Press Release, 2016
Stark is known for his highly laboured oil paintings which for the past decade have served as conduits to explore a universe of interconnected ideas. Past exhibitions have investigated themes including witchcraft, warfare, alchemy, apiculture, shamanism and imperialism. Stark's paintings could be viewed as a kind of ideological battleground where binary oppositions such as light and dark; animus and anima; cruelty and desire; control and abandonment; violence and transformation vie for territorial gain over the other. At the heart of his latest enquiry are the notions of value; the transference of energy; and a calling into question of the structures in society where exchange takes place.
The title of this exhibition alludes to Stark’s current analysis. DoL – The Division of Labour – refers to the socio-economic model whereby manufacture is broken down into component parts in order to increase productivity. Po – a term coined by Edward de Bono as part of his lateral thinking techniques, to encourage the progression of ideas towards solutions. Therefore, in contrast to tendencies in the digital age, we are encouraged to move from the abbreviated to the expansive. Stark asks us to look further, beyond the image and the instantaneous.
In this exhibition we are presented with paintings of veiled beekeepers, pig farms, military drones, robotics and scenes of nuclear contamination. Elsewhere a prehistoric femur bone propped in a trompe l'oeil niche signifies a worker’s hammer. In the two faced ‘Medium of Exchange’ an untenanted glove conceals and reveals a coin, simultaneously referring to the phases of the moon. There is an element of puppetry at play, and a sense that the figures within these works are being remotely piloted by other forces. As Paul CareyKent asks in his exhibition text ‘Stark Realities’:
‘Is he suggesting what apparent contradictions lie behind the façades of our society? Might it be superstition behind Christianity? Surveillance behind technology? Medievalism behind science? Militarism behind capitalism?’
To this end Stark takes a holistic approach and states, ‘I am searching for a wisdom older than the patent presence of a meaning, a meaning buried deep within the enigma of the paintings.’
To complement the exhibition a bespoke catalogue with sandpaper dust jacket, conceived in collaboration with Rebecca and Mike, will be published. The catalogue will feature an essay by Paul Carey Kent and a dialogic text between Stark and David Graeber, author of ‘Debt, the first 5000 years’. Stark has also made his first co-operative paintings, and as part of his pre-exhibition activity has reclaimed Comet Linear 252P. Comet DoL Po, as it is now known, came into view for observers in the Northern Hemisphere during the final days of March 2016.
Exhibition Text, 2016
By Paul Carey Kent
It’s not so rare to find that the ideas to be unpacked behind explicitly conceptual art turn out, when you examine them, to be rather thin. John Stark’s work operates as something of an inversion of that: one’s initial attention is likely to be on the technical assurance with which he constructs an alluringly glossy realism through the hyper-controlled application of multilayered varnishes of oil on gesso on board – but that’s the means to access a complex web of thinking. Stark has always painted in thematic groups of images, behind the seductions of which we sense a hidden agenda. By now he has several series he can use as a backdrop to enhance the resonances in a new set, ranging across witchcraft, warfare, apocalypse, apiculture, alchemy, shamanism and black mirrors. Let’s look, then, at what’s in play in DoL Po, what the individual works depict, and then how the whole might fit together.
First off, two concepts are conjured by the title. DoL is Division of Labour, the productive merits of which were promulgated by Adam Smith as a major driver of the Industrial Revolution: manufacture is broken down so that individuals can specialise in sub-tasks. That makes it easier to learn what to do, so that less expert – and less expensive – labour can be used. That was regarded negatively by Thoreau, who feared a reduced connection with society and nature as people lost the self-sufficiency he himself sought to develop by spending time living alone in the woods; and also by Marx, who held that workers who were restricted to the repetition of unskilled tasks became alienated from the process of production. That could only be overcome, he believed, in the cooperative model of a socialist society. That seems an unlikely destination from where we now stand: Thoreau’s vision seems more plausible, and more probable, surely, is that the Division of Labour will be ratcheted up to a potentially transformative degree by the development of robots, so that almost every task becomes divisible into units which require no human intervention.
‘Po’ is a term invented by Edward de Bono, who developed various methodologies to enhance creative or lateral thinking in such books as Po: Beyond Yes and No (1973). The idea was that, rather than aiming to develop ideas which are good (‘yes’) rather than bad (‘no’), we should concentrate non-judgmentally on moving forward by applying a ‘Provocation Operation’ (PO). According to de Bono it ‘signals that what follows is to be used directly as a provocation’ which ‘provides the same sort of value that has been provided historically by accident, mistake,
eccentricity, or individual bold-mindedness’. For example, how do you measure the height of a skyscraper? Provocatively, lie it on its side.
DoL Po, then, could be an approach which breaks down a conventionally coherent overall process into sub-units which can be thought about in adventurously different ways by those not responsible for the whole process. That could be good – surprising innovations may arise – or not so good – the participants might be diverted from the overall goal, lose their self-sufficiency and become alienated from the task. Stark’s paintings themselves seem to operate with plenty of Po – who knows what will come next? – but not a lot of obvious DoL – Stark makes his own work, though I suppose others in the chain do manufacture the paint, brushes and varnish he uses. The result has some of the polished gloss of magazine advertising. That’s a contrast with – for example – the assembly line of assistants through which a Jeff Koons painting comes about. Maybe there’s a critique smuggled in there – Stark’s is an artisanal approach in which he is present in the joyful production of meaningful work.
DoL Po, however, does feature DoL: Stark’s co-conspirators Rebecca and Mike have worked alongside as a provocative soundboard which might be thought of as the positive side of the division of labour: the ability it provides to bring various talents to bear in a joint production. The evident fruits of that are the double-sided painting Medium of Exchange , the painting Workers Hammer and this publication, which features the decidedly Po idea of a sandpaper dust jacket, imperilling any other book shelved alongside it. That, in turn, comes from Guy Debord’s Mémoires (1959), the ‘book to destroy all other books’ – discovered via the cover of the 1980 record The Return of the Durutti Column, which also borrowed the ploy. That’s typical of Stark, whose sources tend to blend horror films, gaming graphics, prog-rock album and sci-fi art with commerce, agriculture, politics, old master painting and the avant-garde, as if all belong together as readily as the internet suggests. So it is that he combines what may seem contradictory co-existents: witchcraft and spacecraft, bees and people, religion and superstition, capitalism, militarism and environmentalism.
The catalogue contains yet another somewhat unfashionable remnant of the last century: an excerpt from Steps (1968) by the Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosinski (1933-91), remembered as much for his suicide under the clouds of illness and accusations of plagiarism, as for his writing. Steps explores social control and alienation and employs the distancing device of naming no characters or places. The Polish-born novelist’s work, largely emerging from his own experience as a child wandering war-torn Europe, can be characterised as survivalist.
In his words the ‘whole didactic point’ is ‘how you redeem yourself if you are pressed or threatened by the chances of daily life’. Kosinski emphasises the worth of individuals and how they form their own moral sense, but this often leads them to act at a remove from society – just such an action being evoked by the extract in which, after a violent rampage which wages war on the city ‘as if it were a living body’, the narrator is sufficiently sated to go to sleep in the morning, ‘smiling in the face of the day’.
Hold those four things in mind, then – the Division of Labour (negative and positive), Edward de Bono’s Po, oppositionality, Kosinski’s character seeking to liberate himself from convention and morality – and we’ll move on to what DoL Po’s paintings depict.
Vampyre shows a military drone, seen as if through the night vision of a surveillance camera. That explains the rather poisonous ‘DoL Po green’. It’s framed – as are several other paintings – in a Brechtian manner which betrays its origin as a photograph which didn’t quite fit the shape of the computer screen (that’s all well and Po, though, as the consequent crop bars are a neat aesthetic echo of the shadow of the drone’s wings). What is military surveillance but an explicit version of the menace which lies behind all such scrutiny, from Bentham’s panopticon to CCTV? ‘Yes’, Stark concedes, ‘I have become the drone, scanning the internet to target images to appropriate.’ In which case he is also the vampyre, sucking the blood from our culture as he does so. Violence is built into the very act of observation.
Where else do you find drones? In the structured society of the bee colony of course, with its natural division of labour. The painting Wage War presents a version of Stark’s apiarists, faces obscured, a mysterious transaction going on, the protective suits remodelled to suggest youths in hoodies and soldiers in uniform. The title comes from the Kosinski excerpt, which was later lifted by Robert Calvert of Hawkwind fame and titled Wage War. It conflates the economic (‘we’re battling for a fair wage’) with the military (‘we’re going to war’). And what is that ceremonial laying on of hands? A honey sale agreed or the swearing of allegiance to a plot?
On the face of it, Workers Hammer depicts a signed and dated bone – presumably stolen from a museum – which could be used as a weapon in the wage war, but there’s no apostrophe in the lettering (lettering which is based on Albrecht Dürer’s typography, but with definite Nazi echoes). That means the title reads correctly as the action taken – ‘workers hammer bosses’, for example – rather than the object portrayed.
Invisible Hand is another reference to Adam Smith, this time to his theory that markets left to themselves would balance to an optimum point as if guided by an invisible hand. Now the phrase is applied to an automated operating theatre. Do we trust either of those unhuman forces? In fact, Stark says, this image is actually retro-futurist: it may be the way things will go, but the particular set-up shown here has already been replaced with the advancement of nanotechnologies. Perhaps there’s a link to the art of painting, which Stark effects with surgical precision. The thought of how an abstract expressionist surgeon might operate comes to mind for one queasy moment …
Exit could show the washroom facilities of any factory or office, but the reappearance of what now reads as radioactive green suggests a further site of decontamination. The subject may also recall its domestic equivalent: Hammershoi’s poised explorations of domestic interiors, typically featuring more portals than people. They, too, have a disquieting atmosphere, for all that they may look a long way from Kosinskian actions or nuclear meltdown.
A similar mix is evident in Nuke Descending. A pose from Duchamp is stymied by the absence of his depiction of movement, although that’s hinted at by indication of a scrolling screen. Assuming this is a place threatened by contamination, we see a robotic aided suit, used by the workers in the Fukushima Daiichi disaster: no wonder the red badge on the heart looks like the nuclear button. Military and scientific combine with the disturbing thought of how a nude body might be exposed.
The title of Flashpoint suggests that an emergency did occur. It zooms in on a firefighter in the employ of DoL Po, complete with CND sign ventilator, the number of angels and essence of the holy trinity (333) penned on the walkie-talkie, and praying hands embossed on the helmet, the visor of which becomes a tour de force of views seen through and reflected. Stark sees this as a Promethean figure, so taking us back to his theft of fire on behalf of mankind and subsequent suffering as eagles ate his ever-regenerating liver. No shortage of symbols here, then: what might be just a faceless portrait is awash with cosmic references and menace.
There are two paintings of pig farms. Stark lives in rural Suffolk, near the rapidly eroding coastline so the mid-winter view over Covehithe is a natural subject for him. Harvest combines ‘Preview’ crop lines and the night vision view finder of the drone to line up on a centred swine. The pigs are also dignified by the largest painting in the show, as would have been expected on Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the power was porcine. And indeed, Beasts of England takes its title from the anthem which expressed the original socialist-style pro-animal principles before the pigs took over as Orwell’s master race:
Rings shall vanish from our noses,
And the harness from our back,
Bit and spur shall rust forever,
Cruel whips no more shall crack …
Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland,
Beasts of every land and clime,
Hearken well, and spread my tidings
Of the Golden future time.
Very fine sentiments, but we know the anthem will be replaced by a paean to the dictatorial hog, Napoleon:
Every beast big and small
Sleeps at peace in his stall,
Thou watchest over all,
Finally, there’s the double-sided Medium of Exchange , which divides its labour between Stark, Rebecca and Mike. An apparently untenanted beekeeper’s glove in a trompe-l’œil alcove suggests another invisible hand. There could be a coin trick involved, or masonic symbolism, or some other system involving the alignment of the planets, hence the alternating words ‘Half Moon Inn’ and ‘Full Moon Out’. The paintings are presented to rise out of a monolith, hung back to back on a sheet of Plexiglas – as if a holy relic has landed, if not from another planet, then from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the two-sidedness and the wording strongly suggests a more quotidian pub sign.
So what does the unbridled whole amount to? ‘It is my intention’, Stark has said, ‘to express the transient nature of reality whilst exploring the shadows that humans cast upon it.’ If that’s the atmosphere nailed, consistent with that in Kosinski’s Steps, what’s the message? There’s a lot of detail here, and a lot of data, but even when we know what we’re looking at, there’s the sense that secrets remain to which we lack the key.
We probably need to take the hint, and apply the principle of Po, leaping forward with no fear for whether we are right or wrong. For example, is Stark asking whether we can find a point of stability in which people retain their integrity while machines do all the hard work? That might be our equivalent of Marx’s vision of the communist society. Is he suggesting what apparent contradictions lie behind the facades of our society? Might it be superstition behind Christianity? Surveillance behind technology? Medievalism behind science? Militarism behind capitalism? Or perhaps an analogy is being drawn between the way we are separated from each other and joined up differently by the move from analogue to digital worlds, with how the Division of Labour appeared to Thoreau and Marx. That would
suggest an era in which new opportunities come at the price of a profound disconnection from our roots.
But we’ve probably got beyond expecting answers from artists. Perhaps we should finish on Stark’s way of painting, on the time he takes to control so exactly the elements in his dance of themes. That invests them with the value of his labour, elevates them and the questions they raise to a status worthy of the kind of attention we give to the grand narratives of classical painting.
Exhibition Text, 2016
John Stark x David Graeber
JS- At the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a band of apes pummel a fellow ape using bones as clubs. After the beating, an ape throws its bone into space which then transforms into a satellite. It’s a majestic scene expressing the story of civilisation, the first tool being a hammer created through an act of violence. Anyhow, I came across this quote recently by Bertolt Brecht, ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.’
DG- Well, as an anthropologist, I do feel obliged to point out that nothing like that ever really happened. Actually that scene is an almost perfect myth of what we like to think happened: that humans are a kind of ‘killer ape’, that what pushes us to evolve is really blind cut-throat competition, sublimated – but usually just barely sublimated – into all these ostensibly civilised forms, art and science and so forth. That’s a very specific European self-conception, and that one image sums it up perfectly. Still, I also think your painting rather subverts it, which is a good thing. It suggests, the fact it’s a bone in that scene is not a coincidence. When creating the world, we’re standing on the graves of everyone who’s ever created anything. We’re using the remains of their tortured bodies to carry on their work.
Incidentally, there’s a funny story about that Brecht quote. I once wrote an essay called On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets, about why it was that, the two images everyone remembers from the anti-globalization mobilizations around 2000, was that there were people in black breaking Starbucks windows, and there were colourful giant puppets. Even if people only remember two things from, say, the WTO action in Seattle, that’s what it will be. And also why – for some reason – cops hated the puppets more. I was developing the idea that puppets were in fact a mockery of the very idea of a monument. And apparently, I think it was sometime around 2007 or 2008, a collective in Germany read this and were inspired to make a gigantic inflatable hammer, in the same spirit, to send off as a gift to activists in Cancún who were protesting a trade summit. This thing was huge. I think it was like 30 feet long, it took a whole battalion of activists just to carry the thing. But it was also the perfect paradox: a reference to Brecht, the embodiment of the very idea of art, but also the world’s most useless tool. It always struck me that’s what the puppets in direct actions were all about. On the one hand they were gods that could be improvised on call, the very ability to improvise them was what made them divine, but at the same time, these people are anarchists, basically, so ‘the sacred’ by definition has to be made ridiculous as a way of containing its terrible power. I must say, I often feel the impact of your work feels a little like a blunt instrument. Especially the beekeepers for some reason, which when I first saw them felt like they’re pummelling me in a way I almost never feel when I look at paintings. When I look at the witch series, that doesn’t really have the same disturbing effect – maybe because I get the sense you’re directing the hammer at yourself. Or maybe tearing things out of yourself. The viewer just watches the traces of violence in a kind of fascination perhaps – I certainly do – but the effect is in no way violent in itself. Maybe because there’s a subtle feeling of complicity. Yet someone, something about the beekeepers just hammers away at me. It creates almost a feeling of desperation. Looking at them is a very sensuous experience, but it also implies to you the very impossibility of imagining a sensuous existence. You know there’s honey there – why else are they keeping bees? But you can’t imagine anything tasting like honey in the universe they appear to inhabit. Or maybe in this universe the taste of honey itself, sweetness itself, becomes bleak and mechanical. The witches seem to suggest sensuousness is evil, but they’re so over-the-top they end up suggesting that even evil isn’t really evil, it’s more kind of naughty; the beekeepers suggests it’s just impossible.
JS- I think the dead like to stay close to the living. Paint is dead or inert matter, a sensual material like nectar that I attempt to activate and transform in the alchemical sense. Although a labour of love, sometimes I do wonder if painting is a form of sublimated violence. It often feels like a journey through empty space, where the dead stuff of history and humanity faithfully follow like satellites, and painting is like this tabernacle for all decompositions. I’m interested in this idea of violence and transformation, cause and effect, the way change comes about through a transference of energy, which is represented by the inflatable hammer example. The air or psychological space inside the hammer becomes activated, much like the space in a painting. Goya, for example, made sensual paintings of terrible violence, which evoke empathy in the viewer. There isn’t much distance between Goya and the viewer.
Interesting you mention puppetry. I do see the beekeepers as giants, gods or puppets, or maybe even puppet masters. Either way there’s a hierarchy present. Everything is under control and I try to create tensions that mirror power relations in society. The idea to use beekeepers as protagonists initially arose out of a deep fascination with Bruegel’s drawing The Beekeepers and the Birdnester (c.1568), which continues to hammer away at
me, more so because its meaning has remained so enigmatic. Readings of the work suggest the drawing contains subversive political connotations, satirizing either the catholic church or the ruling Spanish regime at the time. Other views suggest the beekeepers not only allude to the clergy, but also to anonymous informers for the inquisition.
DG- Ah, so they really are supposed to be figures of terror then. Except the terror is mutual, isn’t it? They’re scary because you can’t see them, as a result, they represent merely this abstract potential for power, they could be anything, therefore, they could do anything … But really you can’t see them because they’re hiding, because they’re afraid of you, because even though you’re infinitely smaller you can overwhelm them like a swarm of bees if you were really determined to. That makes sense.
JS- Of course, it’s supposed to be reciprocal between artist and beholder. Those empty hoods are like black mirrors onto which the viewer projects from the subconscious or imagination, acting like a kind of honey trap. But the figures themselves are sort of bumbling around in cahoots and seem a bit ridiculous, or Rabelaisian in their oversized protective suits. At times they seem self-conscious as if they don’t know where to stand in the painting, elsewhere they seem to be calm or secretly enjoying their ordered utopia whilst inspecting hives or claiming the fruits of the bees’ labour. Unlike the paintings of witches, which operate theatrically, aware of the viewer, the beekeepers are immersed in their activities disregarding the viewer. With the Witchcraft and Warfare paintings I do understand there is the sense I’m shooting myself in the foot. I think of those works as the suicide paintings, a kind of vomiting up of childhood trauma, dread and fantasy which spirals out into the political. So between the beekeepers and witches I can see parallels between the imagery of Black Bloc and the theatricality of polychrome puppets. But I also see the two types of imagery like two sides of a coin, a medium of exchange between masculine and feminine archetypes, anima and animus or Apollo and Daphne, except Apollo’s always at the honey whilst Daphne’s busy transforming.
DG- Yes, except it’s in reverse, in a way. The Black Bloc, who you can’t see, become the beekeepers in their bright medieval clothing, who are nonetheless austere and terrifying, and the colourful puppets, who are very self-consciously drawn on the Gargantua and Pantagruel type figures of a medieval carnival, turn into the creepy dark witch images – imagination run riot but in the worst way possible, but which still, somehow, remains
more appealing than no imagination at all. Remember that for Marx, that’s what bees represent. Industry without imagination. Spiders can make amazingly engineered webs, he notes, beehives can put architects to shame, but what makes the worst architect different from the best bee is that the architect raises the structure first in imagination. Bees thus make things, but they don’t create, or so Marx claims. Whether this is true or not isn’t really the point, so much as this is how we still think of bees. But this helps me understand the tension between the witches and beekeepers on another level. Marx was a Romantic when all is said and done, he felt the productive imagination was everything, it was a pure force of good in the world. But in the intellectual tradition that produced him – and still produces us – this was very much a dissident view. The tradition is actually quite suspicious of imagination, which is seen as an extension of the deep creative impulses and drives that ultimately motivate us. Freud was merely echoing the common attitude when he labelled these the id. There’s always at least a subtle feeling that imagination is somehow demonic, evil (which is of course the message with the bone as weapon turning into the source of all civilisation in Kubrick’s 2001 as well: the creative ape is up to no good).
If so, the relation between the witches and beekeepers becomes one of levels. The witches are that fantasy of demonic imagination let loose. They seem to say ‘let’s violate the ultimate taboo and admit what’s really driving us to create works of grace and beauty’. But at the same time, the technical perfection, the meticulousness and precision of the work that went into creating these visions is in dialogue with the message, it contains and encompasses the chaos. In the second series, the beekeepers, you, the technician – who in the witch series is trying to exorcise your own imagination onto the canvas and then trap and contain it with your own spectacular proficiency – gets projected onto the canvas as the faceless beekeeper (just as the artist is faceless to someone merely looking at the panel), now having contained all that creative mess inside these perfect little boxes. Except in doing so, don’t you destroy the very idea that the hidden productive force is really imagination? Because bees are in no sense imaginative. They’re running a little factory in there. So what happens to the imagination? In a way, I guess you could say it escapes into the landscape …
JS- I know we’re not supposed to admit it, but that’s what’s happening in the world. Imagination is being squashed by a corrupt system reinforced by batons and pepper spray. And eventually, yes, it spills over. Imagination could be seen to dissipate into the landscape or perhaps it exists outside the paintings in the space between maker and beholder. Or maybe it’s more present in the marketing strategy so rather than ‘the medium is the message’, I would say, the medium carries a message. I think the paintings of beekeepers are maybe some of my most imaginative works, the bee isn’t the be all and end all. But if we take the bee’s model as an allegory for the subjugated human body or proletariat worker for example, there’s a kind of moral alchemy at play, as the bees’ bodies are also vessels of transmutational power – nectar and saliva combine into sweet vomit stored in cells, ie honey. I guess I’m struggling here to attempt to allegorise the complexities of our current capitalist economy and Marx is always a great teacher that way. Adam Smith would have associated the cooperative model of the bees with his invisible hand theory perhaps? The agent of divine providence or the hand of god which would be somewhat questionable.
DG- Well, there’s always Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees – a lot of people think he sets the stage for Adam Smith, in fact for economics in general, when he tells the story of a corrupt and licentious beehive (a really weird concept in itself if you really think about it), which decides on social reforms, adopts true Christian virtue, and suddenly, becomes poor and miserable. Private vices, he concludes, lead to public benefits. It was a total scandal in 1720. But even though it anticipates Smith, Smith couldn’t stand Mandeville, he basically said he thought the guy was a jerk; Smith didn’t think we were driven to accumulate wealth because we’re bad – though he did point out that even those weird people who did accumulate wealth just for its own sake couldn’t do too much damage, owing to the invisible hand – but really, we seek wealth because we want everyone else to love us.
JS- I often state the reason I make paintings is because I’m seeking love and admiration from the entire world. Does that make me a capitalist?
DG - Oh, Smith wasn’t really a capitalist. They just adopted him.
JS- Ah, so he was just misguided, a puppet in a way. So perhaps those beekeepers aren’t so bad after all. I mean, they could be me, you and everyone we know in our most vulnerable states. But aside from a socio-political reading of the bee allegory, if we refer back to a more mythic reading of the work, an important symbol of focus for me personally and creatively is the alchemical symbol of the Black Sun. The stage where the black earth is closed inside a vessel and heated. By penetration of external fire, an inner fire’s activated and the matter starts to putrefy. So pain, suffering and darkness is charred and burnt to attain a positive state of transformation and renewal. Decapitation, and the Raven’s Head are alchemical symbols associated with the Black Sun and refer to the dying of the common man, the dying of his inner chaos and doubt. So with that in mind, the ideological honey (that can be read as symbolic value within the painting) might eventually become ash and maybe this feeling of desperation arises from a burntout despair that’s channelled through the work. It’s not exactly a climactic catharsis occurring with the keepers, its more slowburn, like a hot lump of coal.
DG- You know, I think I’m beginning to get a sense of what’s going on here. So in DoL Po you’re trying to explore the dynamic between the extremes you created with the witches and the beekeepers, hence the theme of exchange. Which is actually the thing I find most interesting in your appeal to Adam Smith. On the one hand, you have his argument about the division of labour, with the famous pin factory. On the other, you have exchange. Smith insists this is ultimately what makes us human. You never see two dogs exchanging a bone, he says. But at the same time, he also says it’s our natural proclivity to ‘truck and barter’ that eventually gives rise to the division of labour and not the other way around. Actually, this makes me wonder about something. When you got the idea for that worker’s hammer, which is a bone, were you thinking of all this? Smith’s line about the bones, as the primordial object of exchange, then of course there’s the obelisk and the bone as first tool in Kubrick’s 2001, even if it’s in an act of violence. But here, you could be thought of as echoing Smith, that really it’s the swapping and trading that drives production, that’s the deep archaeology of creation, even – we need to make things in order to swap them for something else. These are the two fantasies we have, the two founding myths: our civilisation is really sublimated aggression, or our civilisation is really the overcoming of aggression through exchange. They’re closely related. But the bone hammer seems to make a mockery of both of them, as well should be.
JS- That painting does make a mockery as you say and distils the founding myths. The nail in the centre of the painting is also the vanishing point, on which the painting would be hung and thus, the point where value is created. In truth I can’t say I was referring to Smith’s line on bones as the first token of exchange, although I am aware of such exchanges, along with stones, dried cods and tallied sticks used as IOUs which you mention in your book Debt. The bone was simply a symbol of death, the exterminations through history and the reducing of a human life to dust. How that painting came about was through an exchange of ideas with friends and co-conspirators Rebecca and Mike. First there was the title, which made me think of the scene in Kubrick’s 2001, then the idea of a primordial femur bone labelled as a museum artefact became evident. The lettering is based on Albrecht Dürer’s letterforms. It’s a medieval black letter, a style which the Nazis appropriated a lot until one day they stopped using it because they thought it looked too Jewish. I thought about a lot of things while making that painting. Human remains found around the sites of concentration camps. How we dig down as archaeologists and how we look up into space as astronomers to similarly find the truth. If we look at close up images of planets it’s amazing how similar their surfaces are to that of fossils and bones.
In your book Debt you cite Bruno Théret. I was struck by this, Théret’s profound idea:
At the origin of money we have a ‘relation of representation’ of death as an invisible world, before and beyond life – a representation that is the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which humanity emerged.
And you then observe that this would seem to suggest that we are not driven to ‘truck and barter’, you write that ‘Rather, it ensures that we are always creating symbols – such as money itself. This is how we come to see ourselves in a cosmos surrounded by invisible forces; as in debt to the universe.’
And in your essay On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets you talk about the universe those puppets inhabit, the mix between positive and negative imagery and how the symbols hover between the mythic and the real. How a giant floating pig may come to represent greed or the world bank for example. The bible would tell us it’s sinful to eat pig meat, or to become pig keepers and in some cultures pigs are often seen as sacrificial animals. In Korean shamanism for example the pig’s head is used in offerings to the gods where money is placed into the ears, mouth and nostrils of the pig for good luck.
DG- Really, so Koreans are pro-pig? That’s nice to hear. Pigs don’t get a lot of respect. It’s remarkable how many cultural traditions are radically anti-pig. Calling someone a pig is almost always an insult anywhere in the world (much like dogs, but rarely, if ever, cats or horses). Some have speculated, you know, that it’s because we feel especially guilty about pigs. After all, pretty much any other animal we eat we have some kind of alibi: chickens we can say we keep them mainly for the eggs, sheep for the wool, cows for the milk … Pigs, no, we just kill
them and eat them. That’s it. Plus they’re the most human-like to boot. So it’s really a little like cannibalism, except, we’re killing and eating something that represents the part of us we’re least happy to acknowledge, the dirty, fleshy self-indulgence. In a way the pigs are the most human figures in any of these paintings. They’re the closest, in a way, to everyman.
JS- If you referred to someone’s appearance as piggish in Korea it would most certainly be seen as insulting, yet the pig in Korea – the most widely consumed meat – is of course seen as a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity. Remember though, South Korea is a capitalist society on overdrive built on a culture of reciprocity. Korean shamanism – or Muism – has been pushed out to the fringes, but most certainly operates clandestine between the shadows of modern day Korea. I even heard the head of Samsung employs shamans to be present as advisors during business meetings and transactions. I find that very interesting, that the head of one of the most powerful technology companies in the world, in private, draws on ancient traditions which are stigmatised in public. Many Koreans, including my mother-in-law, still consult shamans regularly to pray for family fortune or to be rid of problems, be they health, financial or family related, or in times of plain desperation.
Sure, pigs remind us of ourselves, their eyes and skin are particularly human-like. Maybe those works do have the most humanity in them because they are of flesh. Elsewhere we see machines, or flesh being probed, targeted or observed by machines. Therefore the paintings of pigs act as sacrificial totems against the violence of technology. In DoL Po I’m trying to explore these points in question. As we traverse the uncanny valley where technology seems to be overshadowing humanity, is technology another tool to access the further capabilities of the mind? What are the consequences of, say, fully automated luxury communism (FALC)? Is it possible do you think, for us to reconcile a depersonalized existence with new forms of relation through screens? Is it ‘truck and barter’ or a medium of exchange between old and new forms of communication? It certainly feels to me that we are socially reconfigured in a very different way from, say, ten years ago, perhaps in a more hiveminded way.
DG- Hence the pigs in the cross-hairs, in a sense, because you have those lines – not really cross-hairs, obviously, but the lines from the image preview that evoke them – in the pig and drone paintings. Though the other thing you have in both is that very striking shade of green. It’s funny, you don’t often think of colours as conveying a sense of social class, but my first reaction to that was, well, that’s a very working class
colour. No rich or even middle class person would allow that colour anywhere near them if they could possibly avoid it. They organise their lives around not being around colours like that. It evokes tarps, solvents, industrial processes, stuff you try to get off your hands in big metal sinks in unheated washrooms. It alludes to all the things you’re not supposed to see. But it also evokes military night vision goggles, being able to see the things you’re not supposed to be able to see so as to kill them. Hence the connection between the drones, which exist only to slaughter, and the pigs, which exist only to be slaughtered. All brawny labour that the green evokes is the sort of thing we’d presumably be eliminating in FALC, but is it eliminated, really, or does it just come to pervade everything, until we can no longer even see it?
JS- Yes, that green, it could almost be seen as revolting. It does strange things to the eyes when working on a painting, days on-end staring at that green. I wanted these works to have an effect as if glazed with Swarfega gel or ectoplasm. I was also thinking about chromakey: the technology used in special effects to pull subjects out of the real and into the digital realm, a projected world of pure imagination where anything is possible. Another point of reference are hospital workers’ clothes – or scrubs as they are known – which are usually coloured green or greenish blue and are designed simply, so they’re less likely to be contaminated by infectious agents. For surgeons, especially when looking at the inside of a human body, green helps to stabilise their vision since it’s the opposite to red on the colour wheel.
DG- The other exception to the avoidance of human flesh of course is the beekeeper unmasked. I found that image genuinely striking. But also kind of wistful. In a single image, suddenly, the keeper’s mask is off, you can finally see one of the faces – and it’s not at all a scary face, in fact he looks more soft and vulnerable – and you also see what’s inside the boxes, the honeycombs with the bees all over it. And the look in the beekeeper’s eye, it’s almost one of love. It’s like you suddenly wanted to undo the entire effect.
The only other human, aside from the little guy driving the vehicle pulling the drone, who doesn’t really count somehow, is the man on the operating table. That’s a terrifying image. I understand it’s supposed to be a complement of the drone painting Vampyre. They’re both mechanical remote control devices, being operated by someone at a safe distance, away from the blood and messiness – but one of them is meant to inspect and rend flesh so as to ultimately repair it, and the other is meant to inspect and find bodies to blow to smithereens, to blow apart. When you drop a bomb on a bunch of human beings, terrible things happen. Some of them are completely unexpected: people’s clothes are ripped from their bodies, sometimes people walk away from the scene of bomb blasts completely naked, but otherwise unharmed. There’s a story that after some members of the Weather Underground accidentally blew themselves up in a townhouse in Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, that happened. One woman who survived, walked out of the scene completely naked, but otherwise unharmed, and knocked on the door of the next house – which by an odd coincidence happened to be owned by Dustin Hoffman, if I recall correctly – and when his girlfriend came to the door, asked if she could borrow some clothes and money to get out of town. But more often it is just what you’d expect, arms and legs blown off people’s bodies, flesh scattered everywhere. You never see pictures of that, but you always see lots of pictures of the weapons that can cause such effects: bombs, tanks, artillery shells, we’ve all seen lots of pictures of those. That obsession with distributing images of the cause, but never the effect, has always bothered me. I kind of wonder if that’s what the juxtaposition of those two images – the drone and the medical technology – is somehow speaking to. The way that, between those two images, the medical technology is a thousand times scarier. The machines are utterly inhuman, but the drone looks like it contains a kind of organic form trying to emerge and make it into something soft and alive.
Another way to think of it: it once occurred to me this is the difference between action movies and horror movies. The difference between the drone and the medical machines is like the difference between action and horror. Action movies are the aestheticization of violence. So, like the images of the armaments that never show you the images of what they produce, they show you bombs blowing up, bodies flying around (but not pieces of bodies, that would be too gross), they have all sorts of euphemisms, fantasies of what violence is like, like the idea that if you just hit someone sharply on the head they fall down unconscious, which isn’t true at all. It’s all turned into this safe little dance. But they never show you what happens after the shooting and stabbing and jumping and explosions are over, like the guy who has to learn to get around with no legs for the rest of his life, or who’s incontinent, the bloody surgery required to save someone with massive organ damage, being ugly and disfigured. And it occurred to me, actually, that’s what horror movies are really all about. Horror movies are contemplations of all the stuff that gets left out of the action movies. So the drone suggests action movie, turning violence into something apparently remote, technological, and clean, but it also kind of mocks the genre, and the medical scene
is horror, pure and simple.
JS- The drone painting is also an allusion to the secrecy of images. Drones are weapons used to map enemy territory and destroy. Here it acts as a conduit I embody in the metaphysical sense. It’s like I become the drone, in order to climb inside and hijack the system. It’s also a vampyric image in the sense it’s perceived through night vision binocular, a mise en abyme, a mirror inside the mirror or a presentation of a representation. I agree its violence is trapped and contained in the form of the whale-like machine and also behind the green screen at a safe distance. The medical scene depicts a robotic surgical system apparently designed by Da Vinci, who in turn is also credited with designing the first drone. Da Vinci developed his obsession with mechanical flight when working as a military engineer for the Milanese court. Many of his inventions would be adopted for war, including the tank, glider, parachute, crossbow, diving suit and now 500 years later, the drone. But it’s also suggested he introduced flaws into these designs as he was very aware his inventions would be put to devastating military use.
Perhaps one way to look at this paradox would be to think of the intention to heal in the medical painting, and the destructive effects of the drone, in terms of the friend and the enemy. In Derrida’s The Work of Mourning he pays homage to great philosophers: Barthes, Deleuze, Foucault and Levinas among others, whilst pondering the meaning of life, death, mourning and friendship. The impossible moment of mourning comes from Levinas and is intrinsically linked to considering the face of the ‘Other’. And in the moment of the impossibility of the Other, is where the friend, the enemy reside. Levinas writes:
But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other … It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom it already concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already ‘regarding’ me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face.
DG- Which makes me wonder why you so often avoid painting faces!
JS- Well I also think I’m just not all that good at painting faces.
DG- But maybe that’s why, you instinctively rebel!
JS- Either that or it’s a very clever rationalization. But for Levinas it’s not just about faces, it’s about regarding, about the gaze. The Other is both looking at me and is concerned for me; regarding me, but also begging for me. The Other exists, but let’s say it’s an economic exchange, and it’s not my equal, so it begs me; it is a beggar, and so my responsibility is to consider the Other and regard it back. At the same time Levinas writes the Other is something or someone that one can never know for sure. The Other is the impossible, the enemy, or rather the remains between the enemy and the friend. Levinas also writes of the infinite,
without doubt, the finite beings that we are cannot in the final account complete the task of knowledge; but in the limit where its task is accomplished it consists in making the Other become the same.
As Levinas puts it, knowledge purposes to grasp – or to know – like Derrida’s ‘Handwerk’. Knowledge as perception refers back to an act of grasping, making something concrete and naming it, thus rendering it something to possess. The Other is then ungraspable, or that which cannot be framed in the knowing. The consideration that we are responsible for the Other signifies the bond between act and responsibility and a call towards ethical practice – an act that can never fully match our responsibility toward the Other and the deep humanity that lies within. It is a puncturing of truth, a medium of exchange that wounds and heals simultaneously.
DG- So is that the kind of ethics you propose in DoL Po, with its theme of exchange?
JS- I would say that ethics transcend the notion of exchange.
DG- And that’s what Smith is missing. He thinks our love of exchange is our humanity (and he also thinks we only exchange to become successful so that everyone knows about us and loves us, to fully achieve that humanity). It’s all in the circuit of exchange. But here you’re proposing something else, that just as poetry is that which gets lost in translation (as a poet once defined it), humanity is that which can’t be reduced to exchange, to objects of knowledge that can then be owned and traded.
I love the way in the two pictures of the beekeeper’s gloves with the coins – the full moon, half-moon pictures – there seems to be a kind of play on that. We’re used to thinking of the moon as the embodiment of all that’s unknowable. The sun makes knowledge possible, the moon is supposed to be a mystery, though it’s always suggesting – with its endless transformations – some intricate system of knowledge that we can never know comprehensively, that we can never completely grasp. Yet here are these hands grasping the moon. They’ve reduced it to a coin, something we can know, encompass, hence render an object of exchange. Just like Derrida’s Handwerk. But of course it’s all a great lie.
In Madagascar, they used to make similar comparisons between silver coins and the moon. In the 18th and 19th centuries they used silver dollars brought in from overseas, that came into the country through trade, but they chopped them up into tiny pieces to use in everyday transactions. Big, round, unbroken coins were sort of magical, they were tokens of perfection, completion, you gave them to kings to recognise (and thus to some degree to create) their power. But the other thing you gave to kings were cattle that were called volavita – complete coins – which were cows with big white spots on them, spots that looked like the moon. If a cow was born like that, you delivered it to the king, just as you would present him with an unbroken coin as a symbol of sovereignty. Such animals were used in royal sacrifice, say, to the king’s own ancestors. In other words, he’d take the cow that looks like a coin that looks like the moon and then he’d kill it. Because ultimately, the power spilled over, you’re trying to contain this thing within a magic circle of exchange but you can’t, so in the end you destroy it entirely. Or that would be one interpretation.
In the case of the twin paintings, what I really like is that on the one hand, they allude to a church alcove, but at the same time, they have the air of a pub sign. Maybe churches and pubs are the two places we’re most inclined to transcend ourselves. In both, money is exchanged. But as with the Malagasy volavita, the circle doesn’t really contain what it’s supposed to, you bump yourself into the absolute anyway. It’s funny, I can’t help but think of a cartoon I saw once – I think it was a Simpson’s movie – about the end of the world. There was this street and on one side was a church, the other was a pub. And as soon as people learned the world was about to come to an end, you see all the people in the church run out in panic and head straight for the pub, and all the people in the pub run out in panic and head straight for the church! Now, that’s a proper exchange, isn’t it?
JS- Ha ha, absolutely.
Witchcraft and Warfare
Press Release, 2014
In this exhibition Stark presents a new collection of paintings that appear to depict a world divided, besieged and devoid of moral constraints. By opposing common assumptions based on Christian mechanisms, for example that prayer is purer than incantation; and by addressing the idea that modern civilisation uses Christian morality to legitimise its own violence, Stark seeks to go beyond centuries of doctrine and propaganda to express the reality of the horror that lies beneath western reason.
The centrepiece of this exhibition, 'No Man’s Land', Stark’s largest painting to date, includes numerous figures: witches, demons, satyrs, Greek gods, zombie soldiers and pin up girls who cavort and coagulate in various rituals and invocations. It is a place of metaphysical darkness where such perversions are permitted to exist. Recalling historical allegory painting by way of pulp horror, erotica, and fashion advertising we are presented with a Bacchanalian depiction of indulgence, malevolence and empowerment that refers to the cyclical births, evolutions and downfalls of societies throughout history, everywhere. Elsewhere in the show a more rudimentary approach is taken and we are asked to contemplate a Metallic doorway to a fortune tellers house, a prayer candle sits on a rocky precipice in dark night, and a soldier mans a lookout post, gazing east through night vision binocular.
But there is a deep underlying contradiction at the heart of these paintings, where the artist employs traditions and narratives in order to demystify and undermine those very same traditions and narratives. By embracing otherness Stark parodies the familiar and in doing so ensures his position remains ambiguous, with the viewer never quite able to make certified judgements, both morally and aesthetically. Our intellectual assumptions are challenged as we are forced to contemplate the contrary relationships between reality and illusion; political and mythological; modern and primitive; good and evil; sacred and profane; salvation and damnation. Stark tells us that these are not contradictions but interrelated aspects of a complex universe, where hierarchies are dissolved and polarities dismantled.
Witchcraft and Warfare
Exhibition Text, 2014
By Jessica Lack
Highway 31 stops abruptly, ten kilometres short of the North Korean border. All roads north end like this, snipped off like short fuses waiting for ignition from a lighted match. Beyond is the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a pervasive void framed by a hazy grey mountain range. You can’t see much of North Korea from here, but it doesn’t stop tourists filming the open range. Their jerky panoramas accompanied by the timbrey whistle of a high wind on the microphone.
This no-go zone is the inspiration for Witchcraft and Warfare, John Stark’s new series of paintings on show at CHARLIE SMITH LONDON. The paintings can be divided into two parts. Those created while Stark was living in Seoul in 2013 and those made on his return to England earlier this year.
‘Prey’ and ‘Enter’ capture something of the old shamanic mysticism that still exists on the margins of the Korean Peninsula. It is a hidden world, rarely spoken of, but integral to the Korean way of life. These paintings are a continuation of an earlier series he made called ‘Field Work’, documenting the Haunted Mountain where the Shamans still operate.
Among the myriad of oddities that go hand-in-hand with being a dislocated expat in South Korea, Stark was frequently mistaken for an American soldier. Out of the Promethean shadows of this alienation came the paintings he made on his return to England which confront imperialism and the moral dilemma between East and West.
In ‘No Man’s Land’ a naked woman rises up out of a swarm of slatterns into a forked lunar light, a Mother Teresa horror show saint. Beneath her is a scene of unimaginable gruesomeness. Skulls hang from a tree; a woman with bloody stumps has a rope tied to her breasts, which is being pulled by her spinsterish companion. Their faces, pictures of middle-aged fatigue, resemble dowager aunts who should be exploring the back streets of Florence, prostrating themselves on the altar of Fra Angelico, not submerged in the dank waters of this Dantesque hell.
I’m not sure if Stark has read Alan Moore’s graphic novel Lost Girls, a mix of bawdy humour and pornographic de Sade depravity, but there’s a similarity in the way Moore’s sexual imagination runs riot while still retaining a strong moral agenda. Stark, like Moore has a prodigiously fertile imagination, yet the real drama in this painting exists not with the furies, but in the intense kryptonite eyes of the watchtower as it gazes out over no-mans land to a cool, silvery figure in the foreground.
That radioactive green, the colour of Fairy Liquid, resurfaces again in ‘The Lookout’ and ‘Conjuring an Armed Skeleton’, in the pensive face of the watcher and then as a freakish fire sprung from a grinning cauldron. There is something unearthly about the colour’s lurid artificiality, perhaps because it is also the green of night vision. A device first used to brutal effect during the Korean War, and now a familiar technique in low-budget horror movies ever since Blair Witch. I feel this paradox is not lost on Stark, an artist who has made a career out of re-working old masters in audacious new ways.
‘Conjuring an Armed Skeleton’ is a great piece of theatre in the manner of Goya. With its pig’s head, mock-Celtic symbols and mad-as-a-box-of-cats witch, it embraces a long tradition of undead cadavers dating back to early International Gothic. What happens when you call up a rotting soldier covered in seaweed and slime? Who knows? The women in the painting seem peculiarly uninterested in the results of their alchemy; the wraith is more ghoulish abstraction than cautionary tale. Skeleton soldiers rose up from the depths in Brueghel’s ‘The Triumph of Death’, yet Stark is also alluding to the West’s romanticism of Orientalism in fantasy films like ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’. There are obvious references to gaming here too, particularly in the flatness of colour, reminiscent of CGI while those surfaces, as shiny as plastic wrap, say something about the rampant capitalism witnessed by Stark in South Korea.
The dead solider theme continues in ‘The Siege’ with a wounded GI staggering about in the shallows while Bacchanalian revellers party on. Stretched out on the shoreline is the blubbery mass of Silenus, tutor to Dionysus who, when drunk, became incredibly wise. For Stark this sated creature represents Western Enlightenment, except here his intellectual brilliance has been entirely eclipsed by Lara Croft’s buttocks. It’s a nice moment of balloon pricking.
Ultimately it is the shadow of war and its accompanying depravities that linger over these paintings – one cast with a vigour that has eluded the Chapman Brothers. The beasts and the witches, the muddled fumbling of satyrs and porn stars climaxing to a frenzy, are simply a microcosm of human vulnerability. Silenus believed that it was better not to be born at all, that the world of the dead was preferable to that of the living. Stark’s paintings, in all their degeneracy, are a humane call to arms, a seductive defence of the right to exist.
Artsy Editorial, October 2013
John Stark’s Field Work
John Stark’s dark and eerie landscapes and interiors present a mastery of realism, conveying emotion and narrative. Inflected with the suggestion of paranormal phenomena and calling viewers to consider underlying themes, Stark’s works often reflect an ill-fated world struggling within the dissonance of spirituality and science.
His current show “Field Work” at Edward Cutler Gallery, Milan, through October 29th, includes a series of paintings partially inspired by the artist’s experiences in Yeongyang-gun, South Korea—the site of Ilwol-San, (“The Haunted Mountain”) one of the stronghold's of Korean Shamanism known as Muisim. Once the national religion, Shamanism has largely devolved into a marginal superstition. In his depictions of Ilwol - San, Stark presents ominous industrial interiors, faceless figures, and vacant landscapes tainted by the insecurities of Shamanism in the present. Within the series the spiritual remnants of Shamanism are challenged by images of modern industry, where science is a dominating force.
Stark’s painted spaces, often recalling sites found in horror films, question surface perceptions and highlight underlying spirituality within his art. The paintings in “Field Work” “express diverse methodologies, often veiling a secret light or a vital heat that remains just out of view.” In 'Interior View', the viewer is placed within a makeshift structure, sparsely furnished and made of cheap, industrial materials. The light that pervades through the plastic-sheet windows and entryway suggests a supernatural presence not yet penetrating the interior space. This use of light is characteristic of Stark, at once illuminating the space and suggesting a presence.
Though Stark’s works are largely realistic in style, often even approaching photorealistic when viewed from afar, close examination reveals a careful, rapid, impressionistic network of brushstrokes. It is the many dichotomies in Stark’s work, spirituality and science, nature and industry, light and dark, among others, that enlivens his paintings and makes them original, stimulating and intriguing.
Press Release, 2013
“The real, the unique misfortune: to see the light of day”
– E. M. Cioran The Trouble with Being Born
Endeavouring to define reality in an age where truth remains ever more obscured Stark attempts to renegotiate the relationship between the self and the world and in doing so investigates both the modality of the visual and the epistemologies of both science and spirituality. The result is a neo-tantric distillation both ontic and shamanic, a creative exploration of human meaning and of the shadows nature casts upon it.
The settings and figures within Field Work are partly based on real experience, mostly in South Korea and in particular in an area known as Yeongyang within which is Ilwol-san - The Haunted Mountain. It is said the ghost of Hwang-ssi-buin; who fled to the mountain to commit suicide after being badly mistreated by her husband and family, brings misfortune to the greedy, dishonest and abusive and fortune to those who are sincere, kind and benevolent. People found that if they built shrines to console her rage and sorrow their prayers where mysteriously answered.
Sharing the territory with certain covert factions of the military; this part of Korea is also one of the remaining redoubts of Shamanism (Muism), once the most widespread national religion but today reduced to a taboo and stigmatised as superstition. Consequently this has led to its periodical suppression but also paradoxically ensured its survival throughout history. Nonetheless, shamanic ritual is still considered to be the only resort when seeking answers and respite from ruinous life crises relating to illness, death or financial distress, with some medical anthropologists placing its practice firmly within the realms of traditional medicine.
The paintings presented in Field Work express diverse methodologies, often veiling a secret light or a vital heat that remains just out of view. The Garden presents us with a rocky enclave that houses an apiary, drawing parallels between shamanic practices and the craft of beekeeping. Interior View places the viewer within a makeshift ascetic hut constructed from cheap materials: scaffolding, a tin roof, plastic sheeting and window boxes become shrines, with candles flickering within. A spirited utilitarianism pervades and a sublime light permeates the stillness of the dark space. Elsewhere in this shadowy world, figures toil at their daily practice and the remnants of rituals are descried; a Dying Fire, an Elixir and an Outstanding Stone. This uncanny sense of place is at once realistic and fantastic, familiar yet foreign and speaks of a synchromystic coalescence of ancient and modern, empirical knowledge and silent intuition, witchcraft, warcraft and the workaday.
The pursuit of truth through the creation, or perception of these works leads us towards an experience of the true meaning of occult: that which is clandestine, recondite, and perhaps inherently unknowable. Here, within foreign lands, Stark becomes the foreigner offering us images that operate between immersion and reinterpretation, fragmentation and the whole, and which ultimately confront the apparent self with the necessity of its dependence upon the vertiginously unfathomable.
Exhibition Text, 2011
By Juan Bolivar
See, now I'm thinking: maybe it means you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here... he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd. - Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction (1994)
In 1985, Arthur Scargill, the NUM president during the 1984-85 British miners’ strike, was asked to comment on Joseph Beuys’ installation Plight exhibited at the Anthony D'Offay Gallery in London. The work, consisting of 43 rolls of felt, a piano and a thermometer, was installed by Beuys in September 1985 just a few months before his death in January 1986. An outspoken opponent of Margaret Thatcher, Scargill had come to represent a dissatisfied faction of British society, angry with the destruction of communities in Britain following the collapse of the coal industry after the numerous pit closures that took place in the mid-eighties. In this interview Scargill showed a rarely seen sensitive side to his character in a BBC Arena documentary about the life of Joseph Beuys. In his interview Scargill pointed out that standing inside the Beuys installation was “the nearest thing to being down a mine”, describing with great sensitivity the insulating properties, both of heat and sound, that the rolls of felt provided and the piano accentuated. To put this into context, it is the equivalent today of a football premiership-league manager suddenly, as if cast by a spell, commenting with great eloquence about the 1987 Documenta VIII exhibition directed by Manfred Schneckenburger, and in the strangeness of this coupling not only critiquing the exhibition but making us reassess other assumptions we once may have made.
In Apiculture we are presented with an idyll land where beekeepers go about their daily life, minding their business in a tranquil and orderly fashion. The settings and surrounding architecture seem to belong to different times, with ancient remains standing alongside modern buildings, but this conflict does not seem to matter, or at least not at first.
Under closer inspection the settings of these paintings begin to look staged, as if the beekeepers have been asked to pose for a regional video promoting the countryside. Maybe they are workers from a local power plant hired for a PR stunt designed to influence public opinion about the ‘safety of nuclear power’. Perhaps it goes deeper and it involves a carefully orchestrated cover-up. There are clues in the paintings; look at the ‘high-vis’ gloves, their poses and the logos on their uniforms. These are no ordinary keepers.
The architecture too, suddenly seems incongruous and the coupling of high modernism at odds with what appears to be the medieval remains or ruins from an extinct civilization. Look at the carefully arranged beehives painted in high octane acidic colours. Could these be colour coded or painted in this way to aid their viewing from the sky? A diving board in a lake reminds me of a holiday camp until I begin to think that this could be a watchtower.
It’s all reminiscent of a conspiracy plot sci-fi movie like Capricorn One (1978), where a mission to Mars is halted seconds before lift-off, prompting the head of the mission program to stage a fake Mars landing (using props in an improvised film studio in middle of the desert), fearing that adverse publicity at the cancelled mission would affect ‘space-age’ funding. Or like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where scientists attempt to keep civilians away from a predicted UFO landing site, by wearing contamination suits and breathing apparatus - dead cattle by the side of the roads misleading the public into thinking that a deadly chemical spill has taken place, in the hope this will keep curious crowds away. The sculptural works in this exhibition, a new addition to the artists oeuvre, could even be the props which have been used by the ‘conspirators’; the artist saying “look out, it's all a hoax”, warning us of mind control techniques, such as those used by the media and described by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988).
Previous work by the artist explored quasi-mythical scenes executed with old masterly techniques. The oil-on-wood panel highly varnished scenes present a dystopian Renaissance, re-imagined in Baroque depictions of rituals and witchcraft, as if Salvatore Rosa had been commissioned to provide the artwork for a new Death Metal album cover. The works belong to a postmodern debate, but pay homage to artists such as Rosa, Nicolas Poussin and Joachim Patinir.
But something different seems to be happening in these recent paintings. It’s not just the appearance of the beekeepers with their face obscuring hoods (hovering between the menacing youth of today and the monks painted by the Spanish artist Zurbaran), these new beekeepers in Apiculture now blend a new feeling of utilitarianism with the air of ‘spirituality’ found in previous works. They suggest a close knit community, no longer just a ‘brotherhood’; they have become a Beekeepers' Union, a syndicate. A ‘Union’ working towards a common goal, like the icon painters who followed a doctrine, a template and a method designed for making panels aimed for a higher calling, these new paintings contain a suggestion of a community and social order working in a similar way. But to what end it remains unclear. They are beekeepers - this is clear - but they are now involved in something that is neither sacred nor profane. A new modern witchcraft.
With recent stories about beekeepers supposedly being trained in Afghanistan to replace the opium trade, I once again return to conspiracy theories as I imagine a new wave of nano-technology-warfare stealth bees, secretly bred in the remote landscapes by the artist himself. However, perhaps this is all in ones imagination. Maybe it is the world that is imperfect, and I can't help projecting its tyranny and imperfections onto these paintings; our fantasy for a ‘model-village-way-of-life’, obscured by the mistrust and fear we feel. In a recent interview, Rupert Goold, Director of Decade - a play based on the legacy of 9/11 – describes its events as a black mirror: “It's very hard to see into it, but it tends to reflect back what the people looking into it bring”.
But somehow, in a glimpse, these works are also able to refute conspiracy theories, doubts and scepticism. In a digital age quickly supplanting notions of ‘the artist hand’ and post-modern debates replacing ‘truth and beauty’ as the tenets for artistic discussion, they stand back as if saying: “We are labours of love. Make of us what you will” and I return to Apiculture's spell.
I sometimes wonder if I imagined the interview where Arthur Scargill speaks about Joseph Beuys' work that I mention at the beginning of this essay. I have only seen this interview once in 1987; relying recently on the World Wide Web to corroborate my memory, but I will always remember the manner in which Scargill spoke of Beuys’ Plight. The incongruous coupling of Beuys and Scargill in this documentary was overshadowed by the manner in which Scargill’s anger had given way to understanding, and the sensitive nature in which he spoke. To some, Arthur Scargill will always remain an evil man of British politics, to some, a righteous man. But to others, he will be remembered as the shepherd who tried to protect the people and communities as they stood on a valley of darkness on the eve of a great storm.
Dazed Digital Interview, 2011
By Chantelle Symester
The British artist draws us into a world of the mythological and unconscious in his latest solo exhibition
Mastering the precision of painting oil on canvas, artist John Stark can transport viewers to another time and place through his work. Stark's work greatly expresses a symbolic internal landscape where universal questions of truth and existence are pondered. Each piece although unique seeks to enhance the collection's overall meaning, which can only be determined by the viewer who interprets the allegorical and enigmatic elements for themselves, on their own terms. We spoke to the artist to discuss the details of the new exhibition and other projects he has in the pipeline.
Dazed Digital: There seems to be very strong allegorical and mystical themes that you have explored in this collection, what was your inspiration?
John Stark: I see painting as a way of being, it is at least a mystical path and I believe in its power as a pursuit for truth where notions of the self are reflected upon. The result is then allegorical for the viewer who projects on to these open narratives traits from their own perception of their reality. The intention is that the works operate as a gateway for us to pass through together (in the metaphysical sense) while simultaneously tapping into the collective unconscious.
I can’t name a direct inspiration for this, although I have been listening to a lot of Buddhist teachings recently and looking at the symbolism from the school of The Fourth Way which refers to a concept used by G.I. Gurdjieff to describe an approach to self-development that helps to realise ones potential by transcending the body and achieving a higher state of consciousness. It is thought that we are living in a waking sleep and there are various ways to focus our attention and energy so that a range of inner abilities become possible. So it’s something inherent and built into the work and these current paintings refer back to ideas explored in my earlier works which attempt to tackle issues of the self, individuation and ‘the spiritual’ by replacing old mythologies and placing myself in the cannon of an art historical context.
DD: What processes did you go through when creating the paintings for this exhibition?
John Stark: I create works as a unit that operate as a whole and each individual work is part of the hermeneutic circle. Put simply it’s a bit like being a film director who displays only a few clues to the plot through the promotional trailer, leaving the rest up to the audience to fill in the gaps. Therefore, getting the balance right of how much information to reveal and conceal was critical in the creation of this collection.
However, I did have in mind that I wanted the show to operate or hover somewhere between a stand at a corporate agricultural fair (so that the paintings are applied or exploded into the real) and the exhibition last year at the National Gallery titled The Sacred Made Real. In this exhibition the polychrome wooden sculptures of Christ bleeding on the cross and monks in meditation were so intimately in dialogue with Zubaran and Velazquezs’ masterful illusory paintings of the same subjects it could and did inspire devotion.
DD: You have previously referred to your work as 'ceremonial exploration' where 'the dead stuff of paint becomes charged', can you tell us a little bit more about this idea.
John Stark: Painting is a daily ritual for me where squeezing colour from tubes, mixing and moving it around in very specific ways has become ceremonial. Paint is essentially inert matter, minerals and compounds, dirt and stones and I am fascinated by the history and chemistry of colours. For example, Genuine Chinese Vermilion contains toxic Mercury, Lapis Lazuli consists of deep blue gem stones ground in earth from the Afghan Kush hills and Indian yellow gets its zing from the recycled grass in cows excrement. The tubes vary in weight, opacity and viscosity so they operate in many different ways once activated in the painting process. There are rules and methods to follow which are honed over time and through laboured and learned practice these base ingredients are transformed into a painted surface that opens up various mimetic spaces for contemplation. They become charged through catharsis and this I believe holds the key to the meaning of my paintings and their potential.
So here (if somewhat hopefully and optimistically) I like to think of the painterly process as akin with the work of the bees who transform their pollen into honey. It is also analogues to the magnum opus, the alchemical pursuit where base matter is transformed into philosophical gold. This I see as an applied analogy for the quest for a higher calling, perhaps resulting in a glimpse of enlightenment or even gaining a better understanding of one’s self within the world around.
DD: Which artists have influenced or inspired you and why?
John Stark: Zurbaran’s Monks in meditation have always struck me, they are mirrors which I literally fall into, and they become Avatar. David Teniers alluring paintings of caves with Saints in penitence fighting off demons and alchemists toiling away in their grottos have always captivated my imagination. I’m intensely drawn to the Flemish painter Joachim Patinir and his depictions of St. Jerome as a scholar in study, a hermit retired to the rocky wilderness of the Syrian dessert in search of divine consciousness and sublime union. The landscapes are like models of earth, maps on kilter, a stage for the narrative of existence.
Courbet’s painting The Stone Breakers depicts the visceral force of pure labour as the workers build the new roads for civilisation paving the path for revolution. Millet’s Man with a Hoe; his protest is a prophecy, tired and crippled over his tool yet triumphantly commanding the earth like a giant expressing a satisfied exhaustion or something intangible that is gained from a hard day’s work, made tangible. Poussin, Rosa and Gerrit Dou, there are too many more to mention. It’s been a long day so I’ll stop here but when I visit and see these paintings they are like old friends so, when they talk to me it would be rude not to join in the conversation.
In the Studio with John Stark, 2011
By Tom Jeffereys
For me, great art, like great literature, is demanding. It demands close and careful attention, pushing you to make sense of it, but also always withdrawing, refusing to divulge its secrets. This is how I feel about the works of John Stark, who has his second solo show, Apiculture, opening at Charlie Smith London this October. After showing with the gallery at London Art Fair back in 2008, Stark's first full solo exhibition launched Charlie Smith's permanent space on Old Street in 2009, but it was only in 2010, at a Charlie Smith group show, that I first came across Stark's work in the flesh – a darkly troubling piece entitled Fear Eats the Soul, densely packed with crazed characters and strange unreadable symbolism.
Visiting John in his Hackney studio and seeing his most recent works, it's clear his practice has changed, not so much dramatically, but certainly noticeably. “The progression,” John tells me over a cup of tea, “definitely comes from within the work.” It's a two-fold move: firstly in terms of style – which has become even flatter, slicker and more highly varnished; and secondly in terms of the subject matter of the works, which are less dramatically dark, and now more gently unsettling.
Clearly much of the change comes from a refinement of the artist's own practice, but there's also a host of external influences at play. Strange medieval landscapes are reminiscent of John Martin, but “more picturesque”; there's elements of Minimalist sculpture (Donald Judd in particular); tinges of photorealism and Glenn Brown (“an early influence”); echoes of M Night Shyamalan's The Village; and all manner of architectural epochs – from medieval stone skeps to public shopping centre art, via the Panorama Theatre built in Leicester Square in the 1800s.
In addition, for the first time, Stark is exhibiting work that goes beyond painting. As the hand of the artist is increasingly effaced in the application of the paint, Stark has pushed his practice outwards – “exploded” is the word he uses more than once – to now include a range of sculptural elements; mainly beehive-like structures. These pick out elements from the paintings, and bring them, judderingly, from Stark's strange, timeless, ruined, neverworld right into the gallery (or studio) of the real. There's something akin to that moment in Nightmare on Elm Street where Tina wakes up from what she perceives to be a dream, only to find four razor cuts in her nightgown. These structures prevent the apparently unreal from being boxed off and forgotten about. There is, as John puts it, “a slippage”.
These beehives form the narrative crux of the exhibition, and lend a new “conceptual cohesion” to John's work. Under the title of Apiculture, the works trace the ritual undertakings of a series of strange figures, like a cult of bee-keepers, anonymous under brightly coloured hoods and black face-masks. These bees, for John, are “a really nice open metaphor, that can be read in so many different ways. All through the history of literature and art, the beehive has been cited as an example of utopian society, of a selfless existence. Do these hives represent the world? An idealised world? Art, even? Are the keepers the artists, producing the art, or the collectors harvesting the art?” Importantly, these possibilities are kept delicately open.
And Stark is an expert at this – exploiting both the power of symbolism and its inherent limitations. As titles like In Times of Exactness and Uncertainty suggest, there's a painstaking balance between information and secrecy. As John puts it, “information is depicted in detail and is very specific, and yet... it's sort of everything and nothing at the same time.” Through a host of abstract logos, compositional patterns, repeated motifs and codes of colour, “you can see a whole language developing,” John says. “Shapes, forms, colours – it's just a series of shapes if you break the paintings down: circles, squares, triangles and hexagons.” This, combined with the fact that under the surface of the paintings are all manner of mistakes and alternative compositions – “If you X-rayed them you'd see a lot of weird stuff in there!” – gives a sense of the cryptic and occult not simply to the subject matter of the works but to the very works themselves.
This interest in codification stems directly from John's desire to confront the issue of religion. It's something that comes with the territory: “Being a painter and dealing with historical painting, you have to somehow deal with these ideas of religion and the spiritual, so I guess I see these narratives replacing the old ones.” So alongside a triptych is a portrait of one of the bee-keepers, whose pose, hands together in what looks like prayer, is taken from classic depictions of the Madonna. But here, he bears the brand of his profession, and the vivid orange protective gloves of his profession. As John puts it, “the idea of work, or daily ritual, is one way of filling in the void, giving people meaning.”
But for the bee-keepers, stuck in a static representation, their daily toil never bears fruit. This work then is both what gives them meaning, and an apparently futile activity. It's akin perhaps to the reading of symbolism – a task that is always thwarted in advance by the necessary opacity of the symbol. A bit like reading art, you might say. These are fascinating works, that retain Stark's innate ability to beguile. But the longer you look, the less you know, and the more naggingly intriguing they become.
John Stark - Apiculture is at Charlie Smith London from 7th October to 12th November 2011.
Exhibition Text, 2010
By Jamie L Smith PhD
Conner Contemporary is pleased to present John Stark’s first solo exhibition in the U.S. The London-based artist makes his much anticipated American debut with a powerful new series of paintings in oil on wood panel, Mercurius Duplex. An innovator in the dark undercurrent of London’s contemporary art scene, Stark integrates styles and themes from recent and past artistic traditions to form his own system of meaning.
The show’s title, meaning “Dual Mercury,” reflects the artist’s conception of his work as a Mercurial marriage of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Stark’s paintings contain a world of desolate landscapes, imaginary destinations appearing at moments in crisp, exacting detail, only to dissolve into light or mist elsewhere. Never giving away too much information, or surrendering to academic formulas, he converses easily with traditions of landscape and figure painting, while also evoking colorful sci-fi posters, or 70's- style rock band album covers. Stark presents us, in one painting, with a sparse, moonlit terrain that echoes the cool stillness of Caspar David Friedrich. In another, he conjures the cosmic symbolism of Albrecht Altdorfer and Matthias Grunewald, painting a vivid sunrise, glowing with otherworldly colors, and lit with hints of meteorological phenomena. Stark updates these German masters with pop culture humor, populating his unattainable, foreboding spaces with skulls and grim, hooded figures, which can read dually, as memento mori, or as death/metal emblems.
If Stark’s style refuses to be pinned down, his imagery also resists a fixed narrative reading, and instead, invites fantasy and speculation. He alludes to a post-apocalyptic, psychological landscape, which may be seen as either primitive or futuristic. The suggestion of the aftermath of some unknown catastrophe, past or future, is all the more significant because of this exhibition’s context, in Washington, DC, on the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. In some of Stark’s pictures, decaying corpses, supported by rustic funeral pyres, identify their locations as sites for ritual. In others, hooded figures engage in cryptic activities, burying the dead, or perhaps performing incantations. Their anonymity and solemn aspect indicate a higher spiritual order, or a sect with special power, and secret knowledge. Their environment is variously crystalline, vaporous, or filled with falling snow, or ash. Whether they’ve endured chemical warfare, a solar storm, or a plague, is unknown.
Stark encourages multiple readings of his subject by exploring the rich medieval history of the compound Mercury in his imagery. Flasks of liquid and salamanders symbolize Mercury’s function as a catalyst in the alchemical transmutation of base matter into gold. Could Mercury have been the cause of the unseen calamity that struck Stark’s imagined world? Or, maybe it provides the antidote? The artist’s ambivalence stems from his interest in the medical use of Mercury to treat victims of diseases, like leprosy and syphilis. While some patients benefitted, others died of mercury poisoning. Both fixed and volatile, Mercury was thought by alchemists to combine the solar and lunar types of consciousness. Said to be the child of chaos, Mercury was identified with the devil. However, the name of the Roman messenger god also evokes the planet Mercury’s role in the order of the cosmos. Submerging viewers in a realm between light and darkness, Stark suspends us within a strange, uncertain time. Is this the end of a forgotten era, or the dawn of a post-industrial age? Stark’s paintings provide fertile ground for further discovery. Using, at every turn, the slippery nature of Mercury as an analogy, he undermines serious academic enquiry with humorous references to death metal album art. As he does so, Stark moves deftly back and forth between the roles of a black magician - who masterfully calls forth our superstitions, fears, and fantasies with paint - and a diabolical trickster - who wittily cajoles us into laughing at our own seriousness.
Time Out Review, 4 Stars, 2009
By Rebecca Geldard
Emerging painter John Stark is known for impressive, if rather boy's bedroom, re-workings of mythological narratives and old master techniques. For this, his first London solo show, 'Meliora Silentio', Stark has wisely stepped out of overtly folksy old-world allegorical territory into some sci-fi and cinematic realms that bit closer to home.
For an exhibition hingeing on the idea of keeping quiet, though, the press text certainly makes a lot of noise. But once over the brook-like flow of philo- and psychobabble Stark's detailed, formally restrained, panels offer some truly odd perspectives on what it means to negotiate and contribute to the tech-savvy flow of cultural production.
There is still a heady whiff of album-cover-art-apocalypse about this latest series of landscapes and interiors - putrid nests, cancerous candyfloss skies and piss-coloured Dali-fied pools appear, against the clinically painted odds, to stagnate in the crepuscular gloom. But the plot (and our interest) thickens when Stark appears aware and making use of rather than hiding in past painters' handling of human dilemmas and the time-based image.
While it's hard to care about the technical wizardry (or narrative quandry) of the KKK-style, yellow hoodie-wearing beekeeper in the wooden-panelled cult HQ, elsewhere,seventeenth-century skies and alien-invaded copses appear to hover, charged with the same portent as the frozen televisual or smudged Photoshopped image.
Does Stark really bring one to a point of Nietschean-fuelled 'contemplation on the nature of existence, spirituality and death'? Not exactly, but one can appreciate the sentiment - a sense of futility at the endless recycling of life and ideas. If it wasn't for the endemic spread of information these paintings would be a lot less interesting, the artist less able to drag the viewer, however reluctantly, from the golden age of painting to the digitally reproducible one, via Asimov and 'The Wicker Man'.