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Cold War Steve at the Car Wash

The Mexican poet and human rights advocate Cesar A. Cruz first coined the phrase, ‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ It’s a sentiment that satirical collage artist Christopher Spencer (aka Cold War Steve) would surely have sympathy with.

Since 2016, Spencer has used Twitter as a platform to share surreal, witty, brilliantly inventive visual reactions to the absurdities of modern life and lambast the rich, powerful egomaniacs who create and/or manipulate mayhem, perpetuating misery to their advantage. In short, the artist’s hugely popular practice affords both searing critique and gratifying consolation.    


Words by Adrian Burnham

Spencer’s latest work, a Giant-May-Day-and-Coronation commemorative triptych, is literally a stop-you-in-your-tracks street display. Visiting the Shoreditch location plenty of passers-by screeched to a halt, curtailed their weekend stroll, or shop, to stop and cast their eyes over 240 square feet of jaw-dropping collage. Asked how long he spent on the work the artist explains, “At first I was doing an hour here and there, mulling over ideas, collecting images but then I was on it solidly, my wife and kids lost me for around 10 hours a day for two weeks.”

And what about the genesis of this latest creation? “Well, for good or bad, it came out of a pretty dark place. I’d had enough of Twitter. Normally I don’t engage with trolls and the like, but that Lawrence Fox pushed me over the edge. I’d had it. I came off the site and escaped to Wales for a break.”  

CWS has 424K followers on Twitter with whom he shares his satirical gems but recent time away from social media has proved fruitful. BUILDHOLLYWOOD created a bespoke site for his monumental IRL collage. It’s impressive. Shaped like a giant dressing table mirror – a large central plane with smaller panels left and right angled towards the viewer – the display appears to draw in viewers and many of them linger. At times there were a dozen or more people leaning against the railing: taking pictures, pointing, laughing, others studiously peering across so many dynamic and complex interlocking scenes and figures. Ambitious in scale, it’s a dramatic and provocative work reflecting on the state of the UK, today and in times gone by. Regarding challenges posed by the installation Spencer was very appreciative, “BUILDHOLLYWOOD were great, the installation team were patient and understanding about the way I wanted to present the work, it had to look right.”

On the left we see historical and contemporary incidents of monarch approved colonial brutality. The artist points out, “That panel was partly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The horrors of slavery vie with sieges and massacres at home and abroad. Richard III (in cut down jeans) and Elizabeth I (white ruff and stripey t-shirt) are on their two-wheeler Segways chasing down something out of a tank museum. Margaret Thatcher gallops atop the Battle of Orgreave. “That scene is taken from Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the clash between police and miners. The Indo-Chinese opium wars are in there. And Henry VIII – I got his face from an image of his wax work – he appears on a hoverboard, beer belly and man boobs hanging out, wielding a sledgehammer.” William and Kate’s ill-judged trip to Kenya features, their Land Rover driving up dust over the heads of refugees penned in by barbed wire. 

Alongside Victoria the late Queen Elizabeth is also in the carriage, she’s laughing and pointing at something or someone. Maybe it’s us? At least QE2’ll miss the worst of climate change to come as wildfires flare around the royal coach wheels. All this overlooked by Raleigh and Churchill amid scenes of starvation and torture on the horizon.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, to the right of the triptych, between baying journos harassing Meghan Markle and the Brexit cabinet toasting all the money they’ve made from bamboozling the British public there sits a sheepish Prince Andrew. Everyone’s ignoring him. Multi-millionaire Rishi Sunak is enjoying the party though. Biden and Starmer bear silent (read ‘useless’) witness from the comfort of their deckchairs. Above them swarms a suffocating pestilence. “They’re locusts,” Spencer confirmed, “I think of this section as representing our contemporary and the doomed future situation with the climate crisis, corruption, populism, you can see there I’ve included John Heartfield’s hyena.” Next to the attack dog of fascism, set against a burning fossil fuel smog filled sky, a gurning Nigel Farage looks upon all that he hath made and behold, it was good. Good if you like being burnt to a crisp on account of ever more frequent and severe global heatwaves. Good if you like swimming in human effluent because the profit motive seems always to trump principles. Talking of which Baroness Michelle Mone makes the cut. And beneath all this King Charles and Camilla are amused to be visiting the dilapidated home and cold, cold hearth of a pensioner. The feeling isn’t mutual.It’s not as if a flying visit from those two is going to do her any good is it? She needs fuel, she needs food, she needs a decent standard of living.”

So, looking left, we’re faced with royally endorsed carnage and exploitation. And on the right, the outcome of imperious and catastrophic disregard for the planet and its people. But at the heart of the artist’s Giant-May-Day-and-Coronation triptych is a scene dedicated to creativity in its many forms. There are no gorgons on the horizon. Stonehenge features but not the real thing, no, again it’s Deller’s bouncy castle version of the henge. There’s dancing around the feet of David Bowie. In the sea of faces beacons of wit, sensitivity, invention, and excellence abound. A gigantic Malaysian tapir surveys the crowd with an approving glimmer, maybe even a glint of hope in its eye. “That’s ‘Lucky Ian’,” the artist explains on being asked about the origins of his trademark fauna, “He started to appear in my work early on and if he wasn’t in a collage people would say, ‘Where’s Lucky Ian?’! For me he’s a symbol of hope and diversity amongst the hellscapes.” The irony of Spencer’s avowedly upbeat mascot being an endangered species is, of course, not lost on the artist. 

It’s a bittersweet joy to scan across the faces, many of whom have bought so much light into the world but sadly are no longer with us: Lily Savage, Terry Hall, George Michael, Frank Sidebottom… But there’s also sports people, writers, entertainers who continue to deliver artistry, conscience, inspiration and, well, fun: Omid Djalili, McKellen and Stewart, Marcus Rashford, Nicola Adams, Kate Bush, Don Letts, Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and Kingsley’s present too, the Partick Thistle F.C. mascot. “Well, he had to be in there, David Shrigley’s great, a flash of brilliance… But I‘d say they’re ninety percent musicians, singers. The crowd came about pretty organically. It wasn’t as if I was choosing specific people to represent certain qualities, someone would pop into my head and I’d think, I must include them. Or I’d hear a song on 6 Music that would prompt me like, oh, okay, Steel Pulse, they’re in.”  

All in all, it’s a glorious gathering, a bulwark of life-affirming creativity that on a good day goes some way to ameliorate the sorry mess that corrupt, self-serving ‘leaders’ have landed us in today and since time immemorial. In the words of one passer-by, this public installation, “It’s like outdoor theatre, a panoramic portrait of a nation, just epic!”  

Spencer himself says of the central panel, “There’s a lot of faces but I could’ve gone on, I could’ve made the scene again with different people and thinking that does give me hope. The creativity the UK has produced, the joy it brings and that it continues to spring up from the people is great, it’s an antidote to scandalous politics and empty promises.” 

So, what’s next for our modern-day James Gillray? “Well, maybe another book though that’s not been announced yet…” Spencer is too modest to mention the thousands of pounds he’s raised for mental health charity MIND through the sale of his books, prints and jigsaws. “I’d like to do more of these large-scale public works, find ways to engage with new audiences, we’re thinking about setting up a fan club!” It goes without saying BUILDHOLLYWOOD will be signing up for that. 

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