Howling across the borderline

Phil Johnson meets Jeff Nuttall, Sixties survivor and enduringly cherubic icon of the confrontationalist avant-garde
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In his latest exhibition of landscape paintings, whose surfaces are raised into the third dimension by stuffed nylon appendages - sometimes suggesting a hill or a hedge, sometimes a limb or an intestinal tract - it's perhaps possible to read the whole of Jeff Nuttall's rumbustious career. They aim, he writes in a statement accompanying the exhibition, "to synthesise a vocabulary of gross eroticism with a full-blooded baroque romanticism". In their swollen forms, you can almost see the rubicund, air-blowing cheeks and Michelin-man body of a libidinous cherub. And you can detect the vestiges of a cherub in the appearance of Nuttall himself, too, despite the ravages of time.

Writer, painter, polemicist, founder of the pioneer performance art group The People Show, author of the Sixties text Bomb Culture, peripatetic jazz cornet player and all-round Bohemian survivor, Nuttall is still - in his sixties - a rude and potent force. His boozy cupid's features, generous belly and sly, lifted eyebrows have recently helped win him a new career as a character actor in television comedies such as Lenny Henry's Chef, All Quiet On the Preston Front and Men Behaving Badly; he was even type-cast as Friar Tuck in the movie Robin Hood. "For an actor, being fat has enormous advantages," he says. "Acting is such a vain profession; almost everyone is thin, which leaves room for me." The work gives him plenty of time for painting and writing back at his home in Abergavenny, near to the Welsh border country where he spent his childhood.

Nuttall has always had a day job. For many years he was a teacher and lecturer, beginning in secondary schools and ending up as head of fine art at Liverpool Polytechnic, before taking early retirement in 1984.

His career in education was at least as radical as his work in the parallel worlds of art, theatre and literature, favouring methods that were often wilfully unconventional. My father-in-law was taught art by him at a secondary school in East Finchley in the Sixties, and he recalls Nuttall putting him in a waste-paper basket when he disapproved of a drawing he was doing. "Oh, yes," says Nuttall. "I used to do that quite a lot. I suppose I'd be put in prison for it now. I also used to get the noisy children to put their heads inside their desks, but one day I unknowingly picked on a boy who had claustrophobia and it gave him a terrible migraine. The next day, I was playing the piano in the lunch break when the boy's father came in, and slammed the lid down on my fingers."

Years later, he was beaten up by a posse of feminists after trying to console one of them by putting an arm around her shoulders. Trouble with women has been, you feel, a constant thread in his life and work. At Leeds Polytechnic in the Seventies, he was, he says, always getting arrested for scandalising people with his confrontational, and occasionally obscene, performance art shows. He also used to teach his students to stalk people, as an exercise in alienation. "All my life I've been in trouble about obscenity, but I'm interested in the obscene for many reasons," he says, as we talk in the parkland outside the marvellous new gallery in Ebbw Vale that is home to his exhibition.

"We're all of us turned on by the obscene," Nuttall says. "It's a root element in eroticism, but why is it obscene? Why are we not allowed to see it or say it? There are good reasons for this, because we don't control it, and I'm interested in obscenity precisely because of that. The paintings in my exhibition are paintings of energy, pre-ethical, pre-social energy, and their political message is that we have to accommodate this, and that our social structure will start to work only when we do."

Though he has been a dedicated and confrontational avant-gardist all his life, Nuttall is beginning to mellow at last, able to see the craft of a well-made play by Terence Rattigan or a painting by Sickert; even the virtues of John Betjeman are beginning to take hold, which is somewhat shocking for someone schooled, as he says, in the impeccably impenetrable prose of Isadore Ducasse, the 19th-century ancestor of Surrealism. The current exhibition, which is built upon a series of drawings of the border hill country, has also given him a rare glimpse of joy. "I've been active in a time when a certain kind of insanity has been the norm, and I must say that making these drawings has represented a most eerie and marvellous happiness, something I've almost never felt before, a sense of supernatural well-being. I'd always seen the lyrical, romantic element in my work as something separate and opposite to the aggressive element, and I suddenly saw that they could be resolved. It's like Samuel Palmer, but Palmer married to Hans Bellmer [the Surrealist creator of auto-erotic dolls], or John Masefield married to Bataille."

As a leading light of the London underground movement in the Sixties and early Seventies, Nuttall found himself pioneering performance art with The People Show, and helping to create an alternative tradition in poetry that was opposed to the metropolitan bias of the "official" canon. This continual opposition, and the context of "Bomb Culture" which engendered it, may have been, he feels now, a kind of glorious mistake. "People of my age have spent the whole of their adult lives under the probability of nuclear holocaust," he says. "For a long time it seemed that it was going to happen and that one was living in, as it were, the last days. And that licensed one to do something dreadful ... to make something happen. There was the sense that we had to do something quick, violent, makeshift and new. The times weren't conducive to intelligence, but to a kind of mental disturbance. There was a sense of hysteria - and hysteria is not strange to my work. A poem such as Howl!, a novel such as The Naked Lunch, a painter like Francis Bacon, musicians such as Archie Shepp and Charles Mingus - everywhere there seemed to be a real shrieking and a howling. Then rock music was created as a playground where people could howl as hard as they liked, and it could still be sold. So now we have poor old Richey Edwards [the missing member of Welsh pop group Manic Street Preachers] - wherever he is - hacking his arms up; all those obliging suicides; but without the creativity of Edith Piaf or Billie Holiday, or Charlie Parker, or Antonin Artaud, who, without any of that extreme creativity, have felt themselves obliged to commit themselves to a course of very public self- destruction. So maybe all that hysteria was a very bad period, and maybe my work is less honourable than I hope it is, because of a mistake in the historical assessment of my time."

Some of Nuttall's feelings about what has happened since are contained in a manuscript for a new book, The Degradation of Awareness, that has been doing the rounds of various publishers but has yet to find a home.

Meanwhile, he cultivates his garden back in Abergavenny. "What I'm going to do now, I don't know and I don't much care. I shall continue to blow a little jazz and when I get an idea for something to write, I'll write it," he says. He's a member of the Abergavenny Writers' Collective, who organise readings and criticise each other's work. "It's local and very provincial, but I like that," he says. "After all, Erik Satie sat on his local town council."

Jeff Nuttall's paintings are on show at the Westland Centre, Festival Park, Ebbw Vale (01495 350010) to 28 July

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