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Wednesday 22 April 2020

In conversation with Jem Panufnik

During this time of stay at home visits to museums, galleries and theatres, the team here at Orleans House Gallery thought that this would be the perfect time to find out a little more about the artists who work with us. Beginning with our current exhibition Beyond the Frame, we’ll be catching up with an artist each week and sharing our insights into their life and work.

Artist, DJ and musician, Jem Panufnik has a lifelong association with Orleans House Gallery with his Great Grandmother, Nellie Ionides having saved the Octagon Room from destruction in 1926. His clever and humorous take on pieces from the Richmond Borough Collection have regularly featured in our exhibitions, with prints and postcards always popular in our gift shop. 

Could you say what or who got you into art, was it through your love of music? What were your influences? Can we see that sort of late 1960s hippie gig posters or Rat Fink look in your illustrations?  

Art was initially my main thing rather than music – I have always been passionate about drawing for as long as I can remember and as a kid I loved the idea of becoming a cartoonist or graphic designer – and actually that stuck with me all the way through my schooling, right up to a degree in graphics and animation at Camberwell.  Music is in my blood, my childhood was surrounded by it being the son of a classical composer, but despite being crazy about it – buying singles and playing drums in bands from my adolescence, then discovering synthesisers, sampling and DJing –  I always saw it as a hobby and never imagined it as a profession.  It was when I started at art school in the early ‘90s that music started to seriously take over, and opportunities began to present themselves: regularly DJing, doing lots of recording and gigging with bands was beginning to give me a greater buzz than the art.   At one point I was on the verge of ditching my degree to devote myself entirely to it (glad I stuck with it!).  But it’s clear now that art and music have always been hand in hand in my mind: my main artistic passion was – and still is – rock art, for record sleeves, gig posters etc – bands like Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Yes etc are absolutely married to the iconic imagery of Rick Griffin, Storm Thorgerson and Roger Dean; I love it when you can hear the music looking at the sleeve and vice versa, it’s what I aspire to.  For a while I wrestled with which one I should prioritise, I felt a bit “jack of all trades and master of none”, but when we started our record label Finger Lickin’  I realised I could do both at the same time, it was a revelation!  The music I release now, under the name  Jem Stone, has a very important visual side to it, and I even find myself occasionally starting visually when approaching a new musical composition – which is actually what my father did.  

Eight Studies of a Diplomatic Encounter - Quasi Traditional (Relatable) - 2020

Tell us more about your work and what inspires you as an artist today?

In both my music and my art I now realise I seem to enjoy blurring the line between organic and technological.  It seems to be a visual theme I keep coming back to as well as a technique. I like to bring out a machine’s a character if I can.  I nearly always start with pen and paper, or scan printed imagery in the same way I sample riffs and textures off a record, then manipulate them in Photoshop, then I print them back onto etching paper or something textural.    

Louis Philippe during his visit to Queen Victoria of Britain - 1844 (circa)

Why did you choose Louis Philippe during his visit to Victoria of Britain, the 1844 engraving by Maurier from the Borough Collection for the current exhibition, Beyond the Frame?

It was another great brief, I love the way Orleans House Gallery  thinks outside the box to promote such a great legacy and collection – and genuinely I am really proud to be part of it in any way.   

As my artist statement for the piece developed from my initial pitch the idea grew and grew so it’s now a touch different from the one I originally sent to the gallery.  Actually I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I had to pull the brakes on!  

For these pieces in Beyond the Frame it was a fun exercise of putting on different hats as a way of reinterpreting this hilariously but unintentionally awkward congregation – I could pretend to be a comic-strip artist, an abstract painter or even Banksy to present an identical scenario but using a specific style to imply a series of emotions and intentions, deliberate or unintentional.  

The public act of Diplomacy – I guess because of it’s usually strained or over-staged nature – has always been topical and ripe for mockery, but never more so than now.  The self-conscious and contrived relationships, positioning, priorities and general PR of our world leaders and public figures is as fascinating as it ever was, perhaps because it’s even more transparent than it ever was.  I think that when they are up there on their highchair their ego lets them forget that the common man or woman has a lot more perception than they give credit for.

Eight Studies of a Diplomatic Encounter

Eight Studies of a Diplomatic Encounter is a series of work created by Jem Panufnik for the Beyond the Frame exhibition. Find out more about his pieces in his Artist Statement below.

I first saw Louis Philip during his visit to Queen Victoria of Britain when it was displayed at the Orleans Reimagine show where its beautiful craftsmanship struck me immediately, crisply depicting not only noble and exquisite finery but more importantly some undeniably telling facial expressions and body language from the fascinating subjects.  Created no doubt as a souvenir to a major diplomatic event, to me it tells a story of something deeper: unspoken emotions possibly involving hierarchy, jealousy, pomposity, and a certain awkwardness which I would love to believe was deliberate on the part of the artist.   It is almost like a modern day film poster!  

With such tantalising inner reflection in the faces of the characters, one can’t help coming up with thought-bubble captions. Despite the posed interaction they all seem bizarrely cut off from each other.   They either look like they don’t want to be there or they’re in another world entirely.  

I decided to develop the theme of this diplomatic encounter with its underlying emotions and take it to the fantastical, the outrageous, the mundane, the abstract, the unlikely and the absurd.   The toys play on the staged aspect, their frozen smiles suggest a happy gathering, yet we know that they are just positioned there to role-play and have no choice.   The robots are attempting to reinterpret what they consider to be the ultimate human interaction, taking tea, but ultimately it is a meaningless and alien formality to them.   The ‘50s-style comic is how I imagined each of our characters would be fantasising: daggers and pistols instead of handshakes in a world of superheroes, slime-balls and femmes-fatales.   

The key players of Star Wars not only resemble our gathering physically, but also bring face to face (equally uncomfortably) the Rebels with the Dark Side: today’s universally worshipped allegory of good and evil.  The cubist/abstract version, devoid of any facial characteristic, dress or context, wills an interpretation of relationships purely by the positioning of a collection of forms.  And finally two pleasingly topical modern-day diplomatic encounters:  the first sees a highly improbable gathering, each a public figurehead with their own massive agenda, be it self-serving, selfless, genuine or transparent, each usually jostling to be heard on the world stage, but here seemingly harmonious.  It would be funny if the Earth wasn’t at stake.  The only fictitious character present, with his own hilariously extreme views, looks at you almost saying “you couldn’t make it up”.   And finally, seeing as the brief for this exhibition alluded to a Banksy-eque reworking, it seemed obvious, inevitable even, to borrow his style to depict the current diplomatic relationship with our European counterparts – today our manner is definitely, and deeply regrettably, far from cordial. 

To discover more of Jem’s art, illustration, music and film, go to his website, or you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

You can also view the entire borough collection online, at the Collection link on our main navigation bar, or by clicking here.