In the general cultural consciousness — at the dinner-party-conversation-and-Sunday-supplement level of things — we rather like to put artists in boxes. Hockney — he’s the chap with the swimming pools. Hirst? Death by dots. Opie: Didn’t he do that Blur album cover? Rothko: Big squares (“I could have done that.”) It is a too-neat filing system that makes us feel informed and in touch without having to rummage around too much. A sort of pub quiz canon — with the sense that, if they’re in there, they must be good enough.
This, I think, is what Seb Chaumeton is trying to explore with his new exhibition at Maddox Gallery: Little Palette. It is, as it happens, a very big palette. A swirling, sweeping cross-section of so many household-name, ‘blue chip’ artists (another box, perhaps.) Using the device of Roger Hargreaves’s beloved Mr Men book covers, Chaumeton has attempted to distil the likes of Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley and Banksy into simple, essential characters — and in doing so create new works that display his own chameleonic talents and styles.
“Fundamentally this show is to do with taste,” Chaumeton says. “I was trying to understand my own taste, and ask: what is good art? And why does the mainstream think certain artists are important?” With the artists’ techniques and oeuvres, if we dare use that word, boiled down to their constitution parts and then re-assembled as little commodified cartoons — their names written in big, bold print above their heads— he’s also saying something about the commodification of artists, too. We buy them, Chaumeton seems to say, often as big, name-droppy flags to stick in the ground — not necessarily as things we love on their own terms. Look! An Emin! Tracey Emin! I have good taste! I get it! I’m part of the crowd, too! And the big question hanging in this gallery is: would you put a Freud piece on your wall if you knew no-one would see it, or be able to identify it, or give you kudos for acquiring it?
The Mr Men device adds a little room for some sly art-world commentary, too. Hirst, for example, is rendered as Mr Greedy — a fat, all-consuming, distinctly pleased-with-himself character, brought to life in the florid, Japanese hues of those recent Cherry Blossom works. “I think he’s one of the few people that would actually enjoy that little jab,” Chaumeton says. The playful, mischievous characters stay just on the right side of blunt caricature, however, because Chaumeton is a technically tight mimic: he made stencils in the same way that Banksy does, while his Hirst splodges are indistinguishable from the real thing.
“So it’s also a big excuse to try out some other forms of art and styles, too” he says, while he works towards a few defining styles of his own. At only 26, this is Chaumeton’s artistic adolescent experimentation phase, in many ways. Move fast, try things, break things, make mistakes, love things, hate things, move on. And you really do sense here that he will move on to something big. The canvas pieces, with their dizzying array of styles (the Bacon rendering is particularly well done), are all made by Chaumeton himself.
"Fundamentally, the show is about taste..."
Elsewhere he has roped in the family. Chaumeton commissioned his grandmother to weave a craft tapestry, based on a William Morris-style work and stylised from a wallpaper designed by his grandfather on the other side. His father, an artist in his own right, helped to build a more sculptural structure, while his girlfriend honed the porcelain on the central Grayson Perry pottery piece.
The Hockney homage, set on the back feature wall of the Maddox Street site, is the most striking to me. It is a kaleidoscopic, striking, almost fever-dream regurgitation of so many pop-culture Hockney touchpoints: his Californian splashes; his digital lockdown gardens; his glasses. It is a colourful feast of genuine artistry. But it also puts you in mind of the new AI engines (like the playfully named ‘DALL-E’), which instantly generate pieces of eerie digital art based on a few inputted keywords. An input of ‘Hockney’, ‘Mr Men’, and ‘Hallucination’, for example, might well conjure up something not too far from this Chaumeton piece — and so this becomes another interesting comment on the direction the art market is going in these heavily commodified times.
“It’s fascinating, and throws up some big ideas”, Chaumeton says of the AI process. “But I don’t think you could ever really imitate a human hand. You can trick people, and make a piece look convincing — but there’s something fundamental to the human condition, and to the time it takes to make something.”
“The things that define your style are the imperfections and the bits you didn’t know you were going to do,” he concludes. “That’s the point of even doing things in the first place.”
Little Palette runs at Maddox Gallery, Maddox Street, London, until October 9th