Just minutes into our interview at a gallery in Bermondsey, 30-something Jasmine Surreal pulls a toy cat from her bag and begins ventriloquizing, in a cat voice, for my benefit.
“With my painting, I do nice, fantasy, imaginative things, because I’m so beautiful and glamorous like Zsa Zsa Gabor,” says Surreal, lost for a moment in high-voiced character.
It is one of the stranger responses I’ve had from an artist and it is true. The painter has a pair of cats with whom she makes most of her work, holding the brushes like Sooty or Sweep. This takes a while to sink in, while it is impossible not to begin reassessing my interview subject’s sanity.
Fortunately she seems fully aware of the eccentricity of her approach, with a ready sense of humour that saves our encounter from becoming a psychiatric case study.
Besides, Surreal is aligned with the Stuckist movement, the international support group for artists who make figurative work on canvas. They are not averse to being difficult, wayward and unconcerned with public image.
“I’m obsessed by cats,” admits the artist. “I basically want to be reincarnated as one.” And she says this in her real voice, a jaunty scouse accent. “I have funny cat crushes,” she adds. “I get obsessed with a certain type and I download loads of pictures of them and I avidly stalk them on Twitter.”
This is borne out as we walk round her show at Trispace Gallery in Bermondsey. Fur and whiskers are picked out in great detail. Their owners appear in a range of bizarre scenes. Surreal’s love for these household pets might seem childish if it wasn’t so amusing.
“I like kids because they’re not affected by the way you should behave in society,” the artist tells me. Indeed, it’s a reason why she held her Private View on a family-friendly Saturday afternoon.
“In some ways I’m like that. I’ve never grown up and I never would because being grown up is painful.” This could be at least part of the reason for an angry portrait of her mother, painted naturally by one of her cats.
“I do have a cute side,” she adds, “and it’s not going to be trampled out because society isn’t cute.” Instead of “grey” social comment, Surreal offers a camp alternative: “People say, ‘you’re a woman; how can you be camp?’”. At which point she assumes an even more flamboyant persona: “It’s very easy, darling, if you want to be.”
The artist also does an amusing take-off of one of her more conceptual peers and pretends to swear on oath that she rarely attends contemporary art shows. It should come as no surprise that in a past life Surreal was an actress and a model. A career highlight came when playing a nude statue which comes to life in 2006 Brit flick Fated.
While still on Merseyside, she also worked as a journalist, writing for the comedy section of liistings magazine L-Scene. “I like a laugh me, you know. I’m a Northern bird,” she points out. No one could accuse Surreal of taking herself too seriously. And yet she has plenty of conviction when it comes to her art. She certainly suffers for it.
“I find a lot of artists to be very conventional,” she explains. “And they tend to find somebody like me, who’s unconventional to be, like…they either laugh at me or they’ll make fun of me or they’ll make disparaging comments about me, whereas that incites me to do more and be more weird.”
Surreal is clear about her antipathy to most modern art and even goes so far as to worry it might “poison my imagination”. In the absence of a real pet cat or two, the artist works direct from her mind’s eye.
“I’m very inspired by my own head. It’s because I don’t see things in reality or even in other paintings.” Although she makes an exception here for the likes of Bosch and Magritte and, indeed, Dorothea Tanning and MC Escher. She dismissed Salvador Dalí on account of his alleged treatment of animals (“he experimented on them.”)
But contrary to the suggestion of her assumed name (the artist was born Maddock), Jasmine Surreal insists: “I don’t just paint surreal things.” Her subjects are not wacky for the mere sake of it. “There’s a meaning. There’s symbolism. I don’t like art that is meaningless. I like art to mean something, even if it only means something to me,” she laughs.
So you might say this artist has well hidden depths, not unlike her all-time hero, Jerry Lewis. She says of the American comedian: “He’s a surreal genius, but everybody laughs at him. They just think that he pulls funny faces and stuff, but he’s much more than that.”
And then as if in danger of sounding too serious or even pretentious, Surreal adds, “also, I fancy him rotten.”