Danny Fox has always made art but he’s never been to art school. He spent his childhood in Cornwall then left age 16 to escape an inevitable career in tourism. Now 28, his tattooed skin, bohemian lifestyle and studio full of paintings are evidence of the years in between. He’s lived all over the country, and when he’s had the cash, he’s travelled abroad. Everything he does somehow becomes source material for his work, from the women in his life to the book s he’s reading, washing dishes for a living, driving through the Californian desert and, inescapably, his own Cornish identity.
It’s the hottest day of the year so far and I’m standing outside a studio in Kentish Town waiting for Danny Fox to open the door. Two bubbly young girls with long dark hair let me in and, halfway up a flight of stairs, I see Fox looking down, waving. There’s an instant sense of a scene here, where something exciting is happening. The studio is actually a large room in a house whose bare brick walls are evidence of disrepair rather than a trendy architectural style statement. Fox has paintings stacked three rows deep, and a bunch of pen and ink drawings clipped up on a makeshift line hanging across the room that he tells me he made today.
I look at the first layer of paintings depicting men’s faces in dirty pinks next to cow’s or tiger’s heads: suspended portraits that hint at narrative clues. Next to these are several porn-shot nudes, with spilly, flesh coloured paint describing body parts in such an expressive way that the paint application feels as racy as the subject. In contrast to the figures are line drawings depicting flowers, patterns or objects that hint at subtle domesticity within the otherwise explicit imagery.
Fox starts to move the canvases around and I ask him to stop at a painting depicting a girl on her hands and knees. The more I look at it the more I find myself thinking I’ve seen this somewhere before: a ’70s Scorsese film, perhaps, or The Sopranos? The source is, in fact, a drawing Fox sketched out at The White Horse. “It’s a strip pub, y’know, on Shoreditch High Street,” he tells me. “It’s like a pub, where you put a pound in a pint glass and the girls trot around. I went through a phase of doing some writing [and sketching] in there, and that’s what you see here.”
The painting is made up of blocky areas of colour and minimal description; a naked girl in a suggestive pose is placed in the centre of the painting, she looks out awkwardly and in the background, above her, there’s a small portrait of Mike Tyson, gloved fists raised. Putting these two apparently incongruous figures in the same painting isn’t what makes it interesting, it’s the way he’s done it. The girl is blonde, naked, she’s stripping for pound coins, but her prominent form is dominating the painting. The figure in the background, a heavyweight champion and convicted rapist, is fixed in his iconic pose, a one-time sporting legend now followed by a shadow of controversy. The painting hovers between being disturbing and empowering; it looks like Fox has knowingly depicted the girl as in a position of control rather than one of exploitation. I tell him that what I find interesting is how different this painting would be if the scenario had been contrived specifically in order to be provocative, tabloid-style. Fox agrees to a certain extent, then states: “It’s my life, I just paint what I do.” before going on to explain. “I’m sitting in there [the White Horse], and there’s a woman on the stage and a painting, in the background, of Mike Tyson, and I think that’s interesting. So I take it from life and put it on the canvas, you don’t see that [what you see is an edited version], [the painting] and it’s still interesting. Someone else was round here and they were talking about how sexual it was, but that’s just because it’s nudity. That is just how it is, that painting of Mike Tyson is what’s actually in [the White Horse].”
Fox’s ‘life’ is filled with beauty, energy and anger, and somewhere in between there’s a glimpse of wry humour, a subtle subtitle that says “I’m serious about my work, but I can see a lighter side, too”. When I ask him about the comic elements in his work – like Paris, a painting of a porn-type girl holding a golden Eiffel Tower dildo between her legs like a phallus, or Beef, which depicts a cowboy eating a burger sitting at a table with a cow – he tells me: “It’s not punch-line funny, it’s not a joke… It’s comedy and tragedy.”
As I look around the studio I think how much it looks like any other artist’s studio. I ask him how he’s achieved certain paint techniques and why he’s chosen to repeat colours across series of paintings. Are these just accidents that he’s run with, or have they been learned? “I mix the colour and make up a big tub so I can keep using it”, he explains. “I like the way it carries over across the work. It took me a while to figure out how to do that. I’d spend ages going, ‘shit, how do I get that colour again?’ [The answer was to] just make more of it, but that was something I couldn’t do until I got money, after I started selling a few paintings.”
Some of the things Fox says about painting make it difficult to believe he hasn’t made work in some kind of a critical context before. We talk about his influences and he mentions Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky, Guston… all the big hitters. I ask him what books he reads. “Everything”, he replies, then thinks about it further. “The last book I read was by Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s bird, called Life with Picasso. It was a best seller in the ’60s. I read a lot about Matisse, not just about the work, but the time, hanging out in the South of France. With artists like Picasso or Matisse you can’t get anything near it in your [painting], but I think it’s obvious that I look at those artists.” He adds, “I’m the most critical person ever; if something looks too much like something else, it goes.”
I like the fact that Fox is aware that you can learn by playing with painting styles, and even use them as quotations, but that, ultimately, copying isn’t an option. He shows me one of the porn paintings and explains how he was thinking about a Kandinsky nude when he made it. I ask him how much he wants such stellar influences to be read when people look at the work; he says it’s intentional that there’s a reference there but adds a disclaimer. “I think you have to have a strong enough voice yourself to carry it.”
The painting right in front of me, Stella (English Holiday), is like a nod to an early Sarah Lucas aesthetic; in it, a girl sits, legs outstretched, holding a can of Stella Artois. The painting contains various areas of pattern that create a collage of styles and techniques. I ask Fox how he drew out the patterns. “In this one, I used spray paint to get a different texture,” he explains. “[The flowers] are something I took directly from the curtain in a hotel in Thailand; I just saw it and sketched it. The jellyfish and boat are taken from a memorial wall that children painted after the Tsunami. It’s a homage to the great British holiday,” he continues. “There’s a woman in a chain-mail bathing suit, a jar of Coleman’s mustard… What’s left of our Britishness? I’m very sensitive to tourism because I grew up in Cornwall, that was my fate; if I didn’t get away I’d be working in a restaurant now.”
Fox then goes over to a painting that depicts two men in hats standing very close together behind a boat. It has a Billy Childish look to it. He tells me: “You’ve got a miner with a canary, tapping away at his helmet, and a fisherman trying to sell an ice cream. When all the mines shut in Cornwall, someone sprayed What are Cornish Boys to do? over the bypass in big letters, and it was quite potent, which is unusual down there. You’re usually so far away from it [all], but it was just there in big black letters and it always stayed with me. My family weren’t in mining or fishing, so someone might see this and think ‘fuck you’, but my family is in tourism, which is what’s left. If anything, this painting is about my lack of identity as a Cornish person living in London; it’s got quite a lot of shame attached to it.”
The way Fox talks about his past makes it clear that he has always been interested in art and made paintings, so I ask him how he missed out on naturally gravitating towards art school. “Certain things happening at that time,” he explains. “I had to leave the town I was from, in Cornwall, and it just didn’t happen. It seems like a long time ago now. [During that time] I was always painting. For a while, when nothing was happening and I was pretty lost, I’d see people doing well who had gone to art college and I’d think I should have gone. Now, I think I’m glad I didn’t, because I see the other side of it, I see people go to art school and nothing happening. What I’ve got feels precious now, something born [outside] of an established place.”
I can’t help thinking that whatever his reason for bypassing an art education, Danny Fox could be a great role model for the non-conventional route to becoming an artist. It’s as if the art education he didn’t have is something abstract in itself; he’ll never know what he missed so it will always be a mystery to him, not in a feeling of ‘missing out’ way but more so that his love of painting can’t become jaded. He tells me he imagines art school as being somewhere you’d learn lino cutting, and I tell him he’s more likely to learn that at an adult education evening class.
We talk quite a bit about the pros and cons of art education and the way it can have negative affects on idealistic young people, and in some cases put them off art completely – especially when followed by the shock of the free fall many students experience when they leave college. Fox mulls this for a minute before answering. “I don’t want to go and wash dishes again; I don’t want to work in a bakery again. If you’re in art school and it’s hard you don’t want to do it again.” While this may be a simplistic way of looking at the issue, he’s actually got a good point. He continues, “I don’t think art school has to be the artist factory; what’s wrong with just going, meeting new friends and having fun? If you’re going to be an artist, or a painter, it’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen… I think if you go to art school and survive it and end up being an artist that’s admirable. I couldn’t have made any of these paintings before the time I made them because I hadn’t lived the story yet.”
I think this is another good point. The art school system undoubtedly creates a false security, a network that for most is impossible to replicate once they leave college; once it’s gone, you are on your own. Sure, there has to be a certain amount of single-mindedness, of self-belief in the work that you’re making and in keeping it going, but trying to base an art career on hard work alone isn’t going to cut it.
“Everyone loves an accident in art,” Fox says, out of nowhere. I ask him what he means. “[If the work is interesting because] it has a certain accidental feel to it, then the same applies to the life of the artist,” he says. “Going to art school is such a [prescribed] game plan… Fuck that.”
What he’s talking about seems to me like a much more recent trend in art, a reaction to art education that’s been re-shaped by course fees, the rise of the ‘art star’, other economic and lifestyle demands and even the internet.
Later that day I’m still thinking about the paintings, a bit about the subjects but mostly the obvious pleasure that’s gone into the making of them. The way that when I’d ask Fox how he’d made certain marks or outlines he’d show me the brush he’d used, how he’d customise his materials to get the effect he wanted. Most of all I keep coming back to a phrase Fox used to describe how he paints: “it’s colour and lines that are moved around until they work on the eye and the subconscious.” I think about how this statement describes something that’s very sophisticated in a simple way, which is what his paintings do too.
It’s easy to be an art snob, to be judgemental when you look at art made by someone who’s come up on the outside lane, but, ultimately, Fox’s paintings do speak for themselves; they show that he understands the effort it takes to learn a craft, to form a style, to be self-critical, to know you can borrow but you can’t copy. If I didn’t know he was ‘self taught’ I’d have pegged him as someone who’d found his way to contemporary art the only way you really can – by going to exhibitions at museums as well as artist-run spaces. By relentlessly making work in the studio, understanding when something’s successful and when it isn’t (and why); by seeing which gallery represents the artists you want to be associated with, getting to know artists by talking to them in the pub and learning from them rather than just wanting to be them; by having a sense of ambition and healthy competition; and by knowing how to recognise an opportunity when it comes your way.