Cold War Steve (CWS), also known as Christopher Spencer, is a British collage artist and satirist who uses the medium of photomontage to highlight and comment on current politics. Having grown up in the midlands town of Birmingham and worked as a probation officer, he turned to creating art montages on his phone on the bus to work each day. He takes his unusual nom de plume one can guess partly as a reference to the political nature of his work, as well as from British actor Steve McFadden, who plays Phil Mitchell on the popular soap opera Eastenders, which often features in his artwork.
I first came across his work when I went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where his most recent exhibition, entitled Benny’s Babbies, is on display. It is a celebration of his home city and is his most complex photomontage to date. It takes an 18th-century rendering of St Martin’s Church in Birmingham as one of the main features to act as the site of celebration for some of the city’s famous figures, including the metal band Black Sabbath, comedian Joe Lycett and presenter Emma Willis. The contrast between the historic cathedral, the modern Coca-Cola tower, and the diverse array of popular figures drew me in to understanding the heritage and rich culture of the multi-cultural Birmingham, my new home. While Benny’s Babbies is light-hearted in its depiction of celebration and presents its figures in a positive light, most of CWS’s art satirises contemporary politics to emphasize the surreal nature of our current times. He incorporates figures from both British politics and American politics in hilarious situations, which now act as a light in these dark times with the onset of covid-19. In this modern age of technology, he strays away from traditional art mediums such as oil painting and instead adopts the digital photomontage as his medium, allowing him to reach a global audience through Twitter and Instagram. As he produces his artworks digitally, the artist is able to react immediately to current events and publish art in a direct way, which sidesteps traditional galleries and museums and widens the reach of photomontage.
It is interesting to compare CWS’s photomontages to early examples of photomontage, such as that by female Dada artist Hannah Höch. Like CWS’s works, her photomontages are composed of clippings from mass media, including images of politicians and popular figures, juxtaposed with text to create ironic and jarring juxtapositions. Höch’s Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919) focuses on representing the chaos of the first world war through the inclusion of industrial machinery and political figures. Furthermore, the figures of Weimar society clustered around the word ‘anti-dada’, in contrast to the anti-establishment figures around the word ‘DADA’ acts as a comment on Weimar society. Like Höch, artist John Heartfield’s anti-capitalist photomontages emerged in a moment of war and revolution. As part of the Dada movement during the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, he used his background in advertising to conceptualize the notion of ‘photo as weapon’ in creating propagandistic photomontages.
Similarly, we can see the ways in which CWS has modernised the use of political commentary in his digital photomontage. As a reaction to a recent bill by the UK government that announced MPs had voted against providing free school meals for the UK’s poorest children during the school holidays, the artist satirises this decision. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is depicted seated in a grandiose chair, with a napkin tucked into his shirt, as he begins to feast on a selection of food in front of him. In the far right of the composition, MP Dominic Cummings is shown working on his laptop, with visible food stains at the corners of his mouth. The artist sharply separates this image of excess and gluttony with the glass window on the left, depicting footballer Marcus Rashford who has combatted child hunger across England by providing food banks with resources for hungry children during the holidays. He stares at Boris Johnson through the glass, looking dismayed at the Prime Minister as he is joined by a group of sad-looking children, who represent those the government has voted against feeding.
This obvious jab at the UK government’s decision-making is clearly mirrored in Höch’s and Heartfield’s own use of photomontage as propaganda. Höch’s Dada masterpiece subverts the objectivity usually associated with photography and produces an image that is both attention-grabbing and radical for its time. In CWS’s art, more than 100 years later, we see similar artistic motivations in the presentation of political satire, but in a modern way. He appropriates a group of images to create one cohesive narrative (for those who understand the references), thus, allowing the viewer to make sense of the composition through image associations. However, CWS is uniquely persuasive in his ability to make the viewer instantly sympathise with his satirical interpretation of current politics. Furthermore, thanks to the medium of digital photomontage he is able to react immediately to current events and incorporate a wide range of images from the internet.
I’m Isabella Hill and I’m part of the third cohort of students working on the Student Ambassador Project here at The Art Story! I’m an MA student studying Art History at the University of Birmingham, focusing my dissertation on the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, having written my undergraduate dissertation on the series Pygmalion and Galatea by Edward Burne-Jones.