Before we start: Rich’s “story” is the triple Ds – the classic depression, disapproval and divorce. He was an outlier who grew up in a broken family, slummed into all sorts of disorders and art was his cure. I’m not saying that his overcoming any of these was easy, but he is not the first person who’s been on a roller coaster. These days, when we read about famous people, 9 out of 10 times, the writer would present a background story of them with a generous dollop of tragic tint. Stories that are either intentionally saddened or glorified only to add brightness to that person’s spotlight. Go on and Ctrl + F the next time, if it’s not abuse, it must be bulimia or cancer, the standard ABC jumbo pack. It is as if all of us live a very easy life. They are so boring to read. And very intellectually insulting. What I really want to do here is to use my writing to have a conversation with you about art, and to tell you about this immensely talented, clever and amazing artist slash friend of mine, called Rich Simmons. Just him and art, only admiration, no need sympathy. I hope you enjoy this piece.
I have a friend. A famous friend. His name is Rich Simmons.
He is a street art artist. According to Wikipedia, this year he is 33. He wears a lot of T-shirt and jeans; has a pair of deep subversive eyes, a keen interest in comics and a signed thank you card from HRH Prince Charles having spray painted the portrait of HRH himself for many years for charity.
Rich’s work is very vocal. He mocks on walls and jokes through canvasses. His work is a pop-art palette. It’s funny and it’s present-time, tethered to mainstream culture but also has a hipster twang. A stenciled example of JM Barrie’s “between and betwixt”. In 2011, in the weeks leading up to the royal wedding, he painted a graffiti of Kate and William – the pinnacle of prim and proper – as Sex Pistols’ Sid and Nancy. The lacerating pair that ultimately crashed and burnt. Sid murdered Nancy, then died overdosing on heroin. What we’d call #relationshipgoals in today’s Instagram English. The hallmark of happy ending. That graffiti exploded and propelled him to fame.
What ensued years later was another masterpiece, Between the Capes i.e. Batman snogging Superman or the other way round, it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t. Two superheroes stood kissing each other in their costume. Skintight latex, knee high boots, mask and all that. When I saw that piece online one evening, my heart stopped. I knew I had to meet Rich.
I met Rich in the summer of 2018. At Imitate Modern in London. He did a show with Henry Hate, the tattoo artist who inked his mark on Amy Winehouse and Alexander McQueen. I remember reaching out to him and asked him about his work. I don’t remember what was it that I wanted to know, I was just very intrigued. Rich was holding a glass of water and me a vodka cocktail. He said he doesn’t drink. A punk rocker on canvas, and a teetotal. These are footprints of a gigantic hound, Watson. Unusual fact number one. I had to dig deeper.
I told him my favourite piece that day was Just Be-You-Tiful, but what brought me there was Between the Capes. What I didn’t tell him was that
I used to have very orthodox view about homosexual relationship. It was that kind of sexual relationship that I thought was dirty, lowly and sinful. That belief did sting me massively. Whenever I caught a glimpse of gay couples on TV or two men showing their affection in the supermarket, I was very uncomfortable. I somehow felt ashamed. I couldn’t look at them. And I didn’t know why. Things then changed drastically, not only because I saw how happy some of my friends were after coming out, but it also angered me (and it still does) to no end when a person’s sexual orientation becomes the lousy excuse others use to shame and invalidate his or her ability at work. It’s despicable, really very myopic and sadly, remains common in politics. It’s like choosing the priest over the gay surgeon to do your bypass surgery. Do you not want to live?
Between the Capes is the perfect reminder of how love should know no bounds; whereas one’s private life and work life should remain separate. The artwork carries such a telling message. It’s so graphic, it’s thought provoking.
Early this summer, Rich invited me to his solo show at Chelsea Box Galleries. I remember standing in front of Nuclear Kiss and loved it. The 21-year-old me dreamt of a marriage proposal in the battlefield. There’s nothing more romantic than promising the rest of your life away to someone with an orchestra of bombings and shootings and flying canons in the background. Ridic I know, but there it was, my fantasy spray-painted onto a canvas and hung on a wall…
Rich speaks Millennial so fluently. Bullet Heart makes a wonderful representation of modern-day dating when the creation of dating apps makes meeting The One essentially a number game.
One sure needs a lot of bullets to get a full heart.
The apps have introduced access to a fishload of opportunities, but at the same time, created this fake sense of surplus. People think they have a lot of options when really, it’s a mega buffet without the assurance of quality. People forget that they cannot not invest in someone or in something if they expect a return. They lose track of what they’re looking for and become incapable of caring for the other because what? They are scared of getting hurt. It’s really sad because it makes dating, something so beautiful so half-arsed.
Rich’s art is one of those you’ll see in the man cave of a tech entrepreneur and, oddly, also in the walk-in wardrobe of a Chelsea girl. His pieces always have a well-known narrator. An icon that delivers the message for him. The superheroes, Mona Lisa, the 50s pin-up girls; the renowned marks of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. They are contemporary, relevant, each one carries its own message and are very recognisable. The latter is his way of mocking materialism. And to push that further, he also made art out of emptied spray cans and used billboards.
His pieces are worth collecting because they are representative of this time that we’re living in. A lot of bling. A lot of skepticism. We all feel ridiculous. The outside world constantly praises the past and pisses on the present. “Millennial” is a derogatory word for whatever reason and no one knows what’s happening in the future, having made so many questionable choices in politics and to the environment.
On the inside, everyone is struggling with some sort of mental illness. Mental health is constantly talked about and put on the pedestal and honestly, I am not sure if it’s the awareness of it that makes people use mental illness as a cause whenever things go wrong, or they are genuinely struggling. I would imagine back then when your boss made you work late or your boyfriend left you for a better girl, you would just take a long bath, give yourself an orgasm and get on with it?
But here we are, plagued by the confinement of our insecurities as well as the uncertainties from our surrounding. And let’s not forget relative pressure that is now augmented by our over-consumption of social media. Like Rich’s Skullerfly, we fly across the cities in our blue, skull-imprinted wings. Not quite sure whether we’re sad or happy, a little lost but also enjoying the thrill and the stimulation that this instability brings. Rich’s pieces encapsulate all of that.
If there’s anything I would ask of him, it’s to paint something about Brexit! I know it’s a taboo topic, hush hush no one wants to talk about it. But 20 years on, I’d imagine you would very much enjoy a glass of wine with your partner and your children, looking at that painting, recollecting the turbulent time that we once lived in?
A bird and a boy. The reason I want to write about Rich is really simple and personal. I am not a fan of street art, but Rich’s work speaks to me. He speaks to me. I admire his art and he has this personality that touches people. He is very grounded and down to earth. He is this boy who believes in hard work and that you will always reap what you sow. So he is always working. At the same time, he has the spirit of a bird, uncaged by social dogma and untouched by the storms that he’s experienced. Free, and has no fear.
He’s recently relaunched a movement that he started in 2008, called Art is The Cure. I think this is his giveback to the society having been saved by art and received so much from art. He sets out to inspire creativity and promote art as a self-therapy. I think it’s amazing.
I don’t know how you feel when you look at a piece of artwork, or what you’d be interested to know when you meet an artist. It could be the colour on the canvas, the contorted nudes or the commercial value that piques your interest, but I want you to know that art is incredibly important.
It’s not pretentious if you don’t want it to be. It is luxurious only because you allow yourself to slow down and to appreciate something that reminds you of your own struggle, your own story.
Like Rich in his Neverland. In art, you can choose not to grow up too.
To find out more about Rich and his work, go here. Follow him on @Richsimmonsart.
As for me, I’m on @alxndrluella – a bit of art, a bit of travel photography and a lot of my face. Go follow.
With love x