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Issue #225
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24 November
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ISSUE #225 ON SALE TILL 24 November
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From homeless to internet art sensation: Justin Bieber ‘pube painter’ still ruffling feathers

Posted on December 12, 2012  /  Comments Off  /  Show post tags

After overcoming drug addiction and homelessness, English artist Ian Dennis has become an internet video celebrity. He’s been thrown off YouTube twice and among his controversial clips is the portrait of Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Bieber made of pubic hair. His 700 000 viewers seem to love it all, writes Roger Ratcliffe

It could be a smart move to look away now if you’re inclined to feel squeamish at the thought of an artist painting with dog excrement or using his penis as a brush. You might keep reading, though, to see what happens. Just like the thousands who subscribe to the YouTube channel of the artist who calls himself Fox Bronte, waiting for the next art video produced by his weird imagination.

It’s probable that those who follow Bronte are no longer shocked by what they see. His construction of a doll made from sanitary towels and portrait of Justin Bieber using pubic hair will have seen to that, never mind his appearance on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, in which he painted the presenters Ant and Dec on his buttocks.

But the biggest shock in Bronte’s palette isn’t posted on his YouTube channel, MonaLisaNaked. It’s reserved for those who meet him, something which isn’t easy given his peripatetic life travelling the canals of England and the precautions he takes to avoid the stalker-like fans who are a consequence of his internet notoriety. The big surprise is that Ian Dennis, the artist who calls himself Fox Bronte, seems a pretty ordinary guy.

He’d dispute that, and his work suggests he wouldn’t touch anything normal with his canal boat bargepole, to such an extent that, although only 24, he’s in the process of constructing his own coffin. There are no plans to die anytime soon, he says, he’s just afraid that one day he’ll “end up in a coffin from the Co-op”. He’s determined to control his death as he’s managed — following a period of homelessness and drug problems — to finally take control of his life.

Street life
The story Dennis tells has elements which are familiar to a lot of people. He was brought up in Bradford, and in his teens suffered several family traumas within a couple of years — the suicide of his father, death of his grandmother, to whom he was close, and imprisonment of his mother. A period of drug addiction, during which he lived with various aunts and uncles, ended when police searched the house following his arrest for stealing yoga books. “Yoga,” he shakes his head. “I mean, I wasn’t even interested in yoga. I’m not Madonna.”

“I mean, I wasn’t even interested in yoga. I’m not Madonna.”

Finding himself on the streets, he earned a little money by sketching portraits, living rough in a bus shelter in the town of Bingley and then in a dilapidated shed next to the Leeds-Liverpool canal. “It was December and I remember being very cold. The worst thing was having nowhere to go, nothing to do.” Like many homeless people he used the nearest library to keep warm, and finally collapsed there through lack of food.

He was given a bed at Bradford’s Salvation Army hostel, and after six months moved on to the Bradford branch of Foyer, the nationwide chain of hostels for young people, during which he found a job and managed to haul himself into the entertainment world by running stand-up comedy nights at a pub.

A year in London trying to fit in with the Camden Town street art scene left him scathing of “guys with tattoos and piercings who looked like artists but didn’t do much art”. Finally, he got a boat on the Kennet and Avon canal and started experimenting with new materials, searching for his own personal style.

YouTube hit
The first videos of sketching he posted to YouTube garnered comments like “wow!” and “amazing!” but he took it as proof he was doing something wrong, never mind that his subscribers list was over 10 000 and rising. “I wanted to divide people, cause a bit of trouble. There’s a lovely quote I heard that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I began to really hate my audience.” He managed to lose all his subscribers overnight by painting with dog excrement, the video that first got him thrown off YouTube.

There’s a lovely quote I heard that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

His second channel was also taken down when he’d got up to around 85 000 subscribers and he’s now on his third, which since the start of 2011 has attracted over 400 000 views and 23 000 subscribers. His most popular work is one called Parent, which shows him constructing a collage of thumbnail photos of his grandmother. It took two weeks to make the five-minute video, editing about 150 different black and white photos, printing them in different shades, and sticking them onto canvas to make a huge portrait.

“What I was saying with it was, you see these lists of great Britons like Shakespeare and Churchill, but the real heroes, in my eyes, are those who get on with life and bring up their kids. Famous people like Kim Kardashian and Cheryl Cole aren’t heroes. My nan was a hero.”

His most controversial video this year has been the portrait of Canadian singer-songwriter Justin Bieber using pubic hair. He asked his audience to send him some samples and was deluged by packages from around the world. It’s hard to imagine the artist whom he cites as one of his biggest influences, Rolf Harris, painting with pubes.

“What I was doing was just challenging what people think as ordinary,” he says.
“When you think about it, they’re only hairs. It’s part of the human body, just like the nose, but because of religion certain parts of the body are seen as being crude.”

Comedy is at the heart of what he does. The actual process of composition is more important than the finished piece, he believes. In his constant quest for new forms of artistic expression, he is likely to be seen around Ilkley Moor in the coming weeks, wearing a strange costume and following an erratic course as he tries to paint a picture using the lines on a map drawn for him by the GPS signal from his phone. It’s a technique which will probably make techno-artist and fellow Bradfordian David Hockney kick himself for not being the first to see the potential in GPS art.

Dennis is an admirer of Hockney’s work, but prefers to forge a more challenging artistic style. “I think art has been stuck in certain traditions, because paintings are worth quite a bit of money and the last thing the art world wants is for the business to be taken over by something else.

“It’s a very controlled business, which is ironic really because art should be about surrendering rather than controlling. It should be about letting go.”

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