Pace’s space just behind the Royal Academy, is about as grand as London private galleries get. I once came to a private view here and almost stumbled head first into David Cameron, immediately before he was ushered into a side annexe. It feels a bit odd, then, to find myself in the gallery’s kitchen, reminding the artist Keith Coventry that I once bumped into him once in a Soho pub and insisted on buying him a drink. ‘Did I accept?’ he asks. He didn’t, as I recall. ‘I wonder why not,’ he responds, before walking me into Pace’s main space, where his latest exhibition is being installed.
Coventry’s new show is a continuation of the ‘Junk’ series he began nearly 15 years ago, inspired by the discarded McDonald’s packaging he saw littering the streets around his old studio in Camberwell. For these works, he has looked at details of the fast food chain’s logo and created huge, white reliefs with surfaces with mottled surfaces that put the viewer in mind of primitive carvings. A second group of new works takes the ‘Golden Arches’ motif at face value, and literally casts them in gold and bronze.
To anyone unfamiliar with Coventry’s work, this synopsis might sound gimmicky. Yet this stuff is beautiful, sincere, and very much in keeping with the social and historical obsessions of most of his work to date. He first came to prominence in the early 1990s, with a series of paintings resembling the abstract works of Russian suprematist Kasimir Malevich. It was only when you read the text below that it became clear they were actually based on plans for postwar London council estates.
‘I saw [the estates] as being containers for all the social ills,’ he explains. Ever since, his art has explored the problems that postwar housing schemes have come to evoke in the popular imagination: ‘racism, football hooliganism, prostitution, drugs, ‘cos they’re all related, really. It’s just poverty.’ Junk food and its attendant detritus, then, is a logical progression in subject matter.
Now in his late 50s, Coventry arrived at art school at a time when the optimistic spirit of the postwar period, reflected in the Modernist aesthetic styles of the day, was in its death throes – and so was the Keynesian consensus that had defined British politics since 1945. Soon enough, Thatcher was in and, with uncanny synchronicity, architectural and artistic Modernism also became a thing of the past. ‘Why did it end all of a sudden?’, he wonders.
He seems ambiguous about the effect this had on art. ‘Postmodernism gave us the idea that anything could be art, he explains, ‘at art college, we used the terms ‘illustrative’ and ‘decorative’ as put downs – now people can make hugely successful work in those styles that goes for huge prices.’
Yet he is still best known for his links to a group of artists who never exactly shied away from the ‘anything goes’ tag. In the late 1980s, Coventry co-founded a gallery called City Racing in a former betting shop in Kennington, which gave early exhibitions to artists including Sarah Lucas and is now seen as a catalyst for the success of the YBAs. Coventry himself gets still gets lumped in with movement, having been collected by Saatchi and exhibited his work in the Royal Academy’s 1997 Sensation show. Does the association annoy him?
‘Not really,’ he says, ‘I spent ten years or whatever it was doing a normal job – a job that allowed you to continue. Painting and decorating… something that you don’t want
to get into for life but it keeps you going.’ That all changed in 1988, when Damien Hirst put on Freeze, the landmark exhibition in which he exhibited his own work alongside that of his Goldsmith’s contemporaries. Charles Saatchi came, as did Nicholas Serota and then-Royal Academy exhibitions secretary Norman Rosenthal.
It’s no stretch to say that the show, which featured work from the then unheard of likes of Lucas and Gary Hume, put a rocket up the British art world’s arse. The wave of interest in the new art also gave Coventry his break: ‘it became a sort of collective,’ he says of his relations with the ‘Goldsmith’s kids’, ‘I gave up painting and decorating and looking back it was all good. They’ve all grown up and some did drop out, but there’s quite a few left…’
Some of whom are now household names, in no small part due to the publicity courting nature of their work. In stark contrast to many of his contemporaries, Coventry’s art has always been quiet and intelligent despite the often seedy subjects he tackles. Was he ever tempted to jack in his integrity for a stunt like Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley?
‘No, no, not at all. For one thing, it’s very hard to do that. If you set out to do it, it may never happen. Rachel Whiteread’s House [the cast of an abandoned terrace house that provoked furious debate when it was unveiled in Bethnal Green in 1993] wasn’t meant to shock anybody, but it got more press coverage than any supposedly shocking art piece.’
Still, Coventry narrowly avoided a diplomatic incident when he and curator James Birch planned a show of the McDonald’s referencing paintings in North Korea. ‘We were commissioned, we were going to call it ‘Junk’, then James went over there and they said to him: ‘so why you bring your junk out here?’ Evidently, the title needed a rethink. Coventry opted for ‘Golden Arches’, as it had a ‘kind of Chinese restaurant sound to it.’
Unfortunately, they ran into problems that were altogether less easily solved. ‘We were almost there. We had the visas, the costings for the expedition, the agent who was dealing with it. We were ready to set off… we had the shippers, we had everything. But then they set up missiles on the border.’ Overnight, getting the export license and insurance for the works became impossible. ‘Which was just as well. Because had they found out – which they would have done – that it was a slightly tongue in cheek exhibition – ‘taking McDonald’s to North Korea’ – we could have been held up there.’
The mention of the Golden Arches prompts another association, namely the current vogue for garish, blingy art, as created by the likes of Hirst and Jeff Koons. ‘We’re living now through the decade of Shiny Art… I mean, I never thought I’d make it myself,’ he says, before sidetracking into an anecdote about a collector from Eastern Europe he once visited, who had a penchant for the stuff. ‘His house was like a glass box with a moat round it, with a drawbridge. So looking at it from a distance, you could see all the artworks inside this huge glass box. He used some severe security.’
Blimey. ‘I know. He was also quite temperamental. We had dinner and he got a tiny little spot of gravy on his white shirt, and he had this guy with him – I dunno, like his assistant, his minder or something – and he had to calm this guy down ‘cos he was about to erupt over this. So you can imagine that if a spot of gravy can make this guy so volatile… what could he do to human beings? Anyway, he was buying a lot of art. I didn’t have anything shiny at the time, so …’
Alas. As for his own adventures into ‘Shiny Art’, he has an intriguing fantasy. ‘You could hang them from the neck of a rapper,’ he says of his smaller McDonald’s works in gold. ‘I’d love to sell them to rappers. P Diddy should have one.’
Keith Coventry’s ‘Black, White, Gold’ is at Pace Gallery, 6 Burlington Gardens London W1S 3ET (020 3206 7600). Open Tuesday-Saturday. From 27 April to 28 May.