CONNERSMITH is pleased to present “Feed Your Demons,” an exhibition of new paintings by John Stark.
In each of Stark’s pictures a quiet respite is to be found. Flawlessly rendered in oils on wood, their poetics of color, form and texture immediately invoke Baroque still life masterpieces. Closer observation discloses them as radically contemporary meditations on reality. Drawing from Buddhist philosophy, anthropology, and comparative archeology, the artist conceptualizes the agency of natural forces within a subversive model of cultural history. Stark reimagines his genre as a social medium, deploying still life as a secure nexus between artist and viewer. He explains,
“Painting is a social space, a two-way mirror, where beholder and maker become one. I hope these works will open a hospitable place, a small window where truth and friendship coalesce, where our demons can feed and rest.”
Stark’s renown heretofore emanated from painting enigmatic figures in hauntingly beautiful landscapes. The still life subject in his latest body of work germinated amid the anxiety and uncertainty of the covid lockdown. He relates, “At the beginning, I struggled to paint. The sheer weight of it all, felt on a collective global scale, was debilitating. Then I started to make still life paintings in a very simple manner, from arrangements of the basic everyday things around me. The process offered some clarity of vision, peace, and the reassurance of a reality.”
Making art about reality, experiencing the essence of material objects, and feeling a real presence in stillness, center these works. Stark’s subjects - fresh fruit, vegetables, savory cheeses, wine, beer and rich meat – assume multiple levels of meaning. He imparts, “The metaphor of food consumption paralleled with ‘demons to be fed’ is a transformative one which correlates towards mental wellbeing.” Stark considers demons, not as minions of Satan, but, rather, as psychological challenges. He asserts, “Fears, insecurities, obsessions, addictions, are demonic parts of oneself that need to be battled against. If you don’t go to your demons, or worse try to flee, they will pursue you.” Here the artist evokes the Medieval Tibetan Buddhist monk Machig Labdron, who identified a demon as anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom. She advised, ‘With a loving mind, cherish more than a child, the hostile gods and demons of apparent existence, and tenderly surround yourself with them.”
In Stark’s view, demons also correspond to natural forces. Whereas the decanters, glasses, ceramic bowls, and metal trays in his compositions are based on twentieth and twenty-first century models, he comments that “the forms of these implements have not altered much through time, because they derive from nature, or their purposes have not changed.” He understands these items to relate back to ancient civilizing technologies, such as pottery, cooking, brewing, gardening and medicine, which were developed inconspicuously, over many centuries, primarily by women living in villages. Inspired by anthropological theories of David Graeber, David Wengrow and Erhard Schuttpelz, Stark conceives of the foundation of civilization as “the march of the demons into the city,” or, in other words, the translation of technical inventions informed by nature from outlying villages into urban centers.
The collective civilizing process, for Stark, is consonant with the individual process of self-realization. He points to Franz Baermann Steiner’s assertion that "What was once outside society, what was later inside society will, when this society triumphs, one day be within the individual. The process is the conquest of man by the natural forces, the demons. It is the march of danger into the heart of creation." Along this line of thought, Stark reflects, “My still life paintings, mostly of food, can be viewed as offerings, a kind of nectar for the demons. I have always thought my work as an inner process of moving towards a state of healing. Or as Carl Jung wrote about the process of individuation, advancing towards the self, a becoming.” He elaborates, “‘The natural forces’, such as dreams, the unconscious and imagination have been viewed in the past as dangerous or evil, but they are also the pure essence of creation. We all contain this potential, individually and collectively, it’s what connects us with every single breath, and it’s contained in every tiny brush stroke.”
With each brush stroke, too, Stark engages in a conversation with the history of painting. “The lemons I paint are materially continuous with lemons in works by Francisco de Zurbaran or Jan Davidsz. de Heem,” he states, “I also look to Clara Peeters, a fantastic painter of cheese and complex food arrangements. In Adriaen Coorte’s paintings I attend to scale, luminosity and light. Juan Sanchez Cotan shows me to regard objects as both familiar and alien. I admire his restraint and the austerity of the black voids surrounding the hyperreal fruit. I learn from them all and find my own path.” Stark’s individual style combines photorealist techniques with classical ones. He uses photography to fix the objects in space and light. The mirrorlike surfaces of his panels also refer to photography. He observes, “There is not much painterly gesture in my painting. As with Cotan, the expression occurs on a psychological level.”
Using this technique, Stark paints translucent substances, like plastic wrap; liquids, such as red wine and cherry Lambic; and reflections, including a PLU code sticker reflected on a stainless-steel tray. He observes, “The tray, designed by Enzo Mari for Alessi, marks its point in history, the 1960s, but in my conception, it also resonates with the reflective pewter plates in works by Juan de Zurbaran. Stark’s picturing of reflective materials is both elucidating and reflexive. “I would say I inhabit the paintings, as they are products of my domestic environment, but I have never painted a self-portrait or included myself in a work before.” He adds, “The shadowy reflection of myself in the wine glass is a natural occurrence of the process of looking at the way the light falls on the surface of the glass. It is a featureless silhouette, so it could as well be the viewer, as though 'I am you and you are me' in the metaphysical sense.”
Mutuality between viewer and artist is crucial to the position Stark asserts on the standing of still life in contemporary art through this exhibition. “I believe painting still life today is a radical gesture in the context of the contemporary art world, where there is a lot of silly painting going on,” he avows. “Still life has opened a door and given me a voice within the tradition. I sense great forces are at play within the still life genre, where time and space flow around forms which are brought to the viewer’s attention through the attention of the painter. Still life has the power to inspire a feeling of familiarity. It is, in essence, a coming home.”
Copyright Jamie L. Smith, Ph.D.
Full Exhibition images below.