Interview | Keith Coventry: The Old Comedy

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Eric Block


Keith Coventry:
The Old Comedy

This month sees the opening of UPSTONE SOHO, a new gallery in the heart of Soho. Its inaugural show is by acclaimed British artist Keith Coventry, who will be showing a suite of new collage works. These works combine lollipop-like sticks that have crude humour printed on them – referencing the ‘Old Comedy’ from ancient Greece – with modernist Bauhaus-like compositions. Some of the paper used in the collages are over 100 years old which gives the works a feel as if they were from ancient times, all the while still utilising contemporary abstract forms.

Keith Coventry is a British artist, represented by Pace Gallery, who works in a diverse range of media encompassing both painting and sculpture. He combines an interest in social issues and urban deprivation with humour, and a fascination for the history of art as well as a further belief in the restorative powers of art. He was featured in the seminal exhibition Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997, and in September 2010 his Spectrum Jesus painting won the John Moores Painting Prize. 

Eric Block met with Coventry ahead of the show.

Keith Coventry, No. 6, 2019, Collage, 50cm x 40cm

Eric Block: Can you tell me why you have incorporated lolly sticks with the sayings of Aristophanes into these new works?

Keith Coventry: In 1995 I made a small multiple work consisting of 50 Aristophanes jokes on lolly sticks inside a linen-covered box with Old Comedy stamped in gold leaf on the lid. This was for a new space then called Riding House Editions. The work couldn’t really be seen properly in this way, so I decided to get them out of the box and find a surface or background for them to exist as separate works.

You once said that you look at social issues through the veil of art history. Would you lace these works in that context?

Yes as I have used the words of the father of Comedy and the forms of the Bauhaus still around today in design and typography using a magazine layout. Aristophanes did what a satirical publication like Private Eye does in focusing on highly visible public figures.

The words on the sticks are quite bawdy. Have you ever experienced a negative reaction to these from anyone?

Public institutions seem very sensitive about what they display if words are involved, being less ambiguous than images. Avoiding giving offence with potential victims is important to them (An ancient Roman poet, Catullus, only had his explicit poem 16 in English translation published in the late 20th century).

Keith Coventry with fellow artist Claire de Jong at The French House, Soho

Would you say that Aristophanes’ humour holds up?

The puns still hold up best as the targets of the jokes are more or less unknown to us now.

You are the first artist to be showing at UPSTONE Soho. Can you tell me how that came about?

I’m showing at UPSTONE as I like that it is an early building around 1720 with wood-panelled walls in a busy area with many connotations.

Keith Coventry, No. 5, 2019, Collage, 50cm x 40cm

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Interview by Eric Block.

Keith Coventry: The Old Comedy is on view at UPSTONE Soho from 14 November 2019 – 13 December 2019. 


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