The Art Collector
Artist Interview: Annie Kevans
4 July 2013
Annie Kevans’ work is included in the ‘Paper’ exhibition now on at Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road. ‘Paper’ at The Saatchi Gallery showcases a range of international artists in the Saatchi collection whose work is primarily on paper. Described as the “new Tracey Emin”, artist Annie Kevans has titled her work in Paper ‘Boys’. The works show 20th Century tyrants, dictators and war criminals such as Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler and Radovan Karadzic as young children.The Art Collector catches up with Annie Kevans regarding her inclusion in this exhibition and her role in the art world.
Who has been your greatest influence on your style of painting? Why have they influenced you so?
My influences range from Goya and Breugel to Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, and the Chapman Brothers. I love memorable and exciting work which is brave in its message or style. I don’t look to art to soothe me or reassure me. I know aspects of the world are beautiful and I don’t need art to inject colour into my living room.
A lot of your works are paintings. Have you considered another medium?
In my second year of college I tried to paint some ‘evil’ children (Adolf Hitler, Fred West, Mary I and Al Capone) but I wasn’t happy with the results and decided to focus on photography. I thought about creating the series using this medium but it involved finding children to pose for the photos and, strangely, the work wouldn’t have had the same ring of truth about it as the paintings do. By that, I mean that I would have had to create photos that looked like genuine ones and this would have seemed deliberately deceitful. I decided to return to painting (still on canvas) and narrowed down the series to political leaders. Finally, I decided that the series worked best on oil-painting paper. Painting gives me freedom to explore ideas in a way I found impossible to do with photography.
Having said that, I am interested in experimenting with other media and recently donated a pair of antique boys’ shoes entitled ‘Adolf Hitler’s Shoes’ to the SONS Museum in Belgium. The shoes are displayed in a glass case and evoke little Adolf quite powerfully.
It is said that a lot of contemporary art is a response to and reflection of the world around us. Does your art fit in with this definition?
I was never interested in paintings of mountains or flowers. I have always been moved by work which features people or comments on the actions of people. One of my favourite paintings is Luc Tuymans’ painting of a gas chamber in Dachau which doesn’t feature anyone but makes you think of the people who died there and the people who built that dreadful place.
All my work is a response to the world around us and how we deal with our past and present, often rewriting history to fit an ideal. I once described my paintings as comments about the proverbial elephant in the room. My ‘Girls’ series looked at the media-led sexualisation of childhood. I depicted child stars such as Britney Spears and Brooke Shields and exhibited the works as posters in a little girl’s bedroom. The Britney duvet-covered bed was surrounded by tarty dolls and other toys marketed to appeal to little girls. The show was described as disturbing as it highlighted the blatant marketing of highly sexualized teenagers to young girls and the exploitation of all the children involved.
The work I showed in New York in 2010 (‘Manumission’) showed paintings of the slaves who are widely-believed to have had relationships and offspring with some of America’s most revered presidents. This was shortly after Obama had been elected as President and there was much talk of the first black family in the White House. Whilst everybody discussed the colour of the Obama family’s skin, there was little mention of the country’s history of slavery and the ongoing racial tensions in the US or the fact that previous presidents are believed to have had black children. An image can evoke a thousand thoughts.
What message do your works from the ‘Paper’ exhibition convey?
My ‘Boys’ series was a result of my research into images of children in art. I read a lot about the concept of ‘the innocent child’ and looked at how paintings of children are seen as taboo in contemporary art for their overly twee and feminine connotations – a no-go area for contemporary artists, unless the child is shown as sexualized and ‘knowing’. I wondered how those concepts could be brought together in paintings depicting people such as Hitler whose names are synonymous with ‘evil’.
Are the messages within your pieces directed at someone in particular, or just for society to think about?
They are comments about society, collective memory, ideals and coping mechanisms.
In an increasingly commercialised market, how does an artist maintain integrity?
A drunken art dealer once told me that there’s no such thing as the art world and that you should work with people you get on with and make that your art world. The problem is that, regardless of who you work with (if you choose to engage with commercial galleries at all, that is), success is generally seen in terms of the places you exhibit, the interest shown in your work and, for many people, the amount of money you make.
As an artist who regularly sells work, I know that, broadly speaking, there are two types of collectors: those who genuinely love my work and those who are investing in me. To many people, I am a commodity, whether I like it or not. A few years ago, I made the mistake of allowing a couple of young collectors to get too close to me. They were constantly asking me how many works I’d sold after each show I did, and trying to find out what my plans were. As soon as they thought I wasn’t selling as many works as I should be (my works had become considerably more expensive and the recession had kicked in) they were keen to sell my works, including the paintings I had given them! I learnt a lot from this painful experience and am now more aware of how some collectors see me. The spying process was comparable to businessmen scouring the papers for news relating to their stocks and shares!
Of course, to many gallerists you are just that: a commodity. Galleries are not charities, after all. I have had several dealers urge me to make bigger works using more expensive media and I am sure I will do this at some point but it won’t be because a dealer wants to make more money for himself. I have been happy to develop my small-scale works on paper for nine years, resisting suggestions to mount them on canvas on more than one occasion! Change needs to come naturally and you have to realise that gallerists have their own agendas. Dealers will urge an artist to take a new direction and stop working with the artist the moment that experiment fails. You have to navigate your way through this without making decisions you will regret. You have to be proud of your work.
I think artists who employ other artists to make their work for them are treading on very thin ice when it comes to integrity. I have visited studios where people are sitting around making work for very famous artists, which those artists might not even touch. It’s all about branding which I find very corporate. I like the work I buy to have the artist’s DNA all over it… not that of Sally Smith, 3rd year student at the RCA. I don’t understand people who buy that kind of art – is it just so they can say: “I have one of that artist’s works” regardless of who made it, or is it because they genuinely don’t know that someone else made the work?
How would you define your own style?
My paintings reflect my interests in power, manipulation and the role of the individual in inherited belief systems. It is important for me to examine the duality of truth and falsehood throughout my work, which I do by creating ‘portraits’ which may or may not be based on real documentation. I believe that a person’s identity is not preset but is a shifting temporary construction and my work tries to question our verdicts on history and perceptions of intellectual solidity. I use people’s familiarity with portraiture to imbue my works with truth and to explore difficult ideas. I believe that, as my work is concept driven, sometimes the actual similarity to the person depicted in the work is irrelevant.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
I think that to be an artist, you have to be prepared to swim against the tide. You need to understand that progress can be slow and that financial rewards are unlikely. You have to create art because you can’t live without making art. I have been fortunate but breaks are far and few between for many people. Most of the students I graduated with nine years ago have given up art completely. If you are really serious about being an artist, you have to think about how you will afford a studio (or spare room) and art materials, and what kind of job you can do to provide enough income and studio time for you to continue for years to come. These practicalities are what defeat many good artists but they can be overcome with a realistic approach to being an artist.
Making art by yourself can be a lonely experience. It may seem obvious, but it is important to have a few good friends with whom you can discuss your ideas and visit exhibitions. I am very fortunate to have two very good artist friends who have shared various studios with me for years (Tessa Farmer and Nicola Morrison). I call them ‘the oracles’ as they always seem to have the answers I am looking for!
If you do decide to work with commercial galleries you need to learn to be thick-skinned. Dealers will make you promises and coerce you into doing things that you feel are wrong and you have to remember that it is all about business for them. For you it is all about the art.