- Coningsby Gallery, London
Two animal figures feature again and again in the artist Nicholas Ferguson’s latest body of work, Perspective, which will be on display in his solo show at Coningsby Gallery, between July 31 and August 12.
One is a goat, the other is a rooster. A plucked rooster, to be precise.
“The goat represents the ego, which is all about safety and doing what is expected of you,” he tells me, one hot sunny mid-June morning, in the basement studio he shares with three other artists in West Brompton.
He’s a tall man, handsome, neat fair hair, younger-looking than his 41 years. He’s wearing a black and yellow Rolling Stones t-shirt, smart shorts and Birkenstocks, no socks. We’re surrounded by the paraphernalia of a busy art studio: paintings stacked on the floor and hung on the walls, an old-fashioned hand-press printing machine, brushes in pots. Tacked-up art postcards.
The most prominent of the paintings, propped up near where we’re sitting, like a third person in the room, shows a man sitting on a stool, holding a smartphone in front of him, maybe taking a selfie. He looks unsure of himself. To his right foot a tiny goat, to his left, a same-size rooster. A plucked rooster.
“So what’s the rooster represent?”
“The rooster is genius. The spirit of art. Following your creative bent. Doing exactly what you want to do.”
“And why is it plucked?”
“To show its vulnerability.”
The flesh-and-blood man sitting in front of me looks surer of himself than his expressionist representation in oils on canvas. Several years ago, Nicholas Ferguson gave up a near six-figure annual salary as a marketing executive to go it alone as a branding consultant. A year ago, despite the fact the new business was starting to thrive, he gave that up, too – and sold his flat in Stockwell – to invest in a new career, as a full-time artist. A choice has been made. Here is a man who has slain his goat. The rooster rules his roost. For the time being, at least.
To see how all this came about, we need to go back in time. “My parents both came from very little, but were adventurers. My father was a civil servant, learnt Arabic, and got a job in Dubai, where he met my mother. He’s half Canadian, half British, she’s English. He then took a job in the tobacco industry, which paid much better. They moved to Lausanne, in Switzerland, where I was born and brought up.”
Nicholas’s artistic temperament, it seems, doesn’t run in the family. “My mum is a beautiful soul. Loving, caring and humorous. Cheeky, too. We have a very close relationship. She’s not a creative, though. Or rather, she denies her creativity. My father, while very innovative, relies on his right brain to get by.”
The young Nicholas was a sensitive boy. It was only when his mother saw him reading a book upside down that she realised he had severely impaired vision, which part explained his ‘learning difficulties’ (he now wears contact lenses). He was deemed to be a ‘slow learner’ but was very creative, writing comic books with his younger brother, inventing an alternative reality with their toy animals. A happy childhood, then. But when he was 12, a bombshell. His parents split up.
His father soon remarried, to a Swiss woman working in marketing, a former potter who did have an artistic bent. “Christiane encouraged me to explore my creativity. She introduced me to Nirvana, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Prince. To Francis Bacon, and Antoni Tàpies, and Giacometti. Bought me my first easel and set of paints when I was 13. She was a bonne-vivante, who really enjoyed life. She told me she had had lesbian affairs. It was to her that I came out, as a gay man. She kind of dragged it out of me. My father didn’t get to know for a couple more years. He was OK about it, but insisted on calling it ‘a choice’.
Notice the past tense ‘was’, in the middle of that paragraph. We meet only days after Christiane’s death: as we speak Nicholas is taking a break from preparing a eulogy at her forthcoming funeral.
He got a ‘B’ in Art at O-Level, at his English-language school, which he was disappointed with. He spent his sixth form at a new boarding school, which was a ‘bit of a shock to the system’, but which gave him the chance to hang around in the art room, and develop his style, finding a less technique-driven voice. “I got an ‘A’ for my Art A-Level,” he says. “And was looking forward to going on to do a Foundation Year at Art School. But my art teacher announced I’d be much more suited to a career in business. My father suggested that I went to Hotel School, to ‘get a real degree’, and then go to art school afterwards, if I still wanted. He knew full well that after four and a half years of study, that wasn’t going to happen. I followed his advice. I’ve got to admit some responsibility for the decision. My friends were amazed. ‘If we thought anyone was going to go to art school, it should be you’, they said.
“You followed the goat,” I suggest.
“I followed the goat.”
Ferguson never completely abandoned art. There was a six-month period of painting back in Switzerland in the mid-2000s, after he was unexpectedly made redundant from an extremely brief career in the tobacco industry, which – through no fault of his own – lasted a total of three days. But his creativity was channelled into different directions over the next fifteen years. His degree included stints cheffing in a kitchen in London (a city he grew to love), and managing events in Cape Town. He had a period as an intern at Wallpaper magazine, and he spent many years as a marketing director at Estée Lauder’s luxury skincare division, developing a reputation for ‘creating magic with small budgets’. “It was there where I developed my story-telling skills,” he says. “Because a pot of cream is a pot of cream, and you’ve got to create a narrative to explain why it is a special pot of cream.”
Eventually, after ‘burning the candle at both ends’ for too many years (“being a gay man, London is a bit of a playground”) he suffered what is commonly known as ‘burn-out’, and, after an inspirational sabbatical in Rio working with an NGO in the favelas, accepted a voluntary redundancy, giving up his lucrative job, with the idea of going it alone. He then set up INCK London, a branding consultancy specialising in beauty products (‘INCK’ being an anagram of the shortened form of his Christian name, its logo an illustration of an octopus). He soon developed a portfolio of clients in Europe and Asia, and looked on track for another stellar stage in his career as a creative marketing executive.
Then Covid happened.
“Whenever anything bad has happened in my life, I’ve channelled my emotion into art,” he says. “It happened when I was sent to boarding school, it happened when I was stuck in Switzerland after losing that tobacco industry job, and it happened during Covid,” he says. Having set up an Instagram account (@thecolourofsplash) as a platform for his artistic output, he entered a piece into an exhibition run by the architectural company Squire & Partners, in The Department Store, a creative hub in a landmark building in Brixton. “They were looking for artists who had created projects during lockdown, and I came up with a conceptual piece, which I called Fruhstuck [‘breakfast’ in German, without the umlauts].
His piece consisted of six connected pizza-dough trays, each filled with foodstuffs – suitable for breakfast – from around the world, adorned with toy soldiers and Love Hearts. “I collected up food from different countries: from Ghana, Hong Kong, Australia, India, Italy, Spain, all round the world, according to suggestions from my Instagram followers. England was represented by kippers, which were the only thing I didn’t glue in, luckily, as the show was delayed, and it turned out to be a hot summer (I used Velcro, and replaced the originals after they went off).” Fruhstuck was awarded ‘Most Uplifting Piece’. “I planned it backwards. I planned that I would win an award for this piece. And I did.”
Just as importantly, perhaps, Ferguson also took up painting again, beginning with My Name is Luka, an oil painting of a photograph he had found, of a woman with a gaping mouth, depicted in the manner of Francis Bacon, which he also entered into the Brixton show. He was back on track, and moved into a shared studio in Clapham Junction, where he started working ‘on a consistent basis’; he was soon asked to participate in a two-man show at Zari Gallery in Fitzrovia, “consisting of stuff I’d done between 2004 and 2021: a retrospective of a non-career.”
“I’d always been dogged by a feeling of ‘what if?’“, he continues. “What if I’d chosen, all those years ago, to do the foundation course instead of going to hotel school? I decided to jack in the brand consultancy, and throw everything into art. To start a real art career.”
“You decided to slay the goat?”
“Exactly. And to follow the rooster. At first, I was nervous about how people were going to respond. But I couldn’t see another option, to tell you the truth.”
The last year has been a bit of a whirlwind. In May 2022 he started working with a mentor – Magician’s Way author William Whitecloud – who taught him to ‘access my intuition on demand’ (a process which he has channelled into his work), and who encouraged him to ‘go for it’ as an artist. He has set up a service whereby he interviews clients, elicits their hopes and dreams – both from their id and their ego, their rooster and their goat – and produces for them a portrait in oil paint, depicted in both words and images. He produced a body of work for a group show at the Holy Art Gallery’s London branch in Dalston, in which he started pushing his own boundaries, exploring, for example, his sexuality, his relationship with drugs, his attitude to homelessness. He has been stocked by an art shop in Clapham Junction, where his paintings are selling well. And now he’s looking forward to his first solo show, at the Coningsby, a smart two-storey gallery in Bloomsbury. Most importantly, he says, he has overcome the conditioning he felt that he couldn’t be a commercially successful artist. He has opened out his wings, in other words, and is ready to fly.
I ask him his major influences, and his answers trip off his tongue. Francis Bacon, of course: “how he captured movement, his tormented state and his sexuality, using flat expanses of bold colour.” Lucien Freud, who “made the unattractive attractive, by refusing to beautify, by painting it as it is.” Basquiat, “because of his rawness, and the way he reframed the narrative.” Ai Weiwei, “who employs conceptual methods to speak up against authoritarianism.” And Salvador Dalí, “not for his style of painting, but for the way he channelled his dream state, in his surrealist art.” “Oh, and Picasso, of course, for his sheer ingenuity and creativity.” He didn’t intend it to be the case, he says, but he has been compared to Peter Doig, for his intuitive, rather than representational, use of colour. In fact, he continues, he never intends to take on another artist’s style: he may be influenced by them, but everything he paints is filtered through his subconscious.
He has developed an MO, which starts with his relaxing into a meditative state and scribbling out ideas, in biro. He then turns these ideas into oil paintings, playing loud music, in oil-splattered work-clothes, working on several at a time, letting the lessons he has learnt from one piece drift into another. His current work is very symbolic, inhabited by creatures and cartoon characters, from the ubiquitous goat and rooster, through rats, dogs, green-handed gremlins, and gurus, to Fred Flintstone, the Honey Monster and Betty Boop. He shows me some of his most recent works, both in the flesh, and on screen, and reads me the poems he has written to help explain them. In one painting an indigenous Amazonian woman suckles a pig while Western-world sheep commute over a bridge to their metal-box offices. In another, historical and mythical characters, both villainous and heroic – from Hitler to a bathroom duck – inhabit bubbles, which inhibit their understanding of the consequence of their actions. In a third – entitled Holocene Park – dinosaur sightseers explore an adventure park, representing our 21st-century civilisation. My favourite portrays sunbathing holidaymakers from the near future gluing themselves with UHU onto a cliffside made of Himalayan salt, to keep themselves above the fast-rising sea-level.
“Fiddling while Rome burns?”, I comment.
We’ve met up a month and a half before the Coningsby Gallery exhibition, but Nicholas seems to be displaying little stress, despite his relative inexperience. He’s already finished the series he is to show, and has started working up plans for his next body of work. “The theme is ‘duality’,” he says. “It’s going to be more abstract. I’ve already got about six ideas that I’m ready to start painting. I come up with ideas really quickly.” Here’s a man, I think, who’s making up for lost time.
Before I head back up the basement stairs into sunlit central London – the real world – I ask Nicholas about selling his flat, to fund his artistic career. “Last September, I got the sense that my home was keeping me safe and content. So in November I made the decision ‘kill the ego’ and sell it. Since April I’ve been a nomad, either travelling abroad – to Mexico and Portugal and Spain – or sofa surfing with friends and family, and working in the studio. My parents think I’m nuts, but I know I’ve made the right decision.”
“It must have taken some guts to do that. Doesn’t it leave you quite… quite vulnerable?”
“It required a similar amount of courage to come out as an artist as it did to come out as gay. It just took a few more years.”
- Self-portrait, 2022
- Prancing Horse, 1998
- Fruhstuck, 2021
- Free Expression, 2006
- Immersabilis, 2022
- Self-reflection, 2022