The following is an edited extract from a conversation between artist John Stark and anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt, the first 5000 years and The Utopia of Rules. The conversation was originally published in the catalogue that accompanies DoL Po, Stark’s solo show at Charlie Smith London, June 2016, and also with accompanying images at the Learned Pig - Here
David Graeber: Industry without imagination. For Marx, that’s what bees represent. 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. 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.
If so, the relation between the witches and beekeepers in your paintings 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.
There’s always at least a subtle feeling that imagination is somehow demonic, evil.
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…
John Stark: 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, i.e. 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 burnt-out despair that’s channelled through the work. It’s not exactly a climactic catharsis occurring with the keepers, its more slow-burn, 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.
At the origin of money we have a ‘relation of representation’ of death as an invisible world – the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species.
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.
The pig in Korea – the most widely consumed meat – is also a symbol of luck, wealth and prosperity.
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 depersonalised 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 hive-minded way.
For surgeons, green helps to stabilise their vision since it’s the opposite to red on the colour wheel.
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.
John Stark - Alcove Paintings
Text by Graham Crowley, published in Turps Banana, issue 20, 2018
The soul never thinks without a picture. Aristotle
IN THE WINTER OF 1923, in Dornach, Switzerland the theosophist and founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner, gave a series of nine lectures entitled The Nature of Bees. His visionary thesis anticipated the decline of the bee and its ramifications thereof. Steiner argued that this would be caused by industrialisation and, central to his thinking, was the assertion that this catastrophe will have been precipitated by humankind’s abandonment of what Steiner called, ‘the threefold social organism’ or social threefolding as it’s known. This refers to three prime areas of human endeavour: the economic, the legal and the cultural. He also suggested that all manner of human actions will have environmental, social and moral repercussions. Steiner’s message is quite stark – wake up, think differently, or what will happen to the bees will ultimately happen to us. Eighty years later Colony Collapse Disorder has become reality.
Remember yourself always and everywhere. George Gurdjieff
During the 1950s Joseph Beuys, who, for most of his adult life had been an adherent of Steiner, embraced Steiner’s theory of the ‘the threefold social organism’. This was an insight grasped whilst Steiner was studying bees and certain aspects of the thinking were adopted by the Fluxus Group, of which Beuys was an influential member. Fluxus promoted an art that was socially engaged, opposing bourgeois values and institutions. It believed that art could be a driving force for social advancement and wider democracy – in short, they believed that everyone was an artist and that ultimately all life was art. Radical stuff at the time. This was a period when feminism and Marxism were regarded as compatible with esotericism – a time of rampant intellectual curiosity when artists would begin to grapple with ethical and social issues wholesale. In 1973 Beuys joined the Anthroposophical Society.
Steiner’s influence on Beuys can’t be overstated, nor that of theosophy in art generally. Theosophy was influential in the development of early modernism and espoused/promoted an evolutionary vision – the advancement and expansion of human consciousness. Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky were all members of the Theosophical Society; all were innovators and proponents of non referential (or as some have it – non objective) painting, before the outbreak of war in 1914. Just as theosophy had been instrumental in the development of modernism. It would also be a factor in it’s demise.
John Stark is one of a growing number of painters who have embraced the legacy of conceptualism and the thinking that characterised conceptual art. It has made their work more responsive, agile and intelligent. It has expanded their practice and the discourse of painting more widely. Stark’s is an erudite and volatile synthesis that draws on a wide range of art, high and low – from Beuys to Warhammer, the tabletop game of fantasy battles; from Francis Picabia to rapper Chester P; from fantasy album cover artist Roger Dean to the 16th century mannerist, Jacopo Ligozzi. A mix of high and low, mainstream and underground. This is post conceptual painting.
Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Bees – or rather their absence – have been a recurrent theme of Stark’s paintings and the painting, This Too Shall Pass is no exception. It’s a painting of what appears to be a rather perplexed and clean-shaven beekeeper who’s either looking in or out of a window and like so much about this and other paintings in the series, it’s ambiguous – and wilfully so.
These paintings are impeccably constructed and the surface has the kind of finish one associates with an ‘old master’. There’s no rhetorical or bravura brushwork – they’re exquisite. References, connections and allusions abound in these seemingly anachronistic paintings laden with references and are often refreshingly incongruous – the anachronisms are studied.
Stark’s beekeeper holds a solitary blue delphinium between his thumb and first finger in a manner characteristic of a renaissance or symbolist painting. His beekeeping days are numbered. The bees are long gone. An apparently medieval subject witnessing a 21st century catastrophe. Like so many other paintings in this enchanting series, what we’re presented with is painting that is stoically reserved yet thoroughly dystopian. It’s a painfully precise study in redundancy – as if one small blossom would lure the bees back. Fat chance. Much of the content of these superficially archaic looking paintings is so cogent, so contemporary – so poignant.
The painting’s title is the answer to a Persian king’s request for a scholar to write a single sentence that would make the king happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy – but why? A conundrum that frustrates the conventions of the vanitas perhaps? For a man who paints ‘about’ bees, Stark manages to depict very few of them. But the few that do make an appearance seem to be weary survivors.
I guess one person can make a difference. But most of the time, they probably shouldn’t. Marge Simpson
One of Stark’s paintings in which bees make an appearance is Chessboard Landscape. Seven bees are returning to the hive, but this is no ordinary hive – the entrance is located in the dead centre of the alcove, above a chessboard motif that refers to 15th century Peruvian textiles. The bees are a central part of the social fabric, indeed they are the social fabric, what Steiner termed the ‘social organism’. This is the hive as societal metaphor – a place where sisterhood thrives and symmetry signifies order. This painting, like others in this series, appropriate the vanitas and the memento mori. It’s probably worth defining here the difference between these icon-based forms of genre painting. Vanitas generally alludes to moral weaknesses of the living, such as greed, vanity – the seven deadly sins. Memento mori is essentially a meditation on mortality, death and transience.
Stark is patently an appropriationist but there’s much more to his work than that – he ‘s constantly misappropriating, re-purposing and re-inventing and his use of Latin aphorisms and a German gothic typeface is central to the sense of cultural alienation. Elements of Stark’s iconography are informed by his exposure to popular gothic fantasy as a teenager – he was an avid Warhammer fan. Warhammer is a strategic fantasy role-play game that employs painted figures of fairly stereotypical medieval types along with ogres, elves, orcs, dragons and the occasional griffin. A Warhammer enthusiast like Stark would gain as much pleasure from painting the figures as playing the game and once proficient, the modeller would practice ‘dry brushing’ – a method of painting borrowed from old-school World War Two 1:72 Airfix military modelmaking.
Stark is one of those people who understands that there’s something wonderful about precision, as there is about modelmaking – the idea of making the world over again is quite something. There’s also an acknowledgement of Roger Dean’s fantasy art which was a defining feature of albums by prog rock protagonists like Yes, Steve Howe and Asia.
Stark is utterly painstaking both conceptually and practically and this is evident in the way that the surface of his paintings are executed: mirror-smooth and utterly unobtrusive brushwork. Old school.
They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life. Jane Austen
Probably the most ambitious painting in the series is Materno. Ostensibly a classic madonna or mother and child study, but something is amiss. The usual warmth associated with such a subject is absent, replaced by a deathly pale – the mother appears anaemic; the child torpid. The entire painting is executed in a militaristic palette. This is no accident as the source of this painting is a black and white photograph found in a Nazi propaganda manual of 1938 extolling the virtues of Arian motherhood and endorsing the subjugation of women. This is reflected in the rather incongruous Panzer matt green of the stonework.
Stark’s women have previously been depicted as variously subjugated: as witches, washerwomen and slaves. Materno is intended to expand this predicament. For Stark, Materno is probably the most poignant of the alcove paintings as his mother committed suicide when he was only six years-old and, recently, one of Stark’s closest friends collapsed and died suddenly. She was six months pregnant.
Throughout the Alcove series, Stark is constantly addressing social, ethical and environmental issues. Here, he questions the increasingly problematic issue of Dominionism – the Christian equivalent of Sharia law – the old testament belief that Christians have the god-given right to ownership and control of the natural world and everything in it or on it. It was used as a justification for colonialism, the subjugation of women and slavery.
Whatever you are... are it good? Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth
Tooth of an Ogre is the most enigmatic and paradoxical of the Alcove paintings. In a manner that is exquisitely economic, it presents the spectator with several complex and epistemological problems. What size is this object? The uncalibrated ruler depicted at the base of the painting only compounds our confusion. What kind of animal has a tooth like this – with three projections? There are no clues in the painting to the owner’s identity – the title compounds our confusion as ogres exist only in fantasy literature. Besides, no legitimate museum acknowledges the existence of ogres. How can we possibly know anything about this tooth (if that’s what it is). The fact that the tooth is rendered with such precision cements the deceit. How could anything depicted in such detail possibly be fictitious? The only possible reading is one of fiction, an elegant lie, a conundrum that offers only doubt and confusion. Despite appearances, Tooth of an Ogre (rather like painting in general) doesn’t offer a fixed understanding.
I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves. Ludwig Wittgenstein
Alpha & Omega is a heady mix of Platonism, Christian mysticism and Scandinavian dark ambient, album cover design. Alpha & Omega appropriates the hands from Quentin Massys’ Ecce Homo. Massys was a 15th/16th century Flemish painter responsible for A Grotesque Old Woman in London’s National Gallery. There are also echoes of the disembodied hands that feature in Giotto’s fresco, The Mocking of Christ.
Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the classic Greek alphabet but are invariably used in a Christian context to refer to God, the father and Christ, the son – as Christ is alleged to have said, ‘I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end’. The disembodied hands bear emphatic stigmata, which are penetrated by red snakes in thoroughly baroque fashion.
Stark was also thinking about an essay by Derrida that he had recently read – Handwerk where Derrida argues that work done with the hand is a form of thinking. Derrida also asserts that working with our hands, rather like speech, distinguishes us from animals. Derrida says a lot of things.
If you want to have clean ideas, change them as often as your shirt.
In the 1972 horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse is reading a copy of J R Hanslett’s fictional book, All of Them Witches. The book is probably visible for no more than two or three seconds but this, like many of Stark’s cultural references, is made in an elegant and erudite manner. He will often utilise a ‘second order’ reference to guide the spectator to another that’s more mainstream or ubiquitous. This is about cultural connectivity rather than Satanism – it’s applied esotericism.
The caption apparently carved beneath the alcove – Hell a Cometh Swift – is an anagram of All of Them Witches and in the painting, Stark uses a variety of references for his depictions of women, the starting point of which was The Hermaphrodite, executed in the style known as Romanism by Jan Gossaert. Gossaert was a 16th century, French speaking, Flemish painter and was one of the first northern european painters to visit renaissance Rome, return and subsequently make work influenced by what he saw whilst in Italy. As daft as it may seem, the key to the reading of this painting is the two-quid inflatable panel beach ball. This anachronism, simultaneously incongruous and yet somehow appropriate, is witness to the synthetic and almost ‘laminated’ nature of the painting – positioned precariously between the absurd and the eternal. The four figures are gleaned from disparate sources and epochs with the central figure holding the beach ball aloft whilst wearing solely what appears to be a yarmulke – this may seem absurd – it’s all the more remarkable when you know that she, Hermaphrodite, is also depicted seemingly wearing a yarmulke in Gossaert’s 16th century original. The figure in the bottom left of the painting is a direct appropriation of one of Francis Picabia’s 1940s ‘pin-up’ paintings.
Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.
Monty Python & The Holy Grail
The alcove in Telling The Bees functions in a similar manner to that in All of Them Witches – as a window. A window looking out over what appears to be a northern european landscape, sometime in the middle ages. It’s one of those cold, distant, blue monochromatic landscapes favoured by painters of the period. Another convention favoured by painters at this time was the ubiquitous coastal watch tower – if 15th century paintings are to be trusted, the threat of invasion, particularly in the north east of Britain, was fairly constant.
Bee-related references abound; in the foreground the beekeeper is preparing the smoker but (as before) bees are conspicuously absent. In the middle distance there are three hives differentiated by basic heraldic devices, below the alcove is a relief carving of a bee resembling some kind of corporate logo. Perhaps someone forgot to ‘tell the bees’? ‘Telling the bees’ is the tradition of beekeepers sharing significant news – that of births, bereavements and marriages, with their bees. It was thought that to withhold such news would bring the beekeeper ill fortune and damage the health of the hive.
Returning to the painting, there’s the matter of the beekeeper’s wristwatch. What are we to make of this blatant anachronism? Has the past been misappropriated? Again? Shouldn’t it undermine our sense of continuity? The questions are absurd – painting is intrinsically deceitful, mischievous and contradictory. Stark understands that and revels in it.
This is exquisite fiction. The fact that it’s perplexing isn’t a problem – quite the opposite in fact – it’s enthralling. And it’s what makes it art.
Trembling, I listened; the summer sun
Had the chill of snow
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we must all go! Home Ballads by John Greenleaf Whittier
Why alcoves? It started when Stark discovered Hans Memling’s painting, The Chalice of St John The Evangelist in the National Gallery, Washington DC seven years ago. This was the original ‘poisoned chalice’. Stark was immediately struck by the painting’s economy and mimetic power – transubstantiation. He sensed the significance of paint’s potential to not only render but become form and that if it were handled with conscious intent, had the potential to render meaning – painting as transformation.
For Stark, the alcove can also function as shrine, aperture, resting place or site of reflection. This modest architectural feature has allowed Stark to approach painting as both transformation and synthesis. They’re sites that can simultaneously bely a diversity of elements and allusions – sites that can intrinsically be intimate.
In 2011 he painted his first Alcove painting, The Outsider. It was a fairly restrained affair; a single worker bee returning to the hive that was located in the alcove, the entrance of which was composed of 12 holes symmetrically arranged – evidence of human intervention. Control.
The Alcove painting from 2017 entitled Immundus (meaning unclean or filthy) depicts what might be a woman washing sheets. What’s wonderfully anachronistic about this painting is the ‘whiter than white’ washing – easily overlooked – but in plain sight.
Stark’s alcoves aren’t always alcoves – they may also be arches, niches and unglazed windows. However, they all function as locations for a variety of allegories, metaphors and dramas which all happen ‘out of time’ – somewhere in northern europe and literally rhetorical.
These paintings are a synthesis of fable, morality tale, poetic insight and ancient aphorism. The composition is studied and they’re executed with absolute precision. The past is often referred to as ‘another country’ but the past for Stark is much more – it’s a place where a plethora of potential, parallel worlds are made to exist. Worlds in which the past is misappropriated and re-purposed. Worlds where Jane Austen, Albrecht Altdorfer, Joseph Beuys, Jaques Derrida, Chester P, Roger Dean, Mary Shelley, Yes and Francis Picabia are in constant conversation – worlds out of time.
The bee is one cell in the organism, just like a skin cell. Joseph Beuys
Graham Crowley, January 2018.
Press Release, March 2018
Stark’s thirteen new alcove paintings invite us into an illusory medieval world of bee-craft, populated by artisans, monks, witches and fools. Laden with symbolic and mythological allusions these works draw heavily on the dreamlike and archetypal, where Stark deploys universal motifs in combinations that are unique only to him. Subtle anachronisms including beach balls, wrist watches and tattoos destabilise our notions of time, suggesting a decoupling from standard notions of past, present and future. The formal trope of the alcove is employed throughout this series with great variety. Emblazoned with symbols or inscriptions, their negative spaces suggest excavated tombstones whilst serving as portals or internal ledges. Heraldic symbols, icons, relics, figures or landscape might be depicted within this pictorial space, placing the viewer between interior and exterior, and also emphasising a heightened voyeuristic element within the work.
The painting Materno depicts a nursing mother in stark solidity yet the cracks in the alcove intonate fragility and transience. In Chessboard Landscape bees crawl into a dark hole as if entering the painting itself, or alternatively they are being drawn to an alchemical black sun. In Fool the subject fixates on a bee in flight while missing the gem stones under his nose. We are presented with an ultimately austere world built on the foundations of classical and romantic traditions that embraces emotional engagement whilst rejecting sentimentality. Artist and audience traverse the history of painting via a complex web of reference points, from 15th century Dutch Mannerism to ancient Inca textile design; from Rosemary’s Baby to Picabia’s nudes. Notions of birth, nurture and responsibility coalesce with what is ultimately a meditation on the passing of time and the creeping inevitability of death.
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.
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.
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'.