Jack Sutherland: My Back Is A Comedy And A Tragedy

Jack Sutherland

Artwork’s Title: My Back is a Comedy and a Tragedy

Materials Used: Acrylic on canvas

Studio Based: London, UK

Jack Sutherland, My Back is a Comedy and a Tragedy, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 122 cm, 2020

Can you tell us about the process of making your work?

I tend to have two separate ways of working and they can both succeed and fail in their own unique ways. Method A would be to have a more rigid and thought out structure in place; lots of drawing preparations, playing with limited colours or having a particular composition in mind that has to be adhered to. Method B would be very quickly pursuing an idea that’s struck you – a little flash of inspiration that seems worthy of your time. It’s probably useless and unhelpful to categorise things in this way, but that’s just how my brain cookie crumbles! I’m trying to become better at pursuing ideas to some sort of natural conclusion rather than following every impulse that I dart towards like some dim fish in a bowl. It’s a tricky balance of making it easy enough for yourself to make work, and retaining some sort of tension that pushes you into a new place. I’m still discovering the peripheries of my interests and abilities so it’s good to remain in motion.

How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?

Under over thinker

How did you come up with this new painting idea? Is there any story behind this work?

I made this painting during a month-long residency (February 2020) at Elephant Lab in conjunction with Bloomberg New Contemporaries. I was encouraged to play with acrylic paint and other water based media, which is something I hadn’t done in years having worked with oil paint for a while now. I was sitting on the edge of my bed at home and became briefly obsessed with the accumulation of fat that perches on my hips on my lower back. Little fatty back deposits. I was thinking about how large they seemed in my mind but in reality they were fairly ordinary. Discrete even! There is comedy and tragedy in how we view our bodies, and a very fine line distinguishes the two; acceptance and self-love do not rest easily in the neurotic and self-flagellating  shopping arcade of my mind. I was also working alongside Jenny Morgan (painter based in America) who was also doing a residency in the studio across the corridor and we had some fantastic conversations so I’ll have to give her some credit for this painting!

I wanted to borrow some gravitas from Ancient Greek Theatre so used the ubiquitous comedy and tragedy masks; I didn’t want them to be read as tattoos, so I tried to place them in portals that enter the body. They’re also quite bruise-like which I also enjoy. I really love pushing things to the edges in painting – your vision really distorts when it reaches the periphery, so I think that’s where you can have some of the best fun in the painting. The body is unusually large, magnified by the small head’s constant examination, but there’s a loving touch in the curves of the body.

Do specific artworks have been created by random experiments in your studio or do you always come up with a particular concept or narrative in the very beginning?

Some of the aforementioned Method A and some of Method B! I should probably start exploring the rest of the alphabet… Unless I’m being exceedingly well disciplined I will naturally deviate from the path I initially set out on when I’m making a painting. The weather. What time I’m in the studio. What I’ve been reading and listening to. Everything can change and influence a painting, and I treasure that flexibility. That being said I would love to be able to collate my ideas more efficiently; that’s an ongoing project.

Is there any particular theme that utterly triggers you to engage your art with?

The human form? Or possibly colour and texture. Hah, these are such general topics so I’m trying to narrow it down a bit more… Looking through saved images on instagram and trying to see patterns in the works and imagery… I’m a sucker for a nice taut balance of graphic flatness and painterly texture. I listen to a lot of music when I’m painting. I know some people who can only work in silence, but I need to force my inner monologue to the back of my skull and let the subconscious mind amplify itself a little. I play music as well, but I like playing music because it isn’t painting, and I like painting because it isn’t playing music. For me they come from different places. Words and lyrics can be perfect little pearls to start a painting from though.

Large or small scale canvases dilemma; are there any kind of standards that drive you to decide which surface length is better fitted for your final painting visualisations?

Again I think it would be useful for me to be a bit more structured in my surface preparation. Budgetary or time restrictions often lead me to using any old crap, which can result in new discoveries, or it can be like driving with the handbrake on. If I have a specific idea in mind then I’ll get new stretcher bars and really plan the scale and dimensions out. I did this with three recent paintings that involved maps and cars. Well one car. Bit of an outlier there. They’re all 1 metre by 2 metres; I wanted them to feel like a widescreen panorama. I do recycle a lot of surfaces though, and in fact you sometimes get the best results when you’ve painted over an old painting. It’s like half of the work has already been done even if it’s something completely different. A conversation you’re having with yourself over a few months or years.

What would be the best way to exhibit your work?

I do still enjoy seeing my work in the classic gallery white cube environment. It’s a quiet environment that lets the work speak for itself, and it’s always a revelation seeing paintings out of the studio. I’d love to see my work in some sort of maximalist home interior seen in Cabana magazine or something. Could be fun! See how loudly everything can scream at each other.

Can you mention any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?

Gladyss Nilsson, Jim Nutt, the whole Hairy Who gang. Nicole Eisenman, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Michael Hilsman, Kitaj, Tal R.

Do you ever wonder if additional work was needed, when an artwork’s making process is finished?

I try not to think about it too much, but when I can let it go I’ll take that energy into the next painting. And then when I inevitably miss bits out or overwork sections then I can take that into the next painting and the next after that. The constant push is real!

What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space look like?

A mess. A constant, non negotiable mess. I share a space with my good Slade pal Farnaz Gholami and we’ve moved a lot over the last year, so I’m still adjusting to this new environment. We’ve somehow ended up in a building right on the river overlooking Waterloo Bridge and Royal Festival Hall so it’s an incredible location with a beautiful north facing view of the river.

What does your mum think about your art?

My mum passed away (breast cancer) when I was 6 but I think she liked my drawings I made when I was a toddler! My dad studied fine art although doesn’t draw or paint as much these days, so it was always a warm nest for creative output. Even when he doesn’t necessarily like the work I’m making he’s always been incredibly supportive.

Which exhibition did you visit last?

I think the last exhibition I went to in person was the Radical Figures exhibition at the Whitechapel but I’ve tried to keep up with online shows when they pop up, despite it not being the same experience. Emma Cousin’s show at White Cube was the last one I pored over and it was a joy.

Which are your plans for the near future?

Immediate plans are to fully settle into the studio space and get back into the flow of making work! I feel like I’m stuttering a bit at the moment but I’ll be fluent again soon enough. Aside from that it’s a wide open range of no plans. Who wants to do a group show?

Additional Paintings

Jack Sutherland, Territorial Displays, oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm, 2020
Jack Sutherland, Emotional Structure (Thorny Drips), oil on canvas, 61 x 76 cm, 2021
Jack Sutherland, Watching The Comet, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cm, 2020



All images courtesy of the artist

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