The teen art prodigy painting scathing critiques of Brexit, and battling stigmas of mental illness in his brushstrokes.
Scrolling through his Instagram, by all outward appearances Lawrence Perry is just like any other normal teenager who enjoys chilling out with his mates, posting tongue-in-cheek selfies of himself lighting up rollies, and going on the odd holiday. And in many ways he is. But delve a little deeper and you’ll discover that the very same 19-year-old is also an art prodigy of sorts.
Critiques of Brexit and celebrations of multicultural Britain. Portrayals of mental illness. Astute observations of day-to-day life in London. They are just some of the topics seared by violent brushstroke into the arresting canvases of the artist – who has also spoken openly and frankly about his synaesthesia and ADHD. These very same canvases caught the eye of anti-Brexit lobby group Best For Britain when Perry was just 17 years old, them later appointing him as artist in residence.
And it’s no small feat, but Perry is an anomaly. He is an artist summoning enough youthful fearlessness to confidently and overtly ref his favourite artists, whether it’s broken mirror shard cubism, or melty features akin to Salvador Dalí’s Persistence of Memory. But he is also an artist that sees beyond the surface aesthetics of a painting; he is cognisant of the gravity of the work he puts out into the world as well as its potential to instigate change – all embedded into his often furious, but always triumphant portraiture.
Now, in celebration of his ADHD and to raise awareness of the stigmas of mental illness, Perry is putting on his first ever solo exhibition in association with The Mental Health Foundation on 16 May for Mental Health Awareness week. The one-day exhibition, titled Merely A Dream (M.A.D), will focus on the seven pillars of mental health that have affected Perry and his art: addiction, ADHD, relationships, anxiety, body image, synaesthesia and social media.
We caught up with the artist ahead of his show…
I’ve read you have extreme ADHD – is this what led to you first getting into art?
I don’t think ADHD is something that can be dubbed “extreme”. What we see on the surface level is how well someone is managing with the disorder. That’s why the typical image of someone with ADHD is a naughty kid running around a classroom, but what can you expect? At a young age, children with ADHD haven’t had enough experience with themselves to learn how to manoeuvre around a slightly differently wired mind. Yes, for a long time I was that kid running around leaving a trail of mess in my wake and getting in trouble at school, but as I grew older it became something I embraced and now love. I had to learn a lot of things about myself in the past couple years and not always in the easiest of ways, but one thing that really helped me sort myself out and channel my energy was my art. I’ve always loved art but the more I started thinking about my own mind and life the more I projected myself onto canvas. I guess it’s the instant, colourful, and emotional aspects of my art that come from my ADHD. Some people have said my art comes across juvenile, but with that I always think of that stereotypical image of an ADHD kid and feel proud that I let him come out though my art, and under my control.
When do you work best and do you have a routine?
I do go through spells of being nocturnal. I don’t know what it is but there’s something really peaceful about working in the night. It feels like the flip-side of life, the dark side of the moon. Inspiration comes at any time of the day – when I’m at my most productive I’ll be writing or sketching ideas as they come to me, but I tend to digest and produce them at night. I always like to paint once I’ve experienced something, even if it’s a walk in the morning and I’ve seen the world another day, that’s enough. The only routine I have is for my mornings. I’ll wake up and get out of bed immediately, roll myself a cigarette and turn the kettle on. One piece of toast, a coffee and a roll-up are all ingested whilst I look out my bedroom window, then a quick shower followed by an unmissable 30-minute walk. If I don’t do that walk I end up having a really bad day. Maybe it’s the endorphins or a superstitious thing, either way it’s the best way to start a day positively.
What inspires your work?
Currently my work is looking to discuss the national view on mental health and hopefully present it in an informed and physicalised way. Something that ties my mental health to my work is the very constructive relationship between the two. My mental health is apparent in my art, just as my art mediates my mental state. I’ve learned throughout the past couple years that my sensory input is a real factor in my own happiness. Videos, music, experiences and expressions all have the effect on my work as I like to reprocess them in my own way. Street art, pop art, cubism and expressionism heavily inspire my work, mostly because of their rapid way of reducing their subjects into personalised forms. Something that interests me and will inspire future works is the correlation between national culture and mental health and the visual patterns between the two.
Your work was initially spotted by an Remain lobbyist group – what were you painting?
At that point, it was a very confusing time for me as someone relatively nearing adulthood. I knew based on everything I saw in the media that Brexit was a massive decision, something that would divide the country and affect my future. I also saw immoral uses of public control enacted by the Brexit campaign; fabricating statistics, exceeding spending limits and creating racial enemies out of immigrants. The hardest part about it for me was that I couldn’t vote. At the age of sixteen, holding a future where this has most effect, I couldn’t have a say. I started painting a series of sixteen-year-olds in the style of political propaganda portraits. Each subject came from a multiracial background but held British passports. I felt it was important to bring to light and celebrate the present and future generations and acknowledge the positive impacts of internationalism.
How did you feel being chosen as the creative voice for the group?
In 2016, I think it was because I was two years under the voting age, yet held such strong views. I was hungry for work as an artist and needed to prove that I could say something through painting. It was really motivating and I was pitched up in an underground basement studio where I’d work after school. Three years later and I still hold the same views but have less confidence in what I can expect from our political system. The pedantic and stubborn things I see in today’s politics are quite frankly embarrassing. I’ve now learned more to focus on the effect that this social hysteria has had on our people, because at the end of the day that’s what matters.
Have you ever been tempted to caricature famous politicians?
I’ve been asked that a couple times but not really, that’s not my style. Even if I were to, there’s no one I would dub “iconic” or “influential” in our current system. I prefer to depict underlying social shifts as I see them rather than lend myself to Boris Johnson.
How do you find that your dual heritage affects your work? Does it widen your inspiration base?
I’m not actually half Singaporean. Instead I was born there whilst my parents were working in Asia. I was however given the option to have a Singaporean passport but my mum chose not to because Singapore have mandatory army service between the ages of 16-18. Even though I missed out on life in Singapore when I moved to London, I like the fact that I’ll always have this fantasy of a different world in Singapore.
How do you want people to feel when they see your art?
I want people to feel a range of emotions. Excitement to empathy, and solitude to shame, I want people to feel confronted by their own relations to what I’m painting. It’s so interesting to hear what people think of my work because usually people add something that I didn’t intend to show at all. I’m happy to explain what my art means to me but sometimes I don’t think that’s necessarily the most important thing. When a viewer looks at a piece of art and it triggers a synapse in their brain sparking an emotion, that’s music to my ears.
The name of your exhibition MAD (Merely A Dream) is so interesting because until you know it’s an acronym, “mad” is a word that carries a negative or ignorant connotations referring to mental illness stigmas, but when the acronym is expanded into “Merely A Dream”, it takes on a different form – is this why you chose the name?
That’s exactly It. The acronym “MAD” when seen in an uninformed light spells out negative connotations, a word some people use to portray mental illness. Then after taking time to understand and see behind the taboo, we find something beautiful – merely a dream. I always say sanity doesn’t exist as life places us on a spectrum. The way we grow is by acknowledging our stance and then using it to our own advantage. I was nearly expelled from school because I was seen as mad for dreaming what I dreamt, but here I am, still doing what I love and now speaking to an ever-growing audience.
In MAD (Merely A Dream) you look at the seven pillars of mental health that have affected you and your art – why was it so important to raise awareness?
I want to reach a point where people are confident in who they are and with what they’re feeling. I know how hard it is to feel insecure, alone, depressed and empty so I can’t just sit aside and not drive for the simple fix. My exhibition talks about my own experiences with addiction, anxiety, body image, social media, relationships, ADHD and synaesthesia. The fact that suicide is the number one killer of men under the age of 40 in the UK is horrifying and the fast-paced, pressure-filled – and the virtual lifestyles we are all embracing won’t help that. The fact that we are all so much more connected these days can be a dangerous thing, but we can use it to make solid change in how we perceive ourselves.
Some of your artwork samples famous artists – what was the purpose of this?
Most artists will always have their idols and speak to them through their work. For me I have many different influences, some of them cultural movements rather than people, but they are always visual in my work. I’m not talking about copying artists or anything like that, instead it’s about how I relate to it and what they bring out in my work. One painting in particular called “Synaesthetic Subway” depicts my relationship to three artists shown on a compositional timeline. The set takes place in a New York subway carriage and standing at the back is Picasso. Closer towards us is Andy Warhol and closer than him we have Jean-Michel Basquiat. Each artist can be seen literally and metaphorically in my work as I embrace the lessons they taught the art world. Basquiat is shown incomplete with sections of his body missing, referencing his premature passing – an example of something that still hasn’t been addressed today.
What’s your favourite piece or the one that you’ve had the most feedback on and why?
My favourite piece has to be my most personal one. “The Beating” was a painting I did about a month ago and it was a subject that I really wanted to get off my chest. I grew up for about ten years living with an abusive stepdad who I didn’t see eye to eye with at all. Growing up seeing and experiencing certain moments really messed me up especially when I was starting a social life. Trust is a big thing to me and I’m learning more about it, which is why painting this piece was a big moment for me. The centre of the composition confronts domestic abuse whilst the horizontal composition takes the viewer through the progression of its effect on me. The painting on the left is the first painting I ever did, in the middle I sit as a witness, and hanging on the right is the first painting I did at art school. Comparing the two paintings and the progression in style between them raises many of the questions I ask myself every day.
What do you hope you’ll achieve longterm through this exhibition?
I hope something positive for everyone comes out of it. I hope the visitors learn something and I hope they pass that knowledge on. It’s great to be part of a generation that’s growing ever more socially-aware, understanding and inspired. For me this is just the start.
What’s next for you?
This year has already been so exciting, it’s great to think it’s only May. Heading towards this exhibition is making me really appreciate how good it is for me. To be able to tie together my work and share that with the public is a beautiful thing and it’s already made me hungry for more. Talking to people about my work, making people feel comfortable in their own originality and creating powerful images for the world to see is what excites me. Building relationships between my art, fashion and music creates endless possibilities. Currently I have six concepts for future exhibitions so I guess we’ll have to see them unravel.
Merely A Dream by Lawrence Perry will open on Thursday 16 May, between 11am – 7pm at My Beautiful City, 1-5 Flitcroft Street, London, WC2H 8DH