Graham Coxon is perhaps one of the best known little known fine artists in the country. If you only recognise him as one of the most brilliant guitarists of his generation, both for his work in Blur and, latterly, as a solo artist, you might be surprised to learn that you probably own a piece of his fine art already. Even Warhol, the master of the accessible public statement, didn't reach as many homes with his iconic Velvet's banana as Graham did with his artwork on Blur's 13 album and its related singles like “Tender”, and on his five solo albums and singles.
At the end of October, the ICA will show a retrospective of Graham Coxon's art, stretching from work he did at the age of 17, through work created at Goldsmith's College, work concomitant with his ascending fame in Blur, and new work created especially for the show.
Graham studied fine art at Goldsmiths from the end of 1988, staying for about a year until Blur's rising success forced him to choose between music and art. Goldsmiths was, at that time, an intensely creative environment, with artists like Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor Wood, Abigail Lane and Michael Landy all contemporaries of Graham. Taught by Michael Craig-Martin and Jim Thompson, many of the Goldsmiths students at the time would define BritArt in the same way that Graham would go on to define Britpop. It was a competitive environment, with Craig- Martin quoted as saying that his students ”were very ambitious people. There was a momentum of upping the stakes”. How did that sit with the remarkably self-effacing Coxon?
“I was in contact with some of the more serious people in the third year, who were already getting quite established, even then”, says Graham. (Hirst conceived and curated the seminal Freeze exhibition while at Goldsmiths). “Maybe that didn't do my fragile ego any good, because they were extremely sure of themselves; they knew what they were doing”.
This idea of a future rock star going to art college is, of course, a peculiarly English one, a tradition that was not lost on Graham, who had started to play music with Blur whilst a student .
“Every day I'd go past Camberwell School of Art, where Syd Barrett went. I suppose it entered my head....I was going to art school! I didn't know, of course, that I had a future in music at the time, but yeah, I'm just like all those other ones - Syd, Ray Davies, Pete Townsend, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry - they all did it. But I think in those days, art schools were a lot freer. The thing is to go to art school and then go off, be ripped away from it by rock n roll or whatever, yet still be exploring who you are visually”.
At the end of a year, Graham Coxon's tutor advised him to try to make something of his work with Blur, stating that he could always return to Goldsmith's if it didn't work out. Graham, his life having changed immeasurably in the past 15 years, still sometimes thinks that he might go back one day.
As Blur became one of the biggest bands in the world Graham continued to paint.
“I've drawn for longer than I have played music. I've had that creative thing all my life, because I would have gone totally crazy if I hadn't been able to draw or make music. Sometimes, I've almost been like a commercial artist in the way that I've done things specifically for record sleeves, and for the most part, my personal artwork has been to entertain myself. With Blur covers, I definitely was thinking with more of a mainstream eye, looking at the imagery. With my own stuff I concentrated more on what was entertaining or pretty to me, more fulfilling to myself. I can achieve whatever is in my head easier with music - making a successful drawing or painting is a lot more difficult. Although they both have the same end. Both things, drawing/painting and making music are the only ways I have of understanding my experiences, I guess”.
The ICA show will not be exhibited chronologically so will juxtapose work created at the age of 17 with much more recent work.
“The work probably starts very scruffily, and probably gets calmer as it moves on in time. Some of the stuff can be quite romantic and dramatic and angst ridden - this starts from when I was 17 - I think that the most recent stuff I've done is calmer. I now have a proper studio space as well, which I've never had before, so no more having to be careful about the carpet! In this show there will be stuff that I'm a little bit awkward about exhibiting. But I don't feel ashamed of anything, of any bad stuff I've done, of any bad drawing, bad painting, bad songs. I think it's all relevant”
“Now I really want to do a lot more work on finding who I am a bit more with the visual stuff, so I guess that, although this is a retrospective, it's really where I think I start”.