|JOHN STARK | Apiculture|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday October 7th 2011 - Saturday November 12th 2011|
|CHARLIE SMITH LONDON is delighted to present John Stark with his second one person exhibition at the gallery. |
In this exhibition Stark has created a body of work that gravitates towards the centre of his preoccupations of the last three years. Rendered with masterly technique in oil on panel, Stark’s paintings transcend time by navigating the historical, the contemporary and the futuristic. At once his content recalls the Flemish landscape painting of Patinir; the figure work of Zurbarán and Sassoferrato; and the minimal Modernism of Judd. We are invited to assume that these depictions are posited at some point in an imagined future. Figures bustle amongst sporadic buildings in verdant foregrounds and backgrounds made of ever receding waterways and rocky out-crops. However, on further consideration it becomes unclear as to whether these vistas are a futuristic wondering or rather a rendition of some eternally recurring cycle.
Central to this creation of non (but all encompassing) time and place are the endeavours of the populace within. Colonies of beekeepers tend to their colonies of bees. Hooded and masked figures labour in the landscape in a collaborative enterprise to create liquid gold. Analogous to the intensive work of the artist, all are toiling here, all creating. Stark has also begun to provide more information. There is no doubt that we are exploring a utilitarian society consisting of communities inhabiting historic towers and fortifications; postmodern and prototype dwellings and units; and everyone and everything has its function.
We are not being directed however. These paintings are a virtuoso display of artist as vessel. They are depictions from an internal world but which also touch upon universal aspects of existence, traversing expansive leitmotifs that embrace philosophy, spirituality, and the histories of art and thought (and feeling). Operating as a collection of paintings that work together as a group, the whole refers to each individual part and in turn each part serves to provide an understanding of the whole. There is only one more component required to interpret the circle of endeavour of artist and subjects in these allegorical paintings and that is the psychology of the viewer.
Text | Juan Bolivar | 2011
|The Shepherd | Juan Bolivar|
|Exhibition Dates: Friday October 7th 2011 - Saturday November 12th 2011|
|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 is 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.
Juan Bolivar, 2011