The artist Nancy Fouts who has died age 74 found herself starting adult life in what, for a girl from Kentucky, must have been the confusing and somewhat alien world of a British finishing school. Sent across the Atlantic in 1963 at the tender age of 18, she began preparations to become that most obedient of female roles: the glittering debutante. But this was the swinging sixties, the era of female empowerment, and her parents’ plans were to go a little askew. Instead of learning how to elegantly exit a car, she learned how to shoplift. Instead of brushing her hair by a mirror, she started cutting it into a fashionable style. And by the time she had applied for Chelsea College of Art, her path in life was permanently altered.
Nancy Fouts had a profound influence on a younger generation of artists including Tim Nobel, Sue Webster, Polly Morgan, and Gavin Turk
Over the years Fouts would acquire a husband, children, and a successful career as the founder of a model making a studio in the advertising industry. But for the past 20 years or so, she had been working full time as an artist and had achieved considerable success. Banksy is reportedly a big fan. The two shared a dark sense of humour, their art similarly observing and ridiculing the farcicality of modern life. Fouts’ sculptures look like they might have been props from a store cupboard at the diabolical Dismaland theme park, though despite the likenesses she steered clear of Banksy’s political lecturing. Down the Rabbit Hole, the artist’s last solo show at Flowers, marked 48 years since her first exhibition with the same gallery in 1970. There was a mixture of old and new works from over the past decade, and the show was full of the same questioning attitude and subversive wit that no doubt drove her from charm school to art school half a century ago.
Fouts’ advertising background was clearly seen in her work. Not only were her sculptures slick and beautifully produced, but their messages work as slogans or warnings that resonate with bold clarity. She created in a traditional Surrealist/Dadaist style, marrying together unrelated objects and concepts for bizarre effect. Take for example a wooden walking stick covered top to bottom with sharp rose thorns. Here we had an item that was entirely purposed to support, but in this case, could do so without painfully harming in the process. There were many other visual oxymorons and clever contradictions amongst the artist’s work. Another understated highlight depicted a beautiful lovebird perched atop a grenade having just playfully plucked out its pin, the piece an obvious metaphor for naively executed destruction.
American-born Fouts was best known for her distinctive sculptural works, which reconfigured commonplace objects and materials with characteristically playful and provocative humour. Combining Surrealism, Dada and Pop Art, her work brought together seemingly disconnected objects and ideas to revel in the inherent strangeness of the everyday.
Nancy Fouts (born 1945, USA) lived and worked in London, UK. She graduated from Chelsea School of Art in the 60s, then attended the Royal College of Art, whilst painting shop fronts in Carnaby Street, for the likes of Lord Kitchener’s Valet. In 1968 she co-founded the pioneering design and model making company Shirt Sleeve Studio and won the Designers and Art Directors Associations Gold Award for Most Outstanding Artwork in 1973. She created seminal ad campaigns for Silk Cut, British Airways, Benson & Hedges, and Virgin, and designed album covers for bands including Manfred Mann, and Steeleye Span. The record sleeve for Steeleye Span ‘Commoners Crown’, won the 1976 award for Best Designed British Album Sleeve. Fouts’ first exhibition took place at Flowers Gallery in 1970 (during the gallery’s first year). She directed the artist-run gallery Fouts and Fowler, which opened in 1989. Fouts exhibited in London, Venice, Denmark and Brussels.
Nancy died after a long illness. She was known for her generosity and wild parties at her Camden home and of course her sublime sense of humour. She recently produced a stunning monograph through crowdfunding. Her legacy lives on through her many friends and a younger generation of artists who continue to carry the torch.
Words: Patrick Hamilton Courtney/Paul Carter Robinson – Photos: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2019