How artist Ross Muir brushes new life into old masterpieces

Whether it’s painting pool tables into Van Gogh pieces or dressing Frida Kahlo in Fred Perry, here’s how the Scotsman has taken the art world by storm…

There’s a gruff, almost dogged determination to Ross Muir. With his flowing hair, cropped beard and tattoo sleeves, the artist looks like a cultured-clashed mash-up of rockstar and Pre-Raphaelite painter; a modern-day Dante Gabriel Rossetti with a little Hunky Dory-era Bowie swirled into the paint-daubed mix. 

His art sings with the same cross-century discord. Infusing new levels of interest and ideas into iconic existing pieces, Muir has caught the eyes of the art world’s elite — twisting and reframing time-honoured paintings with his decidedly contemporary palette. 

And yet, despite this confident voice and strong style, the Scotsman hasn’t always been an artist. After moving to Glasgow in 2009, Muir received a small set of paints as a gift — and these proved the key to unlocking a raw, dormant talent. And, by the age of 30, he had fully embraced the artistic medium as a way to process and escape from past troubles.

“Before I turned to painting,” Muir tells Gentleman’s Journal, “I’m afraid I wasn’t in a good place. My life wasn’t going anywhere. I struggled to keep down a job, but one thing I do remember is that I saw glimmers of creativity in what I was doing. 

“I was good at making things and using my hands,” he continues, “so those jobs did help me in a certain way. I started late — but I progressed quickly. And that quick development is what motivated me to keep going”.

It’s an ongoing progression; and one that continues to charm both serious collectors and Instagram followers alike. Muir’s next solo exhibition, titled 23: A Brush with Redemption, opens this week at Mayfair’s Maddox Gallery, a beacon of cutting-edge art in the British capital. Showcasing the artist’s shape-shifting, time-travelling art — and riffing on the works of artists including Magritte, Rousseau and Picasso —  this is the culmination of his artistic endeavours to date. But Muir’s wasn’t always such a smooth, successful career.

“People thought I had lost my mind at first,” he admits. “They couldn’t understand why I suddenly started telling everyone I wanted to be an artist. About a year in, my friend came to my house, and I showed him my work. He sat me down and told me that he thought I could make it. That’s the first time I knew I could paint professionally”.

In 2018, Muir’s biggest break arrived — with his original painting of the Dutch impressionist Vincent van Gogh, entitled Square Gogh. Featuring the legendary artist wearing an Adidas tracksuit, the artwork went viral within days, and opened the art world’s eyes to Muir’s signature, statement style of spinning classic works for a modern audience. 

When I first started painting properly, I would paint real people,” recalls the artist. “I would hire a model, photographer and make-up artist and work from those images. I enjoyed doing that, but the paintings were not as strong. I loved studying the craftsmanship behind Old Master portraits and the aim was to paint like that myself. 

“So I reimagine artworks that inspire me,” he explains. “There must be an instant connection with that painting or artist. Then, I research all about their life and the techniques they use to create their work. I try to consume as much information as possible before I start painting”.

And the artworks are many. Incredibly varied and seemingly unconnected, Muir insists that certain threads still run through his works. The original artists must be characters Muir admires, for one — and this occasionally leads to repeated motifs throughout his work. 

Crowns crop up in several of Muir’s more famous pieces, and these are an homage to the late contemporary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Muir even got a Basquiat-style crown tattooed on his right hand). “He was an underdog who had a tough time before he found art,” says Muir, “and I see a lot of myself in him”.

Gladly, Muir’s passion and success has given him a new lease; a purpose and drive to keep creating. In October 2019, he had his first ever solo exhibition in Glasgow’s city centre. The exhibition was an overwhelming success for the artist, and sold out before the doors even opened. His second show, however, was not so lucky. Planned for 2020, it was unceremoniously cancelled when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“The pandemic was hard for everyone,” says Muir. “It stopped a lot of creatives from flourishing. But I just feel grateful to have been able to make art throughout.

“I actually visited Bali before the first lockdown and got stuck out there,” he adds. “I found a studio and started creating artworks. A few of the paintings in the show I actually started in Bali so if you turn them over, there is a nod to Indonesia on the back. I like to create a hidden artwork on the reverse of all my paintings, something private that only the collector and I share”.

It’s another trademark of Muir’s works; hidden motifs and messages that may only resonate with a chosen few — or even just with the artist himself. And, whether it’s Grace Jones or John Lennon, one of Muir’s more manifest trademarks is a nod to musicians he appreciates or admires.

“I love music,” he says. “And, for a long time, I wanted to be a professional musician. I listen to music to get into the right headspace to paint. I like older musicians like Bowie and Dylan — but I’m also a fan of Gerry Cinnamon. He’s Scottish musician who has made it against the odds and remains authentic, which I respect”.

There are those underdog sensibilities again; that shaggy-haired, single-minded determination to continue reviewing and imbuing new artistic merit into existing masterpieces. And, thanks to 23: A Brush with Redemption — the exhibition runs until 1st July at Maddox Gallery — Muir’s pieces are being placed on the highest pedestal of his career thus far.

“It means the world to me,” he says. “It’s the result of everything I have worked for, up until now. I hope my art can connect with a wide audience — and inspire people who thought art could never be for them”.

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