Toby Parker Rees

The Tab

Writer Crush: Tom de Freston

Toby Parker Rees on the artist.

The first time I went into Tom de Freston’s studio, I was confronted with a galaxy of arseholes. On canvas, on paper, on the ceiling, arseholes arseholes everywhere. At that time all I knew about Tom was that he was the artist in residence at Christ’s and that he was doing the poster for a production of ‘Macbeth’ I was in. The play got a one star review, with said star being shared between Ben Blyth and myself. But the posters Tom produced (in a terrifyingly short space of time) were ridiculously good, exactly summing up the production’s confrontation of psychological realities with abstract impossibilities. I was putting a play on that term too; a reconstruction of the Earl of Rochester’s Farce of Sodom. I thought of Tom. Specifically the arseholes.

Once more, in about two days, he gave me a Dorian Gray style family portrait for the set, a picture of me in a blazer and socks for the poster, and a series of ‘field sketches’ of a woman pleasuring a horse (which assumed the expression of Picasso’s Guernica horse on ejaculation). He also ably assisted in inflating our dildo chair.

This is impressive enough on its own, but the fact he managed to do all of these things astonishingly well (the horse prints are currently selling for very respectable prices and I believe the chair has yet to give way) means he’s sitting at the genius table.

Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that geniuses require 10,000 hours of intensive practice is possibly borne out in Tom’s incessant creativity. In the space of half an hour in the bar he will have concocted a new project, named it with a pun, invented a new drink (Staropramen and Quavers a particular success) and laid down intricate rules for a new way of playing darts. All this from a man who subsists almost entirely on bread.

He sees the performance in painting, and translated this into the best hour Anthony Gormley’s fourth plinth had ever seen. At 2am in the morning, in the red socks and boxers with which he burlesques the Masters’ heroes, complemented with a flimsy crown, priapic sword and a water pistol, he assumed the character of Napoleon and berated Nelson through a megaphone. I wrote a ludicrous set of heroic couplets for him to bellow, and bellow he did. It provoked a huge amount of attention, far more than any of the daytime performers I saw. People stayed, transfixed, for the whole hour. Liquored up patriots heckled him. Someone offered him a McFlurry.

An artist who combines mass appeal with a rich and textured intelligence is fulfilling an important role, and Tom has the potential to do brilliant things for oil painting. His new exhibition is in Cambridge before its London show, at St. Peter’s Church, Kettle’s Yard on the 19-24th, and contains some of the best paintings in the city. At 7.45 each night, in the midst of his pictures, there will be a performance of Doctor Faustus of which he is artistic director. He’ll be there, and as I’ve just proved, he’s a genius. So do like the genius does.


Saturday 23rd January 2010