The art world has come to appreciate the phenomenon of street art as it transcended the classification of vandalism to grace the divine interior of the art gallery. Yet, there is an air of mystery surrounding street artists and their work, as many prefer to remain anonymous. Most only know them by the reputation of their imagery.
An artist whose name embodies mystery and intrigue is London-based contemporary artist Paul Insect, known for his striking, colourful paintings and mixed media works intertwined with puppetry.
Starting from humble beginnings in the coastal town of Hastings, he studied design, photography, and printmaking. Later moving to London, where he would hone his technique creating work for companies in the music industry. At the same time, his awareness began to flourish as he gained recognition as part of the artists collective “Insect”.
I’ve always seen myself as a multidisciplinary artist, I enjoy working with all forms and materials, collaging them like ideas, and this show touches on some of those interests
Paul was making a name for himself, and nothing was quite like the level of attention that was yet to come. When he opened his first solo exhibition in 2003 titled “Dreambags and Jaguar Shoes”, it took place in the basement of a Shoreditch bar.
The show was visited by the team behind the print house POW (Pictures on Walls), who made the prints for the infamous Banksy. Insects prominence in the art world was growing as he prepared to open his 2007 solo exhibition Bullion at London’s Lazarides Gallery. The exhibition attracted a lot of attention and caught the eye of British artist Damien Hirst.
Hirst then acquired the entire show days before it opened, electrifying Insect as an artist. These works are now part of Hirst’s ‘Murder me’ collection.
Insect has exhibited across the globe and also worked alongside Banksy at the Cans Festival, the Santa’s Ghetto project in Bethlehem and participated in Banksy’s 2015 pop-up exhibition “Dismaland” and Roger Gastman’s 2018 travelling street art survey “Beyond the Streets.” In 2019 he had a monumental sculpture installed in the middle of the Glastonbury festival.
It’s obvious to recognise why, as Insect fraternises with the artistic theories of Surrealism and Dadaism, sprinkle in the essence of street art. The results are bold and vivid, consisting of veiled faces speckled with benday dots, intricately placed within abstract shapes. Accentuated by the lustrous consequences of diamond dust and glitter, which provokes a luminous atmosphere if you’re close enough to appreciate the details.
Currently, Paul is working with long-time collaborators art house Avant Arte on a new exhibition titled Personal Effects, a culmination of work from a quiet time for the artist. At Amsterdam’s Lauriergracht, a street with a rich history for artists and collectors from Rembrant’s protégé Govaert Flink to well-known impressionist George Hendrik Breitner. I managed to catch up with Paul to talk about his exhibition, creative process and more.
Q: Hi Paul, for those who don’t know you, can you please introduce yourself?
A: My name is Paul Insect, and I’m a multi-media artist based in London. I mainly make paintings but also work with video, music, sculpture and puppets. I currently have an exhibition in Amsterdam with Avant Arte, Paul Insect: Personal Effects, that includes new paintings, sculptures, prints and studio Polaroids created over the past year.
Q: You are regarded as one of street art’s most recognisable and prominent artists. Can you tell us how you got your start in art?
A: Thanks for saying so; I’m not sure I see myself as that!
I’ve always liked drawing or making things, and I left school early, not knowing what I wanted to do. I started in Hastings, a coastal town in the UK, where I studied design, photography, and screen printmaking.
I then moved to London and worked in various places creating work for the music industry and video sleeves for movies. This was all pre-Photoshop, so everything was visualised by airbrushing and drawings made from negatives supplied by film companies. Back then, we used this massive computer called a ‘Paint Box’. It filled a whole room.
Photoshop then came in and changed the industry. I was tired of working for people and decided to take the leap and get a studio with a friend. Together, we set up a group called Insect and made record sleeves and worked for various clubs around London.
My first solo show came in 2003 in the basement of a bar that had just opened up in Shoreditch. The exhibition was called Dreambags and Jaguar Shoes. I created it from the old names of the two shops it had taken over, a bag shop and an old shoe shop. Both knocked into one space.
The show consisted of screen printed posters that I had been putting up on the street at that time. I think they were £5 each. The show was visited by the guys from the print house POW (Pictures On Walls) who at the time were making prints for Banksy, someone who I had worked with a few years before. POW contacted me and asked if I would like to edition some of the works from the show… I suppose that was the real beginning of me stepping away from daily work into making my own work which I’ve been doing ever since.
Q: Can you tell us about your creative process?
A: It varies day by day, depending on the project I’m working on. I work alone in my studio and spend most of my time painting for upcoming projects, but I also like working with film and large scale 3D projects.
I don’t like to limit myself. A lot of my sculptural work from the studio is made by using found objects. I’ve worked with bronze many times. Most recently, I’ve been experimenting with steel and glass, which you can see in my Automaton and Sweet Jar works in the show.
I also love the process of screen printing, something I’ve been doing from the very beginning. Screen printing is not to be confused with a ‘giclée’, something also described as a print, which it is…but this type of print is just a colour copy of an existing image. I enjoy the process of hand-making prints, choosing colours, layering colour to make other colours and trying to push this process as far as it can go with the inks, varnish techniques, papers and other materials at hand.
Q: What can we expect to see at your show with Avant Arte?
A: Lots of paintings made through 2021, combined with film, the documentation of the process through Polaroid photographs, and new sculptural works.
I usually take Polaroids in the studio but for personal documentation. But we decided to share these, so now 80 photographs from this past year will be part of the show.
It’s leaving a hole in my own records, but I’m excited to be able to share how I document my process. There are also drawings and sketches made earlier this year, and I’ve worked closely with Avant Arte and a glass factory to develop some handblown glassworks (Sweet Jar) along with some new screenprint works (Cosmodela (Duponti) and Cosmodela). I’ve not been to Amsterdam for a few years, so it will be exciting to be back there, but this time showing work.
Q: Damien Hirst entirely bought out your first London show before it opened to the public. How did you feel at this moment?
A: It was my first Gallery show, So it felt wonderful. It was an interesting time in London with the street art scene, and it allowed me to take the next step.
Q: What next for you as an artist?
A: Various projects, a small show in Spain, BEYOND THE STREETS, will take place in China along with many other projects. In this new world we live in. It makes things a little challenging to plan.