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A brush with Boris Johnson

11 November 2018

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories

Boris Johnson and the art world don’t tend to get along. From his ill-starred tenure as shadow culture minister in 2004 (when he proposed to ‘convene a summit with Damien Hirst and the rest of the gang at which they are going to explain to the nation what it all means’) to his support for the abortive Garden Bridge scheme, Johnson has not exactly ingratiated himself with the artistic community.

Indeed, in a recent interview with the Observer, the artist duo Elmgreen and Dragset complained that the then-mayor of London wilfully misinterpreted their commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, apparently turning up late for a press conference and telling journalists that the work was a reference to Britain’s gold medal hopes in the Olympic Games. ‘I had to take the microphone in a very soft way and say, “I think I’m going to help you out here because that’s not what it’s about”,’ Elmgreen recalled.

Now one artist is inviting visitors to her exhibition to get creative with Johnson’s image. A pop-up show at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery in London features a portrait of the one-time Tory leadership contender by Helen Masacz, who has made the unusual move of asking punters to ‘deface’ it using oil paint applied with palette knives.

Masacz is on familiar ground here. Back in 2010, she submitted a painting of Johnson to the BP Portrait award, inviting her students to mess around with it in similar fashion when it was returned to her. Though the likeness itself is rather flattering, the artist has a rather complicated view of her subject. ‘Johnson’s parachute didn’t quite open after his spectacular descent from the role of London Mayor,’ she explains. ‘With his funny flyaway hair and his puppy-like enthusiasm to the current series of fuck ups, he has veered off course and is putting his political ambitions before the interests of Britain.’ Safe to say she’s not a fan, then.

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