When I first checked out London painter Cosmo Sarson’s website, his About section simply said “I’m up and out of bed, what more do you want?” In fact, it may still say that. But clearly Cosmo is a man with a lot to talk about when it comes to about his life and work, because he’s spilled the story for us hereAnd if you like what you read, be sure to stop by the Hospital Club in Covent Garden where his work is on display until December 2011.
Read on to hear about how this born and bred Londoner’s artistic life has unfolded, the story behind his recent street art piece on Hanbury Street near Brick Lane which has gotten so much attention, and his passion for breakdancing.
LLO: Which aspects of London life most influence your creativity and in what ways?
CS: I was born and bred in London, so I am a product of the old town.
If you’ve grown up here you’re just wizend, not jaded, just experienced. You’re not from the provinces trying to tap into it, you’ve got it already. You’ve already been to the best clubs. You were there when it happened, heard the latest tune, seen the latest show, met the latest ‘Jonny Big Bollocks’, bought the latest trainers, tried the latest drug. You did it when you were 13. You’ve been ripped off a million times, maybe tried to rip some one else off, pulled a few yourself on the way, you’re just a product of an urban environment. It’s a big city, full of nutters, there’s good and bad, racist homophobic fucks and beautiful enlightened beings, people who have got it and those that don’t, a city of light and shade. How does that affect your creativity? I don’t know.
The fact that London has some of the finest theatres, operas, museums, galleries and fancy restaurants in Christendom is, of course, a bonus.
LLO: You have three different sections on your website: “New Work” “Old Work” and simply “Work”. Do these sections represent different chapters of your career, places where your style has changed?
CS: I stopped painting and hung up my brushes in ’97 after my solo show on Regent Street. This is Old Work.
I blew the dust off them again in 2009. This is New work.
“Work” is how I make money.
Being an artist isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and it only pays for the lucky few, so you’ve got to work out how to survive and paint at the same time.
In the long gap between ’97 to ’09 I set out to find a career that fulfilled me creatively as well as paid well. It wasn’t easy to work 9-5 and keep the studio going. I found work as an art director in advertising for a while, before finding my way into the film industry as a scenic artist. I paint everything from the large scenic backings that surround a set, to old master paintings that are hung as props, from frescoes to graffiti, from medieval to modern. I can make my art again because I’ve got a job that is sufficiently intermittent but pays enough to allow me to get in the studio when I’m in between films.
I’ve got the balance right now, I’m painting when I’m working, and painting when I’m not.
LLO: In your “Old Work” section, you explore the crazy world of advertising campaigns, and parody them in your own work. Tell us a bit about your interest in advertising.
CS: Yeah, at the time – around ’95-’97 – street/extreme sports was a big thing in the media. It had always been there, but as an underground thing. Suddenly there were loads of programmes about it on TV, it was featured in fashion magazines, music videos, new specialist magazines were coming out, ad campaigns and so on. It was the flavour of the da. It became a cash cow and hit the mainstream. Kind of like street art is now, everyone wanted a piece of it.
When Pepsi started trying to connect with the my generation by doing loads of snowboarding/skateboarding ads, it was the last straw. I tried to hold it up to the light and draw attention to it by repeating the trick, painting what were essentially ads with street sports as the subject matter and my name as a logo. I look back at that work now and I’m not sure if I really pulled it off. The paintings look more like self promotion (which was kind of the point), but I was trying to say something deeper, more cynical than that. I was trying to be ironic. I should have pushed that work further.
LLO: Your piece “Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey” is painted on to the same material that US Army uniforms are made from. What other interesting materials have you painted on? Do you have a favourite?
CS: I’ve just done a series of riot cops onto hi-viz reflective material, the same stuff they have on police uniforms. In the same way the army camo related to the GI’s I was painting, the hi-viz refers back to the subject matter. I’m planning to rummage through some charity shops and stitch together a bunch of clothing – tracksuit tops, hoodies, denim etc. and paint loads of looters from the riots. It just provides an extra layer of reference to the work.
Actually, I might do some shop lifting instead. “Portrait of a Looter” – Oil on Adidas Jacket, stolen on Tottenham High Street, 2011.
LLO: When you’re not painting, you’re into break-dancing, right? How long have you been dancing? What’s your best move?
CS: I love it, but I’m crap. I started in ’83. We used to turn up early to school so we could practice on the lino floors of the rooms before class.
I’m famous for pulling off a 3/4 windmill on my face when I’m pissed. I still bear the scars, but every wedding reception I go to, I keep making the same mistake.
LLO: You’ve done quite a bit of work on film sets – Into the Hoods, Harry Brown, Children of Men. Which film set of the past would you love to have helped design?
CS: I’m lucky enough to have worked with some of the best production designers around – John Beard who designed ‘Brazil’, Dante Ferretti who designed ‘Baron Munchausen’ – but one guy I never met was Ken Adam who did all the early Bond films, Dr Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. No etc. That would have been cool.
LLO: Much of your work is based on photographs. Which London-based photographers do you most admire and why?
CS: Right now, it’s my man David Hoffman. He’s a front line photo journalist who’s had his teeth knocked out by riot police getting ‘that’ picture. He’s been kind enough to allow me to work from his shots of the Student Riots.
You should check out some of his early stuff too – Brick lane in the ‘80’s, Broadwater farm and the Poll Tax riots.
LLO: You were recently featured in the Scrawl Collective’s book with your piece “Breakdancing Jesus”. Tell us a bit about how this piece came about.
CS: The Breakdancing Jesus painting was one of the ideas I had and held onto during the dark 12 years I didn’t have a studio. I promised myself that it would be one of the first paintings I would make upon my eventual return. (I was also sitting on the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey idea through that time too).
My last paintings of ’97 were self portraits of me breakdancing, so like Jesus coming out of the cave, it was kind of apocryphal that I should return from the dead also, and to the same subject matter, but with Christ risen in my place.
But really, it was just one of those random ideas.
LLO: Your career actually started as a street artist, didn’t it? Tell us about the piece you put up on Hanbury Street near Brick Lane this summer. Can we expect more street art from you in the coming months?
CS: No, I’m not really a street artist. I’m just a painter who occasions upon a wall. I went to art school, studied the old masters and trained in the ancient art of oil painting.
There’s a strange dichotomy down brick lane, where the art is like some kind of white middle class cultural invasion pushing itself on to what is obviously a tight knit Bangladeshi community and I felt that needed redressing somehow. It’s a portrait of a Bangladeshi girl in front of broken glass and layered graff marks. She represents the local Bangladeshi community, the broken glass and mark making are symbolic of urban decay. Bear in mind I was painting it as the riots were kicking off.
They’ll be more walls to come, for sure, when and wherever I find the opportunity.
LLO: What are you working on now? Any exhibition plans lined up for the near future?
CS: I’ve just spent the last few months on a film that has thankfully come to an end and allows me to disappear into the studio now and come up with a new body of work. I’ve currently got a rack of paintings on show in the Hospital Club, Endell Street, Covent Garden, alongside the likes of Inkie, Ben Slow, George Morton Clark, Finn Dac, Max Weidemann and Carne Griffiths.
The ultimate aim is a solo.
You can also find Cosmo here: http://www.cosmosarson.com/
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