Words by Mr Jonathan Heaf
Throughout the summer, wherever you went in London, Mr Richie Culver's face was inescapable. Pasted onto hoardings and pinned from billboards in parks and tube stations, the blossoming artist could be seen on a poster, dressed in a wrinkly white cotton T-shirt, sleeves effortlessly rolled up to reveal armfuls of inky scrawl, his fingers linked into a bony lattice while his identifying black hat and long brown beard made him seem like some kind of hipster Jesus. It's true Mr Culver has a strong look, one that - despite these biblical references - he has made entirely his own. It's little wonder that other artists are so drawn to capture his spirit, a man who can look both resilient and susceptible in the blink of an eye.
It's peculiar seeing your face around town, especially when you get recognised. Some people think I'm more famous than I actually am - the poor sods!
The poster in question was a portrait of the artist by another artist, a painter named Mr Alan Coulson, and the image was used to promote this year's BP National Portrait Award. Mr Coulson's image of Mr Culver won the bronze medal. "When I first moved down from the North, years ago now, Alan and I worked in the same clothes shop," explains Mr Culver, a man born in Hull and unwaveringly proud of it. "He came to one of my solo shows, we got to know each other and he asked whether he could paint my portrait. He told me he was going to submit it for competition this year. I'm so proud of him. Of course, it's a little peculiar seeing your face around town, especially when you get stopped or recognised. Some people think I'm more famous than I actually am - the poor sods!"
Fame and art are strange bedfellows. There are times in Britain when being a successful artist - that is, a commercially successful artist - can somehow seem to diminish the value of one's work. Take Mr Damien Hirst, for example - the fact that he has become one of the world's most successful artists has somehow rendered all those ideas and all that creativity, well, distasteful. As if art shouldn't be a career so much as impassioned endeavour, and that when money changes hands or enters the equation this somehow devalues its authenticity. Mr Culver's art manages that rare thing of being both true (or at least honest), and commercial - as well as being aesthetically very pleasing. There's no doubt that he is on to something - a talent bred not from going to some fancy London art college or learning about technique, but a raw, instinctive talent that has bled directly from his own turbulent life experiences.
Notoriety has come to Mr Culver relatively fast - it was only five years ago that he started making art and having it exhibited. "I'm a 1990s child. I remember looking at people like Hirst and thinking they lived more like footballers - mouthing off and having his picture in the paper the whole time. It was appealing, especially having come from such a working-class background. But becoming an artist for me was never really a viable option - I worked in a caravan factory in Hull and London felt like a million miles away, know what I mean? But I had a lot of trouble and death in my early life; lost a lot of friends. I wasn't a musician or a writer and I needed a medium through which to jettison all this pent up emotion and sadness."
By Mr Alan Coulson. Oil on wooden board, 850x950mm, 2012 (© Alan Coulson)
"I Loved You Black with Gold"
By Mr Richie Culver. Household paint on canvas, 1,800x1,200mm, 2012
By Mr Richie Culver. Pigment ink print on photo paper, edition of 10, 594x420mm, 2010
By Mr Richie Culver. Collage, 374x297mm, 2011
"Have You Ever Really Loved Anyone?"
By Mr Richie Culver. Black and white digital relief print on tempered glass and bronze mirror, 1,200x840x12mm, 2012
One of Mr Culver's earliest, and still one of his most successful, paintings is a canvas on which is written "I Loved You - You Just Couldnt See It" (sic). "This came from something that happened to me years ago. I had broken up with my girlfriend and I needed to do something drastic. I asked my friends whether they thought it would be a good idea to paint 'I loved you' on her house, above her bedroom window - everyone seemed to think it was a good idea at the time. It didn't work; I don't think she even saw it. And then I made this painting and it really seemed to resonate. Although I couldn't believe it when someone rang me up and said they wanted to buy it. I guess people see me as this sentimental, romantic artist figure - I have no problem with that."
For his new work, exhibiting in New York this autumn, Mr Culver will be showing photographs - one of the artist's first ever works was a collage of the runner Mr Jessie Owens that for a time could be seen in Tate Modern - and a series of more abstract paintings. Superstition may also feature as a theme in future work. "I've spoken so much about my own life and that really is where the vein of my art lies. But I've always been superstitious - I'm the sort of person who will see one magpie and have to stand and wait for 20 minutes until I see a second one. I have this idea of juxtaposing one superstition with another - like putting a penny underneath a ladder, as if they could cancel one another out. I like contradictions."
Romantic on the inside yet with a tough guy exterior, untrained yet so often masterful, Mr Culver is right - he's full of contradictions. He also knows how green he is to the art game, and despite this spike in initial success knows that longevity is ultimately key. "As I'm so new I do feel as if I have a lot to prove. I can feel things are changing and I feel privileged to be where I am today." One thing that won't change fast, however, is that beard. "Well, I have Alan to thank for that. It's now my thing. If it all gets too much I guess I can just shave it off and leg it back to Hull!"
Mr Jonathan Heaf is features editor of British GQ