Bex Massey on Painting, Collages, Fan Art, The 90s & More

by Rubén Palma
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Bex Massey (b.1985, Newcastle upon Tyne) is a British artist working across painting, collage and installation. She graduated with a BA in fine art from The School of Art, Architecture and Design in London in 2007, and later completed an MA in fine art at Chelsea College of Arts in 2013. Since obtaining her master’s degree, Massey has been awarded the ButterBiggens Prize in British Painting (2019), the Repaint History Prize for Womxn Artists (2021), and has been shortlisted for numerous awards, most recently the BEEP Painting Prize 2022. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘The truth is out there’, Roman Road, London (2022); ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, VOLT, Eastbourne (2020); and ‘ÀhhÁÀhhÁ’, Slugtown, Newcastle upon Tyne (2018). Massey has also exhibited widely in international group shows, including ‘Instagram Live’, 19 Karen, Queensland (2022); ‘The Big Show’, Good Mother Gallery, San Francisco (2021); and ‘Body \\ Politic’, Boutwell Schabrowsky, Munich (2020). Her work is held in the Leslie Collection, UK and Trollhättans Konsthall, Sweden, as well as in private collections across the UK, Europe and USA.

Hi Bex. Thank you for sitting down with me. First question. How does a regular day look like for you in London?

Hey Rubén – lovely to chat with you and thanks for inviting me to be part of such a mint list of artist interviews.

A regular day in London looks like a 7am start. Reading/research/exercise in the morning and then a walk through the graveyard (actually mega picturesque and not as depressing as this sounds) to my studio. Tests and sketches with a brew then start to get into it. Quick break for lunch with an Insta-scrawl. Audio book in my ears and 7 hours unadulterated painting. I’ll get to the studio a bit sooner or have a bit of a shorter day if I’m going to a PV, have a studio visit or it’s my turn to cook that eve.

Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel

Ok, so I know that you’re originally from Newcastle upon Tyne, and that you moved to London to study. My question is. What made you stick around after you earned your MA FA?

It’s a good question and with the increased cost of living in the UK and especially in London – one I ask myself frequently. I guess I love how multicultural London is and how many art galleries it has. That’s not to say that other places don’t have this combo, but with a bigger city you tend to get more diversity and more exhibitions and I dig both. I do miss the North though; the North has a great attitude. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, people are genuine, it has heaps of heart and is full of humour. I am looking forward to returning at some point.

So when did you start taking painting serious?

When Covid 19 hit the UK and my part time job (which in essence used to part subsidise my practice) dried up and my practice became my only source of income I started taking painting incredibly seriously. I’ve been a full-time artist ever since so this seriousness has continued, but I am also trying to enjoy the ride as it’s all I have ever wanted.

Your collage style paintings, laced with optical illusions and humour. How long has it taken you to develop? And why was this the style you chose? 

I think a lifetime if that’s not too lofty an answer? More and more regularly I am seeing things that have given me kicks as a kid work their way into my practice. My palette is situated there so it makes sense.

Ever since viewing Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors as a teen – I have been hooked on optical illusion in paint. The skull and its manipulation firmly put its aesthetic in the modern day rather than 1533 and this was and is mega exciting. As soon as you accept that a 2D form doesn’t have to relay a 2D message and that objects can intersect the frame, skew the perspective, and warp the ‘reality’ the possibilities of paint really are infinite. I also have a mini competition going with the digital – that can do all the labour- intensive things I am attempting – effortlessly. I guess I am a glutton for punishment and art school’s ‘Why Paint’ and ‘Painting is dead’ have a lot to answer for??

Illusion and misdirection form the bones of the manner in which I layer imagery. I look to 90s music videos, sci fi, literature, cartoons, comics and graphic novels for other means of layering and my adoration for Pop Art for the rest.

This isn’t the trendiest movement to reference, but putting everyone’s views aside on how ‘easy’, ‘mass produced’ and ‘expendable’ it was for a moment, the bedrock of the Pop Art Movement was POP-ular culture. Yes, some of its methods were a little clunky but on the whole it was erudite in the manner in which it engaged with all, whilst sneaking undesirable subjects into conversation by dressing them up as sexy and fun. I think that art should absolutely be for everyone. You don’t need to be able to afford it to admire and enjoy it. Or rather you shouldn’t have to, but there is a closed door policy and elitism at play within parts of the art world. This is also why I include humour, as a final strategy to enable a larger audience to interact with my subject matter from a position of safety.

With that in mind. What is it about the 90s or other retro/vintage eras that intrigues you, and makes you want to document them through your works?

I return to these nostalgic motifs as they talk of a slower time. An era that predates internet, cloud and social media. Decades where you had to wait outside McDonalds to meet your pal, and if they didn’t show up you just got soaked (this was the UK). None of this being contacted via email, text, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc etc to say ‘hey, sorry I’m running late’ or the aforementioned perpetually bleating and vying for your attention. You just had to be a bit more truthful and things took a bit longer and I miss that. I like that my work can offer a tiny respite for the viewer.

Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel

One more question regarding this. The various iconic / nostalgic characters and objects in your paintings. How do you come up with them and what makes them worthy of gracing one of your canvases?

This is a really interesting question as what is ‘worthy’ to be on canvas? I love this idea of perceived ‘worth’ and it is what I try to play with in my work. I guess to me – all things are worthy…especially the things that shouldn’t be. I like to elevate everyday objects, ideas, things. In essence turning the shit to swank. This is why I continue to dip my toe in the murky waters of ‘Fan Art’. It amuses me: As you said these ‘iconic characters’ are immortalised in canvas and the burn bright and fast nature of celebrity seems at odds with the weight and history of the tradition. But haven’t we captured the upper echelons of society in paint for some 5000 years? For sure the societal bias has maybe shifted from King, Lord, Marquess, Lieutenant to Kardashian – but it is still noticeably elected by notoriety and wealth as per Ancient Egyptian beginnings.

What is more – this replication of stardom is usually documented virtually via Instagram, Facebook or fan blogs. People spend yonks replicating screen grabs to venerate an actor or character. When we recognise worth usually as an equation where the most important resource is time – by default we should see the value in these portrayals – but instead we log the images as naff and at best trite. I guess I use these figures and objet as they talk of the history of painting – the history of portraiture and still life therein – and our ever-evolving relationship with these genres.

Installation view solo show ‘We didn’t start the fire’, VOLT, Eastbourne. 2020. Image courtesy of Mitsi Moulson

I’m curious about your creative process. Can you walk me through it, from start to end result, and what you aim to convey. 

Each series tends to lean into a different theme. Once I have isolated this starting point, I’ll spend quite some time developing it as I want my work to be inclusive and fun (life’s tough enough, and discussing sensitive themes with humor usually brings more and unexpected faces to the table). Once I have the initial idea there’s months of research whilst I collate an image library. I usually find five ideas I want each canvas or series to articulate and then I’ll play with imagery until the stories I want to facilitate are ready to go. I’ll start by isolating an image which would make the best base layer and start blocking it in. Whilst this dries, I sketch what’s coming next and will start the same process on another canvas. 

Then it’s just a case of grabbing other images that would visually work well with the under painting and engender my intended narrative. Sometimes I will scale up the potential imagery and move it around the canvas, loosely sticking with masking tape to test different configurations. Mostly I will do buckets of compositional sketches and occasionally I have a very clear idea of what the painting needs to be and just start blocking areas in until the works says what I want it to say. 

It is really important to me that each canvas conveys the concept I want it to. I try not to incorporate imagery that would be too prescriptive to my ideas though as what I am interested in the most – is what narratives the viewer takes away via ‘The Systems of Objects’. If I have done my job well – the composition is pleasing/intriguing enough that viewers will read about it or ask myself/gallerists what the artist had intended. This is an even bigger win as then I get to share some history of the Queer community.

Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel

How about the use of symbolism. Is that something you practise?

Oh yea definitely, I combine historical symbolism with modern day signifiers – as you don’t find many Greggs sausage rolls in Greek Mythology.

I know that you’ve actually coded a Virtual Reality filter and implemented it on to your paintings. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Like what made you get into VR, what function does it have and what are your plans for it? 

Yes, I coded an Instagram Filter. It feels very odd as my work is almost anti digital in its commentary of the post digital landscape. I was however painting inverted self-portraits whilst on Elephant Residency last year: Inverted as ‘invert’ was an outdated psychological term for homosexuals, coined in 1897 by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. 

I was trying to work out how to direct visitors towards free App ‘Negative me’ which I had been using to make the works – so that visitors to the end of residency show could interact fully with my paintings in revealing their naturalistic veneers. The other resident – Long Huang – suggested that I use an Instagram filter. I trawled through all the filters available, but none of them were doing a direct ‘invert’ so I coded my own. 

Readers can access it on phones, HERE, or head to the stars on my profile, or via my bio. It was up there in ‘the worst week’ longlist, as I moved closer to opening night and all my coding was still leading me nowhere. A slight ‘eureka’ moment when I managed to get myself to strobe inverted with green flashes– which was obviously a million miles away from what I wanted, but the first time in two days where my reflection had changed at all.

Since making the filter viewers have been able to extend the pictorial space further than the canvas parameters and reveal varying imagery in my canvas from Gillian Anderson to my cat Jlo. It has been utilised at the end of residency show and my solo show ‘The truth is out there’ last year and this year in series ‘There’s something about Mary’, and‘There’s nowt as Queer as folk’. I will also be using it when on Rotation Works, NYC residency this summer…so still quite a few plans for it yet.

Ok, so feminist and LGBTQ issues/topics. Specifically “Section 28”, which, and correct me if I’m wrong is a legislative designation for a series of laws across Britain that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality”. Why have those topics been important for you to document?

Yeah, Section 28 was in play across the UK making it illegal to ‘promote homosexuality’ in all local authorities between 1988 and 2003. I wanted to make a series about it as this law directly affected me and stacks of the Queer community who were also of school age during this time frame. Lots of people are unaware of the law which was only repealed in the last twenty years, so it felt important to discuss as we have another Tory Government in power who are also trying to revoke many civil liberties for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Also, when Section 28 has been documented, it has usually been from the point of view of the people of age, rather than those coming of age during this period: The activists who tried to derail the bill, the teachers who were scared to be themselves, the local authority workers who were being outed by the tabloid papers etc etc. ‘The truth is out there’ aimed to discuss this archaic law, the LGBTQIA+ history and literature that I and many like me were not afforded during our formative years and the negative impact and sedate pace this has had on many becoming their authentic selves. 

Intersectional Feminist issues and in particular Queer issues are important for me to document in my work as despite both getting better, neither have disappeared. I worry that the general public aren’t always aware of laws and treatment that affect myself and my community. Or rather I have to hope that they are just blithely oblivious as the reality where the majority of the UK’s populus thinks it is ok that conversion therapy is still legal for Trans people (only made illegal for lesbian, gay and bi people last year) is unconscionable.

Where do you find inspiration for your pieces? and are there any artists you look up to?

Ah so many places – life – everywhere?

So many artists I look up to but to name a few Heather Phillipson, Lubaina Himid, Sol Calero, Allison Katz, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Jim Shaw, Lucia Hierro, Chloe Wise, Sun Woo, Flo Brooks, Nic Eisenman, David Hockney, Ulala Imai and David Salle.

How would you describe a perfect day?

A perfect work day is an unadulterated painting day with a great radio drama in my ears.

A perfect day off is with my partner and starts with reading under my cat in bed; A swim at the lido; its Tshirt weather (can but dream) so a relaxed walk into centre with a stop for lunch or coffee; visit some galleries – all with mint painting shows on; arriving at Itsu as it shuts for half price sushi; Jumping on a tube and home for food then the latest Ru Paul Drag race episode. Come on Sasha Colby!!

What motivates and inspires you? 

A need to paint motivates me. Paying the bills is pretty motivating. I am also presently working on a collaborative project with my partner (and in an earlier interview asking about inspiration I had an epic list which went through popular culture, music, artists, Victoria Wood and finally finished on my cat and then my partner) so I’m going to say it in the correct order this time – my partner Tanya Moulson inspires me.

Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel

Alright Bex. These last two questions I always ask at the end of the interview. The first is: What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

Titus [1999]. I love Shakespeare, this is my fav of his plays and the cast is next level.

The first wives club [1996]. Who doesn’t want to watch something which involves Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton?

Notting hill [1999]. I was obsessed with this film and when I came out as gay I modelled myself on Hugh Grant’s ‘William Thacker’ character. It was an interesting decision for young Bex to make but in my defence – with zero examples of lesbians in the early 00’s and Thacker’s ability to punch waaaaaaaay above his weight with Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) I kinda stick by it, ha.

The favourite [2018]. All hail Olivia Colman.

Image courtesy of Deniz Guzel

The second is: What songs do you currently have in rotation?

Temptation. Heaven 17
Freedowm! ’90. George Michael.
Rhythm is a dancer. Snap!
I hate people. Willow Pill
Run to you. Whitney Houston
My Delirium. Ladyhawke
Vivaldi, The Four Seasons. Recomposed by Max Richter
Parce Mihi Domine. Jan Garbarek & Hilliard Ensemble

Profile picture by: Mitsi Moulson

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