John Stark: Apiculture

The British artist draws us into a world of the mythological and unconscious in his latest solo exhibition

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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: There wasn't a selection process as such; I created these 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: What other projects are you currently working on?
John Stark: As the title of a recent painting proclaims The Work is Never Done and there are always deadlines to meet although I will take some time now to rejuvenate and collect my thoughts. I will be showing work in Frieze week at The Future Can Wait which has teamed up with Channel 4’s Saatchi Gallery’s New Sensations this year at a huge space in Bloomsbury square; I have work in an exhibition at the moment titled ‘Black and White’ in Dublin at Oliver Sears gallery with Picasso, Kiefer, Max Ernst and George Condo amongst others. There are a few group shows on the horizon and I will also be showing at the London Art Fair with Charlie Smith london in January.

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.

John Stark's Apiculture, Charlie Smith Gallery, 336 Old St, 2nd Floor, London, EC1V 9DR, October 7 - November 12, 2011

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