Guy Denning: The Behemoth in the crypt

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Controversial urban artist Guy Denning emerged on the British art scene with a sell-out show about 9/11 three years ago. His latest project, 50 paintings based on stills from 1928 film 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc', tackles his current political machinations.

Guy Denning spoke to The Independent Online ahead of his new show 'Behemoth,' which opens at The Crypt Gallery in London in September:'

The subject of my new exhibition is something I’ve had it in my head to do for 20 years. Ever since I randomly saw the black and white film, ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ (directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928), on Channel 4 in the 1980s.

The lead actress, Renée Jeanne Falconetti, was the first woman I’d ever seen on film with little or no hair. It was this androgyny which interested me initially, and it fed into work I was doing in the ‘90s dealing with issues of sexual politics.

Click here or on the image above to preview work from 'Behemoth'

Falconetti, from what I know, only made this one film, giving up acting soon after to become a nun. It’s is quite strange. You look at her performance and it makes you think that Dreyer must have been quite a hard director. This is pure speculation, but people think the role affected her so deeply that she committed herself to a nunnery.

Up until three years ago I worked full time on top of painting at weekends and at night. I had a series of unexciting jobs, working as a roofer, general labourer, shop assistant. I even worked in a pathology lab analysing poo. Three years ago my family and I decided to move to France.

We wanted to give up the mortgage in Bristol and scrape a living in Breton. But then, almost as we were leaving, someone mentioned my name to the Red Propeller Gallery. And then everything went quite ballistic. [A sell-out November 2007 exhibition led to the entirety of Denning's back catalogue selling for four times the London guide prices in two weeks.]

I’ve always wanted to do a large series of paintings but when I was working I used to run out of steam quite rapidly. When I came over to France I found that I could apply myself far more wholeheartedly to working on large scale project so began tackling ‘Jeanne d’Arc.’

I started by watching the film and breaking it up into screen shots. I chose 10 minutes of film towards the end when Jeanne is having a crisis of faith. I made over a hundred 6 inch sketches. And then another 50 A3 size drawings from which I worked on the paintings.

Every picture I made is related to a political scandal or significant event in France or Britain. The biggest theme, or rather indictment, for me is the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is reflected in the work’s titles: Hutton, September-Dossier, Halabja.

For me the strongest painting in the collection is Halabja. But then there are two or three paintings relating to the First World War: there’s Schneider CA, which was the first French tank; Somme, a French battlefield; and there’s Verdun.

When I was about 11 or 12 I came to France with my parents and they took me to the war cemetery at Verdun. It was the most significant thing that ever happened to me. I’d had a fairly perfumed existence in England, my parents had their own business, we didn’t really want for anything.

My definition of war up to that point was John Wayne films. When at that age you are confronted with something like that, it really does focus your mind to look at humanity. And it has stayed with me.

Another big project I’m working on is based on the three books of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve got a solo show in Bologna next year which will be the Inferno. I don’t want to “illustrate” it. I want to relate it to my journey through life, which is basically what Dante was doing for himself. And the first thing I’m going to do before I start work is to go to Verdun again.

We just had a show in New York which was good fun. They’ve invited me back and they’ll be getting the second part of the Divine Comedy, which will be Purgatory. The show will open on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. I want to compare Purgatory to the political choices which were made between now and that tragedy, depending on your reading of conspiracy theories.

Is September 11th any bigger a subject than the carnage that has gone on elsewhere? Probably not. But everybody sat down on that morning and watched those images over and over on telly. It was the literal definition of incredible. You couldn’t believe it. The problem was that these images were disposable. That’s why paintings are important. People look at them differently and try to pull something from them.

I want to move people. I want to make them think. I don’t want to produce necessarily beautiful things - things that have got any great conceptual or assumed profundity. I think the strength of all the arts is that they get to people emotionally. There’s not much rigour in a lot of contemporary art. This whole Duchampian concept of “Oh yeah, I’ve put it in a gallery so it’s art” is bullshit.

I went around the Tate Modern with some artist friends a few years ago. We were getting increasingly despondent. We came to this huge great door which didn’t have any handles on it. There was a wall note next to it about the artist, which we talked about. Then we walked around the corner and there was another door like it, but no wall note. We’d been stood there studying a standard door for God’s sake - the wall note referred to something on it’s left!

I’m not saying that anything that is painted is good, and anything that is not painted is a pile of pants. But sometimes it is a pile of pants and we have to stroke our beards grimly and say “Oh wonderful.” I’m a Stuckist, but then I don’t like a lot of work by other Stuckists. But I do like the fact that they’re willing to stand up to what the established art world has become - this untouchable state-funded, state-supported thing. It’s an easy cliché to trill out, but there is something of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” about it.

You’ve only got to look at Martin Creed, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin – they’ve gone back to bringing in aspects of traditional practise into their work. Drawing and painting. I’m not saying whether it’s any good or not, but they see that there is a fundamental value to it. They see that what they were doing isn’t cutting edge any more.

I’ve got more books here on art than the whole of Waterstone’s. I’ve been obsessed with it since I was four or five years old. It wasn’t a choice. I didn’t think “Oh I want an easy three years, I’ll go to art-college.” Actually, I didn’t go to art school. They wouldn’t have me.

I applied to three art colleges in the ‘80s - Bath, Bristol, Taunton – all local because I had a babby [sic]. They turned me down. They said: “Oh he’s not a blank canvas, he’s a loony” or “We can’t teach you how to do it because you can do it already.” It makes you what you are. I used to be really bitter and twisted about it. But now I’m just bitter and twisted about everything.

'Behemoth' opens at The Crypt Gallery, St Martin in The Field, London on September 3 until September 19 2010

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