and the British Royal family, are explicitly art historical. You borrow compositions from Titian and Poussin.
There is no way to do a formal group composition better than the old masters did it. I like to play with the idea of an historical slippage through modern times. You’ll get two different scenes bleeding through the image. I like to Google things just to see what gets thrown up, because some of it’s irrelevant or downright offensive. You get strange jumbled up imagery. People also don’t care about originality anymore. Richard Hamilton once remarked that he was shocked at how derivative most contemporary art had become. A lot of bad art is made to be marketed as a product, repackaged as ‘new’.
Is there a remedy for that?
Well that’s why I’ve gone back to painting apples! I think Cezanne had it right. You should just go back and work from classic motifs. All the old subjects are the best subjects. Painting flowers and so on. No one does it anymore because they can’t think of a contemporary way of engaging with it. The only person who gets away with it is (Gerhard) Richter. Because of what he does, Richter can wake up in the morning and say ‘oh I want to paint a seascape, oh I want to paint flowers or maybe paint my daughter. He’s a really fortunate artist. Many artists will look at their daughter and want to paint her, but then you think, ‘oh but I’ve aesthetically and intellectually negated the reasons for painting children’. It’s quite a sad world when you have to think like that. But that’s artistic integrity. There are whole swathes of imagery & genres you can’t use any more and I intend to bring some of it back into currency.
Which recent exhibitions of your work have you particularly enjoyed?
Probably the exhibition Ashes & Diamonds about the miners’ strike but that hasn’t come to London yet. I have met some truly remarkable people through making that exhibition. Arthur Scargill, the miners leader during the strike, opened the show in Sheffield. It got some great coverage on the BBC.
You painted a portrait of Arthur Scargill made of coal dust.
Yes, along with works depicting the miners’ famous battles with the Government. This period between 1984-85 was the closest the England had come to a civil war since 1651. There’s about 35 works in total. When that show comes to London, it should do quite well. It is currently touring all the old mining communities in the north of England. When the strike collapsed the government reeked revenge on the mining communities, the closing of the pits didn’t just mean unemployment, the knock on effect was a deliberate attempt to break the human spirit and erase generations of culture in those communities. We’re hoping to exhibit the work in a recreation of a coalmine in the 19th century subterranean tunnels under London’s Waterloo train station.
How did you meet Arthur Scargill?
You can’t meet Arthur Scargill. He has to come to you. It took two years to get him to come along but he did eventually turn up. Over the years he’s had quite a few attempts made on his life so he’s not really a public figure in the way he once was. He gave a rousing speech at the opening of the exhibition to a standing ovation. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest living political orators whether or not you agree with him.
Finally, what was the inspiration behind your latest series of jigsaw puzzle paintings?
The jigsaw works are paintings of fragmented narratives interspersed with one another. The use of jigsaw pieces allows you to have several different picture planes operating at once. Every time you take a piece and move it, you’re creating a completely different space. There are echoes of Cubism in it. You’ve got to test yourself. I’ve always been fascinated by artists who really tested the limits of what they could do. Bacon, Pollock, Picasso. Even as he lost the ability to paint, Matisse began to use paper cut outs to create beautiful work. You’ve always got to be testing the limits of what you can do.
Darren Coffield’s website: www.darcoff.com