By pairing a romantic vision of British painting with a habit of cutting, drilling or even shooting his canvases, Yorkshire-born Charming Baker has challenged the preciousness of art and become one of the most dynamic artists of his generation. We caught up with him ahead of Sweet Nothing, an exhibition of his new work at London's S|2 from 15 April to 27 May.
CHARMING BAKER, UNSOLICITED ALTERATIONS, 2016. © Charming Baker
How are you feeling about the exhibition?
I’m excited, it’s nice to show in London again. Generally it’s good to know what people make of your work. You live with it in the studio solidly for three or four months and then even you can stand back and take a look at it along with everyone else.
How long have you been working on this show?
It’s an odd one as I don’t think of myself as ever not working. Some of the paintings I remember starting two years ago as bits on canvases. But I suppose I’ve been working on this show solidly for four months.
How did you select the pieces?
They’re selected as I go along. I have an idea of what I want the show to do and an idea of the paintings I want to make and a theme and anything that doesn’t fit the show in my mind doesn’t get painted.
Was there an overarching theme?
It’s the same theme for all of them. It’s the stuff of life. It’s that big thing, the clichéd questions – Why are we here? What’s it all about? But mostly when I look at the work, when I think about most of the subject matter it’s that bit before the end. It’s very much that little bit before death – maybe that’s what we’re living through? Sounds pretty dark but if we can look at that lightly it makes me feel better.
CHARMING BAKER, A BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO WORLD PEACE, 2016. © Charming Baker
What was your thinking behind the title, Sweet Nothing?
I think it’s [the idea] that we’ll end up going to sweet nothing. If you’re religious you have that hope that there’s an afterlife. If you’re an existentialist you know you’re going to nothing. I think it’s about coming to terms with either. If you don’t believe there’s an afterlife, the idea that after we go, there might be no more trouble, only a long sleep – it’s not a bad thing. Also, in life I think we probably do too much and make too much stuff. It would be nice to do less. I think there’s something nice about the idea of nothing at all.
Is that something you’re working towards? Doing less?
(Laughing) Well in work I always try to do less! I try to edit. I try to make a point as concisely as I can. Of course I wish I could do more. I don’t think I’m trying to do less. I just know we’re heading to me being able to do less.
How does it compare to your previous exhibitions?
Overall, the ideas behind the individual paintings tend to bend with me but I always go back to the same themes. But then sometimes a painting can open up a new avenue. I tend to put on these very similar exhibitions that have the right balance of drama or frivolity – there’s a certain amount of complete throwaway, there’s a baseness about them. What I tend to do with a show is balance it so it has a bit of the dark side and the light side. They’re like this slice of my life.
CHARMING BAKER, JUST ANOTHER END, 2016. © Charming Baker
You have a reputation for ‘rock and roll exhibitions’ – is this a step away from that?
No, mostly what I want the exhibition to be is serious. Some of the paintings may appear to be flippant but I’m very serious about what I do. I feel like they’re meant to speak about serious issues. They’re not meant to be shallow. At an opening, I think we should entertain people, not entertain people in a ‘rock and roll’ way but I want the images to be entertaining, I want them to be engaging. I keep going back to the word entertain and I think sometimes we just don’t need to be so dry when we look at art. It shouldn’t be presented in a separate way to everything else.
Are you conscious of trying to attract a new audience to view your work who perhaps wouldn’t normally go to a gallery?
There is something in that. I’m from a very working-class background. I didn’t go to an art gallery until almost the end of secondary school and when I started going I realised just how much fun the artists had. Their lively minds breathing, living, loving. It’s not just this separate thing that they do – the art they make is part of them. And I think I was fascinated by how there’s a sense of humour in even serious pieces of work. I really try and encourage people who wouldn’t go to art galleries usually. My mates are still digging roads and pulling cables and I love it when they come along. I love it when they’re not scared of an exhibition or saying if they don’t like a painting or if they do. I don’t think it should be exclusive. And so yes, I’d encourage everyone to come along. Anyone who gets it brilliant and anyone who doesn’t they can come along and make up their own minds.
You mentioned that you like to see people looking at your work in a gallery. Do you listen to what they’re saying?
Oh no. I don’t need to hear it. I don’t feel like I have an ego, not about the work. I’ve taught for a long time in art schools and made so many images and tried to be brutal about my own work. I don’t feel like I have an ego that’s easily hurt. I don’t feel like I’m easily hurt by someone who does or doesn’t like the work because it’s not about that. And also, I don’t want to talk about the work to people necessarily because I don’t want them to tell me what to think about it. But I’d like it to touch people in some way. I tend not to look online, I tend not to read things just because most of the time it gets in the way.
CHARMING BAKER, A MISLEADING ALIGNMENT IN SPACE AND TIME, 2016. © Charming Baker
Do you avoid social media then?
Yes, like the plague. There are some social media accounts for ‘Charming Baker’ as a team but really it’s just about giving out information or news. I don’t have a Facebook page, I just don’t think we need it.
What about in terms of promotion for artists? Has it benefited you?
I think it’s benefited everyone in that way that everybody has got it at their fingertips. You can instantly look at someone’s work and you can instantly share it. The things that people are interested in, not that they’re better or worse than anything else, will get passed around more. I don’t think it’s going to hurt the business, I think it can only help and educate people
What is it that makes people remember or share a particular piece of art?
I’ve spoken to other artists about this and I think sometimes there’s a mix of ideas and the way something’s done, the way it’s written, the way it’s drawn, it takes on another life, it has some kind of magic and people talk. I think there’s a point you get to with a piece of work where it stands up on its own, it doesn’t need changing, even the faults are part of it and I think it speaks to people.
CHARMING BAKER. © Angela Moore
You’ve had a reputation in the past for damaging your work…
I still do it! They’re sat in the studio now waiting to go and they’ve all been cleaned up but they’ve been dragged around, thrown around, they get drilled. People go, ‘ah, you shoot them’ but even after you pick up a tool to draw on them, there’s no going back. I think with damaging them there’s always a nice contrast between the delicate work and you then going in with a tool or a gun or a drill. Also, I like the idea that it’s a gamble. I might have painted a landscape and then wanted to draw an electrical pylon on it and I know that I’ve spent a day or two days and it’s dried and it could go as it is so I could ruin it by changing it.
And have you ruined work?
Yes, lots of them don’t survive. But I find it’s a joyful part of the process that it could all go horribly wrong. Otherwise there’s no fun in it. I did give a painting to a friend a long time ago that was nice enough but there were some issues that weren’t resolved. One night round at his house after a couple of glasses of wine I thought ‘oh, I know what’s wrong with that painting’ and I changed it with a big black marker and I felt like I had the right to do that. (Laughs) I enjoyed the idea and the naughtiness of that. Yes, I could have ruined it but it’s only a painting and we don’t have that long here, do we? Painting is one of the things that’s most important in life for me apart from family and people. Still, it’s just art!
CHARMING BAKER, STUDY FOR A PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, 2016. © Charming Baker
Is there a moment when your relationship with a piece of work changes and you feel that it’s finished so you treat it in a more delicate way?
I think there’s a point where you work on something and you stand back and find yourself going in and solving the problems and adding the bits that will help and going back and getting rid of the bits that don’t help. So I’m walking backwards and forwards but there’s a point where I stop walking backwards and forwards and I think ok, and it kinds of stands on its own and I think I do stop because I don’t want to lose it. Usually they’ve been a struggle so from then on I treat them differently.
I want to make sure this show works. I’m excited about this space and it being intimate and higher end and in a nice setting. Most of the places I’ve exhibited before have been big spaces and it feels very different. I’m focussed on making it work in an intimate space. I’ve already started thinking about the next show. New York is next, it’s been about nine years so I’ll be getting back in the studio, back on the horse!
Sweet Nothing, a collection of new works by Charming Baker is at S | 2 in London from 15 April to 27 May