There seems to be a recurring theme of me being always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So, while I duly attend all sort of tedious and lacklustre shows, I missed out on the opening night of Villain’s solo show ‘Fantabuloso’ at the Atom Gallery in Hackney.
I got to see his works only the morning after, when Super Fu*@!ng Gay caught my attention on my daily slog to work.
Given the historical lack of diversity in superhero comics, I was surprised to see how many of them had come out of the spandex closet ostensibly overnight.
Villain himself is not new to sudden changes. He worked in the fashion and music industry as a creative director for 25 years until, in 2017, he was diagnosed with a brain condition that threatened his eyesight. This motivated him to let Villain loose on the art scene the year after.
Since the artist has just released a new super limited edition print of Captain Pride, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask him a few questions.
ART SURGERY: Why do you use the word ‘queer’?
VILLAIN: For me personally it’s slang for homosexual. But I grew up in the eighties. Initially a slur, reclaimed as a term of empowerment.
AS: What do you think the term queer means right now?
V: I think it encompasses the whole spectrum of sexualities and genders.
AS: Are contemporary queer art and queer culture less about protest and more about sexuality?
Does the word queer ultimately belong to a more politically active past?
V: It’s such a large umbrella, I think contemporary queer art and culture covers both. I don’t see them as separate in the context of a marginalised group.
I believe the term queer isn’t tied to any specific point in time. It’s amorphous and every generation has its own definition.
AS: In a 1963 interview* with Andy Warhol, art critic Gene Swenson asked him if Pop Art is queer? What would you answer? (* this question was ultimately censored by Tom Hess, an executive editor at ArtNews )
V: No, it’s anything you want it to be.
AS: Queer-informed imagery has invaded the visual mainstream in so many ways. Is this a sign of real change or just jumping onto the bandwagon?
V: I believe it’s been triggered by real change. A lot of mainstream culture is youth-driven, if the kids are saying this is how we are expressing ourselves in terms of gender and sexuality then mainstream culture can’t help but listen. However, a corporation slapping rainbows all over its products just in time for pride, with zero connection to the cause, pure bandwagon.
AS: In your first solo exhibition (Retrosexual, London, 2018) you addressed, amongst others, the issue of body fascism in the LGBT community.
Is the narrative of body representation any different now? Can we expect a gay men’s body liberation any time soon?
V: It’s already started and god bless the millennials for it. ‘Bopo’ is happening across the board as we speak. Even in mainstream culture there’s a new narrative starting around body image across all genders. How it impacts and what legacy it leaves, it’s early days.
AS: What other issues are important to you?
V: Racism, homophobia, transphobia and freedom of speech.
AS: What do you make of the transphobia epidemic in general and within the LGBT movement?
V: Any pushback is normally in direct proportion to its targets exposure. Trans people have stepped out of the sidelines to demand their rightful place in society, that was never going to be a walk in the park. Look back at any marginalised group in history that has found its voice, there is always a section of society that says no. The lesson is not to listen and keep pushing onward.
AS: Your ‘Super Fucking Gay’ series of comic book covers is all about superheroes. Where did this idea come from?
V: There are so many parallels between queer life and the classic superhero genre. The dual identities, the drag! I wondered what the medium would have looked like if homosexuality had never been criminalised and was in fact, the dominant culture. Actually I take that stance a lot in my work – the what if?
AS: Do you have any expectations for how audiences will respond to your work? Are there any messages you wish visitors would take away after seeing your images?
V: I often use humour. You can get an idea across really quickly and draw someone in with humour, so a smile is the preferred initial response. If I’ve been able to communicate an idea beyond a smile, that’s a bonus. Depends if they catch the small print.
AS: The incredibly successful ‘Queer British Art (1861-1967) exhibition at London’s Tate Britain investigated the coded aesthetic language queer artists developed before decriminalization. In your ‘Super Fucking Gay’ series, you make use of a different coded language: Polari. What is your connection and interest in it?
V: I grew up hearing Polari, my gay great uncle was fluent. I was fascinated with the concept of a coded, secret language just for gay people. It’s also a relic of past homosexual oppression and homosexual oppression is, unfortunately, always relevant.
AS: Queer artists are often expected to make art exclusively about their queerness and for their art to be seen as queer first. It can be either a very confining box or a much needed focus on the subject. How do you feel about it?
V: I haven’t found that yet, I have had someone in cultural ‘authority’ tell me they weren’t sure there was a market for gay art. Once I stopped laughing I just went even queerer with my subject matter, bring it on I say.
AS: What’s in the pipeline?
V: Well, everything’s so up in the air right now with the lockdown. I’m part of a group printmaking show in Hackney called ‘Are friends Electric” – studies in neon. Later this year I’m involved in a queer art project called ‘Bijou histories’ which is about telling LGBTQ community stories through different mediums. I’ve just finished my first novel! I’m on a bit of a mission lately, idle hands make the devils work!
AS: Last, but not least. Why the name Villain?
I have a six inch scar across my forehead from a brain op, it looks dead butch though. I’m also a bit of a sod and extremely naughty.