Your works have a signature cartoonish nature to them. Can you talk a bit about your development of that style?
It's very easy to push this fact to the back of my head, but I've only really been painting figures and in a figurative style since I started at the Slade in 2017, so it's all relatively new to me and my handling and processing of things. Well, that's a bit of a lie, I was very much focused on figurative work when I was growing up and at school, but when I started my BA in 2008 I was really drawn into the abstract geometric world. All very cool and restrained and a bit cold. At least the stuff that I was making... I knew something had to change in the work that I was making; I was seeing faces and shapes in these abstract works and finding them quite funny so I thought: "why am I beating around the bush here? If I'm interested in faces and bodies why am I not painting faces and bodies?".
So to finally begin to answer the question I think because it was so new to me, or so old that it felt new, I had to start at such a basic and slightly crude level to feel out what sort of "figurative style" I wanted to employ (I am yet to figure this out...). I was initially making silhouetted heads which in hindsight were sort of Constructivist, and maybe using some text, which was fun but it still felt a bit restrained. Then came more fully fleshed out figures, and I suppose I've carried on with a cartoonish streak because the figures can really take a symbolic beating, or carry a lot of weight. They can be utterly absurd but then you can find vulnerability beneath that facade of absurdity. Maybe I'm not yet vulnerable enough to attempt a true figurative likeness; the cartoonish nature is certainly a method to bypass some of the earnestness that comes with figurative painting.
Your practice has some recognisable motifs like maps and parts of the human figure. Do these stem from thoughts and events in your own life, or is there a broader context there?
I think a lot of the male figures in my paintings are definitely self-portraits in some strange way; even if they don't always look like me they will depict a certain feeling or event that has happened to me. The majority of my work is very selfishly self-centred in that the ideas will stem from personal experiences, but one hopes that some of these feelings and experiences are shared... I've got such an off relationship with shame and embarrassment, one that at times can be all-consuming, so that will usually be a good starting point for me. The maps have been an enjoyable crutch to lean upon over the last year or so - because I've got such a short attention span I struggle to take the time to properly explore themes that could be richly rewarding. My studio partner Farnaz Gholami (another Slade painter) and I were talking about Tal R recently, and how he feels that some paintings open doors to rooms he didn't know existed, and that he has to make more of "that kind of painting" to figure out what's going on in the room! For me, it's like I open the door, hear a sound coming from another room, and waddle off down the corridor leaving behind me hundreds of doors left very, very slightly ajar.
So maps have been nice to incorporate into multiple paintings. I started using them before the pandemic, but they definitely took on a greater significance once we'd all become lost. I've always loved looking at maps, and in paintings I like them because they have an instantaneous abstract joy and impact. Then you start to tie in personal experiences of having been lost and trying to find your bearings; is this even the right map? Is that hillock the right hillock?? Then you blindly follow what you think is the right path, but the tool that you're using is actually making you more lost. Then there's also the idea of the centre of the map being the most potent part of the map. The geographic centre point of England is a place called Lindley Hall farm in Leicestershire - is that the most English part of the country? Surely it is because it's surrounded by so much Englishness that must feed the heavy gravity of the geographic centre? Or maybe it's a point of balance, and if you raised England up into the sky (tearing off Wales and Scotland in the process, sorry guys blame Brexit) and it's floating there in the blue and you spun it on that point where Lindley Farm is then everything else would spin off this giant spinning plate of a floating landmass. Towns would be reduced to bricks which would tumble into the sea far below, lakes and rivers would empty like overfull baths, population density in areas of Northumberland and Cornwall would see a rapid increase before hitting zero. All that's left is Lindley Farm. I think I need to go and make a drawing there or something and see if I feel particularly English, or maybe I'll question nationalism and personal feelings towards bits of land even more!
You mention this feeling of finding new ideas and being drawn into them. Do you feel an urge to go back to those other slightly ajar doors in the future?
Yes absolutely! I think that's what I'm trying to incorporate more in my practice at the moment, maybe realising that I've probably got enough pans on the boil at the moment (doors ajar...pans on the boil...one more analogy and we'll be at the limit) and that maybe mining every single thought isn't very good for my work. I have an admirable little pile of ideas that are more than sustaining enough for me to be getting on with. It's also a case of some ideas needing more time to bed in, so by making a lot of fairly different work I can weed out the ideas that actually interest me. The classic example that was told to me is to make some weird drawings, maybe just a bit too weird to want to look at for longer than they take to make, put them in a drawer, and come back to them in six months to see if there's anything there. Having that extended dialogue with yourself is a really useful method to navigate around your own ego.
So I've decided that I've walked just about far enough down this corridor for the time being, and it's more useful for me to turn around and see what I've left behind those doors. I think it takes a lot of self-discipline to work on one thing at a time, or to have one overarching theme run across multiple paintings, and I often find myself asking "is this enough?" which can lead me to not making any work at all. So I'm having to tell myself "yes, it's enough" quite a lot at the moment but it's all an exercise in self-care.
Scale and fragmentation seem like techniques you favour in the composition of your paintings. What do you feel drives this?
I think I do find it quite hard to paint a full figure! That is to say with everything within the picture frame, no limbs or heads sneaking out of the picture frame for a chat with someone else. So it's the path of least resistance, but then why fight my immediate interests? I certainly enjoy pushing things to the edges of paintings, which nicely links back to my little centrifugal ramble just now! I feel like things can get a bit weird at the periphery, when figures or objects are squeezed right up against the edge it creates an amazing energy and tension, but it can also make it seem like you haven't planned anything out at all... like when you try and write HAPPY BIRTHDAY in a card and it comes out as
H A P P Y B I RThday
It's also greatly enjoyable to focus on one aspect of the body. With the maps came hands, and it's been a learning curve trying to depict emotions through hands. Scaling up or down and fragmenting the body or the painting across multiple canvases again goes back to my interest in cartoons and possibly also in film making or at least the comic book panel where things play out across multiple frames.
Your paintings seem to exude a certain emotional atmosphere - how much do you feel your works reflect your own inner state and how much feels like a wider commentary?
My paintings are inherently tied to my own personal experiences, but I do hope that they aren't so insanely specific and they do turn out to be relatable in some way. I'm interested in things that are fairly universal: shame, conformity, humour, our relationship with our own bodies, anger, tenderness - it's a mighty gamut. The seeds of paintings come from within, but it's never a completely closed loop and people always bring their own thoughts and emotions into the paintings; quite often they're seeing something in my work that I haven't seen at all. It's such a cliché to say but it's still very refreshing being completely oblivious to some aspects of my work and showing it to other people who read it completely differently.
The emotions of shame and embarrassment feel like quite sombre focuses, but they're also mixed in with that humour and absurdity in your work that you mention. Can you talk more about that dynamic?
I think they're intrinsically tied up in humour because in some cases it is absurd to be embarrassed or ashamed by something. I tend to think of myself as having an overactive shame gland...that sounds disgusting but I'm comparing it to having an overactive immune system or something. Something that, when functioning normally, is perfectly useful and helpful but when pushed into overactivity doesn't help anyone at all. I think I'm still balancing the earnestness and the sincerity in my work, and humour is a useful tool to engage with those things. It would be a little too on the nose for me to make a painting directly about shame or embarrassment, and there are some people who pull it off wonderfully, but I definitely need that sideways access point. My shame and embarrassment are pretty trivial, surface-level things, and are tangled up with my general anxiety and neuroticism, and I try to deal with those things in my everyday life by employing humour.
So that's of course going to feature in the work, it's just a matter of finding the right balance and making sure people aren't just laughing at something and then walking away. Humour can be the barb that initially hooks you, but the painting has to offer more than just that I think. Someone like Tala Madani uses humour in a fantastic way, where it's an amazing blend of visual jokes but also pathos...and bathos! Pathos and bathos.
As everyone has been tucked away for the last few months, it would be great to hear a bit about what you've been up to recently. Can you give us the lowdown?
Well over the course of 2020 I think I moved studios about four times? Started in a place in Brixton, then moved to Kennington, then had a month-long residency at the Elephant Lab in Shepherd's Bush, then to a place in Mayfair, and now to my current studio in Waterloo. So it's a miracle I've made anything at all! I can be quite hard on myself when I'm not feeling productive, but that has been fairly disruptive, and even though I've been in this studio since January 2021 it's taken me until now to feel like I can make some work in this space that isn't absolute horse shit. And I'm also about to move flat, so that combined with general pandemic malaise has left me in a creative rut! But yes the ideas are slowly coming out of the recesses again which is really nice. Every time inspiration goes away it feels like it's never going to come back, and this has happened before so it seems like I'll never learn and exist in this amnesiac state of fear and apprehension for my whole life... haha!
OK on a more positive note I'm working on a new idea which is actually exploring one of the previously opened rooms. I made a painting called 'My Back is a Comedy and a Tragedy' last year which piqued my curiosity but I wasn't really in the right mindset to make more on that topic, so I'm going back to my back with the idea of doing a series of twelve paintings that vaguely reflect the hours on a clock... I love the image of twelve small paintings hung in a squat ellipse that are all quite similar but also distinct. And it's about how time has gone weird in lockdown. It has gone weird, hasn't it? But I don't want the paintings to depict specific times of day, that would be too on the nose... I think I want the backs to follow a similar idea of pairs (comedy and tragedy) so they might be classical pairings like the sun and moon, or left and right, and then the overarching pair is you and me, or rather me and me, because I'm painting my own back but it's a strange out of body experience seeing yourself from behind. Sorry that's a bit of a ramble but I haven't written any of this down before, it's been floating around in my brain.
Outside of art the band that I'm in got a little record deal in August 2020 so it's been fantastic to have that going alongside the art side of things. I like playing music because it isn't painting, and I like painting because it isn't playing music. They run in parallel sometimes, but they're quite distinct things to me, and I've not got any intention of forcing them to cross paths any time soon.
You can visit Jack's website at https://jacksutherland.co.uk and follow his Instagram account at https://www.instagram.com/jqsutherland/
Published 05 May 2021