Colin Self

Changing Hands


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Colin Self born 1941
Digital print on paper
Image: 401 × 292 mm
Presented by the artist 1996


Changing Hands is a digital print on paper by the British draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter Colin Self. The work is slightly larger than an A3 piece of paper and presents a central green section outlined by a thick white border. A deck of cards is shown on the green background, the colour of which is reminiscent of the cloth used on casino tables. Most of the cards are presented face down, showing their red and white backs. A Joker sits in the bottom-left corner of the picture, and on the other face-up cards, which are arranged in a curved row across the top of the green section, Self has replaced the central part of each card with photographic portraits of real people. These include himself, shown as the King of Spades on the last card on the right. The other people are featured as Kings, Queens and Jacks, and their names and that of Self have been signed in the margin next to their portraits. The jaunty angles at which the face-up cards are shown and the amateurish portraits of the individuals give the work a playful and almost humorous tone.

Self made Changing Hands in his studio in Norwich in 1995. It was created by photographing a deck of playing cards onto which Self had collaged photographs of friends and acquaintances. In the bottom part of the white border Self has written his initials, the title of the work, the date of production and the edition number, which is six in an edition of fifty-four.

According to a Tate catalogue entry for Self’s Study for Rose Period No. 3 1983 (Tate T03976), the artist regarded playing cards as ‘examples of “people’s art” which he values for their intrinsic beauty and as traditional motifs from everyday life’ (The Tate Gallery 1984–86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1984–86, Tate Gallery, London 1988,, accessed 17 September 2015). The ‘everyday-ness’ of the cards, coupled with the casually arranged photographic portraits of the artist and his acquaintances, suggests an informal gathering of friends. Playing cards feature in other works by Self, for example in Fantail Pigeon on Nest 1983 (Tate T03974) in which they form the feathers of a pigeon’s tail.

The size and subject of Changing Hands are in keeping with Self’s work of the 1980s and 1990s, which the gallerist Ben Tufnell has described as ‘more personal. There is an intimate, domestic dimension which has become more prominent. At the end of the ’60s his brain was at last able to thaw from the fear and paranoia that he calls his “Nuclear Winter of Non-being”, and he was able to move on’ (Tufnell 1998, p.81). Here Tufnell refers to Self’s exploration of the pervasive fear surrounding the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. His Hot Dog Sculpture of 1965 (Tate T06904) is a well-known work exploring both American pop culture and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Changing Hands, by contrast, presents a subject more obviously personal to the artist, and the fact that his signature is featured twice in this image firmly locates him as both author and subject.

The work’s size presents its subject on a small scale, demanding that it be inspected close-up. Self has always worked on this scale, consciously avoiding using big canvases or making very large sculptures. As he explained in the late 1980s, one of the reasons for this is that ‘those who worked big must forfeit idea after idea in order just to physically accomplish one massive painting or sculpture’, stating that he feels that the smaller size of his artworks allows the idea to take centre stage and that he regards ‘the Idea as a fundamental theme’ (quoted in the Tate catalogue entry for Study for Rose Period No. 3 1983, Tate T03976, accessed 17 September 2015).

Further reading
Ben Tufnell, ‘Colin Self’s Maximalism’, Modern Painters, vol.11, no.3, 1998, pp.80–2.
Simon Martin, Colin Self: Art in the Nuclear Age, exhibition catalogue, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester 2008.

Jo Kear
September 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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