No one could accuse Jamie Hewlett of resting on his laurels. The artist – who created the cartoon pop band Gorillaz with Damon Albarn, and who first found fame with the Tank Girl comic strip – has never been content with any one pigeonhole.
He and Albarn also collaborated on an opera based on a 16th-century Chinese novel – Monkey – while Tank Girl was made (rather disastrously) into a live-action movie. Now, his first fine-art exhibition is about to open at the Saatchi Gallery and fans are in for a treat – while those who just want more Gorillaz will also be pleased to know they’ll be back in 2016.
Naturally for such a restless spirit, Hewlett hasn’t been content with showing just the one body of work. Instead, he’s presenting – under the title The Suggestionists – three discrete series of drawings, paintings and photo collages. There’s an over-sized deck of tarot cards: 22 figures hand-drawn and painted with watercolour, the characters recognisably Hewlettian, their characterful expressions conveying a spiky humour. Next, there’s “Honey”: a series of back-lit film posters, for invented erotic Seventies movies starring the titular, fictional actress. Finally, there are monochrome drawings of trees, 20 atmospheric, detailed, almost abstracted images of pines.
“There was not supposed to be any relation between them,” the 47-year-old explains when we meet in his west London flat – he lives with his wife in Paris, but is back often for work. “Then I realised they were connected: all of them have suggestive qualities. [A tarot reading] never gives you any exact details; it suggests. The trees are suggestive because when the sun is low and they throw shadows, they become something else. And, of course, the erotic posters are suggestive in their nature.”
Honey is “played” by his wife, Emma de Caunes, a French actress. “I like that period of erotic cinema as opposed to today’s online pornography, which is too bloody much! But I didn’t want to a hire a model; I felt a little bit uncomfortable. Then my wife said she’d do it, if she could get into the character. We created a little photography studio at home with a white sheet and angle poise [lamps].”
She was also the inspiration for the tarot series. The first time they met, she offered him a reading… He was fascinated by the experience – and tarot soon became part of the couple’s routine. “If I had a problem, we’d do a reading. I always found it quite useful. The first card you turn is you at that moment in time, the second card you turn is your problem, the third card is the advice.”
Hewlett, seeking to know more, read a book by lifelong tarot obsessive, film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky. He uses the same deck as de Caunes – the Tarot of Marseille – and the book explained “all the hidden details in each card”; in the death card, for example, the eyeball is a dragon chasing its tail. It was these that fired Hewlett’s imagination, and he set himself the challenge of creating his own Tarot of Marseilles.
At the exhibition, each card will have a little explanatory panel, where the character introduces themselves; Hewlett hopes people will be inspired to buy prints of the paintings that resonate with their own personality. So, which one is he then? Hewlett laughs, and pauses. “Maybe the Devil. But the Devil’s about creative energy! It’s about your creative side that needs to be set free – making a fool of yourself, running down the street naked …”
The Saatchi Gallery is a pretty impressive venue for that creative energy to burst into – how does Hewlett feel about his entrance into the world of fine art? He insists there was no game plan here, and thinks comics deserve to be treated as art anyway. “The art world’s quite elitist. I tend to skirt around that world. I don’t know how this is going to be received – whether I’m going to be slagged off! But I’m used to having bad press.”
The exhibition is the fruit of five years of working alone, and now Hewlett is ready to return to Gorillaz. But don’t call it a U-turn: though there was talk of a bust-up after the last record – started by Albarn, who told one newspaper: “I think we were at cross purposes” – Hewlett brushes off the suggestion now. “I’ve known Damon for so long – we lived in each other’s pockets for 15 years, our kids were born at the same time, we go on holiday together … eventually you have to have a little a break. But I love Damon.”
Hewlett won’t give much away about Gorillaz’s return, except to temptingly say that it will be, visually, very new and very different. Of course it will – he wouldn’t have been interested otherwise. “I’ve come back refreshed and excited. I didn’t think I was going to do another [album], but when an idea comes along that’s exciting, you do it.”
The last Gorillaz album, 2010’s Plastic Beach, was notable for guest stars including Bobby Womack, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed… but they somewhat took over from the cartoons – an issue which will have to be “rectified,” Hewlett says drily. Still, he insists that he loves collaboration, seeing it as a chance to widen audiences and to challenge himself. “[Collaboration] is only going to work if you leave your ego at the door. Look at someone like Kanye West – ego is the death of a lot of art. To believe in yourself that much is to stop being an artist. To be an artist is to doubt yourself, and try harder.”
As you might expect, there are also a few other irons in Hewlett’s creative fire. He’s been learning oil painting – “It was terrible for a while! Now I understand how to use the paint, but I’ve got to find something I can use it for that’s original and new”. He also has plans to direct a low budget short film with his wife. “I like the idea of just bypassing studios and money people, just doing it with your iPhone.”
And while he says he’s done with comic books – bored by the repetition, always restless – he did make an exception recently for his old friend and Tank Girl co-creator Alan Martin. Martin relaunched the character as 21st Century Tank Girl, using the crowd-funding website Kickstarter; Hewlett agreed to do the cover and six-pages for nothing to help the project ignite.
And ignite it did. In three days fans pledged £150,000, three times more than they needed. Hewlett reveals that he and Martin have idly been talking about what else they could do with Tank Girl. Thanks to their “terrible management” at the time of the 1995 live action film, MGM own the film rights – but not the stage rights.
“I said, Alan, if you write Tank Girl: The Musical with great songs, I’ll get involved! Maybe we could do the goriest stage show, the sexiest, most outrageous musical. He went away with a curious look on his face.” Perhaps seeing the cogs whirring behind my own eyes, Hewlett laughs and rushes to say this isn’t actually happening, it’s just a joke between friends. “I can’t see anybody wanting to go to Tank Girl: The Musical!”
I wouldn’t be so sure, and anyway, after creating a cartoon pop band, a Chinese opera, and a gallery show of tarot cards, if anyone could pull it off, it would surely be Hewlett.
‘The Suggestionists’ is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, from 18 Nov to 2 Dec; jamiehewlett.com