Interview by Sarah Roberts
Published January 2016
Bex Massey is one of those people you feel like you’ve met before, and you certainly know you’ve met afterward. Her work is in many ways the same.
There is little room for a lack of recognition in Massey’s work as tropes of the eighties and nineties dangle before your eyes or gaze back at you in paint, plastic or plaster. But at the same time there’s a lot left unspoken in this series of made and found clues strung together in a discordant narrative of longing and belonging and value. Behold her perfectly made plinths and supine shelves populated by everyday icons, Friends DVD box sets and plastic dinosaurs are given a sense of hyper value value whilst you the viewer are left wondering guess who? Whether the Price is Right and who got Mickey Mouse drunk on Stella Artois?
Can you talk about your use of paint and sculpture, the flat and the 3D, and more importantly your use of colour and form in both? I regard you as a painter and a sculptor, a sort of visual and material storyteller. Does your use of these delicious variable languages inform the work, define it, or simply provide a vehicle for telling the story?
I find the crossovers between painting and sculpture fascinating and as such it is this intersect that generates a continual dialogue within my practice. In formal terms my work would be deemed sculpture or at best installation. However until 2013 I resided within the more concrete bracket of figurative painter. Painting mediates the manner in which I tackle sculpture. The history of art that surrounds both mediums has also become paramount to my practice. I have subconsciously created my largest series to date based on which: Using both 2D and 3D processes to examine the application, composition and display of the Old Masters.
Colour and form play a large role in the construction of my work. I favour hues and pattern that remind me or are directly appropriated from the 80’s 90’s nostalgia of my childhood. These props sit awkwardly or balance precariously on different planes as I enjoy creating an element of angst in my constructions. I may use the hum drum but I don’t want people who have taken the time to see my work to fall asleep at its banality. This material language acts as a vehicle in realising a story. The objects I utilise in driving home these consensus vary and moreover the degrees of painting, sculpture or lack thereof alter as to the nature of my brief.
Bust, 2015. Image Credit: Julian Lister
Let’s go back to the storyboard…literally. You discussed your love of stories, your works to me always seem to have a sense of a narrative or an underneath, there’s a strong notion of pre-planned clues and signifiers that you as the artist want me to piece together…Saying that, I don't feel you holding my hand through it and there’s still plenty of room to manoeuvre, I think of your works as scenoscapes, like cartoon strip boxes extracted from a longer sequence
My interest in stories started at their beginnings, as fables told around a camp fire in days or yore. These utterances were passed from generation to generation via the spoken word and as such changed incrementally in their retelling. This is what initially drew me to researching the Grimm’s Fairy Tales as this was the first time that the fables had been committed to paper. I was therefore surprised that these texts were also far removed from the bed time stories of my youth. Not least as the accounts that I was ushered to sleep with and the versions that I saw on the big screen thanks to Disney had an intrinsic moral code embedded in them. It is this continual distortion of myth and legend that I seek to acknowledge in my work.
The initial conceit is of huge significance to me. I tend to give clues to what this may be via title or simulacra. As you picked up on however-I do not expect the viewer to come to the same conclusion as I. What is more I do not care or try to persuade them of my ideas. This apathy is due to my preferred interest in the stories that they will create from the construction of seemingly randomly selected objects. I love telling a story but I prefer to hear the anecdotes of others. I’m a strong believer that every story is important-Jeremy Kyle is proof of this.
He’s so hot right now, 2014
You describe your made matter as ‘props’ operating 'on a plane' which immediately made me think of theatre sets...Can you talk about your use of the term ‘prop’ and about the objects themselves and how they operate together and individually, once made. Are they to be looked at? To be experienced as objects/spaces? Are they still distinct objects?
I have always been interested in drama and theatre in general which is probably why I borrow the terms ‘prop’ and ‘plane’. I think that in the context of my work this language helps to illustrate the purpose of painting and objects within my installations. They enable me to narrate through an abstract form of simile, metaphor, our shared experience of the era and our personal connections to a specific object. As every viewer who sees said displays will also bring their history and own knowledge to the situation and what I find most pleasing about this scenario is that they will by default create their own subjective account to accompany my ensemble. As Jean Baudrillard ruminates in Systems of Objects  everyone’s associated worth and recognition memory is different. So as I touched upon earlier-it doesn’t matter what I believe the initial story is as when viewed by others this will bend and break an infinite amount of times. The objects sit together to create a dialogue with the viewer but not as objects or materials but rather as one convoluted strophe.
Seasonal Sculpture 1, 2015. Image Credit: Charlotte E Groves
Can you also tell us a bit about your relationship to painstakingly remaking these existing objects, whilst not altering scale or form
I have altered scale, employed a singular object and only utilised duplicates if my brief dictates it-but I will concede to preferring the multiple. There is a degree of clarity I find in remaking an object: I become a mixture of man and machine. In the wise words of Morpheus [The Matrix, 1999] ‘Throughout human history we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems is not without a sense of irony’. As you will be aware-as that movie blew box office figures and people’s minds-he spoke of a dystopian future in which machines had taken over, but I would argue that the message is still true in the present day. We have become worryingly reliant on technology. When we were younger the TV had to warm up, cell phones didn’t exist and the internet hadn’t been conceived. This is just two decades ago.
I commandeer the role of mass producer: This instrument would usually be calibrated using electronic equipment, engineer objects quickly and precisely and its motor could enable it to continue making indefinitely. My multiples are custom to human error, 100s will be broken or substandard and I regularly push myself to breaking point. Making 3,000 resin Sugar Mice, Balfron Tower Residency, Bow Arts and 264 plaster red herring, PH residency, Shoeworld under tight time restraints are perfect examples of the stupidity I speak of. It does rapidly make you realise that replicating throw away, quickly duplicated tatt is actually really time consuming and technically challenging without gizmos. I become the agency to raise the shit to swank, the brash to beauteous and the cheap to costly.
264 Red Herring, 2015. Image Credit: Peanut
I’ve been thinking a lot about plastic animals giving shoulder rides and bespoke shelves this week
I resolutely blame you.
These cheap little unbranded plastic fellas are made Disney Princesses in your set ups. Utilising the shelf, the plinth, the gilding of fine art techniques these cheap plastics are made fantastic, coconut shy paraphernalia become confident sculptures, Jessica Fletcher is an omnipresent deity and the big wigs like Mickey Mouse are made flawed as they pass out pissed on Special Brew in a warehouse in Leeds.
For what it’s worth, tell us more about the role of ‘value’ in your work.
First and foremost the toys of which you speak are much more impressive to me than any high street brand as they are expendable. They have no perceived worth and for this reason I adore them. They look as if they have lived a hundred lives before the packet is opened; if I bought 100 of the same model they would all still be slightly different as the machine (children…gulp) isn’t calibrated correctly; the easily breakable easily forgettable stackable pieces of pure joy. Furthermore I enjoy the debate I enter when positioning them next to canvas. The combination talks of time: A commodity that we cannot engineer and ipso facto its expense is exorbitant. In combining the throw away with the collectable I aim to question notions of value-namely as I actually find the former beautiful and become more and more frustrated by the throwaway society we live in.
The display devices I utilise in formalising these concerns further outline the monetary divide as I elevate the common place to noteworthy and craft to naff. In these cases it is the shelf that has taken time and skill to instigate so placing a plastic leopard on it seems perfunctory and therefore innately satisfying. As such these pieces start to even encroach on archive and classification as I step in and out of the awkward collector of Poundland curiosities.
Seasonal Sculpture 2, 2015. Image Credit: Charlotte E Groves
So you are off back home...Tell me about where you grew up? Does that location and side of your history relate to your practice?
I grew up in the paradise known as Newcastle upon Tyne: I love(d) it there. I also spent a heap of my formative years in Yorkshire with my grandparents and extended family. We used to congregate around the East Riding, usually in a small village named Airmyn. The North East will therefore always have my heart. I miss it and still get a wave of childlike excitement when I see the cooling towers peak their heads near Goole or the bridges line up as the train roles over the Tyne. When these points of architectural heritage no longer regurgitate a giddy squeal from me-I am dead inside.
As I am SO proud of being northern, I have become quite protective over it. As an area we have cultivated a tonne of persons to be proud of. Heather Mills is not however one of these humans. Mills was raised in Washington-unfortunately not USA. This brings her under the bracket of Tyne and Wear and close enough for me to take umbrage. This forced my arm in creating a satirical graphic novel and three large paintings based on which.
The nineties is your past and your present vibe - those baseball jackets and air max trainers are primary purchased and clung onto.
These objects and props are personally remembered for you …so how do you feel about the recent widespread fascination with the nineties, and more than that it’s availability. I can pick up a Global Hypercolour t-shirt on eBay whilst watching This Life on my iPhone. These are no longer re-runs of Friends on sky, but for an emergent cohort they’re first time glimpses at these hallowed institutions of the nineties that you use within your work….Jessica who? They cry unaware of their super modern blasphemy.
How do you think this availability of the nineties via handheld devices affects the perceptions of your work [including your own], and as time invariably moves into now, and new shrines are built to coconut water and interactive performance rather than Coffee and TV ...would you ever feel you could work with the aesthetic of other eras apart from those of your childhood?
It is making it more expensive to source implements for my constructions for sure. I remember the days where I could get a vintage pull out from Fast Forward for a ‘high five’. Alas this is no longer the case, but I still enjoy appropriating the materiality of the past. It smells and feels different. As LP Hartley stated in The Go Between  ‘The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there’. Well despite history being intrinsically cyclic they actually do. So I shall look smug when baseball jackets are en vogue and I already own four originals in mint condition. As I know as soon as it is ‘in’ it shall be ‘out’ again. I am resolutely fine with looking out of fashion and clichéd on the flipside as by this point the objects for my installations will have also decreased in price. If anything the availability of the 90s may have aided my cause as a younger audience have unwittingly created further bonds with the memorabilia I fashion.
I am however uncertain about how I would feel about letting go of the 80’s 90’s overlap that was my childhood. I have definitely not considered it as working with this palette amuses me, and the more fun I have making a piece the better the outcome generally. I started working with the visual imagery of my childhood when I forgot all about it. I had a bad fall in 2003 and lost the majority of the memories to my formative years. I am happy to report that my massive moon head is grand these days and recollections are still flooding back even to this day but I would be inclined to blame my frivolous overuse of the past on that knock. I create shrines to a youth I nearly forgot.
I would deviate from these confines of kitsch if my work was starting to seem formulaic. I had already deviated through war, around feminist theory and into Media issues before I even considered the multiple display possibilities of a Spice Girls duvet-so stepping out of the past doesn’t worry me. For the time being however-in an era where we are desensitized to peoples suffering due to a stratospheric over use of imagery thrown at us via the Media-looking at dated recognisable packaging and nostalgic prints brings a certain safety to it. A knowledge that we survived a recession, mines being shut, losing a princess, an atomic fall out and Y2k possible computer melt down. A knowing that whatever this decade throws at us we will possibly, probably, definitely survive it too. Is it any wonder that we have returned to the 90s in popular culture as the brief distraction of glam and garishness that this landscape offers us is a decadent but deserved distraction in these globally uncertain times.
Omnipresent Jessica Fletcher, 2015. Image Credit: Peanut.
It’s Millennium eve all over again, the nineties are about to disappear, you discover a cryogenic chamber on eBay…which one key cultural figure or thing do you preserve just the way it is in that 90’s time warp and why…?
You guessed it Roberts: Le Shell de Suit
The Shell suit didn’t care about class or celebrity; it incorporated all the best prints of the 80s and 90s; it could be remarketed as a deterrent in the ‘quit smoking’ campaign; it was useful for sport and casual affairs alike; Dynasty added sequins, even larger shoulder pads and lowered the neckline in its progression into high fashion; during the next decade Ryan Giggs met Nelson Mandela wearing one and lest we forget all that polyester keeps you mighty warm-but namely because they’re just fun. The 90s didn’t seem to take itself very seriously and for me the Shell Suit is the perfect illustration of this.
Bex Massey lives and works in London. Recent exhibitions include The secret lives of shoes as part of PH Residency, Shoeworld, London; Showdown, Bloc Projects, Sheffield; Pride in London, Take me home projects, London; I’m so excited, Haha Gallery, Southampton; Death of Intention; hARTslane, London;
Massey completed her Masters in Fine Art at Chelsea College of art in 2013. She was shortlisted for The Signature Art Prize and Young Masters Art Prize in 2014 and her work resides in The Leslie Collection, London and Trollhattans Konsthall, Sweden as well as private collections in London, Glasgow and Berlin. She is also a lead artist at Based Upon, London.
If you like this why not read our interview with Sarah Roberts
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