In his last email to Derek Boshier before he died, David Bowie complimented the artist saying that his work “cascades down the decades”. Boshier had drawn the covers for Bowie’s Lodger and Let’s Dance covers. For Boshier’s career began as a pioneer of British pop art back in the 1960s. Now 82, he’s as active as ever, as his new show Night and Snow/Fragments: Contemporary Still Life amply demonstrates.
His decades of work have incorporated painting, design, sculpture and film. This new show restores drawing and painting as the primary form. What hasn’t changed is Boshier’s inspirations – images of popular culture and his reflections on current events and social and political issues.
The current turbulent times in America where Boshier has lived since the 1980s, first in Texas and currently in California, is meat and drink for the artist. America America (above) began as a small pencil drawing. However, it was then digitised for better contrast, scaled up and sent to Belgium to be converted into a 10 x 15 foot jacquard tapestry. It was first displayed in California and later in Wales.
On the left we have the stereotypical America with baseball, the lumberjack, the son being welcomed home by his mother who doubtless has an apple pie in the oven ready for him. While on the left you see real life America of social tensions. Police are on the street, there’s a Ku Klux Klan burning cross while demonstrators hold Black Lives Matter, Equal Pay for Equal Work and MeToo placards.
The same theme continues with American Tragedy, above, one of a host of pencil drawings in the exhibition. Boshier has amassed cuttings from newspapers and magazines around gun culture and then re-drawn them in his familiar cartoon-like style. We see cowboys with guns, police brutality, atrocities committed with semi-automatic weapons, semi-clad women making guns look sexy and so on. There’s an anger implicit in the work. I wondered whether, as a Brit living in the States, he found the American fascination with guns bewildering. He posited the theory that the culture is so ingrained that it barely recognises it any more.
“British people understand their history,” he tells me. “We were a colonial power, a world leader, now we’re not and everyone knows that. The thing about American culture is that America doesn’t recognise its own culture. People know about slavery but it’s kept behind, no-one talks about slavery. Also, at this very moment, though it’s never talked of in America, America is a colonial power. For instance, the great enemy of America is Russia yet Americans have military bases in 30 countries in the world, Russia has nine. Americans don’t talk about their own history enough.”
Some of the drawings on show are taken from a single source of imagery such as a newspaper or television channel. Boshier is a magpie who will mine free newspapers and anything he finds in doctors’ or dentists’ waiting rooms. From his early days when his work commented on the manipulative nature of advertising, he showed how the juxtaposition of different images could change their nature. His view extends to his own collages too.
“A colour theorist will say there’s no such thing as yellow, no such thing as orange. Once you put a colour next to another colour, it changes. And I say that’s also true of imagery. I’ve taken these images each of which has something like advertisers trying to sell something.”
The third element of the show came about when he decided he wanted to work in black and white. The resultant Night and Snow comprises a number of paintings on such subjects as fashion, religion, rock music, video games, even football. He remains a Portsmouth fan, his city of birth. You can detect in the picture above elements of LS Lowry, French Impressionism as well as snowy scenes taken from his own photographs. The ubiquitous Ku Klux Klan also make an appearance. As the image at the very top, Snow (Night and Snow) shows, he soon incorporated colour works into the series. This may make them more commercially viable to collectors but Boshier argues that that doesn’t influence him.
“For me the art world is somewhere else. I make the stuff and people like curators, writers like yourself do all the rest. I don’t have any control. Funnily enough, David Bowie once said to me you never have control over who makes you famous. I thought of all people but he reckons he didn’t. He said I just came up with ideas and people took them for a walk. So it was strange that it came from him.”
Night and Snow/Fragments: Contemporary Still Life is showing at the Gazelli Art House, 39 Dover Street, London W1S 4NN until 10 November 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.