I first came across James Unsworth on the walls of the Royal College of Art. His MA final show stood out like, web well, an erect penis. His work is known for erect penises, and poo, and sexual depravity in many different guises. A true modern day harbinger of the grotesque, James draws on the most bestial parts of human nature to create awesome works of art.
Last month I unexpectedly came across his work on the walls of uber trendy fashion shop Machine-A, and then by chance I stumbled across the closing throes of his first solo exhibition at the Five Hundred Dollars gallery in Vyner Street. It featured the finely detailed line drawings he is so well known for, and so much more….
James Unsworth wallpaper in Machine-A.
Vyner Street on First Thursday is a ridiculously busy hum of art scene activity which I tend to avoid, but last week I made it along to meet some friends. “Is there anything worth seeing before I have a pint?” I asked. “Well, there’s some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fucking,” was the reply. A gigantic bell rang in the recesses of my mind… as soon as I turned in the door I instantly recognised Unsworth.
It’s typical of James Unsworth to create an entire exhibition out of a 1980s cartoon for children: mutated and subverted and turned completely on it’s head. On one side of a small booth at the front of the first room a glass cabinet displayed mugs for each of the turtles… shitting in mid air. I have no idea what the names of the turtle characters are since their heyday was a bit late for my childhood, but I have no doubt that many visitors to the gallery recognised them. “I have a big problem with the elitist aspect of most art galleries,” James Unsworth told Jayne Helliwell in 2007 for issue 08 of Amelia’s Magazine. “I want my work to appeal to a wider audience outside the art elite.”
Scenes from Ninja Turtle Sex Museum, the book, available for £15.
And so it made perfect sense to sell gift mugs, t-shirts in pizza boxes, stickers and art books. Within the booth was James himself, watching over the room as hoards of people wandered around, some talking loudly about how repulsive and terrible his art was. None of it, of course, phased James in the least. In an interview with Don’t Panic he claimed that “I enjoy watching people looking at my work; it’s a voyeuristic pleasure.” The greatest offence would be to pass by his work unmoved. After all, he didn’t paint a two metre high Ninja Turtle defecating beneath an erect penis in order to avoid controversy.
James Unsworth talks to gallery-goers.
It’s testimony to James Unsworth’s singular vision that the room was full at all times, with queues of people waiting their turn to poke an eye to the head of said erect penis in order to view a movie of four men dressed up in green plastic to look like turtles squirting semen-like paint all over each other and into anus like crevices as they carved at each other with fake retractable knives covered in ketchup goo. Another turtle offered up his anus as an alternative viewing platform for the film, stumpy bleeding severed legs held aloft. We wondered at the fun James and his friends must have had in the creation of this video art.
A still from Ninja Turtle Sex Museum: the movie.
“The Ninja Turtles just got back from Bangladesh and are waiting for the pizza to arrive, one of them finds the deadly ecstasy next to their stinking mattress in their sewer lair. You thought drugs were fun, right? But who could have imagined the horror and panic that find would bring? When they decide to take them with their beer and pizza, it all begins well, they dance. But soon they turn to fighting each other, the fighting turns quickly to lustful and murderous activity… Previously they had all wanked on the pizza too.”
The last part of this statement says it all really – James just loves to reach the epitome of grotesque bad taste, and then pile yet more on top.
Peering through the holes.
One wall was lined with beautifully decorated ceramic plates, severed turtle heads surround by decorative patterns of flowers and bloody carving knives. Prints lined up on a wall showed men with putrefying eyeballs kissing laughing penises, turtles in masks rimming each other, and lots and lots of wanking.
A decorative plate.
Naked ladies touched themselves in what would be an erotic manner if it weren’t for their green wrapped turtle heads with bulging cartoon eyes peering through the instantly recognisable headband, an empty box of beer worn as triumphant headgear.
And yet, I couldn’t find any of this repulsive or even offensive. Amusing, yes. A thought provoking commentary on our obsession with violence and sex? Certainly. Alongside a sheer amazement at his dedication towards such a whole-hearted re-imagining of pop culture characters that were such a big part of his generation’s childhood.
And I wasn’t alone, for amongst the feigning of disgust there was much hilarity in the Five Hundred Gallery, and an insatiable need to keep looking. James Unsworth forces us to confront the basest elements of humanity by transferring the unthinkable onto anodyne childrens’ cartoon characters. Then making a joyful song and dance about it.
Scenes from Ninja Turtle Sex Museum, the book.
“Our new exhibition is about Ninja Turtles with big cocks, sex and death and it’s all free! It will be absolutely the best exhibition you have ever seen. No mistake. It’s a violent, exhibition full of taboos. It’s up to you to see it or not. Are you ready?”
Unfortunately it’s all over now. But do go check out his website, where you can buy some suitably disgusting prints. No doubt there will be some pooing Ninja Turtle mugs for sale on there some time soon.
I Am Poor, I Am Boring by James Unsworth.
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