Artist Dan Baldwin on the enduring kitsch quality of Catholic iconography

The secular painter and ceramicist explains why he is still drawn to Catholicism, and why his work is different to Grayson Perry
  • @daisy_wyatt

Catholicism is an odd starting point for an artist who once made a painting called “F*** Religion”, but Dan Baldwin has been drawn to religious iconography since he was a boy.

Born and raised a Catholic, Baldwin says he has no religion now, but likes to draw on the kitsch, decorative side of Catholicism in his work.

“Catholicism is so powerful from a decorative point of view,” he says. “I grew up going to church every Sunday and it is powerful when you’re a little boy looking up at an emaciated figure of a man bleeding.

“I was in a church in Greece this year and my wife was asked to cover her legs up, and the first image you see when you enter is a man being beheaded.”

But it is these contradictions within Catholicism that also interest Baldwin. “There’s a power in the iconography, but there’s also this mad contradiction,” he says.

“On the other side there’s a lot of corruption and it’s totally hypocritical when you pass the poor bowl around and the room’s dripping with gold.”

It is these oppositional forces that are always at play in his work, from gold-plated skulls placed next to bunny rabbits, to children with halos attached to skeletal bodies.

In playing these images off against each other, Baldwin hopes to provoke an uncertainty within the viewer. For his latest exhibition, he has created a huge canvas piece called “Faith-Less”, an apocalyptic vision of a society destroyed by consumer forces.

In the painting, a haloed saint clutches a pink rocking horse as it rides on a UFO, while washing machines, satellite dishes and an upside down zebra crash through the sky. It is a typical Baldwin piece, frivolous and colourful in appearance but pressing the viewer further for a deeper reading.

Dan Baldwin's dystopic painting 'Faith-Less'

More recently, he has begun to cast his kitsch dystopias in clay, creating large pieces of pottery. Drawing on religious iconography, Baldwin creates decorative urns adorned with skulls, guns and anatomical drawings to question the fragility of life.

His most elaborate to date, “Sacrilegium”, includes a real human skull cast in clay, as well as 20 per cent pure gold paint, cherubs and an antique Russian bear figurine.

It is hard not to look at Baldwin’s work without drawing comparisons to Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull and Grayson Perry’s reinterpreted pottery.

Baldwin denies any conscious similarity between the works of his contemporaries, but acknowledges that he and Hirst share a Catholic upbringing that has impacted their art. 

Dan Baldwin, 'Nostalgia'

“I really have a lot of respect for Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry, they are both very interesting artists. But I was using skulls and butterflies in my work years ago, and I first started doing pottery before I’d even heard of Grayson Perry. I try not to look at their work to be honest, you can’t help becoming absorbed in other people’s journeys.”

He is aware, however, that some themes can become exhausted and he is now trying to move away from using skulls, as he did with the overused McDonald’s logo in 2005.

His main aim is to keep his work fresh, and his new exhibition marks a departure from the more politicised paintings he made in 2007, “F*** Religion” and “F*** Politics”, which included Jesus standing next to Adolf Hitler and George Bush.

“I made those paintings because that’s how I was feeling at the time. But I’ve moved away from that, I didn’t want to start becoming that artist.

“Becoming a father has changed my work, it’s a lot softer now and I’m playing with lots of different factors. I’ve always wanted my work to be about life, and within that it can go anywhere.”

Fragile runs to 4 October at Gallery 8, Piccadilly, London, SW1 6BN