THE great, and sadly now late, conceptual artist Susan Hiller once said that the question at the root of all art was a very simple one: “Is the artist serious or is he pulling my leg?”

In Philip Colbert’s case there will be some who think he’s not so much pulling their leg as actively sawing it off at the hip. The Perth-born artist – once called the “clown prince of pop art” by i-D magazine – has designed cheesy dresses for pop star Rita Ora and wears suits that are covered in lobsters (a recurring motif in his work; he is also partial to fried eggs. On the canvas at any rate). He has also been known to rap in clothes stores (although Colbert admits he was never very good at it) and covers his paintings in computer error graphics and emojis.

In short, given that he has also designed dresses that look like urinals (inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain), it does seem fair to ask if Colbert is merely taking the proverbial.

Whatever it is he’s doing, it’s clearly working. Over the last decade Colbert has built up a career, first in fashion and now in art, that has seen him collaborate with singer Lady Gaga and rapper Kanye West and have his own show in London's Saatchi Gallery at the end of last year. In the months ahead he has exhibitions planned in China – two in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai – and a museum show in Russia.

In other words, serious business. But is it serious art?

It’s a Monday morning in January when I get to ask him. Colbert, 38, works in a cluttered studio that sits cheek-by-hipster-bearded jowl with upmarket stores and funked-up graffiti in London’s Shoreditch.

I get to the studio before Colbert does. As I sit and wait, an assistant is roughing out canvas after canvas of Colbert’s trademark cartoon lobsters. Nearby there are glittery dresses on mannequins; one looks like a soup can, another like a washing machine. On top of the nearest unit there are wire sculptures of lobsters (inevitably), Salvador Dali and Edvard Munch’s most famous painting The Scream. Look closely and you can see models of Colbert’s cartoon lobsters in various nooks and crannies. In fact, the association with crustaceans is so great he’s regularly called “the lobster guy”.

And, yes, there are paintings on the walls. One shows a Francis Bacon-esque face, all mottle and distortion, on top of which a cracked egg has been painted. I have to confess it takes me a minute or two before the punchline hits me.

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When he does arrive, Colbert is dressed in a bespoke suit and a soft-spoken manner at odds with the noisiness of his work. The only real signifier comes in the shape of a cap he’s wearing. It’s adorned with one of his cartoon lobsters.

He tells Paul the photographer that he doesn’t want to take it off for the photographs. Partly, he says, because it’s showing off the brand (he does talk a lot about brands in our time together) and partly because he doesn’t want to be photographed with hat hair, which is fair enough.

Talk to him for any length of time and it’s quickly clear that there is a gap between the image and the man. “People sometimes have the idea that I’m always going to be dressed in a crazy suit and rapping at them,” he admits. “They’re disappointed.”

Colbert has been in this particular studio space for a couple of years now. It’s allowed him to concentrate more on his art, making six-metre canvases for the recent Saatchi show Hunt Paintings. “When I got this space I could really imagine doing big pictures in here and I was at a point where I felt comfortable to take the risk of pushing myself into art full-time, whereas before I’d been doing it a bit on the side. I thought, ‘I’ll regret it if I don’t do this.’”

The art is an extension of the visual language he had already developed in his fashion work. “There was a pop vocabulary of symbols and ideas that were laid down, so, when it came to painting, I already had certain things on the table.

“It allowed me to push a more active visual dialogue with what was going on in my head rather than simplifying and streamlining everything which often with products is what you have to do,”

In that case Colbert’s head must be a constant cacophonous rattle because his paintings are so busy. They pulse with colour and symbols and art history references (Is that Basquiat? Why, yes it is). As one critic suggested, it’s art that’s been run through the rainbow puke app.

On his website Colbert calls himself a “neo-pop surrealist”. You can see echoes of Warhol and Richard Hamilton in his work. And maybe, less appetisingly, Jeff Koons too, though Colbert’s work, whatever you think of it, never feels as self-regarding and self-obsessed as the American’s.

The question I have, I tell him, is that given pop art is 60 years old now, can it really still relevant?

“Very much so. It’s hyper-relevant because we’re hyper-consumers. If you take the curve of globalisation from the sixties, the idea of consumerism has really evolved. Look at us now on social media. We’re more pop than ever.”

Pop art “is super accessible and super relevant to the time,” Colbert argues. “I think we are more pop today than we were in the sixties and if I’m trying to make an honest picture of our culture today it’s a hyper-pop picture. That’s where I feel we live in. In my paintings I’m trying to make some form of realism.

“My art is just trying to reflect this idea of the individual living in a hyper-saturated environment where we’re semi-cyborgs with digital identities consuming information. I spoke to the head of Apple in the UK and he was saying we consume 60 metres of information on our tablets a day on average.”

His style is pop baroque. The opposite of tasteful minimalism. “I can go to an Agnes Martin exhibition and it’s very beautiful and I can respect her quest for minimalism. But, at the same time, I feel it’s slightly an escape. It’s an obsession on a detail which can be celebrated but it’s not actually reflective of its time.”

Hmm maybe. But then one could also ask, is his? The world is falling apart and he’s painting emojis after all. In short, Philip, do serious times need serious art?

He’s not so sure. “Some seriousness is self-serving. There’s a school of art that looks for serious art because it wants to commend seriousness. And that often doesn’t work in my opinion. It’s patting people on the back for something that is very much predetermined.

“It’s being created for the system. It’s almost tailor-made for what the system wants. The system wants ‘serious commentary’. The Turner Prize has become quite like that.”

That said, he adds, “I think it’s important that art should be dealing and responding to bigger issues rather than just putting the head in the sand for consumption and enjoyment.”

Of course, some people might think that’s exactly what his work does. So, maybe it’s time to ask that question at the top of the article. Philip, do some people think you are just taking the p***?

“I am sure,” he accepts, “some people are initially off-put. ‘Emojis. Urgh. Tacky. Stupid. Banal. Not serious. Why are you putting Basquiat into a painting? That’s such a cheap gag.’”

But that’s not how he sees it. “I’m actually celebrating communal language. I’m interacting with history and the role of history and the fact that we can turn it upside down, we can play around with it. I’m deliberately wanting to appropriate. That’s the whole idea.”

And anyway, Colbert says, if you want the violence of now it’s there in the work. The last exhibition was called Hunt Paintings after all. “There are lots of sinister undertones. I am trying to tackle the violence of contemporary culture. I am trying to push the violence.”

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It probably doesn’t help his artistic reputation among the “self-serving serious” that Colbert’s way into art came through fashion. Those urinal dresses, designing Snoopy capsule collections, even putting Rita Ora in a dress decorated in blocks of cheese for her 2013 world tour. For Colbert the brand came before the art rather than vice versa.

That came in part, he says, because of the nature of work the fashion industry. “In the past collaborations were an amazing way of supporting my work because when you’re a small business and you collaborate with a big company it’s quite an interesting trade-off. You get offered a platform and financial support to present your ideas.”

And those who sought him out wanted what he offered. In short, Rita Ora knew what she was getting. “She liked the humour and the anti-fashion quality.”

It’s also why Kanye West got in touch with him. “He knew my brand already and he proposed a collaboration. We met up a few times in his studio. He had a film crew shooting the whole time. I don’t know what happened to the footage. We developed some designs and then I came back here.

“I was only there for two months and when I came back here it slowly started fizzling out. But it’s one of those things that might come back again.”

Did you talk to him about Donald Trump? “No. Luckily it was before all that. I found him very entertaining. He was so enthusiastic. He was like a big kid. He had this idea that he could reinvent clothing and the meaning of clothing. I found him quite an inspiring character.

“But I saw the good side of him. People told me be careful, but my experience was really positive. He is definitely a dreamer. There’s something appealing about dreamers.”

Ask Philip Colbert about Scotland and he starts talking about nature and illegal drugs. The nature came first. His childhood Perthshire memories are of mountains and lochs and going fishing with his dad, a town planner who later became a property developer.

His parents were Irish. He has one brother and what sounds like an idyllic start in life. But it didn’t really last. His teenage years were spent getting drunk and getting wasted.

This was the fallout of an unhappy time at school. He went to Strathallan School in Perthshire where he was bottom of the class.

That was not the worst of it. “I was quite badly bullied when I was 13, 14. It was quite a tough school, quite harsh.”

When you say bullied? “Just classic stuff,” he replies, closing the matter down. “I enjoyed smoking and sneaking away. It stopped when I was 15.”

The bullying, not the sneaking away. There were days where he’d end up in Perth itself, lurking around the local pubs. Other times he would find a quiet spot and light up.

“I was a massive pothead and funnily enough it was a really positive thing for me,” he says now. “I started smoking a lot of weed when I was 16 and it did the bizarre thing of making me think more and I started questioning stuff and I started being more self-aware.”

He read a book by Friedrich Nietzsche and on the back of it decided to study philosophy. He knuckled down and earned a place at St Andrews University, where he spent his time reading books by 19th-century philosophers.

And then he got on a train to London to become a fashion designer.

This is what I can’t get my head around Philip, I say. You had an interest in art since childhood, but you go to London and you seek a career in an industry that you didn’t know anything about.

“That was an advantage in a way,” he says. “I was coming at it so leftfield. When you’re so misplaced, when you’re the last person anyone would expect to do that, there is almost a strength in it. Because to every person you meet you’re memorable because you’re in the wrong thing.

“And when you work really hard at it and you don’t give up people also respect the fact that you stick around. And when things start to go better it creates a story and we know that stories are what makes the world go around.”

Plus, he says, fashion was relatively cheap for start-ups. “It’s not like creating a car brand. You can stick a label on a T-shirt from Primark and paint an X on it. And people do that.”

That said, the business side of fashion wasn’t something he was that interested in. “I always wanted to be doing the creative world building rather than dealing with shops.”

He was always anti-fashion in a way, Colbert says. And now he’s an anti-artist. Which means? “I’m anti the hierarchy of traditional art ideas; the idea that the artist is a tortured genius. I find self-serving grand ideas of ego … I’m just not attracted by them. I am more into the idea that everyone is an artist.”

For the recent Saatchi exhibition he created a virtual reality version of the show where you could wear a headset and be looking at the paintings on the wall of the Saatchi in VR.

“You were walking around in a VR exhibition of the exhibition you were in. A meta double level of reality. I am into that. I’ve got a show in Shanghai in May and we are really going to push this VR thing.”

In Asia, he hopes, big ideas are possible. “I think of Lobster Land as a theme park”, he tells me. Are you going to build it one day? “I like the idea that I can evolve it and, yeah, if it becomes a thing, I really want to build it in the real world.

Away from the studio Colbert is married to artist and film-maker Charlotte Colbert. They have two young children. “My son is one and a half and he loves to chew the heads off the lobsters,” referring to the Colbert lobster models.

What about him? Does the lobster guy eat lobsters? No, of course not. It would be terrible. I don’t really eat seafood at all.”

It’s curious, I think, to hear him talking about his family or look around his studio and see all the people he has working for him (eight in all, he reckons) and to think of his success in both fashion and art to then recall that he sees himself as something of an outsider.

But somewhere inside that teenage boy still exists. You can still get a glimpse of him now and then.

“For a long time at school at the bottom of my class slightly pigeonholed and slightly ostracised,” he says at one point. “But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel anything.

“I feel like everyone’s the same. When they open the fridge late at night everyone has an existential moment. The capacity for living … everyone has that sense, whether they express it or not. Art is at best a reflection of experience and if it’s an expression of experience, then surely living is the ultimate art.”

He pauses, looks at me, cap still on but mask off. “Does this make sense?”

Philip Colbert is an artist. Philip Colbert is the lobster guy, Philip Colbert is not his art. Philip Colbert is more than a punchline.

For more information on Philip Colbert’s work visit