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Neal Fox "Drawing about sex, death, space and time"

Jonathan Wellington and renowned artist Neal Fox discuss social media existentialism, simulation theory, and reptilian politicians

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Image Credit: Neal Fox (all images for this page)

From Donald Trump to Theresa May, from David Bowie to Sam Fender, Neal Fox has drawn countless cultural icons and politicians within his art. As an accomplished artist and founding member of LE GUN collective, Neal’s success suggests that his already impressive career has only just scratched the surface of what this artist has to offer. Admittedly showing some of the aforementioned figures more favourably than others (politicians do not tend to come out well), every piece of art Neal creates he does with his own individual brand of idiosyncratic imagery and beautifully unique style.

I therefore start the interview on the topic of this distinct and brilliant style, asking the artist how he would go about describing his style to someone without simply showing them his work. His response: “I always find that difficult so I like to say something a bit over the top like.. they are drawings about sex, death, space and time...” before adding that “when people actually see the work they are usually relieved that it’s not that heavy.” Despite maybe not being as dramatic as that description and the headline might suggest, there is certainly something about Neal’s art which distinguishes it from more conventional styles. I ask what drew the artist towards the unorthodox as opposed to the traditional. “I can see what you mean about it being a certain style, but to me it’s just the way I naturally draw.” Asking about what then influenced this, Neal explains that “when I was a very young kid, like five or six, I used to be shown psychedelic underground comics from the 60s by an artist called Les Coleman who had a huge collection.”

Neal also attributes his inspiration to the large amounts of surrealist art and pop art that his dad showed him as a child, before adding Tintin books, “some pretty out there exploitation video nasties” his cousin had, 2 000AD comics, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life to this unusual list of what “warped” his brain. “Because I was a compulsive drawer it merged together into how I look at the world.”

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Moving away from the many, somewhat controversial, factors that changed and moulded his mind, I ask Neal which individual artists have played a role in influencing him and his work: “lately I’m interested in film noir directors and the atmosphere they created after the trauma of World War Two. A lot of them were German directors who fled the Nazis and came from an expressionist background. I’m very influenced by artists like George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beck - mann who were denounced as degenerate artists by the Nazis. Also, I’m reading about Vincent Van Gogh at the moment; he was my age when he moved out to a remote village to paint, and cut off his ear.” Neal, who has coincidentally made a very similar move to the Greek island of Amorgos for his art, then adds “I’d better take it easy on the absinthe.”

When I ask about this array of pop culture references in his work, Neal gives a surprising answer by simply saying “it evolved from drawing my grandad.” The artist explains that “I was drawing scenes from his life when I was a teenager. He died when I was four and is a kind of mythical character in my family. He was a bomber pilot, a writer, a publisher, a chat show host on TV. His name was John Watson and he wrote a famous war novel called Johnny Kinsman . There used to be photos around my gran’s house of him with people like Cary Grant and Walt Disney, and with his plane Z for Zombie in World War Two. Gradually, I started to draw him on an imaginary journey, on another plane of reality, meeting people from history and pop culture who I wanted to meet myself. So he could be in a bar in Paris with Serge Gainsbourg or at a cabaret in Berlin with David Bowie.”

Neal reflects that “really he’s me, and I’m taking whatever excites me from books or music or other culture and making connections ... bringing these people and ideas to life for myself ... then hopefully I’m creating portals into other dimensions where anything is possible. I like the idea that we are all consciousness living in the theatre of reality. There’s this theory now that we are living in a virtual reality game from the future. Drawing is like an early version of virtual reality, where we created imaginary worlds for ourselves, when we drew on the walls of caves and told stories around the campfire.”

Aside from popular culture, politics and political figures also regularly feature in Neal’s works. When I ask how he sees the relationship between art and politics he answers somewhat profoundly that, “I think with art there is the possibility of creating an ungovernable space where anything is possible. My friend Peter Bach is a documentary filmmaker and he told me he likes my drawings because they are inclusive. They are about friendship and cosmic connections between all kinds of different people. Maybe in a world where hatred and fear are being used to manipulate and divide people, art that is positive about humans and the imagination can have some kind of effect.” Rather less seriously, Neal then adds “it’s also fun to draw Trump as a giant tentacled blob monster attacking New York.”

The president of the US is far from the only political figure to feature in Neal’s work, however. A recent poster for Fat White Family, illustrated by Neal, shows guitarist Saul Adamczewski disguised as Theresa May sitting with Boris Johnson’s head on a spike, David Cameron engaging in a sexual act with a pig while simultaneously being massacred with a chainsaw by a band member, and another band member inserting a grenade into the mouth of Margaret Thatcher’s corpse. When I ask if he ever wonders what politicians such as Donald Trump or Theresa May would think about his work and his depictions of them, he answers “I think they’re the kind of reptiles who probably don’t even register art when it’s in front of their eyes,” before adding that he thinks “they’ve probably never read a book.”

Neal then references “the old Nazi quote ‘when I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver’” and argues that it could easily be attributed to them. He then states that in regards to the aforementioned poster, that he rather enjoyed making it.

Continuing on from the fictional massacring of the Tory party, I question how Neal thinks that his work has evolved over time. “That’s a difficult one to answer,’’ the artist ad - mits before deciding that “hopefully it’s always evolving. For the last few years I’ve been living in different countries, bringing different cultures into the drawings. I’ve become more and more interested in the history of mythology and mysticism. At the moment I’m living on a remote Greek island, and collaborating with a poet called Jeremy Reed. I send him drawings and he sends me poems, and we respond to each other back and forth. “The different figures from my past drawings have all followed me to the island by boat. They have washed up here and I’m drawing scenes with them, in a kind of psychedelic noir landscape. The term ‘psychedelic’ comes from the Greek words psyche (soul) and dēloun (to reveal) ... to reveal the soul. This island is strongly influenced by Dionysus, one of my favourite gods, the god of wine, sex, madness and theatre. I have a battle going on between him and Apollo the god of reason a lot of the time, and that is playing out in my drawings here. Jack Kerouac is drinking with femme fatales at the local taverna, and Lou Reed is playing guitar under an olive tree.”

There are certainly a lot of art pieces and projects that we should be expecting to see from Neal in the near future, but at this point in his career I ask whether there is a particular piece that stands out from his collection as a favourite and why. “One of my favourites is probably a drawing called ‘Kill Lies All,’ about the time Picasso was visited in his studio by the Gestapo. Another is called ‘Lust for Life,’ about Bowie and Iggy Pop writing the song together in Berlin.” As reasoning, Neal adds “I think I like them because they are single moments in time, but they are exploding and making all kinds of connections.”
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These may be his favourites, but a lot of the attention that Neal is receiving at the minute seems to be from his work with Tyneside musician Sam Fender. In light of this work, I ask how this partnership came about. Neal explains that “my cousin Owain is his manager. He discovered Sam a few years ago playing at a pub called The Lowlights in North Shields where he worked. He asked me to do a poster for Sam when he wasn’t very well known, and it took off from there.” Neal adds “it’s interesting to see how fast someone can get famous.”

When I ask if this is a partnership Neal hopes to continue he says “I like it because I am pretty much free to draw whatever I want ... it’s evolved into a kind of surreal Geordie Toon world, with different characters recurring ... it’s become stage visuals and animation, and the band are even getting tattoos of the drawings. I am happy to keep doing it as long as Sam wants me to ... he’s a cool guy and I like his music a lot. I love a bit of Springsteen and Sam is heavily influenced by the Boss.”

Neal Fox is also a part of LE GUN collective with fellow illustrators Bill Bragg, Chris Bianchi, Robert Rubbish, and Steph von Reiswitz, as well as designers Alex Wright and Matthew Appleton. According to their website, the collective claims to “create idiosyncratic imagery, which blends a punk, occult, pop and surrealist aesthetic.” When I ask how this collective came into existence, Neal explains that “we met at the Royal College of Art in London in 2004 ... we used to drink and draw together and raised money to publish our own magazine about drawing. Somehow we are still doing it, the latest magazine came out this year. It became about more than the magazine, a lot of parties, exhibitions, giant 3D installations ... it was like a strange traveling carnival of ink drawing from Brussels to Beijing. The latest issue is about a world gone mad ... a response to the crazy times we are living in.”

Moving towards his perspective on the arts more generally, I ask the artist how he sees the growing role of social media within the arts scene. He admits to finding the “social media stuff pretty weird” saying “I went on Instagram to put my drawings on there and find myself getting addicted to it sometimes ... looking at garbage. It’s like it’s replacing daydreaming, people are putting their interior world outside for everyone to see. I would like to get off it but it seems pretty important for getting your work out there these days. I fear we are all being slowly turned into cyborgs, who will become controlled by some kind of all seeing artificial intelligence in the future.” When I ask about how else he sees the role of art changing in society Neal states “I think art is important when everything is becoming homogenised ... for trying to stay in touch with the magic in the universe.”

I start to bring the interview to an end by asking if there’s anything Neal would like to plug and he refers back to a lot of what we’ve discussed. “The latest issue of LE GUN is out now in all good bookshops and on our website legun.co.uk ... I’m working on an exhibition which will be at Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve in Paris next June, and on visuals for Sam Fender’s upcoming tour.”

How I will end this interview, however, is with Neal’s rather beautiful answer to my question of whether he had any advice for aspiring artists. Neal quotes writer J.G. Ballard in his response by saying “be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them; let them guide you like a sleepwalker.”

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