Monday, May 14, 2007

Art Space Talk: Naive John

I recently interviewed the artist known as Naive John. John is a British artist who has a strong focus on figurative painting. John is a self-taught artist with a perfectionist’s attention to detail and craft. His paintings combine mythological and surreal images juxtaposed with Liverpool's urban setting. They often refer to concerns for the environment with a humorous element.

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "Late by most artists’ standards I guess. I was raised in a Glasgow slum before moving to a small town called Cumbernauld which had no galleries or museums. My home life was very dysfunctional and on occasions violent. As a result I attended school infrequently and failed academically. I was always drawing though, usually household ornaments or cartoon characters.

My dad is fond of telling people about the time him and my mum were pulled to one side by a teacher who showed them a sheet of paper which I had completely covered with blue paint. My teacher explained that the class had been asked to paint some fish and when asked where my fish were I had replied that they were ‘under the water, you can’t see them’. I was six years old and already a smart arse.

My dad bought me my first set of oil paints when I was 13. I painted imagined landscapes and portraits of my beloved Doberman. It was, however, a foregone conclusion that I would be apprenticed down the shipyards alongside my dad until that particular industry died on its feet in the 1980s.

Finding myself at 17 on the scrapheap I spent the next decade or so being a waster, sniffing petrol, exchanging drawings for lumps of hashish and tripping on acid or mushrooms. On visiting a local drug dealer I encountered Salvador Dali posters for the first time. It was my first encounter with modern art and something in my head went BANG! After that I educated myself, read lots of art history books and worked hard at my painting. It was something I did for myself in the privacy of my bedroom. I only seriously considered exhibiting my paintings a few years ago."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "I am a gay man and if it is true that all artists respond in a particular way toward the society they are a part of then it is equally true that the homosexual artist’s response is governed by concerns that do not affect the heterosexual artist. I should say though that I have no desire to create an aesthetic that is specific to it. My paintings are not made for the exclusive use of a particular community."

Q. On average, how long does it take you to create a piece?

A. "Between 2 and 4 months to complete a 4 x 3ft canvas, depending on complexity."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "I want to present my world view in beautifully rendered paintings. It is my raison d’etre as an artist. Anyone can make ugly art. Our galleries are bursting at the seams with it. Naive John makes art that an eight year old cannot do and that is how it should be.

My paintings are narrative based figurative works and are painted with an obsessive's attention to finish, resulting in a smooth enamel like surface. I go to considerable lengths to remove anything resembling artistic handwriting from my paintings and consider the expressive brush mark to be entirely over-rated. The painting methods I use are freely adapted from extensive readings on Old Master techniques. In this respect my art could be considered rather conservative and old fashioned. It appears on the surface that I have rejected modernism and clung fast to academic procedures more befitting that of a nineteenth century artist. I'm a big fan of so called bad artists like Bouguereau and Gustav Moreau, they make donkeys of the more acclaimed canonical artists. Like them I heroise my subject matter and at the same time take great pride in almost photographic precision and correctness of detail. I am entirely self-taught in this respect and I work very intuitively.

On one level it could be said that I have more in common with Victor Frankenstein than Vincent van Gogh, sourcing a hand from here and an ear from there and effectively building a composite human being who might then become the protagonist in a painting. I steal from many sources; Google is my best friend. I flip through troves of art historical representations like others might a book of fabric swatches. Detailed tonal drawings are made using a ball point pen which are scanned into my computer. Photoshop is used to arrange them into a composition. There can be as many as 20 variations on a composition. Each is refined in manner and execution until I end up with one which works for me. This is my ‘lo-fi’ approach; a stylus makes the marks on a hard drive in place of a sketch pad."

Q. Has your art ever been published?

A. "Yes - my work has been used on CD and book covers."

Q. What was your most important exhibition? Care to share that experience?

A. "The Stuckist Punk Victorian Show in the Walker Gallery, Liverpool 2004. It climaxed my ‘coming out’ period as an artist and was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. I emailed Charles Thomson in March of 2004 with a view to forming a group in Liverpool. He got back to me saying that he thought it would be a good idea. Shortly after this he contacted me again to tell me that Ann Bukantas, the Walker Gallery's fine art curator, admired my painting Toxteth Cherub and that it might be a good thing to have a local artist involved in the show. From there I was asked to submit more work and ended up with 3 canvases in the show.

My inclusion in the show, and the accompanying catalogue, meant that my work and my web site gained a lot of public exposure. I was interviewed by French television and one of my paintings Art Takes a Holiday was the subject of an A-level exam paper (recently presented in book form to me at an exhibition). I was contacted by collectors interested in buying my work and by galleries expressing a desire to show my paintings.

All of these events occurred midway through doing an art history degree and the Chair of the department, Professor Colin Fallows, offered me the opportunity to curate another Stuckist show - The Triumph of Stuckism - as well as lead the accompanying international symposium. Both these events further raised my artistic profile and as a result I am now the subject of a documentary film and a Turner Prize nominee. The irony of which will not be lost on the other Stuckists."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "I paint exclusively at night and always with music in the background. My studio walls are currently propping up tiers of CDs by Bach, Bjork, Radiohead, Kraftwerk, Duke Ellington and the Boards of Canada. I suck on boiled sweets otherwise I get a sore jaw from unconsciously clenching my jaw. Being a perfectionist is stressful."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "I seem to appeal to the literary mind. I can count Scotland's Poet Laureate and an 'edgy' novelist amongst my most fervent collectors. Most recently David Roberts, owner of London’s Spectrum Gallery and himself a major collector of contemporary art, bought all of my remaining works as well as Human (versus Mother) Nature - a work in progress."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces.

A. "The Other (image above) is an elaborately staged allegory about bullying. By virtue of his being visibly different from the crowd the centaur has attracted the unwelcome attention of the 'mob'. This centaur far from being cowed is, however, self-assured and, other than keeping a wary eye on the dogs at his heels, appears to be baiting them in a manner similar to that of a matador in a bullfight. Here though in place of the matador’s cape is a towel with a love heart emblazoned upon it. This ‘other’ reacts with patience and intelligence, rather than fear. He exhibits compassion for his tormentors who, he realises, are ignorant rather than hateful.

Dominating the painting in a dynamic diagonal – a compositional device borrowed from the baroque - is the centaur himself, a mythological beast that has traditionally been linked with boorishness in the Classical world but which I have appropriated and deployed here as a signifier of gay iconography. The centaur, for me, is literally a symbol of animal sexuality, a sexuality which is free from societal constraints. At the same time as effectively modelling the alienation of its protagonist, and providing a compelling icon for drawing the viewer into the outsider’s experience, the centaur helps to emphasise the self-conscious fiction of this painted document. It is, after all, a fantastical notion to depict a centaur on an urban Liverpool street. On the wall, and continuing the line of the diagonal, there are two playing cards balanced against one another. One card is the Joker. In tarot the Joker is also known as the fool, a jester. He represents inexperience and naïveté seeking self-expression. The card itself is indicative of mania, delirium, passion, obsession and irrationality. I have adopted the Joker card in many paintings as my signature principally because it embodies many of the adversities which have challenged me, as a man who suffers from dysthymia - a mood disorder. The dogs, in this context, we could regard as a tool of the status quo, their task being to reinforce normative standards. Finally, and acting as a focal point, is the love heart. While universally recognised as a symbol for love, it is in the tarot that this icon symbolizes knowledge. Thus the centaur inhabits and exhibits intelligence and free thinking. Effectively I am mixing the mundane with the marvellous not by trying to juggle the real so much as navigating the artifice. By wedding the eerie with the everyday I am, through the use of metaphors, reinforcing or amplifying the common place.

The Other provided an excuse to indulge in mythological playacting. It is a painting which in both content and technical execution opposes the dominant social values and conceptions of art and academic culture. There is no respect for the hierarchies that exist between high and low culture, good or bad taste. This confusion of styles and forms can have no outcome but the consummation of a camp aesthetic, a kind of knowing kitsch. As such the painting stands in defence of all that is excluded, minoritised or considered deviant up to and including the painting's technical methodology. Demonstrating the importance of the independent and the relative, it shows solidarity with all that is devalued, outcast or excluded.

When I was painting it I was conscious of melding the Wizard of Oz with Animal Farm but within an urban context and from a highly personal point of view. Thus I have depicted the 'real' world as being black and white and the otherwordly in Technicolor. It is also the first painting in which I experimented with systematic blurring. Previous to this I made what I would call hard edged paintings. I was pleased with the results and have taken this method further in Human (versus Mother) Nature, The Rat Race and Sefton Park – genetically modified."

Q. Do you have a degree or do you plan to attend school for art? If so, how did it help you as an artist? What can you tell us about the art department that you attended?

A. "I attended Greys School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland. After they considered my portfolio of work to be exceptional they relaxed the entry requirements for me. It was really quite a soul destroying experience and did not help me as an artist other than to imbibe me with a determination to prove them wrong. The standard of drawing was terrible; the worst in the class was celebrated as being the best. I played a prank one day in life drawing and made a drawing using my left hand (I am right handed). It was, as one would expect, very poor but the lecturer exclaimed that I was 'on the right track'. That really did it for me. I thought they were lazy charlatans for the most part. They expelled me after a year because they couldn't mould me. Most of the students compromised their integrity in order to please their lecturers and get the grades they required."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "I use all kinds of mediums. Currently my preference is water based oils. Brushes and palette are cleaned under a tap with soap and water. No solvents and very eco friendly. As a vegetarian 'green' type an environmentally friendly medium is high on my priorities."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "Online at or in the flesh at the Glasgow Hunterian Museum's permanent collection where I am sandwiched between Whistler and the Glasgow Boys."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "I sell all my work through my website. The internet effectively means that I pay no commission to middlemen and it has the added advantage of allowing people access to my work who might otherwise feel intimidated by the gallery environment.

I have forthcoming exhibitions in London, Barcelona, New York, Berlin and Reykjavik. See for more details."

Q. What galleries have you exhibited in? Can you provide links to their sites?

A. "View 2 Gallery, Liverpool,
Walker Gallery, Liverpool,
Urbis Museum, Manchester
68 Hope Street Gallery, Liverpool

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "Taste is dictated by a small cartel of elitists. It was always thus."

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "Make art for yourself first and foremost."

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "Long Ago in Another Place Entirely was discussed by an artist selection panel who thought it quite controversial. They interpreted it politically as an anti-abortion pro-life image. It isn't. It's a positive affirmation of how alien we once were when we lived in the womb. In the end they deemed it to be 'proper art' which would 'provoke' people and allowed it to be shown."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "As a man I hit 'rock bottom' 6 years ago which resulted in a mental health team visiting my house. I still attend a psychiatric hospital on an outpatient basis. As an artist I have been lucky. There have been no real obstacles other than my own personal shortcomings."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "To make the kind of paintings I would like to look at."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "It is cliquey. I steer well clear of it and work in solitude, preferring my own company to that of other artists."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "No. I am not interested in making propaganda."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "I have no religion or faith but consider myself to be a spiritual being. Everything I do is influenced by my belief that everything is one."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "I am unashamedly populist; I have no interest in cultivating the pretentious type of viewer. As a child my visual inspirations were cartoons, comics, films and TV imagery and to some extent this is still the case. I am naive enough to believe that the ordinary man in the street enjoys art too and I have him in mind when I make paintings because for the majority of my life I have lived in the same streets as this Everyman.

I am suspicious about anything overly intellectual, consequently I most often judge art, whether it be a film, a painting or a piece of music, on my gut instinct.

I am an informed heretic and proud of it. I possess a first class degree in art history so I'm not ignorant about modernist theories but in my opinion much of it is stylistic navel-gazing, irrelevant outside of the museum or the art market. It’s art that has been made for art historians. If you are sufficiently clever with words you can justify anything, you can even convince people that nothing is profoundly something. I have no interest in this kind of 'art'.

As an artist my primary interest lies in making images which are poetic expressions of ideas. I would rather address the general and universal than the specific and overly personal. What people see in my paintings is my world view; often dark but humorous. I'm not interested in self-centred or solipsistic art so the current passion for overtly autobiographical art leaves me completely cold. I do not feel the need to share the intimate details of my day to day existence with anyone else in an art gallery or museum. My experiences are there in some form but they are not explicit. That is part of the art; the transformation of the mundane into something approaching the aesthetic.

I’d like to end by proposing that Naive John is actually quite sophisticated."
I hope that you have enjoyed learning about Naive John. Feel free to critique or discuss his art.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Amanda Jane Earley said...

What a cool man with exceptional talent, with such an honest approach to life and art these are rare qualities found in the art world today.I am glad he is finding the success that he has truly earned

Unknown said...

I love you, Naive John. You move me. I wish I were rich so I can buy your Rat Race painting, but sadly, that is not the case.