You might have thought that Noel Fielding would be putting his feet up given this year’s series of TV phenomenon The Great British Bake Off has only just come to a dramatic close, but no. The comedian, The Mighty Boosh creator, TV presenter and – dare we say – national treasure, has been gearing up to present a rather different string to his bow – an exhibition of Halloween-themed paintings at the Don’t Walk Walk gallery in Deal, Kent, which opens tomorrow (2 November).
Featuring a cast of characters as weird and wonderful as you’d imagine from the mind of someone who dreamt up Old Gregg, Noel’s work hinges on layering up oils in a dark, dense scramble of colour. This is by no means his first exhibition – a show at the Albert Hall in London introduced his watercolours to the world (a particularly amusing medium for anyone aquatinted with the aforementioned Baileys-swigging swamp-dweller) – but shows a distinctive change in direction for the polymath.
It’s in the past four years that Noel has started painting solidly, coinciding with the time he began presenting Bake Off. “In the last four years I’ve become obsessed with it and I paint every day if I can. Some days I paint for ten hours a day,” Noel tells It’s Nice That. Noel actually went to art school, studying under painter Dexter Dalwood, but the all-encompassing nature of comedy meant that his painting ambitions had to go on the back-burner. “With comedy, you have to apply everything, you have to put all your efforts and energy into it and treat it as a full-time thing,” he says.
But then when Bake Off came along it gave Noel the space to take painting back up. “The thing about Bake Off is that it’s not what I imagined I’d be doing, to be honest, but it’s fun, it’s a massive show. It’s much bigger than me,” Noel tells us. “The nation loves it. It’s quite a scary thing to do. It’s like The Archers, it’s something that people love and you’ve got to respect the tone of it and what it is. It’s not what I imagined I’d be doing – but what it has allowed me to do is paint. It’s good money so it’s allowed me that – it’s a great job.”
Now Noel’s studio is filled to the brim with around 150 paintings and 2000 drawings. “In a funny kind of way, if I had access to a giant storage unit I wouldn’t be as bothered about trying to sell anything,” he says. Despite this, galleries from LA to Melbourne are queuing up to show his work, but he’s keen to find a good spot in London. “I know the comedy world but I don’t know how to navigate the art world. And it’s a very different world. I enjoy the painting side of it, but I’m not so bothered about the [selling] side in a weird way.”
Despite this, Noel has found the process of putting the show together at Don’t Walk Walk gallery incredibly helpful for his practice. The mental preparation, curation and experience of hanging work has forced him to “up his game”. “I actually did a whole other show and then decided not to use it – it was a slightly different technique and I realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” says Noel. “You have to work out what you want to say and what kind of paintings you want to do, what scale you want to work on, whether you want to work in colour. You can’t paint in a way that isn’t true to yourself. It feels like you’re wearing the wrong clothes. I realised I was never going to be one of those painters that spent two months on a painting, making it very precise.”
While Noel’s earlier style was more graphic, inspired by the likes of Basquiat and Keith Haring, his current approach is more expressive and movement-driven. “I like to attack the canvas,” he says. “They don’t all work but your strike rate gets higher. Sometimes they have an energy or magic to them which is very difficult to define or work out how you got there." His frenzied process involves painting over old canvases, turning works upside down, even painting with his hands. "It’s the energy really I’m trying to get on there. It’s great to have technique but a lot of those really great technique paintings leave me a bit cold.”
It’s clear from talking to Noel about painting that’s he’s fired up by the process, and it’s an obsession that is definitely not abating any time soon. On his fervour: “I feel like it’s like my stand-up process, it’s there but I can sort of ignore it, and then when I start doing stand-up again I can’t stop doing stand-up until I’ve got a show and a done a tour for two years. The problem is, once the taps are turned on, it’s game over.”
But, rather sweetly, the star is still concerned about how his work will be perceived by people, normal people, not just gallerists and collectors. “Going from comedy to art is hard, I’m still on the Bake Off, I’m still presenting in a tent so it’s difficult because people think they know what you are,” he concludes. “I don’t know how accepting people are of you trying new things. I guess I’ll find out.”