Jake Chapman’s new exhibition is called Me, Myself and Eye so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he, himself, him was there at the door. This pop-up show is, he says, just a small taster of a huge quantity of work he’s made recently. And it’s appetising, if like me you enjoy the grotesque, comical, outrageous art he’s been making since the 1990s with his brother Dinos. But why me, myself and no Dinos? The answer is so unexpected I have to change my plan to simply review his show and start recording his utterances.
I assumed this was just a side project from the career of Jake and Dinos Chapman, an artistic partnership that seemed as close and enduring as that of Gilbert and George and Jane and Louise Wilson. But no. It turns out this is the end. The split. The brothers who made their names playing the twisted court jesters of the Young British Artist generation have fallen out and broken up.
“Nothing about our practice was amicable,” says Chapman without any sign of regret. “It was never a love-in. It was always tinged with a certain seething disdain for each other so I guess at some point that reached critical mass, and we decided to go our separate ways.”
They got sick of the partnership and were no longer having fresh ideas together, he admits. He also suspects the collaboration might have become too cosy, anyway. The sibling “disdain” he and his brother always felt gave their creative partnership fire: “The reason we worked together was because it made it discursive and hard. When Dinos and me worked together at the beginning it operated from the dysfunctions rather than the convergences.”
With time you get set in your mutual roles and “a kind of rupture was necessary.” When I suggest there was a playful, boyish fun to their collaboration he assures me “that’s a rather bucolic, rosy-tinted view”.
He goes across the street to make phone calls while I contemplate his new works, which mark “my solo departure at the grand age of 55!”
Guess what. They are startlingly similar to the art he has previously made with his brother. Every single work here is unmistakably a Chapman/Chapmans piece. Around the walls are smiley-face banners that proclaim EXTINCTION/ANNIHILATION in a perversion of climate-protest art that turns it into millenarian prophecy. They make a fittingly uncomfortable backdrop to roughly carved wooden statues that mix Pinocchio noses, echoes of Ronald McDonald, central African traditional sculpture and German expressionist carvings to amorally hilarious, unmistakably Chapmanesque effect. There’s a phallic wooden rack hung with fetish objects and burning incense sticks – the other reason the artist heads outdoors is to get away from their scent.
It is a punchy, powerful reminder of the Chapmans’ caustic aesthetic. Gleeful bad taste is everywhere. Some might accuse him of appropriating African art but it is a deliberate provocation, part of a crazed carnival of imagery that includes a prehistoric fertility figure and Adam and Eve. It all suggests a neo-rural, 21st-century quest for the primal source of art, or life, while also intimating a dystopia of smiley-faced idiocy. Jake Chapman recently published a novel called 2+2=5 that repurposes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for the age of mindfulness. This exhibition could be seen as illustrating it. The banners might be warnings or threats, climate protests or calls to mass suicide. We need a bit of nastiness in our art and it’s clear Chapman is a long way from running out of bloodyminded, perverse energy. Turns out he can have as just as much fun alone as he can with Dinos.
Yet this is continuity Chapman(s), full of echoes of their infamous career. The apocalyptic atmosphere – Jake thinks the incense smoke in front of the nihilistic banners “very Apocalypse Now” – recalls their masterwork Hell, a phantasmagorically detailed, spectacularly obscene railway modeller’s landscape with legions of toy Nazi figures torturing each other among the lovingly moulded landscape details. Hell was the centrepiece of a turn of the millennium show called Apocalypse at the Royal Academy, and even won the praise of Brian Sewell for its mesmerising pictorialism – before the original was destroyed in the Saatchi Collection warehouse fire in 2004. Jake’s ludicrous statues here echo their 2002 installation Works from the Chapman Family Collection, which travestied ethnographic museums. On the walls are prints that riff on Goya, an obsession that goes back to 2003 when they added clown noses and other jokes to an actual set of the Spanish master’s Disasters of War.
It’s nostalgic, but also baffling. How is this a solo show? It feels as if Jake is claiming the Chapman brand as his own, and retrospectively authoring their career as his. It is true that he was always the theorist of the duo. Even in our chat today, he peppers his conversation with references to Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault and argues the purpose of working with his brother was always to question the nature of the artistic self: “Collaboration was a way of swerving the idea that an artist is something to do with identity and subjectivity.”
Today, he claims, the art world is full of people expressing their supposedly authentic selves and lived experiences: he calls this mood a “burgeoning subjective conservative neo-radicalism” while refusing to name any names. He thinks the best way to mock the return of the humanistic expressionism his generation rejected might be as a solo artist himself: “It seems to me a really, really sort of paleo-conservative return. To critique that from the point of view of some kind of singularity makes more sense. It kind of seems even funnier to me to work on my own now.”
And he has in fact been delving into solitary creativity deep in the countryside. Before the pandemic he moved from London to the Cotswolds, where he’s been making these new works. His new home is “insufferably beautiful and idyllic” and there was “a danger that that might have some positive effect on my work, but obviously,” he says, with a satisfied glance around the show, “quite the contrary.” In fact, he sees himself as “the Colonel Kurtz of the Cotswolds.”
One thing he insists is that he and Dinos were always “serious”. Their work was not really a laddish joke. This was true of Hell and it is true of the new art, which has a rustic, even climate activist air and yet is much nastier, more pessimistic. It’s a lighthearted return, a pop-up entertainment to launch his solo career, but as always in he and his brother’s best work there is a truth and bite here. Our times are comic and apocalyptic at the same time – how else can you describe a moment when we go about our normal lives while Russian TV shows openly fulminate about nuking the British Isles? This show captures that hysteria. The Chapmans are dead: long live the Chapman.
“I’ve been carving wood in lockdown,” says Jake Chapman, as he proudly points out the pasta necklace on his hewn-wood statue. “I did think at one point I should become one of those trust fund kids who carves wood. I could show these in a caravan on the roadside, and sit there like one of these hippies carving mushrooms all year round. It might come to that, you never know.”