Frame 61

John Stark

Frame 61
John Stark

Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did it all begin? 

I always wanted to be the best drawer in the class, that's my problem. Since around six years old, when my mother died, I started drawing, every day after school for hours on end, inventing characters, copying from comics and immersing myself in alternate realities. I find it very difficult not to create images now. Painting came later in my teens. I never looked back and when my dad sent me to work as a builders labourer during school holidays that made me strive to be a painter even more. I also considered the army and passed the physical to join the marines but thankfully decided to go to art foundation instead. I got into art school in Bristol in 97 and then followed on to the 3 year post-grad at the Royal Academy Schools. It took a while after leaving the institutions to find my way.

However, painting is certainly the one constant thread that has run through my life and kept me out of trouble. I like to think about that thread like the weaving of a silkworms cocoon, constructed of strong lustrous fibre containing the subconscious symbols and narratives of my world view. Silk worms though, like bees are farmed for commercial viability to carry out procedures of economic importance, so here is the dilemma that interests me. Out of necessity paintings are reduced to commodity, into an object of exchange which carries a value. The accumulation of time and labour in my painting brings about a sense that something is gestating and decomposing at the same time. I guess I'm harvesting my imagination.  

Beasts of England IV 2016

Beasts of England IV 2016

Your work is full of symbolism, some pieces have text/inscriptions. Could you explain some of the symbolism in your paintings, have you created your own cult/religion/history in a way? 

The double sided painting 'Medium of Exchange'; for example, borrows the format of the pub sign (although it doesn't much look like one, this is where the idea spawned from). On one side the text reads 'Half Moon Inn', and on the other 'Full Moon out'. The moon is represented by a coin, which is half concealed on one side and fully revealed on the other by the magician/beekeepers glove. So here the painting is a 'Medium of Exchange', but its also a painting of a coin, which is being exchanged for the moon, which holds influence over the tides.

I make use of contradictions frequently and try to show that contrary relationships between concepts such as reality and illusion, life and death are deeply connected and difficult to separate although they're often seen as two irreconcilable opposites. The Babylonians believed the universe originated from water and also noticed it contains opposite elements. And so, there is day and night, light and dark, male and female, hot and cold, wet and dry.

There is also good and evil and in principle every feature has an opposite element. It's also believed possible to divide matter into two opposite elements and from these two opposites everything can be generated. The Babylonians are also said to have invented astrology and believed the sun and moon held influence over what happens on earth. The influence of the planets also involves metals, so the sun influences gold, and the moon silver and the other planets control the remaining metals. In this particular work the symbols are applied to the current economic structures in place, the creation of debt out of nothing and the alchemy inherent in such fraudulent transactions. 

So I often draw on existing ancient symbolism and apply it to current situations, and this does in turn create a kind of map I suppose, of cult/religious thinking throughout history, but more so it enables us to see. I couldn't claim it my own system however, its more a conversation with pre-existing imagery and symbolism which I then borrow, hybridise and apply.

Medium of Exchange, 2016 - John Stark x Rebecca & Mike

Workers Hammer, 2016 - John Stark x Rebecca & Mike

Your paintings often depict faceless, autonomous hooded figures, like some sort of labor cult or cell/hive. Could you talk about this and the reasons behind it? 

I was never that good at painting faces, but when I made the first paintings of beekeepers with concealed faces they seemed to hold an enigmatic power. The figures became like shadows or ghosts. Now they take on more political overtones and perhaps they have more of an affinity with the worker bees within the hives they watch over. Or perhaps they are the ruling elite, the puppet masters, the politicians or the gods. The 1st series of beekeepers was originally titled 'We Used to Have Faces' and began as a poetic commentary on society and the values seen to represent it, such as labour and exchange, and the unseen forces that control it. The Honey, like Gold, becomes the symbol of value within the painting and I'm starting to see the bees as a peasantry class, in that they do what they have to do to survive. 

What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?

Generally I see the paintings like a two way mirror, in which beholder/viewer and artist meet, its an implicit social space in the metaphysical sense. Each work is intended to communicate singularly but is also in dialogue with a whole. The difficulty is in allowing the paint to offer up various types of mimetic spaces that the viewer can question, reflect upon and hopefully gain insights from. My intentions do vary however from work to work so it's a matter of finding the most suitable methods to convey the specific intentions in mind; which is why, on the surface the works can vary in styles and reference points. Throughout a series of paintings there may be two or three lines of enquiry running through it. I understand this can bring difficulties for the viewer, but I enjoy the freedom that comes with painting and it gratifies me to create paintings that surprise me. It's as challenging for me as for the viewer I guess. I'd be happy to remain as consistently inconsistent, but I do worry about this from time to time and hope the viewer can understand my approach and is willing to fill in the gaps. 

Wage War 2016

Wage War 2016

DoL Po Installation shot - Charlie Smith London 2016

DoL Po Installation shot - Charlie Smith London 2016

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine?

I'm not sure how interesting this would be to the reader, there's a lot of pacing back and forth and chin stroking involved so I'll spare the details. 

How do you go about naming your work?

Its like the chicken and egg, sometimes the title presents itself before a work is made, but usually it's the other way round. Its an enjoyable process either way as it contextualises the work. The more nondescript the paintings are the more difficult the task of naming. I try to be as literal as the work permits and there are often external literary reference points that feed into the work. 

The recent series of paintings titled, 'Beasts of England' for example, takes its title from the revolutionary theme song featured in Orwell's' Animal Farm.

What is your process, how do you start a new piece of work?

My process is always reflexive, so I begin with an idea, a sketch usually, and generally it communicates back to me and guides the way. No painting is created via the same method. There is a struggle and a period of growth needs to take place before I can fully commit to the work. I need to form a belief in it, and once thats established its a matter of realising ones intentions through the formalities of the making of the painting. 

Invisible Hand 2016

Harvest 2016

Vampyre 2016

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

There was an Andrew Grassie painting in the group show El Dorado at Horatio Junior gallery recently, curated by Juan Bolivar. It was a small painting depicting the interior of a gold painted room within which it was hung. A mise en' abyme' that placed the viewer into the abyss. The gold gesso twinkled like a vermeer. 

What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

Hmmm, I'm not entirely sure, I had an intense 12 months culminating in my recent solo show, 'DoL Po' at Charlie Smith London. 

I'm organising a group show of paintings in Suffolk this summer with Graham Crowley entitled 'Various Species', featuring, Ken Kiff, Simon Bill, Lara Viana and Jo Whittle among others. Overall I'm in a good place and looking forward to the possibilities that lie ahead without too much pressure. Currently I'm looking to move to the highlands and set up the dream studio from which I will begin to conspire through the long winter nights with future paintings. 

Click here to see the artist's website

Publishing date of this interview 24/06/16