British artist Ben Turnbull’s latest exhibition explores the myths around how the (Wild) West was won.
Using cut-outs from 'Cowboy & Indian' comics of the 1950s and 1960s – a collage technique he has made his own – his artworks ask us to reimagine the outcome of that epic struggle. They show that the indigenous Americans emerged as the victors.
The centrepiece of the London show, which opens on 15 October, is a unique take on Mount Rushmore; instead of featuring American presidents, however, we see the faces of Indian chiefs.
"The origin of this project was born from the quote – 'Every act of creation is first an act of destruction'," says Turnbull. "But also, I was interested in a genocide reversal. My feelings are never quite as simplistic as good vs evil, which is ironic considering the medium I generally work with (comics)."
"I like to think that the murky shades of grey are the more critical points to explore," he adds.
American culture is the mainstay of Turnbull’s artistic practice. His 2008 series 'I Don't Like Mondays' referenced the first American high school killing and featured desks with weapons carved into them. The show’s title was the remark made by teenager Brenda Spencer to explain her killing spree at the Cleveland Elementary School in 1979.
Amongst his many artworks is a portrait of Trump, taken from cut-outs of MAD Magazine. "He's the Lizard-King! Our modern media has moulded this character like a nightmarish Max Headroom for the ages. A nationalist leader for the 'Reality Generation' with his roots clearly linked to the past. From his re-use of 'America First', his patriotic preaching has sent the masses into a jingoistic frenzy!
"Using MAD seemed entirely logical. In fact, given the subject, it would have been illogical to use any other. Of course, I wouldn’t describe Trump as being that himself, but since winning the presidency, he’s caused an entire nation to become slightly unhinged, not just his core, but his detractors, too. So in some sense, it’s more a portrait of a nation than of him."
On a more savoury note, the artist’s 'superhero' series focused on the New York firemen who were called in to deal with the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in 2001. "It was," he says, an "unbelievable experience to get to show these works in New York. The reaction from some of the real 911 firefighters was extraordinary! Tearful and emotional."
Other portraits have included John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, as well as Lee Harvey Oswald and Martin Luther King. Would he ever consider looking at British history in the same way, perhaps using military comics like Commando and Combat?
"The problem with UK /British based projects for me is that the old fashioned empire stigma still hangs over it. That's not pop enough for me to work with and doesn't interest me in the same way. The origins of that culture are in the dark ages in comparison to the States. I’ve been asked to do Nigel Farage in 'Beano' comics and Nelson Mandela in any superhero comics, but you've got to have some integrity and direction. I'm not a custom order type of guy!"
American History X volume III, Manifest Decimation takes place from 15 October until 2 November at Bermondsey Project Space, 183-185 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW.