"MY outlook on life has changed drastically,” Tommy Fiendish whispers over a mug of tea on London’s Kingsland Road.

The Hackney-based artist is reflecting on a slew of recent exhibitions, including the Other Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery and the Affordable Art Fair. I meet him on the eve of his 40th birthday as he prepares for a new solo show, at Woodstock’s Dantzig Gallery.

“I really used to believe I had to live up to the cliché of the starving artist,” he continues. “Slaving away in squalor, saturating pictures in blood! One day, of course, I woke up to the idea that this wasn’t a sustainable way of living!”

His change in circumstances, he reveals, was “a leap from one cliché to the another.

“Namely, I fell in love, I got married. And I adopted a stepson. That all truly kicked the blinkers from my temples. Life suddenly got real.”

Tommy was born and raised in London until, aged 12, his family relocated to Manchester. At 18, when his mother moved back to the capital, “she drove off leaving me with £200 and strict orders to sort my life out.”

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Tommy now admits she did him a favour. Because, while he scraped his rent working as a tattoo artist, he received a game-changing invitation to exhibit with Temporary Autonomous Art.

The organisation, who continue to operate an open-access policy to new artists, organise exhibition spaces in the spirit of free-parties. Their shows take shape in derelict buildings, which are often warehouses earmarked for demolition.

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“My first show was in a squatted Manchester warehouse. My contribution was a mixed bag of drawing, painting, installation and sculpture, complemented by more illegal scrawlings on the street outside.”

Banbury Cake:

Tommy moved on to take a degree in Illustration and Visual Media at the London College of Communication, which he completed in 2018: “It improved my drawing, gave me a grounding in theory, and taught me how to research my work properly.”

The pursuit of such research has since propelled Tommy across southern England, from sketching cephalopods in Billingsgate Market to navigating the Kentish coast in a fishing boat, to researching container ships. He has also expanded his practice to embrace additional work, such as his collaboration with the mental health charity CALM.

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So what can visitors to Dantzig Gallery expect from this new show?

“Much of my practice is experimental,” Tommy explains. “The works often stem into series because, although the subjects are often different, much of my imagery is a continuous stream.

“The way I choose images isn’t based on just what they look like. It’s more about the feeling I get when I look at them. It’s about how I put images together create narratives and use symbols to tell stories.”

Hence in his new pictures his drawings jostle with thick swabs of paint. Some images provoke cocktails of time, mixing nostalgia and what Tommy calls the modern world’s “slavish lust for technology.”

Other motifs – swans, cadavers, crows and skulls – echo the language of his past work in East London tattoo parlours.

Banbury Cake:

“I like all these characters and situations to unfold while I’m working on a painting. They appear as I go along, getting more surreal as my imagination takes over.

“Recently staircases have increasingly formed a backdrop to the action. I was thinking about the function of staircases and how they’re only ever used for their practical purpose for a tiny portion of time. Following on from that I started to think of staircases as giant, regimented sculptures, some with incredibly elaborate designs and they became the focus of a series of large paintings.”

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To date Tommy has mostly shown his work in London, and primarily at Monty’s Bar on Brick Lane. Woodstock is a clearly a very different setting.

“I thought Woodstock was lovely,” he confesses. “The exhibition will contain a lot of work in what I’d call the ‘classic Tommy style’ – painting and collage alongside some of my moving image and bold works. But there will also be site-specific work specially created for this show, including a portrait of Winston Churchill, who was born in the town, and a few surprises.

“Mostly it’s a chance for me to introduce my work to a brand new audience,” he adds.

“If expressing myself through my work gives some kind of joy and provokes or even influences someone for the better then that’s a great result.”

  • Tommy Fiendish
  • Dantzig Gallery, 1 Market Street, Woodstock
  • From November 30-December 27
  • 10-6pm Tuesday-Saturday, 11-5pm Sunday
  • Free