Arbeit Gallery

In 2012, Joseph Steele appeared on the BBC’s X-Factor for artists, Show me the Monet, departing somewhat ingloriously. Nicola Frimpong AKA Freeakpong saw him and his work, and emailed him, believing that they might have enough in common to work together. Two years later, and after several intense months of bouncing ideas back and forth and meeting up for heated discussions, similar to the one I was invited to witness today, and their collaborative exhibition, albeit made up of individual works, is on show at Arbeit Gallery, curated by Nimrod Vardi.

Walking into the gallery, the first thing you’re hit by – and it’s a pretty hard hit at that – is Steele’s bombastic centrepiece. Two plastic mannequins, James and Deborah, who have been victims of a “bomb blast”, and whose remains are displayed miscellaneously on a couple of plinths. Deborah, the “lucky one”, is still standing, but stripped of her clothes, with one hand detached and lying bloodied by her feet, the other blown far away (later to be discovered in the back room with the free drinks). James has fared worse and his scorched and bloodied remains lie strewn across his platform, melted and exposed, as if to the bone. The horror of these pieces is visceral and nauseating, and my instinct, were I not about to meet the artists by prior arrangement, would be to turn and run.

Upon arrival, Steele himself is fairly cavalier about it all. “Originally I wanted a child as well, but the mannequin fell off the back of the lorry and broke,” he laughs, swinging his legs over the edge of James’ plinth to sit down. He began setting fire to things and using explosives straight out of university as a response to his boredom with painting, inspired along the way by Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad car wreck. For this piece, he was apparently aiming for a look similar to Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s shocking Napalm image, incorporating into it a comment on the continued use of sweatshops and the current trend towards artists becoming celebrities or brand names. Steele doesn’t move the detritus, once he has exploded it, since the element of chance in how it lands is part of the artwork, but, fortuitously, James’ Vivienne Westwood label survived the blast and is stuck fast to his scorched skin, as if it were, in fact, branded on.

As part of the show, each artist has made a work dedicated to the other. Steele’s for Freeakpong is entitled Zed with the head of the Freeakpong and depicts a disaster movie apocalypse, with the female heroine, Zed, standing atop the rubble of a bombed out London, the Shard and other recognisable landmarks looming in the background, and a red sky being swept through by tidal waves made up of cars, a homage to Hokusai. Zed, Steele explains, is the lead character from a film he has been working on for a while now, called Thus, taken from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Set against the Occupy Movement, it quickly turns into a revenge movie, with destruction to rival Sodom and Gomorrah. By now, this comes as little surprise to me. Steele, however, maintains that despite all of the violence and harm, “this [his work] is salvation in contrast to Nicola’s suffering.”

So, what exactly does Freeakpong produce that is more destructive than Steele’s Armageddon? Unlike him, for whom scale and impact factor seem to rule, Freeakpong’s comfort zone is A4-sized paper, on which she outlines in biro and colours in with watercolour paint, producing childlike – or might one say childish? – drawings, full of disturbing and crude detail, offering taboo-breaking, completely un-PC visions of the bad in society, exaggerated beyond all decency. She churns these works out hard and fast, spending between two and four hours per piece, and proudly stating: “Art is just pouring out of my head right now.”

On first meeting, Freeakpong is taciturn, admitting to feeling herself to be “quite repressed” as a person, with her drawings offering her “a way to let things out.” However, as soon as Steele turns up, “fashionably late,” she comes to life, and, upon the mention of the film Caligula, a recommendation from their previous get together, almost hyperactive, as she bounces about enthralled at the recollections of its “epic orgies” and “gratuitous violence.” With inspirations such as this, as well as figures including Salvador Dalí and the Marquis de Sade, it is easy to see where some of her pervertedness comes from. Her pages are populated by characters wearing t-shirts covered with slogans such as “I hate black people,” “Britain is shit,” and “Jesus sucks cock.” Gay body builders, Ku Klux Klan hooded protesters, and butchers severing human body parts: nothing and no one is left untouched by this orgy of violence and hatred, not even the artist herself, since in one work, protestors demonstrate waving placards scrawled with the chant: “We hate Nicola Frimpong. Kill Nicola!”

Her piece dedicated to Steele depicts a massacre on Downing Street, renamed here as Steele Street, with liberal amounts of blood, shot policemen, and David Cameron holding a sign announcing “I’m a gay prime minister.” One moment Freeakpong says that she aspires to be “inventive and refreshing,” and the next, perhaps more fittingly: “Really I just like to push and push and push myself and do the most disgusting things I can as a challenge.”

The world she creates is, she announces excitedly, “a world that I would like to be in if I could.” Even Steele seems more than a little bemused by this. “But why would you want to create these worlds and bring more pain and atrocity into the world? Do you not think a happy society would be as much about the repression of emotions as about the expression of emotions?” To this, Freeakpong guffaws, retorting sarcastically: “A happy society?!” Clearly, in her mind, this is an oxymoron.

“I think I’m quite old-fashioned in the way I work,” Steele concludes. “It’s always very serious, whereas Nicola’s is much more throwaway. Nicola creates a world of terror, pain, and suffering, whereas I want to reflect.” Indeed, both artists clearly know their cultural references. But whilst both are disillusioned with society, both, through their art, are unwittingly adding to all that is bad about it. Although, I’m tempted to believe that in Steele’s case this might be less unwittingly so, since his works do truly seem to be deliberately ironic, at least trying to make some comment on it all. “As an artist, you’ve got an obligation to make something with real integrity,” he says. And if only through sheer bombast alone, his works are at least impressive.

The information sheet to accompany this exhibition warns that “negativity is inescapable and flows through every part of us into the deepest, darkest corners of ourselves, polluting our souls.” It certainly feels like that upon leaving the gallery. Steele’s joke that “the best thing about this show is the plinth” sadly quite accurately sums it all up.