Gordon Dring, The Godfather of Gladstone Street
Untitled, 2003. Emulsion paint, colored crayon, charcoal, collage and aerosol on board.
At nearly 75 years of age and working in almost complete isolation in what is essentially a cultural vacuum, Gordon Dring (aka Tagman D) is a pretty unique English painter. At first glace his work appears to be an inelegant amalgam of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Antoni Tapies, and maybe that’s not far from the truth – there certainly isn’t a great deal of originality in his oeuvre but it is interesting. Easily divided in to ‘periods’ or ‘bodies’ of work his biographical, primitive stylings have chartered and expanded upon everything from his natural inclination towards feral states to his rediscovery of drugs at age 67.
An ex-miner, ex-soldier and ex-husband, Gordon Dring has had a string of jobs as long as your arm and outlived the majority of his friends—the few that survive never see him as he already decided years ago that they were all boring old farts that best be done with. Seemingly oblivious of his own predicament he battles on despite failing health and increasingly limited mobility. Thought of by many in his terraced, recession-riddled ex-mining community to be somewhat of a dangerous character he is treated with respect and a certain curiosity from a safe distance. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Robert Newton as Captain Long John Silver in The Adventures of Long John Silver (26 episodes 1955-59), Dring has a crooked but worldly way about him and was at one time or another apparently somewhat of a hit with the ladies! These days he keeps a dog, a lilac ford focus, eats mostly microwaved food and sleeps only a few hours each night in a chair in his kitchen.
Gordon, what the fuck?
What the fuck, yeah! It’s more or less true, some days I sleep along time and some days I sleep not at all. When I am painting I tend to sleep hardly at all, get up at 3 in the morning, go to bed whenever.
What first drove you to make work?
Booze, mainly. I mean I first started with photos, like, doing a night class when I were about 60. Then I bought myself one of them there how to draw and paint books, the one I had was actually just drawing. Soon after mucking about with that for a bit I enrolled on an art ‘A’ level at West Notts College of Art. I did that for a year then the teacher, I forget his name right now… was it Trevor Beven? Yes! No it wasn’t! No, it was whats-his-name? He was a mustachioed guy. You know the village people? He were like one of them village people, you know the copper? Anyway he took early retirement or redundancy or got fired or something but before he went he told me he fair liked me work and said “If I was you I should skip the final year of your A level course and put in for foundation course.” At that time I were doing still lifes – one of them I was quite proud of . I’d done it in the old fashioned way like that painter from Amsterdam, all light and dark with goblets and ducks heads and lobsters and that sort of thing. You know his name and so do I, normally. It’s not important but you can just say El Greco if you have to! Well anyway, I’ve lost it somewhere now. So I took my work over there to the Foundation tutors and that’s when I first met Julian Bray. He really liked me work, the colors I think or summut, anyway, after that I were on the foundation. That’s when I really got into it, like.
Spoon Me, 2000. Emulsion and acrylic paint, oil pastel and charcoal on board.
What stops you making work?
I stopped just recently cause I can’t take drugs or drink anymore because of my health. Before I got into modernism I was just interested in the art itself and that type of thing but now it’s more of the whole process. Often times I stop because I think something’s not worth while or it doesn’t look right. I mean, you see if I can make you understand this, when I am having my nights when I am asleep, like in the middle of the night, and I just wake up and think “I’ve got to start painting” I am really fired like, I am on fire; I am driven, for want of a better word, but all of a sudden it’ll just go. Sometimes it gets to the point when I am just dabbing on the painting and I don’t really like the work what I finish up doin. All the big ones like Requiem and the others from 2003 – 2004 I think they was a big breaking point you know, after that series I just lost interest for a long while. It just left me. And don’t ask me how and why cause I don’t know, you know? Its just one of them things – as quickly as it comes it goes. That time in particular when I stopped I had lasted good for about 6 or 7 years before that you know. I think the main thing is that I get fired up by drinking plenty of wine, like, and vodka and so it used to open me mind. I suppose a lot of painters have done that in the past.
Who has been a big influence?
Turner and Van Gough; and Basquiat influenced me but that was at a later point.
What is it about those artists that you like?
I just like the colors, I think they’re beautiful.
10 Stamp Tom, 2001. Acrylic paint and oil pastel on board.
Do you find the area you live in to be of particular importance?
I think when I start drawing again or painting that it’ll be pit scenes, collieries and things like that. A long way away from what I have been doing.
So a regression to a more spiritual or nostalgic type of subject?
Yeah, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. A lot more spiritual. At the moment I am not really drawn to it but if it comes I think that type of thing is what I’d be interested in looking at. I’m 74 now don’t forget.
I read somewhere that you have never been to New York. I am interested, from the perspective of an older gentleman with art pretentions, what do you imagine it to be like?
Very noisy and busy and fast. Makes you tired just thinking about it. A lot like London but more so.
Untitled, 2002. Acrylic paint, colored crayon, charcoal and oil pastel on board.
What annoys you about art?
Well I suppose this ere what-do-you-call-it? The pile of bricks and that type of thing, the unmade bed, its… I don’t know; if you can call that art then anything can be art.
Yes. And what is it specifically about it that annoys you?
Because I don’t think it requires skill. The skill has gone out of modern, well, not modern art because that comes right up into the 60’s but what’s the name for it, it begins with C.
Aye, that’s it, that’s the word. No, I’ve got no time for it actually. I mean, I think painting is where its at and I think painting will make a comeback at some point, at some date. It takes a certain degree of skill and imagination. And I know how the argument goes, the conceptualists can say: “Well, to do conceptual art it takes imagination” and I know it’s about ideas and that it takes skill to be able to make those ideas relevant and understood so art can move forward but I say: “Who wants to move forward as long as it’s artistic?” I mean if you can admire something then that’s interesting isn’t it? I mean everyone says you have to take it forward or say something both specific and general but you can get distracted by all that. Why can’t you just enjoy something for what it is? Why do you have to enjoy it on all these different levels? There are some good Scottish painters in this country you know, in Scotland, especially in Scottish schools, and I dare say they’re pushing it forward because they’re very dramatic. I mean the conversation isn’t always moving forward, it’s multi-faceted – sometimes it labors over something, going in circles. Art doesn’t talk about one thing that you can take away with you and use up; it’s always there and it’s always eternally young and new even if it’s really old. I know what they say, that it’s all a progression, and that’s true in terms of documents and learning and movements in human history, but it’s cyclic too! All these ignored artists who make yesterdays type of art – its sad because I’m sure they’ve got something to say.
Who annoys you in art?
Well, Tracy Emin for a start. I think students can do better things than her. In fact a lot of painters I think did their best work when they were students. You know because they had got no inhibitions or anything like that and I think as you get on in art you start having inhibitions about things.
How would you like to be remembered?
I don’t give a fuck to tell you truth. I did my paintings and I enjoyed them. I’ve heard some stuff about being famous and all that but things what I enjoy are me friends, and people such as Julian Bray and Dan Jones who have admired my art so… that’s enough for me.
REQUIEM, 2001. Emulsion and acrylic paint, charcoal and oil pastel on board.
And finally, can you describe the pleasure that you get from making work?
The nearest thing I think I can tell you is that it’s like an orgasm; not literally an orgasm, but better, although I haven’t had one in a while! Like this one time down in London when my friend had only been living down there a few week and this black guy got stabbed in the back outside his house. That jumped into my mind and I painted that within two days, I think Julian’s got that now. And with my wife, there’s this one with this alligator whispering in my ear, did I tell you she were schizophrenic? Anyway and that’s her; mad as a fucking hatter. And such is my life, very tumultuous. I’ve lived with pain for thirty-odd year and art was simply the best way I found to explain it to myself. Yes, definitely a release [.]
Untitled, 2001. Acrylic paint and oil pastel on board.
His paintings have a certain naive quality to them but that’s intentional. Not wanting to blinker himself with his own progression or learning Dring opted instead to regress from Van Dijck style still lives to drug and alcohol fueled daubs that answered to no school of thought or painting. His message is raw. Being raw of course means that it is also unrefined and as such unavoidably biased, short sighted and while is it perhaps not ignorant, it is definitely dismissive of a lot of values that the contemporary art world celebrates.
Dring garners little attention for his art and no future openings are planned. The few exhibitions that he has participated in have been small group shows in the UK’s Midlands and no work has ever sold. Despite the somewhat obvious, somewhat shameful appropriations of his aesthetic influences he stands out to me not only because he is a very old guy with no art background who makes work, but also because you honestly get the sense that what he is doing is totally genuine. There is a present human quality to his work. Somehow, despite its jarring appearance its good just to be near it – you can feel the decisions, see the processes.
Gordon Dring at his home studio, 2008
For the most part his home county of Nottinghamshire is not an ideal place to be a contemporary artist. There are few significant institutions and the majority of people living there harbor moldering preconceptions about art and as such are often scared or offended by his work. It is all the more honorable then, that Dring, pitted as he is against a barrage of negative criticism regarding his art, is invested 100% in it. And although we are sure he doesn’t quite appreciate what ‘it’ is or could have the potential to be, it sustains him in his twilight years – and for each extra day that he lives we are evermore thankful [.]
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