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Mid Pennine Arts
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Jeff Nuttall
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Biography

Jeff Nuttall was a prolific artist and poet but he was also a jazz musician, critic, social commentator, theatrical innovator and influential teacher. In an obituary, the poet Michael Horovitz fittingly described him as ‘a catalyst, perpetrator and champion of rebellion and experiment in the arts and society’. Certainly, Nuttall worked at the margins, creating artworks, performances and writings which challenged moral and political orthodoxies and continually tested the boundaries of social acceptability and public taste. Whilst Nuttall’s creative output – in all its forms – relentlessly confronted authoritarianism, it fundamentally celebrated the nature of what it is to be human with a wonder and rawness which is sometimes comic, sometimes disturbing. 

Born in Clitheroe, Nuttall spent his youth in Herefordshire’s Welsh borders, but returned north to live in Lancashire and Yorkshire for a number of periods throughout his adult life. After leaving art college, his early work demonstrates a preoccupation with the human figure but his involvement in the late 1950s London jazz scene and the early activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament provided new subjects for exploration through writings and drawings.

Nuttall soon became a pivotal figure in Sixties’ British ‘counter-culture’. He played a key role within the international ‘underground’ press and literary scene, exchanging writings and ideas with fellow thinkers in the United States and Europe - such as William Burroughs, Carl Weissner, Alexander Trocchi, Bob Cobbing and Dom Sylvester Houedard - initiating small journals such as the anarchic cut-up My Own Mag or collaborating on various publishing projects. Much of this is chronicled in Bomb Culture, his semi-autobiographical account published in 1968.

In the Sixties, Nuttall also started working with found objects and soft materials – often using stockings and kapok – to create a series of assemblages which resembled dishevelled or distorted human body parts. Sometimes, these objects would be left in luggage lockers to be discovered later at random. Occasionally, they formed part of a performance, environment or "happening", an informal, often spontaneous, transient multi-media event which usually involved audience participation. His contribution to the early development of happenings in Britain was particularly important through collaborations and connections with a coterie of artists involved with Group H, the Drury Lane Arts Lab and sTigma.

Happenings merged into the burgeoning field of ‘performance art’ when, in 1966, Nuttall founded the People Show, an eclectic group of artists and performers which took their live acts and improvisational interventions onto the streets, into telephone boxes and public toilets. Since then, attracting a diverse range of artists, musicians and practitioners, the People Show has maintained Nuttall’s legacy with its commitment to the production of experimental multi-disciplinary performances.

In the 1980s, with spells in Australia, Portugal, London, Lancashire and then shifting to the rural borders of Wales, Nuttall returned to painting – producing a series of expressionistic landscapes and reliefs which marry the eroticism of his earlier drawings with a heightened awareness of the fecundity of nature.

From the 1960s through to the mid-1980s, Nuttall was an inspirational teacher, first at Leeds Polytechnic and then as Head of Fine Arts at Liverpool Polytechnic, promoting experimental approaches and crossing creative boundaries. Alongside his teaching, Nuttall steadily acquired a reputation as a significant poet of his generation, publishing collections of his own work and regularly contributing to various literary journals such as Ambit. Throughout his life, Nuttall was a compelling critical commentator on contemporary and popular culture. His writings demonstrate a postmodern sensibility – he saw no paradox in bringing together the ideas of the French essayist and philosopher Georges Bataille and the Blackpool comedian Frank Randle. Above all, Nuttall remained passionate about the emancipatory role of the arts in creating a more humane and open society and he expressed this many times and in many places. By the time of his death in 2004, Nuttall had published an extensive body of work including novels, graphic novelettes, poetry, biographies, critical writings on popular culture and adult comics, many of which are now documented and shown on this website.

Gillian Whiteley

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Read the obituary by Michael Horovitz from The Guardian

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