The Wonderful and Frightening World of Craig Sinclair

The Wonderful and Frightening World of Craig Sinclair

The Liverpool based film-maker, visual artist and musician chats about his ongoing art exhibition Essential Tremor and upcoming short film Accidental Warlock.

By Richard Lewis

Patrons who frequent the recently opened, very wonderful Chinatown establishment The Bagelry will have noticed new additions to the décor in the form of an intriguing new art exhibition titled Essential Tremor. Taking up almost all of the wall space around the café, as you enter monochrome pen and ink medical themed drawings appear on the right hand side, collages and kaleidoscopic artworks on the left. Created by Liverpool based artist/filmmaker/musician Craig Sinclair, the titles of the pieces alone pique the viewer’s interest, some of the more illuminating/baffling entries including ‘Dock The Wages Of My Guts’, ‘Holy Wounds Sutured’ ‘Verily, My Synths Are Goosed’.

Consisting of fifty-two separate works, comprising of illustrations, graphic art and collages, the pieces range from mordant Victoriana to retro-future pop art and psychedelic visions. ‘They’re partly arranged in the same way they’re usually displayed on my living room wall’ Craig explains. ‘I like to think of them as largely falling into two distinctive genres: Body Horror and Headache Pictures. The body horror pictures were made using old Victorian medical etchings and represent a fascination I have with horror and human biology, the disgust and wonder that can be found in a bubble of saliva or a handful of flab. With some of the pictures it seems obvious that they ought to be called that but with others I just stuck a phrase I liked to them and it seemed to stick’ Craig says of the off-kilter titles. ‘I do like the idea that the names on their own could make someone laugh’. The name of the exhibition meanwhile is derived from the benign medical condition Craig suffers from, making the artwork all the more impressive given that NHS website describes the condition as ‘usually more noticeable when trying to hold a position or do something with your hands, such as write’.

‘The headache pictures are made using a larger variety of references and are just an attempt to externalise the chaos that’s in my head through my preoccupations – nude psychedelia, frightening factories and the naivety of the 1950’s/60’s’ Craig states. ‘The body horror pictures that are supposed to look complete, like they were made by one artist. The headache pictures are more of an explosion of thought. I should also say that the usual gallery style of paintings spaced out and hanging in rows on white walls isn’t for me, I prefer to bombard the eyes with a mish-mash of gaudy frames and styles, this seems more like a more honest way of representing myself’.

Inspiration for the Victorian medical drawings from long out of print encyclopedias and journals sourced from the likes of treasure trove 69A on Renshaw Street also come from further afield. ‘I go looking for that kind of material in old bookshops, charity shops and at car boot sales and rubbish dumps. It’s a joyous hobby, second-hand shopping. Makes me feel like a character in an M.R. James story, buying a gorgeous but cursed old book or ornament’. German artist/sculptor Max Ernst is cited as a catalyst, via a Christmas gift of his book ‘Une Semaine De Bonté’ while the piece entitled ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (The Distancing Effect), highlights a strong influence, dramatist Bertolt Brecht. ‘I love Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera’ Craig enthuses. ‘I don’t always agree with his theories on theatre but it’s great that he challenged people so much. I like the old idea that art of any kind should upset something in people, otherwise it’s merely decoration’.

With the exhibition relaunching on Tuesday 15th November, are you going to add to the collection as it stands?’ I’m hoping to if I can decide on the right pieces’ Craig replies. ‘I find it hard picking the right ones for public consumption as I’m quite a harsh self-critic’.

The overriding inspiration behind the works Craig explains is ‘An absolute love of horror films and horror fiction, M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe. I love Cronenberg body horror. All these medical journals, that’s full of reproductions of them, so I thought I’d go for it with some body horror style elements. Also the idea of trying to create a picture unlike the ‘Headache Pictures’ where it looks like a complete thing, not an explosion of images. I like the idea of trying to make something that makes sense, I haven’t really done that before’.

A recurring theme, borne out by titles such as ‘How to Excavate Your Ghost’, ‘Exorcist’s Delight’ and ‘Holy Wounds Sutured’, is of the otherworldly. ‘The idea of the supernatural much as I don’t believe in it is fascinating and scary’ Craig says. ‘I think the idea of creating something from nothing, be it a story, a piece of music, or a picture – is like a kind of conjuring act, a kind of magic in itself. One of my all-time favourite films is The Exorcist (1973) so I guess that figures into it. My friend Simon gave me a fantastic book full of photographs of exorcisms and I couldn’t help cutting it up and using it for collages’.

Elsewhere proto-type pop artist Robert Rauschenberg whose ground breaking Combines series brought together non-traditional objects and materials was a creative spark. ‘He was part of the Space Art programme and it was to try and promote the funding of NASA and get more public interest in space exploration, they commissioned artists like him and Andy Warhol. (Rauschenberg’s work included Sky Garden (Stoned Moon)). You get all these lovely paintings where people had to imagine what the surface of Venus or what a space station might look like. Some of which I’ve cut up and used in some of the sci-fi looking pictures’. Reaching back further artists from the Northern Renaissance are also selected. ‘I don’t know whether you’d class them as influences cos you can’t see a direct correlation’ Craig notes ‘but I love Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel, especially those giant Hell paintings’.

Number 30 in the collection ‘Look See’ bears traces of Storm Thorgerson influence, the graphic designer best known as the creator of Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking album covers. ‘I love all that stuff, prog sleeve art, for all the ridiculousness of it’ Craig states. ‘My Dad used to be in a lengthy written correspondence with (venerated UK Sci-Fi author) Michael Moorcock, he used to send him stuff, he’s got stacks and stacks of letters’. Reaching a wider audience via his association with legendary space rock troupe Hawkwind, Moorcock’s work appears on the psych band’s career high watermark Space Ritual, a live album partially recorded in Liverpool. ‘It was right around the time he was involved with Hawkwind, I remember my Dad showing me the cover to Warrior on the Edge of Time’ Craig nods. ‘I saw a lot of that stuff growing up, that’s clearly gone right in’.

While we’re on the subject of music, Craig’s band, prog-pop stalwarts Lovecraft pulled down the shutters in November last year following a decade plus worth of activity. Something of a disappointment considering how impressive second album swan song The Nervous System is, the outfit have re-grouped with the same members under new banner Cartwheeels on Glass. ‘It had to conform to a funny kind of sci-fi idea and it couldn’t be as honest expressing myself as I wanted to be’ Craig explains of his former group ceased operations. ‘This new band doesn’t have any self-imposed expectations, or any desperation to get gigs or recognition. It’s more minimal and melancholic, we’re recording soon and we’re using Big Star Third as a reference point. We want it to sound like it’s falling apart but just held together, like some Neil Young stuff where you can still see the sellotape on it’. The project was originally going to be billed as Craig Sinclair until the band name presented itself. ‘I like to hide behind things. It’s evolved into a bit of a democracy. Until it doesn’t suit me’ Craig laughs.

Returning to art, the principal influence for Craig is on celluloid not in galleries. ‘Films are a huge, huge influence’ he nods. ‘More than art in a way’. ‘Growing up my cousin was really into horror and his bedroom was floor to ceiling 1980s horror posters. As much as I was terrified I was really intrigued by them, seeing those really made me want to know what it was about. My parents would let me watch the Universal ones (cf 1930s classics Dracula and Frankenstein) and some of the Hammer ones that weren’t as bad’. ‘I remember being really frightened by The War of the Worlds, the 1950s B Movie version when I was about five. When I got a bit older they would irresponsibly let me watch things that would haunt me for weeks afterwards’. Elsewhere Sinclair’s favourite film The Shining acquires an extra layer of eeriness via its TV showings in its alternate, elongated cut, not the theatrical release. ‘It’s weird, when you’ve seen something that many times, it’s like finding an extra finger on your hand’ he marvels.

An ardent fan of ‘a lot of horror eras’, the rise of ultraviolent slashers in the 2000s are swerved around. ‘I’m less hot on the new stuff. Torture Porn, I’m dead against. I don’t like it’ Craig grimaces. ‘It’s too self-conscious, saying ‘You’ve seen this before, but you haven’t seen it like this’. ‘The odd exception of Wolf Creek I liked. ‘I think it’s sad there’s a thing that people are so self-conscious now about the kind of art they make’ Craig expounds. ‘Not everyone but there’s a lot of it about how cool it’s gonna be. I mostly like Hammer, Gallo, all the really bright colourful stuff. Dario Argenta is like something from another world where that style of acting is acceptable, it’s almost like perverting the artform of acting. Suspiria (1977) is so stylized and so bad it sort of just works, cos everyone is in on the joke. The blood in its really thick, there’s a high viscosity to it which is really satisfying’ Craig grins appreciatively.

With the colossal boom in VHS during the Eighties and the now almost quaint notion of ‘video nasties’, the genre found a vast new audience. ‘It was in the era of the video shop when all the cassettes had the monster on the front. Whatever had the best-looking monster or the most outrageous name. Before I’d even seen them I was really intrigued and would draw them and my Mum would constantly say ‘Why don’t you draw something nice?’ Which I never would!’

‘The two films I’ve made recently, Nightmare in Beige and Accidental Warlock I’ve commissioned a painting of me in character, I’ve made the writing really schlocky and almost dripping in blood. I’ve commissioned Kieran Gabriel to do a really 1980s video nasty picture of the monster. That’s the kind of style I’m going for, a modern version, a YouTube nasty!’

Craig’s film Nightmare in Beige issued in May, a 30 minute sprint through Roman Polanski style loner madness meets video nasty via off-beat 1970s UK telly is succeeded by the brilliantly titled Accidental Warlock, due for release next month. In the tradition of TV horrors that would appear in the schedules around Christmas (The Signalman, The Woman in Black), the piece is described by Craig as ‘the best one I’ve done, it’s an M.R. James type-thing with Scallies’.

Concerning ‘a group of Scallies who accidentally summon a demonic entity into their home’, the ten-minute short tips its hat to 1970s TV horror series’. ‘It looks great and has a very Doctor Who style monster in it’ Craig explains. ‘I’m fascinated by the slightly crappy looking TV special effects of that era and strived to replicate them in this as I think there’s something uncanny and far more arresting in their tangibility compared to modern CGI creations. There’s something so sinister in the atmosphere of the spooky TV from the 70’s and 80’s which I really love and I’m on a kind of mission to recapture with my wonky productions.

Described as a cross between ‘Hammer House Of Horror and low-rent Mike Leigh’, the piece is set ‘In a shared house on Ullet Road some of my friends live in that required little or no set-dressing to it’. One of the other locations meanwhile for scenes set in the 1600s was the Unitarian Church on the same road. ‘We didn’t show them the script though’ Craig divulges, What they’re saying is almost pornographic!’ he laughs. ‘It contains some really disturbing music by a local electronic musician called Kepla which I love, and a bit of extra score by Jon and Ben from The Aleph/Ex-Easter Island Head. A very dear friend of mine, Rob Morris, aka potty mouthed scouse rapper Riuven has a hilarious role in it and General Midi from a.P.A.t.T has a small cameo too. We’ve managed to pull together loads of extremely talented people’.

Following a premiere at The Small Cinema (see details below) the plan is to ‘Then batter as many film festivals as I can with it next year’ Craig states ‘I think it’ll end up online at some point too as I want it to reach a huge audience. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think Scally Horror is a bold new sub-genre sure to entice a lot of folks in!’

What comes after that meanwhile is a move away from the visual into the audio. Firstly, a performance reading short stories later this month at the Manchester Dancehouse supporting psych pop group Whyte Horses, then setting some material to wax soon after. ‘I’m planning to put together a thing I’m writing with my writing partner Mark Curtis, I met him on the Everyman Writers Course last year. It’s a portmanteau, it’s gonna be called Audio Nasty. It’s gonna be a podcast of little snippets’. And with a writing session to work on that very project to attend, the interview draws to a close. ‘I’ve always liked the idea of doing ‘horror sketches’’ Craig says of the upcoming venture ‘where instead of a punchline someone dies or something awful happens’ he grins.

Essential Tremor is exhibited at The Bagelry, 40-42 Nelson St, Chinatown

Fright Wig presents: Accidental Warlock at Liverpool Small Cinema, 57-59 Victoria Street, Tues 6th December, alongside additional short films, a Q & A session and a performance. Doors are at 7pm, entry free, donations welcome.
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