Christopher Spencer/Cold War Steve

Christopher Spencer (aka Cold War Steve) is a digital artist who makes satirical collages featuring an array of real world characters made in response to a world he sees as getting madder by the day. Jon Savage (Spencer, 2019: 7-8) sees his work as the contemporary equivalent of Hogarth or Gillray, both of whom were unsparing satirists and social chroniclers:

“[The] images are at once very funny and very cruel. They are designed to be. When organised politics is in chaos…then the only response is a scalding rage which, to avoid turning it inwards, must be transmuted into activism or artistic activity.

It’s a deliberately nightmarish world. A moralist, Christopher Spencer cuts through the layers of privilege and status to the core of the miasma of Brexit. That this core is not only spiritually and morally corrupt but also physically repulsive is one of the central messages. It’s a gallimaufry of fools and knaves, who deserve to be flayed in public.”

Spencer himself says this:

“I know from my Twitter audience they are completely dismayed by what’s happening – not just Brexit, but Trump, the rise of the far right, the increase in hate crimes. But there’s something quite powerful about laughing at these people, flaying them alive with humour and sarcasm.” (Sherwood, 2019)

He began making this work after a very dark period in his personal life in 2016 which resulted in a breakdown and suicide attempt. Recovering in hospital, he began to make composites using his mobile phone and basic software. The process became, and continues to be, both coping mechanism and strategy to help and maintain his recovery. These crude first attempts, such as putting Noel Edmonds hair on other celebrities, developed into the idea of putting Steve McFadden, Phil Mitchell in Eastenders, into scenes from the Cold War. The work evolved to include a recurring cast of politicians, despots, z-list celebrities and ex-footballers as Spencer was driven to make the work more overtly political following the Brexit referendum. Steve McFadden is the one constant in each piece, an everyman character who Spencer includes watching the scenes in front of him with the existential angst of everyday man. As Jon Savage observes:

“He is not an agent; he is only a bystander, a witness to the moral and spiritual degradation that austerity and Brexit have unleashed” (Spencer, 2019: 9)

Spencer agrees:

“He’s an everyman, an observer, the hero of the pieces, the anchor to the real world. He’s me looking on in disbelief really”.

The backdrops for his characters vary from bleak and typically British scenes such as run down caravans, roadside fly tips, derelict fun fairs, working mens clubs and holiday camps to appropriated artworks such as ‘Raft of Medusa’ by Géricault, ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch, ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper and ‘A Bigger Splash’ by David Hockney. Recurring motifs also recur which Spencer uses as symbols such as the tapir – a symbol of hope and diversity, the Lonsdale trainer – a symbol of Brexit, the Fray Bentos pie – a symbol of a lack of diversity and bland Britishness that Brexiteers wish to return to along with the notion of ‘adequate food stockpiling.’

Despite becoming more technically proficient as the work has evolved, Spencer sees the deliberately false aesthetic of the work as being central to his DIY ethos and that an impeccable use of Photoshop mean a loss of spontaneity. Indeed, the use of deliberately unflattering images of celebrities and politicians helps give the work an extra edge of brutal humour. This deliberate drawing attention to artifice while suggesting a heightened scenario that is grounded in reality is one of the attractions of the work. Most importantly however, I admire how Spencer has found an outlet for his creativity and has been able to find an audience for his work in a uniquely modern way which is outside of the normal art world – it is work that is successful on many levels, most importantly perhaps, it is funny.

Pie Rolling II
Raft of Twats
The Fourth Estate
Time magazine international cover – June 2019

Links:

Cold War Steve Website

Twitter – McFadden’s Cold War (@Coldwar_Steve)

The Guardian, 15th June 2019: The Art of Cold War Steve

Bibliography:

Glynn, P. (2019) Cold War Steve: How the British artist designed new Time cover. BBC website, 7th June 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-48547558 [accessed 30th July 2019]

Jonze, T. (2018) In the bleak mid-Brexit: a Christmas gift from Coldwar Steve. The Guardian, 23rd December 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/23/bleak-mid-brexit-christmas-gift-coldwar-steve-twitter-boris-johnson [accessed 9th May 2019]

Male, A. (2018) When Phil Mitchell met Trump: Coldwar Steve and his Brexit Britain mashups. The Guardian, 17th July 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jul/17/phil-mitchell-trump-coldwar-steve-twitter-mashups-mcfadden-brexit-britain [accessed 9th May 2019]

Parveen, N. (2018) Brexit visions of ‘Cold War Steve’ showcased on Liverpool billboard. The Guardian, 9th November 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/nov/09/brexit-visions-of-cold-war-steve-showcased-on-liverpool-billboard [accessed 9th May 2019]

Sherwood, H. (2019) Cold War Steve: satire is my antidote top a scary world. The Guardian, 15th June 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jun/15/cold-war-steve-satire-is-my-antidote-to-a-scary-world-interview [accessed 29th July 2019]

Spencer, C. (2019) Cold War Steve presents the festival of Brexit. London: Thames and Hudson

Woodhouse (2019) Coldwar Steve: ‘Brexit is devastating. I channel my desperation into images. The Big Issue, 29th March 2019. Available at: https://www.bigissue.com/interviews/coldwar-steve-brexit-is-devastating-i-channel-my-desperation-into-images/ [accessed 19th May 2019]