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Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

By Heidi James.

I first encountered John Monks and his work when I modelled for him, initially for a life class he was teaching and then posing formally, for his own work. Watching him work – the radio on in the background whilst I gradually lost sensation in my idle limbs – was fascinating for me; his dynamic application of the paint, arm jabbing and swinging as though he were harrying the canvas, attacking it, goading the image into existence, punctuated by short pauses as he stared at my chilly flesh before beginning again. Of course, my interest owed a small part to personal vanity, as this was, after all, an image of me he was creating! But more than that, as a writer I was moved by the ‘literary’ intention seemingly implicit in his paintings that I saw in the studio; a narrative inherent in each work. Rather disappointingly for my ego, the irony is; he has never felt satisfied with his paintings of human figures, he has said ‘they just aren’t interesting’. In fact the majority of Monks’ paintings (and the ones that I find most extraordinary) are of vacated interiors, rooms and corridors, reminiscent of derelict stately houses, these are architectural paintings of depth and vitality, of rooms opening into further rooms, doors closed to the viewer, of peeling paint on damp walls, forgotten furniture, mirrors reflecting an empty room, seem in essence to be a study of the transience we evade in our fear of life’s fragility. As a subject this makes perfect sense, why paint the finite substance of a human, when one can paint Being and non-Being? When one can explore humanity from the impression left by their absence?

In his paintings the viewer inhabits the subject, as the human figure is exiled from the painting, so paradoxically, a presence is felt in absentia. This eviction reveals a truth, a perspective-enhanced truth, reliant entirely upon the audience and their personal response. Humanity’s colossal ego necessarily imposes meaning on an object that derives from its relation to its (human) surroundings and context; so without a person to use the object or inhabit the space, it attains an uncomfortable ambiguity, without use an object is nullified. Is this an anti-materialistic critique of bourgeois society? A revelling of the ultimate liberty in which ‘things’ have lost all value? Or, perhaps, a metaphor for the ultimate redundancy of Humanity itself? I like to think so, yet the point is, these works contain a multiplicity of meanings. Looking at these paintings, paintings that privilege the ambiguous and fetishise absence, we are unsettled by the terror of exile – an exile from meaning, from language, from sentiment – perhaps the ultimate post-lapsarian nightmare.

The works in this catalogue appear to interrogate the nature of painting itself. One can sense the difficulty the artist has to get ‘inside’ the flat surface of the canvas, to coax something from nothing. In Studio 1, an artists studio is depicted, dishevelled and paint splattered, a blank canvas is propped on a easel in the middle of the room, the same milk-white as a cataract. In the centre of the painting where there is usually the most detail, there is the blind purity of the untouched canvas, an allegory of genesis, of the struggle to create. We can see a light directed at this lack, highlighting the scrutiny of failure to mark the repellent surface. This work is approaching nihilism, revealing that the process of painting is ultimately absurd. Studio 1 uses framing to direct one’s eye, frames within frames, we are looking through doorways, into a seemingly endless passage of rooms. A chair and a closed trunk clutter the space, but these are not what interests, it is the mystery of what is at the end of the passage, what is in the final room? And then, a white superimposed frame intercepts the illusion of naturalism, this frame again underlining that this is a painting, a composition – into which the delineation of the floor boards lead us both into and out, despite this being a static image, there is no stasis. This is a fictional reality in which the conceit of painting is overt, juxtaposing the process and the finished work.

Monks’ paintings appear to be ultimately very British, in their faded gothic glamour and his past use of dead Pagan totems such as the fox and the hare as models, laid out on rickety furniture, or curled around the blank space of useless air, and what could be more contemporarily British than the decaying grandeur of the homes of an impoverished ruling class? Abandoned vast aristocratic temples invaded by time and neglect and a passing vagrant, who has left his supper on a reclaimed seat, or maybe it is the owner, hidden from view, reduced to poaching game from his former land. I wonder if these works portray nostalgia for the past glory of postcolonial riches, or merely the narrative of its essential destruction? More important than any sense of national heritage though, is the inherent narrative that gives rise to a hermeneutic pause, a moment in which an intimate relationship between painting and audience thrives, a moment in which the viewer is invited to ask – who, what, where, and why? This is the works captivating strength. Engaged in these poetic paintings, standing entranced by intimations of a secret that you, an unwitting voyeur, may discover by your patient scrutiny, one transcends mere image into the pleasant labour of the imagination.

In these human landscapes bereft of a human resident, in which the space appears to have devoured the subject, bold shafts of light cut across fierce colour. Paint is thickly applied and on close inspection appears as anarchic as the swells and furrows of the sea. Defiant of absolute intention, these desolate human architectures are neither landscape, nor abstraction; they may perhaps be non-traditional still life, yet I think these are portraits in which the subject is abjection. In an age where an image contains answers implied by dominant culture, it is invigorating to be enticed by the painting to collaborate in its meaning.

Heidi James is the author of Carbon (forthcoming) and the Publisher of Social Disease, home of Tony O’Neill, Lee Rourke and HP Tinker.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 26th, 2007.