Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Punk rock icon Sid Vicious died of a drug overdose three months after he possibly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death. For British artist Rich Simmons, this notorious Sex Pistols tale came to mind as England prepared for the biggest royal wedding in modern times. In an instantly famous piece of street art, Simmons portrayed Prince William and Kate Middleton as a modern-day Sid & Nancy, and he quickly gained an international fanbase that includes rock stars, celebrities and even royalty. The London-based artist has a new solo exhibit, Imaginarium, which opens today (May 1, 2019) at the Box Galleries in Chelsea. Simmons chatted with PRØHBTD about the royal family, superhero fetishes, pin-up girls and punk rock.
Many of the individuals and characters depicted in your art are familiar to the general public. Are there certain traits or themes that seem to attract you to recreating specific public figures?
I like to use characters in my work that people know so there is an instant understanding of the subject matter, but then twisting it and having them in a certain situation allows the viewer to have that shock factor immediately without having to question who they are or what they’re doing there. Everyone knows who Batman and Superman are, but if I painted a couple of random guys kissing, it wouldn’t shock anyone as much as seeing your childhood superheroes kissing. People in the public eye, both real and fictional, have a power to evoke emotion, and the ability to tell a story in my art often relies on engaging with the audience emotionally. I want to cause a reaction, whether it's shock, humor, fear or whatever they want to feel because I believe that good art is the ability to make a person think and feel something emotionally. Sometimes you just have to use someone they already know to pull on the heartstrings a little harder and make the reaction more powerful.
You first gained notoriety for portraying the royal couple as Sid and Nancy. Were you looking to depict someone as Sid and Nancy already, or was the idea inspired by seeing William and Kate in action?
I knew the royal wedding was coming up and was in the press, and I wanted to do something that was the opposite of what people expected to see them portrayed as in the run up to it. The idea of royalty is a strange concept to me, and if William hadn't been born into it, then no one would really care who he is or what he did. I think that would take a huge amount of restrictions from a person and allow them to explore things they couldn’t do as a member of the royal family. Seeing them as punk rockers a la Sid and Nancy from the Sex Pistols was my way of normalizing them and making people think differently about the wedding and remind them that they are just people like me and you. I thought punk rock, anti-establishment icons like Sid and Nancy would be the perfect juxtaposition from the life of privilege that you could get, and that's where the humor came for me. It was just meant to be a joke for a few people to laugh at, but it went viral, and an art career was born for me.
Tell me about the symbolism and reactions to your Batman vs. Superman art. I read that someone actually slashed a mural in protest.
The Batman kissing Superman painting Between the Capes had been on my mind for a long time before I ever painted it. It was one of those ideas that I thought might work, but I didn't have the right idea for composition or execution and wasn't ready personally to tackle a piece like that for a while. I needed to develop as an artist and learn more about my execution, technique and how I wanted my work to be presented before I was ready to do the superhero collection. I wanted to make a statement about equality, but at the same time ask questions about heroism and superheroes' private lives, which we don't always see in comic books. Taking the two most iconic alpha male superheroes and presenting them in an embrace not only shocks you into asking questions about gay equality, but also what it takes to be a hero. If you were trapped in a burning building and Batman was coming to save you, would you care what he did in his private life, or would you just want to be saved? Does it make Superman less of a hero if he loves the company of men over women? The answer to those kinds of questions should be simple. An individual's private life shouldn't affect the way they do their job or ability to be a hero.
For the most part, the feedback on this idea and series of paintings telling this story was supportive and positive, but as is usually the case, there's always someone who will take offense to it. I would like to see the idea behind the work open more people's eyes and minds to the issues surrounding gay equality and acceptance and make someone see the whole situation from a different perspective. If I can create dialogue and understanding, then I have succeeded as an artist in evoking change in society, even if it's only with one person.
Looking at the various iconic characters in the comic book world, which superhero do you imagine would have the kinkiest fetishes, and what would those fetishes be?
If you look at superheroes, you see a lot of spandex, leather, rubber and masks so you'd have to imagine anyone with a penchant for going out in a skintight outfit with a mask on could be classed as kinky. I don't know how a lot of these superheroes are able to fight crime in latex-style outfits, if I'm being honest. It must be incredibly sweaty and restrictive and doesn't offer much protection from bad guys. I guess that's why it hasn't caught on with real-life law enforcement, and you never see a policeman in a catsuit.
You’ve described your pieces as “street art archeology.” What did you mean by that?
I use reclaimed billboards in my work to make each piece unique and create a texture in which to paint on that comes from the street. I'm therefore using pieces of the street to make art which is my roundabout way of transitioning from street art to gallery art. I get ripped-down billboards and take them back to my studio and painstakingly soak them in water and pull the layers apart, revealing hidden colors and textures from advertising that I will paste to a canvas to create my backgrounds for the stencils to go on. This careful repurposing and peeling apart layers to discover hidden beauty is my version of an archeology of the street.
What were some of the billboards you actually tore down?
The billboard aspect of my work is always an exciting process. The billboards are glued on top of each other so they come 20 layers thick sometimes, and I have to painstakingly peel them apart to find chunks of color that work for my art. The billboards are so huge that I only see tiny parts of them so I never quite know what they come from, but I enjoy that ambiguity and only seeing a couple of letters or a flat piece of weathered color is better for my work as it doesn't distract from the stencils I paint on top.
What aesthetic and thematic elements in 1950s pin-up girls appeal to you most?
I love the artwork and style from the ’50s. Pin ups were sexy but in a much different way to now. There was more class, more mystery, more of a tease. There was a sensuality to it that I loved and how powerful a flash of stockings could be with a beautiful smile.
Materialism seems to be a theme that runs through the artwork. How do you see materialism influencing human behavior?
I am more excited in life by experiences, things that inspire me and create memories. I would rather spend my money on going to a nice restaurant or a museum than the latest bag or shoe from a designer brand. Don't get me wrong, I love fashion and think it's an exciting passion to have, but too many people use brand names to show off their wealth or status rather than something that shows some individualism and personality. I want to learn about the person beneath that facade and learn about someone's passions, hopes and ideas and that is often easier when you strip away all the materialistic aspects of a person. It's this idea that has played a part in my work, and using brand names to create a dialogue in the work intrigued me and crept into my art, but I don't judge anyone who has a collection of materialistic things. Everyone's different, and if they get excited by a new pair of heels, then they should be entitled to that enjoyment.
Many people define fashion and style by the name of the designer they’re wearing. How would you define it?
I think fashion should be a way for people to express their personality, creativity and individualism. If someone has a black leather bag with silver studs on it because they are going for the rocker kind of look, that's awesome, but if they're doing it because it's a particular brand, it loses that sense of personality and becomes a materialistic component to the outfit. I would rather see someone wearing something they love, no matter what the value attached is, because wearing things purely because it's expensive is kind of pointless and a waste. I believe someone could spend £50 on an outfit and be more fashionable than someone who spent £5,000 because they would be doing it for the love of fashion and not for the love of brand names.
You previously performed in bands. In what ways did making music and writing songs influence what you would later do as a visual artist?
I would describe myself as an artist and a storyteller. The good thing about defining myself is that there are so many mediums and channels to tell stories through and be creative with. Music has a huge impact on my life, and I loved being younger and jumping around on stage with a bass guitar, meeting up with mates and writing songs in their garage. It was a whole range of processes that involved writing, creating, developing and then performing and connecting to an audience. It taught me a lot about being a visual artist because you have a similar set of steps you have to take to create a piece of art. A gallery show is now my stage, and I get to showcase my stories on walls instead of through speakers. I just can't crowd surf at my gallery shows, which is a shame.
I see a lot of punk rock themes in the artwork. What about the punk rock ethos and attitude appeals to you as a person and as an artist?
I grew up listening to punk rock and loved the attitude and rebellion it represented. There was a desire to think outside the box, to go against the grain and say it's ok to be an outsider, which I connected with. Punk rock was always about doing it to make a statement and have fun, and you didn't have to be the most-talented musician to do it. As long as you had that desire to rebel and go against the grain, you could connect with it, and I loved that. I think the best art, whether visual or performance, is one which connects emotionally with someone and evokes different feelings. You don't have to be the most talented technically, but you have to be able to tell a story and convey a message to be considered as a true artist and role model. I think that mentality comes from a youth of growing up listening to punk rock music and never being the smartest kid or the most talented artist in the class but having a different way of thinking and a passion to convey that differently to others.
You have a foundation called Art Is the Cure. In what ways can art be therapeutic to people who might not benefit from traditional talk therapies?
A lot of people can't express their thoughts and emotions verbally, and that can lead to frustration and build up to dangerous levels. Everyone needs to release that pressure they feel, and that is when drugs, self-harm and suicide can feel like the only course of action. My idea with Art Is the Cure is that creativity can be an alternative release for that pressure and inspire people to express themselves in other ways. People hear art therapy and think of drawing their feelings in a therapist's office, but it can be done anywhere, any time and in any way they see fit. I have heard from people who have used painting in their bedrooms when they can't sleep and go to a dark place as a way to deal with their demons and finding an escape through the art that they never had before. Art can be anything creative and can help deal with any kind of problem. It is a pressure release valve for someone struggling that can result in poetry, a painting, a song, a new skateboard trick or anything they choose to do instead of scars on their arm or a trip to hospital. Art can be anything, and it can be a cure to anything. I set up the foundation to try and simplify the idea of art therapy and inspire people to give it a go in their own way and in any environment they choose.
What do you think the older generation can learn about gay marriage, medical cannabis, street art and other divisive issues from the more-accepting and open-minded younger generation?
I am a very logical person, and I use that to make my decisions in life. I use facts and logic to form opinions, and I'm very scientific in that way. Without the idea of religion hindering my thought process, I can see gay marriage as two human beings who want to love each other as a beautiful and positive thing. There is too much hate in the world so why would I object to such a display of love and unity? It makes no sense when people object to their happiness, and the only logical conclusion you can come to is to support gay equality.
We live in an age where science has replaced religion as a way to teach people about the world around them and can prove it with experiments and facts. If all of the books in the world disappeared and we lost all science, religions and laws, we would need to learn everything over again and find new ways to teach morality and understand the world. In 1,000 years, all of the science books would be exactly the same as they are now, but religions would be either completely different or obsolete. We can learn about morality in new ways now without stigmas and beliefs set in the past, and humanity would be allowed to think more positively and openly about each other and discuss issues with logic and fact instead of outdated ideals and conflicting opinions. Science and logic are universal, and while different cultures will have different ideas on fashion, art, music and food, logic and science should be the universal language to make global decisions when it comes to laws and morality.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.