Interview with the artist Ty Bennett.
Do you have any favourite horror movies?
I’m a big fan of horror films ranging from the early silents “Nosferatu” by F. W. Murnau, 1922 and “The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari” by Robert Weine, 1919, right up to the recent”Cloverfield”, which I loved!
But, my all time favourite could be “I Married a Monster from Outer Space”. The film is of course, about communism. It seems to me to be the catalyst for the original TV series of “The Outer Limits”. It has the same look and feel in my opinion. As a child I was fanatical about the Outer limits. I have all the 50’s American Sci-Fi horror films on either DVD or tape. I love “The Evil Dead” films, I don’t like too much violence or gore. The “Shining” directed by Stanley Kubrick is a big all time favourite of mine. I love the old “Universal” films such as “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “Dracula”.
You’ve led me into the interview with an innocuous question Ty!
How long do you spend working on a painting?
Depends………I have done paintings that have taken literally one minute. The “Therapy paintings” take about one hour. I have done paintings that took a year to get right. But a painting like the portraits say…….. the Jhonn Balance, David Tibet types of paintings take about two or three days for the main body of the work. I paint very fast.
What have you been working on lately?
Reworking some of my old 80’s album covers for commissions.
I need the money!
But for myself a painting of me naked……….
I seem to have read somewhere you were once reading about serial killers, anyone in particular? Did you ever read the Shoemaker about Joseph Kallinger? That was one crazy book! Reading about them is so different from what you see on TV. I just can’t stress that enough, its like they just can’t tell the whole story, and every show does it. I find that very strange, I hate the mainstream media more than anything.
I used to read negative non-fiction before, not anymore………Albert Fish was interesting. I haven’t read “The Shoemaker”
In my opinion you were way ahead of the whole “lowbrow” art scene before it took off, do you have any feelings about that, any artists whose work you admire lately?
So many! I love Robert Williams, Baseman, Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Joe Coleman………I could go on and on………these people are much better than I am at painting! I only have one subject………ME! But, I do music, writing etc, and being Val Denham is a job in itself. These particular brilliant artists tend to work too hard for their fame. I can’t imagine the hours that they have to put in to get such results. My problem is that I refuse to stick to one style and I enjoy living too much. What would I prefer to do, sit at a table painting all day or be sat at a table in a pub talking about things such as, is God made of dark matter or dark energy, with my wife whilst having a drink? The pub wins every time. There are people painting so much slicker than I am, good luck to them.
Incidentally, I would place you on that list of interesting new surrealist artists Ty. That may sound like I’m giving you a plug here, but the fact is that I wanted to do this interview with you because I really rate your work. I was totally knocked out when I saw your lunatic images.
Did you ever have a favourite artist when you were younger?
I remember discovering Dali at a very young age, and that was making me look at art much more seriously, and painting then became a daily work.
Marcel Duchamp, Van Gogh, Dali, Carravagio, Max Ernst, and The Pre- Raphaelites, many really………
Do you have a favourite Andy Warhol movie? (Or Paul Morrissey, whoever the director was?)
“Trash”! or anything with Candy Darling in. “Women in Revolt”,I love “Chelsea Girls” with the two screens.
How did you get involved doing record covers? I think they are some of the best ever made.
Marc Almond was the first to commission me. He did so after buying some paintings from my degree show at The Royal College of Art in London. I think that those paintings can be seen on the inside cover of the “Untitled” album. Or is it the back? I think that the first one that I ever did was for a 7-inch single called “Black Heart”?
Do you have a favourite old movie star? I like Humphrey Bogart and also Dirk Bogarde, he was really good in that Fassbinder film I think it was called “Despair”, I saw it years ago but cannot find it anywhere. Why are all the best things rare and hard to find?
I’m in love with Humphrey Bogart! Strangely we have been watching Humpty Dumpty Go-carts movies very recently. I’m a huge fan of Louise Brooks the silent movie star. I love Marilyn Monroe films of course. I also like Charlie Chaplin.
Do you have a favourite Fassbinder film?
No. I’m not really into Fassbinder. I quite liked “Lili Marlene”
Who are some of your favourite film directors?
Hitchcock. “Vertigo” is my favourite film. I’ve watched it so many times that I know all the dialogue! I’m a big fan of Stanley Kubrick. But recent directors………it has to be David Lynch! I love EVERYTHING that he does! I thought that “Inland Empire” was fabulous. I’m also obsessed with the films of Ed Wood! I have them all on DVD. “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is one of my most loved films.
When you work on a painting do you spend a lot of time planning it out or is it more spontaneous?
I’m starting to play around with underlying geometry but even that I do spontaneously.
Somewhere James Joyce says, “we make it up as we goes along”, but his work also seems to have a lot of conceptual stuff going on. I’m not really sure if the conceptual stuff does anything other than make it seem more complex, where in your work I’m more drawn to it for emotional reasons, which seems more meaningful to me personally.
I just do it straight off………very little planning, I just know how it should be. It already exists. I just do the lines then colour it in. At a certain point it gets a soul then it becomes something that has always existed.
I am very curious to hear death and the beauty foundation, “Darlington Tapes”. Is there anything you would like to say about that? I think I read a review about it that made it sound like the weirdest record ever made!
We did the tapes on a big old reel-to-reel machine, just myself and Andrew McKenzie of the Hafler Trio. I stayed at his flat for about a week. He lived with his wife in Darlington, in the north of England. When his wife went to work, I would buy very cheap ultra strong lager and we would record our madness. I would recline on the sofa and read all Andrew’s weird books and act like a bored spoilt teenager in eyeliner. I obviously had some mental health issues at the time and it comes across rather well on the album. I think that I was about 23 or 24? I think Andrews’s wife at the time found me a little peculiar. It could well be the weirdest album of all time!
Did you ever have any interest in the occult or Aleister Crowley or anything like that? I read somewhere that this film of Picasso painting was the best example of magick, because he just keeps going and going, doing picture after picture. I always liked that analogy.
Or maybe it’s just obsessive-compulsive disorder? Probably a little of both in my case.
I used to be very into the occult until it all got very scary. I had some very odd paranormal experiences years ago in London, then I threw all my witchy books away; it just seemed a little dull being haunted all the time.
I really like your drawings, they are sometimes collaborations?
I’m very into drawings lately. Very different than painting, I guess I like the texture or detail or something, it feels more direct.
I very rarely collaborate on drawings but I have done several with children. I also did a few with Genesis P. Orridge some time ago. I do often collaborate with other people musically.
Someone gave me a mechanical pencil and I’ve been obsessed with drawing ever since, amazing technology, and the eraser even works, and you never have to sharpen it!
That’s not a question!
I’ve always been a big fan of portrait painting, yours in particular have an almost spiritual quality, well not almost, they are, I guess I’m wondering how much of that comes from you and how much of it comes from the person you are doing the portrait of.
I guess there is nothing more spiritual than creativity.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, I may have to edit this one out, but you know how in the past those old masters or whatever were always doing religious portraits for the church, and there was something kinda phoney about that, but they were trying, and now here you are doing portraits of people like John Balance and David Tibet and Marc Almond, you’re like the Andy Warhol/ Rembrandt of underground music but to me these people are very spiritual, well maybe that’s the wrong word, but creative, sincere, they aren’t just a symbol they are the real thing. Does any of this make any sense? I never realized how hard it is to talk about art.
Yeah, I understand what you are saying Ty. Hmmmm………I suppose that a lot of my artwork, particularly the portraits have a spiritual look.
I was always very inspired by Russian Icon paintings and I do come from a Catholic ancestry, my grandmother was Catholic. I do often feel quite spiritual even though I would consider myself to be an Agnostic. Does some deep subconscious religious tendency come through in the artwork? Do I see these people that I’ve painted as shamen of some kind? It is very likely I think. I don’t believe in God. God is everywhere. Even in my paintings. Even in my mascara.
I was hoping to maybe get a little more personal with the second part of this interview, but maybe I’m wrong and we don’t need to go there. Well… I have all the classic symptoms of what is called borderline personality disorder, which means that most of the time I’m fine but then all of a sudden I go completely nuts. Marilyn Monroe had it and so did Adolph Hitler, so I guess I’m in good company. The character from the movie “Taxi Driver” was based on someone with B.P.D. Jim Morrison from the doors also had it, which explains quite a few things about my relationship with drugs. So for me art has always been pretty much the only stable thing in my life that I can come back to regardless of whatever happens in my “real life”.
So called “mad” people can be very interesting.
Earlier you mentioned therapy drawings, and a few e-mails ago you cheered me up when I was depressed, I can still hear the joker laughing, at very odd moments, in the back of my mind, because yes we are all going to die in the end. Mine looks like Jean Paul Sartre with clown make up on.
Heath Ledger as the Joker, I thought was so great, I would love his Joker character as a friend.
Do you often use art as a form of therapy, and how would you describe your neuroses?
I’ve always used art as a Therapy. The really worrying thing though, is that the more content I become the less I do! As it is for a lot of artists, the more fucked up that I feel, the more work that I seem to produce.
When you work on a drawing or painting whilst listening to the radio or a C.D., you get totally immersed in the process. You forget about yourself. I forget about my gender, the bills that I have to pay, the trivial facts of existence such as, my hair needs washing, what’s for dinner etc? I really get lost in it for hours at a time. The thing is sometimes I can get too lost and I can overwork things, putting in more detail. Layer upon layer, I want to see the atomic structure. I want to know everything now and forever. This kind of thinking can really wear me out. Sometimes I’ve made myself ill by continuing to work on something. Now, I remind myself that I must slow down; It’s not a race. There’s always tomorrow. Relax, you could even spend the day lying on the sofa watching Humphrey Bogart movies! Nobody would even know! The thing is………I would know………so I’ll just do a little more work.
My wife Gail, ever the psychotherapist, found an occasional way of avoiding this I MUST WORK HARD BEFORE I DIE train of thought that I always had going on, by asking me to actually limit the time spent on an artwork. So, the theory goes that a “Therapy Painting” should take no more than 1 hour to complete. If I’m not entirely satisfied with the result after my 1 hour, then………….tough! That’s how it must stay! I found that the most satisfying method for these paintings was to paint the canvas one or maybe two flat colours, then paint with a thick brush loaded with black paint. I really enjoy doing them and if one or two turn out crap…………so what? The world will go on turning.
I’m an obsessive-compulsive person and I tidy and clean a lot. I hate disorder. It scares me. I have a phobia about dust. I can identify different types of dust. Masonry dust really freaks me out. I tend to hoard things. I have collections of vintage magazines, all neatly arranged in order. I have many peculiar habits! I have an obsession with vertical and horizontal angels, (angles, not angels, more’s the pity! Gail) I’ve realised fairly recently that I do have some seemingly manic periods, where I can go very erratic and scary. I usually get drunk on these occasions, just to calm myself down.
How do you feel about let’s say, drugs and debauchery vs. trying to be healthy and that sort of thing?
Well, I would love to be into healthy living! I really would. The fact is, that I smoke and drink to excess. I like pizza and meat. Life’s too short; I want to enjoy it all today! I do exercise on a walking machine thing everyday for about three quarters of an hour, but that’s to burn off the pizza and booze! I like to be fairly slim. I’m just so vain! Gail says that I’m”fat fat fat!!”(Great psychotherapist!) Healthy living is for cowards, unhealthy living is for idiots. (I haven’t had a cigarette for 36 hrs now.)
Sometimes I can be moving toward better mental health and my artwork seems to also get better, but then other times what appears to be better mental health is really something frozen inside me that needs to be blown up. I guess I really don’t have much choice in the matter; maybe it’s a yin and yang sort of thing? I mean are we going to be all good…are we going to be all bad…What’s wrong with transcending both good and bad without excluding either? Now that! Is a weird question…
You know what? That actually makes perfect sense to me. I agree! Why can’t we be everything? Or none at all……….I was flirting a little too much with a guy not so long ago and then I said, “You do know that I’m not really female don’t you?” Anyway this guy said something that really stuck in my mind. He said “That was such a silly thing to say, I don’t even think of you as a woman or a guy, I think of you as a Val Denham”!! I love that! It’s true! Duality, Yin and Yang……….
You may need to take some drugs after this interview is over…
I don’t do drugs at all……..well, only nicotine and alcohol.
Do you think that neurosis plays an important role in the creation of artwork?
I believe that art is a neurotic activity in itself. The less neurosis the weaker the art. Just look at those Sunday afternoon landscape painters! Contented, retired old people that do watercolours as a hobby. I’m not knocking it! I think it’s great that people enjoy painting. But painting the village green on a sunny afternoon for pleasure can make for pretty empty art. Angst, neurosis, fear, desire, self-loathing etc, drag up some rather thoughtful images. Picasso was a master at it. All those hidden messages……..he was a total bastard, but my! What paintings.
Is this interview starting to feel a little schizophrenic? I really didn’t want to go in this direction but my hands just started typing…I’m actually a pretty optimistic person if I feel I have a choice in the matter. How would you describe your outlook on life?
Grab every second! The egg timer is in action! Every day to me is like Christmas morning when I was a kid……….If I die today, then I can’t complain, I’ve had an interesting ride so far. All I need is warmth, food, booze and clean bed sheets. I’ve always been loved by someone. Everything works out in the end……..I love my life. Hallelujah!
I wanted to ask something about Jhonn Balance, I was shocked to hear he passed away a few years ago, I’m not sure what to ask about, is there anything you want to say about him or your relationship with him? (I listen to coil quite often for many years working in my studio.) Somehow he seems to fit into this conversation.
Yes, Jhonn’s death was a great shock to me too, I was actually in correspondence with him via email every other day just before he died concerning some artwork for a new Coil album. Jhonn was very taken with a painting on my website called “At Last the Incredibly Lame Upside Down Chirps” about some cartoon cowboys upside down on a ceiling with legs coming out of their mouths. For some reason he found this to be disturbingly weird and wanted me to do the Coil album cover as a fold out cross printed golden yellow and covered in tiny doodles and drawings of madness. This would also be on the C.D. label. Yellow and black only, like the cowboy picture. He was quite excited about it. It would have looked good! I did a small sheet of watercolour card painted yellow with gouache and drew all over it in black pen and ink to see what it could look like, but Jhonn never got it, so I framed it and gave it to some friends in Switzerland. I first met Jhonn or Geff Rushton as he was called then at Genesis P’orridge’s house in the very early 80’s. Jhonn had sent me quite a bit of fan mail, before that! He sent me many letters with photos of himself doing strange magick rituals, which I was never really into. I thought that he had guts as one evening he confessed that his main sexual fantasy for about two years had been to be in bed with myself and my ex wife! I told my ex wife about this but she refused to exercise poor Jhonns obsession……….so, maybe he had other dreams after he confessed to me? He was very sincere! I knew that he meant it. In later years I would get the occasional phone call and he was always very drunk, sometimes crying on the phone. I felt rather cruelly that he really needed to pull himself together. He obviously had some real demons in him. I don’t know if he ever saw a psychiatrist, but if he didn’t, then he should have done. It helped me a lot to know something of why I am as I am and it might of helped him too. He was very easily influenced by anyone that he admired. He was a very gentle, intelligent, good looking guy, it’s such a tragedy that he had to die by falling over a balcony whilst under the influence of alcohol. I was very sad when I heard because I liked Jhonn.
I sure am glad we aren’t all crazy like when we were young, now you’re a woman and I’m a basket case. But I will say that being a little crazy in the head has led me to live a more full life, studying psychology and philosophy, looking for answers, being in a Gurdjieff group for many years, and even the downside of it all, like taking too much L.S.D. and staring at myself in the mirror until I turned into the devil! Or was that the best part? But at least I’ve lived a full life and I’m comfortable with who I am today, well most of the time, if I can remember. I’m lucky to have had the time to make art and enjoy the process. I’m happy to just sit here and chat with you for this interview. I suppose the closer you come to truth the simpler things get.
Well Ty, I’m not sure the “basket case” could conduct such reasonable interview such as this one! Also, to be honest, I don’t really see myself as a woman………I think of myself as a transgender person.
Hhhhmmm………what is this sanity thing that everyone seems to constantly strive for? I would hate to be completely sane! I can’t think of anything worse. I think that some people might think that mental disorders are all about sadness and fear. The fact is that quite often it’s seeing the world as wonderful and so clear that it takes your breath away. I can get into very awkward situations; I often make a fool of myself, say inappropriate things at the wrong times. I could get arrested for certain things, but I just love it all! It just seems that my life is a little more fun than it is for “straight” people. Tomorrow, I’m going to record an Amanda Lear song called “If I was a boy”. Oh, the irony……………
You seem so strong and serene in your pictures, like you are content and everything comes easy for you. for some artists I think we get better as we get older but there is always the threat of permanent psychosis, suicide, and the mental hospital! Do you ever worry about these things? How do you deal with these issues?
Ha! “Strong and serene”! I’m such a fake! The fact is that that’s the image that I like of myself the best. I only put photos on the Internet of myself that I think are flattering. Gail thinks that I look much more attractive when I’m not conscious of how I look. I like to look a little “glamorous” if it’s possible. It doesn’t always work! Serene……..I wanna be so damned serene!
Art does come easy for me it’s true. I always know what to do. I used to be amused at college watching those art students who would just stare at their blank canvas for about an hour, trying to work out the image. I attack it straight away, easy. Psychosis? Once, one of my psychologists feared that one day I would become psychotic if I didn’t come to grips with my gender identity issues.
Well, I did, and I won’t become psychotic, neurotic somewhat maybe, but never psychotic.
Suicide is never an option, ever. Consciousness is a divine gift. To destroy it is murder. Suicide is murder. To anyone contemplating such a terrible, pointless and ultimately selfish act, I would beg them, please, just wait one week; if things are still the same, I’ll be surprised. As I said to you Ty, we are all going to die anyway, what’s the rush? Flow with the river, it’s taking you home.
On one of your paintings it says “look for the invisible” I really like that.
I think that says it all.
Questions for Val, an Interview with Claus Laufenburg
Interview started on Saturday 14th May 2005 and continued on Sunday, 15th May 2005
How are you today?
Cheerful, slightly intoxicated by alcohol, a slight feeling of anxiousness, which is usual for me, apart from that, pretty good, which is also usual for me.
When don’t you feel slightly anxious?
When I’m asleep, when I have the warmth of someone who loves me, for example being cuddled by Gail or when Stalker the cat is lying on me, calming me, telling me it’s all right.
What is the first picture you remember?
Often children have security blankets, a piece of cloth to comfort them, I however had a security book which I carried with me constantly called “The Living World of Science“ it was published in 1962, so I must have been about 5 years old. Although I couldn’t read the words in the book, it was filled with colour pictures of astronomy, chemistry, and biology, which I loved to look at. It had a section on Leonardo Da Vinci and a very bad reproduction of “The Virgin of The Rocks“
although I must have seen this picture every day it didn’t impress me as much as the picture of the astronaut on the cover of the book. I was determined that when I grew up I would be an astronaut like John Glenn; I made a huge model of the Gemini capsule out of Plastercine. So I suppose the first proper piece of art that I saw in reproduction was Leonardo’s “The Virgin of The Rocks”, curiously I can see its influence in my work now, I still love angels and divine looking women.
What is the first picture you remember painting?
When I was very small I used to spend a lot of time copying illustrations out of medical books. I was fascinated by anatomy. I remember one summer afternoon outside our house and my Grandmother watching me draw; she turned to my mother and said “This boy will be one of three things, surgeon, artist or priest“ and she hoped it was the latter. However I knew I would be an astronaut but I was wrong and she was right on one of those vocations.
I also remember being quite small and doing a quite realistic drawing of a beautiful woman crying with the legend above it “I hate everybody”. I remember Uncle Jack being particularly disturbed by this image. Uncle Jack was a cross between Elvis Presley and Hank Marvin, a dapper dresser and something of an eccentric. The first painting I ever sold when I was about 13 was to him for £8. He wanted a painting of a clown and I did a self-portrait of myself as a clown, which curiously enough is a subject, which I have returned to in recent years. I’m now mature enough to understand its underlying psychological irony. I couldn’t explain the image of the crying woman then, although now to anyone who knows me it is blatantly obvious.
Uncle Jack drew Disney characters, stuff like that, not profound, but he was interested in art. I loved him. The only other one in the family that I know of who was interested in art was my Grandfather; I have a photograph taken during World War 1 of him tattooing other soldiers.
What is your favourite work of art?
That is a hard question, a very hard question. (He thinks for moment and then rushes off to check the title). I think it would have to be this picture, which always moves me “The Blind Girl“ by Sir John Everett Millais, which he painted in 1856.
This might seem to be a surprising choice to those who know my work, as it is such a sentimental image, but to me it is deeply profound. The landscape reminds me of Yorkshire. This is how the world looks when you take LSD; hyperrealism and the subjects are female, the blind girl looks like Mary, also it portrays music with the accordion. I think it is a work of genius.
What is your favourite among your own works?
If the house was burning down it would be one of two; the portrait of “Max In His Mother The Sky” or a book called “Dysphoria, A Book of Obsession” filled with paintings, drawings, writings and collages, which is the most painful thing that I’ve ever produced and the most profound, it’s so painful that most of it has never been seen, except by Gail, and my ex-wife who tried to destroy it.
Would you consider publishing this or any other of your private books (how many of them are there?)? What would a potential publisher (Benedikt Taschen, are you listening?) have to offer you to get talking about a book of yours?
Have you considered doing other Val products (postcards, posters, t-shirts?) for people who cannot afford to buy an original but would love to have a ‘piece of you’anyhow?
Ha! Claus, you’re funny! I love Taschen books, I have hundreds. I recently saw a facsimile of a sketchbook by David Hockney and I really thought that it was a real sketchbook! but for the price, which was £ 50, I would never have known that it wasn’t the real thing! It even had coloured paint fingerprints reproduced exactly on the matt black cover! I would love to see one of my own books done like that. I’ve done about 25? of the Val books maybe, but they are finished works in their own right, complete with wording etc. I’m sure this stuff will be reproduced one day, sadly not in my lifetime. I mean realistically who would buy them? Only small amounts of people are truly clued in to my work and me at this time!
I think I’d do such a book free, just to own one!
I’ve had a few postcards and t-shirts, posters etc done before and yeah, they sell pretty well, but I’m open to doing more as I love to see my own children reproduced.
Do you see other contemporary artists (painters/musicians/poets) covering the same sort of ground/themes as you do, someone you admire or feel a close affinity to?
Probably the only one that I can think of is the late Pierre Molinier. I find his attitude to art very similar to mine in many respects. The fact that his art was divided into two sections – his painting and photography, both of which are the same thing; although Molinier’s photographs are fetishistic they also portray his inner femininity,
which I also do, but in a coded and less fetishistic way, where as his work is purely sexual I am dealing with conventional images of femininity and gender. However my self portrait-photographs are of equal importance to my hand created images. That’s why there are so many photographs of myself on websites. The photographic images are of equal importance to the actual artworks. They are declarations of my existance. Proof of Val.
I also seem to have a lot of similarities to Austin Osman Spare. In our obsessiveness and our personalised and figurative symbolism. (Gail thinks that I have a 10% affinity with Pablo Picasso because I codify my sexual relationships in my art).
Some people think that I have an affinity with Grayson Perry, but I don’t because his work is political and in many respects strangely masculine. His work is filled with messages to everyone. My work is about messages to myself. I have no interest in politics or portraying myself as a contemporary artist at all. I am an anachronistic artist of the old school and I don’t need to impress anyone, not even myself.
Being on the web is peculiar, so many people seeing what is a private enterprise, chiefly a dialogue with my self. I have been asked to do exhibitions by many people but have only ever done one, and even that I was pushed into. I am flattered by the attention of people who’ve contacted me through the web, but it isn’t frightening in a way that doing an exhibition is, as it’s so removed and less public which helps me, as fundamentally, I can be very shy.
Do you collect other artists‘ work? Whose?
As I am not wealthy! I don’t collect very much art. I recently bought a painting by a young artist called Richard Benjamin Allen whose work I think is very accomplished; I love the obsessive nature of his work.
I bought a painting from my friend the artist Miklos Papp whose work is very fluid and organic and his representations of nature remind me of Graham Sutherland.
Some years ago in the mid 1980s I was present at an exhibition of William Burroughs’s paintings and I regret not having bought one, seeing as they were selling for only a for hundred pounds each. What a mistake that was.
If I was wealthy and could afford to collect, then you would find that I’d bought the works of Gilbert and George, Pierre Et Gilles, Picasso, Matisse, John Everett Millais, Robert Williams, HR Giger, Henry Darger, Atkinson Grimshaw, Warhol, Richard Dadd, Pierre Molinier, Samuel Palmer, John Martin, (I have two huge 19th century Bibles with some of his engravings in which are superb), Blake and that guy Joe Coleman, he’s cool.
What is your favourite period in (art) history? You seem like the late great-lost British Surrealist to me.
My favourite period is possibly the turn of the last century, that’s when art really became experimental as a reaction to photography.
I would consider myself a surrealist in some respects as I tend to deal a lot with the subconscious, however I think a more accurate description of my art would be personalised figurative psychological symbolism. “Late great lost British surrealist?” That would be quite something to live up to! although I’m not sure that it is true.
What do you think of your place in contemporary art? Young British artists like the Chapman brothers or Damien Hirst who seem far less talented than yourself (from a purely technical point of view, business-wise they obviously could teach you some lessons) and much more gimmicky and focused on concept (rather than content) reap all the laurels, where as you have hardly had any exposure in recent years other than the website (correct me if I’m wrong)– social commentary versus, personal iconography? Shock tactics versus visionary content? On the other you don‘t seem to be a darling of the ‘cult-art‘ collectors either (the ones with paintings by J.W. Gacy or some less notorious killer in their collection who don‘t get enough air living in their mum‘s attic).
I wouldn’t consider my work to be contemporary at all.; contemporary equates to fashion. I only had that one exhibition and that was not something I volunteered for, rather I was persuaded to do it. I have been asked over the years to do exhibitions and have declined. A portion of my work is now exhibited on my website. This is the website that Graham Moore very kindly suggested and created for me. It suits me to work over the net as it gets around my innate shyness.
Unlike many of the contemporary British artists I do not have a desperate need to be recognised, loved or understood by an invisible public. My work is done whether or not it is seen; I am compelled to create. I have a genuine compulsion to create these things, maybe its all part of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Who knows, it’s almost as if these works have to exist in the real world. Often I’ll start a work and I’ll think “Shit! I wish I hadn’t started this! This is really hard” yet I force myself to complete it, almost as if it’s not my choice. You have to ask the question – is art a form of neurosis, a type of mental illness?
Yes, I do seem to have a very small (and select) cult following and in many ways it is a lot of fun to connect to those people who appreciate and have an affinity with my work. It creates energy in me when people are excited by what I’m doing, it makes us connected; it has also provided opportunities to work with other people, especially musically, which is a great joy to me.
It is also fun to show the photographs of myself, which are truly as important to me as the created art and could be seen as a connection to Duchamp’s Rrose Selavy. I should mention, that I love the work of the Chapman brothers.
Do you believe in irony?
If I paint a nice picture of a pussycat, am I being deliberately subversive? or do I have no idea about the rules, codes and small print of what we have been conditioned to accept as ‘High Art’. Who makes these rules anyway? What would be really subversive would be Charles Saatchi buying a Jack Vettriano painting and calling it high art. This is why I sometimes make the images, ‘illustrative’ which is currently the dirtiest word in the realms of ‘High Art'; am I being genuinely Kitsch or am I taking the piss out of notions of what is acceptable for a contemporary artist to do?
Is Jackson Pollock a better artist than Rolf Harris? Yes! of course he is a superior artist because he has an underlying philosophy, but has anyone bothered to ask Rolf Harris if he has a philosophy? Jackson Pollock never made a record as good as “Sun Arise”. Now that’s what I call irony.
So the answer to your question is yes, I truly do believe in irony.
How important is humour in your work?
I am a very humorous person and sometimes this does come through in my work; let’s face it we all need a good laugh as we hurtle towards our certain deaths. I wouldn’t say humour is important in my work but it leaks through it involuntarily. I make people laugh a lot; I’m a bit of a comedian!
The thing that‘s most easily identified with your work and closest to being a trademark of yours are those really big and expressive almost live-like eyes – what is the importance of that? The windows of the soul? Are you aware of Georges Bastille’s “Story of The Eye“? Do you attach any erotic quality to the eye? Or is it just because you are a Residents fan boy?
No, I am not familiar with Georges Bastille’s “Story Of The Eye”.
I like eyes, because eyes are without gender. They are the only visible part of the brain. The eyes are called the window to the soul and I use mine in an expressive way. Often outside I wear sunglasses. My eyes reveal a lot about me; Gail can tell when I’m tired, ill, lying* just by looking at my eyes. So sometimes my eyes reveal too much. On a more basic level I have observed my eyes a great deal through years of wearing make up. If we see eyes on a painting we are instantly drawn into the image and completely forget about the two dimensional reality of the surface as we are seduced by the power of the iris.
*She cannot lie to save her life!!! – Gail
How important is sex in your work? A lot of images depict genitalia, but I wouldn’t call them ‘erotic‘ or stimulating per se, on the other hand they don‘t seem done for shock value either?
Yes, I would agree with that, I do show genitals quite a lot, as they are the most obvious markers of gender. It has practically nothing to do with eroticism; the genitals in my pictures are not there to arouse the viewer; they are merely a device to indicate male, female, or transgender status.
Do you think you would be an artist without the ‘gender issue‘?
Looking at the pages from Dysphoria it becomes clear that you had considered getting hormone treatment. Did you in the end decide against it? Do you think your art would differ (or do you think the creative juices might have stopped flowing altogether?) if you had opted for a sex change or therapy early on?
Who knows if I would be an artist without the gender issue? Gail thinks that I would, but that I’d be a very different type of artist, less driven by my internal neurosis and probably more driven by external forces such as money, employment and competition. Perhaps as a child I forced myself to be an artistic prodigy simply to avoid the constraints of typical male behaviour. Maybe I have continued this into adulthood? As a child art was the protective shield for the confused boy against a world that he could never make sense of. Perhaps if I’d been out paying football then I would never have developed into the creative person I am today. I spent so much time behind my shield and it enabled me to keep sane. Gail says that I am the most creative person she’s ever met or will ever meet; poetry, musical composition, song writing, and painting. I’m like that cartoon character in The Yellow Submarine, what’s he called? Jeremy Hilary boob, the “Nowhere Man”. I’m working on my new symphony whilst working on my bust!
Do you see art as therapy or just as form of diary keeping? Sometimes looking at the paintings, especially those from the early 90s, one feels like a peeping tom, seeing into your inner conflicts.
I would agree that my art is a kind of therapy yes. It is not diary keeping in the sense that I use it to record the present; my life is reflected in it because my work is about myself. There is less of my day-to-day life appearing in my work at present because I am in a peaceful and stable relationship.
Anyone who looks at my work is seeing me intimately, which is why I present it, even to myself, in a coded and symbolistic way so as to protect myself from the raw intimacy. My art is how I explain myself to myself. I explore my subconscious and the painting is a rationalisation of the internal conflict that is perpetually within me. It is worth noting that I often change styles; this is a device to continually challenge myself as I take the journey towards understanding my own psychology. Style is irrelevant, content is all. One style alone makes you a slave to your own artistic reputation. In other words, I must be what I am seen to be by others, because this is what other people tell me I am. I am supposed to repeat my “idea” ad infinitum. It’s another way of conforming to society’s rulebook. Conceptual art is very popular at this time, yet it’s very dated. Marcel Duchamp said it all with the urinal. The art of the idea. Craftsmanship is a dirty word. Conceptualism has become a shallow gimmick. I adopt all the dirty words as a kind of perverse reaction to what is expected of a serious artist today, illustrative, craftsmanship, naïve”, symbolism, figurative and dare I say it, “feminine”. I used to listen to these bastards at one time. I was told endlessly, “This is how to behave, this is how to be an artist, and this is how to be a man”. I make my own rules now. I don’t have much artistic success! But it really doesn’t matter.
An artist’s “signature” style is a way to conform to others ideas about what being an artist is.
Gail is able to ‘read’ my work perfectly; if I show her any of my images or poetry she is able to interpret the work and sometimes notices things that I’ve personaly been too close to see. Gail has known my work for 30 years since we met at Art School. She likes to look through my portfolios and drawing books as she can tell what frame of mind I was in and what was happening to me in the past when I was in London.
Do you consider yourself a product of England/typically British?
Not at all, it makes no difference to my work where I live, as it has nothing to with the external world but only the internal landscape of Val Denham. Of course the landscapes in my paintings are Yorkshire ones, but that’s incidental. It wasn’t until I moved back to Yorkshire after 20 years in London that I realised that all the time I lived there I was always painting Yorkshire for any landscapes I needed.
Where do you take inspiration? How important are dreams, (drugs?) – do you have visions (the lovely detailed work has more often than not an ‘illuminated‘ quality) or do some of those intricate and immensely detailed compositions take careful plotting? How easy does inspiration come and has there ever been an idea you couldn’t fully realise? How finished is a concept for a painting before you start-putting pen to paper, how much room is there for improvisation in the process of creation?
My dreams are very important to me and but I do not have visions. So important are my dreams to me that I consider my sleeping time to be of equal importance to my waking time. The majority of images stem purely from the subconscious and I have very little trouble realising the works as what is in my head comes out exactly as I visualise it. My inspiration is myself. There is total room for improvisation although this happens only rarely. Usually before I sit down to paint I have an idea of what I am going to paint. It is usually a complete visualisation, I seldom deviate from the idea. For instance the Jhonn Balance portrait is exactly as visualised except for the demons on the wall and the Black Sun symbol, which were necessary to add for compositional reasons.
The only drugs I use are alcohol and nicotine but I am always sober when I work on visual things. The only exception to this rule is that I cannot write poetry when I’m sober! I have taken LSD in my youth.
A lot of the images have a strong religious/iconic quality, a sort of self-contained universe, it seems that in your work you have very little time for the ‘outside world‘/social commentary (thank god!), do you agree?
I am spiritual in a very non-conformist manner. I would describe myself as an agnostic, which fits perfectly with my notions of duality.
I do love the over the top imagery of Catholicism, Byzantine Orthodoxy and the Hindu religion. I also respond strongly to the imagery of Alchemy (The Divine Androgyny). I used to be fascinated by the symbolism of the occult however this has faded with maturity.
There is no room for political comment in my work. Occasionally I do take a foray into the outside world for example after 9/11 I did some visual work about the destruction of the towers, but there again maybe I was fascinated by the fact that they were ‘Twin’ towers?
How important is the transgressive nature of the images? (Sometimes you employ different techniques (collage/drawing/text) into one and the same image, and content-wise the transformative blurring of gender boundaries, but even the human/plant/animal lines are oft-times less than well defined.
Transformation/transgendering is a very big theme in your work, whilst hardly a ‘new’ theme it has attained a new and widespread importance, beyond the obvious very personal meaning it has for you, with plastic surgery and body modification having gone from taboo to acceptable social practice, transgendered people also have become media darlings and at least a bit demystified- how do you see your role in this?
Obviously my work is to do with gender identity or perhaps gender dysphoria, but one thing we’re not taking into account is also the fact that I am obsessive compulsive, using different techniques within one type of artwork could be seen as overworking the image. I don’t see myself as an artistic crusader for the transgender cause; it’s just my own personal obsessions flooding out.
Another recurring image in your work is the (more than) Janus-headed creature, looking back and forth (and sometimes at the onlooker too), what is the importance of that?
The double-faced people or creatures in my work are simply a metaphor for duality. We are all multiphrenic; call it Cubism of the mind.
What sort of reactions have you received as a result of going online with your website last year?
It has brought me into contact with many more people; I’ve got more friends as a result from various corners of the globe and it’s got me back in touch with some old friends too. It’s been very fruitful, I’m rather proud of the website! The thing is, I just send the text and pictures to Graham and he does all the work! I never would have dreamt in a million years that so many people would be interested in my art.
You are most closely associated with the post-industrial ‘family‘ of musicians, TG/PTV/TOPY spring to mind, what is your take on all of that now?
I love those people! They are often highly intelligent, very creative, and one’s sexuality is meaningless; I can relate to their avant-garde experimental approach to their work. The strange thing is I completely lost touch with all those bands and artists for about two decades of my life whilst I was being a father and househusband; I was a part time graphic artist and tended to work in complete isolation on my own art. So I kind of lost touch, which I regret in many ways. I first met those people through Genesis P. Orridge, who I got to know in the late 1970’s. I was drawn to Genesis because he seemed to be very similar to me in many respects, an artist and musician who has always been a true gender terrorist.
I suppose these like-minded individuals found me again, because of the Internet, and I’m very glad that they did. I love weirdo’s maybe because I’m one.
Why was there never a release by your band the Death And Beauty Foundation and more crucially how come no book of your art is available? Were there ever plans to do one?
The “Death and Beauty Foundation” were the most awkward band in the world! We changed our line up every time we played, the only constant members being my friend Oli Novadneiks and his guitar plus myself. We would insult our audiences and usually play what the audience didn’t want to hear. We often got booed off stage! Many times we had to leave by the back exit. People who wrote fanzines would be invited to drink a can of lager filled with my own urine! Needless to say, they never wrote about us. We were truly Punks of the avant-garde, nobody would touch us. Imagine coming to see a gig of your favourite Industrial mayhem and having to listen to the DBF doing renditions of Bing Crosby! Sometimes I would intersperse the music with lectures on art! Only a very small number of ‘fans’ got what we were doing and the fact that we were being ironic, there’s that word again. I should mention that on many occasions we did go down very well! Nobody ever wanted to release any of our stuff on record; fortunately I still have hundreds of tapes in a case from that period. As for your second question no, there isn’t a book available of Valart, maybe one day?
In the November 2004 news update on your website you announced that your „next commission is an album cover for the superb British band Coil“ – what ever happened to that?
Well, I think we know the answer to that one, Jhonn Balance tragically died last November. I was in negotiations with him about the cover for a live album, which was to be printed in yellow and black only. We were emailing each other about this cover right up until the week before he died. It was going to be very surrealistic, something along the lines of a piece of art on this website called ” The Incredibly Lame Cowboy Chirps” which is a painting of cowboys upside down on the ceiling with legs coming out of their mouths. I was going to do characters with legs emanating from their mouths for the fold out digi-pak and CD label. Jhonn liked this image because it came totally from a dream that I’d had. Alas, it never was to be.
Why did your X wife call William Burroughs “A senile old git” to his face?
Ha! That’s funny and kind of embarrassing too. Someone once said of my ex wife, “She doesn’t stoop to dignity!” One of the leading figures of 20th century literature! And she called him “a senile old git”. It was at a thing called “The Final Academy” in Brixton, London; I think it was around 1983? William Burroughs was reading passages from his work. Genesis P. Orridge invited us backstage after the event, and I asked old Bill to sign me a bag full of books, which he very kindly agreed to. However he kept spelling our names wrong! Now our names are very simple! “VAL and E….” maybe he was drunk or drugged up, who knows? But anyway he had a little trouble getting it right. That’s when she called him “A senile old git”! Fortunately he found it highly amusing, but I knew that she was serious! It went silent except for old Bill and myself laughing.
What exactly did Derek Jarman show you in his flat?
Photographs of Adam Ant……………..naked!
Is that it? Okay, thank you Claus! You asked some very interesting questions there and I must say it’s been fun talking all about little ol’me! I enjoyed it.
Big hugs and love in space
Val Denham Interviewed by Friedrich Straße
Val Denham is an artist, once described by Patrick Heron as one of the greatest colourists he had ever encountered, whose career in the public eye extends back to the early 1980s, when she first came to prominence through her record cover art for Marc and the Mambas and Marc Almond, as well as for less commercially successful artists such as Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Since then, she has continued to design record sleeves for the likes of Black Sun Productions and Merzbow, as well as for her own limited edition CD releases, although most of her time is spent on her own more personally driven art. In addition to this, she has been making music in various forms, either solo or in collaboration, for nearly thirty years. This interview took place on a warm August evening in the city centre of Bradford, her hometown and a place she returned to in 2001, after a long sojourn in London. As I found out during the interview, and long after the recorder was switched off, Val Denham is also a lively, generous and highly entertaining raconteur. This you will see, though, as she tells you the rest herself…
How would you describe your artwork to somebody coming to it new – i.e. media, subject matter, themes, purpose, style?
Interesting question. It’s basically, usually figurative work but not always figurative work. Sometimes it’s non-figurative and when it is non-figurative it’s to do with obsessive compulsive disorder, to do with building blocks, you know like that game “Tetris”. A lot of my work is like “Tetris” which is to do with building blocks and it’s about obsessive compulsive behaviour but most of my work is figurative.
And it’s figurative and it’s to do with psychology, to do with my own psychology because I’m basically extremely selfish, self-obsessed, up my own arse and I’m interested in me, more than anything else in the world. So, I tend to do figurative work which is about transgenderism, work about me, psychologically – what it is that makes me tick. I fascinate myself – I do.
Yes but not always. Like this week, for example, I’ve been doing drawings, just pencil on paper, which is kind of unusual for me but I fancied doing that. But, because I’m so obsessive, when I do pencil on paper, I have an urge to colour it in and do watercolour on top of it. But I resisted this week. I’ve got some very beautiful paper – Ingres paper – which is beige and so I’ve just been doing pencil on paper but the actual subject matter is, yet again, my own transgenderism. It’s about me. My work is about me.
The interesting thing about my work is how it differs to other people in that I try to avoid style. Now, that sounds very weird because nobody else really does this because what you’re taught when you become an artist, like if you go to art college, is that you need a style – Francis Bacon, Vincent Van Gogh, anyone you can think of. You have a unifying style and that is your signature so that anyone who sees your work says, “Yes, that’s a Francis Bacon. Yes, that’s a Jeff Koons. Yes, that’s a Salvador Dali. Et cetera, et cetera. Yes, that’s an Andy Warhol.” Because it’s a definitive style. You need a definitive style. What I’ve done is avoid style at all costs because I think that style restricts you.
There are unifying features in your painting, though, to anyone who is familiar with your work.
Yes but I change the style constantly so if I think I’m in a rut or I think, “I’ve done this before,” I will change the style.
Are you working mainly from your imagination or models and photographs?
No, it’s all from my imagination. It’s what’s in my head, yeah.
How frequently do you work on your art? Is it a daily compulsion to create that drives you or is it your job?
It’s daily, usually, although never on a Monday because on a Monday I do my domestic work, like washing, ironing, cleaning and Monday’s taken up with that kind of stuff so I never work on a Monday. But Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and quite often Friday I’m working on art. Sometimes at the weekends, as well, if I’m very excited about something, then I’ll work on a painting or whatever. For example, at the moment I’m doing four self-portraits at once and they’re kind of in the style of…my friend said they look like Lucien Freud, his style of painting. I said, “Yes, they do because they’re similar colours.” But I tend to work throughout the week, like having a job and what happens is that I tend to start painting around lunchtime or midday because, in the mornings, I get up very late. I usually get up between nine and ten o’clock in the morning and then I answer e-mails, make my lunch, clean up and do this, that and the other. So, I tend to start working around twelve, midday, and I tend to finish about five o’clock so I do about five hours each day. Now, the reason I stop at five o’clock is because I’m just exhausted by that time and at five o’clock I stop because I’m absolutely exhausted and I have a cigarette and I have a drink of alcohol, which might be wine or vodka or anything and then I do my exercises. I do forty-five minutes exercises on a kind of walking machine every day and that calms me down because I have to calm down after I’ve been painting or working. Usually, by five o’clock I’m so exhausted because I work so very fast.
And it’s a compulsion which drives you on?
Yeah. It’s a complete compulsion. It’s something that has to be done.
So, you couldn’t fit it around a regular nine to five, then?
No. It’s something that I have to do.
And how long has this been going on for?
Oh, since I was a child.
So, what happens to the bulk of what you produce? Do you exhibit or do you have regular collectors or does much of it stay with yourself for personal reasons?
Oh, gosh, most of it never gets shown. A lot of it never gets shown because a lot of it is in books – sketch books, drawing books – and there are paintings which will never be shown. But there’s a small percentage of it which does get shown.
Is that through personal reasons, then?
Yes. Yes. But some of them do get shown and a few of them get sold as well.
So, do you have regular collectors?
Yes, I do. All over the world there are people who collect me, yeah.
So, you don’t paint to commission?
Oh, yes. Sometimes I paint to commission, yeah. People will say to me, “Can you paint me a picture of such and such?” and I say, “Yeah, of course, if there’s money involved.” I’m an ART WHORE.
And do you find that more difficult or just as easy
Just as easy, really. It’s easy to knock off something if somebody really wants a picture of Marc Almond or, you know. Now, what was the last one I did? I did one of Antony of The Johnsons – that was a commission. They contacted me and said, “Can you do a painting of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons?” and I said, “Sure. Yeah. I’ll do that.” And I enjoy it. It’s fine.
You paint a lot of self-portraits and a lot of your work is focussed on themes such as gender, duality, the body and creation/motherhood. Now, you’ve probably already answered this in part but, anyway, is your work to be read as wholly autobiographical?
Totally autobiographical. It’s absolutely autobiographical. It’s me kind of shouting at the world : “Look, I’m here! This is me! I’m alright.!”
Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you trying to work through your own neuroses?
There is an element of that as well, absolutely. An element of working through my own psychology, yeah. That’s true.
There seems to be quite a strong religious or spiritual element, too. I’ve noticed, for example, that a number of your paintings are reminiscent of Russian icons or Byzantine art. Is this the case?
Yeah. There is that, of course, as well. I thought your questions weren’t going to get very deep.
Well, they’re not really. How important is spirituality to you? Are you a spiritual person?
Religion is important. Now, I am an agnostic and yet I veer towards the right-hand side because I believe in God. People get confused. They think agnosticism is to do with either you believe in God or you don’t believe in God and it’s Yin and Yang. You’re split down the middle, you know? But for me, I veer towards the idea that God exists. I’m not an atheist. God exists, believe you me.
So, do you have religious painting in mind sometimes when you’re working?
Oh, yes. I am very spiritual and I believe in a Divine Creator.
Oh no. Bigger than me. Bigger than me. It’s just that I simply don’t believe that Christianity or Islam is enough. I think that God is beyond that. God is much bigger, terrifyingly bigger and it might be something to do with the fact that I am from a Catholic background. My grandmother was a non practicing Catholic, but she had pictures of Jesus on the wall and Mary and it’s influenced me so that I just know that there is a God. Everything is so perfect. And you might think, “No, it isn’t,” but it is. Everything is designed so beautifully. Everything figures. Everything is like a jigsaw. God exists.
Eyes play a significant and recurring role in your work, either enlarged eyes dominating faces or multiple or dislocated eyes. Why is this?
Well, eyes are the windows to the soul. That’s basically it. Eyes show the soul. I’m interested in the soul because I believe that when you die your soul does move on. People might think that that’s naive – “Oh, no. Of course they don’t. That’s ridiculous. We live, we die and then that’s it.” – but, no. I believe that the eye is the window to the soul and that we go on somehow. Whether it’s reincarnation or something else I don’t know but we definitely go on.
And that’s why we get the big eyes, then?
Yeah, the big eye. It’s almost Egyptian in a way. It’s like the all-seeing eye.
And extended or sometimes explosive bodily protuberances, for want of a better word, such as arms, fingers, tongues and necks figure quite a bit, too. Can you explain this?
Yes. I think that’s probably to do with the soul. It’s to do with extending out – the soul. You know, I saw a film two nights ago on the television. It’s a film that I’ve seen about ten times and it still fascinates me. And the film is John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and there’s one bit in that which just fascinates me. It’s where The Thing, itself, is residing in the body of somebody who appears to be human and his head comes off. It falls off the side of the table and, when it’s on the floor, his tongue comes out and it’s so long that it grabs hold of a chair and it pulls itself along by the chair and I just love that. I love that. That to me is just so deep. It’s like you can destroy somebody and yet they can still move. There’s still movement and they can pull themselves towards something. I like the idea of moving out further than we are because I think that, actually, we do. Without sounding pretentious, that’s why you’re here now – because my tongue, or whatever, reached out and grabbed you. We are bigger than what we appear to be and to think that this is all that we are is, in my opinion, shallow.
And that fits in with your ideas of gender, too?
I think everything explodes into one thing. Everything is the same. It’s Yin and Yang. If I want to be female, I’ll be female; and, if I want to be male, I’ll be male. I want to be everything…forever.
You like shoes, as well, don’t you?
Well, that’s a bit of a fetish actually. I’ve done paintings of high heel shoes because, basically, high heel shoes are pervy, simply because they restrict you. If you’ve ever worn high-heeled shoes and I’ve noticed, because it’s happened to me, that guys have grabbed hold of me and I’ve been useless. I can’t do anything. It makes you vulnerable. It’s a kind of bondage. It really is. It’s to do with sex and, for me, a high-heeled shoe is very sexy. I love wearing them and I love feeling that vulnerable. It might sound misogynistic. It might sound sexist. But I like feeling that vulnerable. I like feeling that I can’t run.
When did you realise that painting was going to play a significant part in your life and what influences were present on you in this respect when you were young? Not necessarily artistic influences, even.
Well, I was a child. Because, as a child, I was a child prodigy and my grandmother said to my mother, “That boy will be one of three things.” It’s absolutely true. She said, “That boy will be one of three things. He will be an artist, a surgeon or a priest.”
Now you’re all three, in a kind of way, aren’t you?
Yes. She was right, although I’m not sure about the surgeon. Although, when I was a very young child, about six or seven, I was doing copies of drawing from anatomical books, medical books, because the anatomy fascinated me. You could see your lungs and your heart and what was in you. So, I might be a surgeon. Maybe that’s what this is about. And when I was very, very small, I was taken around school and shown off to all of the other children who were being shown what an artist could be. Even now, people say to me, “Oh Val, you’re brilliant. You’re a genius.” And I think, “Oh, shut up,” because it doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. I’ve had that all my life and when I was a tiny child I used to have to go round each class at school with my drawing. I’d do drawings like…for some reason, one I remember particularly was a drawing of a Chinese man, leaning off the side of a junk, fishing, and this impressed the teachers so much. They thought it was so advanced. Now, God knows why I drew this thing. I don’t know where I got this image from. I must have seen it in a book or something but I had to go round all the classes and the whole school and it was, “Look what Val’s done,” and I had to hold it up.
How did that make you feel?
I loved it. I really liked it and all the children were going, “Whoaaaa! Whooooo!”” So, I’ve had that from a very young age.
What about interest in other artists at that stage?
My father used to get me these magazines called “Tell Me Why” which were educational magazines for children in the 1960s and I used to love these magazines. They were out every week on a Tuesday and they were big things and they had lots of pictures in them which I liked. I didn’t always read them. In fact, I couldn’t really read them but there were things in them about science and this, that and the other, and writers, you know? But there were always two pages about artists – “Artist of the Week – so I remember seeing Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin, Delacroix, Corot, Rembrandt, Rubens and this influenced me, obviously. But the one who influenced me most was Vincent Van Gogh and his painting “The Night Cafe” and I actually copied it in oil paints and I still have the painting and it’s astonishingly accurate. It really is.
So, what was it that attracted you to that particular image, do you think?
I don’t know. I think it was the colours. There was just something about it that made me think, “I love that. What a great painting. I want to paint like that.” I didn’t understand who Vincent Van Gogh was or that he was mental and that he’d chopped his own ear off and everything.
Then when did you decide that you were actually going to become an artist and choose it as a career?
Well, I always thought that I would be an artist, really. I think probably because of what my grandma had said and then it was when I was at secondary school and I was about fifteen or sixteen and my Art teacher said to me, “You need to apply to art college and you should be an artist,” and I thought, “Yeah, OK,” because that’s what I knew I was going to be.
So, where and when did you receive your formal training and how useful an experience did you find this to be?
Yeah, pretty useful, yeah. The first place, of course, was just up the hill, here, Bradford College, and that was 1974 when I was sixteen. Now, when you got into Bradford College, at that time, you needed certain O-Levels and things and I only had three O-Levels – I think in English, Physics and History – but I was let in as an exception. I was too young, as well. You were supposed to be eighteen and I got in at sixteen, as an exception. I had the same teachers as David Hockney and I loved it. I really did. What I did was the Foundation year and then I did another three years of Fine Art. So, I was at Bradford for four years.
And then you went to The Royal College?
Well, I had about six months off and then I went to The Royal College of Art.
Why did you particularly choose there?
I didn’t. I was told. When we did our final degree shows, we had this guy come round, called Alistair Grant – I think that was his name. I’m sure it was – and he was the Head of The Royal College of Art, certainly The Head of The Print Department or Fine Art. One or the other. Anyway, he saw my work and he said, “You need to apply for The Royal College of Art,” and I said, “Sure. I’ll do that.” I applied for The Royal College of Art and I got in.
By this age, then, who or what would you say your inspirations were?
At that stage, I would say that my inspiration was probably Marcel Duchamp, although not so much now.
Were you not working so much in oil on canvas, then?
No, I was working on everything – prints, watercolours, everything.
And influences / kindred spirits now? In some respects, your paintings put me in mind of some of the so-called visionary British artists from the early 19th Century onwards – William Blake, Richard Dadd, some Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist painters and so on, as well as elements of Surrealism. Louis Wain, even. Would this be true?
See you’ve just mentioned some of my very favourite artists there. Yeah! You’ve got me! I’m big fan of Richard Dadd, Louis Wain, as well, and William Blake. It’s interesting, as well, that you should mention so many artists who have had mental health problems. All three artists there had serious mental health problems and some years ago I saw an exhibition in London of the abstract artist Howard Hodgkins, who I’m a big fan of, but it was a double exhibition and the other part of the exhibition was works from Bedlam. Now, that exhibition influenced me tremendously because I could relate to it. I thought, “This is my work.” These were people with serious mental health problems – schizophrenia or manic depression.
André Breton and the Surrealists were also drawn to that kind of thing, too, weren’t they? What is it that draws you in? Is it that the inhibitions and the boundaries have been broken down?
Yes. It’s to do with being open to both the right and the left hand sides of the brain, the subconscious. I’m very interested in the subconscious and automatic thought and, particularly, automatic drawing and painting and, more so, automatic writing. A lot of my stuff is to do with automatic writing and just being open.
Do you play drawing games, then, like Exquisite Corpse and so on?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Constantly. I’m very influenced by automatic thought, Exquisite Corpse, that kind of thing, the Surrealists, the idea that you must dream it whilst you draw it and letting the pen take a walk, yeah.
So, you’re quite unusual, aren’t you, in the contemporary arena? What’s your take on modern artists or modern British artists? Do you feel a connection or affinity towards any contemporary artists and what they are trying to achieve? What’s your attitude, for example, towards successful British artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and The Chapman Brothers?
The Chapman Brothers I really adore because of the darkness thing. I’m drawn towards that. Damien Hirst – I recently saw his diamond skull in Amsterdam and I thought it was total shit. I thought it was totally meaningless. It was an objet d’art to do with money. It was a perfect representation, like most artists are, of the age that we live in. Damien Hirst is just this. He represents the age that we live in. There was a shallowness to it, a bling to it, a kind of showing off and gimmickry to it and I thought that skull was the most obscene thing I’ve ever seen and I just thought, “What a load of shit!” But so painfully beautiful. Beautiful shit.
Alan Yentob was saying this the other night on television. Did you see that, about us moving into another era?
Yes, I did. I saw that but I said this before Alan Yentob. I went on this film. Damien Hirst wanted you to go into this sort of black tent at the gallery and say what you thought about it and everybody said, “Oooh! It’s blown my mind! It’s so wonderful! Oh, my God! To think that it’s real!!” And I just said – “It’s shit! Complete shit, you know?” I would like to get hold of it and stamp on it because it means nothing. It’s about the shallowness, the stupidity and the complete fucking vacuousness of things.
Do you feel the same about Jeff Koons, then?
No, I don’t. He does it on purpose. He knows what he’s doing. His is less to do with money. It’s to do with kitsch and bad taste and there’s a difference. His is to do with the bland and the everyday, holding it up as a mirror. No, Jeff Koons, in my opinion, is brilliant. I’ll tell you what. I was shocked recently. I saw a photograph of one of these helium balloon things. It was like a teddy bear and it was a helium balloon and I thought, “Aha, but is it art?” But it wasn’t. It was solid metal made to look like a helium balloon – Trompe l’oeil – and each crease was made to look like a helium balloon and I thought, “That is just brilliant.” Nevertheless, even though I think it is wonderful, it is, nevertheless, incredibly dated because what it is is an extension of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal signed “R.Mutt”. Marcel Duchamp came up with the idea of conceptual art, that anything that was found by an artist – the found object – would, in fact, be art, because “I’m an artist”. Now, look here, I’m an artist, if I were to say this glass here is art, then it is. I’m an artist, you see, and the idea of that is just genius. Because Marcel Duchamp said that the urinal was a piece of sculpture then it was but Jeff Koons is doing the same thing. Saying “this helium balloon is art because I say that it’s art” and Tracey Emin, “this unmade bed is art because I say it’s art.”
I like the unmade bed, though. I find it poetic.
The unmade bed I like. I sounded Jewish then, didn’t I? The unmade bed – I LIKE!!
So, are there any artists who are contemporary or vaguely contemporary with whom you feel a connection or who you feel are working on similar themes?
I’m in awe of – he’s dead now – he committed suicide – Pierre Molinier. I relate to Pierre Molinier a lot because it’s to do with gender identity, things like that. I love his work. There’s not many now, although I like all the Surrealist American stuff at the moment, the new Surrealist stuff coming out of America. Gosh…I can’t remember any names, though. Now, what is that magazine?…”Juxtapose” has a lot of these things in. I really like a lot of that stuff but then I would, wouldn’t I?
Now, I wasn’t going to ask you any more art questions but you just mentioned Pierre Molinier then.
Yeah, Pierre Molinier did paintings, as well. His paintings are just fantastic.
You’ve put me in mind of Hans Belllmer now, too. What about him?
Oh, yeah. I love Hans Bellmer but sometimes he’s a little bit worrying because there’s a bit of a paedophilic thing there which, to be quite honest, I find a little bit unpleasant. Coleman. I like him. What’s his name? He’s got a really bland name…Joe Coleman. I love his stuff, an American Surrealist, sort of. And there’s a lot of stuff about serial killers and stuff like that. I like all that. Mark Ryden, Robert Williams, Todd Schorr, Camille Rose Garcia etc.
Of course, you painted Mary Bell, yourself, and there’s a really nice pencil drawing of that famous photograph of Myra Hindley’s sister and her boyfriend in their sunglasses that you did – the one Sonic Youth used for their record cover.
Yes, that’s right and I think they nicked it off me – that image. My original is about six feet square and it’s a pencil drawing and when it’s exhibited I have to put a sign on it saying “pencil drawing” because people just think it’s a photograph and it isn’t. It took me about six months to draw that.
What about Claude Cahun, does she interest you?
Oh, gosh, you’ll have to remind me. Who’s that?
She’s the one that lived in Jersey, although she was French and she and her girlfriend played with gender a lot and infiltrated the occupying German army.
Ah, yes. I know who you mean. I love all that. In fact, on MySpace I’m linked with a few people who call themselves drag kings. There’s one, especially, who’s from Italy. I’m interested in all that – how they blur gender.
Music seems to be an important influence on your artwork, either directly through commissions to design record sleeves (Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Marc Almond, Merzbow) or in some of your subject matter – Kate Bush seems to be an attractive subject to you and you’ve painted portraits of a number of underground or leftfield artists such as Jhonn Balance, Gavin Friday, David Tibet and Anthony Hegarty. Is music something which is a specific influence?
No. Music does not influence my art whatsoever. However, I do like musicians, certain musicians that impress me, like Kate Bush or Gavin Friday or whoever and, of course, I’m a musician but I do separate the two. Music and art, for me, are two separate things. So, no, I’m not really influenced by music artistically.
How did your association with Genesis P-Orridge and the TG/PTV crowd come about and are you still in contact with these people now?
Yes. That is a very long story.
I wondered if it was the Mail Art thing. Were you involved in that scene?
Yes. We did the Mail Art. The thing is, I was living at home and my parents used to get a newspaper called “The News of the World”. They used to get two newspapers and they were on a Sunday, that and “The People” – I don’t know if that exists anymore – and I used to look through these papers, basically to look for pictures of women without tops on because they fascinate me. But, anyway, I was looking through one particular “News of the World” or “People” and I came across – “Shock! Horror! Is this where all our money is going? The Wreckers of Civilisation. You are paying for this!” – and it was an exhibition at the I.C.A. in London where, interestingly, last month there was a film shown called “Crack Willow” and it’s kind of a bizarre film. It’s very David Lynch but the interesting thing about it for me is that at the end, when there’s the end credits, it’s my song “Rain Cloud”. When it goes black and people puts their coats on to leave, the first thing you hear is me, shouting this song, “Rain Cloud” (Sings : “I am a rain cloud, floating in the sky”) and that is me. And that was at the I.C.A. and it was shown for a month there and it got good reviews. But, anyway, I digress.
So, Genesis and Cosey, who were both part of what was known as Coum Transmissions did a show called “Prostitution” at the I.C.A. and there as a big furore about it. “Is THIS where our money is going?” I wasn’t really interested in the article but what really interested me was the photograph that accompanied it, which was a photograph of Genesis and Cosey, his girlfriend then, Cosey Fanni Tutti, after the opera, and I looked at this photograph and I thought, “Is it a man or a woman?” because Genesis had short hair and plucked eyebrows and looked very feminine and I couldn’t work out if it was a man or a woman. So, I looked through the article in the newspaper to see if it said “he” or “she” or anything and it didn’t. It just said “Genesis P-Orridge” and I thought, “Is that a man or a woman? Are these lesbians or what?” and I was fascinated, deeply fascinated and I couldn’t get this out of my mind.
At the time, I was at Bradford College and I went to the library and I got a book out about new art and it was a book about recent art and, sure enough, there was Genesis P-Orridge and Coum Transmissions and, sure enough, I realised it was a man because there was a picture of him with a beard and a nice cup of tea and I was fascinated. I thought, “I don’t know who this person is but this person is like me.” I knew this person was like me. Now, when I was that young there was nobody in the world like me, nobody, and yet I clung to this person and thought, “That person is like me but what are the chances of meeting somebody like that?”
So, did you seek them out?
No, no. This is the hands reaching out beyond yourself, again. I sold some work to a friend called Alan Selka, who was a friend of Marc Almond’s. There is a picture of Alan Selka in the book “Tainted Life” by Marc Almond because he was a big friend of Marc Almond’s, for the simple reason that Alan Selka, after he’d finished at Bradford College, went to Leeds Polytechnic where Marc Almond was and he started Soft Cell with Dave Ball. Now, I went to Leeds Polytechnic to see Alan because Alan was actually a boyfriend of mine. I was in a relationship with Alan and my wife now, called Gail, at the same time. It was kind of a “Cabaret” scenario! He loved me but I loved her, but we were all friends.
They’re listening to us ( people at adjacent table in hotel bar).
They should be. It’s so entertaining. Anyway, so I went to Leeds Polytechnic to meet Alan because Alan’s degree show was called “The Final Tea Party” were he, literally, had a tea party. It was like “Alice in Wonderland” and at this tea party was Marc Almond who was serving tea, going “More tea? More tea?” And I thought, “Oh, God, he’s got to be gay and he’s wearing make-up.” Anyway, Alan said to me, “Will you sell me some of your work?” And I said, “Well, sure. I’ll sell anything me. I’ll sell my arse, if I need to.” So, I met Alan in a pub in Leeds and I brought my folder and Alan bought quite a lot of my work but, when I met Alan in the pub, there was this person called Biggles. Now, you’d think Biggles would have a big moustache and fly a plane but, no, he was a student and, after we’d finished in the pub, Biggles invited us back to his place for more drinks because in those days it was always last orders at about three o’clock – God! – and we went back to Biggles’ place and we all had more drinks and Biggles said to me, “ You know, I really like your art work. You should meet a friend of mine called Genesis P-Orridge.” And I said, “Genesis P-Orridge? He was in…he?…she?…he was in the newspaper. How do you know Genesis P-Orridge. And it was because he’d been to Hull University and he was big friends with Genesis P-Orridge. “You should write Genesis a letter. You’d get on.” And I thought, “Yeah, I know we would.”
So, a few weeks after, I was in my little bedroom and I was feeling mischievous and I thought, “I’ve got Genesis P-Orridge’s address.” Beck Road. 50 Beck Road, I think it was, Hackney, near the hospice. And I wrote him a letter and this letter was very sinister indeed. It said something like, “Hello, darling, you think you know me but you don’t know me…blah, blah, blah…everything’s fab and groovy.” I kept putting these things in that only he would know because Biggles had told me and I kept mentioning things that only he would know because I knew. And I sent him a picture of myself, sort of in a suit and tie, with make-up on, looking like a concentration camp guard, looking like Eva Braun. Then, when he got this letter, he was so knocked out. He was running around – he told me about this afterwards – with this thing – “Who is this person? Who is this person? Is this a man or a woman?” Exactly the same question that I’d asked. He was fascinated. People were saying to him, Cosey was saying to him, other members of Throbbing Gristle were saying, “Gen just calm down.” And he said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, does it matter, you know?” And he said “I have to know this person. Who is this person?” And they said, “Well, look. It’s just a fan.” And he said, “No, look, he’s said ‘fab’ and ‘groovy’ and..and.” So, Genesis wrote me back this huge letter which was almost like a book. This was in 1978. He wrote me this letter back which was saying, “Who are you? Why did you write this letter?” And I wrote back and I said, “I just wrote because I’m interested. Because you’re like me. You are like me and you know you are.” The next letter I got had fifty pounds in it, in notes and he said, “Please come down and see me, even if just for an evening. Will you come and see me? This should cover the train fare.” And I thought, “What?” because this was a lot of money then. And my mam said, “Is he a puff? Is he a puff? He’s after your bum.” And I said, “No,he isn’t. He’s an artist.” “Well, what’s he sending you money for? He’s a puff.” And I said, “No, he isn’t. He’s got a girlfriend.” So, I went down and I stayed with him for about a week and we were just like soul mates. We were the same.
In what respect?
We liked the same things, the same films, the same music. The Velvet Underground. “I’ve got a new record by The Velvet Underground.” “Oh, I love The Velvet Underground!” “Have you seen this book?” “Oh, I love that book!” Everything was like that and I thought, “I’ve found somebody that’s the exact same as me. There’s somebody in the world who is exactly like you.”
So, how did it develop, then?
I told him that I might be getting a sex change and he told me that he wanted me to get a sex change so that we could get married. He said, “We should get married and then we can be man and wife,” but it was kind of a joke, as well. I’m not sure that we were serious but it was somebody that I could relate to. At last, somebody like me. You see, for years, I’d known people who were just nothing like me. I mean, I met artistic people and I met people who were interesting but here I’d met somebody who was really on the same level. We’d come from the same thing and I learned a lot, particularly because of Throbbing Gristle. I learnt that you could actually make music that didn’t have any notes because young people thought, “Yeah, punk rock, you only need four chords,” then Sleazy said something like, “To create a band you need four chords? But why so many?” And I thought that was brilliant because I thought you could just make sound and it would be relevant and Throbbing Gristle did. It’s like abstract painting. You don’t need to be able to paint perfectly. You can just daub paint onto a canvas and it can be non-figurative abstract work, like Howard Hodgkins. It’s relevant art. You don’t need to be versatile in knowing the ins and outs of chords and the composition of music. You see, I couldn’t do that.I still can’t play chords but I make music now and I make music, really, all because of Throbbing Gristle.
And did you get heavily involved in that Industrial scene, then?
Well, I wouldn’t say heavily involved. I was there, though, at a lot of their recordings, live shows and things.
The “Heathen Earth” one?
No, I wasn’t there at that one but I sometimes went to Martello Street which was where they did their recording, which was just this sort of a little studio. So, I learnt an awful lot. I learnt that you could make music. The kind of music that I do even now.
And was your connection with other members of the band or just Genesis P-Orridge?
Well, I’ve seen Sleazy a few times since. I like Sleazy. Cosey and Chris? I’ve not seen them for a long time. I’m not in touch with any of them very much, at all. Occasionally, I’ll correspond with Genesis. I did meet up with Sleazy when I supported his band Soisong in Amsterdam recently. They’re friendly towards me but it’s not very often, but they did have a big influence upon me.
What about the Marc Almond connection You’ve mentioned first meeting him but then what happened because it’s probably through him that your work has found its widest audience?
Well, I met Marc at Leeds Polytechnic with Alan Selka – “more tea?” – and I was interested in him but he was awfully shy. Then I met him again at Leeds Playhouse where he had a job behind the bar. I’m sure he did but he doesn’t like to admit to that. Well, I liked him but I thought he was a bit shy and then, when I moved to London to go to The Royal College of Art, I was watching “Top of the Pops” and number one was Soft Cell with “Tainted Love” and I thought, “ Oh,no? That’s not the guy who I met at Leeds Polytechnic? That can’t be the same Marc Almond?” Then I thought, “It bloody is! He’s number one!” And in those days number one was a big deal and I just thought, “Shit!” Now, I was married to a girl called Elita at the time and I said, “I know him! That’s Alan’s friend.” And I never thought any more about it and then, when it was my final degree show at The Royal College of Art, Genesis came to see it with his family, because I was doing a performance with my band at the time, The Death and Beauty Foundation, and we did this performance art piece called, I think, “Plagues of Rhetoric” – very pretentious, not my idea. It was a guy called Mike Wells who was in a band called Greater Than One. But Genesis came along with his entire family, Paula and Caresse, although I’m not sure if Genesse was born then, but he brought along Marc Almond and Stevo from the record label Some Bizzare and, afterwards, they said, “That was bizarre.” And I said, “You’re Marc Almond. I met you at Leeds Poly. You were number one!” And the first thing he said to me was, “Well, you’ve put weight on, Val.” And I thought, “You bitch. You don’t say that.” I thought, “You fucking bitch!” and you can put that down, and all. But then he said to me, “Your art is just mind-boggling.” Well, whether he was influenced just by Genesis’ tastes, I don’t know, but he bought about two or three paintings from my show and then he said, “Will you do me a record sleeve?” and I said “Sure.” And that was how I got to know Marc and I got to do his record covers and everything.
You’ve been involved in a number of musical projects over the last twenty years or so. Can you tell me a bit about The Death and Beauty Foundation who you’ve just mentioned?
The Death and Beauty Foundation. Well, that was basically the first band that I was ever in. It started off not particularly musical but as a performance art piece. It was inspired by Coum Transmissions because I wanted to do some performance art. In fact, I did quite a bit of performance art but then I noticed that sound was creeping into the performance more and more. I was very influenced by a guy called Rudolf Schwarzkogler. He was a German guy and I wanted to do performance art, another medium other than painting and I did many performances at The Royal College of Art. I did one that lasted for eight hours which was one of the most intriguing experiences of my entire life because it went on and on and I became completely immersed in it and some people stayed to bloody watch it, which was incredible, as well. I ended up weeing myself and all sorts, you know?
And then it became more with music. The first thing I ever did was with piano and it was a piece called “Deceptive Art” and it was with a friend of mine called Antal Nemeth and we did this piece where I kind of smashed things up and where I went insane and threw up and plonked about on a piano, going mad. Some people said to me, “That was the biggest pile of shit that I’ve seen in my life. I’m really insulted.” Yet, certain people came up to me, particularly a Chinese guy, who said it had changed his life because he could never think of art in the same way again. You see, what I was trying to do was like I do with my drawings now, using the subconscious, using the right and the left side of the brain in an automatic way. I was doing actions in an automatic way so it was like dreaming but being awake. What if you were awake, like I am now, but if you were dreaming at the same time? It was connecting with the right-hand side of the brain. What if you acted anything that your mind said? So, I was getting into situations where I was doing things like wetting myself, wandering around on the street naked. It was a way of almost being insane. It was like being in a kind of manic depression or a severe mental illness where you were just kind of doing whatever was in your mind. You’ve seen that film, haven’t you, by Lars Von Trier?
“The Idiots”. It was like that only they were acting. I was actually in tune with the right-hand side of my brain and I was acting in a way that was completely bizarre. What if you just suddenly spat at somebody? Whatever was in your mind at that particular moment in time. What if you started crying? Well, people would think that you were insane but, if it’s part of an art performance and people are actually observing that, then they think “No, this is all part of the performance.”
Where were these performances taking place?
Well, this one, the really heavy one, started out in the theatre at The Royal College of Art and it kind of went out onto the street and some of the audience followed me and it ended about eight hours later with me just, kind of, in tears, just a blubbering wreck.
And had you taken something?
No, we’d had some cider. No, we’d just got completely in tune with a part of our brain which exists and it was part of our brain which was primitive, which was just dreamlike.
The Death and Beauty Foundation then became more of a conventional band, did they? Didn’t you play with The Virgin Prunes and Einstürzende Neubauten and people like that?
Yes. The Virgin Prunes were actually into a similar kind of thing, although not quite so extreme. I mean to be quite honest, I would never be as extreme as “Deceptive Art” ever again. It would never happen again. I was young. I was foolish.
Well, it wasn’t fun at the end. It was bonkers. I should have been taken away. But The Virgin Prunes were similar in that they were interested in the same kind of thought processes, the avant garde, being in touch with the subconscious et cetera. So, we supported The Virgin Prunes once or twice.
But playing more conventional music?
Yeah. You do. You calm down. You start to become more conventional. Then I started to think of things I really liked. We’d started off in our first gigs being very industrial, inspired by Throbbing Gristle, and very dum-dum-dum-dum, very aggressive noise. Then, eventually, I thought, “I don’t like this. What do I like? I like this kind of music. I like things like Erik Satie. I like things like Doris Day. So, it became, in a way, almost like a punk thing where I annoyed the audience by being deliberately contrary. I would go on and do things like “Moon River” or “White Christmas” and do it really seriously. Now, the audience hadn’t come to see that. They’d come to see a noise band. So, we used to get people throwing things at us, people shouting. We did one which was Walt Disney, you know – “We are Siamese, if you please. We are Siamese, if you don’t please”(sings) – because I thought, “I like that song” but people were throwing things at us and we just continued. I thought, “No! We have to do this.” And we did the whole thing. We once did one gig where I had to leave by the back door because I thought I was going to get beaten up. People were so upset and all I was doing was doing music which was straight music, the kind of thing your mum and dad might like. But in the wrong context and I liked that. The wrong context.
I think Neubauten went on to enjoy that kind of thing, though. Didn’t they get Showaddywaddy to support them once?
They must have got that from me because we once supported Einstürzende Neubauten and the audience were nearly rioting. They were coming up on stage. They wanted to punch me because I did a speech which I still do now. I did it recently at a gig in Switzerland where I started off with a speech about the First World War, soldiers in the First World War, that some of them could have been transgender but the audience were quite appreciative. But I did a speech with Einstürzende Neubauten where I was saying, “Why is everybody wearing black?” because everyone was wearing black. I said, “Are you sheep? Is that what you are trying to be? Are you trying to be like one another? You try to be individuals but you’re just being like one another.” And they were just booing, you know. And I thought, “At this point, you’d best shut up,” but I just went on and on and on and I was just saying, “You’re sheep! You’re all just sheep. Do you know what an individual is?” And they were going “Fuck off, you bastard!!” And they were just throwing things at me and I just went on and on and I don’t know why I was doing it. It was almost like “Deceptive Art”, like I couldn’t stop. It was at a famous place where The Clash once played in Notting Hill in London, under these arches. They were ready to kill me but I just wanted to say what I wanted to say, Just begging for a smacked bottom really.
So, what’s The Sword Volcano Complex? Is that another of your bands?
That’s my friend in America called Bruce LaFountain, and that’s his real name. That’s his band but it’s basically him and he sometimes invites people to collaborate and one of the people who collaborated with him was me. Bruce is wonderful. He’s one of these, what they call, bears. He’s like a gay man who is with a beard but he’s very sweet. I love Bruce very much.
And your alter ego, Silverstar Amoeba?
Yes. Silverstar Amoeba came from a dream about the woman in – now, what was that programme called? Not “Dynasty”, the other one – “Dallas” – Victoria Principal. This was a really profound dream. I have dreams which are profound. When you’re artistic and pretentious like me, you do have profound dreams and, in this profound dream, Victoria Principal was in my old school playground and she said, “Right, we’re sorting everybody out into religions and can I have all the Christian people over here?” So, all the Christian people went over there. Then she said, “Can I have all the Catholic people over here?” and all the Catholic people went over there. “Can I have all the Jewish people over here?” and all the Jewish people went over there. “Can I have all the Muslim people?” and there was a big crowd of Muslim people. Then she said, “All the Silverstar Amoebas over here,” and I thought, “Oh, that’s me,” and I went with the gang of Silverstar Amoebas but there was only me. I was the only one and I was amazed that I was the only Silverstar Amoeba and Victoria Principal came up to me and she said, “You are the only Silverstar Amoeba in the world.” And I said to her, and this was in the dream, absolutely true, “But, I would have thought that there would have been more,” and she said, “No! There’s only you.”
So, this became an alter ego.
Oh, but it’s worse than that. She said, “We’ll start with the Silverstar Amoebas, of which there is only one. Come with me into this black hut.” And I went into this black hut with Victoria Principal and I knew she was the antichrist and she got a hypodermic needle and she stuck it right into my chest and she said, “Within three seconds, you will be dead.” And I went, “One, two, three,” and I was dead and I woke up and it was absolutely awful. I thought, “What a terrible dream.” You know, it really disturbed me but I thought, “I am the only Silverstar Amoeba in the world. Silverstar Amoeba? What the fuck is that? How profound! Because I am the only one.”
So, I wanted to change my name to Silverstar Amoeba for a long time and I persuaded my ex-wife, Elita, that I wanted to change my name by deed-poll to Silverstar Amoeba. “Would you be Elita Amoeba?” And she thought about it and she said, “Yes, we could to this,” and she was almost toying with the idea of changing her name by deed-poll to Elita Amoeba because I was Silverstar Amoeba. Now, for a long time, I was known as Silverstar Amoeba. I said to everybody, “I’m not Val Denham. I’m Silverstar Amoeba.” And that’s how much of an influence this dream had on me.
Anyway, eventually Silverstar Amoeba became a band and it was the off-shoot of The Death and Beauty Foundation. But Silverstar Amoeba became very musical indeed. We were a proper band – we had a lead guitar, a bass guitar. We had a saxophonist; a black backing singer. It was really musical and we were really starting to take off as a band and then my guitarist, Oli Novadnieks, decided that he couldn’t deal with the fact that I was the star, which I would be because I was the bloody singer. He decided to leave Silverstar Amoeba and it all kind of fell apart so we weren’t around that long.
Didn’t you record under this name with Hafler Trio?
Yes. That was an album called “Protection” and that was around the time of Silverstar Amoeba. But it wasn’t the band Silverstar Amoeba but me, as a person, Silverstar Amoeba, and I did vocals on several tracks.
Didn’t you used to be in a band with Zodiac Mindwarp in the 1970s, too?
The first band that I was ever in, in my life. I think I said that my first band was The Death and Beauty Foundation but the first band that I was ever in, ever, was called Normal Love, which was a band at Bradford College when I was about nineteen, probably eighteen years old. Normal Love with Zodiac Mindwarp or, as his real name is, Mark Manning. Now, Mark Manning and me. Mark Manning is very heterosexual and yet we flirted with being gay because of me. I was almost his boyfriend for a while. I was a little bit obsessed with him because he’s awfully attractive. He really is. And he found me attractive but all we did was snog. We kind of got a bit obsessed with each other and then it didn’t work out. That’s art college for you.
Yeah, Mark Manning.
And you were the dancer in that band, weren’t you, eating crisps out of a skull?
Yeah, crisps out of a skull – a real human skull. I didn’t really do anything in that band. I didn’t sing or play anything. I just came on, did a strip down to my underpants and then ate crisps out of a skull. That was it. That was Normal Love with Zodiac Mindwarp. Absolutely true!
You’ve released quite a number of solo albums and are quite prolific in your output. You release a lot of CDs, sometimes a number in the same year. Is there a similar urge pushing you to create musically as there is artistically or this more of a hobby or sideline?
Yes, a lot of CDs – about two a year. No, it’s an extension of my art. In fact, I call my music “audio drawings” because it’s basically the same but in sound. I’m doing the same thing in sound. So, when I’m not drawing, I will be creating music and sounds but the music and the painting is still the same psychological obsessions with transgenderism, the same things as the paintings and the drawings. It’s audio drawings. The same, only in sound.
What are your working methods? Do you play any instruments, for example?
I play all the instruments. I play keyboards. I play guitar. I play harmonica. I’ve been told I’m very good at the harmonica but the truth is that I think I’m very, very bad at playing most instruments. I’m not very talented at playing instruments but what I do tend to do with instruments is try to make sounds like what’s in my head. Often they don’t yet sometimes they do but I do attempt to play all instruments, yes. Often I collaborate with more talented musicians too.
How would you describe your sound, then, and who are your musical influences that impact upon this?
The sound is very me. It’s very Val Denham. Gosh, how could you describe it? I tend to work in what you’d call a lo-fi fashion in that, when I record, I record onto tape which is very unusual these days. I record onto four track tape but then I put the four track tape onto the computer and I’ll manipulate it then. But I want the sound to be slightly, slightly difficult, almost like it’s a found thing. You see, some of the music I like…there’s two versions of one of the most influential albums of my life, which was “Raw Power” by Iggy and The Stooges, and the two versions, there’s the original version which was on vinyl which just blew my mind and yet with the digital remix, where they cleaned it, I just thought it sounded dead. This was the first time in my life that I realised that the digital technology, the CD technology of remastering, could actually make something rather dull and rather sterile. That’s the word I’m looking for. Sterile is the word. I try to avoid that sterile sound. I want my sound to be almost anachronistic, almost like it’s 1950s rock ‘n’ roll but made by a mad person who can’t play properly. I want that difficult sound which a lot of people really appreciate.
A lot of the electronic bands have gone back to the old analogue synthesizers. Depeche Mode, for example.
Yes. Exactly. You see, I never went digital, anyway.
Do you listen to much contemporary music?
Yes. Yes, I do. Well, I told you that I exercise every day. I exercise for forty-five minutes every day on a walking machine. Well, it’s not really a walking machine. It’s a kind of whoosh. It really kills you but I do that for forty-five minutes every single day, except Mondays when it’s…well, Monday is a different day. When I do that, I listen to music, usually. Sometimes I listen to one of the music channels, like MTV, any of the music channels. So, I’m always up-to-date with music and I love a lot of stuff. I really do. I like things like La Roux and Black Eyes Peas and all that kind of thing. I really enjoy that stuff but, when I’m not watching music television, I play things which might shock you. I play things like Madonna, simply because it’s so rhythmic. You can tell she’s an exercise freak because it’s so enjoyable to exercise to. It’s such exercise music. I like things like Goldfrapp, of course. What else do I listen to? I listen to a lot of sixties music like Love, The Velvet Underground. Gosh, there’s so many things I listen to. I can’t think. What have I listened to recently? Garbage – I was exercising to that the other day. I often like female singers in rock bands because when I’m exercising I imagine that I’m that person in the song. I have this fantasy that I’m on something like “Later with Jools Holland” and it’s me singing but it’s not really. It’s Goldfrapp or it’s something like Garbage or whatever. In my head, it’s me singing but it isn’t really. What else? I listen to things like The Eagles. Well, this might shock you. Carole King. I listen to a lot of Carole King. (Begins to sing) “Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall. All you’ve got to do is call.” I love that number. And Kate Bush, of course. I listen to a lot of Kate Bush.
You played in Amsterdam recently. You supported Soi Song. How did that go?
Very well, indeed. Yes. I told Sleazy afterwards that I was ashamed of him because he wasn’t nearly as good as I was. I said, “You should be ashamed of yourself because you’re not as good as me.” And he agreed. He said, “Yeah. We’re not. We’ll never be as good as you, Val.” It was funny. We were laughing. Yeah, it was great. And they gave me one of their CDs which is shaped bizarrely. I said to Sleazy and the other guy who’s in Soi Song, I said, “Sleazy, you have to draw me a penis and a vagina on the front of it,” and he did. Then I said to the other guy who’s in Soi Song, “On the other side of it, you have to draw me a vagina and a penis.” And they did. But it was great. I had a wonderful time.
What about current projects? Haven’t you just featured on a new Black Sun Productions album? What’s going on there? Did you go over to Switzerland to record it?
Some of it was recorded in Switzerland, in Biel. That was a live thing. There’s only two tracks that are live from Biel. The rest of it is kind of…well, the music is all by Massimo and Pierce of Black Sun Productions with me singing my own lyrics over the top, which is always kind of weird because when I send them back by computer, the files of what I’ve sung, I always think they’re going to think, “Oh, God! What is Val doing?” And they always say.”That is exactly what we wanted.” That album that I gave you (“Somewhere Between Desire and Despair”), they did this box set but there’s only twenty-three. Now, the boxes have been made by Pierce. He’s made the boxes himself with black paint inside and he’s painted the tops of them and everything but there’s a CD-R which goes with it. And this CD-R has a cover which I’ve painted of a green fairy and it’s called “Poisoned by a Green Fairy.”
And you’ve hand-painted all twenty-three?
Yes. “Poisoned by a Green Fairy” and the track lasts twenty-three minutes and they did the music and I got the music and I thought, “How do I deal with this?” I’ll just do this in one sitting. See what happens.” So, I got some instruments around me, a thing called an Indian banjo and I just listened to the music and I just sang all the way through it, off the top of my head.
On the theme of absinthe?
There’s a bit of absinthe in there but it kind of veers off into weird things like The Howling Winds of Jupiter and this, that and the other. And they said it was absolutely amazing, that it sent shivers down their spines.
Now, you’ve mentioned that it’s twenty-three minutes long and that it’s an edition of twenty-three. I notice a lot of your releases have twenty-three tracks and are in editions of this number. The number twenty-three has a degree of symbolic significance. I know it did for Psychic TV and there was the band 23 Skidoo back them. Can you explain this? Is it a Burroughs thing?
I think it’s a Burroughs thing. I think it was William Burroughs, for some reason, which I don’t quite understand, who thought of it as a magical number, that twenty-three appears everywhere and in a way it does. Sometimes I’ll try to compile tracks for an album and I’ll think, “Well, how many have I got? Oh, twenty-three.” It’s a number that crops up. Maybe it’s the meaning of life, maybe the number of genes.
Do you attach any mystical significance to this number?
No, I don’t. The number of twenty-three does crop up, though, and it means a lot more to Massimo and Pierce than it does to me because of its magickal significance.
But your CDs nearly always have twenty-three tracks.
Yeah, they do. And it’s not intentional. It always seems that I end up with twenty-three.
And you’ve a new CD “Trans Britannia” due out very soon, too, haven’t you? Can you tell me anything about this?
It’s out now and it’s sold out. “Trans Britannia” is basically what I think of as part two to a CD I did called “Why So Sirius?”. “Trans Britannia”, well, the title is kind of a pastiche of “Transamerica” which is a film that I found interesting because it’s about transgenderism. So, “Trans Britannia” refers to transgenderism and it’s just the way it happened. It just seemed to me that the name was “Trans Britannia” for some weird reason. I don’t know why. It’s almost like some magical thing where it just happened by intuition. I thought that the album would be called “Bradford” and I knew what the cover was. It was a photograph of me in front of the town hall, in black and white, and it would have been a beautiful cover. It really would and I could see it and I knew what it was. It was called “Bradford” which would have been a great title and it would have suited the album very well and yet something just told me, “This is the wrong album. This album is called “Trans Britannia” and it needs me in front of a Union Jack.”
So, will you make your Bradford album?
Oh, yeah. I’m sure I will. I’m sure that will be the next one. That will happen – the Bradford album. But this one, it just said to me that I have to stand in front of a Union Jack and that it’s called “Trans Britannia”, it really is. It’s almost like it’s not my choice, you know what I mean?
It sounds like quite a lot of things are not your choice.
Yeah. It just is.
Well, that was the last question, unless there is anything else that you think the world needs to know about Val Denham right now?
Erm…the final thing is that my website has vanished and this has vanished because seemingly I have upset somebody. I do tend to upset people and I don’t know why I’m doing it. I really don’t know why I offend people, why people are pissed off with me. Maybe, it’s because I speak exactly what I think and people kind of sometimes get upset and don’t want to know me anymore because it’s too much. It’s beyond their comfort zone and, as a result, my website has disappeared. It was done by a friend of mine in America but there is a new website being done. It’s basically the same. It’s Val Denham. It’s Tranart. The only difference is that with this new website there’s more emphasis not so much on the music, the art, the creativity of Val Denham but also the transgender identity of Val Denham and a positive attitude towards that politically. In other words, I’m prepared now to become involved with speaking within the community and that may involve speaking to The Police Force, being politically active, being in schools or whatever. You know, promoting a positive attitude towards transgenderism, regardless of my creative activity, my artistic or musical creativity. I mean, let’s face it, if I wasn’t transgender, it would still be interesting, the fact that I’m an artist and a musician, but I want to promote a positive attitude towards transgenderism. That means even people being able to contact me and talking about such a thing, to be in touch with publications, the media and saying, “You know, some people are open about being transgender, like some people are open about being gay,” and I want a positive slant on this now. And that isn’t connected with art or music. It’s to do with life and a lifestyle. There are people that need to know that it’s O.K. and I think I can do that.
Interview with Uwe Schneider for Blackmagazin website. Translated from German.
You have just released “Transform Thyself” together with Barcelona based Ô Paradis. How did you and Demian meet and get the idea of recording an album together?
Around the time that I did an album called “Between Desire and Despair” in 2008 with Black Sun Productions for the USA label Tourettes Records, Demian of O Paradis had just done his album “Pequenas Canciones De Amor” for the same label. Joseph Noark who runs the label sent me a package of the new releases. The one that really stuck out for me was the O Paradis one. I think I probably sent him a MySpace message to say that I really liked his album. He contacted me to say that he loved my stuff and that maybe we should do a track together as an experiment. He sent me the music via a file over the internet. I sang on it and the first song was “Glow”.
Anyway, he was knocked out by it! We were both a little surprised by how well we could collaborate. So he sent me another and we realised that we should do a whole album.
Demian has a very sound based, experimental way of creating music, and although this is audible in each second, the results are a sort of perfect pop music. How much have you been involved into the recording process, besides singing, of course and did you know any earlier works of his?
I didn’t have too much to do with the music on the album, however, I did orchestrate the sound a lot by saying things like “Take that out, change this, too much delay, maybe percussion on that section, I want this to be piano only” etc. I more or less decided the order of the tracks, but we seemed to agree on every aspect. Demian did practically all the music, instruments etc.
Before the Tourettes record I had never heard of O Paradis. He is very easy to work with, where as I can be a bit of a demanding diva at times!
Transformation in various forms and the revolt against constrictions seem major motifs of the album. I think it’s not only background information that connects this to a transgender identity. Do you regard ‘Transform Thyself’ as kind of a concept album?
Hmmmm……….I’ve never thought of it as a “concept album” but I suppose it is. I’m just continuing my personal project all about little ol’ me. You could say that the album is about transgenderism, but it’s also about optimism, rather than the usual portrayal of the tragic tranny stuck with the wrong body, thinking I should kill myself, why did God do this to me? I’m just saying isn’t it wonderful!
In the lyrics you often make use of rather traditional forms (e.g. rhyming couplets), yet the content deals a lot with experimentation. Is that just a coincidence or did you intent to juxtapose form and content in such a way?
I always juxtapose. I love to see what happens when you put this thing with that. I like to be very conservative in a traditional historical way, yet at the same time experimental, sometimes in an extreme way. Duality is the key to Valworld.
In my opinion, the album has a courageous and also quite optimistic attitude. I don’t know how much this is connected with a direct message, but do you think, that there is sometimes an element of tearful resignation in transgender communities, that they need a more self-confident alternative perhaps?
Oh! I answered your question earlier, before I even got to it!! Anyway, yes, there does need to be a more positive attitude to being transgender. We seem to be where the gay people were in the early 1960’s. Afraid, humiliated, embarrassed, living in fear of attack, etc. What I feel is that we should come out of the closet and say, “I am transgender and I’m proud!” If you lose family or friends then basically fuck them, you didn’t need them in your life anyway. Stop moaning, thank God for the gift of being transgender. When I get official forms to fill in, it always says “Male/Female”; I always cross it out and put “Transgender”. If people want to laugh, then go on! But the truth is the condition isn’t even a tiny bit funny. I’m not a man; I’m not a woman. I’m a chick with a dick, I’m transgender. Get over it.
Courage, vitality and optimism, but not in a superficial happy go lucky way. This next question brings your fascination for classical cabaret and early movie icons like Louise Brooks to my mind. What kind of aspects do you love most in the period of the 20th century, and how would you describe the relation of this period to your own work?
I often think of myself as still living in the 20th century! My painting is very much influenced by the painters of the 20th century and it’s very obvious that my music is rooted in the 1970’s! What do you get if you mix David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground, Tiny Tim, Marc Bolan, Kate Bush, John Lydon and Syd Barrett all together? Yes! The shrill voice of Val Denham! I don’t want to sound like Take That, I want to sound like Alice Cooper! I collect 1950’s and 1930’s ceramics, I have them everywhere. All the films that I love, television shows, records, books come from the 20th century. I’m very into Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weil! “Oh moon of Alabama! We now must say goodbye!” I love to dance to that with my wife. We also dance like maniacs to the Rolf Harris song “Sun Arise”. I’d love to do a covers album of all the songs that I love from the old days. I do occasionally like very new stuff though, I like Seasick Steve and Portishead, but they have a retro feel to them anyway.
I think that living a life as somebody outside the mainstream of society has become easier over the years. Yet sometimes one gets the feeling that there may be some kind of backlash on the horizon. Would you agree?
Fuck’em, Come on then you brain dead moronic arseholes, burn me, I’m a fucking witch.
You mentioned in an interview that your earlier album “TransBrtiannia” alludes to the film “Transamerica”. I think for a mainstream movie this film managed quite well to present a character deviating from the norm in a quite sympathetic way without being patronizing. How do you feel about the presentation of persons outside the (sexual) mainstream in movies or on TV?
I really like the film “Transamerica”, but it is deeply flawed, because they had a genetic woman play the part of a male to female transsexual! Felicity Huffman did a great job, but it’s rather like getting a white guy to black up as a black person. Don’t they have transgender actors in Hollywood? It’s a sad state of affairs that often trans people are portrayed as psychopathic killers. They seem weird and scary so they must be dangerous. Examples such as Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs”, the killer in “Dressed to Kill”, even Heath Ledger as the joker in Batman dresses up as a female nurse when he could just as easily have been a male nurse. Dennis Hopper as the deranged Frank in “Blue Velvet” puts on lipstick. There’s nothing scarier than a man in a dress with a knife.
In some of your lyrics, particularly such songs as “I Try to Kill the Man” or “Flowers in the Trenches”, you stress, how important a sexual identity is, although this is not necessarily the sex that’s laid out in your cradle by biology. How do you think about academic gender theories (maybe according to Judith Butler), who states, that this need for sexual identity itself is something bad and wrong, and that you are better off if you don’t care being female or male?
Nice idea, but the truth is, if I’m in a rough bar full of drunken young men, I pretend to be 100% female just for safety reasons. Then, even aggressive young men treat me with respect, because I could be someone’s mother. I’m not going to wear a T Shirt emblazoned across the chest with the slogan “I’m a Tranny!” So I can be militant, but only when it’s safe to do so. I don’t want to be a martyr. You have to be careful sometimes.
On ‘Transform Thyself’, you refer to the myth of Icarus, which is usually referred to as a pessimistic allegory on human hubris. Was it meant to be provocative, to deconstruct this myth and tell the hero to rise again?
Yes, it’s basically saying pick your self up. If you fall, you can rise up again. It was just about myself in a way. I went through a period of despair. I got divorced, lost my job and my kids, lost my home and I felt truly redundant in all respects. I hated myself. I took drugs and I wanted to be a woman.
Then I left London after living there for 21 years and I came back to Yorkshire where I am originally from. I met up with my first girlfriend, got married again and became female. I’ve never been happier in my life. Just like a phoenix. I rose up from the ashes. I liked the idea of Icarus rising again because it seems impossible. But, impossible things happen all the time. The very idea that I would be married to my first love and I’d be a big girl! Unbelievable.
Do you see a tragic element in your music and your art? You repeatedly used phrases like ‘Somewhere In-Between Desire And Despair’ as titles…
Yeah, I love a bit of tragedy in art. I just think that it’s more interesting. I can’t stand happy jolly music! Ahhhhhhhhh! That song by the Carpenters, “I’m on the top of the world”. I hate that! But I adore “Superstar”. I do have a dark side and it comes out a lot through my creativity, much more so than in reality. I’m interested in the subconscious and those shadows in our dreams.
There is a painting by you that shows a crucified wolf, which defies his fate with a vital scream. In a certain way, this also fits to the character of the new album. As you have also made critical comments about the pope, I would like to know what’s your attitude towards Christian values like humility.
I’m not a Christian, but I am spiritual. Kind of left of centre agnostic in a way. I believe in being altruistic. Doing the right thing. But this is to do with empathy. Sometimes I can be quite a shit, and I have upset people in my life. But I’m not good at dealing with guilt. I like a fairly clear conscience. If religion can help people to be better individuals then fine. However I don’t need it. I know what’s right and wrong. Humility? Nah……….what for? I know that I’m very special. Should I pretend that I’m not?
As to your visual work in general: Could you tell our readers a bit about your education and career as a painter?
Oh eck…………..Well, I do have a biography on my website which goes into my past at length, but I went to Bradford College of Art from 1974 to 1979 and to The Royal College of Art in London from 1979 until 1981. I did record covers for bands such as Marc almond, Marc and the Mambas, PTV, Throbbing Gristle etc…….I’ve had several jobs such as the in house graphic artist with Waltham Forrest Council Welfare Benefits department. I did that part time for 13 years. This is like bloody CV!
As you are an artist working with and in different media, I would be interested what medium you would focus on if you had to choose only one.
Oh, both are important to me. I love painting, but I love recording too. It’s the same thing to me. I sometimes call recordings “Audiodrawings” I do a new song and I do a new painting, both excite me.
One recurring motif of your painting is the portraits, and I’m sure many know your characteristic depictions of Jhonn Balance, Marc Almond, David Tibet or Antony Hegarty. It seems that when you paint portraits you sometimes try to incorporate elements and symbols that are typical of the person whose essence you try to capture. Can you say a few words about your working process? How important was being friends with them and knowing the music for the paintings to be successful?
You have to like the music. How could I do a painting of N Dubz? I just couldn’t do it. How could I do a portrait of Billy Bragg? I couldn’t! I don’t think that you need to be friends, but you do need to like what they do. I try to put elements into the paintings that are somehow part of that person. Like the portrait of David Tibet has his own artwork in the background. This makes the finished image very David Tibet indeed. It’s almost like I’ve captured these people.
In the review of “Transform Thyself” I compared your paintings (maybe bit hasty) with pop art. Some cartoonish elements and a certain lowbrow approach to reality brought me to this conclusion, but it seems that you have little in common with the embrassing attitude that some famous pop artists had towards consume materialism. How comfortable are you with such a description?
I’m not interested in consumerism or the products or objects of the modern age at all. However “Pop art” does seem to fit in a way. I think that the Americans might call it “Pop Surrealism”. To me it’s pure “Valism” I change the style frequently, so it mutates back and forth. The only thing that connects it all is my own psychology. I go from realism to expressionism depending on what my subconscious tells me to do. Valism doesn’t have a lot of rules.
Situations of watching, observing, being seen or being watched seem important topics of your work: You have repeatedly painted big eyes, and also your self-portraits and photos have a strong focus of the exhibiting aspect. What fascinates you so much in visual perception?
Who knows? I’ll have to ask my subconscious about that one!
Have your collaborations with Massimo and Pierce and now with Demian been one-offs or are there any plans to record follow-ups?
I’m always up for working with Black Sun Productions again, they are such lovely boys. As for Demian, we are toying with the possibility of another album in the future. Who knows, maybe? But, I’m certainly up for it.
Are you still in contact with Bruce La Fountain from The Sword Volcano Complex?
OMG! YES!!!! We email and talk on the phone frequently! Bruce is one of my best friends! I love him to death. Bruce has an album ready to come out as soon as he gets the labels sorted that is superb! “Cinnamon for the Phoenix”, I’ve done the cover art and sing on three songs. It really is one hell of an album. It is under his own non-de plume alter ego of The Sword Volcano Complex. The guy is a genius and one of the sweetest, loyal, most genuine people that I’ve ever come across. I would marry him if I weren’t already married.
Bruce LaFountain with a tattoo designed by Val.
This question is about the distant past, but could you say in a few words something about your early band The Death and Beauty Foundation, influences etc? Where do you see the most differences comparing elements between now and then?
Well, The Death and Beauty Foundation were really a kind of “Industrial” band. Very experimental at first and then I decided that I liked a proper tune. So it ended up as just Oli Novadnieks the guitarist and myself. We did a lot of improvised stuff when we played live and we liked to piss people off by giving them the opposite of what they expected. I would often do a speech to begin with and sometimes it was like performance art with sound.
Oli and myself then went through a long period in the 1980’s 90’s of making albums on cassette that were only for ourselves! Editions of two only! Now I make my own limited edition CDR’s, but they are quite “lo-fi” as I’ve always used the same Fostex- 4 track tape machine that Oli and myself did the cassette albums on. The very last one of these albums was called “MAD”. Now, I’ve only just gone digital and got some much better equipment, so the self released CDR’s of the future will sound much more professional at last! There was always a marked difference between my limited edition CDR’s and the official albums, but now the gap has narrowed. I’m using computer packages like “Acid-Pro” and I’m much more careful about what I will be releasing in future. My son got me a posh microphone, the same sort that Amy Winehouse records with!
So the amateur bedroom sound is no more. The end of an era and the birth of a new one.
Thanks for the interview and all the best for our next adventures!
Thank you! That was fun!
More information about Val Denham can be found at the following websites:
Interview with Val Denham for Obsküre magazine #27
By Maxime Lachaud, 2016
Following the phenomenal success the Dysphoria Book (2013), now sold out, Timeless Editions continue the exploration of the work of Val Denham with a volume that is much larger this time. TRANART focuses on work such as self-portraits, collages, paintings, and visual archives for musical groups but also on themes dear to the artist: transsexuality, surreal and dreamlike fantasy, childhood and motherhood, angels and demons, metamorphoses and masks, skulls and cats, black suns and erotic symbolism, all rendered in vivid colours. Val is highly praised in the preface by Genesis Breyer P Orridge, a fan of Val since the days of Throbbing Gristle. The work of Val Denham shares many similarities with that of the leader of Psychic TV and initiator of the pandrogyne. For both artists, art and life constantly feed off each other. Val agreed to explore these intimate areas, where in autobiographical texts she explores the unconscious, dreams and derision, decrypting with us some of her visual recurrences largely related to her own obsessive compulsive disorder.
The term ‘TRANART’ is in reference to your visual creations but also hybridity or personal metamorphosis. Throughout the pages, we see you turn you into various characters from Alice in Wonderland to the Virgin Mary. This transformation seems at home as a symbol of life as art.
Val Denham: ‘TRANART’ is a word that I invented around fifteen years ago and I love the word because it is a palindrome. It can be read in both directions. It is a name to refer to my art and of course my own transsexuality or transgender identity, but it also means moving from one thing to another, what happens in my art is in permanent change. It is not common for a person to change gender and body when they have reached maturity, because you have a lot of friends, a family, and it’s confusing and frightening for them. It is as if you die and someone else takes your place, which is true in a way. The former Val Denham died, but the new Val Denham is alive. I still dream of him often enough but he no longer exists. If I get letters addressed to Mr Val Denham, I do not open them and they go directly to the trash bin because Mr Denham does not exist, it’s as simple as that. Much of the works found in the book come from the early 1990s and they go on until the 2000s. This was a very difficult time for me, yet at that time I had what everyone dreams of, the perfect life. I had a beautiful wife, two beautiful children, a nice house that was almost paid for and a job that I loved as a graphic artist and I was healthy. Despite this, I was unhappy. I drank a lot. My obsessive compulsive problems were getting worse. My wife persuaded me to go see a psychiatrist. Then the doors to Pandora’s Box opened, revealing my latent transsexuality. My marriage ended and I had to leave my family, I lost my job and I couldn’t afford to live in London. I went back in Yorkshire where I originate from. I had been in London for twenty-one years. When I came back to my roots I met up with my old girlfriend Gail. She was my girlfriend in 1975, she was eighteen and I was seventeen, we were very young. Then we met up again in 2001 and we got married. Now we have been together for twelve years and I have never been as happy as I am now, I have found my perfect partner and I have changed my gender. So, to look at some works that are in the book, it’s very hard for me because I was not very happy about myself at that time.
There is a pretty thorough foreword provided by Genesis Breyer P Orridge. What relationship do you see between your own work and hers?
We’ve both stopped being 100% male. Genesis will talk about pandrogynie and is often referred to as s/he, however I would rather speak of transsexuality, but I think in both cases it is a search for the divine androgyny. For us, perfection is an androgynous being. We do not play the game of binary gender to please society either. We have always refused to join the norm, and this was from the beginning. We are artists, musicians, Art is our Life. Art is my life since I was a child. Art was like a security blanket for me because it meant that I was not forced to play outside with the other boys. I was busy with my artworks in the house. I loved to draw and my parents left me alone. For me, art was and is armour. As I grew older, I became more and more obsessed with art. I have lots of art books; I watch all the TV documentaries that are about art. Even in my dreams I am inspired by art. I understand the aborigines, who believe in ‘The Dreamtime’ in that we are still alive in our dreams, we are in reality. It is true that we cannot be hurt, and there are physical things that we could not do otherwise than in dreams, but my spirit is so alive in my dreams and in that moment that it is true living to me. I was with the producer of my new vinyl album the other day, that will come out soon on Vanity Case Records and the title is, I saw myself in your dreams last night. One side of the record is called ‘Conscious’ and the other side is called ‘Unconscious’. Everything I do is related to the world of dreams, art and my own personality.
In her text for the book, your wife Gail says that your colour choices are related to your childhood memories. What colours do you associate with your early years?
When I was a child and I was going to school in the early 1960’s – Leeds, Yorkshire – everything seemed so grey. Surely not everything was grey all the time? Perhaps my mind has distorted the truth, but I wore grey clothes, grey shirts. The sky looked grey, as if it was going to rain constantly. Black and white television was our only entertainment. I collected magazines about movie monsters, and even these magazines were in black and white. One day I went to the school library and there were these old dark huge display cabinets with very old books of the Victorian era. No one looked at them; they were behind glass windows and they were locked. The headmaster asked me what I was doing there because I should have been in my class. I told him I was intrigued by these books; he told there was nothing interesting in there. However, I asked him if I could look at one. The book of my choice, taken at random seemed never to have been opened. It was filled with coats of arms and badges or devices of English heraldry, with fascinating images of shields, symbols of knights, kings and queens. These mysterious insignia were printed on a white paper and the colours were bright, vermilion red and vibrant yellow, ultramarine blue and gold ink. I love these colours! The golden colour on the cover of TRANART, this comes from my childhood. The previous book Dysphoria was bright red. I’m obsessed with these bright colours: green, yellow, red and gold. Even today when I see these colours, I find them so beautiful. Mr Taylor the headmaster let me look at this book whenever I wanted to. This work has had a huge influence on me. There is something spiritual in our choices, destiny. I could get any book, but this one was waiting decades for me. Who knew it was going to affect the rest of my life? Strange! Anyway, when I do a work of art, I have the idea that I have to do it anyway because it was already here. The paintings are meant to exist. They wait somewhere else just to be born into existence.
The figure of Venus is often used in your work which also questions beauty. One of your works is called Hideous Beauty. Where do you find this beauty and how do you recognize it? Is it compatible with ugliness?
It’s odd but I was watching a documentary on TV about this guy (Wilko Johnson) who played in the pub rock band Dr. Feelgood. He was diagnosed with cancer and he said that when they gave him the diagnosis, they told him that he had just ten months to live. Suddenly the world seemed so beautiful to him. The trees, the sky … It was as if he had never paid attention before. Maybe writers, poets, artists see the world differently. But sometimes the world can be extremely beautiful, and the human body is beautiful too. For me beauty is divine androgyny it is the perfect mix between man and woman. Basically, I have beautiful breasts, a soft female body and a penis. Many transsexuals get involved with genital surgery to change sex, and if they feel that they need to then it is only right that they do so. But some people like to stay somewhere in-between, and for me it is very beautiful.
Val Denham – TRANART (Timeless) (2015)
“Perfection is an androgynous being.”
“The paintings are meant to exist. They are waiting to be born.”
Supplement to our interview with the artist Val Denham. This was unpublished in the magazine, but available on the website.
The book begins with a lot of paintings that deal with childhood and motherhood. You are you even a mother / father.
Val Denham: Yes, I have two children, although they are grown up young adults now. My son is 25 and my daughter is 27. My son is a DJ; he travels around the world, from New York to Dubai. My daughter works for a large clothing company, these are young people full of success today, but yes I am their father!
Given your obsession with the figure of the mother, I was surprised that in the autobiographical text at the beginning, you speak of your father – even though it was a very tense and difficult relationship – but not so much of your mother.
Yes, How curious, I did not notice that fact. My mother is still alive. She has a very strong personality and she speaks her mind. We went to a coffee shop in Leeds last week, my mother and her companion, she started to cry. She said in a very loud voice for all to hear, “I’m so proud of you, you have become a beautiful woman, I never thought that you would become so lovely.” Then she told everyone in this coffee shop which was full of people by the way, “It was exactly the same when he was a little boy, he stole my lipstick all the time.” The patrons of Costa Coffee had not realized I was transgender, they thought I was just some middle aged lady. They were a little shocked. But my mother is very funny. If I do another book, I’ll write more about it. I have a book that I want to write that is mostly autobiographical because I have lots of stories to tell!
In this book, I feel also that there is more of self-portraits and photographs of you than were in the previous one.
In a work, you can become a new version of Alice in Wonderland “Valice”, or you might embody the Virgin Mary or a character like Mandy Sturmunddrang. This work based on your character, is it to create a distance or on the contrary, to dig even deeper into yourself?
It’s more to get deeper inside myself, but I do know my face perfectly well now. I can look myself in the mirror and paint myself. I’m obsessed with myself, like many artists elsewhere. I must say that I find myself very interesting. My face is interesting. It’s strange but when I make a picture with the face of someone, I find that in the end they look like me. I can do a portrait of Antony Hegarty but somehow he’ll end up looking a bit like me. It is a portrait of Val Denham too.
Gail, your wife, says in the piece that she wrote that you feel guilty if you do not work every day. Do you feel responsible for your art and would you be useless without the act of creation?
This feeling of unease must be related to my obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I hate the idea of wasting time. I do not know boredom. I can take a book, there are hundreds here, if I even have just five minutes of free time, I feel the urge to fill it. I do not know what it is like to do nothing at all. I should try meditation or things like that. In general, it is true though that I do feel guilty if I did not produce at least a piece of art every week. Normally I work every day, less when it’s the weekend because I go out, I see people or do the shopping. Maybe this guilt comes from my upbringing and my Catholic grandmother. What I do is to cheat death. I know one day I will die, but I know that these works will remain and this is a way not to be forgotten. It’s amazing how the production of certain artists becomes more intense with age. David Hockney is currently working like a madman, surely because he is aware that he will die one day. We must make as much art as possible because these things will remain. Sometimes I also worked to exhaustion. When I do not paint, draw or make musical recordings, I do my endless domestic chores. Mondays are fully dedicated to household, cleaning, washing, ironing, etc. But I do domestic chores every morning of the week too, even if it’s already clean. This is due again to my obsessive-compulsive disorder. If I did not spend all that time cleaning, I could make truly complex art work. But I spend a lot of time performing these crazy rituals, concerned with order and making everything clean. However, without my obsessive-compulsive disorder, would I be the artist that I am?
In the book, you write about episodes of paranormal phenomena that occurred in your past. These events seem to have been decisive, because after that, you threw all your books away that were associated with negative things. You were very interested in true crime stories, serial killers, the Holocaust and anything disturbing. Has there really been a significant change in your artistic career after these unexplained paranormal events?
Yes. I stopped being obsessed with murder, death and the Holocaust. All that was negative fascinated me in the early 1980’s. Today I do not read such books; I do not think it is healthy. After this period when I was interested killers and negative things, I began to focus my artistic interests in my own psychology. And it was much better. It’s funny, the other week I was looking in some old folders of my work and I was shocked by what was inside. There were prints of serial killers, and other dark subject matter. I asked myself the question, should I throw this stuff away? Then, I thought, no, it may be of value! So I’ve kept this stuff as I might need to sell it at a time (laughs). I do not know where this twisted interest comes from. My mother has this morbid curiosity too. She watches television shows about various criminals and facts. This perhaps it comes from her.
Dreams often figure in your paintings such as “The Dreamer,” “The Dreaming Child” etc.
The child that we see in this painting is my son who is named Max. Max came to see me last week. This is Max when he was a little boy and he dreams of his parents. Or maybe it was his parents who dream of him. It’s very confusing. Who dreams to what? Reality is essentially a dream anyway.
Let’s talk about your irony and humour; I would like to address a series that you did with figures such as Mickey Mouse engaged in provocative sex, scatology, etc.
This comes from a book that I did in watercolours entitled Disneysex. It was really fun for me. I am very interested in Mickey Mouse, he can often be found in my work. When I was a teenager, I took LSD and I looked at a red Formica table in my bedroom which I worked on. It was my parents table from the 50s. One day, I looked intensely at the table with the LSD taking effect; I saw millions of Mickey Mouse’s spiral round and around on the table. I thought that everything in nature was not made up of atoms, but billions of Mickey Mouse figures intertwined. It was after this episode, I started to draw Mickey Mouse a lot.
Can we speak of the titles of your pieces because they really give meaning to the work? Do the titles always come at the end, or do you have a title in mind from the start?
It’s a very interesting question. I had never thought of that, most of the time the title comes at the end. Indeed titles are important because they affect how you see the image. Sometimes I change the title after a certain time. Something that is called “Mousifixion” may have been called “Mickey Crucified” for example. So, I do sometimes change the titles. As for the Tranart book which Xavier Laradji produced, he asked me for the titles when I sent him the pictures and instead of putting “Untitled,” because I didn’t have a title, I created a new title off the top of my head. But the titles are important because I always write the title on the back of everything I do. Generally I also do a drawing on the back too. This is frequently a demon, and then I write the title and date.
Another headline interests me is “Darkness is Enlightening”
This comes from some gargoyles found on a church. It’s damnation. We see people burn in hell. But I wanted it to be nice, so I did it in nice bright colours. I liked this idea of people trapped in hell but it is pretty. I had a vision of something a bit Bosch. But this title comes from elsewhere. They wanted an image for a concert that we were doing in Amsterdam with Psychic TV and Lydia Lunch, and the event was called Darkness is Enlightening. In this case, the painting was made from the title. This time I had the title given to me in advance
There are a lot of paintings which also seem to refer to classical art and traditional religious iconography and they all date from 1992 as if it were a series: The Psychotic Lamb of the Evening Sun, Spectre of the Evening, Pan Distressing King Lung-Head with His Music etc.
These are more collages than paintings, but they were all made in 1992, it’s true. They are old book illustrations. In general I do not destroy beautiful books but these were books that I bought for a few pounds from car boot sales and they were falling apart. It was done in the spirit of the collages done by Max Ernst, but then I painted over them and I tinted them gently with watercolour paint. Then I gave them a title.
A strange pattern recurs often that you call “star head” or “sun head”. Where does it come from?
Again it’s a self-portrait, but what it represents is surely the sperm impregnating the egg, but it can also represent the black sun. It is mainly a portrait of my mind and the confusion I was feeling around that time. Curiously, a painting which I completed just last Tuesday also contains the image of me with a black sun head. It is a worrying thing. It’s like a black body representing me coming back to Yorkshire. This is my spirit that returns to Yorkshire.
We often have this mixture of male and female attributes in your representations of these figures of angels and demons, we are always in-between, and that’s what seems interesting.
Black and white, day and night, the good and the bad, Yin and Yang. Does evil exist so that good exists? Does something good emerge from bad events such as those recently suffered in Paris? Perhaps, but we do not see it. However I do believe that in the end good will win. This is related to my obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I think that order is perfection and that perfection is the path to God. I think that chaos is evil and must be combated. Some will think I’m crazy (laughs).Yesterday I was speaking to Gail about people doing graffiti, and she said that she hated it. One is either creative or destructive. Some people have to destroy because they cannot create. Terrorism is to destroy. I feel sorry for people who cannot create. I feel sorry for people that want to destroy art, destroying ancient relics in a country like Syria, it turns my stomach, it hurts me deeply. This art was there for millennia, annihilated with sledgehammers; is there anything more stupid? One is either creative or destructive. I am so thankful to be a creator. What I do is to bring new things in this world instead of deleting them. You saw those films and pictures of Nazis burning books? And you think of all these important books, these first editions that were burned. In this country, we had Henry VIII who destroyed the monasteries and many works of art. I curse them.
At one point, you say you are passionate about horror films. Which are your favourites?
I always come back to this channel called The Horror Channel, which we have free access to the United Kingdom, and lately I’ve seen one called The Mist , a Stephen King story and I found it excellent. But I also love the old Universal films, such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein. But I like the recent stuff too, such as Rec 1, 2 and 3. I love all kinds of horror film, even the most dreadful ones, such as I Spit on your Grave (the remake) and the horrendous sequel which was even worse. I do not know why I watch it but I cannot help myself. I like Creature from the Black Lagoon, the old movies of the Sci-Fi movies of the 50s, but if I had to pick just one? I would keep a Bride of Frankenstein.
There is a section with portraits, a few of which were in the previous book, and here we find for example Mark E. Smith of The Fall.
It was a commission. There is a portrait of the writer and actor Graham Duff in the book, he also contributed with a great written piece. He is friends with Mark E. Smith, he loves The Fall and he asked me if I would paint a portrait of Mark E. Smith. I said yes. I like The Fall but I’m not a big fan. My favourite band are The Residents who are American. I collect everything they ever did or do. I have a lot of their rare records. I just did a small portrait of someone in the Netherlands for a rare record of Residents. That he owned. I can be a bit geeky.
The portrait of Veronica Vasicka was such a commission?
Yes it was, from Karl Regis her husband. I do commission’s occasionally. If there is a third book ever coming out, I should do a section with just my commissions.
At the end of the book, are the documents and archives, we discover Andy Borehole and Joey Arsehole , comics that did when you were very young.
It was the idea of Xavier, not mine. He is fascinated by the archives. And it is true that I have many letters from John Balance. He is keeping a lot for another book. There are some interesting things in there. There are reproductions of pages from a comic entitled Andy Borehole which dates from my first year of Bradford Art College when I was 16 in 1974. Instead of writing about my favourite artist, as we were asked to do, I made a comic book about the life and work of Andy Warhol. I was fascinated to find that book again after all these years.
The reception of the previous book was very enthusiastic, have these two books brought you any new fans?
I think so yes and also because of the Internet. Do not forget that I also make music. Many are people are more interested in my recordings than my art. My new album is on Vanity Case Records, we delayed its release because people are buying the book like crazy and I do not want to impose too much financial pressure on people to buy these things. What with Special Artist’s editions and such like. The first book Dysphoria sold very quickly, it was a big success. Xavier told me that many people still wanted to buy the first book and he wanted to print a second edition. Then he suggested that maybe we could update Dysphoria and add a few more pages. I said okay and I continued to send him images that he might want to add. He asked me: But how many do you have, you are sending too much? I said that I had tons. So, he said, but why don’t we make a new book? I said of course, but if I want a new book, this time I want it printed on fine coated art paper. I also would like it to be bigger. So this one was more expensive than the first book but I am very happy. This new book is selling very well too. Maybe we will make a third blue book!
So the LP will be released in early 2016?
Yes, we have to print the covers. I got a copy yesterday and it sounds really great. This album is unusual because I had time to do it properly. This one took a long time to finish!
Are there any other musicians?
Yes, I worked with Farmacia from Argentina. Ariel Sima from this group plays a lot on the album. I have one song with Demian Nada of O Paradis from Barcelona, but also my old friend Oli Novadnieks on guitar, plus Graham Bailey and Dave Lazonby, of the UK band Geese. I told them what I wanted them to do and they obliged.