Nancy Fouts: 'Dalí was a prick'

The modern Surrealist from Kentucky talks to Matilda Battersby about her intriguing take on the world

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The Independent Culture

Last week Nancy Fouts found her work exhibited between Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas’ at the AKA Peace fundraiser. Today her work is a highlight of the Moniker Art Fair and this weekend she’s hosting an exhibition at her house. She may be hanging out with YBAs, being feted as one of the hottest upcoming artists in town, but this sixtysomething from Kentucky is finding the limelight a new experience – especially now that Banksy is endorsing her work.

Fouts takes her cue from the Surrealists, producing immaculately executed weird objects, such as a money purse with teeth or a whistle with an eye peering out of it. The gallery that represents her, Pertwee Anderson & Gold, recently asked her to branch out into painting – and the result has been a series of customised Old Masters. In her version of Vermeer’s Lacemaker the painting’s occupant is sewing up a tear in the front of the canvas; she has superimposed real antlers onto Monarch of the Glen; and Cezanne’s Black Clock has become a working timepiece.

Subverting recognisable paintings is nothing new: the Chapman brothers famously did it and Banksy’s masterpieces adorned with comedy moustaches and glasses draw distinct parallels with Fouts’ own (although I’d argue that hers are more creative). Was Fouts aware of the similarities? “I’d never seen them, no!” she says. “But Banksy sent me an email via his people saying he loved my work. So I knew he wasn’t saying ‘You copied me!’”

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Fouts admits that she and the world’s most famous guerrilla artist “think alike”. They share comedic values, although Fouts’ work is less political. “The only difference between Banksy and me is that he can afford to buy my work, but I can’t afford to buy his.”

Fouts was sent to the UK from Kentucky in the early Sixties. She ended up studying art at Chelsea College of Art and Design but that was not the reason for her relocation. “I came to England in 1963 to be a debutante believe it or not. Because nobody else would take me. My parents were living in Africa so they put me in a finishing school.” Did it work? “Hell, no. I spent that time learning how to shoplift and getting my hair cut. Then I applied to Chelsea and away we go.”

Although in the surrealist mold, Fouts is scathing about the movement’s most famous name. “[Salvador] Dalí was a prick. He signed old blank pages! He was not a real Surrealist, he was a show off. He was playing the crowd to scratch a money-grabbing itch.”

Despite studying art, Fouts became a wife and a mother and worked commercially as a model maker in advertising for a long time. Fifteen years ago she started working as a full-time artist out of the basement at her Mornington Crescent home. She spends her days crawling eBay for interesting objects, particularly taxidermy, printing things out and working with her studio assistant to execute her unusual ideas.

Where did her Surrealist take on life come from? “My father was a beachcomber. He used to find driftwood and drag it back and say ‘Look you see these charging horses?’ He could find an Indian head on the beach just like that. So, this sort of looking business came from there. That, and his way of talking. He’d say: ‘That kid’s legs are short, but they’re reaching the ground.’ You see how that’s Surrealist? Then kids, the beautiful things they say. They have a fresh way of looking at things. So I try to be naïve all the time. While being sophisticated at the same time, of course.”

Moniker Art Fair 2012 is from 11-14 October, Village Underground, 54 Holywell Lane, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3PQ,