Pity the celebrity artist who will never be taken seriously. For example, take Prince Charles, Paul McCartney and Ronnie Wood who strive to be respected as painters. Ultimately, though, the public are interested in their canvases primarily as an insight into the inner mind of the famous. The comedian Vic Reeves is au fait with this battle. Notorious for his comedy sketches, Reeves has, in truth, been a painter all his life.
Last week, I met Reeves (real name Jim Moir) at his latest art exhibition Where Eagles Tremble in the Baroque-esque restaurant Mews of Mayfair in London. Dressed in a dapper blue check suit, he had a cigarette in one hand, paintbrush in the other and was scrawling red childlike the title of his exhibition on a white billboard.
"You may know me from television, but I am also a painter", he smirked to my colleague, the mydeco TV cameraman Chris. "I have been a painter, for many years, long before television in fact." As a child, his sketch of a combine harvester won a Weetabix competition and his drawing of Marc Bolan won a competition in his sister’s Jackie magazine (he had to pretend to be a girl). "I think you start painting as soon as you can put a scratch on a piece of paper when you’re a baby. You either like it and continue, or you don’t."
Reeves paid his way through art school (Sir John Cass College in Whitechapel, London) by creating counterfeit art. "I was doing quite a bit of forgery; if there was a Turner I liked the look of, I’d copy it. I had a barrow-boy attitude to it all; if someone wanted a painting, I’d copy it and flog it to them." While at art school, he would dress like a beatnik in sandals and corduroy cap; at this stage, he was heavily into Pop Art. In the 1990s, he started doing comedy sketches at a pub in New Cross. One night, a solicitor called Bob Mortimer heckled and jumped up on stage to join Reeves. The seed was sown for one of Britain’s greatest ever comedy duos. What Reeves thought was performance art, others thought was comedy. "It ended up on television but ultimately it’s been art all along."
His exhibition Where Eagles Tremble, in association with Eyestorm, the online art gallery, comprises aviation-inspired paintings. "I started off doing a painting of a sky car which is a flying car and put a dramatic title on it – The Tormented Skies." He continued to paint playful aeroplanes with absurd titles like "Scum", "Flight of the Retard" and "Ticklish Bombardier". "I did half the paintings and then wanted to tie them together somehow so I wrote a short story." It is this witty and unpretentious approach that warmed Reeves to the art world; YBAs Jake and Dinos Chapman say his paintings "command our laughter as a purgative, to encourage the viewer to leak at both ends." Such is the celebrity way that he counts the artists Peter Blake, Colin Self and David Hockney as friends.
Like Prince Charles or Ronnie Wood, Reeves will always be treated first as a celebrity and as an afterthought, an artist. "I know Ron [Ronnie Wood] very well and he’s very good [at art] but he’s a Rolling Stone first before anything else. With his exhibitions, it’s always going to be a Rolling Stone does some painting, rather than Ronnie Wood, the painter, is in the Stones."
The cult of celebrity, that envelopes Wood and Reeves, blinds the public from subjectively looking at their paintings. "Being a celebrity can hamper an artist.’ He says of his fame, ‘People think that being a painter is my second job; it is in fact, my first job. But, [being famous] is a great help because people come to see what you’re up to if you’re well known." It’s hard to divorce our preconceptions of Reeves the joker with the paintings on the wall.
"I’m an artist even when I’m a comedian and vice versa," he grins. His art deserves critical appreciation but ultimately, what comedian wants to be taken seriously?