I can’t think of a better medium to use than denim when representing the realities of everyday urban life. Do you feel this medium clearly represents your artistic vision?
I really do think it represents my vision, as, my work is not really about it being made of denim. Not in the way of, look, guys, look, look, it’s denim. But it’s just my paint, it’s my medium. It’s the way I see things. In fact, I almost want to downplay it’s denim because it’s not about it being made of denim, but, I’m portraying contemporary life and what better medium to use than the material of our time? Most people are wearing jeans and it really is this rare Democratic worldwide item that transcends so much, so I’m commenting on everyday living, often mundane things, using a material everyone is so familiar with. This kind of creates this new thing of making people see things that little bit differently.
I am also portraying urban living, and while denim may have urban beginnings, I see it very much now as a very urban fabric. I love urban environments and the many layers in cities and built up areas, filled with so much going on and stories. Most people who see my work for the first time, don’t realise it is denim.
You stumbled upon this innovative denim medium quite unintentionally while mindfully noticing various tones of blue in the fabric. Can you tell me your thoughts when this discovery occurred and how it led to your desire for experimentation?
My thoughts were, where am I going to start clearing the room, and – oh no – what else did my mum find in my cupboards! As it all started clearing my bedroom out from my childhood home near the end of university.
I’ll admit, it was this simple observation, of all the shades piled up that got me at first. I loved the indigo tones all contrasting against one another. I think at first I wanted to tap into that cool factor of the denim. I was interested in the history of denim, especially how it followed the story of pop culture. I loved the music and the films so I started with this, really just to experiment, as I was so into this fascinating story. Amazingly my first piece was of Debbie Harry so it was pretty amazing to get commissioned to do her actual portrait years later.
It was only while using the denim however that I came to realise my love for the material, and that it was the only material I really feel comfortable wearing. It brought back memories of wearing the jeans I was cutting up and the little marks and fades on them unique to me. And then, of course, some people began to see them. Seeing their reaction was a fascination, and I really do think that there is something in the denim that spoke to them. By then I had come to know so much more about denim and obviously, we know that all people own at least one pair of jeans and the majority all a favourite pair amongst many.
It probably sounds like another artist trying to be clever, well actually it may also sound rather sad, but I found it easier to communicate with people in the denim, than with words. My last show was amazing for the reactions that people had and the gallery noted that normally for shows people normally hang around for five minutes, but on mine, it was over half an hour and people spent so long per piece. There were some with tears in their eyes. Not that that is my aim of course, but it is nice to get a reaction.
As you mention experimentation, it’s a good point, as, I am still learning how to use the fabric every day and new ways, and that for me, is what keep it exciting for me to challenge myself to how good it can get, to try often to make photo-realistic pieces with a material such as denim.
You used the moniker “Denimu” for many years? Why the change to your name? Do you feel like your transformation as an artist authentically led to this transition?
The Denimu came from many reasons. Firstly, there is a brilliant Magnum photographer called Ian Berry. In fact, there are many. I wanted to not get confused with them. And also I came from a background of coming back into art by being inspired by the street art scene happening in London in the early to mid 2000’s. I thought I would do more street work, perhaps surprisingly to read now. A third reason though, was I was in another career as well when I started and I think I thought if I wasn’t successful then I wouldn’t have that footprint online!
It got really confusing though after a few articles and I am no Banksy and the name came out soon, sometimes the real name, sometimes the Denimu name, sometimes both and actually sometimes neither. In fact, other times I had articles with completely the wrong name with my work. So over the years, I have been trying to focus just on my real name. It’s a shame my mum had to swap my name from William when I was born when they realised I could end up as Bill Berry.
You literally just completed an amazing new project for Pepe Jeans London where you created a CCTV control room. Can you please tell me more about this project and how it transpired?
Pepe Jeans London has been collecting my work for many years actually, and have seen it as art, and treated me as an artist. They have shown my work in the stores, in places such as Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin and in show rooms and in head offices. This time they have also kindly sent many pairs of denim, to add to my pallet and it’s great as it helps with consistency, and they have great washes in their denim – which is basically where I find my magic.
As this was for a flagship store, they wanted something special made for it. They gave me pretty much free reign on the idea.
I wanted it to be a piece that if taken out of a store environment, could sit as much in a gallery and would remain a piece of art after many years. It was a challenge to think of something to do, that for me fit many criteria – my own criteria of what I thought it should be. Art, not just anything in denim, something impactful, that represents the brand, contemporary, and causes thought and debate. They did want to see if I could incorporate a TV screen into it, and after months of ideas, I came up with this CCTV screen installation.
I knew that London was the most watched city in the world. A double meaning so to say. You could say only New York challenges it in the stakes as the most watched, talked about and visited city. Add in the fashion factor, and, well, it’s up there with the best. But of course, it is definitely the most watched city in terms of CCTV cameras. The UK as a whole has 20% of the world’s cameras, and less than 1% of the world’s population. That said, we Brits, we don’t seem to care. We actually in general, feel safer to have them than not, as we are very used to them. I know this is not always the same elsewhere and they find us strange for being so accepting of it, but I think as we have had no military dictatorships or have gone through anything like in East Germany in the past, we see it differently.
So while that was a very interesting subject to challenge, what about Pepe? I wanted to show a contemporary London and this is a very topical issue. It was a way of presenting West London, where Pepe has its roots from its origins on Portobello Road Market in 1973. It sees itself as that authentic West London brand and you will always see that aesthetic and aspiration in their communications. So it was a way that I could portray that, but also with a message, Pepe is watching the streets of London for their inspiration. I was aware of the famous location the store is in, and the multinational clientele they would attract, so while I was portraying this West London feeling, I also wanted to get a few of the sites more recognizable to the customers coming in, so it became the journey from Portobello Road, through the tube, to Oxford Street, Piccadilly Circus and then Regents Street and to their new flagship store.
It’s now nice that many people can see my work, outside of a gallery setting, as my work isn’t all that good unless you see it in real life.
You recently had your first solo show after over a two-year break with two exhibitions ‘Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ with the Catto Gallery, London. Do you feel that it was the right moment to celebrate your creative journey up to that point? What inspired you creatively for your show?
The work takes an awfully long time and I also got caught up with some commissions which actually, normally I don’t do. They take up so much more time than making other work, so normally I decline. So it took a long time putting together a solo show, and really, it was two in one, with two sister exhibitions.
Away from the portraits, most my work looks at the subject of community and fading urban environments, the places that people used to meet. ‘The Launderette’ was part of this as most are closing down in London, and it used to be a real community asset, some people getting their only conversations there. A place to find out gossip and know about the place they live in. We are now becoming a lot more open and closed at the same time. Aware more about the world, but how it looks through a stupid phone, not looking up and seeing the people around us. I think a lot of these places, like the places I have done in the past like the pub, the New York newsstand and American diner, are iconic yet taken for granted. And only once they are gone will they miss them. They bring life and character to a street, now filled with estate agents and samey corporations.
The ‘Behind Closed Doors’ series was in some ways looking at this another way. Showing almost Elle Decoration homes, like you would see in a double spread, yet with a scene of loneliness. It was portraying how you could look to have everything, a material life (not meant as a pun) yet, not be complete, and it’s the people that make us complete, but we often lose that. For me, I see some of these homes, in London, and it’s not a home, but an asset. A place where they are an island and hardly know the neighbours. It was not criticizing though, it was showing that behind closed doors we are all human. I had seen a hatred of people toward people that had things, and a nastiness that I wonder where it comes from (social media) people felt like they could be nasty to one another and I wanted to show a compassionate side, that no matter how you perceive some one from the outside, what you think they are like and what you think they have, we all have our own issues.
What’s next for you on your creative journey? Do you have any upcoming projects you are working on?
After spending eight months on a commission and coming out the other side, I am working out all the options ahead of me. I want to get my work more widely seen in the flesh, so in the upcoming month a schedule will be coming up on my website of where in the world I will be. I’m working out the dates and final things, and of course, some will be added. I can say it will so far include, France, Amsterdam, a number of cities in the states and of course here in London and while some work tours, I will get my head down to do the next body of work – but – You’ll have to watch this space.
I cannot emphasize enough how different the work looks in real life than on the screen here. So while it goes great with the galleries that show me, I really want more people to witness the real pieces. If that happens I have faith everything will work out well.