In the mid-00s, Stuart Semple sold work for hundreds of thousands of pounds. His fans included Sienna Miller and Debbie Harry, and in some circles he was dubbed the Jean-Michel Basquiat of his generation. The praise was based on an irreverent style that explored anti-consumerist themes, but, with its neon-splattered canvases, Semple’s work fell more in line with that era’s nu rave craze – indie music’s tangential foray into fluorescent rave nostalgia. It was a trend that aged quickly, appearing like a pastiche dreamed up by the fashion industry, rather than the authentic past subculture it aped.
Semple was plunged into relative obscurity for much of the 2010s, at one point reportedly selling work via eBay to get by. His mental health was suffering, too: Semple had struggled with anxiety ever since a near-fatal allergic reaction to something he ate during his teens that hadprompted a diagnosis of 52 other allergies and intolerances. He has been candid in interviews about his experience of phagophobia, the fear of swallowing, as well as other forms of anxiety that have informed some of his best-known works.
More recently, however, Semple has re-emerged with work that emphasises fun and pleasure. Building on 2009’s Happy Cloud project at Tate Modern, in which Semple flooded the London skyline with smiley pink soap clouds, he put together Happy City, a six-week art installation in Denver, Colorado, which included several smiley-face sculptures and a series of collaborative events and workshops. Even his recent feud with Anish Kapoor over the artist’s trademarking of the blackest shade of black (Semple responded by creating an even blacker black, available for everyone to buy … except Kapoor) had a sense of humour to it.
Now for his latest show – Dancing on My Own, at Bermondsey Project Space in London – he offers us a retrospective look at his journey from near-death-experiences to a brighter, happier present.
Greeting audiences as they enter the space are glitchy collages overlaid with heartfelt sentiments wrought in stencil and handwritten text. On the front of a lime-green Smeg fridge door, the following words are arranged in alphabet magnets: “a weird small town kid burning dollar bills in a battered high school gym locker alone.” Elsewhere, the face of Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange looks out from a canvas with the words “boys toys” and “TV’s” stencilled across it. Semple seems to have retained some measure of the earnest self-expression of 00s pop culture, and there’s something nostalgic in this reminder of pre-Twitter time, when social media was oriented towards teenage blogs. The web still forms a major focus of his work, with other paintings taking the form of fake Instagram posts.
Elsewhere, a room that builds on the themes of Happy Cloud contains a variation on the children’s party game Twister, with an instructional video that appears to have been inspired by kids’ TV shows of the 90s. It’s a noble effort to flout the stuffy conventions of gallery space and encourage us to play. Opposite, what Semple terms an “un-hostile bench” is lined with cuddly toys, including the kids’ TV show character Barney the Dinosaur. A statement about homelessness and hostility, apparently.
Downstairs, a room mocked up to look like a nightclub and doused in UV light, contains images of topless models overlaid with brand names and slogans. It feels gratuitous and out of whack with a culture striving to resist female objectification; even if the work claims to be satirising that very phenomenon, the message doesn’t quite land. One painting really jars: a large-scale depiction of an incident in which Semple was attacked for wearing makeup, with an Asda logo in the corner accompanied by the line “Asbo pride” (a play on the brand’s slogan “Asda price”). While Semple is justified in responding to the episode, and articulating his anger, exhibiting work that makes passing reference to a controversial punishment appears tone deaf.
It’s hard not to feel that the autobiographical sometimes spills over into self-indulgence. Semple is best in his childlike work, where his sense of psychological distress is conveyed through the sheer desperation for something more light-hearted and fun. The “darker”, transgressive stuff continually misses the mark and feels outdated – referencing a world where lamenting our individual problems and feelings via MySpace and LiveJournal took precedence over engaging with issues such as austerity, Brexit and the bigotry of a world post-2008. As relics of a bygone era, Semple’s works might still hold some significance; but in hoping to provide us with a lens through which to view our current cultural climate, Semple should travel beyond the self, and reflect on some of the bigger issues at stake.
• Dancing on My Own, Selected Works 1999–2019, is at Bermondsey Project Space, London, until 7 September.