Russell Tovey: How I fell in love with art and how it changed my life

·6-min read
<p>Robert, Rocky and Russell</p> (handout)

Robert, Rocky and Russell


Art has always played a vital and positive role in my life. Way before acting arrived, I felt a strong pull to the visual world. Animation was my way in - that gave way to advertising art, then came Pop art, specifically Roy Lichtenstein. Oh Roy, I remember the first time I saw your image Whaam! of the fighter jet, rockets blazing, as I sat on the floor of the ‘Arts’ section of WH Smith aged about eight. It changed me molecularly. I drew it over and over again, trying to understand and copy the comic-book technique Lichtenstein was so famous for. Inspired by his comic/cartoon/fine art crossover, I felt anything was possible.

I was 16 when contemporary art caught me. It was 1997 and I was at performing arts college in Essex. Artworks collected by Charles Saatchi were being exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts; I went along by myself and was transfixed. Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad in the middle of the floor, Marc Quinn’s humming refrigerated Blood Head, Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-applique tent. I was officially obsessed.

Emin’s Dog Brains was a coming-of-age giftTracey Emin/Counter Editions
Emin’s Dog Brains was a coming-of-age giftTracey Emin/Counter Editions

It wasn’t until about the age of 20 that I realised owning and collecting art was an option. I was at a friend of a friend’s house and hanging on the wall was an edition of Tracey’s drawing Dog Brains. My heart raced. I asked my friend where it was from and he couldn’t help me. Then, as if through astral manifestation, I met Tracey, on her street in East London, sweeping up after the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, and asked her how I could get it. She pointed me in the direction of Carl Freedman’s Counter Editions. Eureka! I had cracked the code, and for my 21st birthday I instructed my parents that this work of art was to be my coming-of-age gift, please.

The rest is history. From there, I have become an absolute geek, collecting artworks and curating shows. With my friend Robert Diament, who left behind his music career in the band Temposhark to work in the art world, I started a podcast, Talk Art, and we’ve interviewed the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Roni Horn, Paul McCarthy, Lubaina Himid, Yinka Ilori, Lindsey Mendick and more. And from that has come a new book, Talk Art: everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask. When Octopus publishing called, saying “Do you want to write a book?” we weren’t really prepared, but we thought, absolutely, let’s do this.

Artist Lindsey Mendick has featured on the Talk Art podcastLindsey Mendick
Artist Lindsey Mendick has featured on the Talk Art podcastLindsey Mendick

But how do you write a book about art when the whole of art history is on your shoulders? How do you cover all of that? Fortunately, we didn’t have to - that’s all been written about, they said. Write about what you are drawn to; what excites you; what in the art world is making you tick. That gave us permission to write about what we love, what is new, what is fresh; what’s changed our views and opinions of the world.

What we’re trying to do is make it so that, with art, you’re not showing up to a club where your name’s not on the list. We’re saying, it’s alright, you don’t need to be on the list, because we’ve found a gap in the fence around the corner - you can just get in this way and enjoy the party. We want to facilitate, to be a conduit to a world which we love. And which for us is completely fun. Art gives me so much pleasure and fun; I want other people to realise that it’s not this heavy, existential experiment, trying to understand the human condition - even though it does do that, and that role is invaluable. It’s also about entertainment.

Yes, there are deep themes that are being expressed in artworks, but really, it’s just about sharing and storytelling. Art for me goes hand in hand with acting, with theatre, with TV, with books. Art is someone telling you a story.

When I first walked into a quiet, blue chip gallery space, I felt like I had to apologise, to ask permission. And when you do walk in, you come to this artwork fresh. You might not know the art history that has led to this point, you might not know the whole canon, you’re just experiencing an artwork in front of you. And sometimes you might not get it, or think that it’s very good, or don’t understand it. And I’ve certainly had experiences where I’ve found people are talking down to me, or wondering “why’s this guy here?” Well, I’m here because I love it; because I’m really drawn to it. I don’t know what it is, and I want to understand; I want to learn.

A lot that is written and spoken about art is reverential, and full of quotes and references that, if you don’t understand automatically, lock you out, even if you want to engage. It can be intimidating - nobody wants to be the person to say, “hold up. What does that mean? What are you talking about there? I don’t know that quotation.” That’s the job we’ve given ourselves with Talk Art - to be those people who go, “sorry, explain that. I don’t know what that is.” The whole point of this is to make art accessible, non-elitist, non-academic, gossipy - FUN. We want to tell people, “this is for you”.

Russell and Robert want people to know art is for everyonehandout
Russell and Robert want people to know art is for everyonehandout

The YBAs were my big breakthrough. Everything I’d known about art before, was related to artists that I love but who had died. Keith Haring; Andy Warhol; Roy Lichtenstein - I loved them, but they weren’t alive, and their output was finalised. The YBAs made me realise what contemporary means - with your contemporaries, you can be part of that conversation. When you think of the people hanging out at Warhol’s Factory, and wonder how they got there - you can be one of those people, you can be part of what’s going on now. That’s what I love about contemporary art - we can all go and see those exhibitions, talk to those artists, we can be part of our own art history. Anyone can. And that’s thrilling.

It’s said that when you’re drunk, you should never discuss religion or politics. I think art should be added to that list, it can evoke the same vehement reaction. But I think that’s fascinating. Every day, artists are compulsively driven to create, and with the things they create, they explore the world, they explore what it is to be alive. And it’s never ending - there isn’t a finite number of artists, or a finite number of stories being told, it’s constant, ever-changing and always developing. And that for me is inspiring. Regardless of our reaction to it, the only way we really understand our fellow man, even when everyone’s dead and gone, is through our art. We understand people and their civilisations through what they made with their hands, whether it be tombs, cave paintings, hieroglyphics on the walls of pyramids or carved in stone, or fine portraits by Hans Holbein that hang on the walls of the National Gallery. Through an unmade bed, or a shark in formaldehyde. It all tells us something about ourselves. I hope, through our book, we can help more people find a way in.

Talk Art: everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament is published by Octopus

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