Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley was one of the most controversial artworks of the 90s. Twelve years on, he's set to cause another furore. 'Just don't say I've done Thatcher with dildos,' he begs Simon Hattenstone
It's 12 years since Sensation opened at London's Royal Academy and the Young British Artists were crowned as the iconoclasts of the 1990s. There was Damien Hirst and his shark in formaldehyde, Tracey Emin and her tent recording everybody she had slept with, Jake and Dinos Chapman and their child mannequins with penises for noses and anuses for mouths. All are still household names. Yet the one artist to cause a genuine sensation at Sensation was little known at the time and remains so today. Few outside the art world remember the name Marcus Harvey, but many recall his portrait of serial child killer Myra Hindley composed of children's handprints.
The show was picketed by the pressure group Mothers Against Murder And Aggression, accompanied by Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of Hindley's victims. They asked for the work to be removed. So did Hindley. Windows were smashed at the Academy's home, Burlington House, eggs and ink were thrown at the picture, which was temporarily removed, restored, placed behind Perspex and guarded by security men.
While many of the artists featured in Sensation lapped up the publicity, Harvey slipped back to his studio and continued to work away quietly. He refused to give interviews, was never photographed falling out of clubs, and rarely exhibited in this country. His subjects continued to be contentious, but little fuss was made because the works were so little seen.
Now he's about to cause another furore. At Harvey's studio in south London, I am staring at two panels of cast dildos. Small willies, medium willies, supersize-me willies, lollipop willies, corn-on-the-cob willies, wrinkled willies, gun-shaped willies. From where I am standing, I can't see any resemblance to Margaret Thatcher. "Don't just say he's done Thatcher with dildos," Harvey says. "I sound a right twat." And, true enough, a couple of Thomas the Tank Engines, comedy masks of Thatcher and Tony Blair, a fist giving the finger and skulls are featured in the mosaic, but we are talking largely dildos. On the wall is a massive reproduction of the photograph it will eventually look like.
"Beauty is an important word for me when I'm making this because it has to be beautiful. The gleaming, shining, plastic quality of the objects, they're like new toys when you've sprayed them. I want to make a ravishing object of Margaret Thatcher."
As a young man, Harvey found Thatcher anything but ravishing. He was a socialist who had witnessed first-hand how her policies had helped destroy small businesses, such as the advertising company run by his father. He despised the wholesale privatisation of services he regarded as essential to the wellbeing of the country, such as the railways. And he couldn't stand the Thatcherite notion that there was no such thing as society.
Harvey was a young punk growing up in a Leeds-Irish working-class family made good. His father had taught himself to speak nicely and voted Tory. His mother was loquacious and worked as an in-store demonstrator. The Harveys had done well for themselves until the economy went to hell in a monetarist handcart and they lost their house. His father went bankrupt, and he had a breakdown from which he never fully recovered. No wonder the young Harvey didn't like Thatcher.
Today, his feelings are more ambivalent. "When you get to middle age and have children and have to pay your bills, you have some sympathy with some of the things she did." But so much of what he despises, he says, has its roots in Thatcherism. "Even though I'm in the art world, I've been nauseated by this rampant pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else. Everything else in society is taken hostage and squeezed and crushed till the juice and the money runs out."
He tells me about the time he was at London Bridge waiting for a train, and he was called a customer rather than a passenger for the first time. Two decades on, it still makes him snarl. "I'd been called a fucking customer. There was just some seismic change in culture at that point." Mind you, he says, on the turn again, he doesn't want to be rose-tinted about life before Thatcher. "It was a fairly miserable world." He stops. "I don't know. I'm conflicted."
Harvey, 46, is a stylish, rather intimidating man - big hair, huge mutton-chop fingers, massive overcoat, talks in a monotone, rarely smiles. He looks like a sinister version of Vic Reeves. He is taking me through his lifetime's work via his laptop. I ask him why so many of the keys are missing from the keyboard. "I punched it." Has he punched many things in his life? "Mmmmm, I have punched a few things in my time."
Harvey grew up in a religious household. His mother had converted to Catholicism when she married his Catholic father and eventually became a Jehovah's Witness. As did Harvey. Yes, he says, he didn't have much time for the dogma, but he admired the honesty of the Witnesses. Now he considers himself an atheist, but when he talks about art a hint of religiosity creeps into his language.
He regarded art as a vocation, a calling. Like Hirst, who is two years his junior, he ended up studying at Goldsmiths. After leaving, he became a care worker by night (specialising in autism) for seven years, and an artist by day. "Everybody has to have his wilderness years. If you never have your period in the wilderness, you never know if you can stomach the business you're in without money, without gallery attention, and if you can do that on your own and develop in your shitty cold studio and do a job, then you don't have much to fear." Many of his fellow artists dismissed him as a masochistic crank. "The media created this popular conception that we were all a gang together, and that was just not the case. I had a strong friendship with Damien Hirst and not really anyone else. And I had very little in common with their work or their approach to it."
Having said that, he thinks the Britart movement, although a media construct, provided a wonderful opportunity for young artists - money to create, money to exhibit, money to make. I ask him who he most admires from the group. He mentions only one artist - Hirst. "Somebody once said he walks through walls and goes and gets what he wants. I can't deny his genius." What is that genius? "I think it's just understanding what the art experience is; it's theatre and playing with audience expectations and taking it to absolute extremes. Americans did it with the outsize sculpture form in the 60s and 70s. It's not really an English thing, but he's kind of American in terms of the force and not needing permission to take his ideas to the largest expression."
But he is not uncritical of his friend. He tells me of the time he visited him and discovered he had a Francis Bacon. Bacon is one of Harvey's heroes. "I wasn't very happy that Damien bought one... he's a conceptual artist. I'm a painter and it fucks me off that I went into his office and there's a $33m Francis Bacon on the wall. And what pissed me off even more was when he had his show at Saatchi's and Francis Bacon went in there and was full of praise for Damien's work, so Damien had the ultimate accolade of praise from the great man, which is something every painter in their heart wanted." He says it all with a straight face. It's hard to know whether he is having a laugh or in deadly earnest - probably both.
While most of the artists featured regarded Sensation as a springboard to greater fame and infamy, Harvey was left shell-shocked. He had no idea people would react with such hostility to the Hindley painting. After all, it had been sitting in his studio, unremarked on, for years. "I made it for myself. My dealer bought it from me and then Saatchi came into the gallery and thought he must have it." (Saatchi paid £11,000 for it and sold it for an estimated £100,000.) Harvey had always regarded the painting as a sombre critique of the media's exploitation of the Hindley story in general and that image in particular. "I think the photograph was used irresponsibly. The image itself took on its own life force. It became its own kind of erotic, sexy, child-murdering witch. It fitted some need we have in society to stereotype women who are not mumsy or who don't embrace their maternal instinct with both hands, and push them towards this cold SS guard. That image picked up a lot of momentum that actually distorted her chance of ever getting justice."
Yet when Sensation was splashed on the front page, it was Harvey who was labelled the irresponsible one. Surely he must have realised the painting would cause outrage? No, he says, he didn't make it with a reaction in mind because, at that stage, he didn't expect his work to be displayed.
Although he was appalled by the public response, he knows he had no right to be. He has always believed that art should confront. "I don't want to produce work that is a pleasant distraction, then you move on to something else. I would actually like it to fuck their day." He whispers the last sentence, then rephrases it. "Stop their day. To make it an encounter." You said fuck their day, didn't you? "Well, yes, but it will probably come back to haunt me."
The strange thing is that the Hindley painting, which has defined his career, was a work in progress; almost a rough. He shows me an astonishing image - identical yet wholly different. It is the same Hindley painting but made of three-dimensional objects - cast hands tempting invisible children with Polos, pink shrimps that cost a penny, blocks of Lego, biscuits. It is a mosaic made of plaster and sprayed components, and he calls it a two-and-a-half-dimensional painting.
Blimey, I say, I've never seen that before. "No. Nobody has. It took a year to make, and then suddenly Sensation took off and this fucking circus came to town with the other piece." He didn't want to be regarded as a one-trick pony. "So this just got salted away. I finished it about 11 years ago. I love it. It's my favourite piece."
After Sensation, he returned to the solitude of the studio. He experimented with a number of approaches. There were the hand-smeared readers' wives paintings, inspired by memories of his paper round as a child and its peculiar British amateurishness. He moved on to paint Ann Summers sex toys, which in their own way paved the way for the Thatcher piece. There were also obscured portraits of Blair and women in burkas, painted on outsize door panels, sculptures of Churchill inspired by the statue with the turf mohican; perfectly rendered jackboots and Doc Martens with footballs (he wasn't interested in the sport so much as the attitudes and ideologies associated with it).
Harvey says his artistic promiscuity has been a nightmare for those who have shown faith in him. "I've explored quite a lot of different things and that has been an issue for galleries and collectors who like to see a focus and a progression. Something you can measure. That's not something I've been able to maintain." Though his work appears fantastically confident in its execution, his approach to it is diffident at the best of times.
And while he weaved his wobbly way forward he married, had a child, divorced, embarked on another long-term relationship and had two more children. He quit care work, turned full-time artist, then went back to work part-time as an art teacher to keep himself curious and rooted in the real world. He launched and co-edited a dazzling magazine for and by painters that took art history, context and reproduction suitably seriously, and eschewed all advertising. He revelled in the uncertainty, loneliness and paranoia of the studio. "It can fuck your mind up when you're in the studio, and there's nothing else, and the financial pressure... it can be a very dark place."
The Thatcher project is part of his biggest solo exhibition in Britain. In eight months, Harvey has produced three bronzes, Thatcher and two paintings - a furious pace for him. The Thatcher mosaic has taken more than 1,000 hours, is 15ft high by 12ft wide, literally weighs a ton and has cost £40,000-£50,000 to make. He takes out his battered computer from its bag and shows me how the panels are beginning to fit together.
I ask why dildos are central to his vision of the former prime minister. Is it a way of insulting her? No, he says, not at all. "The dildos just underline the mysterious, deeply buried sexuality that she has and it comes with a whiff of testosterone, not feminine sexiness. They're about the testosterone she surrounded herself with. She was literally surrounded by cocks. She should have been a feminist icon for the power she had, but she absolutely wasn't. So you've got something that is negative and implying criticism but hopefully the bravura of the piece, the majesty, not to pay myself a compliment, dances with those things."
As he flicks through his own art on the computer, he offers one of his rare smiles. At last, he says, he's begun to see a pattern - the interest in national identity, regionalism, British quirks and obsessions. "I gravitated towards British issues, not in a political way, in an iconic way." Perhaps he's becoming the Morrissey of British art. "I'm just beginning to have the audacity to call myself a history painter - of my own cultural things that are just around and just preceding my experience in the world. I feel I've got a right to pull out images and icons and start to create a body of work around that. I'm just beginning to feel comfortable." And he breathes a tremendous sigh of relief.