London, Feb. 2011 - ArtSlant London writer Alex Field had the opportunity to meet with Clay Sinclair to explore his painting practice, his history, and what inspires him to create. Sinclair shows with Woolff Gallery in London, UK and has shown in the Miami International Art Fair, Art London, Art Chicago, and the Affordable Art Fair London and Amsterdam.
Clay Sinclair, you & me; Courtesy of Clay Sinclair
“You want me to tell you what happiness is?”Clay Sinclair sits back with his Corona, confident in the knowledge that he has finally cracked the secret. “The conclusion I keep coming back to is contentment, being happy with what you’ve got, not needing more.” It’s easy to say, but the road to contentment has proved long for the artist, and he’s only recently hit his stride.
I originally encountered Clay’s work at his solo show, Pop Wisdom, at London’s Woolff Gallery in late 2010, when his acrylic on perspex paintings stood out as humourous, sometimes blunt insights into society’s issues. Religion, politics, fine art and the cult of celebrity were all explored, which Clay stresses is his way of highlighting not only society’s inadequacies but also his own flaws. “I’m not pointing and saying ‘you’re so awful, you’re so vain’, I’m actually saying ‘I’m vain’. Quite a lot of these [works explore] my paradoxes. We don’t want to be obsessed with fame, but who doesn’t want to be the world’s greatest living artist?”.
Producing intelligent, relevant work and consistently striving to be better is clearly deeply important to the artist, and this is reflected in the range of subject matter he tackles. His aesthetic is also unusual, employing a technique of “painting backwards” on to perspex using a bold colour palette inspired by Hundertwasser’s paintings and architectural creations in Vienna. He uses text as well as visuals to put his point across, and often bases his works on existing masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa and Matisse’s Dancers, integrating contemporary social commentary into instantly recognisable images. In terms of the text used, Sinclair tends to start with a phrase – “If I ruled the world”, “If I was God” – and see how many relevant one-liners he can summon in response. His text is humourous and engaging; Humility Is (2010), for instance, blends the serious (“under-rated”) and the wittily self-deprecating (“a smaller and less expensive painting than this”). “I try to use humour to make much more serious points”, Clay says, “you don’t want earnest paintings, they’re the worst”. Work like this is refreshing in an era where artists take themselves incredibly seriously.
Clay Sinclair, The Last Laugh; Courtesy of Clay Sinclair
The son of New Zealand artist, Wayne Sinclair, Clay came to art much later in life than one might have expected. “Our whole life revolved around my dad trying to sell paintings” he says, recalling summer holidays spent at the beach while his father hung his work for sale on the railings outside the resort. Sinclair senior sounds like a hard man to live up to; a successful self-made artist, a decathlete, “brilliant at everything he did”. As a result, his son – in what psychologists would probably suggest was an attempt to make his own mark rather than compete – rejected everything his father excelled at, favouring music, soccer and cricket over art, athletics and rugby. Despite “mucking about” with art as a child, he didn’t share his father’s passion and instead chose to train as a civil engineer. “[When I left school] I did a lot of surveying and engineering work… not because I loved it but because I fell into it” he says. “There was a course at the local polytechnic and I thought, ‘well, there’s nothing else to do’”. So began a decade on construction sites in Hamilton, New Zealand, and a relaxed lifestyle that afforded plenty of time to engage with his passion for music. Having blagged his way into a band aged 16, Clay learnt to play the bass and toured the country with his bands, firstly The Pleasant Strangers and then The Pilgrims, a jazz/funk/rock band whose lead singer “sounded like Bob Dylan, which was probably the downfall of the band”.
The band dispersed in 1996 and Clay moved to England soon after. Within months of arriving in London he met his future wife, Milly, with whom he now has two young sons. “I just knew”, he says, “I thought, ‘I’m going to marry you’. Luckily she thought the same.” They were engaged six months later and married within the year. Clay also began to feel his first artistic urges. “Within a month of arriving in England I went into an art shop and bought some paints. I’d no desire before that moment to do any painting and looking back it was [due to] getting as far as I could from my father.”
Clay Sinclair, Judge Me; Courtesy of Clay Sinclair
Now happily settled, Clay found the engineering industry in London to be a world away from the laid-back environment he had previously enjoyed. “I did ten-hour days and it took me an hour to get there and an hour to get back and [that left] no time for creativity, no time for anything else. I was shattered.” he says. After “lots of depressed evenings on the sofa in tears saying ‘what am I going to do with my life?’” he took inspiration from Richard Rogers’ book Cities for a Small Planet and started studying for a master’s degree in urban design. This proved to be an engaging but ultimately unused subject which was set aside when his first son was born and financial need triumphed over any interest he may have had in town planning. Clay went back to engineering and although he now limited his hours, the dark cloud of hopelessness returned. “I hated every day of my working life”, he says, and “I thought, ‘this is going to go on and on’”.
After the birth of their second son, Clay and Milly took six months off in New Zealand to re-evaluate their life together. “I remember Milly saying that this dark cloud was just lifting off me”, Clay says, “we were sitting in a restaurant in Queenstown…and she said ‘I promise I won’t make you be an engineer ever again’ and I just burst into tears”. With the release from work came a bounty of artistic inspiration. Now meeting his father as a fellow artist, Wayne Sinclair’s encouragement and positive reaction to Clay’s experiments with perspex gave him the confidence to pursue this novel aesthetic. “‘No-one else is doing [work of this sort]’, he said…‘it’s easier to be different than better’”.
Although London galleries showed no initial interest in his art, Clay found his feet during a two year stint selling his work at London’s Bayswater Art Market, a period he bashfully describes as an apprenticeship. “I was selling about 50 paintings a year”, he says, “sometimes I sold nothing but some days I came home with £2,000 in my pocket”. He initially lacked confidence in his ideas and indeed Clay recounts an early experiment with his Me Me Me works where he was so concerned about the public’s reaction that he hid behind a tree to gauge their responses. However, by 2007 his success was such that less artistically experienced stall holders began not only to ask for advice but to copy his work. Prompted by a perceived cheapening of his art, Clay moved on to exhibiting at art fairs, a much more profitable arena. “At Bayswater, no matter how good your work was, no-one was going to pay more than £500 off a railing in Hyde Park”, he realised, “but if you put the same things in [a gallery] people are willing to pay £5,000.”
Clay Sinclair, Pop Wisdom 60's; Courtesy of Clay Sinclair
Developing a strong relationship with a gallery can be an important step for any budding artist, and Clay’s bond with Nick Woolf and the Woolff Gallery has set him on a course to bigger and better things. The Woolff Gallery is a space that favours unusual work with potential, and its owner has been an encouraging steer in Clay’s career. Having originally met at London’s Untitled Art Fair, Clay almost dismissed an association with the gallery as Nick, although a confident and ambitious gallery owner, looks more gap year student than Jay Joplin. In his search for representation, Clay left with a “pocket full of gallery cards” that he had accumulated during the course of the fair. “Then I went home and thought I’d check out the [Woolff Gallery] and they had Banksy on their books and I thought ‘oh fuck’.” Now working “shoulder to shoulder”, Nick and Clay – two self-assured, laid back men in their jeans and jumpers – form the perfect team, and their mutual ambition has led to Clay’s works being displayed around the globe.
When I ask about Clay’s future plans, he recalls a time after his solo show when “I didn’t have a creative thought in my brain, I didn’t think I had another painting in me. I went off to New Zealand by myself to see family, just for a couple of weeks, and I was with my mum cooking dinner and all of a sudden I got a migraine, and I remember listening to the television and they were talking about place names and I thought ‘wow, I don’t even know what letter that name starts with’. I went to bed, two hours later I woke up and…my brain was working again, it had been wiped clean…and I suddenly had an idea for a painting. I thought ‘why don’t I paint naked women?’”.
When these naked ladies are exhibited, I have confidence that they will provide yet more insight into the mind of an artist, and a man, who has finally found his calling. “For this last show, I had to work out that [there is] happiness outside selling paintings”, he says, “that this is my art, but I am still a legitimate human being, even if my paintings don’t sell. That’s hard, but that’s where contentment lies.”
ArtSlant would like to thank Clay Sinclair for his assistance in making this interview possible.
-- Alex Field