Pete Fowler’s Oceans of Fantasy

Within ten minutes of stepping into Pete Fowler’s east London studio, we’ve got both hands on a hirsute man’s antennae, triggering a barrage of noise and a hell of a lot of fun.

Pete Fowler's studio
Pete Fowler (and friend) in the studio

Surrounded by, variously, a taxidermy bird, numerous vinyl monsters, some Cristo Redentor-aping dioramas and multifarious other ephemera, the space is – much like Fowler’s work – an escapist’s paradise, full of fantastical creatures and seemingly endless ideas. Quite accurately, Fowler describes it as an ‘Aladdin’s cave’.

Fowler is currently preparing for his largest show to date – an exhibition of work from the last 15 years, opening at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium centre next month. And while it’ll certainly present a broad and brilliant spectrum of pieces, from the aforementioned interactive 3ft-tall Van AudiOrlax (which features an in-built synthesiser/Theremin, installed by mechanical sculptor David Cranmer) to early dioramas, to his famous Super Furry Animals artwork to new paintings, he’s quick to point out that this isn’t a retrospective.

Piano Play, 2009
Piano Play, 2009

‘If you were looking at it as a retrospective there would be huge gaps’, says Fowler, ‘It’s nice having the interactive pieces that makes sound so that you can touch and interact with it – it adds playfulness and humour, that extra thing. With the Super Furry Animals stuff I held back from showing too much.’

Skulloscillators, 2008
Skulloscillators, 2008

For the uninitiated, music-obsessive Fowler started his rise to prominence with the single sleeve design for Super Furry Animals’ Hermann Loves Pauleen single in 1997, going on to illustrate most of the band’s subsequent albums, singles and videos, as well as lead singer, Gruff Rhys’ solo projects. Since then, he’s gone on to create a hugely recognisable illustration style and construct his very own World Of Monsterism, peopled with otherworldly beings in a bold, kaleidoscopic realm.

Owl Doyle's Pick
Owl Doyle’s Pick

The show’s title, Oceans of Fantasy, is borrowed from the 1979 Boney M album, a characteristically fun and unabashed reference that fits in perfectly with the magpie-like way in which Fowler pilfers from different aspects of pop culture, seafaring and myth.

He’s keen to point out the musical elements of the exhibition, which will feature a soundtrack carefully curated by Fowler playing throughout the space, heavily based on songs chosen for two compilations he released with record label Heavenly.

He says, ‘I think I’m more aware of music than art and design among my peers. I do have a bubble I zip myself into.’

Joe Meek in Space
Joe Meek in Space

The musical references (Silver Apples, Aphrodite’s Child) fit perfectly with Fowler’s visual aesthetic – all psychedelic oddities and otherworldliness, with a subtle dark undercurrent. While the monsters are cute, and the bearded men friendly – there’s a palpable sinister side: the ships might be sinking, the clouds are bleak, and the seas of these new worlds are painted as decidedly choppy.

Stigmartyn, 2008
Stigmartyn, 2008

‘I want to combine that dark but attractive edge – I like to have them both there’, muses Fowler.  ‘I like having some piece with the cute factor, but a dark undercurrent’s there. People see things in different ways, but with these pictures [he points to the new paintings of boats] there’s definitely something brooding.

‘People always interpret things in their own way. As an artist it’s incredible – I don’t even necessarily know what [the work’s] about, but what makes it worthwhile is to know someone’s interpreted it and reacted to it in their own way.’

Drone 1 CPU Drone 2, 2008
Drone 1 CPU Drone 2, 2008

As well as previously unseen new work, which Fowler describes as ‘some of the best work I’ve ever produced’, the show will also feature his recent video for The Horrors’ Changing the Rain, some of the vinyl toy inhabitants of his World of Monsterism and a gorgeous series of paintings that draw on the craggy and mysterious scenery of Cornwall, whose strange myths and folklore Fowler finds endlessly inspiring.

He says, ‘I hadn’t been painting much in the last four or five years, I’d been doing a lot of commercial work and using Illustrator. Then what got me back into painting seriously was painting landscapes down in Cornwall – I’ve always used the landscapes as the background of the characters but then I started looking at them more.

‘I’m really interested in all the myths and legends and the supernatural things surrounding Cornwall – things like “this stone was put here by giants, this is the lid of hell.” You can see why people come up with that sort of stuff – it’s trying to make sense of the world around them.’

A week before the show Fowler will begin creating a mural inside the Wales Millennium Centre, luring visitors into the show and his obsession with all things ‘cosmic nautical.’

He says, ‘I’m very interested in the sea and maritime things: We’re made up of water – I think it’s the same way as the moon affects the tides, which affects people. I’m immersed in that.

‘Maybe with some of the work I’ve pulled away from monsters and looked more to the unknown in our own world. It can be more magical than anything we can make up.’

Synth Cuppa, 2012
Synth Cuppa, 2012

Pete Fowler, Oceans of Fantasy, will run at Wales Millennium Centre, Bute Place  Cardiff Bay, Cardiff CF10 from 8 December  – 24 February 2013

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