Dexter Dalwood interview: 'Everything should be up for grabs’

The painter talks about ‘drug spaces’, sharing titles with Taylor Swift and the timeless allure of the Thames

  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Double Portrait Camden', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    '1989', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Half Moon Street', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Heaven', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Interior at Paddington', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Old Bailey', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Powis Square', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood
  • Dexter Dalwood

    'Roundhouse', 2014

    © Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

    Dexter Dalwood

Dexter Dalwood

'Double Portrait Camden', 2014

© Dexter Dalwood, courtesy Simon Lee Gallery

For his new show at Simon Lee Gallery, ace painter and ex-punk Dexter Dalwood presents London - but not as we know it.

We last saw your work in the 2010 Turner Prize exhibition. What can we expect now?

'The new work is all about one place rather than individual interiors or incidents from history. But it doesn't really look like London. It's sort of an alternative reality. There are a couple of paintings that have parts of the Thames in them and one which has an exterior of Horse Guards and a bit of a statue, but it's not recognisably the sights. There are references to literature and film, as well as to paintings about London over the years, so there's bits of Hockney, Bacon and Monet. Then there are more personal events.'

How personal?
'I moved to London and got a flat when I was 17. A painting like "Powis Square" is to do with my experience of first coming to the city in 1977 and being in very highceilinged, empty, squat-like spaces in Ladbroke Grove. There's a weird perspective. It's a drug space, in a way. "Half Moon Street" is another example. I had this high-'80s moment in Half Moon Street, which I'm not going to discuss. I wanted to do a painting that sort of encapsulated that moment. But it's also where part of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is set, as well as being the title of a film with Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine,which has a lot of mirrors in it.'

‘Iggy Pop’s chest was just pumping out blood’

You were in punk band The Cortinas: did you draw on that experience in these paintings? The red canvas looks very rock 'n' roll.
'I wanted to do a sort of rock still life. There's a bass drum and a couple of monitors. But the backdrop is from a Walter Sickert. It's also a reference to Iggy Pop and when I saw him play at The Rainbow. He broke a bottle and dived on top of it. His chest was lacerated. It was just pumping out blood.'

Do we need to get your references to enjoy the work?
'There's no way any one viewer will get all the references. It's not a checklist. "Double Portrait Camden Town", for instance, is about where Verlaine and Rimbaud lived up in Royal College Street. But there are also references to Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat - I wanted to make a painting about the younger protagonist and the elder, the idea that someone is mentoring someone else.  In the end, I'm concerned with how to make a figurative painting, which is interesting, and I think everything should be up for grabs.

Your 'Old Bailey' painting reminds me that you're one of the very few painters around who makes reference to current or recent events.
'The trial was going on with News International and, while I've never been there, but it's one of the only things that appears still as a drawing on the front page of a newspaper, because they're still not allowed to take photographs inside. I like the idea that that's somehow acceptable to see a pastel-y drawing of people because it's a court case.'

Should we read anything into that flame-like mane of hair?
'Well, there isn't a particular reference. That bit's a little bit Lichtenstein in style.'

What's with the horse's arse?
'That painting's called "1989". It's from the day of the poll tax riots when I was down in Trafalgar Square. If you're standing in front of the National Gallery, on the left is the equestrian statue of George IV in front of South Africa House. But I've just been thinking about a Philip Guston painting that features a whip, so the tale might have something to do with that. I saw last week that there's a Taylor Swift album called "1989", which is a bit upsetting.'

Do you think London's become too cleaned up?
'I  do in a way. With "Interior at Paddington", which has the same title as a Lucian Freud painting, I just wanted to do a sleazy London painting.  It's difficult, though, because I think the city is so much better than it used to be in almost every aspect. The old fabric is still there, though. The Thames can't be changed. I like the fact that it just keeps on rolling, watching the hordes come and go.'