Michael Forbes is a Scottish artist. He was born in 1968 and currently lives and works in the relative isolation of a small village called Maryburgh, in the North of Scotland. Over the years, Forbes has well and truly established himself as a tour de force within the arena of New Contemporary Art. His work deftly weaves his unique brand of humour into paintings which fuse the world of pop culture with the surreal. While the majority of Michael’s subject matter is laced with wit and a hint of devilment, he is also a master at creating images which get to the heart of the human condition in an incredibly profound and poignant manner. Through the use of his own intelligent visual vocabulary, Forbes’ work is high in impact and doesn’t often leave the viewer in any doubt over his intended meaning.
Michael has been exhibiting his paintings internationally for over twenty years and in that time has shown alongside works from some of the biggest names in the business, including, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, Ryden…and the list goes on.
WOW x WOW are delighted that we were recently afforded the opportunity to ask Michael a few questions and get some insight into his working life as an artist.
I live the Scottish Highlands where I was born and grew up. It is a beautiful part of the world and it’s where I’m most comfortable being. Although it has great beauty I’ve never been inspired to paint the landscape other than as a background. I think because I know I could never capture its awesome splendour and the temptation to paint something bizarre into it is too strong. Its isolation is also something I like as my view of the world is always as someone removed from it. It helps to view the planet with an alien perspective. As in my painting “I saw New York through a Television Tube” I painted New York as shown to me be the TV.
What does your working space look like?
I love my studio, it’s a physical representation of my brain. It looked big when I first finished it. It is a conversion of a double garage at the bottom of my garden. Having been in it for a few years, it is a tight, not cluttered, but full space. I have the trappings and apparatus of an artist….easel, drawing board, but also books and oddities, collectables and objects that have appeared in my paintings or will do so in the future. The studio allows me to pick up from where I finished off and helps work flow, but its rural location allows me to take breaks and fire my bow at targets in the field to get some head space. I currently have a boiler suit packed with rags with a mannequins head wearing a Batman mask as my target hanging from a tree (come the zombie apocalypse).
As an entirely self-taught artist, do you feel that this has been a help or a hindrance to your art career?
Both. In the early days no one was interested partly because the work still needed developing but also no one would take the risk on an artist without a certificate that had the word artist written on it. The UK is particularly bad for this. I have a French collector/ friend who once opened my eyes to the craziness of the UK art world. He pointed out that in the UK artists seem obsessed about showing in all the “right shows”, as I was at the time with the Royal Scottish Academy. I think I needed as a self-taught artist some kind of approval, if the establishment accepted me then maybe I was an artist after all. Once I did get in, I lost that feeling, more so after attending the opening, to see the members in their robes patting each other on the back. I thought this is not how art is meant to be, it’s not about approval, I want to shake it up, I want to upset and attack the establishment. I was born in the midst of the 1968 riots, a time of rebellion. I think some of that energy was installed in me at birth. Now as a self taught artist with a long line of exhibitions behind me and having exhibited alongside many respected artists, like Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, Mark Ryden and more recently Ronnie Wood and Bob Dylan. I don’t have the same problem getting into galleries.
I feel my work is my own, it is where it is and looks like it does because I’ve struggled to make it look that way. I remember discovering a technique of painting I was thrilled about and told an artist friend. He said, “Jeeeez Mike, we get taught that in the first year of art school.” At first I was downed by the comment, but then I thought, “Yeah, you were taught it. I freaking discovered it.” It’s that way of painting I like. I start every painting with a feeling of “Man, I’m not sure I’ll be able to pull this off.” It’s that excitement that drives me to keep painting.
Over the last few years your art has incorporated a lot of pop-culture imagery and has taken a playful approach to exploring the idea of celebrity. What was it that started you down this path?
My early work was surreal, just full on surreal. I liked those pictures and I haven’t completely turned my back on them, but certainly my work is more pop these days. I started working for the Pop Artist Gerald Laing in my youth, and that I think was my apprenticeship, I learned so much from that great man. It was inevitable that some of his imagery would affect my own. Also I like how the public persona of a celebrity can add to a painting. If we perceive that person to be a certain way then I can “cast” them into a painting to play that role. What quicker way to convey the bad guy in the painting is evil than to have him represented by Darth Vader, Hitler or George Bush? Our time is obsessed by celebrity the very few of the 7 billion who rise up from the crowd. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.
My first attempt at examining this was an idea I had to replace celebrity heads with that of their “inner animal spirit” I asked Ricky Gervais to start it off and I painted him with a giant laughing cats head. This then led to the three strip chopped up celebrities faces where I made new celebrity icons from pieces of existing celebrity faces. Again Ricky was the first, he said “He made me look fantastic, but then he didn’t paint my face.” So that’s two portraits I’ve done of Ricky without his face.
You touched upon what you referred to as your “apprenticeship” with the late, great, Pop Artist, Gerald Laing, who used to live near you. What was he like to be around and did this experience influence your own art?
Gerald was a Genius. An often over used and rarely appropriate word, but Gerald deserves it with a capital “G”. He was a wonder to work with he was not only a very capable artist but he was a good worker too. He would be as happy up stairs in his studio as down in foundry where we cast all his bronzes. It was a bit Heath Robinson and we winged a lot of the casting process, with pretty amazing results. I remember this guy came over from New York to teach us lost wax casting, we were doing sand casting mostly. He brought this roll of insulation wool. It was used on the space shuttle for re-entry. Gerald decided to test it but lining a 45 gallon oil drum and melting a crucible of bronze inside it. So we lined the drum and popped it over the crucible. Gerald got his hoover from the castle and put it on reverse to blow in air and we stuffed a gas pipe from the foundry in and lit it. The explosion blew us all off our feet and we landed on our arses on the lawn with our ears ringing. I was obviously terrified of the fucking thing but Gerald said right use less gas. And we tried it again and melted the bronze. That is what Gerald was like, he was fearless in trying new things. He got a bad rap from the die-hard Pop Art scene for not keeping the faith when he turned from pop art painting to figurative sculpture, but his sculptures are beautiful ‘American Girl’, ‘The Dreaming’, ‘Conception’, fucking really groovy stuff. He used to say when he got criticized about a recent piece of work “They will grow to love it.” He knew from experience that the current opinion was meaningless, it’s time that will judge your work.
What is your opinion on copyright?
Copyright to me is precious as it should be to every artist. I’ve had work ripped off and it hurts, because I see myself as an ideas guy before I’m a painter. So all I really have is an idea. I’ve had two artists rip off my ideas (long story) and be more successful with them than I was, so I get people thinking I stole it. On saying that any image is up for grabs as long as, and this is important, you make it your own. You have to add to it or develop it so that it is instantly recognizable as yours. If it is just a reworking of someone else’s work, then what is the point? You thieving bastard.
You mentioned that your art has hung alongside the work of Pop Art greats such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. You are also represented by Pop International Gallery. Do you consider yourself as more of a Pop Artist rather than a part of the New Contemporary/Pop Surrealist movement?
As a self taught artist living in “the bum fuck of nowhere” (as my art Dealer Jeff said when he came to visit me), I have made my own path. I make the paintings I want to make. When I found Pop Surrealism in the pages of Juxtapoz, I thought, “Holy shit, at last…family.” I really connected with their work, I felt they were doing what I was doing, but I still felt what I was doing was my own. Obviously I’m influenced by others, Monty Python for example and in particular Terry Gilliam (who is a collector and has been very encouraging). Only an idiot would think their work was completely original. I’m constantly being influenced. I remember painting and thinking that my colour scheme was unlike my usual and very effective. I was pretty chuffed then I looked past the edge of the canvas at a postcard on the wall of a Tara McPherson painting with the exact colour scheme, I was like “Doh!” I’m lucky that I make the paintings I want to and the style can straddle both Pop and Pop Surreal.
Terry Gilliam, as you’ve said, has been a huge inspiration to you and is now a collector of your work. His daughter, Holly, recently arranged an exhibition of your work at The Ivy in London. Can you give us some background on how that came about?
In 2004 I was broke and I wasn’t selling paintings, I thought, why are my paintings so bizarre. To me they seemed perfectly acceptable, but then I live on a diet of Time Bandits and Monty Python. Damn you Terry Gilliam, this is all your fault, I am the monster of your creation. I wrote and told him he was responsible, for that and my failure of physics ‘O’ level, having spent the whole school year of 1983 reciting Monty Python sketches. So I wrote to Terry accusing him of being responsible for my predicament. His wife Maggie called me up and said he would love to buy a painting. That was about 10 years ago. I’ve kept in touch and the Gilliam’s are lovely people. Holly is super efficient and very good at logistics. It was Holly’s idea to do the show at the Ivy. We had to get the work delivered from the North of Scotland to London and set up the show in the morning of the opening. It was a mad morning of joiners setting up exhibition boards, painters painting them, while the electricians were wiring lights, then us at the back following and hanging paintings. The show was a lot of fun with Terry in attendance on top form. I was the first artist to have an exhibition at the Ivy. Strangely though, was the coincidence that The Ivy also holds a permanent collection of Gerald Laing’s sculptures, some of which I helped cast 20 years ago. So in a way it was comforting to have Gerald there, if not in person but artistic spirit.
What do you regard as the highlight of your career so far and why?
I was part of ‘In the Mood for Pop’ at the Opera Gallery on New Bond Street London. It was an incredible show, a who’s who of all the Pop Art giants. I was picked as a “child of pop art” in that I grew up after the 1960’s movement. Obviously I thought I’d be tucked away downstairs. I was exhibiting an AK-47 machine gun covered in oil company logos. I arrived with my wife Jane and it was a red carpet affair. I went into the Gallery and there was a Basquiat and Warhol. In between was my AK-47 machine gun, it was creating such a buzz. It just felt like a lot of years hard work finally coming together. The art dealer came up and said “See where we put you? You see the faith we have in your work?” I think I should have gone outside and thrown myself under a London bus. It’s never going to get better than that.
Who are your favourite artists on the scene today?
Ooooooh, tricky, there are so many. I like Scott Holloway, Martin Wittfooth, Colin Christian, who I like to rant with on Facebook. I love his work but also his take on the world. I like his wife, Sas, too, a very good painter. Natalia Fabia is Fabialous. This is too hard…Eric White, Shawn Barber….Glen Barr. There is nothing better than finding a new artist, there is so much art out there I don’t like. I hate clever art, it’s elitist and remote. I exhibited in a show in New York with Jeff Koons and I remember the curator getting excited by it, but I really don’t get it. It’s banal and clinical, soulless and cold. It’s art about money, made for hedge fund managers and bankers. I like discovering a painting that just leaves me speechless. It’s usually figurative, I like seeing the ability of an artist, someone that has mastered their craft. If it’s also a really good idea as well, then I’m smitten. It can be beautiful, beauty goes a long way. But a good idea, the artist’s voice, that’s hard to do.
Can you give us a quick rundown of some of your top movies?
My top move is Blade Runner. I was hooked first time I saw it back in 1983 while skiving off school to watch it at a mates house. I think it was the first video I’d seen as well. I’m really struggling with the whole Marvel blockbuster thing these days, it’s too top heavy with CGI and lots of shit moving past the screen with loads more exploding. This is no substitute for story and plot with good characters. So, as much as I thought I’d be into it, I’m not. Another fave film is The Assassination of Jesse James, for those reasons. I love the slow pace and a drawing out of very well drawn characters, one hungry for fame, the other a victim of it. It is beautiful as well, with a fab score from Nick Cave. I have to say my most recent love has been Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson. I really enjoyed the book by Michel Faber too. The film stands as a great film in its own right; it’s a sliver of the book, which is a much larger story. I had lunch with Michel once and he strikes me as curious and unusual as the book, in a good way.
What’s next for Michael Forbes?
I’m waiting for my episode of Four Rooms to appear on TV. I filmed it in January and I’m hoping it will be on TV this Autumn. It has an audience of 4 million and I find that quite mind blowing, that in one 20 minute slice of a TV show, I’ll have my work seen by more than my whole careers worth of exhibiting put together. I don’t know how that will go. I remember filming it and I said some sensible coherent things, but I also said some stupid waffle as well, so I’m in the hands of the edit. I was also struggling a bit as I went down on the train, 11 hours on the sleeper. No one sleeps on the sleeper. So to be sure I got a night’s sleep, I took some tablets. Trouble was filming was 7 o’clock in the morning and I don’t think the tablets wore off till about 11am. So the first few hours of filming are a bit vague to say the least.
There is also a whisper of another show at Pop Gallery in New York. I had one for Tartan week in Pop Gallery’s space on Lexington Avenue, in the Citicorp building. It’s a great gallery and I get on very well with Jeff, which I feel is important. I just want to keep painting, as for me success is to still be painting each year. Anything else is a bonus.