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
“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.”