INTERVIEW BY ANDY CAPPER, IMAGES BY GEE VAUCHER
Child 1, 2007.
Gee Vaucher was a member of Crass and is a genius who made some of the most iconic punk rock artwork ever.
Her style of collage and painting has been ripped off by roughly 890,786 other artists on their crap album sleeves.
Gee is a co-resident of Dial House in Epping Forest, Essex, alongside Penny Rimbaud, who we spoke to in the Anti-Music Issue. We’ve been friendly for a number of years but our previous requests to have her in the magazine have always been met with a polite but firm no.
The first time we asked her was after we’d sent her a copy of a Photo Issue which we were particularly proud of and she said something like, “Well, I was looking at all this stuff in your magazine and I just thought, this is all total crap.”
The last time we hung out was at the Raindance Film Festival, after she’d kindly helped get our films Swansea Love Story and the Vice Guide to Liberia into the festival selection.
At the Q&A following the screening, Gee loudly asked, “Yeah, well it’s all very well doing these films about poor people in Liberia but why don’t you do something about it, starting off by putting your hand in your pocket?”
Gee, who is in her mid-60s, is currently working on a series of paintings of children, which she stores in a cowshed along with the cows. We had a talk about Dagenham, Charles Saatchi buying people’s souls, and the dangers of communal living.
Vice: Let’s talk about the new work you’ve just done.
Gee Vaucher: They’re very big, seven feet square, portraits of children that have seen too much too soon. I’ve tried to make them non-gender-specific. You draw your own conclusions really. I love the tenacity of children. Even though they’re confronted with horrific situations, they somehow get through it and find that there’s more to life.
Did you paint them from memory or make them up yourself?
I tend to collage things together, then I paint the collage. There’s a couple that were straight pictures that I found but obviously they’re not reproductions. My work is never the same twice—it goes from prints to sculpture to paint on canvas.
What started you on the path to collages?
I was working in New York at the time. I was doing very detailed painting.
A lot of people thought the original Crass works, things like 1978’s Feeding of the 5000, were collages.
Yeah, but they were paintings. The collages started when I found that I couldn’t deliver a job overnight—they wanted a ten-foot by nine-foot painting or whatever, and it’s impossible. So I took some short cuts and started combining short cuts with painting. I really liked what looked like paintings that were collage, so it really came of necessity, and then I started working with it on my own without a commission.
Penny Rimbaud, San Francisco, 2008.
How come you were in New York at the time?
I was there really because I’d been living in one place most of my life—at Dial House, where I still live. I needed to get some distance. I thought, well, if I’m going to work within the system I’d rather do it in New York than London because at the time as an illustrator in London you were treated like shit. You were expected to illustrate someone else’s crappy idea, which was not my idea of fun. New York was very different, very respectful. I was working as a political illustrator so I was given some fantastic work to do.
I covered things like corruption of school photos and how the parents had to buy them and how much for, for the New York Times, so that was kind of nice. It was very much carte blanche: they’d give you the story to read and left you to it. Now I’m never one for doing preliminary stuff, but they said, “Go away and do a preliminary drawing and let us see what it’s like” and I was like, “No way.” So I just did the finished piece and they really loved it. So it went from there. It got heavier in subject—it went to Freddie Cowen, a Nazi sympathiser who lived with his mum and one day he took his collection of guns and started shooting people from the top of a building before killing himself. Then I did Carlos the Jackal. I had to do an illustration after he took a shot at [Joseph] Sieff, the [British] Zionist leader.
I did a lot of work for the New York Times magazine and then for magazines like Ebony, which I really enjoyed because there were a lot of black issues and I got on with the staff and it was a nice challenge. I also did some work for High Times.
What was it like in the UK compared to the States?
They were very tight on what you could do and in the end I decided not to do any illustration work that demanded imagination. I just did work on the life cycle of an oyster, for example, technical stuff.
I don’t really like working with people I don’t like—I just won’t do it, what’s the point? It’s a nightmare. I like to meet the people who I’m doing a job for and more often than not that’s perfectly possible. Sometimes it’s not but you get a dialogue over the Atlantic and you speak with them, they send you their ideas—I haven’t got a problem with that. Some of it you do for nothing because they’ve got nothing.
Have you ever had an agent?
No. I’m not interested in all that. I’m happy with my work, I’m happy I can get by with it and I get really excited when people offer me a space to work in because I love putting up a show. What more can I want, really? I’ve got a few things for sale. I’m not trying to make a million.
Over the last 20 years the art market has gone bananas.
It always does in recession. It’s the one thing that never goes down.
Inside Head, 2009. With your experience of the art world, did you see a change when the likes of Charles Saatchi came in and commercialised art?
Well, it wasn’t so much the commercialisation of art, it’s more, “Here go the bastards again.” It’s a bit like taking a young band and making them into a commodity, making them stars, and when you’re that young you can’t handle it. They dangle a big carrot in front of you with fame on one side and money on the other, and the minute you step out of that they drop you like a ton of bricks. That happened to a lot of people from Goldsmiths. Saatchi bought up a whole year and then dropped the lot. I think a lot of really good artists got fucked over. Young people see art as a means of being a star now. You cannot sell your soul, and I think Saatchi bought a lot of souls. That’s not acceptable. OK, a couple of people have come out of it well but a lot have fallen by the wayside. It’s very hard to make a living off your work. I’ve been very fortunate all my life, I’ve made money off my work but I don’t have any expectations. As long as I’ve got my fucking studio and I can get in there with some materials, then that’s great. And if I haven’t got any material I’ll go out into the street and find some, for fuck’s sake.
Can you give me a bit of background on why you became an artist?
Well, it’s the usual old thing really—when you’re a kid into art and you don’t give it up and keep doing it.
And you grew up in?
Dagenham. Everyone’s mum or dad worked at Ford or Allied Trades so the school really tried to keep you off the street and prepare you for jobs there. We only had two outings but it was a gas for me because the factories were beautiful. You went out onto the factory floor and looked out onto these vats about half the size of this room full of colours, lipstick colours, I loved it. It didn’t entice me to work at Yardley though, but it was a great visual thing. Then I just applied to go to the local art school and got in on the merit of my work. In those days, if you had a great portfolio of work and nothing else, you’d still get in. When I speak to kids about art a lot of them say they’re going to do a PhD in art and I always say, “Would Picasso fuck about with a PhD? Why don’t you just get on with it?” The only reason you go to art school is for the materials. When I went to art school everything was free. Nowadays I don’t know how people can afford it. I couldn’t have done it coming out of Dagenham now with the sort of income my parents had. I think it’s awful.
As a child, what would you say had an influence on your artistic sensibility? Were your parents dragging you to galleries?
No, I never saw any of that. We only had one set of books and that was Charles Dickens. I used to copy a lot of things out of the newspapers and magazines and I remember at school once a teacher said to me, “You should stop copying and do something for yourself.” I was quite shocked and I didn’t know what to do. I entered a painting into a competition but I got disqualified because it had writing on it. It was a painting of the Last Supper in a cave with Christ standing there with blue skin and someone was sat at the table with a sign saying “Ban the Bomb”, and I got disqualified. I wish I had it now, all the table was green, it was very odd. But then I did win some things from somewhere else. I won a “How to Draw” book as a prize once, which was great—that was the end of entering competitions.
What happened after you left art school?
I worked for three days a week in an arts day centre in Barking where schools would come and do art for the day. I was like a technician.
Were you living at Dial House at this point?
I’d got my own place about two miles down the road from Dial House. I decided not to move in with the gang, I wanted to be independent. But after a while I moved into Dial House. It seemed a bit pointless moving Hoovers and lawnmowers up and down the road.
When did it become clear that you were going to do all the artwork for Crass?
Well, you know me, I’m terrible—you give me an inch and I’ll take a yard. I love working with people and I’ve had to learn to pull back really because if someone makes a suggestion I’ll run with it and that can be a bit off-putting for some people. At the time I’d been doing work for the International Anthem newspaper and doing my own work and I don’t really remember how it worked out. I just got back and I just did it, kept doing it and keep doing it. But I imagine I bulldozed and got on with it. I just get an idea and I have to do it, I’m very quick. It’s hard for people who aren’t so quick but still have equally valid ideas. But now I’m beginning to think, sod it. That’s another reason why I like working alone because I don’t like being controlled in any way, I’m very choosy. If someone doesn’t give me some leeway I can’t be arsed.
Have you ever gone through with a job where people have pressured you into altering your work?
I left New York because it was beginning to show that my work was becoming unacceptable. I did alter one piece and I felt a bit unclean afterwards and I told myself if that happened again I was out of here. And it did happen again, for New York Magazine; actually they wouldn’t even use the piece. So it was time to go. My life has been very linked with serendipity; the band had just been over, things started to happen with the work—it was just a very good time to go. I’ve been very fortunate in that way. I’ll be stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nothing and suddenly someone will step out of the bushes and offer me some help.
Are you religious or superstitious in any way?
Well, religious is a very strange word—spiritual is probably a better word. My parents were Methodists and I’ve only just realised that. I went to the Banksy show in Bristol and as I was wandering around the city I walked through a shopping centre. I looked to the left and there was the Wesleyan church. I just looked at it and thought I really needed to go in and get some peace from all the “Buy! Buy! Buy!” around me. I went upstairs and there were all the storytelling rooms and suddenly everything clicked—my parents were Methodists! I don’t know why it took me so long to realise. My father was a great storyteller—not religious stories, but hilarious stories that all the neighbours used to come and listen to. And that’s where it comes from. Isn’t that weird? So I enjoyed Banksy’s exhibition, but I got most of it from the Methodist church, which I thought was really funny.
There’s not much iconography in a Methodist church compared to a Catholic church, is there?
No iconography—it’s all experience and storytelling. There was a particular story that my dad used to tell, set during the war. The family had moved out to Dagenham and he kept chickens in the garden. Dagenham was getting bombed a lot and a bit of shrapnel cut through a chicken’s neck. Now, my dad loved his chickens because they’d lay eggs for the kids, so he goes running out, grabs the chicken and shouts out to the neighbours, “Get me some needle and cotton!” and one of the jokers next door yells, “What colour do you want?” I didn’t really understand it at the time. I just saw everybody laughing when he told it because they knew the situation and as I got older I understood.
I loved the camaraderie of the area too, everyone unhooked the fences at the back so they could walk through, everybody kept a key, everybody gave and shared, it was such a great community. And since then I’ve always lived communally—if it hasn’t been Dagenham, it’s been Dial House, and even in New York everyone knew each other in the building.
Inside Head, 2009. What do you like about communal living?
I like extremes of things. I like the adventure of working together and Dial House has always been a challenge. Most of it’s been fantastic, some of it has been a nightmare, but you know, with every situation you learn something about yourself because we all have so much to reveal in ourselves. And of course, you’ve got that open-house situation where you’ve got guys turning up that are on the edge of hell.
Do you ever feel that it’s a bit dangerous?
No, not really. If I did I’d have to trust that I’d pick up on it. There was one guy, a bit of a boozer, he drank three bottles of vodka in the morning. It’s quite amazing because it didn’t seem to hit him, no staggering or anything. He didn’t eat either. I had to force some bread down him. I couldn’t take him on though. He’d come all the way to live here and I said to him, “If you want to get out of this you need to treat yourself a little bit better.” It was hard for me to just say, “Only one night,” so I had to drive him somewhere, I just couldn’t handle it.
But, having an open house, you’re going to have something like that every month, that’s the principle of the place. But as you get older you think, I haven’t got much time really, I need to get on with it. It seems like 30 years since Crass.
What’s your favourite kind of art to make—film, painting, music?
I like everything really. I mean, if I wanted to paint a canvas and I was forced into making a film then I wouldn’t enjoy it. I just go with how it comes out. I didn’t intend to do another face this week but I found one that I had put aside and I was actually going to paint over, but I thought, it’s got something in it and I need to push on with it. I’m hoping to finish that in a few days.
How many will you have done when you finish that one?
Six. I keep them in the barn with the cows. I’ve got no option. I’d rather not keep them there, but I’ve got nowhere else to put them.
Have you ever had a cow eat something?
No, I’ve had them bash things down. I would like to store them properly but we just don’t have the space. Serves me right for working so big.
Are you offered a lot of opportunities to do shows?
Yeah, a lot of things, ideas and stuff and I have to take a step back and look at it. It’s like working on someone else’s ideas again and I need to be given carte blanche. I love to go travelling and I love to do things but I just love to get into the studio on my own, otherwise I feel like a fake. If I get asked to put on a show and I haven’t got anything that I’ve been doing recently I don’t feel comfortable about it because I’m struggling enough as it is. Sometimes I get into the studio and there’s nothing there, but something always happens. I’ve been asked to do this big exhibition next year, and another one the year after in Paris, so I need to get a lot of stuff together for that. But I can’t contrive it because I need the time and space to do it, I need to push myself and experiment and that takes time. I’m cautious about it.
The Crass back catalogue, complete with new artwork by Gee Vaucher, has been remastered and released by Crassical Collection through Southern. New work by Gee can be seen at the “400 Women” show at Shoreditch Town Hall Basement, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT, until November 30. More at 400women.tumblr.com.
Oh America, 1989.
Dictator, 2008. Great Scott, 2008.
Business as Usual, 2010.
Welcome to Palestine, 2008. Classical Head, 1993.
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