2020 – Pace Gallery, Hong Kong
This pandemic, and in particular these lockdowns, while they have limited our physical movements, we can still find the space to not limit the self. We manage to adjust, albeit on a very reduced scale. With these paintings, though I have imposed on them a very bounded arrangement, I have tried to let them be uniquely themselves.
William Monk, November 2020
William Monk’s latest series of paintings titled Point Datum plot a course across some vast and unknowable fictive landscape. What Monk eloquently describes as a “bounded arrangement,” are a set of parameters for connection; a series of fixed points made physical through applied paint. A series of determinants within a range of painterly options, from scale and tone to the meeting of colors that produce a line and a boundary. A “datum point,” – Monks inversion for the title suggests a geography – refers to origin and destination, or rather in order to define a course or path one needs two points. For the artist this recognizes not only the fictive space of the image but the space between images, between paintings and keenly between us the viewer and painting. As he explains “The imagined painterly space is both abstract and figurative, and the literal space is equally so. Both are physical and metaphysical.” As, with music, it’s the space between the notes that allow for form, Monk’s paintings in their locked-off fixed camera perspective speak to location while teasing at the mystery of what sits beyond the border, between us and it.
Monk’s paintings are assuredly unique, yet they build meaning through their seriality, through the seeming repetition of sign and image, canvas by canvas. The exhibition itself is also anchored or rather connected as Monk explains “the 20 paintings in Point Datum showing in Hong Kong is specifically linked to the Grimm Gallery show Mount Atom, in Amsterdam, they are brother and sister, another point of measurement between two forms, two locations and two continents.” Again, we observe the artist’s self-described addictive return to imagery, to shape, line, color-schema or simply his committal to the language and matter of paint, to what arrives from making. As Monk suggests “we look for meaning in things happened, not in things to be.’’ The beauty or revelation of Monk’s Point Datum is the journey we jointly take into a world where meaning is both anchored, metaphysical and illusory.
2020 – Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam
October 2nd to November 21st 2020
GRIMM is proud to announce Mount Atom, a solo exhibition of new paintings by William Monk (b. 1977 in Kingston upon Thames, UK). This is the artist’s fifth solo exhibition with GRIMM and his fourth solo exhibition in Amsterdam.
Mount Atom is the imagined place name which describes Monk’s new series of paintings; partly in the clouds, partly extending into the substrata of the earth, its exact coordinates are unknowable. Once one crosses the threshold and enters the unfamiliar realm of this dislocated world, a small mound of earth can easily be fooled for a mountain peeking through the clouds and the monumental and microscopic become the same. In fact, the harder you search for a landmark or familiar sign, the more its substance billows and shrinks away. It could be said that Mount Atom is more a state of mind than a locale.
This body of work was produced when the artist was confined within the interior space of his studio during the recent lock down, and this experience is translated to the scale and intimacy of the paintings. As profiles of the landscape, the paintings mirror some of the qualities of architectural space in the way that slices of sky and sun and land are organized and divided. Monk exercises an economy of means that lends itself to bold visual impressions, where nature’s enduring forms are dressed down but full of inner brilliance. Present in equal measure are sinister and sublime forces, a combination that feeds the human imagination with a sense of anticipation toward the unkown.
Monk has contemplated these motifs for nearly ten years now and their appearances continue to morph with each series of paintings he makes. Drifting clouds are recognizable insofar as they are shapes summoned from an expanse of electric colour. Ringed patterns in the earth loop and squirm in playful primordial forms. The smoke of an eternal volcanic flame leads the way up and down the valleys and peaks of the land, as cosmic events flash in the high noon sky. His observations of this world reflect a place which is constantly changing; if there is a path through Mount Atom, it is surely not a straight line.
2020 – Pace Gallery, Online Exhibition
May 5th to 15th 2020
Pace Gallery is pleased to present William Monk: Untitled (zip) II – VII, a solo exhibition bringing together six new paintings created by the artist over the past month as a response to life in quarantine at his studio in London. This series expands upon a single painting Monk made in 2017 depicting a mysterious and hovering vapor trail set against a vibrant, luminescent sky. In these recent paintings, the artist expands the landscape and unfolds it into a visual mantra to capture, in his words, this “silenced and beautiful apocalypse.” Monk’s new body of work will be unveiled on Pace’s online platform on May 5 and will remain on view through May 15, concurrent to the online iteration of Frieze New York.
Curated by Mark Beasley, Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery, Untitled (zip) II – VII features six paintings by the artist that, as Beasley notes, “let loose an unidentifiable and cryptic symbol that rising to meet the sky variously reminds one of an erupting volcano, cigarette smoke, a sequence from a sci-fi movie, or the vapor trail of a ground-to-air-missile.” For Monk, these paintings reflect his continued preoccupation with creating a space for the mind to travel. As with poetry, Monk’s work seeks to flesh out the abstract and reminds us to slow down. Or as he says, “painting is the antithesis of life outside ourselves.”
The online exhibition presents a range of source materials, from iconic films to archival imagery, that have influenced the artist, offering an in-depth look into and context around the evolutionary process of Monk’s dynamic painting practice. The cinematic and photographic-memory looms large in Monk’s imagination. In particular, the artist cites Stanley Kubrick’s teen-gang dystopic future vision “A Clockwork Orange,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s revolutionary Sixties hippie movie “Zabriskie Point,” and Ridley Scott’s bleak future vision of tech-landscapes and artificial intelligence in “Blade Runner” as some of the films that have shaped his visual language and memory.
Source imagery aside, Monk is clear that his paintings ultimately exist without a singular and fixed meaning, as he states: “I don’t start from a position of knowing, and I don’t always end up there either.” Instead, viewers of these works are witnesses to a visual mantra, a sign and image that builds painting by painting, one through six, or two through seven.
2019 – Pace Gallery, London
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
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.”