Brancaster Chronicle No. 53: John Pollard Paintings

‘Sober Joy’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 150x120cm

17th September 2017, London.

Taking part: Anne Smart, Anthony Smart, John Bunker, John Pollard, Alexandra Harley, Robin Greenwood, Sarah Greenwood, Hilde Skilton, Mark Skilton, Noela James, Richard Ward.




‘Phainesthai’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 150x120cm


‘Singing the Evil Bungler’. 2017, acrylic on canvas, 150x120cm


‘Tangerine Winter Dream’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 120x120cm


‘Madcap’s Bits and Pieces’, 2017, 120x120cm


‘Over the Overman’, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 120x120cm

  1. This is a very diverse and exciting group of paintings. They exert a lot of presence even through the screen, and it would be great to see a big show of John’s work alongside “Brave World” and “Brutal World” from his chronicle last year. They are gutsy works, but not full of bravado. They are considered, as evidenced by John’s ability to go from “Phaineshthai” to “Sober Joy” on the same day, if I heard that correctly(?).

    I wonder if the diversity that John talks about is actually more of an aim for diversity on a work by work basis, rather than trying to combine a range of disparate elements within one picture. Because each of these paintings is clearly very different from the other, whereas individually the internal elements all seem to be appropriate somehow. Things seem to ‘belong’. When I think about paintings that try very overtly to accomodate as many different styles, techniques, even media as possible, it is usually to the work’s detriment. Take for example a painter like Gareth Sansom, who currently has a major retrospective showing in Melbourne.

    The self conscious and over-emphasised gluing together of techniques and media in Sansom takes us somewhere that is ultimately mundane, because we cannot really conceive of anything that could make the paintings cease to ‘work’. There’s no risk, just the impenetrable fortress of context.

    John’s paintings are obviously worlds away from this. There is an attentiveness to the required mood and feel that each work demands, that could only come about by being responsive to the particularities of the painting as it is made. When working this way, there is plenty that can go wrong. I think the one that is most problematic in this grouping of John’s is “Madcap’s Bits and Pieces”. In a way it is probably too over-wrought, and yet all the elements still seem to belong to this world. I think the problem I have with this picture is actually down to something that I was seeing as a positive in John’s work from last year. It was the idea that John’s work was creating its own kind of imaginary world. Davie was brought up in relation to this, and so inevitably some figurative connotations. Also linked I thought was Robin’s suggestion that the paintings deny the surface of the work. This all sounded really good, and it possibly still holds for those works from last year, but for “Madcap’s” it is proving to be the element I am struggling with. It is in part due to the figuration implied by all these little objects occupying a space, differing in size, creating a sort of perspective that draws us in. But figurative readings do not solely account for the suggestion of a world unto itself. I think this painting has the problem that despite its somewhat claustrophobic density, it is suggestive of a world outside of the picture, as if these forms in this space could just keep going and going, and this is just a cropping of that world. The implication of this is that the work becomes in some ways illustrative.

    I find it exciting that what my initial positive response to “Madcap’s”, is being overturned by the three rectangular works by John. I’m not sure which is best as they are all very different. In some ways I was most surprised by “Sober Joy”. It seemed like a very sudden step back from a lot of the complexity that John had been pursuing. It brought to mind works by Walter Darby Bannard, although far less graphic and not as ‘clever’. In ‘Phainesthai’ I almost get some hints of Oehlen, in the slippery, almost muddied mayhem, held together with more clearly linear structures, balancing between mess and order (obviously without Oehlen’s very conceptual stamp). These two paintings are in my opinion the most surprising and the most ‘out there’ in terms relative to John’s output. In some ways it makes me think that “Singing the Evil Bungler” might be the strongest of the three, as it is the most synthesised and consistent with John’s vision, diverse a vision as it is.

    There is a reason that I’m bringing up the work of other artists that might spring to mind when looking at John’s work. Whilst one could do this with anybody’s work, I think John’s is in some ways more open to it, because of the diversity of approaches. De Kooning has been mentioned, rightly. So was Matisse, CoBRa, Davie, and Wragg is also relevant. This is where I start to find John’s work more interesting than just thinking about the paintings as unique worlds, although in some ways it leads back into that. It got me thinking about something the great Robbie Robertson said about the music he was writing with The Band, specifically in connection to their first two albums. In Walk on By, The Story of Popular Song, Robertson recalls “We were taking great pride in our musicality, and the music was coming out of us in a combination of all of the above. There was gospel flavour to it, there was mountain music, delta music, there was music I grew up in from the reservation, and I just kept throwing more stuff into the pot and mixing up this big gumbo.” I think this is very similar to what John is doing, and just as The Band have their own unique yet hugely diverse sound, the stuff that rises to the top of John’s pot is uniquely John’s. There is nothing too knowing about it. There is no lampshading, no wink at the viewer, no looking over your own shoulder, no display of connoisseurship. Just a keen interest in paint and its possibilities as a medium, which includes taking note of what can be done, storing it, and attempting it in some way down the track, no doubt mediated and altered by all the other influences and inclinations John holds. If it doesn’t work out, John still takes full responsibility for it. It’s not de Kooning’s fault or Davie’s. The painting lives or dies by the particularities John has built into it.

    The attentiveness John has given to nurturing the mood and flavour of each painting as it develops is what makes his paintings so much more interesting, heartfelt and ambitious than so much contemporary painting that lays claim to being complex and diverse, see Sansom, Oehlen or Dana Schutz.

    John’s work is modest in some regards, but hugely ambitious in its level of involvement, and how that involvement is maintained. I find it extremely impressive how well John adapts from one set of scenarios a painting poses to another completely different set. Again, I think of Robertson and what he goes on to say in his interview… “Discovering the soul of the music was what was really important. Getting the song across with as much emotion as you could. That was the objective. Not flailing away and blasting the walls down. That had nothing to do with it any longer.”

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  2. Jock Ireland said:

    Great to hear talk about “abstract” drawing!


  3. I agree with Harry’s writings on John’s paintings.In particular I like…
    …”Exert a lot of presence even through the screen”
    …”not full of bravado”
    …”an attentiveness to the required mood”…because of “being responsive to the particularities of the painting as it is made”
    And I agree that it does make the paintings..
    …”more interesting,heartfelt and ambitious than much contemporary painting”

    I like the relaxed nature of these paintings. Not pompous or demonstrative and John remains in control, somehow both relaxed and in control at the same time.Harry says, as he concludes, that they are modest and ambitious at the same time.A huge amount of thinking has gone into the work to achieve this. The work achieves, not in a literal manner but through the constant ebb and flow of the decisions made. Some kept and some rejected.
    Fred very much admired John’s painting “Woolfson” in the 2015 group show because of its diversity and its sense of being achieved in one go. I agreed at the time and now feel that these new paintings are moving positively forward from that place,but their casual and relaxed attitude weirdly gives them more substance. “Woolfson” in comparison to the recent works seems too loose and highlights the need to approach the ambition of immediacy with a lot of effort !
    Dave Lendrum in John’s actual 2015 Chronicle describes his works as painted in slabs of colour and I think these recent works emphasise that way of applying the paint even more. The added dark lines move around the slabs but do not draw around them and give a back and forth motion feeling to the work .I like that. It means you have no sense of a background which gives more wholeness, no image or images, and more abstract.
    The slabs of paint on the edges mostly come in or go out, depending on how you feel [?] The key being that they are not complete slabs. I think that may make the paintings a little too casual.I don’t know why but at the moment I personally prefer the edge of a painting to be determined as to where it actually ‘is’. That significance makes the painting keep returning in to itself and maybe more whole as a consequence?

    Anyway ..thank you John. [ and Harry ]

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  4. It’s clear that John occasionally borrows stuff from other painting as he trawls through his diverse array of content, and I wouldn’t worry about it too much in any event. But the reason it’s not a problem at all is that in the best two works here, “Sober Joy” and “Singing the Evil Bungler”, John’s vision of the whole painting and how it works is entirely and rather brilliantly original.


  5. Terlen said:

    On the occasions when i have found these discussions i have always found them very engaging and very helpful as a painter. This is the first i have seen a film of – the others were transcripts. It would be helpful to see the transcripts as the combination of less than perfect sound and accents not familiar to those of us outside the UK make much of it hard to understand.Thanks


    • Sorry Terlen, but since we started filming, we no longer make transcripts. Apologies if the sound is not too good.


      • terlen33 said:

        Thanks for the reply – i have sampled 51 and 52 – in each there are certain people who are easier to understand and some that are near impossible for someone unfamiliar with the accent – i will try some new ones – but in the end i find it unfortunate that you have chosen to narrow the audience for these valuable discussions – good luck


  6. Hi Terlen,
    If there is any particular part of this Chronicle that you are interested in let me know and I will try and clarify some of the conversation. But at the moment there is no intention to start transcribing the conversations again. It is very time consuming! On technical issues such as the sound quality we might hopefully be able to improve things as we go along.


  7. Having talked with John about his paintings regularly over the past few years, and watched his art develop in sophistication and scale and confidence, I’ve been impressed by his single-mindedness in pursuing his twin goals, ‘complexity’ and ‘diversity’, without losing sight of the overall integration of each image.

    John has the capacity to absorb influences without compromising his own distinctive and straightforward painterly language. He does not get distracted by technicalities; his approach is unfussy, focused entirely on what is happening on the canvas, happy to be led by impulse as often as intent; an exploratory/creative process interlinking instinctual and intellectual decisions.

    And he has a knack of creating surprising, puzzling and intriguing shapes. Recently, he’s begun to strengthen the role of the latter by increasing the ‘drawing’ element in his work, often by use of dark outline. To my mind this has been a step forward, bringing an increased sense of spatiality, and tending to internally bind together and unify the canvases rather than dividing them into discrete sections.

    Interesting that the images on show for Brancaster 53 differ so widely, in addition to their internal diversity of marks, forms and colour. On first viewing, the stand-out painting this year seemed to be ‘Sober Joy’, which utilises larger, flatter and – dare one say it – simpler areas of colour than most of John’s work; it brings to mind not only Matisse but also Kandinsky and even Gorky and is a highly attractive, lyrical piece. The fluidity of the ‘drawing’ is also new.

    But looking through the others, what’s striking is that any of them might take John, justifiably and productively, in a different direction to ‘Sober Joy’. For example, either ‘Phainesthai’ with its manic energy and torrential detail, or ‘Madcap’s Bits and Pieces’ with its eerie, spiky solids and phantasmagorical colour would be, for many artists, sufficient to provide much fruitful further exploration. The looser, more provisional feel of ‘Tangerine Winter Dream’ would seem to be yet another exciting option. But I would bet good money that John’s next show will be just as mysteriously diverse, and just as distinctively his own.


  8. Noela James said:

    Steve Butler’s appraisal seems to have a sound understanding of how John works, I especially like the last sentence. I feel John is at his most original when he pushes his paintings to extremes with a huge amount of detail and intensity. It then feels as if he is going beyond other influences and begins to enter a personal vision.


  9. Many thanks for all your comments, they are much appreciated.

    I agree that there is a diversity amongst the individual works, something that bothered me a few years ago but not anymore. I have neither the discipline or the desire (or even the ability) to do a series of paintings similarly ‘themed’. However, I do think the ‘complex diversity’ label still makes a lot of sense to me (perhaps this is the theme?). Harry is right to suggest that each individual painting has appropriate internal elements that belong, questioning the complex diversity ‘within’ an individual painting. However, I do like the idea of combining “a range of disparate elements within one picture”, even though there are perhaps limitations to what can work in this way. This does remain something to aim for, as disparate elements can create complex and engaging spatial dynamics. The other way to do this is to focus on complex and diverse colour, something which some of the other Brancaster artists focus on more than I do. My interests and abilities don’t pull me in this direction.

    ‘Complex Diversity” is a term that helped me to understand what I liked in abstract painting (and figurative painting for that matter) and what I was trying to achieve in my own work, as well as sounding something ambitious to aim for and something that resonated with the purpose of a work of visual art: I kind of equate complex diversity with character to engage with, meaning that has longevity, ambitious intent, and new worlds to explore (going right off on a tangent these are values I like in people?!).

    It is true that one probably needs other factors, as well as complex diversity, for successful paintings (e.g. ‘structural clarity?) but these two words do pretty much cover most elements for me. Both terms are important: without complexity a work could be rather simplistically diverse and without diversity, complexity could be repetitive (patterned). Neither of these excites me.

    Painting with complex diversity has some mileage still to explore given that this type of work is both in its relative infancy and very unfashionable.The general downturn in the complex diversity of abstract work, from the 50’s to around the early 60’s, is a notable historical shift (anyone with relevant sources/references please let me know), granted that some abstract painters have continued to explore complex diversity in their work; Alan Gouk and Gary Wragg being two of the most notable painters. I am aware that they probably would not agree with the ‘complex diversity’ label; I am making this my own interpretation of what is, for me, the meaning of their best work.

    I’m still happy with the idea of my paintings being of imaginary ‘abstract worlds’. I am quite happy for them to be seen as ‘crops’ from such worlds. However, they need to be the best visual crops from the types of worlds they each embody. In this way they become individual worlds themselves. I should say I don’t actually physically crop canvases.

    Of these six paintings it is perhaps ‘Evil Bungler’ that I am most drawn to but as I can’t really paint to a prescription it’s not a question of trying to do more like that. I don’t quite think I am consciously aiming to take these six paintings and create some kind of synthesis of them but neither does this sound an ambition to reject, it does actually appeal. I think it makes sense that one will revisit a a type of content from a past work, hopefully adding something new, but again I don’t think this is something I can consciously aim and create.

    90% of both ‘Phaineshthai’ and ‘Sober Joy’ were painted on the same day. This is a very rare happening. Process wise the former was painted flat with plenty of water initially, hence the staining and close colour palette effect, the ‘drawing’ tending to be added to the larger painted areas at a later stage. ‘Sober Joy’, also painted on the ground, was then a conscious effort to do something different, hence brush and canvas loaded with paint leading to larger discrete contrasting areas of flatter painting resulting in a much more vibrant and saturated colour scheme, the drawing happening in a dynamic process with this.

    The other artists connection is rather obvious really. I don’t think any of my paintings look like some kind of copy, or pastiche of other painters; one can see that coming and make the appropriate changes. If people do see derivative work I, or they, have failed!

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