If someone asked you to put explosions, painting and handbags together, you would be right to think of the artist Joseph Steele. A successful artist, designer and owner of his own marketing company Get On The Wall, Steele has recently been declared the heir to Damien Hirst.
Known for his controversial methods of making art – namely by shooting things out of canons and creating explosions – Joe Steele also recently partnered with fashion designer Lulu Guinness to create a bespoke range of paint-splattered bags.
But we wanted to know more about his explosive art practice. Joe says that he has spent the last 4 years blowing things up – all in the name of art – and in June he almost cleared out Cass Art Soho and Cass Art Islington of coloured pastels, only to fire them out of a gas cannon to make a large drawing.
We asked him about his unusual way of using art materials and the process behind his canon drawings.
Can you tell me a bit of background in terms of your art practice?
I began studying art in sixth form and in the early days my art teacher was a demanding source of inspiration. I remember after I was rejected from my first university interview he made me get all of my work out and said simply; ‘You failed this because your work is sh*t, try harder.’
After school I had a plan to join the army, which ran aground after I was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy. Also, on reflection I’m not sure the army would have suited me…I ended up studying in Newcastle where I ran my own exhibitions including a collaboration with JCB and left in 2009 with a First. My practice has always been wide ranging but the projects I am able to do now are on a much bigger scale and I’m much more experienced.
Can you explain the thinking behind your canon drawings?
The canon was originally built for my 2013 collaboration with Lulu Guinness. It’s been sat in an industrial unit in Cumbria since the collaboration and I’ve always wanted to do something with it. The initial concept was to fire HB Pencils at a stack of A4 paper but as usual I wanted to try out something more ambitious.
I started buying chalk pastels from Cass Art, first clearing out the Islington store and then the Soho store and took them to Cumbria. It took a number of shots to get the effect I wanted and I ended up directing the rest of the drawing on the phone and via email. The piece has already been submitted for an exhibition.
Where (or when?) did the idea of using explosives come into your art?
As a student I wanted to live up to the expectations of the tradition of painting yet all of my attempts led to frustration and failure. After a tutor at university told me to stop painting - it was bad for me, bad for everyone - I realised that what I needed to do was find a way to paint that suited me.
One morning in January 2010 I was trying to paint (again) and failing (again) when in my anger I set fire to the canvas. As I watched it burn I realised that it was too petty an act of rebellion, I needed to think bigger. A month later I returned with 10 litres of paint, plasterboard panels and an explosives expert. We blasted the paint at the plasterboard and the finished pieces formed my first solo show.
My work since then has been an evolution of that, constantly playing with this idea of creating beautiful imagery out of extremely violent processes.
Can you talk to me about the process of exploding art materials?
I put a lot of thought into selection of materials. For example for Lulu Guinness we needed a product that had the right viscosity to spread effectively when fired, to stick to the bags and stay on without dripping and then not come off later on in the shop. We tried enamels, floor paint and eventually arrived at supercover silkscreen ink.
A number of my projects have begun on art store floors, often Cass Art with me opening up bottles and pots and asking the staff lots and lots of questions, which they always answer!
Can you talk a little more about your collaboration with Lulu Guiness?
Whilst exhibiting at The Other Art Fair I got talking to Ruthie Holloway from Beautiful Crime, an agency that brings artists and brands together. Beautiful Crime showed my work to Lulu Guinness who loved it, so after exchanging some ideas we put together a proposal to build a triple barrelled liquid CO2 cannon and blast 180 clutch bags with silk screen ink.
I think it's a credit to Lulu Guinness's reputation as an innovator to have taken on such an unusual project. I often say that when we were about to blast the first set of handbags I found myself praying.
Your work seems to focus a lot on the physicality of art materials, and properties of pigment, but do you have a favourite product?
I wouldn’t say it’s the main focus but it’s a very important part of it. I love experimenting with new materials and exploring possibilities. The products I use the most would have to be black powder and aluminium powder, to make explosives!
In the future I would like to get to grips with oil painting. It’s something that I put aside a while ago but I would like to return to it.
Finally, can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects we should be on the look out for?
I’ve completely fallen in love with film-making as a medium, and I’m about to start shooting my first proper short film ‘Thus!’ in Cumbria and Derby. I’ve been working on the script for 3 years. I hope very much to make more films in the future bringing the abstract thinking and composition that making art encourages to the format of short films and eventually feature films.
Next year I am planning a large illustration; last year a 4 metre mural illustration depicting the history of payments commissioned by Sage Pay - part of Sage Software - was shortlisted for the Association of Illustrators Award. The piece I am planning for next year will be even bigger.
The Lulu Guiness clutch bags have been available since 12th July 2014.
You can visit Joe Steele’s website here.
Images 1 & 3 - Get on the Wall
Images 2 & 4 - Lulu Guinness
Image 5 - Sage Pay