Paul Simonon the former bassist of The Clash is presenting an exhibition of his paintings at the ICA. The show titled ‘Wot no Bike’ is a series of new works by this seminal musician, artist and biker. The oils on canvas, depicts his own personal effects that include biker paraphernalia such as jackets, boots, helmets, and gloves, alongside his packets of cigarettes and books. Named after a specific Simonon painting of a leather jacket with the words “Wot! No Bike?” emblazoned on the back, the series is a celebration of the musicians love of biker lore.
Simonon attended Byam Shaw School of Art, and came to prominence in the late 1970s with the Clash. His lifelong passion for art and art history was first inspired as a child by his artist father whose studio he spent large amounts of time at, often sleeping there. It was here, surrounded by art books and pictures pinned to the wall, that he first encountered the works of 19th and 20th century masters, from Impressionism to Cubism to French Modernism.
According to the musician/painter – the works are as much self-portraits as they are still lifes, by rendering possessions that he uses on an almost everyday basis. Autobiographical in the modernist and realist painting tradition, ‘Wot No Bike’ is Simonon’s personal exploration of British subculture and counterculture in the post-war decades – but with a particular twist that some critics have not particularly taken to.
The paintings in ‘Wot no Bike’ is apparently inspired by 20th century realism and its documentation of the living conditions of the working classes, in particular the work of the American Ashcan School in turn of the century New York, and the ‘Kitchen Sink’ school of painters of 1950s post-War Britain.
The Biker culture theme runs through the exhibition – featuring various motorcycle paraphernalia, but with an absence of the figure. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones thinks that Simonon’s works would be better served by the photography of Dennis Hopper, or Catherine Opie – and it is true that Hopper could indeed express this fetishistic counter-culture 60s biker cool at its most iconic, but Jones is missing the point.
The Guardian critic thinks that instead of biker fetishism, we get bad painting. Attacking Simonon as hamfisted and incompetent, and only at the ICA because he is a name associated with revolutionary cultural cool – with a celebrity status designed to attract art journalists and ageing punks – and maybe even a combination of the two.
But the work is not a betrayal of punk as stated by Jones, as supposedly rebellious art, pre-packaged. Stating that we can look at amateur paintings at the ICA – so long as they are by a venerated musician. I’m not sure if that is true after viewing David Bowie’s painting in Cork Street many years ago.
But Simonon’s show is rather entertaining. It is clear that British subculture of the 50s, 60s and 80s has been, and remains, essential to both these aspects of his life and work, and the two do share some common ground after all. The kitchen sink banality is present – not typical of punk – but also an almost intentionally wry Van Gogh-esque brushstroke, with the artist/musician bringing a knowing use of paint to his amateur exhibition, he may not be a great painter, celebrity or not, but there is something there. As the ‘bad painting’ actually employs a typical irreverence.
The artist/musician may not be smashing guitars with the punk excess of counter-culture cool, but the amateur artist has a certain tool that he employs readily; Simonon’s painting is very punk. Much like the punk era ideologies concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views, anti-authoritarianism, not to mention a DIY ethic – certainly present in this exhibition – non-conformity, direct action, and not selling out – Simonon has no respect for painting – and this is meant in direct regard to a punk ethos – the irreverent artist employs his brushstrokes in a very punk fashion. This is not bad painting, as Simonon paints, it would seem, with an intentionally wry smile.
Paul Simonon – Wot No Bike ICA London – Until 6 February 2015
Words: Paul Black Photo: P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved