Artist's Favourites by Simon Fujiwara

Simon Fujiwara

All of these artists are dead. I have selected them because they have all in one way or another become material for my own artworks. Many of these artists lived or worked in St Ives in England, which was my hometown from the age of four to sixteen. This sleepy seaside holiday village was once a global art hub. Artists who were escaping from the Second World War and its subsequent traumas found refuge in this idyll, but by the time I was there, little of this progressive legacy was left. In 1993, when I was eleven years old, this special rural art history was enshrined in a Tate museum that landed in the middle of the village, right next to the beach. In 2012, I had a retrospective at the same museum, including many but not all of the following artists.

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Patrick Heron’s Horizontal Stripe Painting: November 1957 – January 1958 was the first piece of modern art I saw in person and it turned me gay. I was eleven when I saw it at the Tate St Ives’ inaugural exhibition. Entranced by the rich colours and dripping white oils, I felt a sea change taking place inside me. I was not aware of what it meant until years later, when I tried to write a play about the experience. Never staged, its subject was the impossibility of portraying how an abstract painting could evoke sexual realisations in a pubescent boy. In The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, Lacan suggests that children seek mirrors to form their identities and that during puberty this becomes sexualized. As the first abstract painting I’d ever seen, perhaps the absence of figuration and of gender was a mirror to my closeted pubescent self.

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Alfred Wallis is the earliest artist I can remember, which is fitting for his infantile style of painting. Wallis spent his life working as a fisherman and mariner in St Ives and started painting at 70, “to keep himself company” after the death of his wife. Choosing subjects such as the local streets, seafaring quests, shipwrecks and other tragedies, his flattened paintings on discarded cardboard and other found objects became an inspiration to a more sophisticated group of St Ives artists who began to make work in a “naivist” style. Although Wallis never intended to exhibit his work as an artist, the Tate attempted to stage an exhibition. This was, however, met with constant frustrations, such as an incident in which Wallis gave an entire collection of works intended for exhibition to a local children’s home, in order to “brighten it up”.

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Hepworth had triplets and decided to homeschool them, setting up a nursery school in her St Ives studio. I was raised in the kindergarten that my mother started in our kitchen at home, just two kilometers away from Hepworth’s studio. Her work was everywhere in St Ives, but when I was growing up, this formal sculpture meant nothing to me. Her public sculptures were a place to hang out or rest cheap cider bottles on. More inspiring were the tales of Hepworth’s wild parties, often laced with myths of sexual outrage that shocked the sleepy village. She died in her shed, which she set on fire by smoking in bed. The teachers at our school thought this would be an example to us, and it was, but not for the right reasons. Now I like her sculptures too.

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In 1959, Bacon was sent to St Ives by his gallerist, who believed that the quiet, healthy lifestyle would do him good. He lasted only six months and his outwardly homosexual manner and affairs became notorious in the town. Bacon thought that most of what was emerging from St Ives was rubbish and he made no secret of it. His criticisms focused on Patrick Heron, claiming that his stripe paintings were mere decoration for interior designers. There was a grain of truth in Bacon’s accusations. The stripe paintings’ coloured bars were printed on Ikea bedding in the 1990s and reproductions appear in numerous homes and hotels. But it seems that Bacon may have had another motive for criticising the artist’s work: envy. Back in London and within a year, Bacon adopted the horizontal stripe technique as a backdrop for his own erotic, often genderless nudes.

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The only thing I ever wanted to do was to leave St Ives, to leave England. Tales of artists who moved to far-flung, exotic places inspired me, and I devoured their biographies as a teenager. Edna Manley was one such British artist who left Britain to settle in Jamaica in 1922 with her husband Norman, who would later found the People’s National Party. Despite her status as a white, English woman, her close relation to power allowed her to push her artistic agenda, establishing the first national museum in the West Indies in Kingston. For me, her most famous work, Negro Aroused (1935), is a troubling piece of colonial history (Manley sculpted animals in English zoos before turning to humans upon arrival in Jamaica). Yet her work is a document of the perversities of identity and power in early 20th century globalisation.

 

In his expansive installations, Simon Fujiwara (born 1982 in London) employs the theatrical strategies of scientific museums, linking historical persons and events with fictional phenomena and autobiography. In this, he slips into roles such as anthropologist, architect or erotic novelist. His most recent solo shows have taken place at Kunstverein Braunschweig, Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, and Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City.