“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent van Gogh
I am meeting Harry Pye and James Johnston on a sunny afternoon following their invite to come and visit Harry’s South London studio and preview the new work he will be displaying at their co-curated ''Push The Boat Out'' group show.
The setting is a large shared house, bohemian and peaceful, where several artists live and/or work and where artworks is displayed, or in the process of being created, throughout a maze of untidy rooms and gardens.
''Push The Boat Out'' is about collaboration, challenging yourself and exploring uncharted waters. For Pye this means experimenting with collage and framing, a departure from his usual work process.
The series of three paintings he has chosen to show is also his first attempt at producing works with linked narratives.
For the show, Pye was inspired by the idea of producing three possible replacements for a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, ‘'The Painter on the road To Tarascon'’ (also known as ‘’Painter on his way to work’’), that went missing during the second World War,believed to be lost in fire from the Allied bombings of Magdeburg.
In all three works, Pye’s use of colour is dazzling as always and he injects his works with a deep sense of fun and humour and ultimately of humanity and kindness.
His inclusion of text, including random and re-appropriated graffiti seen on the street such as ''stick to what you don’t know'', gives his artworks a modern edge.
Interestingly Pye also chooses to ignore Van Gogh’s usual myth as the embodiment of the ultimate tortured and misunderstood artist.
Pye's work instead wants to show us the painter giddy with the excitement and possibilities of being about to create a new work, enthusiastically rushing towards his chosen location to set up his easel.
This is the opposite of Francis Bacon’s version of ''The Painter...'' which shows Van Gogh as a dark, tortured and lonely figure.
Harry: “The paintings are about happiness. I believe Van Gogh made his original painting when he was full of optimism and thought that everything was going his way.''
I am intrigued by the collaboration between James and Harry. While Pye is an experienced curator, writer and all-around art maverick skilled at bringing people together and gently making things happen, this is James’ first curatorial project.
He has only been painting for a year or so, in keeping with the ''Push The Boat Out’'' ethos of taking on new challenges. As well as co-curating the event with Pye, several of his paintings will be on display in the show.
James: “'Push the Boat Out' for me is going that bit further, stretching yourself. Personally it also has connotations with a song of the same name, from an album my band made years ago. It's celebratory, maybe a bit of mad abandon too. "Let's just go for it".”
James started exploring painting as an antidote to the tedium of being stuck in hotel rooms while on tour.
A professional musician, he has played and toured with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Lydia Lunch and fronts the alternative rock band Gallon Drunk.
James: “I started in music, and until comparatively recently I had no idea that I'd have any aptitude for painting whatsoever. I started working in hotel rooms on tour, at the suggestion of a friend, and quickly realised that it was something I could truly lose myself in.
It felt so immediate, completely absorbing, a world to fall into. Working obsessively behind closed doors seems to really suit me, and painting has now completely taken over, and coming to it so late it feels like time is so precious that I can't lose the opportunity to work, learn, improve, and generally lose myself in the whole process. To make something from nothing, and maybe reveal what's behind it in the process, or just try and create something that has some sort of emotional impact or relevance, and hopefully even beautiful in some way.”
If Pye’s work is bright and always makes you smile, Johnston’s paintings provide an interesting contrast by creating a much darker and brooding proposition that strives to retain a deep sense of mystery.
James: ''Many of the pictures are scenes of isolation, landscapes both nature and urban, and are simply and descriptively titled to leave any narrative or metaphorical reading open...''
Harry: “I read an interview with someone the other day who claimed people are either radiators or drains. I see James as a radiator making everyone’s world a little warmer.’
As the visit unfolds, I discover that Pye’s small studio is full of artworks, images and quirky objects but also incredibly tidy and devoid of the usual paint stains, random smudges and general chaos that are the tell tale signs of many a painter at work.
In fact, he confesses to often using the space as a place to reflect, think and plan rather than execute his works.
My eyes are caught by a painting of John and Yoko displayed on a wall opposite a representation of Harvey Wenstein.
Somehow, it makes me wonder how the #AllYouNeedIsLove icon would have reacted to our #MeToo days…
Harry and James have brought together a group of artists, all of them based in South London, for the show whose work they have admired for a while and who they thought would show work that would work well together and bring something exciting to the mix.
The show will feature: Nicola Hicks, Corin Johnson, Gordon Beswick, Cedar Lewisohn, Kate Murdoch and Morissey & Hancock, Harry Pye and James F Johnston.
Van Gogh would probably smile on Pye and Johnston’s collaborative spirit and welcoming approach to working with and supporting other artists, he who was obsessed with the idea of starting an artist colony in his Arles haven and who famously despaired at fellow painter Gauguin’s disinterest in and ultimately rejection of his cherished dream.
Thankfully Pye and Johnston seem to be navigating less troubled waters and are expertly steering their boat towards the show’s opening, with a private view on 25th July.
‘’Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic’’
''Push The Boat Out'', the Art Academy, 155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS. 26-30 July (Private View: 25 July). Critic, writer and curator Sacha Cradoch will be talking to some of the artists in the show about their work on Saturday 28 July at 3pm. More information about the show and the people taking part can be found here