Johnny Burt And Joe Kennedy The Ringmasters Behind Unit London – Zoltan Alexander




During December, Unit London ran their show with Jackie Tsai “Reincarnation”, opened “Hunt Paintings” by pop artist Philippe Colbert at Saatchi, and in a few days, a new show will open at their Hanover Square gallery with Peter Gronquist’s “Shape Shifter” in steel, glass and enamel.

But who’s behind Unit London? Where does this highly inspirational energy come from?

I invited one of the founders and gallery directors, Joe Kennedy, for a talk. In the meantime, at Saatchi, the opening was a total mind-blow. Instead of the couple of hundred visitors at usual Saatchi openings, over 1000 people turned up with much younger demographics than at any other galleries. The buzz was definitely assured right up to the second floor by Philip Colbert, “The godson of Warhol”, the Neo-Pop Surrealist artist who works across different mediums of painting, sculpture, fashion and design. Women and men would kill for his bright lobster suits.

“I have always seen the lobster as a key protagonist of surrealism and the lobster character has evolved in my work – they started appearing in my clothing designs and artworks and I started wearing more and more lobster-patterned suits”

“Hunt Paintings” is definitely a bold exhibition with an enormous sense of humour. Colbert has a well-founded, precise knowledge of art history, his bold and loud paintings owe a lot to Surrealism and radiate the energy of some of hunt scenes of Rubens. His paintings are vibrant saturation of art history and pop culture in modern society with lot of colours and over-saturated reality.

Installation “Hunt Paintings” series by Philippe Colbert Unit London / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

The exhibition was a total blast, but there is something, which bothers me highly at most PVs, no matter how well-known the galleries are. There are always some weird-looking, silicone-lipped creatures fighting for their Instagram pictures, never-minding other visitors or the exhibited art. At Saatchi they were leaning on the paintings like some cheap backgrounds, practically scratching the artworks with their logo-decorated handbags and posing in a most ridiculous theatrical way. I said it during Frieze, I say it again and will say it until YOU, Dear Visitor, will change your attitude. No, it’s not OK and this is not our future. These guys worked hard enough to get you an exhibition. Artists also fought hard to be on the art scene, so you can have a minute’s respect for them in your addictive, pathetic journey.

But let’s return to Unit London. Joe welcomed me at their distinguished Hanover Square address, surrounded by Vogue House, opposite Blain Southern.

(left) Johnny Burt (right) Joe Kennedy  Photo © Courtesy of Unit London

Z+ So Joe, shall we start with fast cars, women, sex, dogs, cooking or art? You pick.

JK laughs. It’s good to have a choice with you. Why don’t we start with …  the biggest misconception, the perception of us, two young guys in the art word, having a good time, like playboys … especially when you come to our galley to our openings, wait in a long queue to have your part of glitz & glamour, but the reality is that we work hard, we are addicted to painstaking, hard work.

Z+ Can we go back 23 years in time? Are you a dreamer? I do not mean it in a sentimental way. You come off as someone very decisive, determined, professional who does not have many “if”s in his life. You have an idea, you go for it and work until you get it. … but now it seems like I’m interviewing myself.

JK You are right and very perceptive. My business partner, Johnny Burt and I are both the same. When we have a creative vision, we are the kind of people who would go above and beyond to make sure that it will happen. Even at school I always wanted to be the “captain of the team”, always wanted to make those things happen. When I set my mind on something, I did not stop until it became reality. Even with the gallery, when we first started out in an empty shop in Chiswick.

Z+ In Chiswick?!? It is not very artsy district.

JK Not, indeed. In fact, it had nothing to do with art. It was just near where we were. There was this shop, which was empty for ages and one day when I was driving past it and said “we should f**king do something there”, so we approached the landlord.

Z+ I am sure you were both convincing enough to get the place.

JK Indeed. We proposed to tidy it up for him and inhabit it for a few months. All of our friends who were starting their first jobs at that time asked us “you have no formal trainings, how are you going to survive?”. I was just telling them that this is going to be the gallery to change the industry forever, change the world, but no one believed us, apart from us.

Unit London – interior / Photo © Courtesy of Unit London

Z+ Did you already have some artists on your list?

JK No, not really. There were some artists we knew about, we stayed active online, blogging some of them, asking “Hey, we are opening up a new gallery, do you have anything available for us to show?”, but most artists said, “absolutely not”. You know, we still did not have a big space, not many followers on social media, no collectors, no journalists, just two of us, two passionate guys with laptops who met at school at age 11. We were genuinely interested in art, fashion, theatre, Johnny in acting and of course both of us in business, however, we have never had a conversation about it, but knew we were going to do something later, creatively together and in 2014 we ended up having an art gallery.

I remember my uncle taking me around to galleries, museums at a very young age. One of the first places was the Irish Museum of Modern Art, as he was living in Ireland at the time, and I was blown away, not just by the deconstructed portraits but by being in a museum, in that vast space.

Z+ It seems you have an artist hidden in you.

JK Well thought. Johnny and I are both artists, we are both painters, portrait artists with a certain abstraction but also have a great joy to work with artists, especially the ones who inspired our work.

Z+ How did your first gallery work out at the end?

JK We learnt a lot. The sales were awful but we did not give up. I was at the time working full-time with an advertising agency to finance the gallery. Fortunately, we were not paying rent, just covering some business rates and the council tax, which was not a lot but still took most of my salary. At the same time we knew how to market the brand and how to tell a story essentially.

Z+ I trust, you were able to convince and seduce anyone, right?

JK We had to. We were able to convince people that we were doing the right thing, getting these exhibition spaces around London for free, bringing value to them in many other ways, convincing artists to come on board, collectors to buy. It was very hard work going around London to look for empty spaces not knowing if we would be still there in two months time. It was really stressful. The landlords could have come around at any time and say that “now, I have a tenant, you must leave at once”. We have been kicked out many times. After Chiswick, we moved to Covent Garden, then had 5-6 multiple other spaces in less than two years, before we moved to Wardour Street in Soho, which I don’t know if you have ever come to.

Z+ No, I was still waiting that the gallery will get …

JK … decent enough to catch your attention? (laughs). I am glad that we have now reached that level and you came to visit us. Our 6000 sq ft space at Hanover Square was a corporate bank, until they moved out, stripped everything, all the fixtures, fittings, even the plumbing, everything has gone, nothing left just a shell. But when I walked in I said we should leave it like this, just put some lighting up, leave the concrete floor and keep it as a derelict building.

Unit London – interior / Photo © Courtesy of Unit London

Z+ What a great project. I saw you used very high quality, noble materials and Venetian plaster for the interior.

JK We designed the gallery ourselves. It was painstakingly hard work. We were on a very tight budget, never had any investors but that is the beauty of creativity.

Z+ The quality is exceptional. I touched every corner …

JK … and nothing fell off? (laughs). We just had a vision in the middle of Mayfair. We had to first convince the landlord and his board of advisers that we were better than any other commercial store, bank or blue chip tenant they had in the building. It was playing up to the landlord’s creative sensibility and adding a lot to the value of the property. It was a long process; it was a massive gamble for him, and a massive gamble for us.

Z+ As an investigating journalist I know for fact that you’ve done the gallery without any backers or financial help.

JK That’s utterly true. It simply started off with my personal “Joe Kennedy” bank account.

Z+ Maybe they mistook you for a different family.

JK I wish. I had ridiculous overdrafts but tried to spend as little as possible. I was still working during the first year for the advertising agency; we were just two of us, without any staff, not paying out any salary.

Z+ Fast forward to 2019. You have beautifully gambled with your life with a flair for style.

JK, I just love our gallery. I believe in energy. If you want something hard enough, you can manifest it and wield it into existence. If your story is good with content, people will listen to you and more and more people will follow you. Now, there are so many people approaching us, a couple of hundred submissions every week from all over the world, it is hard to look at everyone’s work, but we try to make time for all the portfolios with the help of our amazing team. That’s also part of my job now at the gallery to run a team of 22 and be responsible for them.

Z+ What is Johnny’s part in the business? How are the decisions made and divided?

JK He’s like a brother to me. When we started we made all the decisions together “What do you think? Good. Do it”. Every single decision we have made was combined. In terms of selecting artists, we chose them together, we curate the shows together, we did the sales and brand-building together, but as we are now growing so fast, our work became more and more independent. Speaking of which, we don’t select artists by sitting around a table, it normally happens around 3am in the morning, as we’ll all be up doing the same thing. Practically we work 24/7. But again it does not feel like “work”, it’s simply exciting to do what you love, making new projects and sales. I am wildly ambitious. My aim is to make those guys globally recognised, to be superstars for the right reason and change the perception of the art industry.

“Hunt Paintings” series by Philippe Colbert Unit London / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ Where do you feel more comfortable in the digital world or in the real one?

JK We spend a lot of time online, most of our sales are online. Our communication is going strong in social media at the moment; we have over 5 million impressions a week. It is also very difficult to disconnect from the digital world as it is constant, 24 hours a day.

Some collectors, who still control the industry, like to be buying into their social club and cling onto desperately, but now the young generation with the same amount of money behave very differently, we come from a different era with different views. Our young audience does not want to belong to an elitist club, they actually work as they did not inherit that money, They have little free time, value human interaction and transparency, and also want to be culturally educated, so the people who are buying today are changing, and online sales are going strong.

We also developed a very different relationship with our clients, we do not sell art for investment value or setting up a dealership. It is normally based on storytelling, about the artist and if you like the work, you buy it. Mutual trust is important. You buy it because you love it, you buy it because you want to support that artist.

We have mass engagement with our audience, focusing on a small group of journalists and collectors, have mainstream language as we don’t want to alienate anyone. Our aim is to create an incredible experience for our visitors who come to the gallery. From Hanover Square, we can broadcast to the rest of the world. In fact,

I must show you this … Joe pulls out his mobile phone and clicks on an App, on a true 21st century’s VR experience. He recently sent out headsets to collectors around the world so they can virtually walk through the gallery and interact with the artworks, engaging his global audience with an experience without having to come to London.

“Hunt Paintings” series by Philippe Colbert Unit London / Photo © Courtesy of  ZOLTAN+

Z+ … and who is Philip Colbert?

JK Philip is an incredible artist, his show opened on the 17th of December at Saatchi gallery where he has already exhibited. It’s a great collaboration for us. Saatchi was very generous and Charles Saatchi is already a collector of Philip’s work. The place really does justice to his paintings and installations.

When people first see his work, they might think it’s shallow because it is so pop, so full of colours and social media references, and if you don’t understand Philip, it is very easy to miss the depth and the meaning behind his work. Philip is a real academic, incredibly intellectual, all the compositions and narratives in his paintings are references from hunt paintings. Look at the National Gallery, that’s what Rubens used to paint, incredible hunt scenes, but Philip actually is taking his elements to the next level, borrowing them from modern culture, juxtaposing them with historical references. He has the freedom of language, and indeed, why couldn’t we mix a Léger figure with social media emoji on his head totally subverted?

“Hunt Paintings” series by Philippe Colbert Unit London / Photo © Courtesy of ZOLTAN+

Z+ Joe, you studied phycology. So how do you take your lobster?

JK I take it passionately Colbert. He actually created a 7ft lobster for Saatchi and some other amazing pieces, which arrived just before the opening.

Z+ If Colbert would be music what rhythm would he be? B52’s?

JK He’ll probably be Euro-trash, 90s disco with wild rhythm. He also builds his own brand in art, design and fashion. Apart from his lobster installations, he is exhibiting new sculptures, neons and two 6m long giant canvases amongst many others. During the creative process, we had an on-going conversation, although we did not want to get too involved with the artistic process, we still wanted to be involved as both of us are artists. On many occasions, we visited his studio, had long talks and were very diplomatic. We know how to give feedback to be constructive.
The idea behind “Hunt Paintings” is the traditional gallery settings referencing great masters to the most hyper-contemporary layouts.

Z+ Now, on that note, we covered our first subject, how about fast cars, fast women?

JK I have a puppy now that puts a hold on everything. Dogs, galleries, artists, clients and collectors, it never ends. “U” is all about you, younger generation, keep supporting artists, the world needs them and be passionate!

UNIT London  / 3 Hanover Square, W1S 1HD London / “Hunt Paintings” by Philip Colbert at SAATCHI GALLERY / Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, SW3 4RY London / 17 December 2108 – 13 January 2019

TOP PHOTO: Philippe Colbert “Hunt Paintings” at Saatchi Gallery / Photo © Courtesy of Unit London

Text and photos by courtesy of Zoltan Alexander © ZOLTAN+ London © ArtLyst

www.zoltanplus.com

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