As a child, Paul Simonon was surrounded by art. His bedroom walls were a kaleidoscopic patchwork of his father Gustave’s paintings and those of the British and Dutch masters – all ripped from the pages of art books. When he left home to attend art college, his affair with the seminal punk band, The Clash, overrode his burgeoning art career, but with the group’s demise, he returned to the world of art, establishing himself as a painter and designer, who’s exhibitions have comprised of everything from oil paintings to conceptual installations and sculpture.
Before meeting Mick Jones, Simonon was determined to make a name for himself as an artist. This drive landed him a scholarship to one of the top art colleges in London, Byam Shaw School of Art in Kensington, which now belongs to Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. It was during his time as an art student that he met Mick Jones, who was on the lookout for musicians for his new group. He quickly established himself as the band’s bassist and the director of its visual identity, taking control of everything from their clothes to their album art. In this sense, his work with the clash can be regarded as his first truly successful artwork – one that helped develop the aesthetics of the punk age.
Later, Simonon began exploring less performative modes of creativity, hauling himself up in his studio, where he has been creating a variety of stunning and occasionally wrath-inducing works for many years now. While The Clash may have stood in opposition to all things twee, his art reveals a surprising penchant for the landscapes of John Constable and Turner. In his 2002 exhibition, From Hammermith To Greenwich, for example, he offers up grimey depictions of London’s sprawl spied from tactical locations along the banks of the River Thames. Many of these works contain the same smudged beams of light that Turner was so enamoured with, but which, in Simonon’s work, seem somehow unreal – entirely detached from the hyper-modern world into which they shine.
As you would expect, much of Simonon’s work is imbued with a certain kitchen-sink realism. And yet, there is something vibrant and dreamlike about his 2008 series – a collection of oil paintings depicting, among other things, the ‘La Corrida’ bullfighting tournaments that he witnessed during a visit to Spain in May 2003. These moments of drama are contrasted by quiet meditations on even the smallest of scenes, from the shimmering scales of a plate of fried fish to the playful shadows of one of his Walter Sicker-inspired nudes. This painstaking attention to detail, he notes, has led him to lose his cool on a number of occasions: “As you get older you learn to control your temper,” Simonon reflected, “Although I have punched paintings across the room.”
In 2017, Simonon began developing a series of linocuts, a painstaking technique that he committed to without the aid of an assistant. In familiarising himself with the requirements of this print medium, he found himself engaged in an exercise in which he was forced to relinquish control over the outcome of his pieces, a tendency which musicians so often pick up without even knowing.
“You have a certain amount of control but sometimes they come out as a bit of a surprise when printed, which keeps it interesting,” he explained. “The physical carving out is a pleasure – the tools cut like butter through the Japanese wood I use, you can even do very arabesque shapes if you want. I’m exploring possibilities and it’s prompting ideas for the future.”
It should be said that Simonon’s exhibitions have a tendency to ruffle feathers, and not in the way you’d expect. His 2015 series Wot, no Bike?, saw him criticised for adopting the stance of an outsider artist while benefiting from his hugely successful career with The Clash. For many, this collection of works – inspired by the realistic painters of the 20th century, and the kitchen sink school of the 1950s in particular – was a betrayal of the punk ethos, with Simonon’s pre-established fame allowing him to play the part of the penniless bohemian from his West London art studio. Still, the sheer variety of Simonon’s offerings is truly remarkable and a real testament to his innate talent and inquisitive eye.