Discovery Series: John Stark Interview
Alix Greenberg for COMPANY
(October 14, 2011) I had the pleasure of sitting down for an interview with artist John Stark at Charlie Smith Gallery London, where Apiculture, Stark’s fifth solo-exhibition, is currently on view. The allegorical paintings and sculptures are informed by a meditative process and rendered with such technical virtuoso that they speak both formally and conceptually to a ubiquitous utilitarian society. Combining techniques from old master and contemporary influences, Stark’s work provides a compelling story in which time does not exist and meaning is fluid. Stark was born in Hounslow, UK and now resides in London, where he also studied at the Royal Academy Schools. He received his Post-Graduate Diploma in Fine Art in 2004, after graduating First Class with a BA Fine Art from University of West England in 2001. Besides his five solo-exhibitions, Stark has shown in several group exhibitions. His work resides in many permanent collections worldwide.
COMPANY: How has your work evolved and transformed over time, ultimately informing this show at Charlie Smith london?
John Stark: In this show I am pushing the potential of themes in my older work and exploring the ideas in different directions. The idea of object-hood has become increasingly more important and now three dimensional works that have come out of the paintings. The Beekeeper modus originally surfaced around 2008; there where many influences but in Bruegel’s print The Beekeepers (circa 1540) I saw potential to create a whole world of my own where narrative possibilities could be held in tension.
COMPANY: Besides the Bruegel influence what else informed your implementation of bee keeping?
Stark: With the current decline of the Honey Bee, CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), there is an apocalyptic edge to the subject matter. Perhaps this is a warning to us for our continual interference with nature - as Einstein said, once the bees die humans will have 4 years left to live on this planet. There is also 1970’s Spanish film, Spirit of the Beehive, directed by Victor Erice. It is the most painterly film I have ever seen. Some frames are constructed like Cezanne or Poussin landscapes and there are some beautifully serene scenes of the Beekeeper/Father working his hives in a calm solitary state. When I first saw this it reminded me of the meditative state of painting.
COMPANY: Tell me more about this meditative state. Your works are so labour intensive, I wonder how relaxed you really were when painting them.
Stark: Painting for me is like meditation or being in an altered state - working on a painting day after day for months on end I tend to drift off into unconscious states which are intensified by the solitary confinement of the studio. I’ve always thought painting is not thinking, discoveries and surprises are only earned through the process of painting. The paintings are labours of love and indeed the process is a struggle which tests me in many ways.
COMPANY: Do you see the Beekeepers as self-portraits - either literally or metaphorically?
Stark: The bee keepers could be seen as self portraits, but all art has an element of its creator’s projection. The bee keepers can be the viewer, or the artist and the viewer at the same time. A mutual exchange occurs when experiencing the works which act like a two way mirror. The keepers could be the politicians, religious leaders - you could see the whole narrative as an analogy for the art world, are the keepers the artists harvesting their art or are they even the collectors and gallerist’s, archiving and perusing through their collections? It very much depends what the beholder brings to the table and what they want to see.
COMPANY: I am not too familiar about the art of bee keeping, but I am pretty sure that their outfits are usually white. Can you tell me more about the colours you chose, as well as the shape of the hoods?
Stark: The bee keeper’s outfits are colour coded to refer to their hives or other elements within each painting. Some have specific references to old master works, Vermeer’s Milk Maid for example, and some to current trends and styling used by certain fashion labels I am interested in like Nike, Neiborhood or even the Wu-tang Clan. They are a combination of historical and contemporary references but the underlying theme is more utilitarian. The shapes of the hoods are mirrored by other shapes in the landscape, buildings and positions of the figures. In this way, there is a suggested move towards abstraction where the paintings could be broken down into geometric form and pure colour.
COMPANY: Has painting always been your medium of choice?
Stark: Yes, but like I say I draw also. Now I am making sculptures and installations as well. I used to paint more photographically but found it very limiting after a while. My work now is more a rejection of current trends and new media, but still attempts to enter the post-modern debate. It could be seen as natural reaction against the YBA generation and more conceptual work, instead embracing the inherent value that comes with more outmoded processes.
COMPANY: Who do you admire in the contemporary arena?
Stark: Jonas Burgert, Ashley Bickerton, Yason Banal, Manuel Ocampo, Serban Savu, Francis Upritchard, Daniel Silver are all my current favourites. I’ve always loved Vija Celmins work, Andrew Grassie is making some incredible works at the moment and Glenn Brown was an earlier influence.
COMPANY: What kind of artist do you consider yourself?
Stark: (laughing) Are you trying to put me in a box? .... Or trying to get me to put myself in a box? I don’t know, I can’t answer that. That’s a job for the critics.
COMPANY: Do you have a vision for whom gets to bring your works home?
Stark: I am not too precious about the works although obviously we all want our works to be part of big museums and established collections. Once the painting is made and in the gallery it is out of my hand, as long as the gallery values and respects the work. I have many collectors who have returned to buy repeatedly, and it is great to have their valued and continual support. As long as the collector sees the purchase as an intellectual investment it is a mutually beneficial transaction.
COMPANY: What is your studio practice?
Stark: It varies with each individual work as I tend to make a variety of different types of paintings so each one requires different methods. With the landscapes for example I first paint the sky and then move forward in the pictorial space. I never know exactly what the narrative will be or the end result, they are not pre-conceived although they often appear to be – the painting unfolds as the process moves along and the idea emerges as I paint. It feels like I know where I want to get to but I’m never exactly sure which direction I’m heading in or how I’m going to get there.