Wonderland.

Sue Tilley

On the back of her Fendi collab, we explore banality with the Lucian Freud muse.

Throwback to the 80s and Sue Tilley was known for being the bestie of Leigh Bowery, the original club kid and performance artist whose seminal nightclub Taboo was such a spectacle, it became the subject of a West End musical featuring Boy George. Through Bowery Tilley was introduced to internationally acclaimed artist Lucian Freud, eventually becoming his muse: she was the subject of one of his most famous paintings, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, formerly the holder of a world record for highest price paid for a painting by a living artist. Unsurprisingly, it made Tilley’s name recognisable within the art community instantly.

These days she’s focused on exploring her own artistic endeavours, most recently being tapped by Fendi to collaborate on the house’s SS18 menswear collection. Inspired by her love for everyday objects – such as cups of tea, telephones and desk lamps – the Italian brand used Tilley’s pieces throughout the collection, featured on tote bags, shirts and jackets in an ode to “the Skype generation at work.”

As the buzz around her work reaches fever pitch, we grabbed a moment with Tilley to learn more about her creative process.

so firstly, how did the collaboration with Fendi come about?

I’ve known Julian Ganio for years and he works very closely with Silvia Fendi on the menswear. He has always been a huge fan and supporter of my work and suggested to her that they use some of my paintings on their SS18 collection. I thought that he was joking at first but it all came to fruition.

Were you a fan of the house’s work prior to the collaboration?

I’m not fully au fait with designer fashion as I can’t afford it and it doesn’t fit me. But I was aware of John Booth’s collaboration with them and I was a fan of his simple bright colours. I met him just before Christmas and he told me how lovely Fendi were to work with.

What are your honest thoughts on art meeting fashion?

What is art, what is fashion, what’s the difference? I think fashion designers are definitely artists, it’s just that they use fabric instead of paint… and where do they train? Art school. I don’t think that there should be any boundaries on what is called art. It needs to be demystified so everyone can get involved. I can’t stand those adult colouring books…why not just look at something and draw it, t doesn’t matter how rubbish you think it is, all drawings have something that is worthwhile. To be honest I don’t like drawings that show someone has been practicing forever; they may look perfect but they have no soul.

And can you tell us about the pieces used by Fendi as part of the men’s SS18 collection?

When I had my first show a couple of years ago I decided to paint things that I love such as jars of Marmite and bottles of Dove body wash..I was still learning (as I still am), so every different thing that I drew was a challenge. Julian loved these pictures and showed them to Silvia Fendi who was also a fan.

The theme of their show was the Skype generation at work, so they wanted plain objects that you might have on your desk. They said could you paint a lamp, some flowers, etc. Some things I found in my house to copy and they also sent me images that they liked to use, such as the coffee cup.

Do you always focus your work on banal objects?

I draw many non-banal things such as Leigh and Trojan. I also draw what people commission me to draw, which is maybe something ‘banal’ but they are no easier to draw than the opposite of banal, whatever that is. Just because things are everyday objects it doesn’t make them banal. I also have a series of running sketches with my friend, the artist Rui Miguel Leitao Ferreira. He texts me most days from his home in Portugal to do quick illustrations such as “Sue has floated up into the air and has landed on Rui who is a cactus”.

What’s the most appealing thing about banality?

I have to say I am a bit obsessed with boring things. I used to work with a boy who had a strict shopping regime…big shop on Thursday, veg on Friday and bread on Saturday. I used to ask him to repeat his schedule to me as I found it so funny. Luckily I can usually see something amusing in most things and really boring people are one of my favourites. But the fact that they are so boring makes them special, not banal in my world

You’ve gone through a bit of a role reversal from the eccentric bestie of Leigh Bowery to queen of artistic banal; how do these two worlds compare?

I will always be the eccentric bestie of Leigh and I would hardly call myself the queen of artistic banal. Years ago I think that some people thought less of me because I had a proper job, but I think that they have realised now that you can have a proper job and achieve other things as well. I loved having a foot in both worlds as it gives you a wider view of the world and it is amazing how interesting some “ordinary people” are. I know it’s a cliché but you should never judge a book by its cover.

You’re still widely recognised as Lucian Freud’s muse – is this a help or a hinderance in terms of producing your own art?

I’m not stupid, of course it’s a help! I’m sure I would never even have got an exhibition if I didn’t have that history behind me. But it wasn’t an easy job and I really worked hard… in two years I only had about 10 days without either going to work for Lucian or to the job centre. Lucian liked me to work every weekend and all my work holidays. It’s not as if I’m comparing myself to Lucian in any way – I see myself as a jobbing artist, taking opportunities that come my way.

And what are you hoping to achieve in regards to this area of your career?

I can’t really say. In the past I have hoped for things that have never happened, but the things that do happen to me are stranger than I could ever imagine. Being the most expensive painting in the world, being a character in a Broadway play, Fendi using my paintings, writing a book. What I love is seeing an email or Facebook message asking me to do something, I love the variety of projects that I have on the go. To be honest at the moment I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the things that I’ve got coming up, not that they take a lot of time, it’s just that they are so exciting and interesting.

Finally, what is your most mundane material possession that you happen to admire the most?

I’m very fond of my small glass fronted fridge to keep drinks in, not that everyone has got one. I love it so much I might get a bigger one.

Words
Ryan Cahill
Sue Tilley

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