Pizza with Gasius
Watch the video for The Deele – Shoot ‘Em Up Movies and you’ll notice a certain blend of the surreal and humorous. As I meet Russell Maurice in his east London studio, the 1987 post-disco hit reverberates from the artist’s MacBook pro. The song is familiar, yet it is not. “It’s the sample used for Red and Gold on MF DOOM’s Operation Doomsday,” he says. Maurice is more than adept in employing familiar yet implacable reference points; in fact, his work is littered with them. He is the man behind the graphic led clothing label, Gasius, which has gained a cult following through it’s humorous approach – referencing everything from Garfield to the kind of exaggerated cartoon chefs you find on pizza menus. Aside from this, and other forays in the streetwear industry, he is an artist who, again, has garnered a fan-base through his psychedelic tinged works – think Alice in Wonderland but cooler, more niche.
“I’ve always tried to keep the two things separate,” he says. While there’s a certain stylistic crossover between the work of Russell Maurice, artist, and Gasius, the output of the two entities is noticeable. “What I like about Gasius is that it has got a sense of humour, you know? I mean; I’m having a laugh doing it.”
The brand has collaborated regularly with Goodhood, Medicom and, more recently, Stussy – which arguably gave the brand its greatest level of exposure to date. This season’s tees and caps, according to Maurice, will be the final installment of the Pizza Research theme, which has permeated all of his label’s recent output. He says it’s time for a change, not wishing to become a one-trick pony, when he has a host of other ideas to put into play.
The designs for next season may have no pizza references, but they are undeniably Gasius. He harbours plans to expand the label, toying with the idea of branching into cut and sew again, – the pictured photo is a reversible poncho he designed back in ’06 – and to capitalise on the momentum which has been building behind the brand. In the fickle world of fashion, the inevitable question arises – what constitutes as selling out? “For years, with Gasius, I was always fighting commerciality and trying to keep it original – not that I don’t still do that – but there’s a line between that and commerciality. Kyle from Goodhood helped me a lot. He helped me realise that it’s possible to be commercial and original. There is a line, somewhere,” he admits. “I just decided get a bit closer to it. Because, generally, to make money, stuff has to be accessible.”
For Russell, his work is a balancing act between art and Gasius. He has a set-up at his home in North London, where he can work on graphics. Today, we are sat in his work space, which he shares with two other artists – Mudwig and Paris. Dressed in a black sweatshirt – accented my a psychedelic typeface on the sleeve, chinos and some pink Flyknits, he sets about customising a Pizza Express pizza for us – which I’d half jokingly suggested as an interview setup in a previous email. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to be making loads of money out of my art,” he says. “But I think if I was, Gasius probably wouldn’t exist. The most important thing for me is that it’s saying something, and often what it’s saying is quite niche or abstract.”
Growing up in Newcastle against the backdrop of the early 80s, by the age of eight he’d started writing. “Looking back, it’s ridiculous, I was a proper kid. It was before subway art came out.” He still remembers his original tag – NEET – and reaches for some paper and a marker, before recreating the angular letters. Within a couple of years, he had graduated to “proper painting.” Much of his formative years were spent between graffiti and skating; they had “really fucking good scenes,” he says of his hometown.
There is no apparent ego held by Russell, coming off as extremely affable both in person and via e-mail. He signs off each email with a “U+262E,” a unicode peace symbol. Much like our meeting, these emails often lead down unexpected paths, like discussing his love of Mull – an island off the coast of Scotland. And to Gasius, anyone that’s cool is referred to as an “absolute dude.” There is a unique eccentricity about the man, which is simultaneously laid back but engaging. He can go from discussing the possibility of genuine utopia, with great insight, to laughing with me about Danny Boyle’s The Beach moments later. In a way, his manner is reflected in his work; some of it’s fun and other stuff unbridled in its sense of escapism. “I’ve always liked escapism since a young age – just the idea of other worlds and other possibilities. I think that’s why I got into psychedelia so much; just the possibility of accessing other levels of consciousness.”
It would seem that his artwork allows Maurice to create his own worlds, which are largely more idyllic than the bustling, polluted streets of the British capital. This idea has manifested itself differently in his work over the years; “It used to be political. I wanted to say something that meant something and not just do cool shit, so my first paintings were well eco tree-hugger. But I realised that you have to be careful when doing that because you can end up ramming your politics down people’s throats. And, it’s also closed –there’s no room for people to get anything out of it, because you’re telling them ‘this is how it is.’”
Images by Sara Sani
Having drifted away from the eco-political angle, his work is still juxtaposed to contemporary living, but it is done so in a manner that lends itself to a greater degree of interpretation. “I find the possibility of utopia really interesting – is it ever possible? And if you look at all the societies around the world, which one works the best. What is it that makes it that?” He seems to ponder these questions knowing he’ll probably never find the answer. And even if he did, could he change anything – can art change the world? “No,” he states, after a couple moments of thought. “I’d like to say yes. It once had power, but now it doesn’t, which is sad. It’s because it’s been commercialised; it still has some sway, but, it hasn’t the power it once did.”
“It’s only in the last 10 to 15 years, people have begun to accept that ‘art’ isn’t a bad word,” he says. “When I was young, being an artist was frowned upon; it was very uncool. Culturally, the popularity of street art – not that I do that – has opened up art to a different section of people.” Certainly, the structure of art-world tastemakers has been democratised in the past decade, and has allowed people like Gasius to operate how he does. The issue of commerciality crops up again in conversation, but he admits that an environment now exists where he can make money in the right way – one original and unique to both his brand and his artwork.