I was thinking about what it means to be lost but still know where you are; am I emotionally lost, does being lost imply distance? Is the tool I’m using the find my way actually making me more lost?Jack Sutherland
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Jack Sutherland, a British artist living and working in London, whose works are influenced by a number of different styles, with a running humour and vulnerability.
In our interview, Sutherland tells me what he thinks his art says about him, what role he sees artists having in society today, and what it means to him to be vulnerable as an artist.
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you?
My dad studied Fine Art in Norwich in the early 1970’s and we had some small reproductions of coloured pencil and graphite drawings around the house and I can remember being fascinated with them; I still am fascinated with them in a lot of ways! His style was quite surreal; lots of elongated figures and strangely shrunken landscapes, but very technically proficient.
He would always make sure there were pencils and paper in the house so I drew a lot when I was growing up; I don’t think I ever tried to explicitly emulate his style but it was definitely something I looked up to and admired. I was very much inspired by Impressionism as a teen, so maybe something like ‘Les Raboteurs de Parquet’ by Gustave Caillebotte, or anything by Bonnard.
Do you have an essential philosophy that guides you in your creative expression?
I think my main one, and it’s not really philosophy per se but more of a mantra, is that not every painting I make has to be all painting. I have a tendency to get absorbed by something I’m working on and try and cram too many ideas into it until it buckles under the sheer weight of symbolic meaning… Less is more… those catch-all statements can be limiting and narrow your output, but I would like to relax a little more into my work sometimes.
I don’t have to say everything with this one work, I can say it over three works, or a dozen! That’s also the joy of being the master editor of your own work; it’s far too easy with the invasion of social media to forget that you don’t have to show anything to anyone!
What role do you see artists having today in shaping society?
I think to make a truly great painting you have to have some degree of empathy (there’s probably a worrying number of examples where this isn’t the case…) and that that empathy translates into the wider world.
Maybe artists, or good artworks, can transcend language and avoid a binary explanation – art is primed for exploring the grey areas in the world. I’d hope that some of my work has the ability to open up wider conversations about the world, but am I explicitly setting out to shape society with my painting? Not directly, maybe through osmosis…
What do you think your art says about you?
This carries on quite nicely from what I was just saying – I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether or not I have a “style”, and I think recently I’ve been exploring a lot of surface level stuff, but would like to push a little further with some of the themes. So at the moment it probably says I’ve got a very short attention span! Which is true (thanks internet!), so I’m trying to work on that.
I’m interested in a lot of different visual styles, and I’m going through a post-masters thing of “what do I want my work to say!”, but I think the humour that runs through my work will continue to play a major role. I’m too involved with the inception of the work to give an unbiased answer though.
What does it mean to you to be vulnerable as an artist?
I would absolutely consider myself to be a sensitive person, and that’s a great thing but also something that I’ve found hindering me at times. I take things too personally, I obsess about words and actions, and I question myself all the time, but these are parts of my personality that I’m coming to terms with more and more as I get older. Am I better at dealing with those things? I’m not sure, but I’m certainly more aware of them so that’s a start.
Again it comes back to empathy, I think vulnerability and empathy go hand in hand, because if you open yourself up to being vulnerable and dealing with some painful emotions then you can see things from other people’s viewpoint as well. Not that I’m equating my painful emotions with other people’s, but it can act as a bridge.
Vulnerability can let you work with some difficult subjects, but it can also be overwhelming, so you have to find a balance. I’m against the idea of “troubled artist” and that being inherently tied in with creativity. I need to be happy to paint!
If you were to design a new artwork to depict your own current experience of the world, what might it include?
I suppose even if you’re not going out to make a piece of work that depicts your current experience of the world, I think some of that stuff is going to sneak into your output. I’ve found myself painting a lot of maps recently and it was a bit on-the-nose to say “I’m painting maps because I feel lost”, but I can’t shy away from that fact!
Are we going to see five years of paintings about lockdown and isolation and escape? Is that what’s going to happen in my work? With hindsight, I’ll be able to join those dots a little more easily. With the maps I was thinking about what it means to be lost but still know where you are; am I emotionally lost, does being lost imply distance? Is the tool I’m using the find my way actually making me more lost? Is my “not every painting has to be all painting” mantra that very tool? I’ll paint a few more maps and let you know if I’ve found my way.