When I was researching Gallery Girl I met some crazy arty people, but none more so than Meredith Ostrom the Human Paintbursh. The Sunday Times Style Section sent me to interview her. It was pretty unforgetable…
The Woman Who Paints With Her Breasts
Tracey Emin claims her art is credit-crunch proof; Damien Hirst is the richest artist in British history. And Tate Modern, which expected 1.8 million visitors a year when it opened a decade ago, saw more than 4.6 million drop by in 2009. Collector Charles Saatchi, who launched pickled sharks and unmade beds in 1997's Sensation exhibition, has just fired another BritArt broadside with Newspeak.
What began in Docklands in ‘88 with Hirst and a handful of fellow Goldsmiths’ students has become a worldwide phenomenon centred on London. Here, the gravitational pull of fame and money has not only attracted dealers and artists – there are more of the latter in London’s East End than anywhere else in Europe – but also the private jet set, the party people for whom art is the social glue. Galleries have been anything but slow to respond, particularly the Serpentine, what with Dasha Zhukova sponsoring its party and a council including Guy and Andrea Dellal, Charles Dunstone, Tim Jeffries and Tamara Mellon. Basically, if you're rich, trendy and want some fun in London, you've got to swing with the art crowd. Art has the best parties, the prettiest people and gets the best headlines.
All of which offers some clue as to what Meredith Ostrom is doing here. She likes the parties – singling out Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst’s Sudeley Castle artfests for particular praise. And she's certainly had headlines, even in a city where the crazier reaches of high-concept art don't tend to get a second glance.
Meredith is a 33 year-old American blonde who paints with her breasts. Diamond-covered breasts at that. For her latest work, a series called 'Diamond Dust Bust', she painted herself, rolled her torso in diamond dust and pressed herself up against a large canvas.
DDB (it even sounds like a bra-size) is going down a storm. According to Ostrom, the President of Georgia's just snapped one up and Nicolas Sarkozy's brother has one as well. Her work goes for thousands in galleries in New York and her adopted city of London.
Even so, is it art?
“I don’t philosophise,” she sidesteps. “I just do it.”
But what is she doing, I wonder.
“I’m kind of making fun of Hirst and Warhol,” she says. And Damien doesn't seem to mind. She says he ‘smirked’ when she told him about the diamond paintings.
Actually, she doesn’t seem to take her art too seriously. Perhaps because Meredith herself is her own most interesting creation. Her life intersects with famousness in a way that is compellingly bizarre. Her Blackberry contains close-ups of Ronnie Wood's nose and herself in armadillo-skin heels.
A New Yorker, she'd been in London a mere two days before being asked to a Mario Testino party. En route, she grabbed a taxi from under the noses of four blokes she didn't recognise, but who turned out to be Duran Duran. The result was a seven-year relationship with Nick Rhodes which ended in 2009.
Meredith says that crowds of middle-aged Italian groupies outside the front door didn't help the relationship. “I thought it was mad. But Nick would go out and stand there for hours signing autographs. He was always so nice to them. He'd say, remember that the fan that John Lennon pissed off was the fan that shot him.”
As it happens, she knows Julian Lennon who she says has a houseful of Dalmatians (dogs) and lives next to Bono in Eze. She's had tea with a vampire (Christopher Lee). "He's cool. We had little biscuits. Every night, at 6pm, his wife gives him a shot of…"
I’ve just written a book called Gallery Girl, a comedy about sex, money, huge egoes and contemporary art. I'm still recovering from some of the crazier reaches of my research and so to me Meredith's life seems like one great big Turner Prize entry. Take our meeting arrangements, which changed all the time. She was in LA, shooting with Rankin, flying to Cannes, expected in Paris. But in the end she turned up as planned.
She’s a nice girl, pretty even without make-up, appearing among the polished blondes in the Berkeley hotel bar in bare legs and Birkenstocks. She's more subdued boho than the high-camp figure I was expecting from her red carpet appearances in skyscraper heels and clinging leopard print. She is patient and polite, speaks fluent Swedish and is part German, Lithuanian and English. She grew up in New Jersey and her parents are a nuclear physicist (Dad) and an interior designer (Mum). She trained as an artist, at New York University's Tisch School, where she also trained as an actress.
It seems she kind of fell into painting in her birthday suit. What started as an experiment for a group show in New York a couple of years ago has become a career. She does solo exhibitions and occasional special appearances; last year, at London's Sketch Gallery, and in front of a crowd (including, for some reason, Michael Portillo) she painted naked behind a backlit screen in a 'Tales of the Unexpected' sort of way. "I find it empowering', she says, adding spiritedly that she couldn't care less what people think of her art.
I ask Meredith what painting naked feels like. “Cold! And yes, there are certain bits where you don’t want to get paint.” She applies it with surgical gloves and gets it off with Fairy Liquid (what would Nanette Newman say?) and a bucket of warm water. “Or I run into my local gym and use the showers. They wonder why there's paint in the drains, I guess.”
Meredith’s acting career runs parallel to her art one. It is equally eclectic and sometimes crosses over. Take her most recent film outing, as a painter's pneumatic lesbian muse in the art comedy Boogie Woogie. You might have seen her in Love, Actually (playing drums in the Robert Palmer spoof) but possibly not in films called Naked in London and Bizarre Love Triangle. Her latest part is as a trustafarian called Miriam in a film where Michael Madsen plays a producer who comes to Europe and pretends he's gay. Or something like that.
She strikes me as sort of contemporary Anita Ekberg – she's got the looks, that's for sure. She needs the new Fellini too, because, while she's very nice and polite about the films she's done, I sense that her talent for attracting the oddball, the indie and the spoofy may run slightly contrary to what she would prefer. She admits she'd love a Hollywood blockbuster. "A big trailer," she says wistfully. "No-one had a trailer for Boogie Woogie. The crew built this funny tent and Heather Graham would be in there doing yoga, and Gillian (Anderson) and Amanda (Seyfried) would be listening to tunes on their iPods."
Meredith's biggest bite so far of the celluloid cherry was playing Velvet Underground singer Nico in 2006's Factory Girl. She got the part through its star, Sienna Miller, who she met on an American sitcom. "I really like Sienna," she says. "She's smart and very professional."
Meredith possibly likes actors more than some artists. Tracey Emin, she tells me, never seems to remember she has met her. “She always introduces herself again. Probably does it on purpose.”
Afterwards, I get a free newspaper shoved in my hand as I pass the tube; there's a picture of Tracey on the cover. She’s sporting a terrific shiner. I doubt if it’s Meredith that's done it though. She's a good girl, raising money for children’s charities with her exhibitions. She seems intellectually curious; she had a shot at reading the Koran (more than I've done) because she 'wanted to understand extremism'.
"Get out there," she advises all would-be contemporary artists. "Don't be famous just for being famous. Do something and get known for it. And if you ever feel down, help a person."