I first met artist and musician Val Denham in 2006 in rehearsals with Oli Novadnieks at Voltage Studios in Bradford. Being largely unaware of Val’s work at that time, I did some Googling and was intrigued by an original, varied and experimental body of work. Since succumbing to the inevitable Facebook friendship I’ve been exposed to more of Val’s art, music and unusual (unique?) outlook on the world, so I’m rather chuffed to be able to probe a little deeper…
Remind me what you were rehearsing for when we first met in 2006.
It was for a gig in Amsterdam with Black Sun Productions called Darkness Is Enlightening. That was at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on a multiple bill with Psychic TV and Lydia Lunch. I performed five songs together with my good friend and collaborator Oli Novadnieks, who is also originally from Bradford.
Much of your artwork seems to centre around the subject of gender identity, for example with your books, Dysphoria and Tranart. This in mind – how do you define your own identity and in practical terms, do you prefer to be called he or she?
I am a typical transsexual. I prefer the label transgender as people are uncomfortable with any title that has ‘sexual’ included. They hear the word sexual and presume that it’s some kind of perversion.
I might add that society at this moment in time seems a little obsessed with transgenderism. My own gender issues are always mentioned in interviews. But think about it. If someone did an interview with say… Stephen Fry, would we ask him the question “So Stephen, what’s it like being a homosexual?” Or perhaps, “How does your gay persona affect your work Stephen?”
Fair comment, I brought it up as your own works address the subject quite readily. Do you feel a compulsion to express those issues through your art or is it more of a source of inspiration and liberation to do so?
I’m a gender terrorist. I make no excuses. I used to be a guy, now I’m a middle-aged woman. I am referred to as She. Get over it, this is the 21st century.
Was your attraction to visual arts an ‘as long as I can remember‘ situation or can you pinpoint a eureka moment when you thought, ‘I want to do that’?
Oh, I was fascinated by art from a very early age. I used to carry around a ‘security book’ as a toddler. This was full of pictures of science and art. I was particularly fond of a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci entitled The Virgin Of The Rocks. I was always drawing. When I was drawing or painting, it meant I didn’t have to go out and play football with those horrid dirty boys.
What were your early inspirations artistically and what are they more recently?
Early inspirations? Hmmm….Salvador Dali when I was a teenager, Andy Warhol, Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin maybe. I used to copy Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings. Almost forge them!
I still have some of those oil paintings. I signed them Val Denham! Nowadays, I like anything weird, Pierre Molinier, Clovis Trouille and Henry Darger. I’m into the photography of Joel Peter Witkin right now. I love the work of Grayson Perry, but then I would wouldn’t I !?
I’m reminded of Picasso, Man Ray, Dali and even Miro in some of your work. Would you say these are all relevant as influences and the apparent blend of cubism, Dada and surrealism a fair observation?
Yes, I adore Picasso. He’s been a huge influence on my art. I even consider some of my musical efforts to be cubist. Surrealism is a big influence as I’m interested in dreams. Some of my songs can be quite surreal.
On to more local background – I’ve heard you say ‘I love Bradford’, so how would you describe your relationship with the city? Are you a born-and-bred Bradfordian and what keeps you here?
I lived in London for 22 years of my life from 1979 until 2001. I lived in south London first, in Streatham, then we moved to east London to Walthamstow. I went to London with my girlfriend, who I married in 1980.
I worked as the in-house graphic artist for Walthamstow Council Welfare Benefits Department. This was for 13 years until I was made redundant. Not long after I got divorced. However the strange thing is, when I painted landscapes in those years they were always Yorkshire landscapes. I was unaware that I was doing this. It was a completely subconscious thing. To be more precise I was painting landscapes that were obviously landscapes just on the perimeter of Bradford. I had a terrible nostalgia for Bradford. I went to Bradford art college from 1974 until 1978 – one year for my foundation course and three years printmaking.
These were some of the happiest years of my life. I always missed Bradford. I had the most ridiculous fantasy that one day I would return to Bradford and marry my first girlfriend from art college. Then I made it happen. I did marry her and we are still bonkers about each other 11 years later. It is possible to bend time and space.
I think most Bradford citizens have gripes about the city and past mismanagement but many now have fresh optimism. How do you see the current direction of Bradford from your own experience and perspective?
I was at the top of town the other day and it looks like a ghost town. Something has to be done to change that. All those empty shops. This came about as a result of the new big Broadway shopping centre. That seems to be the nucleus of Bradford now. However I’m sure that in time those empty properties will be inhabited again, either by shops or bars, or maybe flats?
It’s true the council has worked hard to ruin Bradford city centre in the past, but I’m optimistic that it will be as splendid as it was when I first came to Bradford College of Art in 1974. I’m a bit of a dreamer. I will always love Bradford. I just love the people here. London is very cold, down there people keep to themselves. Oh, I did have plenty of friends, but they were all from Bradford!
You’ve worked with quite a few famous names over the years, particularly in the music biz. How did your work with Marc Almond and with Psychic TV come about for example? Were they people you knew back in the day or did you seek each other out for collaboration?
They were my first true fans. Someone called Biggles at Leeds Polytechnic persuaded me to get in contact with Genesis Breyer P Orridge back in 1979, around the time I went to the Royal College of Art in London. We were of like minds, we were interested in alternative approaches to art and music as well as gender identity interests. I knew Marc from Leeds Polytechnic and he came to my final degree show at the RCA with Genesis, Jhonn Balance of Coil and Stevo of Some Bizzare Records. They came to see my band The Death & Beauty Foundation perform.
What other artistic associations would you care to name drop – who have been your favourites to work with?
I’m on a cassette with The Residents (my favourite band)! I’ve played Stravinsky-inspired piano with Robert Wyatt, and my new album features a lot of music from the Argentinian band Farmacia.I used to go to Derek Jarman’s flat for tea and biscuits (I prefer alcohol).I once made the Queen laugh. My band has been on the same bill as The Virgin Prunes, Psychic TV and Einstürzende Neubauten.
Would you describe your own music as avant garde? It’s certainly not mainstream pop/rock.
I call it Outsider Pop.
Finally – what’s coming up for you in the future? Do you have any ambitions yet unfulfilled?
A new album out early this year (vinyl and double CD) on the Vanity Case Records label entitled I Saw Myself In Your Dreams Last Night, featuring Oli Novadnieks, Farmacia, Geese, and Demian Nada of O Paradis from Barcelona. This album has been worked on for almost two years, and it’s my best ever.
Thanks Val. And if you’d like to talk about anything I’ve ignored then fill yer boots…
‘Fill yer boots’??? Oh how very vulgar…