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Mixing the sweet with the sinister

Cartoon characters, skulls and firearms jostle for attention in Dan Baldwin's work.

Cartoon characters, skulls and firearms jostle for attention in Dan Baldwin's work. David Whetstone met him.

Dan Baldwin

Dan Baldwin is apologetic. "Terrible hangover," he smiles, nursing a cup of coffee. It is the morning after the night before, when his latest exhibition - Apocalypse Wow! - opened at The Art House, the Alnwick restaurant twinned with the Opus Gallery on Newcastle's Shakespeare Street.

We meet in the Opus, where just one of his prints hangs on the wall. It is a glossily seductive picture featuring a floating, balloon-like head of Mickey Mouse attached by string to the hand/wing of a man/bird creature in a pinstripe suit. There's another, kennel-like structure in the foreground and vaguely Japanese flowers float against a beautiful blue sky.

The piece is called Message of Hope Amidst the Desolation, and we could probably debate its precise meaning until the cows come home.

But the 34-year-old artist, who admires the work of pop artists Peter Blake and Robert Rauschenberg, explains that he enjoys the juxtaposition of the sweet and the sinister.

"It went through a lot of changes, a lot of layering. But I never plan exactly how something is going to look. I start with colour and emotions and feelings and then somehow link that altogether. Then I bring in a graphic element. But there is always this sinister/beautiful quality to the work."

Recently he has experimented successfully with spray cans, attaining an unprecedented depth and richness in his work.

More alarmingly, he has also produced a body of work featuring bullets, butterflies, guns, dollar bills and Iraqi dinar, inspired by the Vanitas style of still life painting of the 16th and 17th centuries, when everything in a picture was symbolic (skull, for instance, meaning death).

Each of these prints Dan shot at with an air gun. As the pellet holes are in different places he can guarantee that no two are exactly the same.

Although he is now settled in Brighton, Dan Baldwin was born in Manchester and studied illustration in Maidstone.

He remembers that when he was at college all the illustration students were assessed for their likely employability. When it came to his turn, he was told: "You're not an illustrator."

Reeling at first, he quickly recovered and took the fine art route. He has never looked back, and it is clear from the work he has produced since leaving college that he doesn't need the spark of someone else's work for his own imagination to fire.

He was in Mexico at Christmas and was inspired by the native attitude to death. "They have these great celebrations and it's really inspiring. I saw correlations between what I was doing and their fascination for skulls and symbols, things they use on their traditional Day of the Dead."

He haggled with a stall holder to buy a bag of 500 small Mexican crosses and was tempted to return to the fray on finding she had only given him 320. But he can smile about it now and make plans for the crosses to be incorporated into future work.

Despite the hangover, Dan Baldwin's meticulous attention to detail is clear. Fastidiously he clears a tiny blemish from the glass covering the Opus print.

You can see why his pictures are popular. They may not wear their meaning on their sleeve, but they are vibrant and edgy.

It did not hurt that he was featured on BBC2's show, The Apprentice, being named as one of the top five artists in the country by that well known art critic Sir Alan Sugar.

Damien Hirst has bought his work and most of the stuff leaps off the easel.

All the prints on display in The Art House were snapped up immediately, at £300 each, with just one original work still available.

Following the lead of Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, he has also made ceramics - all decorated with his life affirming symbols.

You can see Apocalypse Wow! at The Art House, Bondgate Within, now. Tel. (01665) 602607

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