Paul Simonon is better known for being The Clash’s bass guitarist than for sitting at an easel. But his new series of paintings, “Wot No Bike”, at London’s ICA, next month, is his visual diary in paint of British subculture and counterculture in the post-Second World War decades.
It includes oil paintings of his biker paraphernalia which are as much self-portraits as they are still lifes. The painting Boots and Jacket with his leather jacket and helmet on a chair and his boots on the floor is a nod to Van Gogh’s Chair. Wot No Bike? is a painting of his biker jacket hanging against a white background, while Gitanes shows a packet of cigarettes and lighter with a lit cigarette on the edge of a table.
Simonon was born in south London’s Thornton Heath and grew up in Brixton and Ladbroke Grove. He was inspired to paint as a child by his artist dad and mum. He studied art at the Byam Shaw School of Art, then in Notting Hill Gate, and had planned on being an artist before he formed The Clash in 1976 along with Mick Jones.
“Then the visuals of the band and clothing was my department,” says Simonon, who put painting to one side to play music.
After The Clash disbanded in 1986, he went to live in El Paso, Texas, with a friend, Nigel Dixon from rockabilly band Whirlwind, to make music. “When he died from cancer,” he says, “I jumped ship from music and focused on art. I got back to Ladbroke Grove and thought, ‘I have to paint again’. I found the greys of nature inspiring, especially with our English weather.” He spent 10-12 years painting gasworks, canals, and other London scenes, as well as life drawings. “But I didn’t want to show anything then. I didn’t want to be haunted by the tag of, ‘here's a pop star with his paintings’ – it never goes away.”
He designed the cover art for the single “Herculean” from the album The Good, the Bad and the Queen, in 2007, a project with Damon Albarn on which Simonon played bass. In 2008, he had an exhibition of paintings of Spanish-style bullfights, nudes and egg-and-bacon still lifes at Thomas Williams Fine Art, in London. “I like the challenge of oil painting – it’s delicious stuff – because there are endless possibilities with oil and canvas,” he explains.
At the moment he is working on some linocuts of biker paraphernalia from his studio in Paddington – and is not making any music: “I can’t suddenly pick up a guitar and plonk away. I need to focus on my artworks.”
Paul Simonon: Wot No Bike, ICA, London, SW1 (www.ica.org.uk) 21 January to 6 FebruaryReuse content