‘Dancing on My Own’ will be the artist’s first London show in over five years, bringing together paintings, sculptures, digital pieces and moving image work spanning 20 years of his career – and encompassing themes and elements taken from the many global exhibitions and projects created in that time.
While the exhibition takes in some of his better-known works, including Happy Cloud, the ‘Kapoor Art War’, Pounding Outside Poundland and All about the Cheddar, it also explores his lesser-known paintings, sculptures, internet works, film pieces and early drawings – many of which have never been seen before.
Stuart Semple is well-known for making thematic collections of works around distinct topics, which have been the basis for 15 solo exhibitions around the world. But this exhibition will be the first time that central works from a range of different projects have been assembled in a single space. Through this, we are presented with a unique opportunity to explore the wider underlying and unifying philosophies across seemingly disparate elements within the artist’s wider body of work.
Curator Lee Cavaliere says:
“Stuart Semple a singular and diverse talent, whose work as an artist has driven his activism. This is a fantastic opportunity to see the common threads in his broad and varied work, over the past two decades.”
Although astute social commentary is commonly mixed with a wry sense of humour in Stuart’s work, it often also comprises a damning criticism of the prejudices faced by the working-class when interacting with art – the artist is explicit about the classist struggles he himself has endured as a working-class maker. He is known for being somewhat of an artistic outlier, often exploring a myriad of media, materials and processes simultaneously. Assuming this position has enabled Stuart to retain a critical distance that has afforded him the freedom to continue an indie DIY working practice while at the same time keep an authentic and relevant voice.
The works have a nostalgic naivety when referencing the 80’s pop cultural world of his youth, and this is often re-cast into new discordant narratives, commenting on the culture of the present day alongside his personal obsessions with the image world, isolation, technology and anxiety.
Following a life-changing, near-death experience as a teenager in 1999, the artist threw himself into creativity whilst recovering from a severe anxiety disorder. After locking himself in his bedroom, it was towards the early internet that he turned for connection and community – Stuart was an early champion of the potential of the internet to connect and unite artists and audiences.
It was 20 years ago that he sold his first work over eBay, and for three years his pieces were being shared on the site at a manic rate of three a night. Eventually disseminating almost 3000 pieces to collectors and friends around the globe, he discovered that there was a community on the internet, and that he wasn’t alone. Many of the themes that these early cathartic works touch upon re-emerge in different forms across his later works. Several of these early pieces will be included in the show.
Other seminal works will include one of the giant billboard paintings from his very first London show, ‘Fake Plastic Love’, which was held at the Truman Brewery in 2006. That show – the beginning of his offline, ‘physical’ art career – had followed on from a chance encounter with Uri Geller, the sale of his first painting to Debbie Harry, and his introduction to the legendary dealer Anthony d’Offay.
Overall, the trajectory of his work evolves in parallel to the growth of digital and online spaces, the radical shifts in British politics and a crisis in masculinity which sees the number one cause of death for young men in this country being suicide. Often strong discussions emerge around the impact of social media on mental health and the impact of digitization on the physical experience of the arts.
All the pieces speak of an unwavering belief in art’s ability to elevate, connect and empower – and through them the artist is clear in his presentation of art as a mechanism for greater social cohesion and increased happiness.
Often his pieces speak to the elitism and exclusion he experienced as a working-class kid from suburbia, looking in on art from the outside. He deals with this most famously in his online performance project ‘The Pinkest Pink Art War’, in which he challenged the monopoly gained by fellow artist Anish Kapoor over the world’s blackest black paint. In this context, the works – especially those of a digital, ephemeral nature – can been seen as ways to connect an inclusive global online community, around the ideas of accessibility and democracy.
In recent years, Stuart’s overarching concerns for social cohesion and wellbeing has been addressed in numerous public art projects around the world, from his global #HostileDesign campaign to his Happy Cloud project, inaugurated in 2009 at the height of the recession. Bored with ‘credit crunch’ headlines and London’s depressive atmosphere, the artist launched ‘Happy Clouds’ from Tate Modern, flooding the skyline with eco-friendly artificial clouds in the shape of smiley faces, for a piece that has subsequently been repeated around the globe and which has earned him a Happiness Hero medal, awarded by the UN on the first international day of happiness. This work was pivotal to his continuation of explorations into happiness, connection art and community over the years – including the city-wide, summer-long ‘Happy City Denver’, which saw the installation of his permanent sculpture I Should be Crying but I Just Can’t Let It Show, which will itself be recreated for this exhibition.
When taken together, the overall output speaks strongly to the idea of the social function of the artist and strong belief in the role of art and artists be relevant and useful to society.
“It’s hard to live in a world like this and not want to reflect it, then do something about it. I know in my heart that artists are useful, and I hope some of the things I’ve done have helped somehow somewhere. It’s lovely to see the artworld opening up and becoming more inclusive and accessible, but sadly there’s a hell of a long way to go when it comes to class.” Stuart Semple
As well as bringing together important works from the last 20 years, the artist has also created a new digital sculpture especially for the exhibition. ‘Echo Chamber’ is a collaboration between Stuart and his friend Laurie Love, the computer hacker recently saved from extradition to the USA by a landmark ruling by the high court. Together, they bring a live data feed into the gallery, which provides a visual platform for opposing and unsettling points of view often absent from our own, moderated, day to day experience.