Look beyond the surface of Stephen Stucliffe’s mixed-media works 

Stephen Sutcliffe recommends you watch his video works twice. Like music that insinuates itself on repeated listens, the Glasgow-based artist’s films repay the extra scrutiny. “The first time you watch, you could be amused,” he says. “Then you watch it for a second time and you see a darker or more serious aspect to it.”

The 48-year-old artist specialises in mixed-media collages, typically disrupting some piece of found footage, such as an erudite discussion from a 1960s television programme, with contrasting images or animations. The more you get your head around the visual surprises, collisions and juxtapositions, the richer it becomes. “When I was young, I used to watch programmes that were far over my head,” he says. “Then I’d go to the library and try and find out what they were about. I’m up for all those different responses: people who find it funny or disturbing or people who want to look into the material.”

The starting point for his latest exhibition, Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs, is the relationship between the writer David Storey and the filmmaker Lindsay Anderson. Storey, like Sutcliffe, was born to a working-class Yorkshire family, and was at home neither in the arty world he moved to nor the plain-speaking one he’d left. Anderson, by contrast, was the privately educated son of an army officer, whose repressed homosexual attraction to actors such as Richard Harris seem to find a parallel in Storey’s 1963 novel Radcliffe.

The themes of identity, class and repression are characteristic of Sutcliffe’s work. “People like Anderson and the free-cinema movement were the first to examine working-class life in a respectful way,” he says, harbouring a love of the social-realist texts of the post-war kitchen-sink movement. “Storey went to art school in London but was playing rugby league professionally in the north. His club used to think he was arty-farty and the art school people thought he was a thug. He said he could only write when he was on the train in between. I’m interested in that separation between your background and your career.”

For all their immediacy, his pieces have a depth that repays further study. For that reason, as well as screening older films and showcasing two new video works, the exhibition will dip into Sutcliffe’s substantial archive of images, texts, books and photographs. “I don’t like my works to look laboured,” he says. “They’re concise and distilled from all the information I’ve collected, so I think people will be surprised by how much effort goes into them.”

He is, though, happy with all levels of response: “You will get people who know more about Lindsay Anderson than I do and they’ll be able to pick out lots of themes, and there’ll be other people who just appreciate it as collage. Maybe they’ll want to do what I did and go away and look more into the themes.”

Finding them funny is also an option – as long as it’s not the final reaction. “Elements of humour are transferable: punning, reversal of situations, unexpected endings,” he says. “Some works are not funny but use the surprise elements that come from humour; others do have humour and that’s good because it pulls people in.”

Words: Mark Fisher

Photo: Courtesy Lindsay Anderson Archive, University of Stirling & Stephen Sutcliffe


Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs: Stephen Sutcliffe, Talbot Rice Gallery, 28 July–30 September, times vary, free Tel: 0131 650 2210



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