On beauty, death, money, misanthropy, words, art and bowerbirds: in conversation with Paul Davis
This piece was originally written to feature in the catalogue of artist/illustrator Paul Davis’ show ‘Line in the sand’, which ran at the ginza graphic gallery, Tokyo, February 2015. It was subsequently republished by Creative Review magazine. As background, I’ve known Paul for more than ten years – socially and professionally. We’ve even played football with and against each other (those allergic to football will be pleased to know there’s almost no reference to the sport in this conversation). The catalogue was designed, beautifully, by Stephen Coates. PS Paul tweets here.
Location: a flat, east London
Objective: throw some light on the person behind the work of ‘Paul Davis’
Tone: convivial with sardonic undertones
TR Let’s begin with a promise from me: I’m not going to ask ‘Who are your favourite illustrators?’, nor ‘What’s your favourite type of pencil?’
PD Thank god.
TR I do want to talk about the way you play with language, though. Your work often features off-cuts of conversations, shards of revealed thoughts you’ve picked up along the way. Do you deliberately put yourself in situations where you might overhear something interesting?
PD No, it’s just that my ears are always open. Always have been. Growing up in a small village in Somerset did that. It was very quiet there. I graduated from a quiet village to a small town, which was a bit noisier. Then on to a small city, which was louder still. And from there to London, which is deafening. I’m fascinated by people’s language and tone of voice.
There’s always a dichotomy in me – I’m often caught between two things, between two feelings – and that’s often what I see and hear in other people. So I was on Oxford Street in London, for example, and I heard a bloke saying to a woman: ‘Fuck off, of course I love you.’ I think it’s profound he said that, and it became a drawing. The next week I was at almost the same spot and a woman said to a man: ‘My feelings for you have nothing to do with you.’ And that became a drawing.
TR You also turn clichés and platitudes back on themselves. Why are we both irritated by that type of language? A lot of people ignore it.
PD Because it’s boring.
TR But isn’t it more than that? It’s language as symptom. The words point to a degraded way of thinking.
PD I aspire to beauty but it can be an ugly world, so I have to record it. With clichés, I dislike them because there are other, better ways of describing things. With advertising and corporate communications, they produce all these words that don’t actually say anything. I blame Apple, fair and square (by the way, that was a cliché: ‘fair and square’). ‘Think different.’ What about the adverb? Put the ‘ly’ in!
TR You sound like a pedantic, tweed-jacketed grammar-school teacher from Somerset.
PD That corporate use of language is just lazy. The Expedia campaign says ‘Travel yourself interesting’. The language is ugly and the tone is smug and patronising. I find the whole thing grating.
TR So would you prefer businesses to speak in a more formal way?
PD Why not? And why not be honest? ‘Buy a BMW because it will make you better than the lesser being next door.’
TR In your work, as well as the colloquialisms and corporate-speak, there’s sometimes a phrase from really old sources. For example, I saw a drawing of yours today where the character says ‘I trust with a broken reed.’ That’s from the Book of Isaiah. The phrase describes the unreliability of things we lean on for support. It’s such a sad, violent image – the Bible talks about the reed piercing a man’s hand – and you’re applying that to a character who’s a thug. I love that blend of ancient and modern.
PD I was probably drunk, looking through the Scriptures thinking ‘That’s so poetic.’ My favourite lines are the ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,’ passage from Macbeth:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Words are beautiful. Dictionaries are fat. We should use them more.
TR Let’s get back to that dichotomy you described. You chose to go to art school to study illustration rather than fine art. The tension between working on commissioned illustration and freely expressing yourself through art is still in you. Why did you choose illustration?
PD I did an art foundation shortly after my father died. I wanted to somehow take care of my family – my mother and sister – because I was the only bloke left. It was a rational decision: There will be work.
TR Looking back, are you happy with that decision?
PD No. I should have been braver. It’s a regret. With art you’re free to do anything you want. That makes art more complicated than anything else. You have a set number of notes in music. You have a set number of characters in language. But in art you have all of that and everything else, too.
TR But you practice art now, so what’s the problem?
PD A lot of people have other jobs and work as an artist. For a while, Jeff Koons funded his art by working as a Wall Street commodities broker. The writer Charles Bukowski worked for the postal service in Los Angeles. Lots of artists work in a pub or shop or whatever, and they do their job to pay the bills so they can do their art. My job is illustration, and some people have a problem with that because it’s too close to art. It used to concern me, too, but I don’t really care any more. One problem with illustration as a job is that the money has stayed the same for years, so in real terms you now get paid a lot less.
TR Do you worry a lot?
PD Yeah. I wake up at 4.44am pretty much every morning feeling bewildered.
TR 4.44am is such a pretentious time for insomnia to wake you up. Are you bewildered because you feel the world is confusing?
PD It’s basic neurosis. I know people who are worldly wise and can do practical things like buy a house and do it up. I have no problem with that, but I can’t do that. I’m jealous of those who can live in the world that way.
TR What’s your relationship with money like?
TR Easily parted?
PD For some unfathomable reason, yes. Money harangues me. It nags me.
TR It phones you up at 4.44am in the morning.
PD Yes! You know, I do find it galling that it’s people like me who start the regeneration of an area such as Shoreditch, and then we can’t afford to live there. I was in a pub the other day and two estate agents were talking, and one was advising the other about how to get on in the job. She said, ‘It’s simple, follow the artists.’
TR One thing that’s different about you and me is that I’m fundamentally optimistic and believe people are mostly good. You, on the other hand, are a pessimistic misanthrope.
PD I’m definitely misanthropic. But to me misanthropy is like a dull cloud over my system, my cells. It’s there, but the gorgeousness of life – even simple things like a stranger saying ‘Good morning’ and making eye contact – is so beautiful it supersedes it.
I’m really a failed romantic. In This Side of Paradise F. Scott Fitzgerald has his protagonist say: ‘…the sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.’ I love that line. Actually, the woman he’s talking to then says: ‘Epigrams. I’m going home.’ I love that even more.
The reason I get so disgruntled with the world is that I grew up in a bucolic place. Then I went into my teens and at that age you want to fall in love and have a great time, but it fails miserably. People die.
TR You mean your dad died.
PD Yes, a lot of my family did. And I studied and worked, and everything since then has really been about two things: making enough money to live, and love. Both of those have been a struggle until now.
[Paul starts to talk about his girlfriend Sophie, who has come back into his life after many years’ absence. As if on cue, she returns to the flat and we stop for a cigarette break.]
PD Where were we?
TR We were having a light conversation, talking about love and death.
PD Do you know the story of William Collingbourne? In the fifteenth century he was charged with writing ‘rhyme in derision of the king’ and sentenced to death. He was hanged, then cut down while he was still alive, castrated and disembowelled. Apparently, it was all done so quickly that when the executioners pulled out his heart he looked down at his chest and said ‘Oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble!’
TR Tell me about the motif of a man holding his heart out for inspection. It comes up a few times in your work.
PD Well it’s based on those boring stock-library pictures of a businessman presenting something to people. The heart is massive, and of course the heart is a symbol for love. There’s the idea of head and heart – of thinking and feeling. And then there’s my dad dying of a heart attack.
My dad was a good cartoonist and I used to say to him: ‘What shall I draw?’ And he would say, ‘Why not draw the carpet?’ It was a beige, late-1960s carpet. And I would say, ‘But there’s nothing there!’ And he would say, ‘But there is!’ So I spent a long time drawing the carpet. Then the penny dropped. His point was you can make stuff up. And that’s what I started to do. I would look out the window everyday at the same view of hills and imagine they were huge toasters, or whatever. Then I would draw them. And this was well before I took acid.
TR Earlier you said ‘I aspire to beauty.’ What do you find beautiful?
PD I like hand-made uniqueness, so getting some recycled wood and making it into a bed or a wardrobe. I made a bed the other day – actually made one, I didn’t just tuck the sheets in. Trees are very beautiful; they can’t help it. That’s a great thing about Nature: it can’t help itself. There’s a type of male bowerbird that spends months building his bower and decorating it mainly with blue things. They like Bic pens, blue bottle tops, blue anything. And then they do a dance for the female. In the younger bowerbirds it’s all about how the male builds his bower; that’s what the female’s most interested in. And in later years it’s about how he dances. The courtship can take months and months. And then she might still reject him. If she accepts him, the act of lovemaking lasts about four seconds. Tragically beautiful.
TR I’m sure we can both think of past relationships like that.
PD Indeed. It’s beautiful waking up after a really good night’s sleep, which is rare for me. I find endorphin-induced euphoria very beautiful, especially as endorphins and adrenaline are always at war in me. In football; the perfect volley. When the rain starts or stops, but not during. With work, the finished article; when you know it’s finished. Weird and unexpected compositions I see in everyday life that will never occur again. For example, I saw a man in Hoxton drinking strong beer from a can. He was trying to hide the can in a plastic bag and a pigeon was just standing there, staring at him.
When you’re with your Love, walking down the street, and you both step on a wobbly paving stone – that’s beautiful. When you get ‘the look’. The smile. The arse of a woman who knows it’s good. When you’re drawing and you get the perfect line. Sophie’s profile – it’s so good to be in love, at last. Thoughtful foreplay and unthinking orgasm. Politeness, which is so rare. Beautiful things have to be rare. Coincidence. Howling with laughter with strangers. Lapsed zealots.
TR That’s a good 1980s band name: ‘The Lapsed Zealots’. So, you’ll be back in Japan for this show. I’m envious.
PD Japan is such a wonderful place. Actually I think Japanese people and British people have a very similar sense of humour: bizarre, surreal and slightly naughty. I’ve produced lots of drawings in Japan but always without words because I can’t write in Japanese. The work is rather pure, in a way. Sometimes when I use words in a picture it’s to justify the drawing, to make a story out of the drawing. My Japanese pictures are more like life drawing.
TR You said to me recently that you’ve stopped drawing, that this show in Tokyo marks a break in your work.
PD Well, I’ve stopped drawing for a while, though I’m still making notes. The exhibition itself represents a break because I’m going to show hardly any commercial work, and the commercial work I do show will be projects where I was free to do what I wanted. The work on display is exactly what I want to show. Afterwards I’m going to sell off lots of my archive.
TR Because I’m essentially a superficial person, I’d like you to capture the essence of what you’ve been saying today in one sentence.
PD I find the whole world preposterous but beautiful at the same time.