Steve Lazarides in VF about his relationship with BANKSY

Banksy’s Ex-Gallerist Talks About Their Breakup, Depictions of Hell

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Photograph by Lars Fassinger.
Hell—not exactly the place you want to end up. But how’s about a quick peek, just to see what all the fuss is about?
Get a glimpse at “Hell’s Half-Acre,” a collection of underworld renderings from 20 contemporary artists like Antony Micallef, porn-collage artist Jonathan Yeo, and taxidermy sculptress Polly Morgan, opening October 12 at the Old Vic Tunnels in London. The concept comes from Steve Lazarides, the urban art dealer and curator who launched Banksy’s career. Like Leo Castelli, Mary Boone and Bruno Bischofberger before him—the gallerists who put artists like Warhol, Rauschenberg and Schnabel on the map—Lazarides has become a champion for the artist as individual. He’s excelled at “mentoring new talent, nurturing the creative process and presenting work that is free to the public,” says actor Kevin Spacey, a co-curator of the show and the artistic director at the Old Vic Theatre.
The Bristol-born Lazarides approaches “Hell’ with humility. “This whole art thing,” as he refers to his career, came about by accident. “I’m never looking for anything in particular,” he says. “It’s always a gut thing. I have to love it. I was a DJ at one point; but I couldn’t DJ for shit, but I could always pick a great record.”
His taste has earned him a celebrity following (Jude Law, John Cusack and Christina Aguilera, to name a few). “I met him about eight years ago,” recalls Law. “It was at different sort of art show…really ramshackle. Paintings pinned to the walls, sitting on the floor, maybe some of them stolen— I don’t know…it was really an underground experience, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Steve’s a bit of an event in himself, and his openings are the same.”
Despite being a showman, Lazarides hates the openings, though they are always outrageously successful. Par example: In 2006, he showed Banksy’s work in a warehouse off L.A.’s Skid Row. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie showed up and the show sold out, making Lazarides and Banksy millions. “I don’t like being there,” he muses. “I like everything up until the door opens; I put everything into that moment.” Ahead of his next big show, he chatted with VF—excerpts:

Susan Michals: What’s your idea of Hades?
Steve Lazarides: My version of hell is a dog that weighs more than me and is basically made up of jaw and solid muscle and weighs about eight stone. I wanted to get a bunch of pitbulls to mark the front entrance of “Hell’s Half Acre,” but lately there’ve been a lot of problems containing them. Plus you can’t plan how they might get along with one another. [Lazarides settled for a soundtrack of angry pit bulls barking instead].
“Hell’s Half Acre”—where did you get that title?
I like fairgrounds and fair workers and the aesthetic of it all; I was going to do a show years ago that was a sort of twisted fairground theme…in the late 50’s in the States, there was a ride that traveled around called “Hell’s Half Acre” and another called Hitler’s Henchman. “Hell’s Half Acre” was a depiction of war inside. In the Old Vic Tunnels, it’s also about a half-acre of space that we’ll be covering.
You’re co-curating with Kevin Spacey. How’s that working out for you?
We talked about coming up with a sort of theatrical element, so it becomes more of an experience as opposed to just an art show. People’s time is precious and I’m asking for some of it. Do they want to be entertained, or they want to go to some gallery with dry white walls and some chippy bastards working behind the desk? It’s a social event; not a purely monetary thing—at least to me.
Do you think artists are ever starving or is that some sort of urban myth?
Someone like artist Mark Jenkins until recently had a full-time job. Bast still works on top of doing all his artist work. It’s very hard to concentrate on the work when you’re thinking ‘Where am I going to get the money to eat?’ But I kind of think that all those starving-artist myths come from people who had money in the first place. There’s no embarrassment in making money at what you do. Look at the people who have been really successful: Andy Warhol, complete self marketer; Damien Hirst, Murakami, Jeff Koons—all cultural icons, all magnificent marketers.
How did you and Banksy hook up?
I photographed him. And he kept phoning me, telling me where he put pieces so I could go and photograph them and then one day he needed a lift somewhere—he was going back to Bristol and he was going to get these screen prints he’d made and offered me a ten’er—and I was like ‘I’ll buy the fucking lot and sell them for 35 quid.’ So we went into business with me selling the screen prints. He kind of had an agent at the time, but I ended up selling far more than his agent did.
But now you guys have broken up, so to speak. What happened?
We spent about 10 years together, and I wanted to branch out. You have to grow up. Otherwise you just look like a fool. We haven’t really spoken to each other in a long time; to be honest, I have no idea where he is. And it gave me much more capacity to work with everyone else. It was an amazing ride and I wouldn’t be here without it, but I don’t necessarily miss it.
It’s like when you’re in a relationship and people don’t define you as an individual; they define you as a couple.
And it annoys him far more than it annoys me. [Laughs] A decade is long time, especially when you’re both as driven as we are.
Everything you do is based on instinct as opposed to education. I’m sure it drives people like art critic Jonathan Jones insane. He wasn’t going to nominate Banksy for the Turner Prize because he said “To promote street art is to celebrate ignorance, aggression—all the things our society excels at.”
You know, it makes me laugh when I hear those comments from guys like that. It means we’re winning. How can anyone’s opinion be valued higher than anyone else’s? It’s art. Subjective. It’s like drinking that [points to glass of champagne]. It could cost $500 bucks a glass, the best thing ever. But if you don’t like the taste of it, you don’t like the taste of it. It’s the same with me and art.
And further, there’s a new way to expose a generation to art beyond the traditional confines that we know—and it’s online.
It’s actually a combination of two. Same reason like vinyl was supposed to be fucking dead 30 years ago—people still like a physicality in art. Online is a good place to promote things and give people a general feel, but until there’s a massive change in the way technology works, you can’t get a feeling of texture or scale. [Street art] is a massive, populist form of art—it smacks of the highest form of elitism to say that it doesn’t belong in the gallery.
Perhaps it’s a way of validating their employment?
We (the Outsiders contingent) have proved time and time again; these things are hugely well-attended. Let’s take Banksy for an example, at the Bristol Museum, which was quantifiable. Over the course of the 12 weeks, the exhibition was visited over 300,000 times. It was one of the top 50 shows worldwide.
What artists are part of your personal collection?
I’ve got Peter Hugo’s work and a lot of photography. I don’t want it to look like my gallery. I have fairly eclectic tastes outside of doing this; a lot of political posters; that’s my other great love. The only thing I’m not a fan of is video art. Bill Viola—a million quid for a DVD? What do you get with it, a free house? It’s a fucking DVD.
Any shortcomings to your job?
It’s still very hard for us to be accepted, in any shape, manner or form by the art world…as much I could give a flying fuck whether they take us in or not. I go round to people’s houses and see my stuff hanging next to a Warhol…so if you guys as the ‘art critics’ and the ‘art establishment’ like it or not, seems to make no difference whatsoever to the people who buy the work. I feel sad for the artists to a degree, because they keep getting vilified for being popular—like Warhol—someone who was deemed a popular artist. Basquiat and Keith Haring were also part of this movement, and they didn’t seem to do too badly.
You coined the term “Outsiders” as a representation for your artists, but it was originally used to describe the work of the criminally insane.
Here’s the thing: at least 90 percent of them are certifiable, so I think it works.
Hell’s Half Acre begins Tuesday, October 12th in the Old Vic Tunnels, London. Admission is free.