We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the extremely talented artist and musician - Horace Panter. Horace studied Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic, where he met his future The Specials bandmate, Jerry Dammers. Horace made the most of his tours with The Specials, visiting world-renowned museums, and finding inspiration on his travels. We spoke to Horace about his latest Art Republic releases, how he balances his music and art careers, how his art practice has developed, and his love for Pop Art and America.
AR: Can you talk us through a typical day?
At the moment the days have been pretty similar. Up for breakfast, perhaps an hour’s painting, take the dog out. Come back. Do some more painting, have lunch and then possibly go out with the dog.
In the evening, it depends on whether I'm playing music, as obviously, I'm not here. So that's the end of that. There's usually a bit of painting that takes place at least once a day and it's not like I spend eight hours solid pouring over a canvas or anything. So it's nice to be able to do it in my house so I can sort of take a break. I think I learned pretty early on that if you work too hard, things start to hurt and I've ruined paintings by overworking them. So it's knowing when to take a break, which of course I can do.
AR: Do you have to work in very specific conditions, or can you paint anywhere?
I have a room at the front of the house which my wife despairs of - it's not exactly Francis Bacon's studio but it could be if given half the chance I must admit. I keep a lot of stuff in there. I've got natural light from the front window which looks out onto the street and I have various talismanic things.
AR: When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?
It was the only thing that interested me at school, which was silly, really, because I wasn't very good at it. But I had this desperate need to be creative. When you are 17, it's difficult to make those life choices. There were children at my grammar school going, ‘I'm going to be a pharmaceutical chemist when I grow up.’ I didn't even know what a pharmaceutical chemist was! I just wanted to be an artist and paint pictures.
I ended up going to art school and I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but there was always something, some sort of desire to be creative and create things. This was in the late 60s when revolution was in the air, so I was very much carried along with all that kind of stuff.
AR: And did you enjoy your time at art school?
Yes I did. I did a foundation course in Northampton, when I was still living at home, but then I went to the Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry and that was like me leaving home. The whole thing was quite overwhelming to be honest, I'm a small town kid. I was brought up in Kettering in Northamptonshire, which was voted the most boring town in Britain about 20 years ago. So going to a city like Coventry was a little bit daunting, but I managed, like you do when you are 18/19. It was good fun and also I learned to play bass guitar.
I don't think that what I learned at art college came into fruition up until very recently. Because I started this current art practice, probably like 15 years ago, after The Specials got back together and I had the downtime to paint.
AR: You recently showed and curated a collection of your artworks alongside pieces by David Hockey and Andy Warhol for your exhibition ‘Across America’ at the Colley Ison Gallery in Birmingham. Was this your first experience of curating?
It was. It's cool to share the walls with Warhol and Hockney, and the exhibition was a roaring success, 13 out of the 14 paintings that I painted for the exhibition sold. I was really pleased.
AR: You have visited many museums whilst travelling the world with The Specials, which is your favourite?
Everybody else went to Studio 54 but I went to bed early, so I could get up to go to the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. When we went to Los Angeles, I was able to go to LACMA, and I saw Picasso's Guernica in Madrid. The Chicago Institute is amazing, they had a load of Rauschenberg’s and Rothko’s and then I turned the corner and there was a Caravaggio, the size of a house, of Christ being taken down from the cross. It was amazing.
I really like Kenneth Noland’s stripe paintings; I saw them in Los Angeles and was blown away. I remember going to the Museum of Modern Art one time in New York. There was an exhibition by Joseph Cornell, who I'd never heard of. His little boxes took my breath away, they are beautiful, and it was not what I was expecting to find. That's the great thing about art, isn't it? You turn the corner and there's something that that changes your perception.
AR: What do you like about working with acrylic paint?
I use Windsor and Newton acrylics. I attempted to use oils, but I do not have the patience. I don't have an enormously big palette; I know artists with a whole desk full of different colour paints. I've probably got like two dozen, if that.
AR: You may use a limited colour palette, but your artworks are still incredibly vibrant! Is colour important to you?
That's where the pop art comes in, and Peter Blake. What's wrong with bright colours? To be honest, I love them. Great secret - each one of my paintings has to have the three primary colours in. There's always a yellow, there's always a blue, there's always a red.
AR: You paint from photographs, do you stick to what you see, or make any alterations?
My paintings tend to be stylized. If there's an interesting or a busy background, I mute it or in some cases disregard it all together, because I don't want anything to detract from the main image that I'm painting. I rarely put figures in, so it's all about the building or the sign, the image isn't shared with anything.
AR: Your vending machine artworks are a great example of how you focus on one subject without any distractions, how did this series come about?
I've been to Japan a few times with The Specials and vending machines are all over the place and they're amazing. They're really colourful, not just the carcass, but all of the little things that are inside them as well. That's the thing that I love about pop art - the concept of elevating the mundane, and vending machines fitted that perfectly.
AR: We love your cassette artworks, how do you choose the tracks, does each one mean something to you?
The cassettes are like the vending machines, they tick my Pop Art boxes because they're these cheap mass-produced disposable pieces of early music technology. But they have become repositories of memory. It was cutting-edge stuff in the 1970s, 1980s. If you were a musician, you would go to a recording studio and take away a demo of what you did that day, so then you can listen to it overnight or the next day and think. They were a tool of the trade for a working musician and of course, each studio had its own little logo which they put on, so I was very interested in that.
It was quite an interesting project to find a song that I really liked. There’s this whacking big Russian website that details every cassette that was ever made, so I just trawled through and picked one that looked crazy. The cassette started about in 1970, till about 1995, so there's only like 25 years - I couldn't do a Beatles cassette.
AR: You have said you have a passion for comics and grew up reading the Beano. It must have been very cool to be asked by Beano to make something for their 80th anniversary – what made you think to combine the characters with pop art?
Yes - absolutely. Peter Blake did the 75th anniversary, so no pressure there! I spent a couple weeks of scratching my head and going 'what would I really like to do?' I ended up with - let's get my favourite pop art paintings and have the Beano characters round. What would happen if Dennis the Menace and Minnie sat for Warhol portraits…
There are some people that I know over in Birmingham as screen printers who make heavy metal T-shirts. I went over to them with this idea that Warhol used to do these portraits on the floor with this whacking, big screen squeegee - so we did that. We did them as authentically as we possibly could, and then I kind of painted over them and did all that stuff. It was great fun. A mate of mine made me a sheet of Bend-Day dots. It was great because it was funny, I had license to do that.
And the guy from the Beano was going, our favourite characters are Dennis the Menace and Gnasher his dog, it would be great to incorporate them. I thought of the idea of having Dennis and Gnasher invading David Hockney’s swimming pool. It had that kind of anarchic vibe to it, which I always loved about the Beano, which was punk rock before punk rock was invented.
AR: What can you tell us about the X-ray artworks that you are releasing with Art Republic?
A friend of mine was at drinks party and he was talking to this bloke who says 'I'm a radiographer, I have to X-ray some weird stuff. I had to X-ray a guitar the other week.' They use it to authenticate stuff. My mate was thinking, I've got a friend who's got guitars. So two weeks later, we went up to a city which should not be named and snuck in the back door of the Royal Infirmary with my guitar and bits and pieces. We took some X-rays - these things just look hard when they're turned into X-rays, and then we made prints from them.
AR: You are also releasing new colourways of your Dr Martens prints - what draws you to these shoes? Do you have any?
My sister used to make them. So there's a family connection there. Several! I'm wearing Dr Martens at the moment and the first couple of weeks were atrocious but now they're like slippers. I've worn them every day for the past nine months.
AR: We can’t wait to see what you create next, what are you working on at the moment?
Well if it ain't broke, don't fix it. When I went over to America last February, I took a lot of photographs, some of which were in the most recent exhibition, but there's still a load of stuff that I haven't used. So, I'm trawling through that and I'm painting some new ones - back on the Americana treadmill!
AR: What is one record you couldn't live without?
Rolling Stones – Exile on Main St.
To discover more of Horace's work and his latest releases, make sure to check out his Art Republic collection page here.