Magda Archer Q&A

Posted on: 04 Dec 2015 by Bren O’Callaghan

I once saw a man in pressed cream chinos sitting in an airport departure lounge. He looked very smart, as if enroute to clinching an important account. He stood up at the announcement his gate was boarding, but on walking away, it turned out he had unknowingly sat upon an abandoned chocolate bar. There was a large, brown, melted skidmark down the back of his pants. He had no idea. It shouldn’t be funny, but it was. It was awful, but also hilarious. As a random event, it might have happened to anyone. I was glad it hadn’t happened to me. Someone had to take the fall. The universe will have a little giggle at our expense. If the moment had been captioned, it would have to be ‘SH*T HAPPENS’.

Magda Archer is an artist with an eye for these moments of wry banality, from the sweetly melancholic to the needle-piercingly astute. Her paintings, screen prints and related merchandise are often paired with the typographic commentary of a high street seer: The Oracle of Argos, if you will. ‘Keep ya mouth shut, I want to stay in love with you’, pleads one cartoon puppy of another. ‘Bet your mother works at McDonalds’, in an exchange of playground insults. Or the human condition succinctly summarised in a single sentence… ‘Let’s Talk About Me’.

For her new exhibition in the public spaces at Chapter, Archer looks at the pseudo friendships and false promises offered by the internet and social media; supposedly a means of greater connectivity, but actually an isolating and alienating amalgamation of other people’s baby photos. Curator Bren O’Callaghan spoke with Magda Archer about her influences, practice and perceptions of formal art vs. a more playful approach.

Can you remember the first picture you completed as a self-conscious young adult, with the intention of ‘making art’ as opposed to doodling?

The first time I made a painting that I thought was any good was on my foundation course. It was of a rhino, and the palette was limited to raw umber, burnt umber, Naples yellow and white. We had to use natural sponges and it certainly looked like a serious painting to me. I took it home and my sister said, “That looks like something they'd sell in the Boots the Chemist gallery”. The local Boots in Lewisham had an upstairs 'Art Gallery' which was dire and we could see that, even as kids. Anyway, I discovered I liked using paint but I didn't have the maturity to think 'Oh, I'll do that again'. Where is that painting now? Thrown in the bin in the 1980s!

You are an enthusiastic collector of vintage ephemera. Please describe your glorious studio museum. Take us on a tour.

Yes, I am a collector of STUFF. Pez candy dispensers, Peanuts memorabilia, cheap plastic toys, kids musical instruments, old National Geographic magazines, bubble pots, toy food, animal postcards, terrier ornaments, Ladybird books, mugs you get free with Easter Eggs, old greetings cards, scrapbooks, tins, tiny books, Snow White, gnomes, vintage Disney, children's tea sets, wrapping paper, sweet wrappers and a lot more. I love this stuff but it's a weight around my neck. I need to do a massive clear out but I don't have the time and there's never a right day.

Standing in your studio at home, pick up a red object that catches your eye and describe it.

Well, it's a tiny American children's book from the 1940s. It's called ‘Andy Panda & Tiny Tom’. I love the old comic book colours, I love the characters and I love pandas. I’ve used them a couple of times in my work. This book makes me laugh. It’s a full colour cover, really lush but predominantly red. The inside is entirely black and white.

The same for a yellow item.

A new phone cover I've designed of a coy kitten called 'Text me, yeah?' which is yellow. It makes me happy when a painting becomes a screen print and then in this instance, becomes a phone case. Each subsequent use changes the image and I try to add not subtract.

And finally green.

This is one of my favourite things, it's a purse with 'I love money' written on it and a picture of a racoon bank robber. It’s made by Blue Q, a company I work for in the US.

Are there any artists you would cite as a reference or inspiration in your work?

I like Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake, Jasper Johns, Mel Bochner, Jim Dine, Joe Tilson. I also like Ladybird books, old sweets and food packaging, David Shrigley, Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Craigie Aitchison, Andy Warhol, Jeremy Deller. I like Grayson Perry’s stories on his pots. I like loads of people, but especially those who 'have a go'.

Aside from artists in the traditional sense, are there any other creatives you would cite as an influence?

I adore words and how they slot together, so there are many lyricists I admire. Neil Young, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Eels and then Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, old cowboy singers, some hymns… just loads of people who have a knack for putting words together. Peanuts is a major influence. I am Charlie Brown.

What do you do when you find yourself hitting a creative block?

On the whole I always have ideas and things I want to do, but I have moments where I can't bring myself to get in the zone. Instead I want to do nothing, so I might go to the cinema, see my friend who's an artist and who lives around the corner for a cup of tea, or just sit and look through some of my archive material. Usually it just means my energy is low.

What’s on your easel right now?

I've been working on two paintings where the bones of both are already painted. One has a small orange on it accompanied by half an orange. It's called 'It's not gonna happen now.' This one is about missed opportunities and coming to terms with something that will never be. At what part does our brain stop worrying and just let things go? Because that's the bit I think is especially powerful. A sense of calm, admitting sadness at not having fulfilled our aspirations, but settling for acceptance is something most of us long for I believe.

The second painting has a tin of Spam on it with the words 'BE POPULAR FOREVER’. Is that what most of us want? Or do we want to be popular just for a bit? Or are we not bothered if it ever happens at all? I liked the words and I like people asking themselves these questions. I adored painting the fake meat.

I was standing outside a gallery recently and watched a group of students arrive. They spent more time in the shop, and specifically at the card carousel featuring many of your designs, than they did inside the exhibition.

I know many artists think art has to be in galleries, but I don't. For example, I think my paintings I do for gum packets are art. I paint those pictures with minimal direction. A small conversation takes place and sometimes my words are the starting point. I think art should be both affordable and not.

Many of your works have become screen prints or greeting cards, or other gift-based items that don’t throw up the perceived barbed-wire fence or sense of exclusion that formal display can so often trigger.

Jack Jackson at Polite [who create Magda’s range of greeting cards] doesn't commission anything; instead he likes to use existing paintings on the cards he publishes. He has the same mentality of art for all. My posters are relatively cheap, which is deliberate so that more people can buy them. I don’t make any distinction between a one-off, original painting or a mass-produced tin for keeping pocket treasures in.

You often tap into a seam of everyday sadness in your practice; sharp and illuminating, but never cruel. If melancholia were a flavour, what would it be?

Melancholia would be the flavour of a Chinese mushroom drink that a well-wisher told my friend diagnosed with cancer to drink.

For your current exhibition, there’s an underlying theme of the funfair running throughout… mixed with unsatisfactory appeal of online sociability. How do you bring the two concepts together?

I like the fun fair in theory; the way it looks, the coloured lights, the excitement, the music, the prizes, but in reality the promise falls short of the delivery. That goldfish? Dead by morning! I still love Carter's Steam Fair, a vintage travelling troupe, and I have fond memories of going to the Billy Smart’s Circus as a child in the 60s and 70s. As for text-talk and online addiction, we spend our time judging and loathing people we don’t know, trading in junk emotions and disposable vocabulary that doesn’t really mean anything. There’s no nourishment for the soul. I’d rather stick with terriers, plastic space aliens and ham-fisted songwriting.

Interview: Bren O’Callaghan

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