Day dawns through the window of an archetypal bedroom, an attractive woman in her underwear perches on the windowsill with her knees up. Causally she clutches a revolver and gazes wantonly through the window with contented expression.
Sprawled across the bed lies a clown with a bullet-hole driven through his chest. A realistic crime-scene, save for the eerie, misplaced clown and perhaps also, two paintings on the wall; a portrait of what appears to be a child clown and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
What version of reality have you tumbled into, or are we instead treated to a snapshot from the mind of pop surrealist Si Griffiths? Welcome to just one of his Adventures in Reality.
Because it’s up my street and knocking loudly at my door, I’ve been waiting for any old excuse to highlight the work of Chippenham’s Si Griffiths, a contemporary artist who depicts surrealism with edge and unnerving intrigue. Now, if you’re passing Frome over the next few weeks you’ve the opportunity to bury deeper into this mind. From the 5th to the 18th May, Si Griffiths exhibits at Black Swan arts in Bridge Street; I’d recommend you pop by.
Among the paintings there’s a running misplaced clown theme, but whether or not he’s present, much of his work balances fun and amusement with a darker element; a bizarre yellow brick road of hell collage, with a suited devil, aliens in doctor’s attire, a grown man dressed as a baby with lager and cigarettes, dice, Frankenstein’s monster and naturally, Betty Boop dressed in nurse’s uniform. Otherwise try a devilish circus ringleader come bookie, or a boy contemplating a heavenly snakes and ladders board.
Find discomforting elements in an otherwise amusing, almost cartoon scenario, or vice-versa. I asked Simon if this is the desired effect?
“Oh yes,” he tells me, “my early work was very dark and full of pain, but as it’s grown there is much more humour, irony and satire mixed in.”
“I’ve found that life is a mixture of light and dark, of yin and yang,” Si continues, “There has to be balance between the two. That’s how the Universe works. John Lennon said ‘Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.’ We’re out there planning our perfect existence, we’ve got it all worked out, 2.4 kids, new car in the garage, good job, perfect partner, comfortable home (or whatever,) we live in a society which conditions us to expect everything to turn out the way we planned, and then one day there’s a knock at the door……. the reality of life is we never know what’s around the next corner. And it’s not always pretty.”
“My work tries to make sense of it all. The journey of birth, life, death. I try to hold a mirror up for people to see in themselves in the paradoxes in my paintings. If they can see the reflection and it helps them deal with things, good or bad, then my job is done.”
Running themes are warped dreams, depictions of skulls, board games and devilish characters, and there’s parodies of the Wizard of Oz and Frankenstein, but throughout the clown features predominately, be it erroneous everyday scenarios, perturbing poses or as disciples in the Last Supper. So, I had to ask, “why clowns?”
“Ha! Not necessarily an easy answer….” I feared he might reply, “my relationship with the clown has developed over the years. I first started using the clown image as a vehicle to symbolise death and my grief after a huge loss in my life, it was a sort of bad guy, representing my anger and pain.”
“Yet as I have journeyed with that grief and the clown as part of my life and art they have become somewhat of a friend, including a way to symbolise myself in my paintings. Within the depiction of the clown in my art there is an ongoing series of paintings using a clown called ‘Bozo’ which is the representation of who I am and what I am feeling or going through at the time.”
“I love the duality of the clown. The painted face, the illusion of happiness or sadness yet knowing there’s a real person behind, experiencing a gamut of emotions. Every day we all hide behind the mask of what we project to the world, how we want to be perceived, who ‘we’ are, our image our persona. But who are we really?”
“To this day the clown continues to guide my art, a sort of wandering Shaman that leads me to new pastures as well as helping me to make sense of the fucked up world we live in and who I am as a human being.”
Befriending a character in your art is nothing unusual, the despair of Walt Disney upon realising his cigar-smoked horse voice broke the only tie he retained with Mickey, his speech, or Charles Schultz sadly passing away at his drawing board the day the last Peanuts strip was published. Artists devote their time to their characters, their own life merges; it’s understandable they’d bond in such a way only the creative can comprehend.
I tire myself of being asked if I am the White Space-Van Man in my books, or any other character I’ve created, when the answer is not so simple as yes or no. Of course they are inside our heads, part of us, but not wholly us, be it caricatured versions or a fragmented layer of the artist’s psyche. As I feel many of Simon’s are too, in my case they’re usually the aspects I hate about myself the most, disjointed satirised personalities which squeeze out. Others can be an ideal persona, the person you strive towards; pit the shyness of Siegel and Shuster against their creation, Superman.
Before you point it out, I’m fully aware all my examples are taken from cartoons and comics, but there’s a reason, for through all the surreal despondency, grief and inexplicable rudiments in Si Griffith’s art, I sight an underlying influence of comics and cartoons; being the very reason it attracts me.
So finally, I was impelled to inquire of his influences, be it a beatnik Hogarth, underground comix like R Crumb and Shelton’s, or perhaps Great British comic artists too; Dudley Watkins, Ken Reid etc.
“No so much the British,” Si enlightened, “I was an avid Beano and Dandy reader in my childhood, which must have sown the seeds, but the ‘Marvel’ type comic-books gave me a sense of the fantastic, Mad magazine; home to some great artists, my favourite probably being Don Martin. This magazine introduced me to satire and irony as well as the absurd. Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers was another – all of these comics helping forge my sense of humour and way of looking at the world.”
I’ve been lucky enough to share some time with the great Gilbert Shelton, in awe of the charismatic dude on first name terms with Janis Joplin, I can see a clear influence in Si’s art; but it’s deeper than cartoonish.
“On a wider note,” Si added, “whilst most art inspires me these days I’m mainly influenced by the Lowbrow art that originated in the California (predominantly LA) in the late 60’s and 70’s based on the hot rod, surfer, biker, tattoo, underground comix and music cultures. This genre has become much more recognised as a serious art form these days championed by the likes of Robert Williams the amazing artist and founder of Juxtapoz magazine – the first to promote non mainstream art.”
Fans of the weird and wonderful, freewheeling counter-culture should take a trip to Frome on any given day, it’s vibrant and colourful and I’m certain these Adventures in Reality will go down like a hookah at a love-in; see for yourself why don’t you?