Conceptual artist, painter and writer, Finley Styles, was born in Gosport, Hampshire, England on August 15, 1972.
The son of market-trader parents, Styles proved academically gifted despite a shoddy school attendance record. From the age of twelve, he would regularly skip high school and, later, 6th form college to look after his parents’ market stall, only giving up when he moved to London in 1992 to start a BA in Fine Art at the Royal College of Art, before abruptly leaving half way through his second year.
In a Guardian profile of the artist from 2003, Styles said about his college experience:
I think I fundamentally had a problem with attending a college with the word ‘royal’ in the title, which was my own fault for applying, really. But it grated on me. Perhaps the biggest reason for leaving – and I’ll undoubtedly come across as a prick for saying it – was that the standard of teaching was so shoddy, I felt I’d be better off teaching myself.
Styles nevertheless continued to paint, exhibiting work as part of group exhibitions in small galleries, whilst earning the bulk of his crust writing reviews of contemporary art exhibitions in ArtReview, under the pseudonym Stanley Fyles.
As an artist in his own right, he first came to prominent attention for a three-month show – and his first major gallery exhibition – at The Fullerton Gallery in April 2003. Entitled Fame & Wisdom, the exhibition featured well-known quotations misattributed or dubiously attributed to famous folk of present and yesteryear, including The Dalai Lama (“…he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived”), Albert Einstein (“insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”), and Oscar Wilde (“…only my genius”).
These quotations were presented alongside profound and punchy ‘new’ quotations that the artist had collected from overheard conversations and from scouring personal blogs for rare gems of interest. These new quotes were then deliberately misattributed to a prominent intellectual, writer or artist. For example, the quotation, “Generosity is a gift bestowed onto those that can’t afford it”, was attributed at the exhibition to legendary film director, Alfred Hitchcock. Another new quotation (“Better to go hungry than eat badly”) was attributed to Audrey Hepburn.
Florence Baxter-Thomas, writing in the Guardian, praised Styles’ exhibition for “superbly and succinctly highlighting the frequent inanity of awarding undue authority to someone on the basis of their celebrity. We could all do with this timely reminder.”
Despite the positive critical reception, the project became legally problematic for Styles thanks to an uncredited blogger.
The project embarrassed a number of prominent critics because Styles had deliberately left the exhibition and its entire works unexplained, so it was up to the audience to interpret them, or, misinterpret them, like in the case of the Telegraph’s art critic, Philip Wren-Lewis. In a glowing review of the exhibition, Wren-Lewis praised Styles’ selection of quotations and his ability to “unearth hidden gems”, failing to recognise that all of the quotations featured had not actually been said by – or at least were highly unlikely to have been said by – the figures they were purported to be. The Telegraph review was lambasted in a scathing article by Robert Calver in Art Monthly about Styles’ exhibition, which said, “[The exhibition] was a deliberate and successful attempt to not only question our society’s idolisation of celebrity, but to question the arbitrary label of expert that we attribute to ‘known’ people when they frequently do no better than a random member of the pubic.”
Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception, the project became legally problematic for Styles when an uncredited blogger, Tim Backhouse, sued Styles for alleged copyright infringement, seeking jurisdiction in the Royal Courts of Justice. Backhouse’s quotation (“Recently, I haven’t been feeling myself, but that’s not to say I haven’t been feeling myself recently”) had been attributed at the exhibition to Woody Allen.
Backhouse was initially awarded damages of £8,000 and Styles was ordered to destroy the original work featuring Backhouse’s quotation. But Styles took the case to the Court of Appeal arguing that the manner in which Backhouses’ quotation was appropriated for the exhibition meant it was an entirely new and original piece of work and that the earlier judgement would set a dangerous precedent against artists’ rights to create works which comment on society, a fundamental aspect of the rights to free speech. Styles’ appeal was successful (with some caveats), Backhouse’s case was dismissed, and Styles was awarded full legal costs to the great consternation of Backhouse.
In addition to the successful legal appeal that concluded in October, Styles’ year ended on an even bigger high when Puotro Magazine named him 2003 Artist of the Future in December, describing Fame & Wisdom as a work of “layered brilliance” and awarding Styles with a £20,000 grant.
Styles proposed to produce eight pieces of work about global warming. After three years in the making, he only exhibited one piece, spending almost the entire grant arranging for the fresh corpse of a polar bear – that had died from climate-change-related starvation in the Arctic – to be cryogenically frozen and exported to London, exhibiting it in October 2006, unseen, inside a thick steel box at Fostrichts Gallery.
The work was entitled Schrodinger’s Polar Bear, making obvious reference to the paradox and quantum phenomenon of Schrodinger’s Cat, particularly because the bear or its state itself could not even be observed by an audience. The work intended to ask questions as to the act of observation on consequence and meaning within art, or whether there was anything even in the box at all. The work was widely ridiculed in the mainstream press. Art correspondent, Laura Partridge, wrote a scathing opinion piece about Styles in The Times headlined “Art’s latest great pretender”.
In 2018, he was arrested and charged with two criminal offences for his role in curating Celebrating British Success.
Styles seemingly gave up work as an artist, focusing instead on art curation where he eventually landed a job at Prepartus Gallery in London. He stayed there for twelve years, forging a word-renowned reputation until he embroiled himself in one of the biggest art controversies in history, when, in 2018, he was arrested and charged with two criminal offences for his role in curating what was supposed to be a ninety-day exhibition called Celebrating British Success.
The exhibition purported to feature original work from the twenty most celebrated living artists in the UK. It did feature their work, but only for approximately one week, when the pieces were then used as part of Styles’ own untitled art project, commencing on Thursday 16th August 2018 after initial media previews, opening night, and several days of the advertised exhibition had already taken place.
Styles’ own special exhibition lasted only eight hours from 10am to 6pm. Upon opening, visitors to the gallery were greeted by the same pieces of art as were exhibited the previous day, only each work had a tag on the frame – or, in other cases, just below the canvas – stating: “For sale. Make an offer to the curator.”
Finley Styles walked around the gallery wearing a royal-blue, Liberty-floral-lined suit with the word ‘curator’ sown in large gold thread on the back, and in smaller text on the breast pocket. Members of the public were invited to make offers to Styles for the artwork, but it was 11am before anyone finally did, asking to purchase Robert Parson’s Frankincense for Jesus for just £50. Styles accepted the offer, requesting the money in cash, which the purchaser promptly provided (after swiftly finding a cash machine). Styles arranged for a contract to be signed, with the purchaser (arguably) unwittingly – at least initially – agreeing to detailed conditions stating that upon purchase of the art, they gave immediate permission for Styles to use the piece as he saw fit, including and not limited to destruction.
After this purchase – and each and every other ‘contracted’ purchase that followed – the art would be taken from the wall by Styles and placed into a guarded incinerator placed in the corner of the gallery and covered by red velvet curtains. (According to Styles it had taken five professionals almost the entire previous night to install it – completely unbeknown to most other gallery officials). The curtains would open, and the art work would go in facing outward to the public, only to be burnt beyond recognition. Styles would then go back to where the artwork had once sat, and write, in black marker pen, the name of the person who had purchased the art work, adding: “caused the destruction of [artist’s name’s] [artwork title] through attempting to own it.”
There was one particular piece Styles had semi-exhibited which did not have a tag denoting its availability for sale. This piece was also kept guarded and covered by a smaller set of red velvet curtains to the incinerator. It was finally revealed at 5.50pm, but only after all the other work had been incinerated.
Behind the curtains, Styles had written what was largely received as a searing indictment of the current state of art, as well as a broader prediction of how the exhibit would be treated by observers and critics, and criticism against the way in which society seeks pleasure through destruction.
Styles had cannily predicted that once people realised that an artwork would be incinerated after someone successfully purchased it, members of the public would deliberately and increasingly seek to purchase those items, making measly offers in the process, for two purposes: 1. the pleasure of seeing the item destroyed. 2. in their clamour to be considered part of the exhibit and having their name written on the wall as the noted destroyer of the piece of work.
The text of approximately 1,000 words, finally revealed inside a gold frame, started with this ominous introduction:
“Art has been devalued by the emphasis on financial value and monetary investment. It is to time to re-imbue true value back into art. It is time to reposition meaning and purpose – in this case, by being the saboteur and actively highlighting the destructive and sadistic capacity of the human.”
The project, or, indeed stunt, depending on whom you asked, made headlines across the world.
Acclaimed artist, Levantine Lichter, whose excruciatingly detailed painting, Rolling DownHill (which had taken around eight months of eight-hour daily work to produce) was destroyed in Styles’ project, claimed he had been conned into giving away his painting for the exhibition and described Styles as a “vulgar insult to the art world”. The Times’ Art Critic, John Stevenson, described Styles as “a crude impersonation of an artist” and said “the public should be made more aware of the clear differences between genuine art and crass stunts.”
Styles was subsequently arrested and charged with two offences under the Fraud Act 2006.
Styles was then made subject to a criminal investigation for which he was subsequently arrested and charged with two offences under the Fraud Act 2006 (i. Fraud by False Representation; ii. Fraud by Abuse of Position). The arrest and main crux of the investigation came about after artists Rupert Gray and Lisa Farrant – who had both provided original works for the Prepartus Gallery exhibition in 2018 – directly reported as being Styles’ victims to the Metropolitan Police Service approximately a month after their works’ re-appropriation and destruction. Both artists regarded the manner in which Styles had used their work as fraud.
Styles’ trial was heard at the Old Bailey in July 2019. It lasted two weeks.
It is difficult to exaggerate the impact that Styles’ exhibition and his subsequent trial has had on the art world. Most of the artists who were part of the original project refused to give evidence. Those that did, with the exceptions of Lichter, Gray and Farrant, gave evidence in direct contradiction to the charges, claiming that loss is too readily defined by tangible and monetary means – a key point Styles himself had made as part of the one day exhibit.
Ambrose Amoma, whose work had also been exhibited and then destroyed in Styles’ project, gave evidence in support of Styles, stating under oath, “All things considered, I consider the exchange of my art for use in [Styles’] exhibition as to have been a great philosophical and artistic gain. And that’s a gain that is both personal and to the public. Of course, these aspects of gain aren’t easy to measure, particularly with modern obsessions of ownership and financial wealth, but they are infinitely more important.”
The Crown, represented by Gerrard Fuller QC, argued that the victims had not only produced work that took a considerable amount of time, energy and passion, but had been misled as to how the works would be used in the exhibition. Continuing, the Crown said that the artists had suffered obvious monetary losses, because, if it weren’t for Styles’ actions, the work would otherwise have been “sellable assets” after their agreed use. Fuller also argued that Styles had caused considerable loss to the victims because his direct actions had been the primary cause for the artists’ work (and, by proxy, the artists themselves) being unable to reach their intended audience.
Styles’ defence barrister, Jonathon Lloyd, argued that any losses, including Lichter, Gray and Farrant’s, were imaginary (although he accepted that they may be felt as real). He suggested that a reasonable person – such as those witnesses whose art had both been exhibited and destroyed and still testified in support of Styles – would consider the use of their art in this exhibit as to be a net or complete gain.
In closing, the Crown argued that a person could still earn more money from an artwork being used in an exhibition, but in such an immoral way so as to be a spiritual loss. This would, in the opinion of Fuller be enough to fit the legislative definition of what Styles had been charged with. However, the Crown argued further that, in this particular case, the victims had not only felt that the use of the work was immoral but had been unable to retain the agreed rights of ownership because of the destruction of their paintings. Fuller said it was “an incontrovertible fact that the victims had suffered significant loss.”
Styles once again withdrew from the limelight. But he resurfaced four years later with a best-selling book.
The defence closed by reiterating the views of Amoma, arguing that far from causing Lichter, Gray, Farrant, or any of the other artists any loss, they, and the wider public, had gained greatly from offering their work to the exhibit. The pivotal question that was left to answer, Lloyd posed, was whether Styles’ had gained from the use of Gray’s and Farrant’s work. Lloyd said that the prosecution had failed to make this case as they had focused almost their entire prosecution around the exhibited artists’ losses. In the case of monetary gain, Lloyd pointed out, Styles had given all the money received to the original artists, and in the cases when artists’ refused to accept the money, donated it to the World Land Trust charity.
The jury deliberated for two days but failed to reach a unanimous verdict, so Judge Thomas Haworth intervened, agreeing to accept a majority verdict instead. Several hours after the judge’s intervention, the jury finally reached a verdict: Styles was acquitted, being found not guilty by ten of the jurors – with two of the twelve jurors maintaining that Styles was guilty of both charges of fraud.
After that long and protracted court case, Styles once again withdrew from the limelight. But he resurfaced four years later with a best-selling book, Crude Impersonation, written about the exhibition and the subsequent court case, in which Styles detailed the almost torturous level of thought that went into the project, and explained the background to the exhibition and his views on the role of art and artists in society.
Citing the aftermath of the EU Referendum and Trump’s ill-fated election to US President as key factors behind the inception of the project, Styles described these outcomes as “the manifestation of increasingly larger sections of the public facing a creeping and legitimate feeling of angry impotence in not being able to effect meaningful positive change, or even knowing how to”. He argued, “This culminated in an act of sadism – an ostensibly mindless act of metaphorical arson in order to seek temporary pleasure from the destruction caused – all because it gave them back a significant sense of agency that had been stolen from them or had gradually eroded through decades of political failure.”
His book was not only popular with art theory aficionados but with the wider public too, where it sat in the top twenty of the New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists for more than two years from release. The Guardian’s then Editor-at-Large, Barry Young, said of the book, “That the work is funny, self-deprecating, dark and profound is not surprising. What’s more surprising is his political analyses are as good as any journalist working today.”
Styles also wrote of the overwhelming sense of responsibility and sadness he felt for the gallery staff that either knew about or were complicit with the controversial project and had lost their jobs as a consequence. The entire earnings from book sales went into a trust fund that he had set up for the sacked gallery staff and their families.
In what had already become common form for the enigmatic artist, Styles retreated from public view once again, only to finally resurface this month with the promise of a new exhibition at The Gerstrom, entitled Barthesologies – the title itself an homage to Mythologies, the name of Roland Barthes’ seminal collection of essays and analysis, first published in 1957. It comprises a collection of 32 pastiche texts from the writing and lectures of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, discussing objects as varied as coins, cats, dogs, weaponry, telephones, muffins and coffee. Each pastiche is covered in a crude and child-like watercolour painting (so that the text is still legible) of the overall subject. It took Styles three years to complete the collection in what has been another stunning silence since the release of his book in 2023.
I agree to meet with Styles at a coffee shop of his choosing on Holloway Road, Islington. He arrives almost perfectly on time but it’s still about half an hour after me because my hatred of being late means I’m nearly always early.
Instantly recognisable by his short, stocky physique (about 5’ 5”) and heavily tattooed hands and forearms (with what I learn from an internet fan forum is scatterings of Hemingway and lyrics from A Comet Appears by The Shins), he orders a black Americano coffee and a blueberry muffin.
It doesn’t take him long to know who I am. The café is empty aside from me and a slightly dishevelled, middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit with briefcase and papers scattered along the worn table top. (I assume he has just come from the Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court a few doors down.)
Styles spots the digital voice-recorder on my table and grins at me nervously. As I get up to approach him, he gives a signal with his hands for me to relax and stay seated. He waits to collect his order, pointing at me as he jokes with the barista, “Stick this on that fella’s tab, please mate.”
Styles comes over, plonks his coffee and cake down on the table, shakes my hand, and sits down opposite.
“I just hope I can give you a decent interview and I’m not too boring,” he says.
From what I already know about Styles, I find that incredibly hard to imagine.