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The genius of Edna Gumball

By arts editor Quentin Darling-Pseud

Posted March 05, 2013
that one of east enders with a dogedna gumball is a genius
Eerily accurate: That one off East Enders with the dog. © BBC/Edna Gumball

Genius is an overused word but when it comes to Edna Gumball no other adjective screams so loudly, gushes art ponce Quentin Darling-Pseud.

Essex-based artist Edna Gumball has a particular penchant for producing hauntingly perceptive portraits of the cast of East Enders (which, for our North American readers, is a BBC soap opera set in the East End of London that primarily consists of people shouting at each other), not to mention Jack Nicklaus out of The Shining.

When we at the Rake & Herald first learned of her work we were literally dazzled by her brilliance.

Clearly Gumball has a rare skill, an almost supernatural ability to reach into the very soul of her subjects, extracting the life force that beats within them in prelude to spreading it like photographic marmalade onto a stretched canvas teacake as though she were a metphysical surgeon-cum-plasterer preparing a Bauhaus banquet of Matissean manna.

But what do other experts think of Gumball's art and style?

We asked avant-garde composer and rent-a-quote aesthete Sir Crispin Duck to give us his take in exchange for 20 Lamberts and a bag of Skips.

"Johannes Vermeer with an Etch A Sketch," he says, stroking his chin.

"It's most unsettling how the eyes follow you around the room, like something out of The Munsters."

"It's as though they are watching, analysing, weighing up you're every move."

"Even the ones you haven't made yet."

kat and alfie and sisters by edna gumball the greatest living uk artist
Spectrum of styles: Kat and Alfie Together Forever (2012; ice cream on bricks; top) and A Sisters Love Is Forever (2012; Leggo and glue; bottom). © BBC/Edna Gumball

However, while Gumball is most celebrated for her striking facsimiles of fairly famous faces, she is certainly not limited to the milieu of hyper-realist portraiture.

Instead, her opulent opus encompasses everything from video and poster art to conceptual pieces and Neo-Dadaist photo montage.

This latter technique she takes to new heights in her poignant pictorial paean to sisterhood, A Sisters Love Is Forever (2012; oil on canvas), which marries the timeless image of a lone wolf silhouetted against a star-studded sky with two of the most powerful Jungian archetypes of womanhood, a head with bat wings and a Scotch egg with teeth.

Thus, in one mesmerising flourish, Gumball, on both the conscious and indeed the subconscious level, bequeaths all those not blessed with a female sibling the rare opportunity to share the joys, yet shoulder too the tragedies and tribulations, of having a lady as a brother, a sister if you will.

But although the imagery of food – whether in the form of a dentally-challenged chicken embryo encased within a sausage-meat shell or a confession of love capriciously confided through the form of a chicken nugget, a kind of sausage thing and some mayonnaise – is a readily evident undercurrent unifying the diverse gamut of material mastered by this fearless young artist, it is no whimsical leitmotif, no casually composed chorus of calories and carbohydrates.

Rather, allementation is an essential allegory underpinning Gumball's entire aesthetic philosophy, irreversibly entwining subject and viewer in a graceful dance from cradle to grave.

Moreover, fine dining is markedly her muse.

An almost Baudelairean metaphor for food induction, it is her passion and one that consummately consumes the artist as though she were herself a trombone of pies; her easel a mouth; her paint a tonsil.

Nowhere is this more abundantly clear than in her conceptually challenging masterpiece Menu (2012; acrylic on rutabaga), which simply sizzles with such seductively sounding spreads as "chicken nuggets sandwiched between two waffles on a bed of crisps" for £4.99; "Pot Noodle on toast" (£1.99); and the enigmatic "instant mash with tin of sweetcorn blended in on a bed of crisps" (£2.99).

"You can simply taste the colours, the flavours, the textures," Duck says.

"It's almost as if they were a sandwich of painted tuna, a ripe flute dappled with the golden bread crumbs of existential terror."

"Or perhaps a psycho-corporeal plate of chips balancing precariously on a mountain of Situationist gravy."

"For here the artist plays with us."


"But are we not, she almost mockingly asks, a thing of malleable yet ephemeral beauty, like the very mashed potato she buttons us with?"

"Over and again and repeatedly until at last she throws us the life raft of 'pickled beetroot', 'White Diamond with Strawberry Ribena' and a 'bowl of squirty cream'."

haunting beauty self portrait by edna gumball the uk's greatest living artist sarah lucas piss off
Haunting beauty: Self Portrait (2012; wood larvae on laser beams). Notice how the Scotch egg eyes follow you around the house. © Edna Gumball

Like all great painters, whether it be Dutch nutjob Vincent Van Morrison or Portuguese street artist Toy, Gumball, though the toast of the art world, is a tortured soul, a fragile Pre-Raphaelite water nymph whose delicate romanticism seems almost distrubingly at odds with the bold pop art elements to be found in such tours de force as Self Portrait (2012; wood larvae on laser beams) and Madame Benoit's Microwave Cook Book (2012; weevils on monkey shark).

She is vexed, like Sisyphus, pecked at by geese, for despite all the glitz and glamour of her Warholian existence of non-stop celebrity, parties, openings, showings and yet more openings, Gumball yearns only for love.

For understanding.

For a soul mate.

For a spouse.

For a husband.

For a man with which to get married.

Indeed, her heart-rendering plea for betrothal is so mightily immense that it even commands its own action space, the tear-spattered cyber installation that is her Marry Edna website.

"You are a man; preferably with whooshy hair and a beard," she says of her ideal partner.

"You will write me poetry in blood and shimmy up my drainpipe at midnight, knock on my window and then whisk me off to the beach on your motorbike where you will have written my name in candles and arranged a buffet of all my favourite buffet foods (mixed crisp bowl, scotch eggs, mini cheese and onion pasties) and a bottle of £4.99 cava."

As we read her words, we feel for her.

We share her pain.

Her anguish.

Her loneliness.

Her despair.

The tears well and rain like a deluge before us.

Pitter-patter, they fall on our keyboards.

Pitter-patter, they fall on our desks.

Pitter-patter, they fall in our hearts.

Then, through the darkness of our shared despondency, a realisation awakens within us.

Four ninety-nine for a bottle of wine?

You'll get a can of Brasso sieved through a sock and bloody well like it.

Now trowel on your slap.

I'll pick you up at seven.

Chief hack's note: If you're still wondering what East Enders is like, here's a short clip that remarkably doesn't contain any yelling. In fact, you might want to crank up your speakers as the dialogue is a tad on the quiet side. That said, sit back and enjoy. We did. Gumball's ace.

To view Edna's full portfolio, have a click on this and then check out her excellent YouTube channel (where the above clip comes from). Meanwhile, to follow Edna on Twitter click here and to sweep her off her feet with your beard and bottle of cava have a click of this.

See also "New Banksy" hits Lisburn, posted 18/2/13.

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