“I really do think the ambiguity lends a lot to my work… if I were to lean too heavily on the research behind [it], I’m in danger of over-intellectualizing and disappearing ever so gracefully up my own arse.”

Jack Dunnett

The following interview forms part of a series where I invite contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their creative process.

This week I talk to Jack Dunnett, an artist born in Wick in the Scottish Highlands. Primarily using oil paints, he draws upon existential and archetypal imagery, describing his works as “scenes of a world which is not detached from our own, but rooted in the human experience of it”. I asked Jack to select a number of artworks that he felt complemented themes we touched on, which are shown below, along with his own introduction to the interview.

Jack Dunnett’s Introduction

I suppose the characters in my paintings that draw most upon archetypes, and crop up most often would be creators, children, thinkers – roles that are instantly recognizable as signifiers of certain traits almost unconsciously. Children, that signify ‘the innocent’, tend to evoke someone or something; or a part of someone that is uninhibited by the world, in need of a sympathy from the viewer. Delicately painted against a backdrop that may suggest a harsher environment through technique or texture, it’s possible for a viewer to begin to draw a narrative almost without thinking – the notion may just seep in through a cognitive back door.

Similarly with images of artists, writers, thinkers – they tend to be drawing on the archetype of ‘the creator’ or ‘the sage’, their presence indicates a search for some sort truth, or possibly a deliberate or unknowing journey toward ignorance, depending on their environment. The tendency for our brains to inexorably link an artistic depiction to some preconceived knowledge we hold in our psyche is something I find endlessly fascinating, in terms of how much that idea coincides with the reactions of others, or conversely doesn’t align, and speaks to us only on an individual, emotional level.

I could delve completely into the personal meaning behind a piece, but I am reluctant to do so, as I don’t think that the story comes across visually in the work, therefore isn’t pertinent to the way the work functions when it is viewed, and feels more like trivia to me. I really do think the ambiguity lends a lot to my work, and while I find it tempting to explain all my choices and reasonings, I have to remind myself that it’s not the function of the paintings. The paintings are quite simple by design, and I think that if I were to lean too heavily on the research behind them, I’m in danger of over-intellectualizing and disappearing ever so gracefully up my own arse.

The Performer – Oil on board, 15x9cm

What is your creative process like?

I spend a lot of time in my sketchbooks, drawing and writing parts of things that I’ve been researching or mulling over, which I suppose I hope will become realized at some point. It’s very rare that I have a precise image of what a finished painting might look like when I start work on a piece. Usually, I’ll get rid of the daunting blankness of a surface by laying down gestural marks, somewhat instinctively with charcoal or paint and then sit with those marks for a while, letting them suggest something.

Often, I start work on several surfaces at the same time in this way, and maybe only one in ten will trigger a line of thought which I pursue. Then using ideas from my sketchbook, I try to find what I’m looking for while working directly on the surface with various paints and tools, adding and stripping away, working towards a vague image in my mind which gradually reveals itself. Once that image has formed, I then tend to work more methodically to fully realize the final piece. I mean, that’s one of the ways I work put it into words. Overall, it’s more shambolic really, the process is constantly changing and It’s altogether less structured. Sometimes a painting just arrives from somewhere and that’s that.

Heonx – Oil on board, 21x30cm, 2020

Is there an experience in your life that has altered the way you look at art, or perhaps the way you view yourself as an artist?

The only thing I can think of really was going to art school. I remember at sixteen being at an absolute loss as to what I wanted to do with my life, and a teacher put forward the possibility of spending a year on a portfolio to apply to art school. I didn’t even know an art school was a thing. It’s such an odd, choppy experience going to art school at eighteen, at least it was for me. Trying to make sense of the world in general; trying to figure out what is so compelling about which art and why, and why that then matters, and in what sense.

Before I went to art school, I naively imagined it as a caricature of a place, a sort of free-for-all of encouragement and creative expression. It turned out to be far more structured affair, for the first two or three years at least. Latterly though, having had experienced artists as tutors imparting their knowledge was invaluable. Whether it was advice that deeply resonated with what I was searching for, or disagreements about certain approaches, I feel like it all added up to allow the possibility for growth if taken in the right way, and I think that broadened my perceptions. That, and an Anselm Kiefer show at the White Cube. That show broke me and my brain for a fair few days and I don’t know if it’s ever been put back together correctly.

The Wretched Turmoil of Feeling, Oil on board, 18x13cm, 2019

Are you guided by any essential philosophy in your creative expression?

I wouldn’t say that I’m guided by one specific philosophy in any dogmatic sense. I find myself darting around manically between multiple thoughts about what painting is and constantly re-assessing them. I spend a lot of time trying to make sense of my own utility as an artist, and over time certain flecks of something approximating meaning tend to reappear. The strongest of these flecks; the ones that hold up to scrutiny, I tend to try and assimilate into the way I work.  For instance, I’ve come to find collective truths in certain stories, so I tend to lean towards work that alludes to some sort of narrative a lot of the time. I think that some amount of originality, although often forged by foraging, seems to be essential to instill me with a sense of meaning, so I try to be continually experimental in the way I work while trying to find something new.

I also think that painting can hold significant emotional power as a purely visual medium, so I often try to show my work with very limited accompanying text. There’s a fair number of beliefs I’ve garnered over time, many of which contradict each other, and many of which I’m not sure I believe that I believe. I’m tending now to work towards trying to find relationships between contrasts. Balances and tensions between things which may or may not come together. It’s a frustrating yet constantly alluring alchemy, so I tend to take things on a painting-by-painting basis most days. This phase shall pass I suppose, but it’s keeping me occupied at the moment.

The Philosopher – Oil on board, 18x13cm

Are there any recurring characters across your paintings? If so, who are they and what do they represent?

I would say that all the characters in my paintings tend to reappear in other paintings in some form or another – not as any same specific person, but maybe as someone who denotes a certain recurring aspect of life. 

I’m interested in myth, and how visual narratives are still predominantly told through recognizable motifs or symbols, however complicated and nuanced these may become. Jung’s writings on archetypal images and the collective unconscious fascinate me, and I’d say the majority of the roster of my returning characters draw upon some sort of archetype informed by his work, whether it be modernized, subverted or a direct reference.  

Broken Artist (Hons), Oil on board, 13x17cm, 2018

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

I can’t really remember. This may come across as arrogant, but in all honesty, I tend to try and avoid taking most responses to my work too seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I do commit to mind comments, compliments and critiques from those I admire, and I appreciate them dearly, along with kind words from people who take something from my work. I just don’t tend to dwell on responses. I don’t take praise very comfortably, and when presented with it I believe it to be untrue. Imposter syndrome or some form of narcissism, I’m not sure, and am possibly fearful to find out. 

I hope it to be the former, as what tends to circle round my head most often is the thought that I could do better, and that any time spent dwelling on praise could be better spent in the studio. I fear complacency too much to remember most responses to my work, so there’s nothing specific coming to mind really.

Homeland Cods – Oil on board, 10x12cm

You describe your work as “scenes of a world which is not detached from our own, but rooted in the human experience of it”. If you were to design a new artwork to depict your own current experience of the world, what might it include?

It would probably be some sort of long-form performance piece, or a piece of minimalist theatre set in a 16x9ft plexiglass box painted to look like a big black cage, with one actor playing a multitude of characters doing monologues concerning their own delusions. Kind of like an off-brand, less well-written take on Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’, but bleaker.

There’d be no audience, but that would be a conscious creative decision of course, rather than due to lack of interest. Ideally, Billy Boyd would be the sole performer, but I’d be willing to recast if our schedules didn’t align.

See more of Jack Dunnett’s work and keep up to date with upcoming exhibitions:
Instagram | Website

Posted by:repsychl

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