words Lucy Stehlik
“Last week I wanted to pack it all in,” says Jasper Goodall. “I have that every few months. It’s so depressing that I don’t want to do this any more. There’s this horrible realisation that one of the reasons I did art was so that people would think I was cool. It was all rubbish really. But it worked.”
It’s 11am on a dismal Monday morning in Brighton and Jasper Goodall is picking at a sausage and marmalade sandwich. Outside his spacious studio, thirty-somethings are mooching around the cafés and boutiques near the station, looking barely recovered from the weekend’s hedonism. This good-time generation is Jasper Goodall’s demographic.
As one of the most prolific illustrators of the past decade, Goodall helped define the look of an era with his work for Levi’s, Dazed & Confused, Nike, Adidas, BMW and, most notably, the Face. Both phases of his style, the spraypaint and stencil aesthetic of the late 1990s, and, later, the provocative fantasy women rendered in a blend of Sixties psychedelic style and bold silhouette, set a trend in illustration, popping up in music videos, on club flyers, on album covers and in magazines to serve as shorthand for “cool”.
The graphic design and illustration community talks of Goodall with unanimous respect, while people who don’t know the name probably know the work. His style has been emulated so much that it has become a veritable school of illustration in itself. But Goodall was the originator, fusing the elegant, erotic lines of Aubrey Beardsley’s work with the bold op-art effects of Sixties poster art – and incorporating enough fashion, sex and subcultural savvy to make it stick.
But while his work has maintained a high profile, he has done the opposite. He’s been so selective about his interviews that it’s hard to know what to expect.
As it turns out, Jasper Goodall is something of a contradiction. A nice-looking 32-year-old in a stripy sweater and designer glasses, he is soft-spoken and childlike, displaying a vulnerability at odds with his work. The bold, sexualised imagery chimes with a set of complexes that gradually emerge as he talks – complexes about his mother, his father, sex, women and drugs. Perhaps they stem from his childhood. “My home life wasn’t that stable,” he says.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Goodall’s father, an architect, and mother, an aspiring fine artist, photographer and ardent feminist, brought him up in liberal, hippyish surrounds. Goodall’s visual literacy was a parental priority – his first books were chosen on the merit of their illustrations. But his parents divorced when he was eight and, despite the arty children’s books and left-wing atmosphere, his father was dismissive of his early artistic dabbling while his mother was against him pursuing a career in design. “She was always a very political person and she was more interested that I got into sociology and politics,” he explains.
He ignored the opposition and flew the coop for Brighton University to study illustration, where he started taking lots of drugs and “seriously lost it”: “Panic attacks, I thought was insane – properly – that kind of thing …” After university, his drawing skills landed him a job sketching listed buildings for Richmond Borough Council and he moved to London. Soon, what he calls “the Old Street mystique” – referring to the once bohemian area of east London – was calling.
“I was dating a girl who was on a fashion course,” he says. “And she kind of pushed me in that direction. I got really sucked in. I was obsessed with doing cool work and being considered cool.”
A number of auspicious factors helped Goodall along the road to being cool. Graham Rounthwaite, seminal creative director of the Face and a highly respected illustrator in his own right, had begun to introduce illustration to fashion shoots, experimenting with formats that could work without photography. Photography in general, after decades of comfortable monopoly, was being forced to make way for other means of representation. Rounthwaite saw an avenue and began to commission Goodall frequently.
“Graham was one of the main players in dragging illustration out of the doldrums. He made me realise illustration could occupy the same space as photography,” says Goodall.
Later, when I track Rounthwaite down, he returns the compliment. “Jasper has pretty much nailed his particular style of making work, which means his work is very confident, which is its strength. His commissions were always spot on, progressively modern images. For those reasons, we felt him an important part of our team at the Face. At times, we effectively built stories around his pictures.”
Following this exposure, the photography agency Big Active recognised a shift in the balance of power and, in an unprecedented move, signed its first illustrator: Jasper Goodall.
Highly visible campaigns like his billlboards for Levi’s on Regent Street put his name in lights and, inevitably, other designers started aping his style.
Steve Wallington, of design agency Point Blank, worked with Goodall on a new brand of condoms for MTV, and thinks a competitive edge has helped Goodall evolve.
“First, he made illustration accessible and fashionable. He was at the forefront for his style – beautiful, iconic silhouettes. But lots of people have emulated the silhouette style which means he has had to evolve in an ever-changing world, which is a good thing.”
Goodall also now has a brand to protect. With multinationals offering him well-paid commissions, he has to be careful how he picks his clients. By his own admission, a lot of his enterprise rests on simply “being cool” – and he screens his calls accordingly.
“If people want to employ me and they want to give me a lot of money, then it’s stupid for me to turn them down,” Jasper explains. “But what gets very difficult is when people want me. When they want my thing for their product. Like last year I did this job for Sprite in America and they wanted my thing and I think I only did it because I knew it was only going to be seen over there. And it was 25 grand for three illustrations,” he giggles incredulously. “That’s just something I can’t say no to!”
Jasper Goodall has made a lot of money from his art. But when he was a teenager, his mother told him he would never make any money from his work at all. “I got quite bitter about it, because she started being a fine artist and she didn’t get anywhere. I said, ‘You just don’t want me to do it because you failed. And you think I’m never going to make any money out of it, but I have.’”
Five years ago, his mother died of leukaemia, just before he started raking in the big commissions. But she did live to see his drawings of women as sex objects, and she hated them.
Some might say Goodall’s highly sexualised representations of women are merely fashionable pornography – and indeed, a large filing cabinet in his office is filled with tearouts from porn and fashion magazines, which he uses for inspiration. Given his late mother’s ideological stance, doesn’t he worry about objectifying and thereby subjugating women?
“That’s something I wrestle with a lot,” he says. “I’d like to see it as empowering women, but part of me knows that it’s about my desire, about my problems. I’m wrestling with ideas of beauty and power that, as a man, I feel I have a lot of issues with.”
The filing cabinet is just the beginning of a creative process that feminists might find problematic. Trawling through the magazines, or, more often now, websites, Goodall chooses the bits he likes best – this girl’s breasts, that girl’s arm and so on – and melds them all into a sort of GM woman.
“I put all the best bits together until I like them and they’re perfect,” Goodall explains, through a mouthful of sausage. “I trawl through images, or, if I need something really specific, I get my mate Julia to pose – but usually they’re constructed out of six or seven different bits of people. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, putting them all together.”
He is acutely aware that some people see his work as just a few, design-literate steps on from a Pirelli calendar. In fact, he seems to agree with this perception.
“There are days when I just feel a bit disgusted with it all. I suppose I’ve become more conscious that – it sounds wanky – but that it’s almost like a form of self-therapy. And I think there may come a time when I don’t feel a need to do that any more. When I don’t want to put any girls in there at all. I just want to get away from it all. Sometimes I just think I’m adding to all the crap in the world.”
Jasper Goodall is a Buddhist. If he could do any job in the world he’d be “a forest ranger”. Yet he’s most proud of his work on a range of £200 bikinis (icon 020), which he produced with swimwear designer Louise Middleton, and his latest project,
a commission for his agency Big Active’s latest book, is perhaps the most sexually explicit work of his career.
“It’s funny,” he says. “Since my mum died, I think my work has become more and more sexual. I suppose in a way I felt slightly liberated because always, in the back on my mind, I knew she would know what I was doing.”
The book, Head, Heart and Hips, showcases Big Active’s stable of artists, which includes Will Sweeney, Katy Gibb, David Foldvari and Kam Tang. Jasper’s contribution involves very explicit reworkings of Ancient Greek mythology. Does he think he’s gone too far this time?
He answers carefully: “There has been a slow move of getting the inside out and it becoming accepted. When I started to draw sexual things I found it very difficult, particularly because of my mother and the feminist thing. I thought people were going to be completely disgusted. It was like sexual male aggression, or just a natural male power, was frowned upon and I think that’s something I’ve really struggled with. So there has been this process of me feeling more liberated. And the stuff in Head, Heart and Hips is one step further on because it’s more pornographic than I’ve ever worked, but in quite a beautiful way.”
He pauses for a moment, as if reconsidering. “And it’s illustrated. It’s not like in pornography where somebody actually had to do that. Besides, people need to be prodded a bit. Everybody has sexual fantasies, so what’s the problem?”
This is a glimpse of the other side of Goodall – the one that probably takes over when he works. But this is not his default setting: the introspection and self-recrimination take over again almost immediately.
“I think my illustration has just been a deluded desire, or what I thought I wanted. It’s like a catharsis. I’m going through a process. My ambition was to be recognised in my own field and that’s happened and it was nice for a bit, but it doesn’t make me any happier.”
His new work shows traces of this early midlife crisis. In Head, Heart and Hips, the sexually voracious subjects have a credible, mythical etymology, which seems more like a tenuous disclaimer for the explicit content than a genuine examination.
Refreshingly, he doesn’t attempt to cover his tracks. “The whole thing about dealing with classical themes is that they’re all quite sexual and weird, so it’s really good imagery to deal with and it kind of lets you off the hook.”
Male full frontals also feature, which is a more recent development. Why has he decided to bring men into the girls’ locker room that is his portfolio?
“It’s more about sexual desire as a whole, rather than just my sexual desire for women. I don’t want to just draw girls because everyone thinks I’m just a total male chauvinist and all I’m interested in is girls and I can’t bring myself to draw a man because then I’d have to draw a cock. So there are beautiful women, but there are also beautiful men.”
Supporting evidence for a change in aesthetic direction can be seen in Goodall’s recent work on a novelty scratch ‘n’ sniff EP cover. It intimates a more innocuous frame of reference – all wholesome teenagers and soda fountain nostalgia. The only question is whether this move away from femmes fatales and sex goddesses is a return to innocence or the onset of a Lolita complex.
As the interview draws to a close, he switches over to earnest armchair philosopher mode. “It’s about letting go of desire. You don’t need a big fast car. You don’t need a beautiful girlfriend. You don’t need everyone to adore you.” It’s as though Jasper Goodall’s lifestyle, which seemingly encompasses all of the above, just became surplus to requirements.