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Interview with Charles Thomson

Self Portrait with Paintbrush
by Charles Thomson

Near Amsterdam, Holland, and slightly more conservative, is the city of Eindhoven, which now houses one of the latest and largest museums, covering art over the last 100 years; the Van Abbemuseum has a strong collection of 20th century art and a true commitment to contemporary work. At the time I was there, visiting from America, an exhibition from the Istanbul biennials was displaying conceptual art over the last 18 years, such as the "Turk Truck" by Huseyin Alptekin.

But is this really art? The Stuckists would probably say no. Stuckism is an anti-conceptualist art movement founded in England 7 years ago by Charles Thomson and Billy Childish. Hundreds of thousands of pounds are paid out of public funds for conceptual art in the public galleries of London annually, such as giant sharks in formaldehyde (Hirst) and map-pin paintings of monkeys sitting on elephant dung (Ofili). In this "Britart" climate, conceptual art has been espoused as the pinnacle of modern expression and more traditional art and artists have been marginalized. "Painting is the medium of yesterday" said Paul Myners chairman of the Tate Britain Gallery. When I next traveled to London I met up with Charles. Sitting on the upper level of a double decker bus he gave me a short interview:

What happens next for Stuckism?
Well it might be time to end it, which is actually a serious consideration; we've been doing this for 7 years, and so the art world has changed (certainly in London) considerably in that time. In 1999 our position was that we were promoting painting and opposing Britart as promoted by Charles Saatchi; now in 2005, Charles Saatchi is promoting painting, following the lead we set as the future of art.

Thomson is referring to the recent exhibition –"The Triumph of Painting" displayed in the Saatchi Gallery, a series of exhibitions featuring the work of 40 new artists, none of whom are Stuckist.
We predicted that painting was the way forward. Edward Lucie-Smith, a distinguished critic, has said Saatchi is following our lead. So where does Stuckism go? -- Well the art world has become Stuckist.

I wondered if you didn't feel at least some level of success in your struggles against the establishment.
Well yes there is, not that we've benefited from it, I think there is, and I think historically we'll be recognized but it can't be seen at the moment. It's like the first cubist show, which was staged without Picasso and Braque in it. It was staged by the followers; they left them out, Its as Billy Childish my co-founder of stuckism said: the first mouse doesn't get the cheese, the first mouse gets caught in the trap. The second mouse gets the cheese. And that seems to be the case. So where does stuckism go? I've been doing so much work promoting it for the last 6 ½ years, I need a change for one thing. There are certain inner tensions as well… I'm inclined to think that this defines a historic period and it might be best to keep our fate in our hands as we have done all along and possibly to say January 28th 2006 will be exactly 7 years of stuckism to the day and to define it as a 7 year movement that changed art in this country and has done its job and so we go into a post-Stuckist period. That's still in discussion phase at the moment and if you print it, it will be the first time its gone into publication anywhere that this is a possible next step.

In doing research about Stuckism and the story your life, one of the things I was curious about was; what's the next step for Charles Thomson?
Huh…that is a very difficult question to answer. I suppose now that I'm 52 and I have gone through a huge amount of variation and change in my life I'm beginning to understand the nature of it and change is sort of presaged by a feeling of repetition, a habitual action which needs to be stopped…I've become quicker and quicker at picking up the signs of when I need to change and I need to change. Exactly what those changes are going to be I'm not sure. The last seven years of Stuckism have shown me a lot of things. I think one of the things that has happened is that I've become deeper internally and less motivated externally, so for example, when Stuckism started I was certainly a lot more interested in the commercial side of art, a lot more interested in the media /P.R. side of art than I am now. My interest in that has diminished hugely. I am interested in being true to myself and ironically, being Stuckist has helped me to grow a lot, so I think the manifestos have helped me to see things about my own life and maybe point more strongly to certain things which I'm now finding are the most valuable things. I am interested in being creative, doing things. I'm not necessarily interested in being "out there" in the public eye. I'm not necessarily interested in making a point against people who are doing things I don't like, I'm more interested in concentrating on doing the things I do like, so I'm writing at the moment. I always used to do poetry and art when I was in college in 1979 and then in 1982, I gave up painting and did poetry full time. Then in 1997 I took up painting again and gave up poetry, now I'm actually writing prose quite a lot, not fiction, more like documentary ideas, things about the art world, which is quite refreshing because its a new thing to master. There are a lot of factors that come into it, I mean where I live is one. I was living in Finchley and then moved to Shoreditch and did the Stuckism gallery for three years and then in February of this year I was back in Finchley again in a quieter house, which encourages a more contemplative approach to life. Although having said that, I suppose when I was in Finchley before, the quietness encouraged me to do something exciting and do media stuff whereas now I'm taking advantage of the quietness to do things that require thinking a lot, such as writing.

Then are you finding more joy and fulfillment in this stage of your life?
I suppose I am but in every stage I try and get the maximum I can out of it, its just that as time goes on, I think if you're living life in the right way you jettison more baggage and become more attuned to yourself and who you really are, therefore things are better, so I suppose I am getting more enjoyment out of things. I now feel more at peace with myself, more directed, clearer about what I'm doing.

One thing I realized when I was looking at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia: an entry about me and some things on it, made me realize what a huge amount of things I've done in my life, and the huge amount of things I've done in the six and a half years with Stuckism, including the many shows, the major one at the Walker Gallery, launching the whole thing, running the web site, having over a hundred groups in 30 countries in the world, standing for parliament, reporting Charles Saatchi to the office of fair trading and trying to get information out of the Tate Gallery under the Freedom of Information Act. There just seems to be so many things one could write down on the list. I seem to live life very intensely and it doesn't feel like that, it just seems natural. For example, when I was doing the Walker show I could quite easily be talking to somebody on the phone for an hour or two talking to them about ideas and what we need to do and they would be absolutely exhausted and then I would go on and talk to the next person for an hour or two and they would be exhausted. I'd have six exhausted people and I would be still thinking who's the seventh person I need to talk to and I just seem to have this amazing drive. At one point during the Walker show when we were arranging it, I worked two days non–stop without any sleep and had about four hours the next night, and then worked the next night without sleep and there's this incredible energy and I don't know where it came from. It's just like tuning into some other power and I know when the Walker thing finished, the energy just went as if someone had just turned the switch off. After stopping, I do have my fallow periods where I just completely lounge around and don't do anything and don't feel compelled to do anything and I think that's an important thing, other wise I would burn out.

12 Oct 2005

Interview by Enka. Enka lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A. where he works full time as a multi-media artist and a spiritual healer.