Image of When a Future Still Promised Well
Hartlepool Art Gallery may seem like an incongruous place for Guy Denning’s career retrospective, but the world-renowned artist and creator of highly politicised works has a particular affinity with the North East. While he may currently be based in France (with urban art origins firmly rooted in Bristol) his involvement in trade union conferences and political campaigning often brought him to the region. “I have always felt that my political sympathies are more broadly supported [in the North East] than in the rural West of England.”
The exhibition, tellingly titled The Politics of Painting, will be the biggest showcase of his work to date. “I’ve tried to show work that has a direct political message,” he says of the collection, with work that deals with the politics of the art world as well as current street art also on display.
Denning’s art addresses some hard-hitting subject matter and attempts to bring a diverse range of themes to public discourse, from the mire of celebrity culture to mental health and sexuality.
A political streak has inspired his work since a family trip to a war cemetery in Verdun when he was a young teen, and his tendency towards pacifism and an opposition to the early 80s Thatcher government set him on a path which has informed his compositions. “I think the Falklands War, and my opposition to it, was the first time when I made work in direct response to political decisions I was angry about.”
Some of his street art has even provoked an emphatic response from some circles: “I had a piece defaced by the extreme right in France a few years back and I wasn’t angry – I was happy that I’d pissed them off. And it didn’t stop me…”
I want to show an audience that it’s okay to feel out of place in a mad world
Typified by moody mixed media pieces, Denning’s paintings have a layered depth and texture that draws the viewer into each brushstroke, every scratched and scored line; it’s as though the artist is attempting to gouge his beliefs directly into the canvas itself. A lot of his work depicts people and faces, often engaged in tortured poses or with haunted looks; in using a ransom note-style of typography on some pieces, he enables them with a speech of sorts, adding further poignancy.
Often painting to a soundtrack of epic instrumental artists like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and anarcho-punk from the 80s, he describes himself as a “mental magpie for ideas”, with a creative spark that’s kept ignited by current affairs and political machinations, although he’s careful not to let his subject matter invade his creative process. “Sometimes being ‘fired up’, particularly over a political issue can be a problem, as the issue takes over the work and there’s no subtlety in its execution or delivery. That tends to result in work that ends up pasted on the street out of frustration with the way we’re supposed to defer to authority.”
Emphasising that political art which has a clear meaning is more propaganda than creative expression, Denning’s art encourages a variety of interpretations. “I want to show an audience that it’s okay to feel out of place in a mad world; that if they feel depressed or frightened or lonely when confronted with the deranged excesses of contemporary society then they’re not dysfunctional – they’re right to feel that way.”