Ask John how he regards Paint, this unique and significant exhibition, and he’ll describe it succinctly as “his last statement”; a final chance for an enthralling body of work to be seen, appreciated and remembered.
Paint is an opportunity for John to embrace the outside world before stepping back into his studio, where he – like the caveman with whom he allies himself – will continue to work in a light fashioned from his past and his present.
With delightful synchronicity, Paint is not only a last statement, it’s also his first major solo exhibition since the late 1970s, breaking a self-imposed silence to tell us about his subjects, his inspirations and himself.
John does not see himself as an artist, but as a painter; one who has devoted his life to the medium since removing himself from “society and the tangled mess’ of life, politics and religion” almost forty years ago. He still works every day, single minded in his ambition to simply get up in the morning and paint.
The exhibition illustrates the essence of a lifetime’s work; from the dark and brooding landscapes of his childhood in South Yorkshire to more recent explorations in spirituality; presented predominantly through the filter of an ‘outsider’. We see recurring imagery, such as the triangles, a motif prevalent since his early twenties – represented in the pyramids of Egypt and the slagheaps of Rotherham of his youth. We see everyday objects; socks and aprons, and we encounter bright birds and fish. We observe the dark lingering shapes of pure abstraction – where nothing is by accident and everything is by design. We also see new work; paintings inspired by the exhibition itself and created under pressure as the clock ticks unceasingly onward.
It may be John’s last statement, yet it is also his most revealing.
Those who come to view the paintings are asked to do just that and nothing more. John has no commercial ambition, and never has, although he harbours no dislike of commercialism in the art world.
This Yorkshire strain of direct pragmatism runs deep in the veins of the painter, who spent his formative years in Rotherham and Bridlington. It was here where John discovered his talent and his passion for the purity of art. Later, in Leeds, he came to understand that it was “always the paint” he in which he was interested. At various points, “the paint” took him to Holland and Portugal, where he became enraptured by the light, land and nature, before finally settling in Harrogate.
From an early encounter with oil paint – where more ended up on skin and cloth than on canvas – to his illumination after discovering Henri Matisse, John’s opinion of his working materials has always been crucial. His tools inform the way he paints; an old brush with loose bristles can mean spontaneity, but there’s no spontaneity with a pencil – just correctness and a strong desire to match the flow and expression of the much-admired Egon Schiele. In his soul is a watercolourist aching to perform delicate washes on perfect paper but in his head the caveman lives on. His use of watercolour and gouache on paper, the modern-day equivalent of charcoal and ground stone, is wholly and absolutely unique. No one paints like John. Precise layers are built up over and under stunning abstracted dreamscapes, striking planes of exquisitely applied colours, which demand attention. Prepare to be captivated by “paint”.
It seems fitting to leave the final word to the painter, and a heartfelt description of his practice:
“It’s another space, it’s walking through a doorway and you’re in that space trying to make something out of it. It’s all there for you, every colour that you want, every texture that you want, it’s all there. It’s up to you to find your way down through it and come out at the other end with a painting.”
Words by Gideon Fireman