Feature: Simon Monk

Here’s an excerpt from the 4th issue with one of our favourite painters, Simon Monk.

BBB: You graduated from Art school in 1989, looking back at your career since then, did you feel it was a necessary step towards a professional career?

SM: Absolutely! Although my experience of art school was mixed to say the least I still believe that it is an essential and irreplaceable experience. The people that I met throughout my education, both tutors and students, continue to influence and enrich what I do. Of course I was extremely fortunate to be at the tail end of a post-war tradition of free higher education which has definitively ended now. The brutal truth is that if I had been born 20 years later art school would have been a financial impossibility for me as it is for so many budding artists now.

BBB: And how would you describe the evolution of your work since the beginning phases of your career?

SM: Very soon after leaving art school I was offered teaching work in a college near my home, the only catch being that the subject was art history rather than fine art, so academic work rather than studio practice. I had always had a strong interest in the history of art so I accepted the work which led to a fifteen year break from producing paintings. Around 10 years ago my partner of the time, a photographer, rented a studio and allowed me to have a small desk in one corner. From this desk I made the first tentative moves towards getting my painting going again; that relationship came to its natural end and now I share the same space with my wife who is a professional milliner. In an odd way it was having the studio that allowed me to become an artist again. Initially I was just producing paintings for myself with no thought of exhibiting them but a friend in a neighboring studio encouraged me to submit for the summer exhibition at the royal academy. I was fortunate enough to get my work accepted, the painting sold in the show and the whole thing has developed from there.

BBB: Furthermore, what about the English arts community? Would you say it has evolved quite a bit since you began as a practicing artist?

SM: The UK art scene has shifted irrevocably in the 23 years since I left art school; largely this change has been effected by the YBAs (who are not so Y any more). I happen to be of the same generation as the YBA artists and so tend to share many of their values, principally that of wishing to address an audience of ‘normal’ people rather than just art insiders. In the late 80s what happened in the art world seemed to be of interest to very few people whereas just 10 years later the activities of artists were the subject of widespread popular debate and continue to be so. The rise of street art over the last 10 years or so has further extended this populism to the extent that we now have people making, selling and buying art who, just 20 years ago, would have been alienated from the whole art system. Most of the time I see this phenomenon as wholly positive but some days my curmudgeonly side rises up to say ‘humbug’ and yearn for the old days – begone, curmudgeon!

BBB: Your work seems to use a lot of nostalgia within the subject matter, do you find it’s important to reconnect with your inner child as an artist?

SM: It’s no coincidence that the revival of my practice roughly coincided with my getting married and having a child. The stability that this situation has promoted has allowed me to really concentrate on my ambitions as an artist. As a result of being a father for the last 7 years I have been surrounded by toys and models and very early on they suggested themselves as potential subjects. As I like to paint directly from things in front of me in the studio rather than photographs it would be impossible for me to paint a real horse or a superhero but it is possible for me to paint models of these things. I also like the fact that I am selecting these cheap plastic objects and, by painting them carefully, giving them a new type of value and hopefully allowing people to enjoy them in the same way that I do.

BBB: Imagination and creativity is an important part of a child’s growth. Do you feel the modern world cultivates or destroys creativity?

SM: I feel that consumer culture provides us with many scenarios that feel creative but are ultimately unsatisfying. When one is in a shop choosing one shirt over another it is true that aesthetic judgement is being employed but nothing is actually being produced. The same goes for every consumer decision, from which film to see at the multiplex to which car to drive. It sometimes seems that in late capitalist society our identities are simply the sum of these choices which flatter us into feeling special and valued when I often suspect that the reverse is true. Of course this is a crass oversimplification of an enormously complex situation; there is resistance to consumerism everywhere but it’s often difficult to see until one switches off the tv and leaves the car in the garage. This perception is complicated by being a painter who makes a living by producing what are essentially luxury goods. I am not so naïve to imagine that I am in any way outside of consumerism; in fact, like all of us in the west, I am a beneficiary of its many pleasures and conveniences.

BBB: Your work also seems to be painted in a very technical matter, how would you describe the approach to your painting process?

SM: Unlike many artists I have never placed a great deal of trust in the spontaneous mark. I have always preferred processes where an image or object is very gradually built up from many small acts. This seems to me closer to the way things are in the world: people; trees; buildings all grow gradually, bit by bit, and I like my painting process to emulate this situation. As a result each painting takes a long time to produce as each thin layer of transparent colour has to dry before the next can be applied, and many layers are required before the image has the vivid colur saturation that I like. In aesthetic terms this is no problem as it is simply the way I do things but in practical commercial terms it is a major problem as a small painting which may take months to complete is out there competing with huge paintings that may only take days or hours but can be sold much cheaper. I don’t have a solution to this conundrum, apart from producing prints of the paintings which are a fraction of the price of the originals; I suppose I hope that the effort I put into these images is visible in the result which may attract an audience who share my values. I certainly believe that hastily produced images don’t last long on the wall; the eye tends to get tired of them very rapidly whereas a highly considered, well crafted image can give pleasure indefinitely.

BBB: When working in this manner it’s tough to leave a painting alone, how and when do you know when to say it’s “done” and put the brushes down?

SM: This is easier than you may think: when a painting is complete it seems very obvious. As a painting goes along all I can see are problems and shortcomings, which can be very frustrating but is just in the nature of the process, and then one morning I will enter the studio and the painting will look as though it has just appeared, complete on the panel, almost as though it has been painted by somebody else. When this happens I know that there is notheing else to do and the painting is complete.

BBB: Could it be said that there’s a romanticism with being an artist entices people to just slap a canvas together instead of gruelling over it?

SM: Personally I’ve never really subscribed to the romantic image of the artist. I don’t have the time to put any effort into appearing ‘arty’. For me the work is the thing I want people to be interested in, I would rather be invisible or at least go unnoticed. In recent years I do seem to have met a few people who seem to be in love with the idea of being an artist and I’ve noticed that they produce work very reluctantly. I suspect that for these people the self-image is the thing and the work is merely a necessary evil to support the image.

BBB: Because you paint from from models and not from pictures, what is your take on painting with pictures or projectors?

SM: I would love to be able to use photographs for painting as it would save me so much time, hassle and money but unfortunately I’ve never been able to find or make a photo that has anything approaching the complexity of colour and form that one effortlessly get from the thing itself. Having said that I am currently making some drawings from photographs, which feels very different as they are monochrome and not highly illusionistic like the paintings. So in principle I am in no way opposed to the use of photography in painting, it’s just that it doesn’t work for the type of image I wish to produce.

BBB: You’ve got a show in Switzerland and the Gewerbemuseum in Winterthur entitled “Oh, Plastiksack!”, how would you describe preparing for this show?

SM: As usual I found myself up against a very tight deadline and as usual it was completely my own fault. In the final few weeks I found myself reluctantly resorting to the use of an electric heater to accelerate the drying of the paint layers, something which I hate doing but is sometimes necessary. Despite the problems that I have with deadlines I’ve never actually missed one and when I don’t have one I can feels my self-discipline begin to drift a little, like everybody else I suppose.

BBB: What should fans expect next from Simon Monk in the upcoming years?

SM: Lots more paintings, some with familiar subjects and some with new ones. At the moment I am working on a series called ‘Englandland’ which is a look at national identity filtered through toys. I’m hoping to produce more works on paper, both drawings and watercolour paintings. My big project is to produce some work on a larger scale; it’s hard to be taken seriously as an artist when producing only small works so I need to take the plunge and go large.

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