Interview with Harry Pye

by Bodnotbod : Conducted June '03

THE WRONG MAN FOR THE JOB

"We're totally the wrong people to be doing a women's magazine.  That's what appeals to me.  Getting it wrong," says Harry Pye.  Pippa: The Magazine for Depressed Women is already available in a promotional edition with issue one due before October.  Despite the descriptive title Pye hopes it will appeal to everyone.  As it says on the pre-launch web site "We are all depressed women published by men."

It's just one of Pye's many projects as a satirist.  He has curated art shows, made videos, organised concerts, given talks and more.  Often the work is credited to "Harry Pye & His Friends", a loose band of shifting personnel who come together for a particular purpose.  Anyone that tends to have moments of dubious inspiration in the pub should beware Pye, he will call your bluff.  "I'm the one that says 'let's do it'."  And so we have a women's magazine written by three men, a karaoke night on the 13th floor of Guy's Hospital and a show in Paris called It May Be Rubbish But It's British Rubbish at the height of the beef wars.

Not having met him before, I relied on sketches by Pye's friends for identification.  They drew him with a large oval head and cupid bow lips.  They made him look like an animated character from a children's television programme.  When he walked in the pub I recognised him straight away.

Pye was born in Lewisham in 1973 and tends to feel nervous away from his beloved South London.  Bringing people together under his banner was an early talent.  "When I was about seven or eight in primary school I joined the Dennis The Menace Fan Club and you got this wallet with secret things in it.  Me and another boy got those wallets you put bus passes in and wrote on them with Tippex and got everyone to join The Harry Pye Club." 

He studied Fine Art Printmaking at The Winchester School of Art.  He greatly admires Picasso, Warhol and Bruce McLean; all artists with print work to their names.   He's made just one painting in the last ten years.  "I think, with painting, you get good enough to know that you're not very good at it."  A tutor was, perhaps, less kind about his early attempts at film, saying he should "slow down his video making to the extent of stopping all together."  He graduated in 1995.

"I've always been more interested in why people make art than actually doing it myself.  I've spent ages working on a book of conversations with ex art students called Couldn't You Have Kept It To Yourself? "

He has worked for Tate for seven years and currently looks after the magazine section in Tate Britain's bookshop.  "It doesn't pay well but I enjoy it.  When I started, it was much more like the romantic vision I had of what art school would be like.  Everyone there seemed to be doing interesting creative things and were positive about the things that other people did."  The work itself, however, was not always so inspiring.  "I'd been asked to count through a big box of pencil sharpeners.  I got to about 27 or 28 and I thought, 'what on earth am I doing?'"

Pye created The Frank Organisation and published the first Frank Magazine  in the year he graduated from art school.  "I started it at a time when I felt like I didn't really have any control over my life.  I thought, if I had this photocopied thing, I'd at least have control over that.  Like collecting crisp packets and putting them all in order.  A hobby."  He set about interviewing artists, comedians and musicians he liked.  It ran for five years culminating in Frank 2000 - London Talking featuring the pre-millenial hopes and dreams of the public and a scathing review of The Millenium Dome by (yes, it's his real name) Billy Smart.

Arranging It May Be Rubbish But It's British Rubbish was more difficult than categorising crisp packets by some considerable degree.  Pye selected thirty British artists, including his favoured McLean, asking them to produce a work that would represent their place of birth.  He arranged transport for the work to a gallery in Paris called Glassbox.  "It was a fantastic thing.  A few established artists gave us money as well as people like Charlie Higson and Victoria Wood."

What did the locals make of it?  "Paris had nothing like the Young British Artist scene.  What they seemed to go for was lots of photographs of women in baths looking like they might be a bit mad.  Some intellectuals came along and stroked their chins.  People were generally positive." 

In the same year Pye put together Enough Or Too Much, a group show of work interpreting William Blake's 'Proverbs of Hell' .  "There are so many shows on and you think 'well, why have you done that?  Why have you done it here? And why now?'  I'm proud that the exhibition was on Blake's anniversary, it coincided with a retrospective, it was in Soho where he lived, and it was in a shop.  The only exhibition Blake had was in a shop." 

For Viva Pablo in 2002, Pye asked artists for the work Picasso would have created had he not died in 1973.  "Picasso definitely had a sense of humour but there might have been a few jokes he could have done without.  He might not have liked me saying he had a bisexual period."

Pye is hoping to show one hundred works by different artists in Zurich next year in an exhibition called 100 Mothers.  Contributors are asked to paint their mother on a 16x20 inch canvas.  The Chapman brothers have promised a work.  Given their grizzly interpretations of Goya and their controversial penis nosed girls it's a tantalising prospect.

"I think of Harry Pye & Friends like Asterix's Gaul.  There's nowhere for us to go, in a way, but the Romans haven't taken us over.  We're this little unconquered territory."  He takes a thoughtful puff on his cigarette.  "The other thing I like as well is the audacity."  This is probably best illustrated by Harry Pye's Turner Prize.

It is not commonly understood that some Turner nominees present plans for their work to the same company, who then construct it under the artists' names.  Those taking only a passing interest in the competition may also be unaware of the behind-the-scenes discussions that take place prior to nominations.  "There was one year when it was four men so, to readjust the balance another year, they had one of four women.  They were going to ask Steve Mcqueen to be in that year and he said 'No thanks, I'm a black man.  If I win it I'll look bad and if I don't win it I'll look bad.   They put him in next year and he won.

"So, I got four artists to make my work under my name.  And I was saying 'I agree to be in the Turner Prize but the other nominees have to be me'.  It was taking it a stage further." 

Pye manages these feats on a shoestring budget.  Publications meet their costs by people throwing in fifty quid here and there.  Events are funded through raffles and auctions.  "Every time you have to bring a bit of work from South London to East London that can be a bit of a drag.  But sometimes the fun can be taking a huge painting on a tube train, that can be a really nice day."

Is Pye the only art satirist?  "I can think of artists who are funny.  Humour can be a way of drawing people in, to establish a relationship, but some people don't like being labelled as a jokey artist.  I find it difficult to think of any art satirists.  I love Steve Martin's stand up routines.  Rob Reiner described his act as 'someone seeing Fred Astaire dancing and saying 'I can do that' and getting it hopelessly wrong'.  That's my thing; getting it wrong.  Getting on stage, trying to be Astaire, and ending up with an arrow through my head playing the banjo."
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THE PROJECTS OF HARRY PYE

ART SHOWS

It May Be Rubbish But It's British Rubbish
- 30 British artists displayed work representing their birthplace in Paris' Glassbox gallery.  Featured work by Adam Dant, Bruce McLean and Hadrian Piggott.

Enough Or Too Much - All works reinterpreted William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell".  Shown in a shop on the street of Blake's birth.  Featured work by Bob & Roberta Smith, Francis Upritchard and Luke Gotelier.

Harry Pye's Turner Prize - Four works under the name of Harry Pye (but actually made by Jonnie Bassett, Mat Humphrey, Johnny de Veras and Gordon Beswick) for the judges to choose from.

Viva Pablo - Showing the work Pablo Picasso would have made had he not died in 1973.

100 Mothers - To be shown in Zurich in 2004.  100 artists are to produce paintings of their mothers.  Work by Keith Tyson, Jake & Dinos Chapman and Nicola Hicks will be shown.

PUBLICATIONS


Frank Magazine - Interviews with personal heroes, friends and passers by plus features.

A Guide To Andy Warhol: That's 'Andy - Pye and his friends enthuse about and criticise the pop artist.

Harry Pye's Yoghurt Culture - A funny collection of news, interviews and features about, yes, yoghurt.

Couldn't You Have Kept It To Yourself? - Conversations with ex-art students, a work in progress.

Pippa - The Magazine for Depressed Women - Conceived, edited and published by Dan Connor, John Mosely and Harry Pye.