Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Do not be alarmed by the frequent appearance of a blue-suited lobster during Orientation Week. The lobster, in all its forms, is merely the alter-ego of St Andrews alumnus, and neo-pop surrealist Philip Colbert. The promotion push for his current Wardlaw Museum exhibition has aptly been dubbed “lobsterfest”.
In the spirit of lobsterfest, I was lucky enough over the Summer to have been put in touch with Mr Colbert, who has been named the “godson of Andy Warhol”. He rang me up from Zurich to talk St Andrews, all things lobster, and what this brightly coloured exhibition is all about.
Colbert Studio; Marat Repeat; image courtesy of Philip Colbert
Philip Colbert, you studied at St Andrews and left with an MA in Philosophy. Do you have fond memories of your time here?
Yes definitely. I was born in Perth, not too far away, and I remember as a kid my parents used to take me to St Andrews for ice cream. It’s a very beautiful place and I really enjoyed being there. I had some great friends and I studied philosophy, a subject I was really interested in. It was a privilege to be able to have a few years in such a scenic and old-world place.
Did studying at St Andrews for four years alongside lobster pots and fishing boats influence your decision to choose the lobster?
As a kid I was obsessed with going to the seaside, seeing crabs and unusual underwater creatures - it was like another world - and rock pools and, yes, the lobsters in St Andrews. There was definitely an attraction in a way that it was something that I really remember.
Then as I got older and studied art history I reidentified the lobster. In Dutch still life painting the lobster was an iconic centre-piece to a table, and was very symbolic. Still life painting was very popular, and that in a way created an art historical presence to lobsters.
Then in the Surrealist period artists such as Salvador Dali were very inspired by lobsters and used them as a muse in photo shoots and things, and the lobster became a surrealistic protagonist. I was interested in this art historical dialogue but then also I had this personal connection to the lobster.
I know you’ve talked in a lot of articles about the lobster as an alter-ego, but for readers who aren’t aware: just exactly how does the lobster function in your art?
I think of the lobster very much as my artistic persona. In a way having a persona today is very common, with the internet and the “double identity” opportunity with virtual life. Everyone creates a persona with their career or in their life to a certain extent, and artists particularly have creatively played on a persona. To me the idea of creating a persona was an opportunity to create more freedom for myself as an artist, rather than just having to be myself in my traditional conventional context.
Your exhibition in St Andrews is called The Death of Marat and the Birth of Lobster. [Jean-Paul] Marat was himself a St Andrean. I’m wondering why you chose him, and why you’ve decided to link this painting of Marat by [Jacques-Louis] David and the birth of your own persona?
As you say Marat also had a degree from St Andrews, and for me that was quite a poignant fact. I was taking an Art History class, it was all dark and The Death of Marat came up on the slides, and being a student of St Andrews I felt quite connected to the painting. When the director of the museum came to my studio in London and proposed the idea of doing an exhibition in the Wardlaw Museum, it felt quite a random thing just because it wasn’t really on my radar at the time.
Colbert Studio; The Death of Marat
(After Picasso); image courtesy of Philip Colbert
I immediately felt that was a great thing because obviously I knew about David and I knew about this painting but I hadn’t really dug particularly deep on it.
The subject was also a bit of a rite of passage as I found so many different references to The Death of Marat; so many artists ‒ Picasso, Léger ‒ revisited the scene. I recognised an art historical conversation going on.
When it was suggested, that memory of the painting and the connection set off in my head, and I feel that connects to the lobster somehow ‒ this ability to dialogue with art history and make the connection in the conversation.
I saw a GQ article that described you as a bit of an egomaniac. You talk a lot about branding and commercialisation and how you appropriate images that suit specific audiences. How does that translate into your work?
The first concept is the notion of ego and brand. I see myself very much as an individualist and I really believe in art to be the celebration of the individual and the freedom of the individual to communicate with and within this language of art history. Life always comes with its restraints but within the dimension of art there is a slightly freer dialogue and opportunity for people to really express themself. Art is really a chance for people to build a language and a world of their own to an extent.
Sometimes that very much involves ego, but for me there's positive ego and negative ego. Positive ego is the free imagination and the beauty and freedom of one's thinking and creativity, and negative ego is when people start to get wrapped up in taking themselves too seriously and believing in the vanity of gilded cages, smoke and mirrors. I like to criticise ego but I like to celebrate it. I guess for me, because of the duality of ego, it's such an interesting subject.
I’m interested in brands because in a poetic sort of way I think of art being about language and communication. Like Nike and Adidas, they can be used in poetry because everyone grows up wearing these brands and they have a very intimate connection to people’s lives, so they’re a form of language one can use in painting. There’s a powerful language there of everyday objects.
Your background pre-Pop Art was commercial - you spent some time in the fashion world doing collaborations with various high-profile people and brands and I was wondering what you would say to someone who suggested that your art was just an attempt to create a marketable brand?
I think this is an important reason for why I would do collaborations and things, and it is actually about accessibility. It follows on from the spirit of Keith Haring and the Pop Shop and ‒ again ‒ that could follow on from certain artists like Sonia Delaunay who was making clothing as well as painting.
For me the first thing is the idea of democratic spirit, the accessibility, making art that's for everyone ‒ not just a few people. The danger with making art that just sits comfortably in the “high art” world, is that then it becomes the subject matter of shark-ish dealers who are selling work to very few people. That becomes the primary audience, and ultimately one finds oneself stuck in a small bubble of quite an elitist structure, and I've always been quite anti that.
There's a danger that sometimes people perceive art as being quite elitist and a very highbrow conversation that's not particularly accessible to your random person. I'm in this space that's trying to be deep but also very accessible. For me, the motivation behind collaborations is actually trying to connect my work to people outwith the traditional art system, because it's just a way of building a wider audience and having a wider population.
And in addition to that I like that holistic idea that art can exist in anything, a bit like Picasso making ceramic editions. Art is whatever the artist creates. For example I’m also working on this passion project, this metaverse Decentraland, where I have my own digital art world. For me it's helping to reinvent the idea of what an artist's world can look like, it can be interactive.
On that subject about artists returning to the image of Marat, and then the digital world, do you feel that there's any interplay between this culture in art of going back to an image and repurposing it, and the online culture of memes; and whether you view your art as being in the former category or almost moving into this online space in which the public can take your imagery and do what they want with it?
I think definitely the interesting thing with art is going back to the past because it's part of that conversation with aesthetics and the ideas of art history. That painting is so iconic. It exists in such a huge number of people’s subconscious it's always going to be revisited. It’s so charged with language and connection and meaning. So I think that’s why artists will always be so drawn to appropriate and regurgitate and converse with the past. It’s been happening for a thousand years.
In terms of today’s culture, it's a hyperdrive of that same idea. I think now everything is referenced and memes become hugely iconic and penetrate a huge collective body. I think now art is changing in its dimensions, now digital art is such a massive part of what art is today. Most people consume art digitally ‒ they may go to galleries but social media is a large funnel of how most people intake aesthetics and aesthetic discussion and dialogue. As well as express yourself: it’s a highly democratic function of these apps, that you can express yourself and have your own persona - we are in this very digital dimension of art. I think that's definitely rechanging the dimensions of what art is.
I think it's become a much more complex, evolving thing.
On the topic of digitalisation of art, how did the pandemic affect your work? Or was that a relief to you because you could move online?
So I was using a lot of 3D modelling in my painting process anyway. Again, for me the idea, which is very important with my art, is trying constantly to explore and experiment with the aesthetic and the opportunity of new technology and techniques. I was really interested in making this evolution with my painting to use 3D technology to further develop the aesthetic uniqueness of my image. That then gave rise to building this digital world which I exhibit in virtual reality exhibits and museums. So when the pandemic happened and people were stuck at home I thought that it was a good opportunity to bring them my virtual world and try and make it available, because doing gallery shows is not really possible, so what do you do? You can't just do nothing! I was like, you have to still create things! It took me a while to get it online, but we did finally manage it.
You talked about the commercialising and mass production of the individual and how that works with the modern hyper-consumption of images. In what respect can the Lobster be viewed as a response to this and do you think there is a space for the individual in a world of mass produced images? Or maybe we are almost more our alter ego selves than ourselves?
I think this is at the heart of this tension with individualism and this dynamic of romantic individualism in the context of hyper consumption. I think that the mass production of the self, in terms of having lobster versions of myself, is that idea that we live in such a brand-orientated time, it does create a plasticity to everything in this all-consuming world. I do think that there is a definite challenge for individualism within that.
I did quite a few paintings where I took my lobster figure on a journey into 19th century Romanticism paintings. I had a triptych on show in the Saatchi Gallery which played on the Raft of the Medusa but instead of a mass of people it was just a lobster on his own in a raft in the midst of a very epic seastorm.
I was interested in trying to take my highly produced identity and put that into this very epic, overwhelming power-of-nature scene, and there is this heightened sense of isolation and abyss - not only the abyss of nature but also of classification and language. I think there is this darker side of Pop. This is something I'm very interested in, because in some ways it's a great utopia but there's also great complexity.
Finally, when we’re absorbing pop culture almost every single day, every single second, where do you see Pop Art and Surrealism ‒ that blend that you’ve taken on for yourself ‒ where do you see that heading?
There’s always going to be very differing movements of art happening all the time. I think there's always going to be certain artists that come back to Pop and Surrealism themes and ideas, so I think that'll continue.
In terms of how that’ll evolve, I think that technology is constantly evolving and the aesthetics around a particular technology is constantly evolving in terms of the new technological breakthroughs, whether it's VR or a merger between augmented reality and reality. I think these new technologies are going to play a massive role in what art is in the 21st century because I think definitely this hybrid of reality and fantasy space is very interesting.
These technologies will all spawn lots of new art that will become iconic, and there’ll be lots of language created around all those spaces. There’s always going to be this jam between crazy new elements and older things ‒ a continued mash of things!
There will always be this continued use of Classical things at the same time ‒ it's not like we’re going away from painting a canvas even though we’re using screens all the time, so I think there'll always be developed and continual craftsmanship. I see a continuation of what’s been happening, it’ll just become even more extreme because of the jumps in technology.
At the end of the call, Mr Colbert makes sure to register his delight at the St Andrews University Challenge team’s mascot: a lobster, chosen because of the blue-suited lobster statue outside the library. I suggest it may become an unofficial symbol of the University. He laughs. “I was very honoured I have to say,” he confesses, “that was very sweet of them to choose that. It was good vibes ‒ I liked it.”