Strange Attractors: Naïve John
Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith, photographs by Jon Barraclough
In half an hour talking to Naïve John about his latest work I learned more about him than I know about some of my closest friends. He is an artist full of contradictions, all of which are heavily considered, and very much intentional, with a serious passion for what he does, and an approach to working that borders on the scientific – backed up by an approach to life which is fairly similar. It was refreshing to see such a substantially revered artist talk so candidly about his process, which as we know of most artists is very often a reflection of life and circumstance.
The work, titled Strange Attractors, is partially the result of a lull in his career while he focussed on his life, refocussing his priorities on family. The result is a painting that looks at beauty unfavourably, creating a layered vision of a caricature of ‘beautiful’. Yes, the woman is a cartoon femme, but she’s surrounded by flies and death. Time passes. Time stands still. She ages, and has habits that age her. But stands still in time in this posed image. In a manner, the woman is designed to pose. The only part of her taken from real life is her ankles (which to my understanding belong to a nurse called Carol who was kind enough to be photographed).
What Naïve John was clear to point out was that this is absolutely not photorealism. There are some digital images here, some photographs, and all collage. But his understanding of light and colour makes all these separate images work in one composition. This all culminates in his recent re-definition of himself as an artisan; with a skill level above craft and a reasoning to justify it. As opposed to an artist who flitters through on explanations and narratives. His love is of the production, and the subject is an excuse for creation. And as an artist working almost entirely on commission, it’s understandable why this is the case. The ideas are for others, to impress and to inspire awe. And he wants to do that through his craft. Not through a tentative subject.
Basically, this painting is an ego statement of his incredible skill, but this is an artist who will be in galleries far beyond his own life, so it’s actually a pretty refreshing ego (and not one he actively puts out there). The painting is on its way to the influential David Roberts’ house to sit amongst Andy Warhol paintings and Grayson Perry bowls. So it is no surprise that this artist, who has earned the respect of serious names and started serious movements in contemporary art, keeps presenting work that is such a high advertisement for his own skill.
He’s earned the right to stop calling himself an artist, far more than most have earned the right to call themselves artists. Either way, he believes the title artist or artisan should be earned, and I find it very hard to disagree with him. He is not saying there is a hierarchy necessarily – craftsperson > artisan > artist – just saying that a craftsperson needs to earn their title through an apprenticeship, or training, so why should an artist, or artisan, not have to justify their own position.
Unfortunately, this photograph is probably the only image you’ll see of this painting for a very long time, as is it is on its way into a private collection. If you could see the fineness with which the lines are created, and the science which helps decide the colouring in person, you would understand the level of skill here. It is clear that this has been a two year process, regardless of circumstance, and work that sustains intricacy in that way has to be hailed.