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An Interview with Punk Rock Artist Billy Morrison

 

 Ozzy Osbourne with Billy Morrison

Anesthesia: The Art of Oblivion, A Collaboration On Contemporary Sedatives
Featuring New works from Billy Morrison and Plastic Jesus.
February 24 - 25, 2017 in Los Angeles 

By FRANCEASCA SEIDEN, FEB 2017

In a time where politics has taken over our news feeds, the one thing that most of us can agree on is that MUSIC and ART have always been the voices of rebellion and resistance. A lot of us associate the sound of the “anti-establishment” as Punk Rock, but there’s also Punk Art. Take two artists like Billy Morrison and Plastic Jesus, combining forces in the collaborative installation Anesthesia: The Art of Oblivion, A Collaboration On Contemporary Sedatives.

The two-day exhibit (Feb 24/25th) will be held at GIBSON BRANDS SUNSET (FORMERLY known as the legendary TOWER RECORDS) located on the Sunset Strip, a place that veteran guitarist and artist, Billy Morrison is no stranger to. For the last twenty (plus) years Morrison has played guitar with some of Rock n Roll most iconic names, from Billy Idol to The Cult, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Slash, Robbie Williams, Lou Reed, Ronnie Wood, Jerry Cantrell, Dave Navarro and supergroup Camp Freddy. In addition to his music accomplishments Morrison is an avid contemporary art collector owning pieces by Andy Warhol, Jamie Reid, Shepard Fairey, Banksy and Risk. He is also a visual artist himself, having several solo shows and collaborating with many of the contemporary art world’s biggest figures. Want more name-dropping? Some of his collectors include Shepard Fairey, Sharon Osbourne and Craig Susser, he even has a piece from his Butterfly series, hanging in the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The UK native and American citizen sites the Sex Pistols as his ultimate influences. His work is mixed with dark imagery, animals, political statements and enigmatic puzzle pieces. Morrison with Plastic Jesus are both artists who have a lot to say about the kind of world we live in today. Billy opened up to me about his work, his thoughts on politics, pop culture, music and if art is the new punk. Here’s our Q & A.

Would you consider yourself someone who has regularly followed pop culture throughout your life? Do you consider yourself political by nature?

I think that I pay attention to pop culture but I don’t necessarily FOLLOW it if that makes sense. I’m aware of new trends, the latest music choices, up and coming artists etc. And yes I do watch the news every day. In fact it’s on the TV most days while I paint. I find that listening and not watching helps the information go in, without being colored by images. I am absolutely not political at all, EXCEPT when it comes to voting in someone as ludicrous as this current president. I think that both the right and the left have certain shortcomings and certain strong points. And I also believe that we as the public are just not fed the truth. We are fed what the powers that be choose to feed us. So how can we make an educated decision on who we want to lead us without knowing ALL the facts? Politics is necessary but I prefer to push for change, growth and help others from within the boundaries of my own world.

What is your weapon of choice when creating visual art?

I have always loved the look of paint on canvas. I love texture and there’s something about the canvas that speaks quality to me. So all of my work is done on canvas. When I started it was purely paintbrush on canvas but as my technique and process has expanded, so has my choice of weapon! Newspaper and magazines, sheet music, spray paint, acrylic paint pens, diamond dust and glitter ….. I am now using whatever I feel the piece needs.

You have collaborated with some of the best; Risk, Lincoln Townley and now Plastic Jesus, a street artist whose messages have popped all over LA from the “Stop Making Stupid People Famous” stencil to the statue of Oscar snorting cocaine on Hollywood Boulevard. How was it to collaborate with another visual artist, especially someone who is so well known around the world?

When I got the call from Megan Phillips (who know owns the Sur Le Mur Gallery in West Hollywood) that Risk wanted to collaborate on a piece, I looked up at my Risk piece hanging on my wall that I had purchased and told her she must have the wrong guy! I was a fan of Risk already and owned some stuff of his, so it seemed overwhelming and scary that someone of his reputation would want to collaborate with me. But I always operate with a punk rock attitude -- basically it doesn’t matter how you’ve been trained to say something as long as you’ve got something worth saying -- and I just went for it. Ultimately I don’t worry about the end results in life, and I believe you have to stick your neck out to achieve success. So I drove over to meet him and he was a sweetheart! Amazingly encouraging and super talented. We got on well, and produced the limited HPM series of my “Under Two Flags” butterfly together. It’s the only piece of my own art that I have hanging in my house. I’m very proud of it. Lincoln and I hit it off from the moment we met -- a London boy done good, so to speak -- and we had a blast doing that collab.

Billy Morrison and Plastic Jesus collaboration
 

Did you and Plastic Jesus have a relationship prior to your collaboration? How did the idea come about? How was it different from any other collaborations?

I met Mr Jesus (now that’s a sentence you don’t normally hear!) at my last major art show on Wilshire in Los Angeles. The show was crazy, a huge red carpet with tons of rock stars and actors running around, and I was feeling intimidated and vulnerable. I always say that painting the work is easy, but hanging them on a wall and inviting 500 of your closest friend to come and judge you is the real test!! Anyway, he walks up to me and says “Hi. I’m Plastic Jesus and I love what you’re doing. We should do a show together.” Now I don’t know what he looks like (and not many people do) so I look at this guy and I’m thinking “no you’re not!!” But being a huge fan of his work, I went down to his studio after the show ended and sure enough, there’s huge Oscar statues and “Stop Making Stupid People Famous” stuff everywhere! That was it -- we hit it off and the idea for the Anesthesia show was born. I feel I have been able to develop a longer collaborative relationship with a similar-minded artist and we have created 13 canvases together. 12 are Icons of music, film and tv, and one is the show piece.

Do you enjoy collaborating with other artists?

Yes so far. But I don’t really have much desire to collaborate with every artist that's tagging walls in LA! I need to connect with their vibe, love their work, respect their process and ultimately be a fan.

Who would you want to work with next?

Shepard Fairey is a close friend of mine (he actually DJ’d my first ever art show!) and he is in my top three all-time favorite artists. He is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet and just says so much with his work, not to mention giving back to communities and affecting change through art. I have huge respect for Shepard and he has been an advocate of my work for a while now. He owns one of my Clockwork Orange canvases. Plus he loves The Sex Pistols as much as I do! If I had the chance to collaborate with Shepard, I would jump at it!

Can you tell me a little bit about your different styles? Specifically for example, the noose, keyhole, puzzle pieces, and the significance of the tiger.

The Noose is one of three Keyhole pieces I have painted, two of which will be in the Anesthesia show next week. The idea of the triptych was to point out that we ALL have darker corners in our minds and it is a mistake to ignore them, cover them up, pretend everything is ok. I believe in communication and talking about the stuff that troubles us, confuses us, plagues us. So the concept of “What’s behind YOUR keyhole” came into existence - and I wanted to highlight that it’s OK to show what’s behind your keyhole. Help, change and growth starts with an admission and letting someone ELSE know what’s going on.

The puzzle pieces are an ongoing theme. I love the way that missing pieces from a puzzle can illustrate things that are going wrong and things that we are gradually destroying (like the environment or the financial system). This particular piece is about what we are doing to our animals and our wildlife. I am an avid scuba diver and love big animals in general. I picked the Tiger because my Mom passed away last year and loved the tigers and the big cats. She lived in Africa in her final years and I just wanted to give her a smile with the Tiger. It’s the perfect animal to depict the rapid extinction of so many species.

Artist and musician, Billy Morrison
 

The collab piece “Police” you and Plastic Jesus are wearing swat uniforms in front of pieced off grids or maps. What are the cities shown in those grids?

The maps are of the famous areas of LA. Hollywood, Malibu, Beverly Hills etc. And that piece was more of a tongue in cheek illustration of what we are doing. The cops have our names on their jackets and are wearing carnations in their buttonholes. We started talking about how in the western world we pride ourselves on our freedoms, liberty and democracy. However in recent years we seem to be sleepwalking towards an over regulated, militarized police state... ironically all in the name of freedom. And the image you see was the result of that conversation.

Was it your idea to have your opening at the iconic Tower Records on Sunset Blvd.? If so, what was the reason?

It was my idea, yes. Gibson Guitars now own the space. And when we first started discussing doing a show together, Mr. Jesus explained that he had never actually done a full Los Angeles art show before and was only interested if we put on something way more than the usual art show opening. And I agreed. On any given Friday in Los Angeles there are dozens of small galleries holding openings and shows and it’s hard for the artist not to get lost in the shuffle (and shafted financially a lot of the time as well). So we decided that if we were going to do this, it needed to be on a grand scale, in an unusual and iconic location. I don’t think you get more iconic than the Tower Record on Sunset Blvd!

Do you think visual art/street art is the new punk rock and the artists are the new “rock gods”?

Absolutely. And it’s been like that for decades. Warhol was a rock star. Hirst is a rock star. Shepard is a rock star. And all of them hold that most important of values and ethics……. I’m going to do what I want to do, and if you like it, great. If you don’t, then no problem. But I’m doing it for ME and no one else. All great rock stars have that running through their veins and I gravitate to that like a horse to water.

Let’s discuss your thoughts on contemporary pop culture. Do you feel that most of us, because of technology and reality television, are out of touch with the human experience? Are you seeing that get worse or have you noticed a movement of people now waking up, because of global events?

I think we are in a state of flux. There is a huge portion of the younger generation that simply would not want to go for a meal and talk. Because they don’t know how! They need constant stimulation, from the background techno pumping in their cars, to the 24/7 Instagram/FB/Twitter checking. They now communicate almost exclusively through text. Taking on the phone is considered so 2004! And yet I also see more and more people starting to CARE, starting to use their voices, show up, affect change. I think it’s a period of transition for us and things will find their own level. It’s important to embrace technology but equally important to retain our humanity. Balance is key (but that is also one of the hardest things to achieve.)

“Visual assaults that drop us back into reality, using contemporary distractions as a way to pull us back into the world we actually inhabit,” has been used to describe your work. Using the example of the piece you made of Kim Kardashian taking a selfie with the Instagram icon as the camera, my sense is, this piece catches the audience's eye quicker and is considered to be thought-provoking by the general population, more so than, say, a refugee child in streets of Syria. The child makes us feel and perhaps inspires some to act in charitable ways but the “selfie” hits us harder because of the relatable narcissism. Do you feel like that is what you are going for?

I absolutely agree and that’s why I did that pop-up show last year. Every piece was designed to highlight that narcissism and hit home quickly, as opposed to a more thought-provoking and gentle journey into the piece. Social Media has helped in so many ways for many people, but we can’t deny that the narcissism it has brought out (full careers are now built on taking selfies!!!) is a little worrying. Images of a small child in Syria, or the latest shooting victims, are now so prevalent that we have become desensitized and if it’s not “in our timeline” it’s not happening. Scary stuff.

Billy Morrison

Do you think that is an American issue or a global problem?

Good question, and one that is difficult to answer. I travel extensively and I see a similar problem in most countries that I visit. But I live in America so I can only truly comment on what I see around me here.

Besides yourself and Plastic Jesus of course, what other artists are making work with prolific social statements?

Like I said, Shepard is the master of the social statement. I think D-Face says some great stuff. And of course, one of my favorites, Banksy. He’s kinda like a punk rock band, people either love him or hate him, but MOST people have an opinion. And THAT is the sign of someone that has truly penetrated modern culture and his social statements (to me at least) are amazingly thought out, well executed, and more often than not, frighteningly true. People are very often scared of the truth.

Who were your influences and some of your favorite artists dead or alive?

Andy Warhol, Banksy, Hirst, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, Shepard, Haring, Risk, Retna.

Same question, this time musical influences dead or alive?

The Sex Pistols. It starts and ends with them. In the middle would be Sabbath, Billy Idol (thats handy, cos I play guitar for him!!!), The Wildhearts, NIN, Adam And The Ants and most UK punk bands.

Billy Morrison, Extinction is the Tiger


Which bands/artists, if any, have a message that you really dig?

That is sadly lacking in today’s musical scene. I think Trent and NIN continue to push boundaries and obviously the Public Enemy/Cypress/Rage hybrid has a very strong message right now. But music has turned into some glittery, shiny, watered down anesthetic. It really is time for a new musical revolution.

Explain how you balance between music and painting. Do you work on both simultaneously? Do you take breaks from one medium to then focus on the other?

I literally get up every day and work on what’s in front of me. Right now and until next weekend it is all about the painting and the art show. The moment that ends, I have left myself four days to learn some new Billy Idol songs that we will be playing in Vegas in March and then the whole of March is Billy Idol shows in Vegas (and a couple of private Royal Machines shows - the all star band I have with Dave Navarro and Mark McGrath). I use iCal to its max! My whole 2017 is pretty much planned and I work in blocks - usually month-long blocks. So April is a month off painting. May is Idol. etc etc.

Do female fans throw themselves more when you’re holding a paint brush or when you're holding a guitar?

Best question ever! I can categorically confirm that while art is good for the soul, cathartic, expressive, thoughtful, challenging and a beautiful creative form…….. standing on a stage with a guitar around your neck will be what gets you laid! WM

VIP RECEPTION Friday, February 24, 2017 7-11pm
PUBLIC RECEPTION Saturday, February 25, 2017 12-9pm
EXHIBITION RUNS February 24 - February 25, 2017
GIBSON BRANDS SUNSET (FORMERLY TOWER RECORDS) 8801 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

 

 

Franceasca Seiden


Franceasca Seiden is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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