«Red Crayon Faction» by Nina Antonia

The multi-lovely and utterly fabulous Nina Antonia was recently commissioned by an independent London arts magazine to write a feature on my portraits project. It’s an ace read but the article has slipped through the cracks due to a scheduling conflict. So, with Nina’s permission, I’m reproducing it here

When film-maker Jean-Luc Godard quipped ‘All you need is a gun and a girl’ he created an instant snapshot. The imagination is seared by the impression. Stripped to the core, Godard’s epoch-defining movie A Bout de Souffle can be defined by actress Jean Seberg‘s striped top and cropped hair. Her look is as iconic as the Rolls Royce logo or Jagger’s cartoon lips. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, iconography saturates culture. As a graphic designer, Dominic Thackray’s portraiture mirrors Godard’s abridged sentiments, revealing his subjects in the sparest of forms.

Currently comprising of 35 illustrations, Thackray’s Red Crayon Faction are drawn from the arts, pop-culture and politics, sombre uniforms mingling with polka dots and Breton t-shirts in a cartoon shakedown. Despite Dominic’s direct approach, a penchant for scarlet lips lends a vaguely bizarre glamour to the members of this exclusive coterie. Whilst the choice of subjects may appear almost random, they all challenge the confines of the frame that holds them, just as life did.

Undoubtedly, the Red Crayon Faction could just as easily translate to playing cards, screen-prints or even flags. Dominic’s ability to ‘shorthand’ his exemplars doesn’t negate complexity; the sophistication is via selection as the picture of Jean Seberg attests. ‘She was so casually cool’ says Dom, drawing heavily on a roll-up, ‘She was this perfect artist who lived her life with such authenticity that she was punished severely by the grey suits of the military-industrial-entertainment complex and she met with the most awful end.’ An advocate of civil rights, Seberg’s political sympathies brought her under the baleful scrutiny of the FBI. Her life is now considered a case study in authoritarian abuse. It could also be said that Seberg provided the template for Warhol’s platinum muse, Edie Sedgwick, though one doubts that she would gain entry into the Red Crayon Faction by dint of her posthumous acceptance into the mainstream, unlike Thackray’s Saint Jean.

From Seberg to Johnny Thunders, an element of tragedy binds many of Dominic’s archetypes. I first became aware of his work through the Raindance Film Festival when he produced a poster for Lech Kowalski‘s documentary about Johnny Thunders entitled Born To Lose – The Last Rock & Roll Movie, in October 2000. Kowalski’s project was never fully realised and Raindance were only able to screen a portion of it but Dom’s poster of a louche Thunders had its finger in the socket of New York’s neon underground and its fallen deities, forsaking Hollywood tradition for Alphabet City in pulp typography. He was of course an aficionado of Thunders, having developed an abiding fascination with the guitarist whilst working as a receptionist in a seedy hotel with zero-star rating in Saint Germain, where the rooms could be rented out by the hour. The shifting clientele, dead-beats and business men with something to hide combined with a diet of late nights and stale croissants set Dominic adrift, allowing him the time to scour the plethora of grungy independent record stores that Paris still offered in the early ’90s. It was here that Thackray found Johnny Thunders, adopting him as one of the ‘personal saints’ that inhabit the Red Crayon Faction gallery. His portrait of JT is insouciant, edgy, befitting a one-time Doll, full-time Heartbreaker and permanent subversive. The observer is alerted to both Thunders’ strength and fragility. There is a symmetry to the inductees, Dom incorporating Thunders’ fellow musical foil, drummer Jerry Nolan, in the line-up: ‘It would be unthinkable not to have included Jerry Nolan, and not only because of his close association with Johnny Thunders, but also because of his grace and elegance, his wit and his fabulous sometime pompadour hair, second only to Johnny of course.’ Nolan’s penultimate pompadour status is contested by world-beat chanteuse Lizzy Mercier Descloux. Although he has no great interest in her music, Dom couldn’t resist Descloux’s kooky visage.

Red Crayon Faction pop-stars are a rarity though they show the more commercial aspects of Thackray’s art and his knack for choosing quirky characters under commission, Mercier having broken free of the mantle of pouting ingénue for Compass Point rhythms. I wondered if Dom’s attraction to errant archetypes may have originated with his father, an unconventional Church of England priest, whose very existence was one of performance, symbols and ritual. A photograph of Father Thackray and son graces the first page of My Tsunami of Euphoria (Exitstencil Press), a collection of Dominic’s selected work, released earlier this year. Papa Thackray’s dark attire and slender frame is echoed in Dom’s picture of Jacques Dutronc, which was undertaken for the RPM label. The commissioned illustrations are slightly less provocative than their bona fide Red Crayon cohorts but where else would the suave French singer in the guise of a playboy chaplain collide with New York City street-lore?

There is a cyclical nature to Dom’s work, the characters placed in creative correspondence to one another, Dutronc having played a dissolute video director, Paul Godard, in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) in 1980. It comes as no surprise to discover that JLG is the Faction’s founding father, originally created out of necessity when Godard programmed a selection of his films for a Raindance retrospective as Dominic explains: ‘They needed an image for it. The earliest version was a bit rubbish but I’ve chipped away at it and am quite pleased with it now. It was also used for the cover of Elliot Grove’s Raindance Writers’ Lab but the publishers wanted the cigarette removed which I reluctantly went along with, even though I wish I hadn’t of course.’

After returning from Paris, Dom enrolled at the London College of Printing before aligning himself with the Raindance team, headed by Elliot Grove and Suzanne Ballantyne. Their sterling work promoting independent film has been universally heralded and Dom’s experimental typography became a regular feature of the Raindance ethos. Following the birth of a daughter, however, he scaled down his work for them: ‘As well as working on graphics for Raindance, I ended up programming documentaries. I suffered multi-guilt from selecting and rejecting films for exhibition and once Belle was born, it all became a bit too much to deal with.’ With this shift came a less detached approach as evidenced by his delightful portrait of Belle, recently bestowed honorary Faction membership. This is the most joyous image of all, separate from the domain of adulthood and its ensuing traps, Thackray junior stands alone in Dom’s unique dossier, although Godard’s remit remains, albeit altered ever so slightly to ‘All you need is a girl and a hat’. Meanwhile, Dom continues to add to the stable, maintaining the Anglo/French alliance with illustrations of Serge Gainsbourg and Penny Rimbaud, one a profligate genius, the other an influence with whom Thackray worked on the short film Girlfriend in a Kimono. They are currently in pre-production on an absurdist documentary entitled Penny Rimbaud – The Boom Stays in the Picture.

Nonetheless, the Red Crayon Faction remains a key element in Thackray’s creative life. Where might a pantheon of his latter day saints best be displayed? Dom muses at the thought: ‘I’d really love to see them as a series of large posters on one of those streets like Ladbroke Grove. It’d probably be much simpler to do a book though.’ Almost, though it would be fun to see Portobello transformed by the Red Crayon Faction, the former Bohemian thoroughfare thronged by a disparate bunch of characters amongst whom I now find myself, a study in polka dot. Happily, my distinct lack of pompadour barely mattered as Thackray concurs: ‘If I were to try and draw a traditional three-circle Venn diagram of all the inductees you would be one of the very few people in the centre overlap section.’ I try not be concerned as he continues: ‘As well as being an old friend you’re also a cultural architect, not least with the Johnny Thunders book, the Dolls biography and the one about Peter Perrett. Plus of course your upcoming Burned Youth necessitated illustrations of the four protagonists, Nancy Spungen, Nico, Michèle Breton and Peter Doherty. Drawing Nancy and Nico was a real thrill so they’re in the Red Crayon Faction too.’

Has Dominic Thackray created a 21st Century Terracotta Army from his phalanx of dreamers and dictators, artists and activists? Though Qin Shi Huang’s army was 8,000 strong, Thackay is planning to cap his Faction at 100. I’ve noticed that Dominic’s favourite explanation is ‘existential purity’. When all else is gone, I have no doubt that the Red Crayon Faction will retain the very purity that Jean-Luc Godard sought.