2019 – Pace Gallery, London

A Fool Through the Cloud

by Jay Merrick, February 2019

Towards the end of January, William Monk sent me a grab-bag of images that had indirectly influenced the paintings for the Pace Gallery show. They included a Technicolor Looney Tunes That’s All Folks end credit, an atomic mushroom cloud, cigarette ash sitting on a filter-tip, fisheye lens portraits of George Harrison in India, a car crash scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend, an on-the-road still from Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, and a photo of the Palms to Pines highway in southern California, glinting like a sidewinder snake in the bone-dry landscape.

To these images, he added a supporting cast of subjects that had been in his mind. They included transcendence, mantras, Rorschach tests, smoking, the 1960s, Beatles’ albums, Paisley patterns, psychedelia, and animation. Similar varieties of subject matter have surfaced whenever I’ve talked to Monk, or visited his studio.

But these source materials are inherently fugitive. They never consciously prefigure what happens in the paintings. The work begins with ideas that “feel totally within myself, which slowly builds up through time and the experience of the work as it takes place. And only after the work is complete do I become aware of specific past experiences that helped to inform it – perhaps in the same way that a dream picks up on certain conscious moments and twists them”.

His work has been described as neo-Symbolist, but this is misleading and doesn’t dovetail, for example, with Odilon Redon’s declaration that his originality “consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting – as far as possible – the logic of the visible world at the service of the invisible.” There may be tropes of improbable beings or vistas on Monk’s canvases, but they don’t serve progressions into probability or logic.

I first encountered William Monk and his paintings in 2011, when he was living and painting in a studio – part of a converted industrial laundry – in Clapham, south London. By then he had won the Jerwood Painting Prize and the Royal Award for painting while studying at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, and was selling paintings to European collectors.

What struck me immediately about his work was the strange yet very powerful imagery, and the way small details were so intensely worked. Some years later, he described these seams of details as doodles: “My school notebooks probably had more interesting doodles in them than anything I was supposed to be learning. In my Institute series of paintings the composition of sky, buildings, land was so readable that I was able to ignore that and get lost in the detail.”

Then, and now, any attempt to rationalise or decode the subject matter via apparently identifiable figurations or painterly characteristics evades diagnosis. The imagery is fugitive, but radiates a considerable energy, a kind of tractor-beam produced by the tension between the known and the unknown.

In March 2011, in a piece for The Independent, I asked: “Is William Monk the Ken Kesey of British art?” The reference to Kesey, the hippie magus at the heart of Tom Wolfe’s 1968 verbally hallucinatory book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was triggered by the figurations, abstractions, objets bizarre, and kinked perspectives which morphed in and out of each other in pre-2010 paintings such as Electric Ant (2005), Blue Number Two (2007), Hive (2008), and Institute II (2006).

The paintings were engrossing, but in liminal ways; whatever seemed identifiable in them was clearly not the painter’s actual and profound subject. Hive (2008), for example, ostensibly shows the interior of a 1940s B-29 Superfortress bomber, and radiates such a sizzling colour-voltage that it seems like a fraying tapestry about to burst into flame; other works had the organic, hyper close-up quality of an electron micrograph; some suggested topographical or urban vistas, but were ultimately terra incognita.

There was, however, one fixed point: the experience of the imagery in the paintings always began with a perception of the way the paint had been worked, as an exploration rather than an obvious revelation. “This is how I make my paintings,” Monk told me in 2011. “Putting paint down and then finding something. I camouflage the content of my paintings. I want to be cryptic.”

However, his central aim is to create paintings whose imagery and physicality are not only experienced as composed paint on canvas, but as objects whose contents charge the space between the paintings and the viewer. In one sense, this is a polemical riposte to the 21st century’s maelstrom of ephemeral digital images, whose virtuosity and detail is superficial and whose photons cannot, according to research, fully convey emotion or be remembered in detail for more than a few days.

“Digital images are becoming the de facto, self-defining way we perceive and process the world,” says Monk. “How do you ensure that physical painting is experienced as a very different form of engagement, and their framing as more than the inferred edge of an iMac screen? I have taken from the digital world, but it is to confront this kind of imagery with physical, organic paintings.” His hoard of digital material ranges from crude images from 1990s video games to an MRI scan of his own brain.

Ideas and images from music, cinema, road trips, and esoterica are what usually trigger Monk’s creative process – music by bands from the 1960s and 70s; the I-Ching; the winter solstice; Frith the sun god in Watership Down; Californian forest fires; scenes from films, and even Stanley Kubrick’s three-word film titles.

These source materials are not treated as conceptual or literal matter; nor are they directly expressive of the essential emotional and intellectual content of the paintings. “I don’t deliberately paint my ideas or attitudes,” he told me in 2017. “And I don’t know exactly what the work is about. The paintings are starting-points for other kinds of illumination, a receiving and reimagining that has nothing to do with paintings being finished expressions. Every exhibition is a prologue to the next and an epilogue to the last.”

In his latest work for Pace, Monk is still (to slightly amend Van Morrison’s song title) into the cryptic. But there have been evolutions in the expressive qualities of his work. His Ur imagery – roads, cloud-forms rising from hills that might or might not signify volcanic eruptions, cigarette smoke or speech bubbles – continue to appear and the seven large paintings and a number of smaller works on show at Monk’s first exhibition at Pace Gallery are clearly descendants of earlier paintings. But their manner, their degrees of visual weight, line, and complexity are different. The primary images in them are generally simpler and less starkly divisional than in paintings such as And the Seventh Brings Return (2016), Alone in the Clouds All Blue (2016), and Inhale and Exile (2017), shown in New York in 2017.

What, then, might be seen and felt in the works hung at PACE London? And what thoughts, emotions, imaginings produced the paintings? I can only offer a flare-path of remarks about the seven large works, and overlay some of the artist’s thoughts about them.

The physical scene must be set first because Monk treats the arrangement of artworks in gallery spaces in the same way as he paints: he wants the viewing experience to be part of the subjects of the paintings. Or as he puts it: “There’s a similar level of thought about how these paintings are created, composed and arranged, to pull you into the space.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition is formed by three paintings, Sea of Cloud I, II and III. “I had the idea of three large paintings arranged as a montage, which suggested to me a kind of zoetrope,” says Monk. He designed a large room to be positioned in the centre of the gallery and hung the paintings as a montage rather than a triptych, and at a specific height so that viewers “will feel they’re in the water, looking up to the sky, across to the horizon, and below to the depths. This means the middle of the paintings where the panels meet, and where the sky meets the land and sea has to be at eye-level”.

Monk’s desire to activate the space between viewer and painting is equally obvious in a pair of paintings, Within You/Without You, which show a stretch of Californian road known as the Palms to Pines or Pines to Palms highway, depending on the direction you’re travelling; the paintings mimic that, the same road seen from different directions, so that the physical space between the paintings is part of how you experience them. These two works, incidentally, are among the most obviously figurative he has painted.

Monk’s source materials sometimes reveal a fascination and fear about apocalyptic situations. It’s always been the case that some of his paintings express an atmospheric sense of premonition or foreboding that reminds me of an entry in Jack Kerouac’s Road-Log diary in 1949: “The experience of life is a regular series of deflections that finally results in a circle of despair . . . one dark haunting thing. To me, ‘this thing’ is that Shrouded Stranger . . . our haunted sense of the thing.” Monk’s work doesn’t convey despair, but something like the haunted sense of the thing does sometimes hover over the paint.

In the Sea of Cloud paintings that “thing” was triggered by his travels through California, which included a visit to Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea in southern California, a virtual ghost town strewn with detritus, clumps of dead, washed-up fish and ruined trailers, and not far from the allegedly lawless Slab City and the desert hamlets of East Jesus and West Satan – “a Mad Max landscape,” as Monk put it.

Monk’s initial inspiration for the forest imagery in the five-panel work, Zoetrope (The Divided Cell) (2018-19), was the colour day for night cinematography of the 1950s and 60s, which was actually shot in daylight with blue filters over the lenses. “The by-product of capturing these scenes in the harsh daylight of a Hollywood back-lot or Cinecitta studios in Rome is that strong shadows appear everywhere,” he explains. “Shadows at night, all cast in a deep blue. Quite unnatural. Well done cinema – in an attempt to capture reality they found something else more interesting.”

“This also made me think of Botticelli’s Primavera, which has a similar feel, and also Magritte’s Empire of Light series of paintings, showing a night street scene with a day sky above. Even Van Gogh’s Starry Night has a day for night feel about it.”

Ultimately, William Monk’s art expresses visions of transcendence – “going from one state to another”. But the visions are not in any way static; and it is the auras of transition that come off the canvas that give them a withheld but fugue-like power which recalls a remark by Magritte: “We are surrounded by curtains. We only perceive the world behind a curtain of semblance. At the same time, an object needs to be covered in order to be recognized at all.” The Shrouded Stranger, again?

But perhaps Stanley Kubrick should have the last word: “The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”




2017 – GRIMM Gallery, New York

Seven Leagues to Pompeii

William Monk’s luminous remains
by Jay Merrick, 2017

“The seven,” wrote Syd Barret in his lyrics for Pink Floyd’s song Chapter 24, “is the number of the young light / It forms when darkness is increased by one.” Minus the music, the bare poetry has the feel of a murmured alchemical fugue, and it’s one of the touchstones for William Monk’s creative process, in which, as Barrett wrote, “Things cannot be destroyed once and for all.”

They can only change – in Monk’s case, by evolving through a mesh of subject-matter and imagery which, over the last 15 years, has informed paintings which often radiate a sizzling colour-voltage, like tapestries about to burst into flame; others have the organic, hyper close-up quality of an electron-micrograph; some are like freeze-frames in a pulsing mescaline vision.

More recently, the triggers (or perhaps incantations) for his paintings have included Pompeii, the I-Ching, the winter solstice, Palm Springs, Frith the sun god in Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Californian forest fires, and cinematic sources such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s quasi-apocalyptic film endings, and Stanley Kubrick’s hyper-realities.

These source materials, like his compositions, are not fully informative, never literally expressive of his essential subject-matter, which concern cycles of life, death, and transcendence. Monk is cryptic rather than conceptual. “I hope to paint my attitudes and ideas,” Monk explains. “But I don’t try to force it. I let it happen naturally. They seem to come through better when I glance sideways rather than straight ahead, I’d fail if I tried to force onto the work what I might think of as myself. Or, worse still, what I might think I should say about the world.”

Monk’s ideal creative condition is an only-just-conscious awareness of the way painted form, colour, texture, and specific figurations develop into compositions that seem to be knowable or decodable, but are essentially fugitive; the titles and subject matter of his paintings are never precisely connected. A correlation in music would be the Beatles’ Revolution 9, which quickly abandons its hypnotically repetitive spoken opening and becomes something else entirely; or in film, the unsettling pace, over-long scenes and back-projections in A Clockwork Orange, and the foregrounds and backgrounds moving at different speeds in classic Warner Brothers cartoons.

In Monk’s latest paintings at GRIMM’s 202 Bowery show we encounter the luminously cryptic remains of his processes of imagining and painting. The canvases carry irregular intensities of detail, line, foreground and background. We know what the individual figurations represent, but we don’t necessarily know why they’re combined in the way they are – even though we occasionally see certain shapes or perspectives that reappear in his work.

Some of these ‘familiars’ originate in paintings of the sun that Monk made as a child: a red or orange circle inside larger yellow circles (which recur in paintings such as 2014’s Untitled (atomic flower power). Those early, clearly defined circles may partly explain his instinct to make some compositions that are vividly divisional, giving them primitive or even obsessive art brut qualities. We see starkly divisional compositions in newer paintings such as And the Seventh Brings Return, Pompeii I, Alone in the Clouds All Blue, and Exhale and the Kingdom.

The Pompeii series, painted in Monk’s Brooklyn studio, has an apocalyptic subtext. He equates the ancient ruins with a potential alternate future for Palm Springs: “I can’t help imagining people visiting this utopia in hundreds of years’ time, and finding ash-casts of the Rat Pack.”

But he also quotes Pliny, who wrote in AD 79: “Then there fell a shower of ashes so dense that at the distance of seven leagues from the volcano, one had to shake one’s clothing continually, so as not to be suffocated… At lengths, the light returned gradually, and the star that sheds it reappeared, but pallid as an eclipse. The whole scene around us was transformed: the ashes, like a heavy snow, covered everything.” There is something of that atmosphere in new paintings such as Smoke Ring Mountain.

The transformational light that Pliny witnessed beneath Vesuvius is essentially no different to the “young light” that replaces darkness in Syd Barrett’s lyrics – and no different again to the flames and morning glows on William Monk’s canvases at 202 Bowery.

Jay Merrick is a critic and essayist for publications including The Independent, ICON, and Architectural Review.

2015 – Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

The Cloud is Growing in the Trees

‘Kohn Gallery is pleased to present London-based painter William Monk’s first exhibition in California: The Cloud is Growing in the Trees. This exhibition is the culmination of Monk’s practice over the last few years during which time he has created universes within his paintings that reflect on the relationship of the object and spectator.

In Monk’s paintings a sense of repetition breaks down the figuration, creating visual mantras in which the human scale of the work increases this subtlety rather than amplifying the model. This rhythm happens throughout Monk’s work, surrendering figurative logic to arrive at something stranger and more powerful. Beautifully atmospheric and energetic, these paintings invite a more direct physical connection, drawing in the space between our inner and outer realms of experience.

The artist’s unique relationship to image and paint lead him to enigmatic subject matter such as forests, galaxies, and the open road. The Cloud is Growing in the Trees underscores this mysterious, almost psychedelic relationship that invites the viewer in as an active participant.”

2013 – GRIMM Gallery, Amsterdam

Furthur Planetarium!

“In Furthur Planetarium! William Monk shows a selection of large oil paintings together with woodcuts, watercolors and distempers made during the last two years. The word ‘furthur’, including its misspelling, comes from the name of the bus the author and 60’s trailblazer Ken Kesey took across America during the early 1960’s. In the paintings Furthur! and Furthur!! Monk’s cinematic road trip heads off under the massive form of a cloud; natural, man made or speech bubble. Though Monk’s paintings are figurative in source his principal interest lies in the physical presence of his paintings as object and the viewer’s experience within the space between them and the painting.

“Digital images are becoming the de-facto way we perceive and process the world – surface, and superficial virtuosity as self-defining, momentary meaning. This creates a problem: how to ensure that physical painting is experienced as a very different form of engagement, and their framing as more than the inferred edges of an iMac screen. Although I have taken from the digital world, it is to confront this imagery with physical, organic paintings.”

Such is the case with Far-out I, II and III, an installation of paintings showing Earth’s environment, atmosphere and alignment to the stars, the curvature of the blue sky and black void enveloping the viewer in an immersive environment. Similarly, in Paravent and Paravent (La Honda) Monk creates not a description of a forest but painterly equivalents. Cropped just short of the forest floor and hung low on the gallery walls these paintings invite the viewer in as participant. The painting Furthur Planetarium! presents the viewer with an ambiguous perspective of Earth, the Universe and its repeating shapes, pattern and fractals that appear throughout our world and beyond. Monk’s childhood spent constructing airfix kits plays itself out here in the form of various insignia of World War one aircraft dotted across the surface of the painting like satellites or stars.

Biography appears again in a self-portrait the artist made after an MrI scan following short periods of perceptual psychedelic disturbance.

William Monk (1977, Kingston upon Thames) completed his residency at De ateliers in Amsterdam in 2006 and now lives and works in London. In 2005 he received the Dutch royal award for painting and he was the winner of the Jerwood Contemporary Painters award in 2009. Monk’s work has been exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions across Europe. His work is included in the collection of the Gemeentemuseum Den haag and in the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden and was most recently included in the tom Morton curated group show Recent British Painting.”