The ‘Cock & Bull’ gallery lies beneath the gleaming new Mark Hicks restaurant ‘The Tramshed’. The gallery is so named thanks to the feathered cockerel and bull suspended in formaldehyde which looms above the Shoreditch diners as they eat. Of course, it’s a Damien Hirst piece, which makes eating underneath a dead bull and bird okay, naturally.


Down the stone steps to the gallery, we leave the diners with their cockerel and enter a white rectangular room, with that classic minimalist look of a gallery which wants to allow the art to do all the talking. The walls are sparsely lined with the colourful work of Joe Machine; the renowned Stuckist artist whom Edward Lucie-Smith reviewed in our April/May 2013 issue. I say the art does the talking, but shouting is probably more accurate; ‘subtle’ is not an adjective one would associate with Joe’s work.


However I have no intention of giving any pseudo-intellectual review of Joe’s painting, because nothing I could say would be more worth reading that the analysis provided by Mr Lucie-Smith, whom I had the pleasure to meet for the first time at the party on the 16th May. He was a very softly spoken man dressed all in black, whom I had to strain to hear over the bubbling noise of the gallery. Thankfully I had already read his opinion on Joe Machine’s work in the magazine, so not too much was lost in translation.


As I walked around the gallery, absorbing the graphic and stylised images on the wall the room quickly filled with people, all of whom clearly belonged in this literature and arts circle. Excepting my colleagues at the magazine, I knew no one, and soon I was being introduced to a torrent of people and shaking hands with artists and renowned Russian Pianists whilst holding a fizzing champagne coupé in the other.


A virgin to this environment, it was only natural that I made one or two faux pas. One of the best of the evening came when I was talking to Alexander Talbot-Rice , and asked him about his opinion on Joe’s work. After Alexander mentioned that it was different to his own, my follow up question was to enquire what kind of work he did.


With a smile which instantly told me that this was a ridiculous question, he told me he happened to have a piece with him here. Would I like to see it? Of course. I’m led across the room to a table on which were displayed copies of Joe Machine’s book alongside the latest edition of The London Magazine, and there Alexander plucks a framed picture of the late Margaret Thatcher, like a rabbit from a top hat.


‘The last portrait of her, drawn from life.’


I opened my mouth, but no words came. Then he told me what it was worth, pointing to the signature by the lady herself in the bottom corner. Finally I managed to say ‘oh’, followed by the even more feeble attempt at casual humour, ‘so you’re doing alright then’. But Alexander just laughed good humouredly, and told me that he would shortly be visiting Vatican City to do a portrait of the new Pope. For the second time, I was left with my mouth opening and closing uselessly. Yet despite the fact that I clearly was surrounded by a collection of some of the best a brightest in the literary and art world, I was struck by the very absence of pretentiousness which I had expected. I found my natural awkwardness was tempered with the easy unaffected openness of these people. The hours drifted by in a delicious haze.


It wasn’t until the near the end of the evening that I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Machine himself. Of course I had seen him around the room, and people had teased me snippets of their conversations with him, but I had yet to be introduced. Although not particularly tall, Joe had such presence. People were drawn to him; he was surrounded by a constant throng of people, all hanging onto his every word which, making it almost impossible for me to get to meet him without a huge audience. When the moment finally arrived, I shook his hand and suddenly I remembered what I had read about his having stabbed his teacher with a compass. Irritated with my mind for its poor sense of timing, I shoved the thought to the back of my mind and we began to talk.


Joe’s handshake was warm, and his pleasant smile was strange when juxtaposed with the dark images on the walls around us. They served as a stark reminder that behind the facades which we present to our audiences everyday, our minds can work in subversive and disturbing ways. But there is a refreshing honesty in Joe’s graphic and stylised work which is to be admired.


In hindsight, there was a kind of irony in that evening; a crowd of people who can afford to spend an evening swirling champagne in their glasses whilst chatting about art and politics, boxed in by paintings of Trotsky murdered with an axe. I can’t help but wonder what the young Joe Machine (born Joe Stokes) would have made of the event.


Later on the more hardcore found themselves in the club ‘Whiskey Mist’, and the tone of the evening became considerably less sophisticated. Once the flow of champagne was cut off and quickly replaced with Jägermeister shots and obscene cocktails, the rest of the night was spent somewhat removed from the class of the Cock & Bull’s white-washed walls. But the next day in the office, as we all nursed our hangovers, plans for the next event started to form…


By Alexandra Maher

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