JOHN STARK's paintings are hauntingly ambiguous. The hooded figures, whose faces we never see, peform rituals which evoke the mystical and the mundane, asking the viewer to decide if what is being portrayed is sinister or soothing. John is a finalist for The 2012 Threadneedle Prize, and his work will be on view this September as part of 20/12 London Art Now. He lives and works in London, England.
OtherPeoplesPixels: In an illuminating interview last year on dazeddigital.com, you mention quite a few art historical influences. But I also see elements in the paintings that make me think of contemporary horror movies, heavy metal album covers, and fantasy posters? Are these also an influence for you?John Stark: Yes they have been, but influences come from all experience, and the paintings tend to be born out of ideas as old as the world itself. I don't try to create original ideas. For me, originality is novelty. In the spirit of modernism, I try to find new ways of expressing the old. By presenting this subject matter now, the meaning shifts when consumed in the contemporary context and the tendency is to draw comparisons within the specific social or cultural realm. I was influenced by elements of popular culture earlier when the language was forming, but now the work tends to have a life of its own and perpetuates itself within the structure of its own narrative drive.
OPP: What is the structure built from branches and supporting a body hidden under a blanket? I've seen it in several of your paintings and others have similar structures, but it looks like there's no body. Is this an invented structure or something with a real world referent that I'm not familiar with?JS: A funeral pyre. Similar structures can be found around the world and were used by different cultures at different times. The first painting I made like this depicted a Native American funeral pyre. In this custom, they believe the soul is carried up to the sky by birds of prey when the cadaver is consumed. Also in Zoroastrianism, they build a concrete turret called a 'Tower of Silence' to elevate the body of the floor so as not to infect the ground as the earth is considered pure. The architecture of these structures or houses for the dead is something I found fascinating, and I went on to create more versions of ‘stick architecture’ that became more like gateways or portals used in various tribal rituals of initiation, alluding to the painting itself as a gateway to pass through (in the metaphysical sense).
OPP: Why is it a recurring motif in your work?
JS: I'm interested in the way these motifs operate as memento mori and function as poignant symbols for Nietzsche's idea of the eternally recurring cycle and also call in to question Jung's belief in the immortality of the soul. I'm also attempting to comment on contemporary ways of viewing images of death and how they’re digested in the modern western world. We are becoming more desensitized by way of simulated deaths through media and film which enables us to suppress the reality of it behind a vale or bury it in the grave of our cultural memory, as if we have no innate notion of our own death. It is only the shock of a loved one’s death that persuades us that we can or even will die one day. So the intention with these particular works is for them to hover somewhere between the two oppositions. On one hand, they appear quite synthesized like fantasy art, and on the other, they depict something very real and poignant. It's a reminder that you will die and of the question of what happens at that point.
OPP: The figure in your paintings is always hooded or turned away from the viewer of the painting. Or the face is shrouded in hair or covered by fabric. Why is that?JS: It keeps them guessing ; ) OPP: One series Apiculture (2008-2012) has spanned years. What is it that drew you to the subject of beekeeping? JS: It was an intuitive decision that happened gradually, and it's now six years since the idea first formed. I felt the beekeepers provided an adequate metaphor that could be read from many different vantage points, and a painted world for the keepers to inhabit with potential narrative possibilities was born. It felt a bit like Phillip Guston when he discovered his world of clansmen: in a documentary he states he felt like a movie director with a new cast when making those works. As I fell deeper into the subject, I found interesting parallels between beekeeping and the fact that it has frequently been a monastic practice like mead, liquor, and beer production. I became focused on these kinds of rituals for their allegorical potential and their inherent mystical nature. Today there are shamanistic bee cults in practice that worship the bee and the symbol of the hive, which has been used to represent utopian society to varying degrees by many diverse communities, corporations, and religious groups throughout history.
OPP: Could you talk about the ideas of ritual and alchemy that tie apiculture and painting together?
JS: I like to think the physical process of the bees at work mirrors the process of creating a painting. Pollen becomes honey through an act of alchemy: the worker bee uses its body as the space for transformation and then regurgitates the liquid gold. Similarly, the dead stuff of paint— essentially inert matter—becomes charged through the practice of painting. Also the process is analogous with an alchemical pursuit towards a kind of philosophical gold where the metaphysical becomes physical, or the process of painting becomes a means towards self individuation. More specifically, the Black Sun is the starting point; you must travel into the darkness to find the light. So, regarding the alchemical symbolism inherent in the imagery, it refers directly to the mystical pursuit of painting.
OPP: Metaphysics is obviously a major theme in your work. Would you say your role as an artist similar to that of a metaphysician, interpretting the world for others? Or are the paintings themselves just the result, the evidence, of your private metaphysical inquiries?
JS: Metaphysics is naturally a part of painting. It's wrapped up in the strange intangible process where mind becomes matter and physical labour is transformed in the paint through time and space. Painting, for me, is a way of being that forces out questions about the nature of existence, so that is what I do. Through painting, I investigate the world from a personal perspective, where thoughts and feelings become manifest, which in turn are further interpreted by the viewer. My investigation tends to centre on universal (or Jungian) archetypes and their manipulation, so the paintings are dependent on this exchange between the artist and the beholder. To function, the paintings must be felt or understood.
from series Black Mirror
OPP: Your newest body of work, Black Mirror, seems to expand what you started with Apiculture into new and more mundane (i.e. less seemingly mystical) rituals like shaving and book binding, but they still maintain the aura of something secret and solemn happening. These are NOT funny paintings. I see in them the mystical experience/transcendence of self through ritual, labor, and magic. Older bodies of work reference magic and possible dark arts as easily as they reference Christian or Tibetan symbols. These same religious/mystical/ spiritual rituals are still visible in the new work, but now the trappings are of labor and nature and science. Are you making a point about mysticism and the everyday? Or am I just seeing what I want to see in your mirror?JS: I think you understood the paintings very well from your question, and the paintings are supposed to be very much a question. In the new work for Black Mirror, there was a definite intention to focus on more banal imagery which I tried to compliment with a more photo-real, Vermeer-esque painting language, allowing a new kind of tension to occur. Because of this, the works appear more removed than previous works, but the subject is more loaded and charged due to the heavy religious and scientific connotations and the paradoxical nature of the imagery. The depiction of labour is consistent in this series, as in Apiculture, and refers to the process out of which the work is born. The intention is to question the inherent value attached. My work is not conceptual; it relies on the physicality of the paint and its technical manipulation, so what you see is what you get. Although I’ve found, depending on what the viewer brings to these paintings, the readings will vary dramatically. Some see depictions of prisons or concentration camps, and others see a modest but tough existence driven by love, compassion and devotion. I prefer the latter.
To view more of John's work, please visit johnstarkgallery.co.uk.