Caroline Coon: The Great Offender – in depth interview
It’s a warm afternoon and we are standing outside The Gallery on Stanhope St in Liverpool 8 or Toxteth as they called it during my years at the Polytechnic 1976-79. The last time I was in this part of Liverpool there were riots going on, but that was many years ago! Today, I am here with photographer Melanie Smith and we are here to meet Caroline Coon, who is currently showing her first solo exhibition entitled ‘Caroline Coon – The Great Offender’.
She first came to prominence in 1967 as the founder of Release, an agency providing advice and help to those accused of drug offences. She was both a journalist and photographer at Melody Maker and was the first woman to really promote the punk scene in the mid 70s, even naming early punk followers the Bromley Contingent.
Caroline was trained in ballet and as a figurative painter and has been producing provocative feminist artwork throughout her long and varied career. In 1995 she was asked to show at The Tate, but was famously rejected at the last minute when the curator discovered that her subject Mr Olympia was sporting a semi erect penis.
Caroline first came to my attention in 1976 as a photographer, and later manager of the greatest band that ever set foot on this earth, The Clash, but she is more than that……much more. It is impossible to categorise Caroline, but she has excelled as an artist, political activist, feminist, journalist, photographer, lawyer and rock star, to name but a few of her achievements. I admit I was a little wary about how to approach her for the interview, but I need not have worried as she proved to be one of the most open, warm and infectious person I have ever met.
Louder Than War: Why the Great Offender, I know the answer to that question, but you tell me. It makes me think of Freddie Mercury. So you tell me why you are the Great Offender?
Caroline: I’m not sure that you do know why Martin called me The Great Offender. It was suggested to me as the title of the exhibition, by Martin Green who has curated the exhibition. When he said to me I want to call the exhibition Caroline Coon The Great Offender I kind of gasped in fear, but then I thought he’s right, but then take it right back to how I was a child in a very establishment family, under patriarchal ideology and in fact everything I was taught as a child was how I was to not offend as a woman, which is to say that everything I am as a woman is offensive. First of all I am not married, secondly I haven’t had any children and still to this day there is nothing more offensive for a woman to be, than childless or unmarried in fact you aren’t a woman. On the whole even though I am 73 and I have to say its mostly men who say “why didn’t you get married, you obviously didn’t meet the right man”, as if it was a mistake. Even today in 2018 it’s still pretty offensive.
I think it only offends a few people, the minority these days surely?
I think if you speak to a lot of women you will find they have to ward off accusations, like “why haven’t you had children”?
Look what you have achieved throughout your life; you could never have done this with three children and a husband.
As a matter of fact many women have, which has been I think remarkable. I consider myself very, very lucky to have not had the responsibility of being a parent.
What inspires you to do this kind of work, is there a central inspiration that makes you do it?
If you ask an artist, a song writer or musician one doesn’t really know where it comes from, except I knew from a child that I was going to be creative in some way. I wanted to be a painter from a very, very early age. Although my parents actively said that was something that I couldn’t because as I was going to be a respectable woman, that I could have a hobby. So I disagreed with that. In fact I paint very, very slowly, my paintings take 5 months to complete, as you can see they are very detailed. So I am always having to catch up with the many paintings that I want to do, they are stacked up in my brain ready to go.
Funnily enough Mel the photographer knows a friend of mine, a great writer called Nina Antonia. I was having a meal with Nina the other day and she described a scene she had seen in the supermarket and immediately a painting came to mind. It is going to be a very detailed scene in a supermarket of a mother with three children, who is finding it very difficult to deal with. To me that is such a common scene and why Nina was interested is because she wanted to intervene on behalf on the children, but she couldn’t. So I am doing a painting about when do adults intervene to help children.
So with this project how much is thinking and how much is painting?
The idea is there, it comes in a flash; then I do the sketching, then study the environment. I’m going to look at women now with children, in the supermarket and decide what kind of aisle she would be, inside or outside, all that goes on. I then do very detailed drawings, I paint in a very old fashioned way like they would do it in it the renaissance, I do it in black and white first just to make sure the composition is exact. As its going to take 5 months I can’t make too many mistakes.
Since the 60’s you have had a very varied career, having done many things. Have you been painting throughout that period or has it been in patches?
It is all linked, for instance one of the reasons where I think I was able to step in to manage The Clash when they were in a kind of crisis was because Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon were both from art school backgrounds. The whole charisma around that band and what they wanted to achieve was not only musically but also creatively they were fantastically interested in the art that they were going to use to project themselves. In fact Joe Strummer was taught by the artist who taught me, Derek Boshier who is one of the founders of the pop art movement.
We were the first generation, from children of the sixties, to have portable record players in our studios, so rock n roll was very integral to the art scene. If you were creative you went to art school and from art schools came great bands, so paintings has been the solid throughout my life and because I am politically engaged, founding Release and then writing about punks it was part of what you could call….quite pretentiously my oeuvre.
Bernie Rhodes said to me “I’m creating a band come see them in the studio”. We walk into the studio and there is Joe and Paul painting. So in the Rehearsal, Rehearsals (studio in Camden) Paul’s paintings were on the wall, Joe was doing sketching and writing lyrics and splashing paint on his overalls, they were doing graphic art. That was absolutely integral to what the band was doing. Paul was a painter first; he is still painting wonderful work all the time.
The iconic picture I did of The Clash is on the cover of their single White Riot, so when you asked that question is art sporadic its been there all the time.
It’s interesting because people tend to want to divide artists into sections. When I grew up I was sent to a Russian ballet school when I was five and dance, mime, painting, make up, style, acting, stage design was all integral. So painters of the past like Picasso or Andre Derain, one of my great heroes called Natalia Goncharova, a Russian revolution artist; they were all doing sets for Operas. So we are into the 20th century and artists are now working with rock n roll, its always been there but people have a short memory.
It was wonderful last night seeing a mass of people, apparently enjoying my paintings. It is interesting because what the art critical establishment say is another matter.
What are you doing when your not painting, what do you do when you have a day off?
Painting is what I have to do, its not like work, in that it’s a drudge to go to. I go to sleep at night and I know as I go to sleep I’ve visualised the paint strokes I am going to do in the morning. I get up very early and paint right throughout the day if I can and in the silence I pray I am not going to be interrupted.
On Sundays I tend to take a day off and read the newspapers, unless people might want me to do some writing, I love writing so I’ll write occasionally, but I think it’s part of being an artist you should be able to use words as well, It takes me a long time as I am dyslexic. For instance I was asked the other day to write a piece about the premiere of Performance, the great Mick Jagger rock and roll film. So I took time out to write my memories, the premiere of the film was a ‘Release’ benefit, so they all tie in. I took a day or two to write the words that are going into a book about Mick Jagger.
So over your career you have been so many different things, photographer, painter, rock star, manager, political activist, feminist, journalist what is you’re favourite.
I think I’m an artist, to me its all part of the same thing. In my studio it’s a quiet little world and nothing could be more perfect and yet outside from the corner of my eye, on the whole pretty horrendous things are happening, especially as a woman. For me to be able to have a career as a painter was so unusual. I was at art school, I had no woman tutors as a student, not one woman artist in my whole three years at college, no women artists were mentioned, if you read the history of art no women are mentioned. Already I thought that was unjust and so outside my studio I was going to do some political activism, the artists I most admired have also been politically engaged.
Could you categorise yourself if you had to, how would you describe yourself or is it impossible in one sentence without breathing?
Nothing is impossible! I would like to consider myself an artist, a woman, an activist, then you add on.
You’re known as the woman who paints penises. When you come up with that idea of painting a penis is it in a photograph or in front of you as a live model?
I was known because of the controversy about my Mr Olympia painting. As a woman in my heterosexual mode, I do have experiences of penises, so I didn’t need my imagination, because I have experienced the beautiful object of the penis.
That leads us perfectly into the story of how you were ‘booted’ out of the Tate in Liverpool?
Sort of metaphorically!
So what happened was in 1994 the Tate had an exhibition of Matisse (main man) and other artists, it was all men painting naked women. Suddenly someone realised there was a bit of an anachronism, so for their education pack they decided to moderate this by having women painting men, they did their research and discovered that I had painted a picture of a naked man, but they had looked at tiny slides. So, they asked permission to use my Mr Olympia in their education pack, so it would balance up all their naked women and they would have a naked man. About three weeks later they rang and said I am terribly sorry we have blown the image up and realise this man has an erect penis so unfortunately we are not going to be able to use it in the exhibition.
You didn’t take this lying down did you ☺
Yes I did, hmm take it lying down…
I thought it was very significantly interesting that it was perfectly okay to have any element of female nakedness on display, but horror of horror even the slightest image of a male slightly erect (it wasn’t hugely erect, not like one of my huge erect penises) it was shock horror, it was horrifying. Funnily enough when the Observer did a piece about it they said we will interview you about this, but we won’t be able to publish the painting. So I said to the photographer I am going to stand in front of the painting with a little notice covering up the penis that says penis. So there am I standing in front of Mr Olympia with a notice. So you have to work it and turn it to good account.
Do you paint people who we know; I know there is George Best painting in this exhibition.
I paint portraits occasionally but I don’t like commissions. All the figures in the paintings from The Family to Between Parades are all from my experience, people that I know, then go through ones mental sieve.
When I was researching for this I saw various nicknames for you from – high priestess of sixties subculture, Caroline Swoon, Penis Painter. Do you like any of those, or just prefer Caroline, or do you glory in them and are there others?
I think they are rather good, they are quite true. Those sixties names you have to understand that to be a presence in the public space upset a lot of men and those nicknames are there to bring me down.
But they didn’t do?
Well I had a lot of wonderful women friends, and out in the public space when one is brought down by so-called insults, women have to put up a front. When you go home you rely on your real friends and sometimes men who understand the issues, they might be gay or they might be black and you kind of psych yourself up to dealt with it. At the time its not easy, already as a women I am earning 17.5% less than my male colleagues, so further more is having to deal with the insults which are meant to drive women out of the workplace. Until the 80’s when there was a critical mass of women to kind of fight back that happened. What happened to all those wonderful women in punk bands, Debbie Harry was too old, Poly Styrene had a terrible voice, you men tend to forget the crushing criticism that women had to dealt with and front it out.
Of all these insults and outrageous things, setting aside the rolling stones ‘sex for money’ allegation which led to a court case, what’s the most outrageously and true thing that has been said about you?
Probably all true Hahaha.
I am strong enough to deal with whatever is said to me, but that libel, the lawyers for the book took my name off it so it read that women at Release behaved as prostitutes, which made me as director of Release like a pimp with my young staff, and for the history the women were absolutely wonderful, that’s not how we raised money. The only thing these guys really respect is money, so I am damn well going to take it. First of all that was a libel against George Harrison and Mick Jagger which they thought we can libel these men because its terribly titillating and very funny. So I decided to fight back and it cost Random House £80,000. George got an apology and compensation, which George probably gave to charity. I was able to give some of my money to archive the Release papers.
If you’re ever in trouble who do you call?
I am very, very lucky some of the people that you saw at the exhibition are my posse, women and men, who have stood by me for many, many years. I was just so touched that they could be here and see these paintings that they have seen in my studio over the years. A group of people who have been through thick and thin, we’ve celebrated the splendours and we’ve cried over the miseries.
As we watched you walk round last night at the preview before we spoke to you, you seemed almost tearfully happy to be holding onto those people, which was nice.
They have known me all my life, they come into my house, and there I am in my studio painting. They have seen these paintings over the years as sketches, as blank canvas. It was quite moving for them too. We thought when I am dead; these might see the light of day. I am just damn lucky that out of the blue Martin Green and James Lawler rang me to give me this solo exhibition. I can’t believe it, I am very lucky.
Am I an unreconstructed 60’s man, do you think, ask me a question. I think I am an equalist rather than a feminist.
All the intelligent people are feminists!
I am making an assumption you might have children and relationships. The test of how reconstructed you are is how attentive you have been to progression, whether it is regarding racism, whether its regarding feminism, or homosexuality, it is what you are giving to them. If you are a father that says young girls /women be assertive, get a career, get as much money as you can, be whatever you like, straight, gay or both, that is the kind of father we would like you to be.
Last question from me, tell me something about The Clash that we don’t know about.
I think they are committed wonderful creative people and I bless them for making such an incredible mark in the history of rock n roll. There is not a day goes by where The Clash are not sited or mentioned in some way. I am privileged to have seen them as teenagers before they had ever done a performance. Right, something you didn’t know about The Clash is that they had a woman manager, which made them feminists.
Germaine is a hero of mine, even though she said I was a bad painter. The women pop artists I’d like to put in, which might not be known to women or men are pop artists that were taken out of the canon at the time. There is Evelyne Axell, Pauline Boty, Niki de Saint Phalle, Rosalyn Drexler, MariSol, Faith Ringold, Martha Rosler. These are the women who educate you about how to be an artist. These women were a little bit older than me, these were women who were painting when I was an art student and I didn’t know about them. Like Louise Bourgeois – you know my portrait of myself and the hands, go look her up, she has done fantastic photos of her wonderful wrinkled old hands, that made me want me to put my old hands in that portrait.
After our conversation came to a natural conclusion we invited Caroline to come for an outdoor photo shoot “don’t worry Caroline, it’s just around the corner”. We took her to Jamaica Street where we had observed the work of graffiti artists Paul Curtis and Irony. She loved the idea as you can see and it seems that Caroline has forged an affinity with the City as she remarked as we were leaving that she would love to move to Liverpool.
I am no expert on art but having viewed this body of work I was stunned by its provocative, yet honest subject matter. This is one of those collections you MUST go and see before it closes. It’s so exhilarating, that I have already seen it twice!. ‘Caroline Coon – The Great Offender’ is on display at The Gallery, Stanhope Street, Liverpool until 27th May.
Full set here:
All paintings by Caroline Coon and The Clash artwork by Caroline. You can keep up to date with Caroline Coon at her website here:
Interview by Andrew Twambley, this is Andrews first piece for Louder Than War – Andrew is also a music photographer, you can view his work here: