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An O.G. Punk's Advice for Making Art in Political Times

The famous Crass artist Gee Vaucher talks about activism and the way people adopt her 1989 work, 'Oh, America.'

by Beckett Mufson
14 December 2016, 3:50pm

Inside poster for Crass single, Bloody Revolutions, 1980, gouache, 430 x 290 mm. Images © Gee Vaucher, courtesy Firstsite

The legendary artist who put visuals to much of anarcho-pacifist punk trailblazers Crass' ideas and music, Gee Vaucher, got her first retrospective last month, gathering five decades of idealogically-resplendent artwork into one unified space. Vaucher's iconic album covers and set designs sparked a career of no-bullshit multimedia art and helped define the chaos-collage aesthetic of the punk movement.

The artist teamed up with the Firstsite gallery in Essex to display work across a variety of media in an exhibition called Gee Vaucher: Introspective. Alongside paintings, drawings, and collages from throughout her career, the show includes newly-released footage of her early performances with EXIT—the avant-garde precursor to Crass—and a new photographic and sound art inspired by New York City. 

Installation shot, Vaucher stands before two of her larger-than-life 'Portraits of Children Who Have Seen Too Much'

Among the pieces in Introspective is Oh, America, a 1989 painting that depicts New York's iconic Statue of Liberty abandoning her tome and torch to press her palms to her face. The image propagated across social media in the wake of the 2016 presidential election results, including the Instagram accounts of MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, personality @BoyGeorgeOfficial, and artists Wolfgang Tillmans, Dale GrimshawErik Madigan Heck, and more.

As an illustrator for The New Yorker and The New York Times in the 1970s, Vaucher has a deep understanding of how imagery can influence cultural conversation. She's a lifelong avant-gardist and activist, and was part of one of the most influential movements to resist Margaret Thatcher. She now lives in Dial House, the "open door, open heart" utopian Essex cottage members of Crass have called home since before their inception. We reached out to tap her experience of art mingling with politics, and learn about her new show at Firstsite.

Oh America, 1989, gouache, 230 x 230 mm

The Creators Project: Congratulations on getting your first major retrospective. Why was now the time to organize one and how did it come about?

Gee Vaucher: I was asked by Firstsite in Colchester if I would like to do a retrospective. I love hanging a show so said yes. There was no ‘why now?’ from me, I was just working away in the studio when approached with the idea.

Have you discovered anything new about your work seeing it displayed at Firstsite?

Not really. Maybe looking at old work I can see more that can be explored.

How has your creative process changed in recent years?

Well, it’s always changing and I never really know how. This last year spent getting the exhibition ready totally blew my time away. I’m happier now I am getting near to being in the studio again and playing around. 

Like most artists I’ll fiddle around with lining the pencils up for the hundredth time but then, once a mark is made the magical journey begins again and who knows what medium I might end up using to get whatever it is I’m trying to convey. In that respect my creative process hasn’t changed much.

Installation shot

What rules do you set up for yourself when making art? 

I like to get into the studio by 2 PM when I’m busy on a series. I love doing a lot of other things so have to include them in my life as well, especially gardening, it’s where I can let my head roam.

What tools or ways of thinking do you rely on?

I don’t really have anything I rely on, unless you count gardening and walking on the fields as reliance, I certainly need that space in my head. I love being and sharing with people but I also love my own company.

Installation shot

Your 1989 painting, Oh, America, was shared prolifically on social media, having captured how a lot of us felt when we woke up to President Elect Trump. Can you explain the background of the painting and how it connects to last week's political events?

Last time that image surfaced in a big way in America was 2001, when it was used as a comment on the sorrow of 9/11. This time it seems to have expressed, for some, the horror of having Trump as president. Or is it shame? 

In the end we will always use and make images say what we want, but then, that is the beauty of art. Maybe the next time that image is used in the USA it will be seen as Liberty giggling. 

Cover for International Anthem No.2 - Domestic Violence, 1979, collage, 340 x 270 mm

It's been a confusing month-and-a-half for many politically-active youth in America. What's the mood like at Dial House?

No different. Calm, inspiring, and beautiful.

Do you have any advice for young artists who want to get involved in politics?

Whatever you do, never lose sight of what’s inside you, the creator, and of what you are about to do and share. No matter what is dangled at you from the outside don’t be corrupted by the very thing you might despise. Even if you have to do the job to survive, put something of your own feelings in it. Do not sell your heart and soul.

Installation shot

Gee Vaucher: Introspective is on display at Firstsite through February 19, 2017.

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