Fairs Books United Kingdom

Factual nonsense and fantastic mythologies

This appreciation of the late artist Joshua Compston is as chaotic as its subject

Compston in a publicity photograph for “The Courtauld Loan Collection”, an exhibition he organised in 1991. Photo: Guy Moberly

The notion of the artist-entrepreneur-gallerist-curator is one we are familiar with now, alongside many of the other hybrid roles to be found floating around the art world’s ever-morphing ecosystem. But in the pre-YBA London art scene of the 1990s, there was one such figure, Joshua Compston, who also successfully marketed himself as something of a rogue romantic visionary, with alternately idealistic and antagonistic views on the production and exhibition of contemporary art. Adding to this heady brew of myth-making and self-publicity was Compston’s untimely suicide, and the disputed facts surrounding it, in 1996, at the age of 25.

That this brawny and brainy public schoolboy with a mop of strawberry blond hair was never taken entirely seriously was perhaps his ultimate downfall. As an intense student at Camberwell School of Art, he alienated many of his peers with his buttoned-up dress sense (“1930s tweed trousers up to his armpits with little braces over the top like Rupert the Bear”, remembers one colleague), not to mention his brusque manners and toxic paintings made from pig fat and dead birds. His habits stretched to dramatic gestures of eccentric behaviour, which included keeping a jar of cyanide crystals in his bedroom, holding a drug dealer hostage with a handgun and challenging fellow drinkers to punch him in the stomach repeatedly.

Compston managed to gain the attention of the art establishment through a serious of similarly bizarre and obnoxious entrées, including penning a foul-mouthed rant aimed at Peter Blake and convincing the Courtauld Institute to stage its first ever show of contemporary art, while writing letters to the entire Sunday Times Rich List in search of financial support. His next endeavour was to set up a gallery in the then-deserted streets of Shoreditch, which was either foolishly misguided or a prophetic, trailblazing proposition, depending on which side of art’s axis of success you prescribe to.

Compston’s not-really-for-profit space, in which he also lived, was called Factual Nonsense, a typically anachronistic bit of Dadaistic wordplay that was to be the flavour of the gallery’s manifesto-like texts. Its abbreviated logo, FN, recalled the typeface used by the National Front and even had a whiff of the swastika about it, although a later private-view card displayed a photograph of marching Nazis with by the slogan: “This is the enemy”. On his first exhibition invitation, titled “A Guide for the Perplexed”, Compston’s disembodied head floats next to those of the artists he was showing, although, tellingly, his is the largest of the four.

In 1993, he launched the first of the kind of freewheeling events for which he became legendary: the “The Fete Worse than Death”, a sort of village bring-and-buy sale in the streets around Hoxton for artists to sell knick-knacks or perform rambunctious public services. Famous artists’ pubic hair plucked by Rachel Whiteread, among others, was sold at one stall, while Damien Hirst and Angus Fairhurst manned their “spin-painting” table (the only profitable venture of the day). The sheer inclusivity and interaction of these mini-festivals has been carried on by a few of Compston’s cohorts of the time (Gavin Turk’s “House of Fairytales” springs to mind) but was matched only by the incredible and touching attendance at Compston’s funeral. Many of those same artist-curator-hanger-on figures also appear in print here, paying their respects and generally gossiping about their encounters with the shockheaded Warhol wannabe. Only the missing voices—Gilbert & George, Hirst, who gets but one line, and a few others—prevent this from adding up to a complete portrait.

The form of the book, compiled rather than written, by Darren Coffield, Compston’s friend and one of the original artists he showed, mirrors his own chaotic lifestyle, lurching from one friendship or anecdote to the next. We are never given a clear picture—financial, temporal, emotional, artistic or otherwise—but are instead left to piece together the clues as in a booze-fuelled whodunit murder mystery. The blame for his death, despite a few unfounded accusations in the text, must surely lie with Compston himself. Perhaps his actual demise was down to sheer misadventure—he was found next to a bottle of deadly ether, which he may have inhaled unwittingly—but his scattergun approach to life and art was equally riven with misfortune, miscalculation and muddle-headedness. This rambling, talking-heads homage of sorts does not successfully answer the lingering doubts over Compston’s legacy as a counter-cultural pioneer and art-world maverick, but it does keep the embers of his mythology burning nicely.

Factual Nonsense: the Art and Death of Joshua Compston, Darren Coffield, Troubador, 260pp, £24.99 (hb)

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18 Nov 14
18:18 CET


I did meet him a few times. Also did his makeup for a magazine..he was dressed a bit like a pretty ghost... I believed his habit of sniffing ether was the cause of death..at least heard it was accidental at the time.

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