The art of being Stuckist

as seen in The Age
Thursday 24 May 2001

A slovenly, unmade bed befouled with condoms and tampons; a dead shark preserved in formaldehyde; human excrement, fastidiously canned and packaged. Would you call this art?

If the answer is a resounding no, you're a Stuckist. You're stuck, outdated, fuddy-duddy and loving it. You crave the good old days when a picture spoke a thousand words and you could read everyone of them.

Painting was pronounced dead in the 1970s, sacrificed on the altar of conceptualism, the art of ideas where even a butchered cow can belong in a gallery.

Stuckists want to put painting back on its pedestal, they want to see brush strokes on canvas and recognisable objects. Down, they say, with all the detached, "clever" stuff that these days passes as art.

"You look at a Stuckist picture and you can see what it is," says the Stuckist movement's co-founder, Charles Thomson, speaking from London, neatly resolving centuries of polemic into a pithy definition of art. What you see is what you get. The Stuckists have devotees around the world.

The movement was formed two years ago in reaction to the Brit-Art phenomenom championed by British advertising tycoon and private collector Charles Saatchi, the man behind the controversial Sensation exhibition, who famously paid 150,000 ($409,836) for a soiled bed. Sensation never made it down under. The Federal Government got cold feet, and deemed it unsavory and unwieldy. Thomson's verdict: "Count your blessings."

Nonetheless, we heard lots about it: Tracey Emin's naughty rumpled bed, Damien Hirst's nasty dead shark and grisly cut-up cow, Chris Ofili's profane painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. In fact (and in frustration), it was Emin who gave the Stuckists their name, denouncing her former lover, painter Billy Childish as "stuck, stuck, stuck".

Childish and Thomson embraced the insult, founded the Stuckists, posted a 20-point manifesto on the web, and encouraged other painters around the world to take up the cause.

They redubbed Brit-Art "Brit-Shit" and claimed 19th-century rebels such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch as honorary members. (Does Van Gogh's suffering have no end?)

There are now 24 offshoots world-wide, including a Melbourne arm that so far has four members. "That's quite a group. In Ireland, there's only one person," says Thomson, who has the disconcerting habit of chuckling at the end of each statement. Is he having us on? Absolutely not. It's artists, curators, museum directors, academics the world over who have "lost the plot".

"They've forgotten why people bothered to do art in the first place, which was to create meaning in life," says Thomson.

"Art has become an ivory tower hobby for the elite. It's mediocre and they are called conceptual artists because they only have one concept, which is to find something people think is not art, like a shark, and put it in a gallery and call it art. We not only have concepts, but we take them a step further, which is called 'a painting'."

Thomson's "paintings" include cartoonish send-ups of Hirst's dead shark and Emin's infamous tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995). Funny? Yes. But ultimately fatuous, and just as self-referential as the art they criticise.

Thomson also specialises in stylised, graphic and gaudily colored takes on the works of such masters as Seurat and Gainsborough. "This is actually cutting edge," Thomson insists. "This is a movement of the future, and like all movements of the future, it's misunderstood."

Deep in the anonymous plains of Melbourne suburbia, in unassuming Reno Road, Sandringham lies the war room of the Melbourne Stuckists.

The Ringleader is Regan "Zero" Tamanui, jazz, ska and skank aficionado, who stumbled across the movement while surfing the Net.

"Do you like them?" he asks enthusiastically as we wander through his ramshackle, boys-own-adventure sharehouse, spilling with his large, vibrantly colored, pop-art style paintings, not particularly innovative, but not lacking in skill either.

His heroes are Picasso, especially in his cubist period, and American pop-artist Shag.

The Stuckist manifesto makes sense to Tamanui, prolific painter and part-time tree-mulcher. "The main (point) that really stood out was the ability to wake up and paint pictures and probably, perhaps, um, I dunno, I haven't read it in ages," he wavers.

OK. Point four: "Artists who don't paint aren't artists". Point five: "Art that has to be in a gallery to be art isn't art". Point 11: "Post-modernism, in its adolescent attempt to ape the clever and witty in modern art, has shown itself to be lost in a cul-de-sac of idiocy."

If Tracey Emin is the bete noir of the UK Stuckists, Karen Ward is the antipodean irritant. Ward won the inaugural $105,000 Helen Lempriere Award for sculpture in March for her minimal piece The Hut, which some unkindly dubbed "cubby-house".

For fellow Melbourne Stuckist Nigel Stein, an RMIT art student, Ward's prize was the impetus for joining the group. "I thought that was a ridiculous amount of money to give someone when there's a hell of a lot of money to go to other artists too," he says.

Do they think the movement will take off here? "Yeah, I reckon it will, 'cause I talked to lots of people and they're really interested," says Tamanui. "Most of them are painters and they don't like the idea of going to a gallery and seeing a box displayed. There are some people who shit in a tin. Is that really art?''

"I've seen that tin!" butts in Stein. He can't remember the artist's name, but saw the work at the Guggenheim, New York. The artist, for the record, was Piero Manzoni, and, ironically, The Artist's Shit, mass-produced in 1961, was a protest against, you guessed it, the art-establishment and its then championing of conventional, purist art for art's sake.

But, then, that's the nature of art. Like fashion, what goes around comes around. In the '60s, the conceptualists were lamenting the stranglehold painters had on the art establishment. In the '80s, the neo-expressionist - advocates for a return to raw, emotive painting - were saying down with the conceptualists.

Graffitti-artist Jean-Michel Basquiat took his protests to the streets of New York, spray-painting the slogan "SAMO as an antidote to nouveau-wavo bullshit" (SAMO being an acronym for "same-old-shit"') on any clear wall he could find. Soon, Basquiat's spontaneous, energetic, primitive canvases were being lapped up in the over-heated '80s art market, but that too fell in a heap, and with it went Basquiat, dead at 27, a victim of addiction and parasitic dealers.

Of the five Australian art identities I contacted, only one, Melbourne curator Juliana Engberg, had heard of the Stuckists and only one, popular Melbourne painter-cum-larrikin David Larwill, himself an art school drop-out, extolled their credo.

"They sound great!" he said, with characteristic gusto. "They sound like their motives are right. Conceptual art is just insane in this day and age. How much more navel-gazing do we need?"

But to fellow artist Greg Creek, a figurative painter with a satiric bent, Stuckism sounds like a marketing ploy. Creek may be on to something. Thomson says his works have trebled in price in the past three years and he is running against British Culture Minister Chris Smith in the UK's upcoming general election. His campaign includes staging five Stuckist shows in five venues across London, from May 31, titled Vote Stuckist.

One will feature the works of international Stuckists, including our Melbourne boys.

"They are an aberrant version of conceptualism by default, using the same devices to promote something that's very conservative," says Melbourne curator Juliana Engberg. Max Delany, director of the public gallery 200 Gertrude Street agrees, placing the Stuckists' tactics in the same basket as avant-garde pranksterism and agit-prop.

"The Stuckists are rebels without a cause," says Engberg. "It's a bit of a lads-own event and will no doubt gain some attention as it champions the mediocre, the averagely talented and the easily absorbed. While it claims to promote painting, it is symptomatic of the very reasons people have lost faith in that important art form. Give me Emin any day of the week."

Talk about Stuckism

JULIANA ENGBERG, curator, The Australia Projects, Federation Festival.

"The Stuckists are rebels without a cause. It's a bit of a lads-own event and will no doubt gain some attention as it champions the mediocre, the averagely talented and the easily absorbed."


"I love it! I think it's the best thing I've heard in ages. Conceptual art is just insane in this day and age;, how much more navel-gazing do we need?"

GREG CREEK, painter.

"It sounds like a marketing strategy. Every painting should restate the case for painting. The true romance of art is not just to preach to converts."

MAX DELANEY, director of public gallery 200 Gertrude Street.

"This whole idea of revision and a return to painting sounds to me like short memory syndrome. The same kind of claims were made at the beginning of the '80s. It sounds like publicity and marketing."

SU BAKER, head of the School of Art, Victorian College of the Art.

"It's a dumbing down, it's wishful nostalgia for some simpler world. It's a cheap shot and it appeals to the back-to-basics type thinking."

REGAN "ZERO" TAMANUI, painter, tree mulcher, rubbish collector, Melbourne Stuckist.

"There are some people who shit in a tin, is that really art?"

JUSTIN GRUBB, sculptor, part-time laborer, Victorian College of the Arts sculpture drop-out, Melbourne Stuckist.

"It's like being liberated. I can just get out there and start doing it."

NIGEL STEIN, RMIT painting student, part-time laborer, Melbourne Stuckist.

"I reckon art belongs to the people and not to a certain minority or clique. We want to bring everybody to the gallery to see our work, our neighbors, our parents, our friends. Stuckism is for the people."


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