Memoir V: In Commentary We Trust

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all these memoirs is to educate. The following memoir has explicit language.

Before we start, I just want to give a special thanks to Rachel for helping with this memoir. With that being said let’s delve into this month’s memoir. 

The definition of commentary is an expression of opinions or offering of explanations about an event or situation (Oxford Languages). Commentary originates from the Latin words ‘commentarium’ and ‘commentarius’commentarium means comment and commentarius means a diary or notebook – both words originate from the Latin word commentari. So that’s a short history of the word commentary.

A society cannot exist without commentary, its role is essential. Commentary is not just about reporting things – its existence serves to give readers/listeners a different viewpoint of an event, it helps us truly understand how we feel about the world around us. Commentary creates public discourse and that is so vital to our progression as a society.

For example, I could say Paul Pogba is a terrible footballer because of his recent performances. I’m not an avid football fan, but that’s bound to start a conversation, right? In 2020, commentary around the government’s handling of the pandemic was crucial since it put pressure on the government to reverse many decisions which in my opinion were bad. For example, it was only when a national discourse started around free school meals that the government stepped up and agreed to continue providing them. Boris’ government has approximately spent £22 billion on frankly an abysmal track and trace system – the public will never see that money. In terms of COVID deaths, as of this memoir, the UK has the highest death rate in Europe. There has arguably not been a more important time for social commentary in art than right now.

One artist whose work provokes commentary and discussion more than most is Heath Kane. By creating simple, iconic, and memorable pieces, Heath has been able to tell stories which link to greater narratives. So with that being said, let’s delve into the life of Heath Kane. As a child, Heath was always drawing, and by the age of 13, Heath had his sights set on being an animator: “That’s all I ever aspired to be when I was 13, I couldn’t care less about school. I glided through school doing what I could do just to be able to pass”. During his time in education, Heath also attended a night school to increase his animation skills. “In the evenings I would attend a night school programme, and I was one of the younger guys in the class. At that age, I was driven, and I knew what I wanted to do”.

However, Heath’s focus would change due to the lack of opportunities in Australia’s animation industry. “In Australia, you only had Walt Disney and this studio called Yoram Gross, and that was it. There weren’t many opportunities in the animation industry”. The lack of opportunities left Heath feeling dejected. With no opportunities to use his animation skills, Heath turned to the design industry and for the next 25 years, Heath was a design consultant and worked with multiple brands.

Heath would eventually move to the UK and continue his career as a design consultant in London. After spending some years in London, he eventually moved to Saffron Walden. Once he was settled into his new house, Heath showed his wife some art, and like anybody not familiar with the art world, she gasped at how expensive it was. ”She was surprised when she saw the price. After I showed her, she said to me, ‘You can do better than that’. So I thought about it, and I reversed engineered the fact that the art was screen printed and thought, ‘Yeah! Why not? That would be a fun project to do’”.

It was from this initial idea that the iconic Rich Enough to be Batman was born. Heath’s signature piece shines a light on the world’s 1% and how ineffectively they use their wealth. “I saw this article about Jeff Bezos, and I thought, ‘If you had all that money wouldn’t you want to try and save the world? Wouldn’t you want to become Batman?’ Because Batman’s superpower is being rich. So with all the 1%s in the world, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could be Batman?”.  The simple but impactful piece, depicting the Queen’s head with a stencilled Batman mask over the top, has gone through multiple versions – ranging from different colours to different sizes, and in some versions the words ‘Rich Enough to be Batman’ have been overlaid in bold letters on the bat mask.

Rich Enough to be Batman (created 2021) [5 Colour Screenprint and Black Diamond glitter on Somerset Satin 300gsm Paper, 77 x 112 cm]

Rich Enough to be Batman asks the audience a very simple question – if you had all that money, what would you do with it? Would you try to solve world hunger or end poverty? “I was working in the luxury industry for a long time, and I saw this immense greed that existed in that world, and if you look at how much £50 million would get you in London it’s not that much. But you and I both know £50 million somewhere else would do a lot of good.”

Heath explained in our interview that he chose the Queen’s face because she was the only person who could truly deliver his message; with her face on every banknote, she is a symbol of wealth. “If you put the Queen who is on every single note and Batman, a person who represents social good, in one piece then you create something new. You create something that is about social good, and something that discusses how wealth can be used much better”.

When I asked him whether her majesty has seen this piece, Heath laughed: “I think you and I both know if she saw this piece, I would be hanged. So as far as I know, she hasn’t. But there’s this deep desire of mine to see her grandchildren walking around with my Rich Enough to be Batman T-shirts… That would really make me laugh. But again, I don’t think that would happen”.

Heath welcomes different interpretations of his piece and enjoys challenging people’s initial impressions: “I had this encounter with an old woman, and she said that this piece was disrespecting the Queen because her face was defaced. The gallery owner spoke to the woman and explained the idea. So what’s funny is when she left the gallery she said, ‘Well, that’s nice, I like it’ (laughs). However, some people have actually thought it’s the devil’s horns on the Queen, and it’s like ‘huh!?’. So it’s genuinely been an interesting piece”.

At the time of its creation in 2014, Heath didn’t see the piece going beyond his house. But after some conversations with his wife, he decided to take the piece to a gallery in Covent Garden: “If you know anything about screen printing, you can’t do one-off pieces. You have to do 10 or 15. So I blagged my way on the phone saying I had more versions of Rich Enough to be Batman. During my first meeting, I walked in fairly confident, but little did they know I didn’t have the prints (laughs). I was just hoping they would say yes, and that would give me the confidence to go ahead and produce more”.

Once he secured the exhibition, Heath immediately developed multiple versions of Rich Enough to be Batman, and it became a phenomenon overnight.

The moment Heath truly felt like an artist was when he secured the exhibition in the gallery in Covent Garden. “When I saw the prints in the front window of the gallery it was crazy because it was like, ‘What?! They’ve got my artwork! And I’m not an artist?! But it’s in the front window of an art gallery?!’ It was a nice feeling. To this day, I consider myself really fortunate to have that kind of opportunity, because it was the very first thing I ever did”.

If we fast forward to 2020, this was the year Heath took the plunge: “During the beginning of 2020, my wife and I talked about me becoming a full-time artist. I said to her, “Hey, I’m thinking of doing this full time, it’s paying enough”. Also, having my own space helped me make that decision because I didn’t have to answer to anyone”. However, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing for obvious reasons: “I’ll be honest, 2020 was a bad year to become a full-time artist (laughs). I made the decision before COVID really hit the UK. But it’s kind of worked in my favour because COVID really affected the design industry – people were spending less and less”.

Rich Enough to be Batman {US Dollar Note} (created 2020) [1 Colour Screenprint on US Dollar note, 156 x 66mm]

After the success of Rich Enough to be Batman, Heath began to create spinoff pieces such as Rich Enough to be Batman {US Dollar Note}. “Rich Enough to be Batman had the Queen, and with the Queen being on our glorious currency, it just made sense”. Originally, Heath wanted to screen-print on English notes that were in circulation, but this was illegal. So he turned his attention to notes that were out of circulation. “In the beginning it made sense, but over time it was a crazy idea – I was paying £14 for a £10 note”. After consolidating his options, Heath decided to abandon pound notes and instead use $1 notes. “It just kind of made sense to use US dollars. The US is a big market, and if you look at its currency, it’s at the heart of capitalism”.

The use of Washington’s face is another great representation of wealth, and again, it makes us think about the elite and how they have ineffectively used their wealth. Washington was one of the founding fathers of America, but he too had slaves. With an estimated net worth of $500 million in today’s currency you really must ask yourself whether Washington could have been the Batman of his time and solved some problems.

Another aspect you will notice in this piece is the phrase, ‘I GIVE AWAY MY TIME FOR THIS’, Heath stated he wanted to make people think about how they were spending their money. “The notion of money is an imaginary concept, we put trust in this idea that a piece of paper is worth this amount of money, and this amount of money can buy you X amount of things. There’s the other alternative which is a barter deal but that doesn’t work. So we’re stuck here putting such a massive amount of trust in this thing called money”.

When I asked how he would describe his art, Heath explained: “Well, I’m still working that out (laughs). I think my work has always been reactionary to the world around me, it is very much an observation. Whenever you ask someone, ‘How’s it going?’ and they say, ‘I’m fine’. Well, my work is the opposite of that conversation, it’s saying, ‘I’m not fine’. Because of my advertising and design background, the colours I use draw people’s attention. People see the immediate humour and vibrancy in my art, but it’s deliberate, I want you to drop your guard because when you truly look at the work, you see something which is actually quite dark”.

With regards to what his art means to him personally, Heath’s answer was the following, “As a citizen, at times I feel helpless. Sometimes I want to scream at the Tories because of how incompetent they are, but to them and others, my voice doesn’t matter. But with my art, I have inadvertently found a way of communicating those frustrations, I’ve been able to do it in a fairly clever way by using humour. Because that’s the beauty of humour, it gets people on your side. If you went around yelling and screaming about things, people would just think you’re mad and eventually stop listening to you. So my art gives me a voice, it allows me to bring something to the table”. Pieces such as In Brands We Trust {Bible edition} (created 2020) and Mask of Fear {El Trump} (created 2021) are excellent examples of this.

In Brands We Trust {Bible edition} (created 2020) [2 Colour Screenprint on old reclaimed pages from the Bible, 23.5 x 31.2 cm]

In Brands We Trust is a series that interrogates our relationship with brands and how we have become subservient to them. If we start with hip-hop, we can see artists such as Drake and Future who have idolised brands such as Gucci and Fendi in their lyrics. This can even be seen in song titles, such as ‘Bugatti’ by Ace Hood, ‘Jumpman’ by Drake & Future, ‘Versace’ by Migos and many more. Moreover, if we look at the technology industry, companies such as Google, Apple and Facebook have become integrated with our lives – if you don’t know the answer to something? Just Google it! It’s examples such as these that Heath really wanted to highlight: “brands have overtaken religion and are now the new icons we worship”.

This idea that brands are our new religions is emphasized by the use of the bible page in the piece. Specifically, the page is from Numbers, chapter 35. Chapter 35 is an interesting chapter within Numbers because it delves into the act of murder and the punishment for it which again links with the theme of this piece. If we look at our society, there are multiple stories of people being killed because of these brands. In 2012, in Houston, Texas, 22-year-old Joshua Woods was robbed and shot for his pair of Jordans. In the UK in 2020, 24-year-old Samuel Odupitan was killed because of his Gucci bag in Croydon.

If we look at the warehouses of some of these brands, we see something even more horrific. In 2020, the clothing brand BooHoo appeared in the news due to accusations of poor working conditions in their warehouses in Leicester. But here’s the thing, it’s not just BooHoo who have faced such accusations, we’ve seen companies such as Amazon, Sports Direct and JD come under fire. With such harrowing examples, it really begs the question, why do these companies have such a lack of accountability? In the words of Heath, “Is the road we are going down leading us to an empty happy meal? Because look at how we have lost our sense of morals and ethics because of brands. We look at people who make billions of the back of what is essentially legalized slavery”.

Mask of Fear {El Trump} (created 2021) [4 Colour Screenprint on Somerset Satin 300gsm Paper, 42 x 59.4 cm]

Mask of Fear is another example of Heath using humour as a trojan horse for more hard-hitting social commentary: “It wasn’t created to be art at the time. I did it as a social commentary at the point where Trump came out and said he was going to run. I think, like most people, I saw the comedy in it and thought ‘this is ludicrous, this guy will never get it’. I envisaged what the new world order might look like if this guy became president. You’ve got Putin, Trump and Kim Jong Un. That would just be a pretty f**ked up world. I wanted to share a political commentary on the fact that we were observing something that has never really happened before, where you were seeing politicians who were making their fears their policies.” He cites the example of Putin targeting LGBTQ+ people or Trump targeting minorities, specifically Mexicans. “So I just did this juxtaposition where I put their mask – what they feared – over the top of them”. In this instance, Trump’s face is overlaid with a Pussy Riot-esque Lucha Libre Mexican wrestling mask.

The darkly satirical piece uses a technique which has inadvertently become Heath’s signature, screen printing cartoonish colourful motifs over photos and paintings. Heath explained how he uses the design theory 1+1 = 3, a design principle that puts two things together and creates a juxtaposition – a third part open to interpretation. However, he finds it strange that some people see the mask as representing Captain America. Perhaps assumptions like these ironically highlight the problem Heath is exploring with nationalism and self-centredness; some people can only see the work through their own cultural lens. The political nature of the work proved difficult to sell into galleries at the time, but Heath was excited when WIRED magazine approached him to use the piece on the cover; after that “it just took off”.

Uncannily, shortly after Mask of Fear’s creation “Trump posted something on Instagram where he was wrestling CNN[…] where he was wearing a similar mask, so that was bizarre”. This strange coincidence put Heath off the idea of creating masks of any other leaders. He had been considering making more, including one of Boris Johnson, but decided doing so might be “a poisoned chalice”, perhaps causing even more weird coincidences to occur.

Because Volume III is about being a maverick, I always ask the artist what makes their work different compared to other artists. Heath’s answer to this was refreshingly candid, delving into his frustrations with the art world: “It’s a compliment to be called a maverick, but it’s not something I intentionally go out to do. Anyone who knows about branding knows that the fundamental point is all about creating something different. You differentiate, you never copy. I’ve seen many artists plagiarise other artists. How many pieces of art look like Basquiat for instance? Someone finds something and they just copy it, and all its meaning and context gets lost. For me, art has two parts, style and meaning, and I like meaning more, the more cerebral stuff. If you look at what I am doing, I’m not trying to tag myself down to a style; I’m more interested in forming ideas. Another frustration I have with the art world is this idea of churning out one piece, and only one person gets to hoard it, and often that is someone who has a fair bit of money. In the art world, there’s this strange dichotomy of artists who have a left-wing ideology, they have a socialist belief, they want their art to be appreciated by the masses, they don’t want it to be hoarded by the rich, and yet ironically, that’s the way it turns out, they inadvertently sell it to the highest bidder. What I want to do is reverse that, make the art more accessible. So where one artist has made one piece, I’ve done the opposite and replicated my work, so anyone can buy it”.

When it comes to artists who have inspired him, Heath made it very clear that while he admires many artists, he is not directly inspired by their work. “Lots of people have asked me this, and there are many artists I really like, but to say inspired? No. It’s because of my design background I deliberately try not to be inspired by other artists. My design background taught me if you become inspired by something, all you do is just replicate it. I learnt a long time ago, don’t keep your head down but keep it forward which means instead of looking for something to distract you, look at a clean slate”.

Nevertheless, he admires what artists like the late Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein did for democratizing art: “Those guys really opened many doors, they made art more accessible”. When I asked about contemporary artists he respects, Heath listed artists such as Banksy as well as his friends Ange Bell and David Bray. “What I like about art is the people who are just clever with their art. I think you could say that inspires me. Also, anyone who is making art more accessible has my attention. So like I said before, I admire their work like anybody else would but I don’t put their work above mine. I just see it as they’re doing their thing, and I’m off in my own corner doing my thing”.

I really enjoyed Heath’s answer when I asked what message he wants his art to give:  “I think that’s a great question! And it’s we should become better at documenting history”. Heath is passionate about the idea of depicting events accurately as they happen. He expanded: “If you look at any painting that is at least 100 years old, you won’t see any facial features like moles, freckles, stubble, or scars. You’ll be lucky if you see a smile because you can imagine the dental hygiene back then. I always laugh at paintings such as those because they’re like the photoshopped pictures of that time. There’s this great example with Elizabeth I. For anyone who doesn’t know, she was put on the throne at a young age, and if you compare the picture of her when she became queen to when she was at the peak of her power, there’s a big difference. That difference is due to her ego. As a child, she wasn’t conscious of her identity and appearance. So when you look at all those portraits, you have to ask yourself, did the painters actually paint the sitters? Also, when you look at those portraits, where does it tell you that one in three people died of tuberculosis? Or what the conditions were for a person who was black? They don’t give us that social context. If you look at Brexit and Trump, people were saying let’s make things great again. But it was dangerous because people were going back to something and romanticising the past, they thought the past was better than the future. My art is about showing the warts, the moles, and the freckles. I want people to know that I documented things such as Trump and made a clear stand against it. I want to tell people that things become better when we document reality”.

Portrait of Heroes {Folklore} (created 2020) [Acrylic, Gold ink and pencil on archival giclée, 56 x 70 cm]

 One piece which highlights Heath’s belief in the dangers of putting individuals on pedestals is Portrait of Heroes {Folklore}. In the piece, Heath takes the famous painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps (painted 1801) by Jacques-Louis David, and vandalises it in a way that feels like a rebellious exposé. He changes the colour of the horse to red and graffitis Latin profanities all over it; ‘fillius cani’, for example, translates to ‘son of a b***h’. “I did it to remind people of the poor b*****ds fighting who had to suffer at the hands of Napoleon’s ego. I’d imagine those people would go and graffiti his horse in the night time”.

He even swaps Napoleon’s hat for the mask of Blue Demon – the infamous Mexican Lucha Libre wrestler who never removed his mask in order to retain the strength it gave him. “What’s particularly interesting about Napoleon is that there’s no truth of what he actually looked like.” In covering Napoleon’s face, Heath undermines him by reminding the viewer that the original portrait isn’t an accurate portrayal of his appearance. “A lot of these people of wealth and distinction had the ability to alter their appearance for their own self-grandeur.” So why choose Napoleon specifically? “He glorified himself and we go through history thinking he was this amazing general but we forget he was responsible for killing millions of people on his ego trip taking on the Russians[…]He marched off with this enormous great army. Can you imagine the poor b*****d having to carry the cannon over the Alps while he’s there on this horse?” Heath’s inclusion of crucifixes could be interpreted as a nod towards Napoleon essentially sacrificing these people, sending them to an early grave with his reckless crusade.

In a way, the piece is a reminder to us in the modern age that our own vanity and self-importance shouldn’t come before the welfare of those around us: “It’s this kind of world we’re living in where everyone’s taking selfies but around us people are living in poverty and there’s all this s**t happening, but it’s all about ‘Me! Me! Me!’. While we’re taking selfies and putting posts on Instagram, why don’t we show the truth?” Heath emphasizes how the darker side of the truth has historically been erased from art, explaining that when portraits like Napoleon’s were painted during the Romantic era, “One in three people died of smallpox, others were put into slavery or lived in horrendous conditions. That’s not a romantic time in my opinion”. The yellow crown above Napoleon’s head perhaps gives the most obvious nod towards what Heath feels about large egos both then and now: a belief that we shouldn’t be able to crown people as false Gods in a society that should really be more egalitarian – or at the very least, more honest about what it’s like for most people.

2020 was the year Heath became a full-time artist, and the pieces discussed in this memoir prove he’s moving from strength to strength; so, moving forward, expect the unexpected. In terms of a new series, Heath gave me an idea about what’s in the pipeline currently: “I’m working on this concept that is a little bit flippant in a way because it is a tall order to make, and it is called Happy Propaganda. In the past, propaganda has been used to instil fear to the point it has changed people’s social beliefs and behaviour, it has entrenched people into those beliefs, especially now. Today’s propaganda has created division, and the result is a polarised society. So what I want to do is turn propaganda into a vehicle to do good, I want to infuse propaganda with art to create social bridges. It’s a massive undertaking, and it’s not going to be easy, but I want to try”. With regards to upcoming shows, Heath laughed: “There’s nothing confirmed just yet but I’m not panicking to be honest. I’m kind of comfortable right now. I’ve created my own gallery in my studio; I’ve created this little bubble so I can have my own exhibitions”.

In Commentary We Trust was a fun memoir to write, and again if we look at the pieces discussed in this memoir, it is evident that Heath is a maverick. Heath’s work is all about starting a conversation, it’s art infused with commentary – every piece is an insight into what he is thinking. So I urge you all, do not ignore the artist known as Heath Kane. “I’ve been fortunate in creating art that will make people stop and listen. I want people to question the pieces I make because ultimately that’s what I love about art, it allows people to question things. I want to make the world a better place, I’m just an optimist who gets frustrated”.

To see more of Heath’s work visit www.heathkane.co.uk or follow him on Instagram at @byheathkane

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close