Beyond the Definition of Pop Art

Defying the label of Pop Artist, David Spiller’s latest offering at Beaux-Arts, London, uses colour, form and familiar icons to conjure up memories of the past.

In a 1960 essay titled Popular Culture and Personal Responsibility, Richard Hamilton listed the essentials of Pop Art as: “glamour, overt sincerity, wit, direct appeal, professionalism, novelty, an ability to co-exist within an existing pattern of style, and, lastly, expandability.” It would, therefore, be easy to label David Spiller (b. 1942) as a Pop Artist, as his work exhibits all of those traits, especially that of expandability – meaning the ability as an artist to expand, grow, and adjust with time.

Spiller, would resist this label as he sees the act of labelling as being much too prolific and restraining an act, and he simultaneously falls within and outside the category of Pop Art. He occupies a unique position in the contemporary art world: he belongs to the Pop tradition but is not a Pop Artist. He is more than that. His work draws on the iconography and sounds of popular culture: comics, TV cartoons, art history and song lyrics (Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and The Troggs), but also on graffiti, which he uses to subvert his pristine canvases with scribbled text and images to create a dialogue with the viewer that anchors the work firmly in the present.

The works produced for Forever Young, Spiller’s latest exhibition, which opened in November at Beaux-Arts London, illustrates the aesthetic for which he is renowned: a colourful, playful style with a polish that is far from naïve. This refinement and polish is so very Pop Art, reminiscent of the silk-screens of Andy Warhol and the smooth canvases of Roy Lichtenstein, and simultaneously so rough – the graffiti-like scrawls a spooky combination of David Shrigley’s doodles and On Kawara’s perfectly executed date paintings. Spiller’s work has the effortless element of accessibility, of allowing his audience to see the influence of other artists upon him, as well as how he has influenced others, yet by doing this one avoids viewing his work on its own, which is where it is at its most powerful. For his work is incredibly emotive, teasing out responses from an audience that can be at times quite staid and stoic.

The emotive element of his work is what motivates him each day: “When I go down in the morning, I open the door and there are these paintings, and it’s like here is my world and I have to get on with it.” There is a truth and sincerity to this statement that can be difficult to grasp, as he does not mean that he sees painting as an arduous task that one must “get on with.” It is the exact opposite for him, a man who stated: “It would break my heart if I couldn’t do any more painting…if they took it away from me, it would break my heart.” Spiller grew up with art from an early age, with his brother sitting him down and teaching him how to draw cartoon characters like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, characters that still play a role in his aesthetic repertoire. The youthful innocence with which he drew those figures still resonates in his contemporary work, and they have not changed in terms of their purpose: to instigate joy and frivolity. His Mickey Mouse has not grown up, as Banksy’s tough street-art version has, for Spiller does not view the characters he depicts as of paramount importance in his work – they don’t need to grow-up. They exist as a symbol of his desire to draw, the manifestation of this desire being their reproduction on canvas: a reproduction that may not be the best rendition of Mickey Mouse, but as Spiller points out, it is the best Mickey Mouse that he can do and hence is a success.

The choice of comic-book and cartoon characters is an accessible one, in that the audience can easily identify with the subject, which they see painted on the canvas. Spiller recalls how at one of his first exhibitions of works utilising these visual motifs, children were literally dragging their parents into the galleries, and he realised he had found a new audience (albeit one that probably couldn’t afford his work). These works provide visual pleasure at a most basic level, exhibiting an inherent playful energy that jumps off the canvas and invites the viewer in. For Spiller it is of paramount importance that his audience derive emotive pleasure from his work, whether it makes them laugh out loud or simply enables their imagination to run away with them for a few moments: “That is the truth in painting. If we each, all of us, see something else.” The canvas acts as a doorway, in an almost Alice in Wonderland rabbit-hole kind of way, inviting the audience into a world of excessive emotion, incredible images, and indescribable states of mind. Dan Graham, whose work in comparison appears so bland and minimalist, states: “The artist is not a machine; the artist shares in mankind’s various media of expression having no better ‘secrets’ or necessarily seeing more inside or outside of things than any other person; often he is more calculating; he wants things to be as interesting as possible; to give and have return pleasure; to contribute to the life-enhancing social covenant.” Graham and Spiller may have different methods of delivery, but they both aim to arrive at the same end goal in their work; to give and derive pleasure.

The use of humour and satire in art stems back to William Hogarth’s (1697-1764) A Harlot’s Progress (1732), which satirises John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, though the first true comic strips as such first appeared over 100-years-ago with Winsor McCay’s strips for the New York Herald. Hogarth’s series utilised a specific cast of characters that became recognisable and identifiable to his viewers. Hogarth’s finely illustrated prints became the template from which McCay and artists, like Spiller, worked from and were inspired by. The visual imagery of cartoon characters like Felix the Cat, Otto Messmer’s black and white cat from the 1900s, are nostalgic forms that express a sense of popular history for Spiller’s audience. He subverts these conventionally humorous characters through the application of text that is much more emotional and mature, but asks the viewer to “Stay Forever Young at Heart.” The text does not appear in cartoon-like bubbles, as in Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, but is scrawled across the canvas, almost as a form of urban graffiti. Spiller is not belittling the characters by doing this, but instead questioning their visual weight and importance as icons of popular culture.

The influence of other artists upon Spiller, surprisingly that of Rembrandt and other Great Masters, cannot be negated: “To paint after another artist, my life is full of those artists; they echo in my head, and I’m not going to ignore them.” He nominates Rembrandt as one of the best draughtsman he’s ever encountered, with Rembrandt’s drawings having a life and sense of dynamism that he has yet to see replicated in any other artists’ work. The refined quality of Rembrandt’s drawings is reflected in the precision with which Spiller creates his own canvases. He states that he wants his work to have the same strength and impact that he finds in a Rembrandt, Picasso, or Michelangelo.

Perhaps more so than Rembrandt or Michelangelo there is a stronger case for the influence of Picasso in Spiller’s work; both depict their subjects as strong, angular forms that are depicted in and against rich, luscious colours. Though the disjointed, Cubist reality of Picasso’s figures often seems antithetical to Spiller’s figures, such as that of the monochromatic block-like female standing atop a dog in Fools for Fun (2010) versus the contoured, organically angular female nude figures of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), it is their use of colour, not as a means to an end, but as colour itself, that ties them together. For Spiller, who compares painting in colour to “playing with a rainbow everyday”, colours are, as well as being a deeply sublime and tangible material, psychologically associative, acting as a trigger for memories and emotions. Picasso utilised colour as a weapon: he battled against the flat surface of the canvas, struggling to situate his figures on a two-dimensional plane without the use of chiaroscuro, thereby resisting the temptation to depend on the depiction of light as a method of illustrating form within space. Spiller instead seems to negate the quality of representational life in his subjects, focusing on the form and colour rather than their three-dimensional likeness as a representation of form.

Understanding the text in Spiller’s work is not vital, for he asks his audience to take from each piece what they can, not what they “should”. Spiller, like Picasso, uses text in a simplistic way: words are words, but the letters that comprise the words become in themselves pieces of work. The detail and attention paid to the painting of each letter is painstakingly precise and methodical: created in the same way that graffiti artists methodically tag a building, and although done quickly, they are meticulous in their intent. Letters become symbols of aesthetic beauty as well as representations of a deeper importance that is bound up in their literal form. Picasso and Spiller flatten form in their paintings, text merging with the picture plane and becoming not only a method of conveying a message but a single medium as well.

Spiller uses song lyrics and oft-quoted phrases, but in a deliberately vague and ambiguous way. He challenges the viewer to derive meaning from a single line or piece of text: phrases such as, “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you.” Often they allude to love, which for Spiller, is an intrinsically sad emotion, because he believes each and every one of us is bound to have our hearts broken. Though unavoidable, he doesn’t see it as a necessarily bad thing to happen, as the saying goes, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all: “I love passion, I love the idea of desire, I like all those strong emotions, they’re fantastic.” Painting thus becomes a form of poetry for Spiller – quite literally when he scrawls across one of his painted canvases. He articulates through the painted image and word the emotions and desires that his audience is too reticent and scared to voice themselves, but juxtaposes these demands (e.g. “Sweep me off my feet”) with the child-like characters of youth so that the viewer is never intimidated by their own demands.

Spiller studied at the Slade School of Art during the 1960s, a time in which artists such as Richard Hamilton and Harold Cohen were studying at the same school. A formative period for Spiller, as it was for many young art students, he credits the work and teachings of Frank Auerbach as being incredibly influential. Auerbach, whose work has a surface of thick impasto paint that almost vibrates with raw emotion, has an ability to articulate sentiments through the painted canvas. This had an obvious impact on the way in which Spiller’s oeuvre developed as he used colour and material to visually express emotions and beauty.

Auerbach, who, coincidentally exhibited at Beaux-Arts, London, for a number of years, paints in a much more sculptural, abstract manner than Spiller, but has the same mastery of draughtsmanship, colour, and sentiment that one sees embodied on Spiller’s canvases. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the leading Cubist art dealer for Picasso and George Braque during the early 20th century, stated in a 1916 essay that: “Painting in our time has become lyric, its stimulus the pure intense delight in the beauty of things. Lyric painting celebrates this beauty without epic or dramatic overtones.” Kahnweiler goes on to explain this new language of art as a language that literally and figuratively allows artists to expand beyond the picture plane and that which can be optically perceived through sensory illusion. Though Kahnweiler wrote this essay almost 100-years-ago, and specifically in relation to Cubism, it is applicable in many ways to Spiller’s work.

Spiller celebrates colour, beauty, and the lyricism of life through the painted image. His visual vocabulary, which relies on the viewer’s a priori knowledge of form and structure, very seriously embraces the frivolity of popular culture. Just as a comedian must take humour seriously, as it is their livelihood, Spiller values humour in his own work, using it as a playful way to convey a serious message about the power of human emotion.

Forever Young was on at Beaux-Arts London until 11 December 2010.

Niamh Coghlan