Stephen Anthony Davids Exhibits at Mortimer House

The Notebook | 27th January 2020

Stephen Anthony Davids brings his idiosyncratic talent and unique style to Mortimer House in the first of a series of quarterly exhibtions

Stephen Antony Davids (aka SAD) is the first artist to exhibit at Mortimer House in new quarterly pop-up exhibitions of those leading artists we feel most in tune with our philosophy of self-actualisation. Curated by our in-house style maven Amie Mercer the first instalment brings the much-feted artist’s work inside the doors of Mortimer House, and exposes him to a whole new audience, providing members and guests with an intimate insight into his unique art practice. Hailing from East London, Stephen is a visual graphic artist who splits his time between London and Kent, and devotes much of his energy to introducing under-privileged young people to the cathartic and healing power of art. His work in painting and assemblage has an idiosyncratic and highly personal quality that occupies a visual space somewhere between the fairly disparate entities of David Shrigley and Jean Michel Basqiuat, while communicating an inner dialogue very much his own that owes much to the tradition of outsider art. He has exhibited extensively in London, New York and Europe, and is best known for his distinctive drawing graphic style and characteristically charmingworks made from found objects. While drawing remains absolutely central to his practice, a number of reoccurring themes in his work span both the disciplines he turns his hand to, offering wry and sometimes humorous observations on daily life, masculinity, race, class and social history. Here, the artist talks to Maslows Notebook about visual communication, his undying love of wood, and the importance of staying true to your inner voice.

Where do you think your artistic impulses come from?
It was always a communication thing, because I think I was a quite nervous child–I was very introverted. I do remember when I was 10 years old that a teacher told me I had a very strong line. I didn’t understand her at the time, but as I've gone on, I've always been told I've got a very strong graphic element in my work. I used to collect MAD magazine as a child, and I remember that I just loved the way it was illustrated–there was something about a black and white graphic line that totally resonated with me. I've transferred that love of graphic illustration into painting. I'm not an illustrator, but I've got a very strong illustrative grounding from my earliest reference points. When you draw, it's no different to someone who writes–it's just that you're very pictorial in your communication. I learned after school that I'm a very visual learner. I like to draw things first–notepads are interesting tools to me, because a lot of my work initially starts with a scribble. I’ve always remained very interested in the way children draw because it's not intent–it's just a freedom of expression–an application of line. I've never been to art school, and I think sometimes you can be taught too much–you can't be taught your signature; your signature is your identity. How you apply line is something that's kind of an intrinsic form of expression.

What would you say you are trying to communicate, essentially?
I think as an artist, your brain is like a sponge, so you're always absorbing stuff and wanting to make an art piece out of that experience-it’s the introvert, extrovert paradox. On a personal level, what I make is all really tied up in my identity, but overall, I want to convey a dialogue and evoke an emotion in the viewer. Whether that's a question, whether that's a smile, whether that's ‘I don't like that…’ or, ‘Hmm. That's interesting.’ Primarily that connection is what it is all about for me, but I also know when I'm making the work that there is a subliminal messaging going on. I would say on one level some of my work is very self-explanatory, but there's always a subliminal context that is core to my identity in the process of making. So when I am creating, I'm making a statement, but just as much, I'm actually exploring a lot about myself within the work–so, there's humour, there's observation, there's composition, there's lots of stuff going on. It's often humorous, but it's not funny in the David Shrigley sense, because his stuff is more about satire. I love his work, and understand the comparisons, but I'm using humour more to pose a question in the viewer, if that makes sense?

Talk to us about your work with found objects…
When I am looking for a found object, I'm looking for the most obscure piece of wood that I can actually work on based on the form and the shape, and, in a way, I would say the piece actually finds me, because when I see it, I'll see a person. I'm very interested in the respect of wood, because wood is one of the oldest materials we have, and I think working with it taps into my deepest subconscious. I really respect and appreciate the age and the beauty of wood, and I work with the subtlety of the natural design to bring out the texture of the wood, and the paint. I will, for example, allow the accidental drip of paint in a work, and allow it to just sit there, and just go with the flow of the canvas or the object, as opposed to, you know, being very neat. I love the sense of breathing new energy into something forgotten, and I always want to show the medium and the work in progress, in a sense, so the object is living, or brought back to life, and you get an idea of the process in terms of how the paint has been applied. Painting is like a physical workout, in a way.

How important is it to you to be considered an outsider artist?
Well, I was never an outsider artist in terms of the genre, in that I wasn't in a mental asylum, or whatever, but I am self-taught, so, in that sense, I've always seen myself as being on the outside. I think there is this notion within art in terms of one being self-taught that you're naturally on the outside, because you don’t really fit into the establishment of attending an art school–The Slade, or whatever it may be. I never really had a desire to penetrate in any particular art scene, because I was never affiliated to any type of group. I've moved through lots of different groups, and I've always sort of existed on the periphery. Having said that, I have worked in advertising, but I always remember very early on a creative director saying to me, ‘Steve, you're very, very good, but you do your own thing–you don't follow a brief.’ Years later, I realised to what degree that is actually true, because I've always wanted to do my own thing in terms being very self directed. I will always do it my way. Self expression is paramount to who I am.

Who would you say were the artists that have most inspired you in your lifetime?
I have been influenced by many artists over the years and have a primarily been inspired by artists whose work has a strong graphic line. I was turned onto Jean Michel Basquiat as a young man, and it just set me on fire. While the work his work was powerful, I think that it was just as much about him as it was about the work–the fact he was such a young and he was black. It was like a light bulb came on. In terms of the London equivalent, there was no similar reference point–so, before that moment when I was going to galleries, I just wasn't getting turned on. The beauty of being born and bred in London is that you have such a diverse history of experience, and the black experience in London isn’t really comparable it to African American experience. But I knew this was my language and it excited me. It's like when I went into New York early on in the 1980’s and literally came across this Keith Haring pop-up shop by chance that just totally blew me away. That experience planted a seed that changed and influenced my work. It was about size, and about graphics, and the way these guys were dealing with history and language just ignited something in me.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor

Stephen Anthony Davids exhibits at Mortimer House in February.
The launch party will be later in the month. Contact for details