Art & Photography

Bed Time Stories with the Kray Twins

On the eve of a major new Joe Machine exhibition, curator Laurence Johns considers why he may be Britain’s most relevant living artist

Left: The Krays – Right: Member of a Rival Firm with a Razor Slash
Left: The Krays – Right: Member of a Rival Firm with a Razor Slash

I first came across the work of British artist Joe Machine at a Billy Childish exhibition in 2009. Since then I have sold many of his paintings, but the one thing that I have often failed to convey in any description is that ‘certain something’ that I, and those that collect Joe’s work, see in his art.

I used to assume it was some intangible thing, something about the duality of the human condition; the thin line between love, anger and the human need for contact that is present in all his work. Vibrant greens amongst a snowy landscape, the regal purples of a Russian fairy tale or the ruby red of a slashed face. Joe’s work is traditional, brutal, crude, uncomfortable and violent, yet is also refined, lonely and vulnerable. It has a sense of timelessness about it, but contains an element central to its message that still I cannot put a word on.

While hanging his current show, The Krays: Bed Time Stories at East London’s Lollipop Gallery, it become clear to me what that ‘something’ is. It’s Englishness. Not English in the ‘stiff upper lip, ‘cucumber sandwich and cream teas’ kind of way, but still very English.

The Twins with Violet
The Twins with Violet

What Joe captures in his work is the outsider – the underbelly, the parts of England that we don’t like to address, but that we all know are there. The artist presents an England of bare-knuckle fighting, of dogfights by the docks, of criminals glorified to the status of mythical kings, of eccentricity and of confrontation. Joe’s England is a violent and rugged land with an understanding of structure, and it’s this knowing look at England’s ‘underclass’ that makes Joe’s work so vital.

Above: Ronnie Kray Cutting a Man in a Pub. Below: Valence Road.
Above: Ronnie Kray Cutting a Man in a Pub – Below: Valence Road

The Krays: Bed Time Stories shows the dark heart of England and holds up a mirror to its bestial, violent and proud subconscious. What’s reflected is an internal landscape forged between the clash of fists and metal, of desperate men and sensual women, of right and wrong, and of sex and aggression. Joe’s Britain is a landscape where fear, anger, love, hate, violence and sex stagger together through its backstreets looking for meaning. Like William Blake, Joe is not interested in the England that England thinks it is; Joe is interested in England’s dark satanic mills.

The Krays: Bed Time Stores runs from November 13 to December 13 at The Lollipop Gallery, 58 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LT. For more information click here