As the godfather of punk and the impresario behind the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren knows a thing or two about wrapping up subversion in an attractive package. After years of doing so through music, McLaren, 61, is now turning to art and is exhibiting a series of 21 so-called “Musical Paintings” at Art Basel in Switzerland through Sunday.
“Art has got this gargantuan appetite now,” says McLaren over the phone from Buenos Aires, where he was a guest of honor at the city’s contemporary art fair. “All of the other creative mediums seem to be crumbling. It’s the last creative industry that is artist-led. The others seem more corporate-led.”
Though McLaren is tackling a new medium somewhat late into his career (his first show was in September at the I-20 Gallery in New York), he is actually one of Britain’s longest serving art students. “I never wanted an ordinary job,” he says. “I was in art school from 1963 to 1971, when Goldsmiths kicked me out. Then I opened the shop [SEX], and that was an evolution of how to be an artist in the contemporary world.”
McLaren is still on a sex kick with “Musical Paintings.” The series includes songs from John Lee Hooker and Joy Division with a loop of stills appropriated from porn films from the Sixties and Seventies. But McLaren focuses on the foreplay. The act itself is never shown. “I was into the foreplay in the old films,” he explains. “Before, there was a lot of lead up before anyone got down to doing it.” He continues, “A guy is cleaning up the house and there’s suddenly a knock on the door and it changes the direction of his afternoon. What I like about these moments is the faces of the people — who were clearly not actors. The awkwardness of it intrigued me. So I wanted to make these portraits of people who were wishing, hoping, anticipating to have sex. For me it made a similar kind of fantasy that you can have when you listen to rock ‘n’ roll.”
McLaren, whose art will be projected on the MTV screen in Times Square this summer as part of Creative Time’s new video series, said he plans to continue to create visual art. He’s developing a stage musical for Broadway based on the life of Christian Dior with Julian Fellowes, who wrote the script for “Godsford Park,” writing the libretto.
“Now instead of engaging with the Sex Pistols or using a shop to create artistic happenings, at my age it’s easy to concentrate on looking at myself,” he says, “which I’ve needed to do for a long time.”