The artist unveils their new mural for the Brent Biennial
Dawn Mellor is a painter whose work often incorporates portraits of the famous – the artist’s protagonists have previously included Judy Garland, Helen Mirren and Karl Lagerfeld – drawing imagery collected from publicity shoots, gossip magazines, film stills and the internet to explore themes of identity, class, politics and pop culture. Last year Mellor published Sirens, an experimental novel, and they have had solo shows at Team Gallery, New York, (2017), Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, (2013), Studio Voltaire, London (2010) and at The Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2008).
ArtReview Were you a fan of George Michael before you embarked on this project? What drew you to him?
Dawn Mellor I drew him as a teenager, however, in terms of this project, it is really uncommon for painters to get public commissions so I was excited by the prospect of making a public artwork. I was primarily interested in the particular challenges of making a painting from start to finish fully in public, whilst engaging simultaneously in conversation with that public.
I was also into the opportunity to make an image of a mainstream celebrity figure who seemed to me to have become increasingly bored with what fame offers and, as he accumulated more wealth, less interested in economic success under capitalism in general. In particular he was expected to say more and more about his private life to a hostile press and used the opportunity to clarify that his pleasures and interests were not accompanied by the shame that the press and culture attempted to induce.
Before researching him I understood him to be a largely popular figure, even outside of his own dedicated fan base, and that much of this was down to his humour and regularly expressed irreverence to all things tedious about being famous, being a ‘sex symbol’, being ‘contractually obliged’ to promote his work in certain ways and so on. The success I wanted to celebrate was not his massive economic success and attendant philanthropy but his advocacy for certain ways of living that were consistently disapproved of by, and mocked in, the media.
When I looked at the fandom, I found they exhibited a broad range of political beliefs despite a shared love for him. Fandoms are known to be capable of total hostility or the opposite towards representations of their loved idol and the public will always have strong views on public art, so I wanted to embrace the messiness of that.
I also wanted to play with time somehow. Despite the use of mostly early-career imagery of him backstage, or from his music videos, there is an emphasis on these elements belonging to his working life rather than private life. A working life that ate into a private life, both of which coexisted with homophobic policing and sometimes relentless media hostility.
AR You mention the challenge of painting in public, can you tell me a little more about that?
DM For the mural itself I was given a three-week period with strict working hours: totally opposite to the way I usually work, which is in total privacy mostly at night. I usually work with oil paint so the material of standard emulsion paint was something I had to learn how to handle. The paint dries almost immediately, especially in hot weather.
It was also much more physically demanding obviously. I had to give rough drafts of the proposed work at various stages, which is not how I usually work. Normally I’m always changing my mind and direction even after I’ve started painting. I made a large number of drawings during a period of research pre and during lockdown. I never start with so many drawings and studies normally but this meant that I could pull from my own archive of references when onsite. Many of the elements, such as the monopoly board references, came out of those drawings.
AR The idea of local heroes, and the claiming of a person by a place, is interesting. How much do you think Brent affected Michael?
DM It’s not something I can know. This is why I didn’t directly speculate on the matter for the content of the mural. I feel uneasy about the idea of local heroes being selected from the celebrity world. Where I grew up [Glossop in Derbyshire] no one talked about famous ex-resident Vivienne Westwood and I have no idea if they discuss her and Hilary Mantel now there. What is famous to me about the area is that it was used as the setting for The League of Gentlemen. Now I know these things I can’t unlearn them and I am also super vulnerable to making symbolic connections either satirically or earnestly. The ambivalence I feel about places being celebrated through the fame of a handful of people who lived there was also a challenge for me making the work, though I do feel it is an opportunity to ask questions about what type of success we celebrate and what success might mean to different people. It was only really possible for me to connect him to the place if I imagined a ghostly return or passing through. I lived in [Brent] for almost a month. I walked past his former schools daily and through the nearby parks and saturated myself with his music and interviews. I could only fantasise him into being and that fantasy is informed by his life post-Kingsbury that we all have access to and my own subjective interests in him.
AR There was a lot of talk about the death of celebrity during the pandemic. Do we still need them?
DM I missed that whole conversation really, as I disengaged with contemporary celebrity gossip and their social media antics some time ago. There were no signs of celebrity interest disappearing from the conversations I had onsite, not only with George Michael fans visiting everyday but also the locals who would stop and share stories. If we don’t need them, why do we keep making them?