Hands up who said “versatile”! When journalist Martin Wroe suggested that for Fairnie, art (life?) was a fairground, he hit the nail well and truly on the head. And although for him there was no such thing as ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, ‘highbrow’ or ‘lowbrow’, his academic background gave him the extra vision to understand the worth of any form of creative expression, whether it was sculpture, painting or cookery, all of which he valued in equal measures, and all of which needed to be tried, tested and perfected. This was combined with his genuine love for people, and thus his desire to reach out to them. His human touch was tangible throughout his work as a performance artist and as a fine artist, and was passed on to countless up-and-coming talents during the years spent lecturing in Weston-Super-Mare.
What follows is a selection of Fairnie’s later pieces, from the second half of the 80s to his death in 1993, followed by sculptures produced during his time as a student at London’s Royal Academy of Art.
Work was usually done in the cellar of the family home in Royal York Crescent, Clifton (Bristol), and would often involve the contributions of children Famie and Jake. Take the moving depiction of cleanliness (soap) next to holiness – Mary Magdalene’s feet – in which the feet were drawn by Famie, Fairnie subsequently building the rest of the picture around his daughter’s initial input. Similar methods were used for the fishing boat before it was made to sail inexorably towards a church window, and, elsewhere, the cartoon-like ringmaster/lion-tamer looking out towards his audience.
Fairnie’s work hints at the suffering of his childhood, spent in and out of hospital – invariably because of the chronic asthma which eventually got the better of him – while the redemption of his mother’s care and love is a reminder that hope never dies. This is particularly evident in his darkest work, which coincided with the onslaught of Aids. Full of paradoxes, it illustrates man’s life-blood as being the source of his suffering. Sexuality as the root of life but also of death. And yet as always there is this shaft of light, of hope, which prevails.
Light, space, doors, (Jacob’s?) ladders, the sense that there is always a way out: all were recurring themes in his art. The crown was another, celebrating not only the king but also the queen. And of course the ultimate trademark was the ubiquitous circle-cross combination. This harks back to Fairnie’s childhood in Scotland, when he would see the sign on the harbour walls in Fraserburgh. Call it risqué if you will, but it encapsulated the union between man and woman, and the very beginning of life itself. Fairnie was fascinated by the marks left on walls, those signs and symbols showing that someone had been there and was intent on leaving a trace, a legacy – surely the very basis of Fairnie’s endless quest in life as an artist, performer, entertainer and all-round clown!… Clowns were another source of inspiration – child-like innocence mixed in with the wisdom of an adult. Two clowns were produced as screen-prints when studying for a first degree in Stoke (prior to the Masters degree awarded by the Royal College of Art) and were regularly brought out of retirement for later pieces, gazing from outside at an empty circus-ring (or is it a ship?…) or hovering in some colourful other-worldly space.
There is virtually no documentation about the pieces, and little conversation was had with the man himself as he worked on them. They are here for all to see, but it is debatable whether any of them are actually finished! Fairnie had a habit of layering his work, building paintings up over time, leaving them to rest and then coming back to them later. Their apparent simplicity is often deceptive, because under the surface a whole new complex work lies, forgotten, waiting and yet never to be discovered. He would exploit this himself by scraping grids, ladders and crosses into the surface of his work-in-progress.
His work was met with great critical acclaim during his lifetime, particularly during an exhibition entitled ‘Houseworks – Home Is Where The Art Is’ with RCA contemporary Mark Dunhill (that fruitful batch of graduates also included now-celebrated sculptor Tony Cragg). He also received many commissions to illustrate magazines and books, the most poignant example being that from the publishers of US poet Robert Lax (1915-2000) for his poem ’24th and 7th’. Fairnie created the nine beautiful postcard-sized pieces in the two weeks between the funeral of a close friend and his own death. His name most notably lives on as a patron of the arts with the creation of the Fairnie Arts Award, which was recently launched by Bev and partner Alan Smith.
Enjoy this journey into a remarkably creative mind, whose eloquence and love of visual imagery is a joy to behold not only on vinyl, but also on canvas…