Henry Hudson

British artist and master of the grotesque talks toilets, time capsules, human hair and high society

Between a Rock and a Hard Place runs at F2 Gallery until January 30.
When young, hip British artist Henry Hudson exhibited his show Crapula in east-London gallery 20 Hoxton Square last year, the art world was titillated. Crapula raised a firm, if rather elegant, middle finger to the English establishment.
Exhibited inside the white showroom was a series of old-fashioned school blackboards from the Edwardian and Victorian eras – the height of the British Empire. On the blackboards, Hudson had sketched in chalk the lavatories of London’s most prestigious galleries and museums, from the Tate Modern to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The result served to undermine the stiff upper lip and crippling class structures for which the English are famous. And – for the schoolkids among us – to sling British toilet humour in the face of art institutions that sometimes take themselves a little too seriously.
‘We are famous for our toilet humour, so I wanted to talk about that,’ says Hudson, 29, on the phone from his home in London. ‘I like the idea that, from the Queen of England to Bob on the street, we all take a crap on the loo, don’t we?’
In the UK, the young artist is as well known for his social set and Burberry model looks (think hungry, skinny, foppish) as for the art he produces. Google his name and much of what comes up is gushing gossip from select society magazines. In 2009, Vanity Fair‘s blog on London’s shiny new ‘It Kids’ included Georgia May Jagger (sultry blonde daughter of model Jerry Hall and rocker Mick Jagger), Coco Sumner (grungy rock-star offspring of Sting), Pixie Geldof (elfin progeny of Bob Geldof and Paula Yates) and, yes, Henry Hudson, son of acclaimed sculptor Richard Hudson.
Henry’s reputation as a Brit ‘It’ boy is perhaps undeserved; the artist is now approaching 30 and he wants to be taken seriously. This month, Hudson is showing a series of his works at F2 Gallery under the title Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Pieces range from ‘Contemplating Picasso Drunk’ (Hudson as Picasso, clutching a bottle of booze wrapped with ‘Fragile’ tape) to ‘Do Not Fear Death So Much, but Rather the Inadequate Life’ (Hudson topless, holding a dripping red paintbrush, the word ‘Fragile’ painted behind him on the wall and blue Superman Y-fronts stretched over his head). All are playful and self-mocking, a mixture of mutiny and jocularity. The show, he explains, is about looking back on his twenties. ‘I thought it would be funny to do a show about the idea of being an artist, as well as maybe the things I did do – going out and getting drugs, or doing too many drugs, or feeling depressed – you know, bluesy – and questioning your faith.’
Above all, Hudson is a man infatuated with Britain. His works satirise a country obsessed with tradition, Empire, decadence and a sense of what is proper. It is a world that he has seen from top to bottom, having grown up in a bedsit in London before moving to his step-father’s Wuthering Heights-esque house, where he attended a boarding school run by monks. This – for want of a better word – ‘Britishness’ is even reflected in his current medium of choice. Hudson’s portraits look, from a distance, like oil paintings. But go on, get closer: each piece is finely etched in Plasticine, a children’s modeling clay. Kiddie crafts transformed for grown-up consumption.
‘Plasticine was invented by a British art teacher in the early part of the 19th century,’ explains Hudson, obviously in awe of his trademark putty. ‘Even now, globally, we have Wallace and Gromit – again Plasticine,’ he continues, galloping over his words with an endearing excitement. ‘In a time when Britain doesn’t have that much identity anymore, I find it a ridiculous thing how clay is still our own. You can give it to anyone in the world and they’ll instantly identify it.’
Plasticine is not Hudson’s only tool. For his Crapula exhibition, the artist spent seven months collecting human hair from the London Underground to create a bust of his own head filled with other people’s human detritus. ‘I sealed it with resin and put a light in it,’ he says. ‘It’s quite beautiful, glowing, but inside is disgusting hair.’ I venture that it reminds me of the sentimentality human beings place in inanimate objects: a dead loved one’s tresses snipped and kept in a locket for memory’s sake. ‘Yes,’ he agrees. ‘My uncle, a farmer from Worcestershire, lives in the former house of Katherine Parr [the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII]. When a lock of her hair came up for sale at Christie’s, he took off his wellies and went down there with some money in his pocket.’ Touching the former Queen of England’s blonde hair was, for Hudson, ‘like touching history’. Likewise, ‘my artwork is the hair of a million Londoners from the year 2010 – a time capsule from thousands travelling on the Underground.’
So what is next for the young artist? In a new show next year, Hudson plans to do a series on how the Chinese see Westerners.  Perhaps tellingly, one significant piece he has brought to Beijing is his ‘Portrait of the Artist Contemplating van Gogh’ – a nod towards China and Warholian mass production.
‘What do the Chinese think of Western art?’ he muses. ‘They probably think van Gogh. [The reproduction of that image is] kind of like them doing Chairman Mao. I thought, we’ll do my van Gogh as the Euro is crashing.’
But can he rise above his social silver spoon reputation to be taken seriously as an international artist? The Independent recently cited Hudson as a ‘society man… [one of a group of artists] a far cry from the rough edges of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst’. Hudson, however, is refreshingly resolute. ‘I make work about society – about the ridiculousness of it all – it doesn’t bother me,’ he says. ‘Those critics might think differently. I am aware that people think, oh he’s just a fart in the wind. But,’ he says, ‘I ain’t going anywhere.’