Aug 31, 2023, 05:57AM

Art Rebel Part II

Jamie Reid on Situationism, the Sex Pistols and the Strongroom Studios.

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Part I

An early photograph in Jamie Reid’s possession shows him on one of the Aldermaston marches when he was about five or six. These were a series of marches held over the Easter weekend between the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire and London in the late-1950s and early-60s. Tens of thousands of people would attend. They were the highlight of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) calendar. Reid said that the Aldermaston marches were the precursor of the festival scene in Britain and he described his experience as “liberating.” He often used the CND symbol in his art.

He was never very academic, preferring art and sport to books. He went to Wimbledon Art School at 16 and then to Croydon. It was here he met Malcolm McLaren, later to become the manager of the Sex Pistols. The arts schools were centers of counterculture in Britain at the time. John Lennon, Pete Townsend, David Bowie and Marc Bolan were all products of the art school system.

McLaren and Reid were interested in Situationism, a form of psychedelic Marxism that was prominent in the Paris riots of 1968. It was through the Situationist aesthetic that Reid developed his technique of détournement: the use of already existing images to make new, radical statements. He first practiced it as a member of a collective known as Suburban Press, which produced a magazine that came out of Croydon in the early-1970s. He later repurposed a number of his Suburban Press images for his work with the Sex Pistols.

“It was a community based printing press who did loads of printing for squatters groups, women’s groups, black groups in Brixton, all sorts of stuff and there was another sister press, called the Notting Hill Press. And at the time there was a lot of people decided to give everything up and move into the countryside and live off the land, and we chose to do that and move to Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. And there was a Western Isles free press going then as well, and, just out the blue I got a phone call from Malcolm and he said what he was up to and would I be interested in coming down and working with him? That was because of the free press. This would have been in ’76. So I went from crofting on the Isle of Lewis to working in Soho with Malcolm.”

Reid started straight away, doing the first prints for the Sex Pistols in Aberdeen on the way back. He says he was involved with what he called “the project” for four years.

“To get to Number 1 with the Queen during her Jubilee was a major achievement. But in a way there was no groundwork. It was very, very spontaneous the way we worked. We had complete trust in each other. He never questioned any of the art work, “just do it”, you know. I never really questioned anything he’d do. That trust was forged from our experiences in ‘69.”

The date refers to their infatuation with Situationism. It was when the two of them went to Paris to find out what was going on. Reid said that to McLaren the Sex Pistols was really a Situationist art concept, but he was eager to stress that the ransom note style that he was most famous for wasn’t his only form of expression: 

“Even at Croydon I was doing loads of painting. And in a way it was abstract painting and I have continued painting non-stop to this day. It’s been one of those things I have done. And again, I don’t get it. I really suffer in this country, because people can’t see the connections to what I do as a painter or a photographer, and my radical punk type work, which, again, I have kept going through different situations, be it Clause 28Poll TaxOccupy, you know, something I have kept doing.”

Another strand of Reid’s work was magic. I was most interested in this. He said the reason that his great uncle George took his family to Brighton was that it was the centre of Kabbalah at the time. George almost certainly knew Aleister Crowley. It was probably through Crowley that he got the idea of creating his own religion. Part of the magic involves the invocation of the eightfold year. This is the Druidic concept of a year divided into eight festivals, including the two solstices, the two equinoxes and the four Celtic fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh. I asked Reid if he used the eightfold year as part of his magical practice and what this involved?

“A lot of close friends of mine and various other people would always go off on those dates and camp in the countryside and do rituals. I’d do a lot of paintings that were specifically about Autumn Equinox, Summer Solstice, whatever. The most practical way I could explain it: for about 50 years I have worked in the Strongroom Studios. It’s in Shoreditch for all its sins. Bit by bit I have done all the interiors of different studios there, using a lot of my ideas and beliefs in magic, astrology, colour. So the last studio I did there was based on the four elements, inasmuch as it’s completely architecturally structured so that, you know, earth is north, fire is south, water west and air is east, so we have done it like that. It’s also colour associated: yellow, blue and white associated with air, and obviously the fire is red and orange and yellow. And so I’ve done all that specifically in the studio as well as all sorts of other stuff. It’s quite complicated to do with astrology, to do with all sorts of different things that I’ve gleaned over the years, and it’s an incredibly successful studio. Someone who has died recently is Keith (Flint), the lead singer of the Prodigy. I was talking to Keith about it and I was giving him all this waffle about what it is and he says, ‘Jamie fuck off, it’s just a brilliant place to be in’. (Chuckle).”

About a month after I talked to Reid I did an interview with Gallery owner John Marchant, keeper of the Jamie Reid archive. I met him at the studios themselves, where he gave me a guided tour. Initially Reid was invited to the studio by graphic designer Malcolm Garrett who’d worked with the BuzzcocksMagazineDuran DuranSimple MindsHeaven 17 and Peter Gabriel.

“So Jamie came in and did a lot of really productive work here. That particular period is notable for his use of the colour copier, pushing things through numerous times and really pushing the contrast on the colours. He did a lot of work for Transvision Vamp, which he considered as being some of his best. He was using it as a painting studio and doing a lot of his own work here too. So in the archive we have his beautiful collages of multiple landscapes and multiple moons and so forth that are really nice.”

The building was an old furniture factory. Richard Boote, music producer and manager, set it up as a recording studio. Initially it was for his nest of bands, but later he opened it up to other groups as well. As space became available in the building, he bought it up, eventually taking over the entire building.

“Richard took an extraordinary leap of faith with Jamie and said, you know, ‘why don’t you redecorate, because I don’t want just a kind of standard recording studio. Do something different.’ You know, ‘make a proposal’. And Jamie produced this incredible drawing, which is the maddest thing you’ve ever seen as an architectural proposal. It’s really funny, it’s absolutely great. It looks like... I mean I know it wasn’t done on acid, but there may have been mushrooms involved, I don’t know. Whatever. It was bonkers, but Richard to his great credit said ‘yes, just go ahead. Just do it’.”

The studios are a riot of color. There’s color on every surface, floors, walls, ceiling. Central to the design is a symbol that Reid used over and over again. He called it the “OVA,” It consists of the anarchy circle A symbol, crossed by a capital V for victory, with a line across it, making eight points in the circle as a reference to the eightfold year. “Ova” is Latin for egg. He also often referred to it as UMVALI, which stands for Universal Majesty, Verity and Love Infinite; another nod to his great uncle George, who often used these words in his invocations. The last time Reid deployed the symbol was as a piece of public art in a wild flower field in Cornwall in 2022. Reid described the project as a “deeply Druid expression and celebration of nature and the creative spirit, and shows how the two can be intimately linked in uplifting and profoundly healing ways.”

Reid regularly worked with musicians. One of these collaborations came out of his work in the Strongroom. The Afro-Celt Sound System were so enamored of what they saw that they asked him to join them as their “style shaman”: not just an artist doing designs for them, but as a member of the group. The band still use the OVA as their symbol.

The reason Reid isn’t as well-known as he should be is that he always refused to compromise. He had offers of large commissions but always turned them down in favor of small scale community projects and art with a countercultural edge.

Marchant gave an example of this:

“I had a phone call. We had done this show with the eightfold year, and we’d made eight large tepees. We had them arranged in a circle. It was really crazy. It was amazing. It was brilliant, and took up a lot of space and it was expensive to do it, but we did it. And I had a call from somebody from LVMH. It’s a subsidiary of Louis Vuitton you know, this huge luxury company. And they said, ‘we saw the installation, we loved it, and we’d like you to do it for us at the Art Fair in Miami, this year, and we’ll pay for it.’ And, because I’m not in the same seat as Jamie—I mean half of me is in the art world as well —as soon as I got this call, I am thinking ‘unbelievable, this is an incredible break!’ LVMH have their own Museum in France and some big institution in Venice and you know, it’s just a completely different level. So I’m like leaping up and down, my feet aren’t touching the ground. I called Jamie and said, ‘Guess what, LVMH said they were going to do the eightfold year thing, the whole ‘Ragged Kingdom’ installation in Miami’, and he just went ‘Nah.’ (Laughs). And I’m thinking ‘what, he’s mad,’ but then of course, as soon as I think about it, he’s absolutely right. Because if he’d said ‘yes’ he would have lost everything really. He would have been co-opted by the system.”

Reid was dismissive of his contemporaries in the Britart establishment:

“What’s happened to art now is a complete mafia of agents, journalists and artists, who all socialise together. What a fucking load of rubbish Britart is. If you think about it, it was created by Saatchi & Saatchi, the people who got Thatcher into power through their advertising. That’s what they did to art, they turned it into a commodity.”

Reid always avoided this. He remained true to his family and to his great uncle George’s legacy, as a rebel, an iconoclast and a complete original. There will never be anyone like him again.

You can see some of Jamie Reid’s paintings here.


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