Art & Authenticity: An Interview with Conor Collins

Conor Collins is a Manchester-based artist, whose direct and daring portraits of popular icons using unexpected materials have propelled him to fame. His portrait of swimmer Tom Daley, composed of homophobic abuse hurled against him, was featured in the Huffington Post, Independent, Buzzfeed, Jezebel and TIME (amongst others) after going viral. He also has a hilarious, very followable Twitter. Leo Mercer has a conversation with him.

What are you working on at the moment? Can you tell me a bit about how you work?

Normally, I start a painting on a Friday, and won’t stop till the next day. It’s not enjoyable whilst doing it, because for ages, it’s just lines (or in other cases, just dots), on a page. But it’s enjoyable when finished. One of my current pieces is a self-portrait. It’s made up of a lot of the Twitter authentication ticks. I’ve spent ages on it, trying to get the Twitter blue right, and that’s a nightmare because it’s different colours on different screens, and on different materials. Authenticity is a big thing at the moment. People want real food, real music. It’s a bit of a nonsense word, but what makes someone ‘authentic’ on Twitter is the blue tick.

As opposed to the aspect of authenticity as connected with sincerity, being true to some elusive you.

I think that’s much more valid. And that’s why I dumped my YouTube videos – because they weren’t the real me. I was interested in Youtube, and the fandoms, and I wanted to immerse myself in it using art; but the further I got into it, the less my pieces were art, they were just pictures. I distinguish between craft and art: sometimes works have a deeper meaning which make them art. When I made Troye Sivan out of Nutella, it was skill, but it’s not art. It worked, because it went from 0 subscribers to 2000, but it wasn’t art. So I stopped that.

How would you define what is art and what isn’t?

Art is… produced by an artist. It has to have a sort of rhetoric: social, political, whatever. It has to have its own style – I keep coming back to sincerity. In the case of the Troye Sivan portrait, it was produced by an artist, and it had a style, but it wasn’t expressing anything, so it was missing something.

How did that vlogger-based work come about?

For me it began as an experiment in marketing. I didn’t have a fanbase, so I thought: who does have subscribers? Vloggers. Troye spotted it, shared it, and I got a thousand of his fans.

There’s something very internet-based about lots of your art, but you haven’t (correct me if I’m wrong) done art made digitally. Is that in principle – and if so, what is the principle? – or just something you haven’t got round to yet?

I suppose there’s a self mythologising element which may or may not have influenced my pieces, which gave them their cyber appearance. Growing up as a child my family used to have a chunky building-block of a TV, with those stiff metal buttons which had numbers that never actually correlated to the channel. With these old TVs you could sit far too close and see the individual lights of each colour that would, when put together, form an overall image. I think on some level that has influenced my dot paintings.

However I think the biggest influence on my art is my overall incompetence. The reason I don’t use oils is because I can’t. The reason I don’t work in a hyper realist aesthetic is that I can’t. I also can’t get ears to match, so I never paint any of my models with more than one. My lack of skill has been my driving force and also I think might be what has given me a bit of an edge in the art world. You can train as much as you want, but you can’t teach incompetence.

I am not against using computers. However I have always loved the haptic quality of paintings. From a distance they can look like digital prints, but up close they are blobs of paint and ink strung with mistakes and smudges. There is a big rise in digital art, but computers and I have never really got on. Plus computers are crap at making mistakes with images. Mistakes are very important and are often a more distinctive indication of who’s painting a piece than any signature can give.

To me your work looks like pointillism meets Andy Warhol meets social media.

I didn’t realise a lot of my influences until recently. I used to love watching TV, and going close up, and then stepping back, and thinking: I’m seeing an image, but these colours are all it is. When you see my paintings at a distance, they’re clear: my Alan Turing one is clearly Alan Turing, but when you get up close, it’s just pink triangles.

I was definitely inspired by Dali and his Abraham Lincoln portrait. He was interested in pixels: in one pixel, it is Lincoln, but the rest are just squares, and you can only see that it is Lincoln from far away.

Salvador Dali's portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Salvador Dali’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln

The brain likes to see faces: if the circles are too big for example, it will just see a mess of circles. I did one portrait where you can only work out what it is if you take a photo of it, or you look at it reflected in a black mirror (your phone when it’s off). I also do word paintings: this is the product of 13 months of thoughts, feelings, etc. When you’re up close you think it’s just lines – some funny, some dark, all sincere – but you have to get far away to see it’s a face.

I like that, because I want to get away from galleries: I want to produce paintings that when hung in a gallery you can’t see them, because you’re too close – you only see the portrait online when everything is shrunk. Also, the internet’s still in its baby stages, but because of the internet, as an artist you don’t need a gallery any more. 90% of my sales come from social media.

Can you say a bit more about what you think about galleries?

Well, the gallery has become an antique home for art. It served its purpose, but hasn’t evolved alongside the pieces it holds. I’m not saying exhibitions are dead, in fact there are more exhibitions going today than there have ever been. But when you consider how art has moved from painting, to video art, to performance art, and so on, galleries have remained almost unchanged from Paris in 1800. There are large expanses of white walls, wine in glasses, fashionable middle-class people wandering around, and an awkward sense that your hands should remain near you at all times, preferably one hand on your face. That’s why I prefer the internet, as the observer can observe it by whatever means they wish. However I do want to have a good few exhibits in galleries over the next few years, I just think I might do them a little bit differently.

Do you have a sense of how “Art” is publicly perceived at the moment, and whether you’d want it to be perceived differently?

As we’re in an age of instantaneous gratification (fast food for when you’re hungry, cheap booze for when you’re sad, and free porn for when you’re horny) people don’t like to wait long for an response, especially from art. That said, you wouldn’t go to an opera, hear the opening line and proclaim that it’s just rubbish and leave. You give it time. The same goes for art. People looking at art seem to want something that instantly makes you think, whilst also inducing some sort of large emotional response. Like a log flume with a socio-political message. So people don’t look two seconds at a bowl of fruit anymore. How often have people said they love Banksy because he/she is political? They see the instant political message, they aren’t really seeing the whole piece. Instead, they are liking the artists’ rhetoric. Rhetoric is part of art, but isn’t the whole of it. If you only like a piece because of its instant (and often obvious) political statement, then you might as well put a budget reform in the Tate too. If you love an art piece only because of its political message, then compare it to Stalin, or Blair, or John Lennon, not art.

Are there other contemporary artists whose work bubbles you with excitement?

Grayson Perry. I like his art because he works in the most difficult medium, because it’s seen as similar to mainstream art. In the art world there are 2 factions – the insiders and the outsiders  – and both are accepted as artists. Insiders produce hyperrealist art, or angry expressionist paintings, and the art world lap it up. Outsiders produce self destructive art pieces, and performances of refugees trying to sell you handbags in the gallery (both real pieces) and again, the art world love it. However if you live in the middle, such as pottery, the art world doesn’t like that. They like all or nothing. I like how Perry plays with that.

© Conor Collins
© Conor Collins

You’ve lived in Manchester for a while now. What is it like as an artistic environment?

There are emerging art scenes here in Manchester, but contemporary art, in the sense of painting and sculpture, isn’t one of them. The drag scene, both drag king and queens and all in-between is booming and reinventing itself. I would actually say that it is currently leading the world in contemporary drag. Music is ever changing, fashion is way ahead, but painters seem a little…safe. However I hope that may change soon.

Can you say a bit more about Manchester’s drag scene?

The way Manchester is leading drag is through its use of colour, in a metaphorical sense. A lot of drag is about being the manliest man, or the fishiest (most feminine) woman. The Manchester queens rewrite that, and instead paint both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. Their drag pushes it so far that it is beyond even gender, or human. They become walking pieces of modern art, with fishnet stockings filled with garish balloons or antlers glistening in gold against the neon lights of a kebab shop, or even politically infused with DC Joker makeup and a UKIP badge. They aren’t just dressing up. They highlight the myths we believe about clothing an image, about gender and beauty – and I must say, it’s wonderful. I wouldn’t want to name my favourites, however I would like to think they know I admire them.

Is there a sort of art community in Manchester?

There might be, but I have never really been the joining in type. There could be a ghetto of brilliant poets, painters and progressive individuals right on my doorstep. However I haven’t ever really found myself welcomed in. So far I haven’t found a community I fit in, which ironically works rather nicely. In some ways to be an artist you need to see the world not from within, but from without.

Your paintings tend to be portraits. Have you thought about doing a landscape?

I’ll do a landscape soon – I want to do one landscape, a sort of nod to cellists and pianists. Often a performance is not about the musicality, it’s about the virtuosity – but they don’t get to show that, they have to do beauty. But I want to do virtuosic. When people spend hundreds, thousands on a painting, and you wonder why – it’s because they’re not just paying for that painting, they’re also paying for every other painting that led up to that painting. A concert pianist might be £300 an hour, which might be extortionate, but before that hour they’ve been working for 15 years. So I thought I want to do one indescribably delicate and complex – with the dots – in my style. That’s the only one I’ll ever do.

Do you have any big art plans in the pipeline? I saw something on Twitter about a Heineken-advert-inspired daringness!

I like to try and do more and more every season. I suppose I never grew up from that child who would rush his class work in year one just to give it to the teacher to say “DONE, what’s next?”. So this year I am planning a Manchester show in collaborations with Superbia, and two London shows, one in Central London and one going on tour and finishing in Buckingham Palace. All three of these are still in their early days of planning, but I already want to plan another – perhaps in Oxford?

Your Twitter account is continually humorous – is humour something that you try to put into your art?

I think humour and art are very similar, they simply say and show things as they appear to their observer. If you show things better than they are you are called a romantic. If you show them worse that they are then you are called a pessimist. However if you say things and show things exactly how they are, then you are an Artist.

Leo Mercer

More of Conor’s art can be found at his website.

We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook

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