I’ve always had a strange fondness for Flemish glass! Odd you might think that I should bring this up in an interview with fine artist John McCarthy but there is a reason and I’m sure it stems from the time I spent cutting the stuff for a living back in the day.
Now, for those not in the know, this particular style of glass is a staple of suburban front doors up and down the country, designed as a security feature which lets in light but which also obscures the view of anyone trying to sneak a peek inside. Another useful side effect is that it also distorts the features of anyone who you might want to look at and it is this nuance which my latest interviewee thought would be the ideal lens through which to paint one of his most famous portraits.
That painting, an artistic selfie behind glass, was entered into the prestigious portrait prize at the National Portrait Gallery in 1999 and ended up winning the Visitors Choice Award. It led to a successful solo exhibition in London in which he displayed paintings of people as seen through the glass of his front door.
But there’s one thing that strikes me about John McCarthy and that is his ever burning desire to re-invent himself and to keep evolving his work. “I felt like I’d reached a point at the end of that show where there was nowhere else I could go with those paintings” he says, “they were all portraits, they were all behind glass and I was getting a bit done with repeating the same image over and over.” Since then he has continued to hone a style which many have described as photo-realistic.
John is not classically taught! Essentially teaching himself, he did manage six weeks at St. Martins until his tutor having taken a look at one of his paintings declared that he didn’t think he had anything that he could teach him. John’s response at the time was incredulous, not least because he’d already paid for the course, “so teach me something else then, it’s not just about drawing paintings, it’s about ideas” The experience was “disappointing” admits McCarthy but made him reflect on the fact that just maybe he wasn’t giving himself enough credit for the ideas he had already. After that, “I just did my own thing.”
We are meeting at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich, soon to be the location of his latest show imaginatively entitled ‘How I Screwed Everything Up by John McCarthy’. I get the impression that for John it seems to represent a bit of a homecoming. Since 1999 he has exhibited around the World and in some of the big West End galleries but here at the Ben Oakley he feels a sense of freedom given that he has full creative control over his exhibition.
A sneak peek at some of work on show reveals the framework for an intriguing display. This time taking pictures from magazines and other contemporary sources he has ripped them out, screwed them up, re-photographed them and then recreated the exact image as a painting. Taking between 3 and 4 weeks just to create one, the resultant image is an evolution of the original which in turn is, by it’s very nature, a reproduction itself.
It’s an intriguing concept. One painting John has brought to the gallery is recognisable as a famous portrait of Chairman Mao, except it’s not the original, it’s the Andy Warhol version. Now complete with crumple marks, McCarthy has created yet another version of the iconic image except that now it has been filtered through a variety of lenses. He has done the same with a picture of Michelangelo’s Christ, clearly first created as a sculpture, it has been photographed, placed into a magazine, ripped out and screwed up, photographed and now re-created as a painting. “It’s the old post-modern thing about taking something that already belongs somewhere else and changing its meaning” explains McCarthy.
Further paintings are possibly even more intriguing! Technically brilliant paintings of packages tied up with string show that in McCarthy’s world it’s not even that important to have to look at an image and know immediately what it is. With the packages, the wrapping disguises what is underneath, but what could it be? That’s half the fun and the viewer can only imagine upon hearing the back story. It’s a fascinating idea, an image which is not an image, something which entices the viewer to use their imagination to peek under the surface.
One such story relates to a previous career working shifts in a printing factory, a job he did for 17 years, “it was a terrible job, I hated every minute of it” says John. Finally grabbing the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy he took the money and used it to make a career as an artist. Drawing it all out of the bank he packaged it up in brown paper, wrapped it up with string, photographed it and painted it prior to putting it all back into the bank “and that represents my 17 years in a factory” he says. Who would have thought that a painting of a paper bag tied with string could brim with so much meaning.
The title of the show does, of course, have a double meaning. ‘How I Screwed Everything Up’ could be taken quite literally, he has indeed painted pictures of things that have been screwed up. But as you should expect by now, it’s more than that “I kind of think about what is real success” says John “have I screwed everything up? I’m not rich, I’m not famous but, I really love what I do.” I get the feeling that this plays to John’s outsider roots into the art World. He’s often made his own way, learning at his own pace and more often than not doing what he feels is right. “Someone actually said to me once that it’s so easy to screw it up as an artist almost as if there’s definitions about what success is in art. Surely the most important thing is if the work touches people and reaches people.” reflects John.
But it’s also a title that shouts ambiguity “it gets people asking questions, just like you just did” says John. I think I am beginning to understand more and more of John’s mindset, he doesn’t want people to be told what to think, he wants people to place their own meaning on the work and like the paintings of the packages with string, to imagine what’s underneath.
John McCarthy was interviewed at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich on Saturday 6 September 2104. His show, ‘How I Screwed Everything Up by John McCarthy’ will exhibit in the gallery from Friday 3 October 2014 to 17 October 2014.