Thousands of civil servants are being redeployed across the UK as Boris Johnson’s government ramps up preparations for a no-deal Brexit. But for one civil servant, the deepening national crisis has meant a very different kind of career change. Christopher Spencer, also known as Cold War Steve, is now a full-time, in-demand artist.
Hot on the heels of a TIME magazine cover story featuring his satirical photo-collages, the artist has created a Brexit-inspired mural commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland. The work was unveiled on Sunday, three days before Johnson announced that his plans to suspend Parliament next month—either a bold move or a dictatorial one, depending on your point of view about the prime minister’s promise to force through Brexit “do or die” by Halloween.
“It just gets more absurd by the day,” says Spencer, who worked as a probation officer in Birmingham before taking a leave of absence to focus on art full time. “I’m just so glad I’m doing what I’m doing with my art because it supplies me with endless material. But I would give it up in a heartbeat for [Britain] to just to go back to some semblance of normality.”
Spencer confesses that the line between reality and his dystopian, surreal, and satirical work is getting increasingly blurred. “We’ve now got a prime minister elected by 0.2 percent of the population shutting down government to force through a no-deal Brexit, when the whole argument for Brexit in the first place was parliamentary sovereignty,” he tells artnet News. He was speaking just as the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, announced her decision to step down, citing “conflict over Brexit,” as a contributing factor.
The artist’s latest work—a new photo-montage mural outside the entrance of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art—is atypically upbeat, albeit laced with his usual irony. Called Harold, the Ghost of Lost Futures, it offers a Peter Blake-style collage of Spencer’s cultural heroes gathered at the British seaside. Martin Creed’s light piece proclaiming “Everything Is Going To Be Alright” appears on the pier in the background. The crowded foreground includes Turner Prize-winning artists Jeremy Deller, Lubaina Himid, and Grayson Perry, television creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and many others. (Perry quickly tweeted that he felt “ennobled” to be included.) Stormzy also appears prominently, clad in the Bansky-designed stab-proof vest the rapper wore at this summer’s Glastonbury Festival, where he led a “Fuck Boris” call-and-response chant.
While TIME magazine assigned Spencer a very rigid brief, the National Galleries gave him a wide remit—but they were nervous about him showing politicians. So, the artist says, “I thought let’s spin Brexit on the head, and do something vibrant and positive for a change with nice, brilliant people in it, not horrible idiots like Johnson or [Brexit Party leader Nigel] Farage.”
The moment of levity did not last long. Spencer’s newest work, now in progress, is a piece made in rapid response to Johnson’s bombshell announcement about suspending Parliament for five weeks this fall, which will greatly limit opposition MPs’ chance to block a no-deal Brexit through legislation. The artist confesses that after he did such a positive work for Edinburgh, it was hard to get back into looking for suitable images of Johnson. “With yesterday’s news, I’ve had to get straight on it,” he says, referring to proroguing Parliament. “If Britain was scorched to the ground, he’d be happy as long as he was Prime Minister.”
Civil Servant Who Came in From the Cold
Spencer first began making surreal artworks focused on the Cold War era three years ago. The Birmingham-based artist created them on his smartphone while commuting on the bus to work in the probation service. As British politics became more and more surreal, his work took off. Since 2016, his Twitter following has soared to nearly 200,000.
Last November, he unveiled his first public work, a Brexit-themed mural inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, in Liverpool in the North of England. Other institutions have taken notice as well, including the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, which used his work as inspiration for a show of student art responding to the political climate. His piece for the National Galleries of Scotland coincides with its exhibition about collage art, called “Cut and Paste.” “It is mind-blowing to be shown alongside, sort of, artists such as Picasso, Peter Blake, Jamie Reid, and Louise Nevelson,” Spencer says.
The artist is currently on sabbatical from his day job. Balancing both “was getting quite difficult,” he says. He was also mindful that as a civil servant, he was supposed to be politically impartial. But he credits his employer with being supportive. “They said, ‘See if you can make a career of it,’” he notes. He now sells limited edition prints of his work with the help of Carl Gosling, the artist’s “manager stroke friend stroke person-who-sorts-everything-out.”
With the fallout of Brexit looking likely to last years, not months, there will be no shortage of material. “It shows no sign of getting any better,” Spencer says. Looking ahead, he also hopes to further mine the relationship between the political situation in the UK and the United States. “When [British caricaturist and political cartoonist James] Gillray was doing his stuff, there was the Prince Regent and Napoleon and all these grotesque characters,” he says. “Now we have Trump and Johnson.” Steve Bannon, Trump, and Vladimir Putin have all already featured in Spencer’s work.
The artist published his first book this spring, and has a second due out in October. He also wants to publish one to coincide with the 2020 US presidential election, so he has been drawing on Edward Hopper‘s art for inspiration, creating Shitehawks, a twist on the famous late-night cafe scene that features Trump, Johnson, and other figures.
His first book, Cold War Steve Presents…The Festival of Brexit, was a reference to the former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s much-derided Festival of Great Britain, a pricey celebration of British culture that was intended to mark Brexit. The Department for Digital Culture, Media, and Sport is still working on a UK-wide arts festival in 2022, artnet News understands. The fact that the festival is still being planned deep in the heart of Whitehall by civil servants surprises Spencer as it was so widely ridiculed. But that doesn’t mean he would turn down an invitation.
“I would love to create an installation piece,” he says. “People were saying ‘Cold War Steve should curate it.’ I would be happy to be the Festival of Brexit’s creative director.”
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