FETCH FEATURES | THE POP ICONOGRAPHY OF POPSEE
PopSee, The Tattooed Woman, 2023, after La Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, framed printed canvas.
There is, some would argue, an oversaturation in the market for post-internet pop art: monopoly men in Gucci, graffitied Betty Boops smoking joints, bedazzled Birkins in perspex boxes. But there is genuine humour and intelligence in PoPsee’s works, real name Barry Samms, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant state of art. Ahead of his next exhibition, DICHOTOMY, a collection of the past three years work held at 133 Bethnal Green Road, he chats to Fetch about his love-hate relationship with brands, his collaboration with Maxim from The Prodigy, and the modern relevance of balaclavas.
PoPsee's career began in the late eighties, when, as a teen, he began designing flyers for raves. "Art has always been a big part of everything." he explains. "I studied art and design for 3 years but got tired of having no money." Even while setting up a shipping empire with his father, Samms continued to create: "All through those years I was always designing something or other. I was doing flyers when the rave scene was in its’ early days, then I was designing our business cards and brochures." There’s hints of Warhol (his Heinz-inspired ‘Ketchup at Your Disposal’ fire extinguisher mirrors the Campbell soup series), but Samms is mostly inspired by his Barking upbringing. "My family didn’t have much, and my friends were starting to earn and buy cars for themselves. I started working at Chelsea football ground washing up in their kitchen. Most of my artwork is influenced by my upbringing and what I have been exposed to from the acid house scene, drugs that went along with that, my taste in fashion and music over those years as well as my views on what is going on in the world."
Samm's artistic vernacular sits somewhere between the societal commentary of Banksy and the playful visuality of Alec Monopoly, but with none of the fuss. His works are clean-cut, uncluttered, often backgroundless -- and are much the better for it. The absence of distractions in Samm's art ensures that the viewer's attention is drawn with unwavering focus to the heart of the matter: often, quips about social media or pop culture, but always a reflection of contemporary society. From fighter planes bombarding landscapes with Instagram likes and emojis to Gucci-clad Adonis Beldeveres, PoPsee's work is playful perspective on societal phenomena within an ever-evolving digital landscape. "The creative process comes easily to me, the idea comes from anywhere," he explains. "It could be the lyrics in a song, a conversation, a sentence someone says on a podcast. A gallery owner once said to me art is about ideas and you have tons of them. He is right: the ideas are everywhere and that’s why my art can be so eclectic."
From left to right: A Boy and his New Kicks, A Masterpeice, Ride With Style (2023)
Some of his best work comes from the entwinement of modern luxury brands with historic artworks, like his reimagining of Picasso's 1932 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre, which expands upon the original portrait to include the sitters feet, clad in red and white Nikes, or his addition of the sneakers to Thomas Lawrence's The Red Boy (1825). This typology of work is partly inspired by his own long-standing relationship with brands: "My first taste with brands would be in the mid 80’s as a young teenager when brands like Sergio Tacchini, Fila, Ellesse and Lacoste became popular." he explains. "I grew up in a household that didn’t have a lot of money, so when I asked my mum if I could have a pair of Sergio tracksuit bottoms -- she was having none of it. Her line was that they all come out of the same factory as every other tracksuit bottom. So, what she did was sew on her own version of the Sergio logo. It was all wonky and about five times the size of the original logo. From then on, I thought if I want to get onboard with what all the cool kids were wearing, I will have to work my way in to being able to afford what I wanted." The childhood obsession would influence not only his art, but his career: "I spent years buying just about every luxury brand you can think of. I did paper rounds, worked in a supermarket, washed up in a restaurant, worked on a building site. Sometimes, all I could afford was a pair of socks or a t-shirt from a brand -- but as long as the logo was on show, that was enough."
PoPsee, Transparency, 2023, clear resin briefcase containing various objects
Despite his obvious satirisation of pop culture, Samms hasn't shied away from becoming part of it. His Gucci Gnome series was purchased by Minecraft YouTuber DanTDM (27 million followers) and his jewellery collaborations have been worn by artists like Beyonce and Jay-Z. "The jewellery business came about from being introduced to a very talented jeweller called Bobby White, he was very skilled, but I thought I could compliment him with some designs. I was friends with Maxim from The Prodigy, and we worked together and made a collection for Harvey Nichols." His more introspective work, however, comes from his activist work (his exhibition DICHOTOMY sponsors the charity All Dogs Matter, an animal welfare organisation). He has recently taken balaclavas as a theme, producing two sculptural works of ski masks covered in flowers and flies: "I took this image of two animal rights activists who broke into a laboratory where they were testing cosmetics on rabbits. I thought, 'wow -- there’s this extreme side of that image -- almost military. That image has always remained in my mind as being pretty powerful. More recently there’s loads of kids looting in London, all wearing hoodies and balaclavas. I am not one to comment on this generations fashion sense, but I think the use of ski masks and balaclavas is quite a sinister statement being made." It's this conventional expectation he subverts in his latest pieces: "It represents the opposite of what you would expect. I have also made one with thousands of flies and I will let you work out the relevance of using those."
There is still a self-awareness of the dichotomous relationship between PoPsee's simultaneous use and condemnation of designer brands. "The broke guy trying to look wealthy by wearing a brand, in itself, is such a contradiction," he says. "Personally, as someone who has spent their fare share of wage packets on designer clothing, I think [LVMH] might be close to over cooking it. A lot of the designs are weak, and the market is over saturated with high-cost items just simply not worth it. Are we at the point where having a designers make in huge letters across your chest or back has become a bit naff? I think so, and what’s cool about wearing a £500 tee shirt? Saying that, I have worn designer labels previously and they have made me feel very good in myself, almost like recognition for my hard work. And, there was always the backdrop that if a woman saw me in an expensive sweatshirt or jeans, she would find me attractive. Ha, after all, isn’t that a big part of this?"
PoPsee will be exhibiting at 133 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E2 7DG, from the 27th of October 2023.