Since graduating from the Royal College of Art 10 years ago, Londoner Neal Fox has created meticulously detailed, wonderfully macabre paintings that have been shown in galleries all over the world, and his illustrations have graced the pages of magazines and newspapers like Bloomberg Businessweek, Dazed & Confused, The Independent and The Guardian. Fox’s works are populated by a wild mix of pop cultural icons—among them Bowie and Elvis, Gainsborough, Dylan, Bukowski and Burroughs—and the viewer can expect anything, from a steamboat trip into the Heart of Darkness to a nightmarish, decidedly not-safe-for-kids Disney bloodbath.
As well as doing his own work, Fox is also a member of art collective Le Gun, which formed at the RCA, where the members used to throw parties and paint together to raise money for their eponymous magazine.
The only constant in his paintings is Fox’s granddad, John Watson, an old man in a black hat who is in every painting, and who functions as a kind of shaman figure—Fox says it’s “like his ghost is on this crazy journey, meeting all these people.” Watson, who was a Scottish bomber pilot in WWII, wrote a bestselling novel about his time in the war and went on to become a TV host, interviewing icons like Cary Grant and Steve McQueen. He passed away when Fox was young, inspiring Fox to start drawing, as he illustrated the stories of Watson’s colorful life.
Recently, Fox created the new pub sign for London’s iconic French House in Soho, a legendary watering hole for generations of writers, artists and drinkers, in what used to be London’s seediest area. Cool Hunting met up with Fox in his studio, which he describes as a “deranged teenage bedroom"—overflowing as it is with pop culture references, sketches, books and photos—to have a chat about influences, how he works, dinosaurs and upcoming exhibitions.
How'd you come to do the French House sign?
That came about because my granddad used to drink in the French House years ago. When I was at the RCA, I started kind of following in his footsteps and go where he used to hang out—and he used to drink in there, so I started going there. When I left college I had an exhibition at the French House of drawings that had my granddad in them, and an art dealer from Germany saw the show and asked me to do an exhibition in his gallery. That’s how I started doing exhibitions. So it was kind of a lucky break, and it’s all because I started doing these drawings of my granddad. Now I like to spend time in the French House just for research—my granddad would call it “drinking the research.” I’ve gotten to know the people at the pub very well, and that’s why they asked me to paint that sign. So, for me, it was a nice story: I ended up doing the sign for the pub where my granddad used to drink.
How do you work when you draw?
It’s a stream of consciousness, I go into a kind of dreamworld. The granddad thing is a way for me to trick my brain into thinking “anything can happen in this world.” I’m trying to be a kind of surreal archaeologist, excavating icons and mythology from our shared history of pop culture and rearranging it in new ways, to create a new mythology. The painting I’m working on now is of William Burroughs’ building, 222 Bowery in New York, which he called The Bunker. Part of the picture is going to be him in his bunker, but the part I’m working on now is above ground and dinosaurs are taking over New York. It’s like time and space have turned in on themselves.
Do you always start with a sketch?
I sort of draw a bit in pencil and then I ink it, and then I draw a bit more in pencil. I don’t really like to know what I’m about to do, so I make it up as I go along. This one started off being about Burroughs’ bunker and then I thought, "Ah, maybe I’ll put some dinosaurs in there," and then it became a bit about Stanley Kubrick and 2001, the monolith. Mark Rothko was in the same building 20 years before, creating his famous paintings for the Seagram building. I put him in the picture and thought, his paintings are like portals into the dawn of time, and that’s what made me start thinking of 2001. So Rothko is probably going to be in the bunker and one of his paintings will be like a portal and all of time’s got mixed up.
Do you think your work has evolved a lot since you began drawing?
I don’t know, I hope so. They keep getting more complex. I’m thinking about trying to bring in more three-dimensional work, making dioramas—like what you see in the Natural History Museum. I’d quite like to do scenes from history, like the Battle of Waterloo or something. I think it would be cool to make my twisted versions of pop cultural history into three-dimensional dioramas. That’s a way to try and take my work a bit further. They’d be a bit like '60s artist Ed Kienholz’s work, he used to make these crazy dioramas. That’s an example of how Le Gun has influenced me, because at Le Gun we make three-dimensional versions of our drawings and I thought, maybe I can start doing that with my own work, too.
What exhibitions do you have coming up?
I’ve got one exhibition on in Rome and one in Berlin on at the moment. We’re doing a show with Le Gun soon as well, just down the street from the French House in a members’ club called Blacks. It will be called “The Harlot and The Rake,” because Blacks used to be a paint shop where the artist William Hogarth would buy his paint. In our show, the rake and the harlot from Hogarth’s moral tales meet each other in the lunatic asylum, have a love affair and become celebrities. It’s based on how things are now, like if they met on Big Brother or something, but they meet in Bedlam.
Fox’s work can be seen now in "Iconic/Ironic" at Galeria Marie Laure Fleisch, Rome, until 13 September, and "Abracadabra" at Egbert Baque Contemporary Art in Berlin until 30 August. Le Gun’s "The Harlot & the Rake" is on Blacks Club from 14-18 October 2014.
Studio images courtesy of Cajsa Lykke Carlson for Cool Hunting; images of works courtesy of Neal Fox.