ColdWar Steve is the nom de plume of public sector worker Chris Spencer, a man who famously began creating his collages of absurdity whilst travelling to work on the bus.
He uses an app on his phone, and posts the resultant pictures onto the McFadden’s Cold War Twitter account (@ColdWar_Steve) currently standing at 169K followers.
Our conversation began with me getting over-excited and calling him “famous” which apparently caused some amusement with his children.
His work has been compared to Hogarth and Gillray. I think there’s also something of Pieter “Peasant” Breughel’s style there. What are his influences in art & literature?
Chris went to art college, and art has always been an interest, but has “spent 20 years in jobs with nothing to do with art.” The ColdWar Steve account provides an outlet for his talents, and he enjoys being creative with it. His compositions are influenced by the grotesques and symbolism of Bosch, with Gillray and Hogarth for satire. He’s conscious of using art rules for the composition: “it’s not just a case of using a cut-out of someone famous. The works are not meant to look real but they must look right”.
It’s not as easy as it might appear - people sometimes send him their own pictures but “it’s usually clear that they’ve just used cut-outs” and there’s a lack of awareness of formal composition. He still appreciates being sent them though.
Some of his original work has sold on eBay. Does he have plans to sell more original pieces?
Chris hasn’t had many formal ColdWar Steve commissions yet but there’s an album cover on the way which he’s excited about. However, he says “if Phil Mitchell (actor Steve McFadden) asked, I’d do one for him for free.”
He is considering a few more limited edition works but is keen not to flood the market or alienate his fans by “selling out.” He isn’t in it “for the money” after all – this began as a way to alleviate some of the anxiety which the current world situation engenders.
Given that he had to be persuaded to open an online Ko-fi contribution linked to his Twitter account, it’s hard to imagine his fans will regard any of his commercial ventures as “selling out.” It’s also hard to think of him as a bloated plutocrat when it’s his Dad bringing merchandise (tapir t-shirts!) to events.
Oh yes. The tapir. What’s that all about?
Lucky Ian (as the tapir is known) has been a regular on Cold War Steve’s Twitter almost from the beginning. Why? Well, “he just looks amazing” for one. On a more serious note, Chris sees the tapir as a “symbol of diversity and hope amongst the dystopian hell.” Black and white, a part of the natural world flourishing despite the chaos around him, a cute little creature making his way in the world, what’s not to love about him?
The recent exhibitions have been well-received, and there has been talk on Twitter about having his work nominated for the Turner Prize. How does he feel about that?
“There’s been a build-up of interest in this, which has been very flattering” but Chris feels that his work is “not their sort of thing really.” Maybe next year?
Has anyone been in touch to ask to be included? Has anyone (apart from Nick Knowles) asked to be excluded?
Nick has blocked ColdWar Steve on Twitter which is a shame as he won’t see any future artworks. Most of the people who have been included are “thrilled” – every now and again someone posts a Tweet celebrating their inclusion. Steve includes certain people “to make a point” whilst others are there “for comedy purposes.” It’s not always obvious which is which, which gives the pictures another frisson.
Kim Jong-Un for example – hardly a go-to figure of fun in anyone’s imagination – has been transformed into an “always ebullient” overseer of the bleak uniquely British dystopian world of ColdWar Steve. It is, says Chris, “another way of bringing him down. They’re horrible people but great for the work I do”
There is a great deal of fondness for many of the characters populating ColdWar Steve’s world – Les Dennis for example – which adds to the peculiar cosiness of some of the images. Seeing them placed alongside a reptilian Farage ( those lizard feet! That tongue!) or a screaming red-faced Donald Trump heightens the surreality.
A key element of the works is their omnipresent micky-taking. It’s gentle, but there’s always an edge to it.
Certain tropes have evolved (Fray Bentos pies, white dog poo) and feature intermittently; some have developed their own momentum and are now eagerly demanded by the viewers (Where’s Cilla?)
Oh, and Farage. Where did those lizard feet come from?
Chris started working with the post-plane-crash photos of Farage, finding humour by inserting him in incongruous places (under an abandoned sofa, in a skip, atop a fly-tipped heap of rubbish) and then gradually began adding “hints of his reptilian nature, like eating the reptile eggs on Eggheads.” The feet and tongue followed on naturally from that.
Some people might consider some of the Farage pictures to be “bad taste, but nothing is as bad as the reality.”
Twitter followers sometimes suggest characters for inclusion, but certain people will never be included simply because Chris does not wish to give them any publicity oxygen whatsoever.
Chris is very appreciative of the support he receives from his Twitter followers. “Twitter is a hellish place. They are hilarious, insightful, compassionate” people, helping to make his Twitter account a “sanctuary.”
So how does Chris think his work would go down in America?
Well, “Trump is a rich seam” and despite his work being quintessentially British, Chris feels that it should travel successfully. To this end he has been working on some as-yet-unpublished American pieces but isn’t ready to share them quite yet.
And how does he think the forthcoming MEP elections will affect his work?
The MEP elections are “both exciting and horrifying. People are engaged with the process as never before but the downside of that is the growth of extremism – like Farage, and his Brexit rallies.”
Finally…will Danny Dyer ever catch up with David Cameron? Chris is very clear on this one – “No!”
ColdWar Steve's Festival of Brexit is available on our website.