The Stuckists Punk Victorian by Paul Harvey. Courtesy the artist.
They’ve spent years fighting the establishment. Now, for the first time, the Stuckists have been invited to join it.
Part of The Walker Art Gallery’s Biennial festival programme, The Stuckists Punk Victorian, on show from September 18 to February 20 2005, is the group’s first exhibition at a national institution.
For Charles Thomson, founding member of the group and exhibiting artist, the show is the natural culmination of his work.
"It’s a vindication of the fact that we’ve achieved a presence in the art world," Charles told the 24 Hour Museum.
That presence has been slowly built up by the artistic movement, created in 1999 and named after an accusation levelled at co-founder Billy Childish by his then girlfriend Tracey Emin: "Your paintings are stuck! You are stuck! Stuck stuck stuck!"
Bored of Brit Art and calling for a move away from conceptualism, the Stuckists set themselves as a constant reminder to the establishment that it was, in their opinion, getting things wrong.
Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision by Charles Thomson. Photo: David Prudames. Courtesy the artist.
Each year when Turner Prize season comes around, the group is there, picketing the steps of Tate Britain, lambasting Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota and railing against an art world they feel has become a commercial enterprise.
"It’s about the art being the real thing," said Charles. "Verbal language tells people about things that they consider important, but we want to use visual language in the same way."
According to Thomson it was Marcel Duchamp who came along and changed everything: "He disrupted things and that’s fine, but now things have been shaken up so much that it’s been shaken up into little bits and the little bits have been shaken up into even smaller bits. We are saying let’s put it all back together."
The first thing that sticks out about the Punk Victorian is the way it’s hung. It’s redolent of those old days of the 'academy' where Victorian worthies scanned vast wall-fulls of paintings.
As Charles Thomson explained, this was something of a deliberate ploy and helps enhance the group’s message.
"They hung it like that because it was a good way to hang it," he said. "You can see most of it that way and it’s the most enjoyable way of experiencing the art."
Charles Thomson and model 'Emily' pose in front of Paul Harvey's 'Punk Victorian' Photo: Richard Moss. © 24 Hour Museum.
However, he was quick to point out that Stuckists are not artistic luddites: "A big mistake about Stuckism is that we are trying to get back to something. We are not saying there’s a golden age in the past. The golden age is every age; it’s the present, this is the golden age."
There’s a broad range of styles on show here, perhaps reflecting the Stuckist stamp, which is very much against formalism in painting. There is a sense that the techniques deployed have been developed by the artists themselves.
Exhibitors Sexton Ming and Philip Absolon could be tagged as outsiders, but there is much greater depth than you’d get in an outsider painting.
In Eamon Everall’s work there are touches of neo-cubism and whilst the work of Bill Lewis is full of Jewish, Pagan and Christian imagery, the man in many ways symbolises the Stuckist ethic.
He is self-taught and in common with many of the artists on show has been kept out of the art scene. In conversation he is self-effacing, but has a strong sense of his artistic worth.
"I do this because I can’t do anything else and I’ve spent 20 years doing it," he told me.
Job Club by Philip Absolon. Courtesy the artist.
"I wouldn’t be considered by some to be a professional artist and some of this stuff will be looked at by 'experts' and they’d say this person can’t paint properly," he added. "They haven’t been trained properly."
Within the group there are many different strands and there’s no overarching concept. It’s an eclectic collection of work at times subtle, at times bold and obvious as brass.
Yet one thing that must be stressed is that they’re not out to shock. There are some images in the exhibition that some might find difficult, but there is a real sense that these are painters trying to create beautiful objects.
But what’s interesting is that they called it Punk Victorian: an ironic title for a movement that seeks to eschew irony. Indeed, they claim to hate the irony of other movements such as post-modernism.
This, as Bill Lewis pointed out, is a grey area that can often put viewers off the Stuckist scent: "People are never sure if we are being ironic or not," he said, "we are not. We are coming from the heart."
The Gift by Eamon Everall. Courtesy the artist.
The title of the show and work of the same name created by former member of punk band Penetration, Paul Harvey bring that sentiment firmly to mind.
Despite the fact the Stuckists say they’re not trying to hark back to a golden age there are parallels with past artistic movements. The Walker itself, the title Punk Victorian, put one in mind of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Like the oft-maligned, but much-loved 19th century group the Stuckists count painters, poets, musicians and political activists among their number.
No doubt if punk had broke in 1877 instead of 1977 Edward Burne-Jones would have played bass in a Victorian punk band.