Who the hell am I?

He's a man with two names in a town without pity, but with an attractive sea view. Who can artist Jim Moir speak for but himself? Not for light entertainer Vic Reeves, that's for sure
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The Independent Online

The artist latterly known as Vic looks rather different to his celebrated alter ego. Mr Reeves, king of surreal, slapstick comedy, is both larger than life and flatter than it, and was born aged 27 in a comedy club in Deptford. Mr Reeves used to wear black-rimmed spectacles, but has now abandoned them, perhaps cheesed off with a decade of Eric Morecambe comparisons, perhaps not.

The artist latterly known as Vic looks rather different to his celebrated alter ego. Mr Reeves, king of surreal, slapstick comedy, is both larger than life and flatter than it, and was born aged 27 in a comedy club in Deptford. Mr Reeves used to wear black-rimmed spectacles, but has now abandoned them, perhaps cheesed off with a decade of Eric Morecambe comparisons, perhaps not.

Jim Moir is an altogether more subtle, well-rounded and ordinary fellow, who was born aged zero and graduated from art college in the early 1980s. He wears large, brown, fashionable sunglasses. While Mr Reeves popularly sports cruelly dyed floppy black hair, Mr Moir's is mid-brown and cropped, with a touch of grey at the temples. While Mr Reeves's complexion is white and pasty, and sweats under the glare of harsh studio lights, Mr Moir's is dry, clear, flooded with sunlight, and lightly tanned. While Vic has a traditional fondness for dandyish clothes, in velvet and sequins, featuring ruffles and loud sartorial twists, Jim is dressed in a dazzlingly white linen shirt and dark, crisp, knee-length shorts.

Mr Reeves lives in television studios, or less frequently, on vast stages, surrounded by the satirised props of light entertainment, owned by the public, and playing to the gallery. Mr Moir lives in Hythe, near Folkstone, in a flat on the seafront, close by his former wife and his children.

Mr Moir is a private man, so he has not suggested that he should be interviewed at home, thus inviting amateur analysis of what his personal belongings might mean. Instead we have met at a grand seafront hotel, the Imperial. It is also the workplace of his former wife's female lover, but since Mr Moir is so private, we won't be reading anything into that.

After all, Mr Moir is not here to play to the gallery. He is here to publicise the drawings and paintings of Vic Reeves, shortly to be exhibited at the Percy Miller Gallery, which is, as Mr Moir points out at the start, "Near London Bridge. You've got all the details, haven't you?"

For those who nurture a particularly keen interest in the visual arts output of a non-existent character created to subvert the various formats of popular entertainment, this is not quite as exciting a piece of news as it might appear to be. For while aficionados can now see Mr Reeves's original works in the flesh, so to speak, they will already be familiar with their content. Mr Reeves's drawings and paintings were last year published in a book entitled Sunboiled Onions. The book is tremendously engaging, and hugely involved with the dichotomies and paradoxes involved in celebrity and in ordinariness. In the 12 months since its publication a couple of works have been added, but the bulk of it is already in the public domain.

While the content of the illustrations and cartoons suggest that their creator is fully alive to the dark, sometimes impossible demands of the postmodern age, there is also, within, a warning that this may not be the case. The oldest pic in the book shows Vic, or possibly Jim, dressed as the Pope and holding up a parchment which declares Res Ipsa Loquitur. This legend - "it speaks for itself" - is not much of a positive message for the interviewer keen to discuss symbol and metaphor in the art of either Vic Reeves or Jim Moir, and so it transpires.

Mr Moir does not have a reason for staging an exhibition of this work. "I did the book, and I've been asked by a few galleries and places to do an exhibition, so I thought, why not?"

Mr Moir does not feel that the drawings and paintings offer a different sort of outlet for his need to express himself as Mr Reeves. "It's all linked really, the TV and the painting, it's all creative. It's not sort of, forced. It's always been there. I've always painted."

Mr Moir does not feel that by exhibiting his paintings he is perhaps revealing to the public a more private aspect of himself. "Once you become public, then whatever you do is public. I'm not trying to hide away or anything. It's just that I've done some paintings. The opportunity to exhibit is there maybe because I'm well-known."

Mr Moir does not have any great desire to develop his artistic output further, even though the gallery is keen to highlight an upcoming collaboration with Jake and Dinos Chapman. "They asked me, but I haven't seen them since to talk about it any further, but hopefully they'll be at the private view, so we'll talk about it then. They just said to come down to their studio, so we'll sort that out then."

Mr Moir cannot foresee a time when his artistic work might become more interesting to him than his work in television. "I just do a job. That's what I like doing."

Mr Moir does not consider that as an artist he may have more control over his work than as a television light entertainer. "We've never gone mainstream. Once you've been around on TV for 10 years, people will assume that you're mainstream because they recognise you."

Now, while so far the conversation has been pedestrian, and Mr Moir has been modest and a little cagey, it has been notable for Mr Moir's quite charming habit of making no great claims for himself. Like many celebrities at this time, he is keen to employ the paradox of the fact that the media is keen to disseminate all he has to say, as a platform for declaring that he has not got much to say. He is normal, he is ordinary in his extraordinariness. He is not special in his speciality.

But this sudden desire to make it plain that he stands outside the popular consensus is not the desire of a man of and like the people. He claims, in fact, that he is a man unconnected to the majority, untainted by the exigencies of the general cultural thrust. At last a claim for himself, and one I cannot quite accept. As far as celebrity is concerned, I remain an admirer of the late, great American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, who was tramping the club circuit just at the time Vic Reeves was an unknown hopeful doing his Big Night Out and being heckled by a slight solicitor named Bob. These are some words of wisdom from Mr Hicks. "Any performer who ever sells a product on TV is for now and all eternity removed from the artistic world. I don't care if you shit Mona Lisas on cue - you've made your choice."

There may be some hyperbole there, but I certainly wouldn't agree that a performer can endorse many products for very lucrative sums of money - as Mr Reeves has done - and still remain "outside the mainstream".

"Yeah," says Jim, his calm for a moment ruffled. "I'm not... You... If that's what people want to think. If that's what's mainstream, then we're mainstream. I mean, when we did Families At War, on Saturday night prime time, people said we were mainstream then. But it wasn't in the least mainstream. The fact that we got that on BBC1 at that time with those ridiculous things, that's as mainstream as we get.

"We do what we do and people can think that it's mainstream or avant-garde."

I suggest that these are boundaries which are extremely blurred now, and when Mr Moir demurs, I ask whether he would consider the much-feted artists working now in Britain to be mainstream or avant-garde. "The majority of people probably think that Damien Hirst is avant-garde. Look at the amount of people who say 'What is this rubbish? Who is running our galleries? Why are they spending all this money on the avant-garde?' That doesn't make it avant-garde to me."

To me, it is odd that a performer and an artist who is so firmly wedded to the idea of himself as "outside the mainstream", should be so disengaged from actually wishing even to attempt to define the broadening currents and trends of the culture. To a great extent, Jim Moir appears to be drifting through success, taking what comes of it, without worrying too much about what it may mean. I put it to him that while his alter ego, Vic Reeves, is hugely dynamic and maniacally articulate, he himself could be regarded as fairly passive.

For the first time, he laughs. "You're probably quite right there. I've got no anger towards..." Mr Moir thinks for a few moments, considering what he may perhaps consider a target for anger, had he the need for such an outlet. He gives up the project. "I've got no urgency, no drive to find anything beyond what I find interesting."

There is no doubt that Mr Moir finds himself interesting - why should he not? He says as well that although he enjoys working with his long-time friend and collaborator, Bob Mortimer, he's never been "a person who needs other people round him much". Jim Moir could be said to live in a world of his own, a world into which as Vic Reeves, he invites the rest of us, while at the same time crossing his fingers that not too many people take up the invitation. That would be too ordinary. That would be mainstream.

It is clearly important to him that he should be seen as a little bit different to other people. He had an idyllic childhood, he says, often going on interesting trips with his parents, and spending weekends at craft fairs, as his father did wood turning as a hobby and his mother decorated the products. He did not resent such activity as a teenager, and later rebelled against punk by wearing a car coat and "looking like Sid James".

It therefore must be troubling to him that his undoubted originality, and his ability to communicate the contents of his inner world, has been commodified so enthusiastically to make of him that most ubiquitous of standard bearers for contemporary popular culture - the celebrity. Certainly that's what his drawings appear to say, even if he claims not to process those ideas verbally. Yet if he wishes to keep himself so very private, why does he give so many interviews? Why did he seek to give this one. "Well, I promised the gallery I'd drum up some publicity." The gallery can consider his obligation fulfilled.

Vic Reeves, 'Sunboiled Onions', is at the Percy Miller Gallery, 39 Snowsfields, London SE1 (020-7207 4578) from 8 September to 21 October.