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© 2019 by Simon Monk

Elephant magazine Q&A (2015)

Can you tell us something about your background... (Family, school, art school, artistic career, etc) Were you creative as a child? When did you decide to become a painter?

I come from a very unstable family background so as a child I witnessed a great deal of conflict, violence and misery. As a result I tended to retreat into a fantasy world centred around books, television and, crucially, Marvel and DC comics. I first discovered American comics in 1973 at the age of six and they immediately exerted a powerful hold over my imagination. When describing his own first exposure to comics from the USA, Neil Gaiman described them as being like 'postcards from Oz' and my feelings of wonder at their otherness were identical. These small, glossy, colourful, rare objects seemed so exotic and the world they described was so shiny and glamorous that I was immediately addicted to them.

Around this time DC comics (home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) started issuing '100 page super spectaculars', fantastically thick comics that featured one new story backed up by reprints from the 40s, 50s and 60s. With these special issues the already overwhelming exoticism of the stories was increased by taking me into America's recent past with all its strange language, clothing and reference points. I think it was in these pages that my enduring fascination with history was first initiated. Although it may seem like an exaggeration I know that comics saved my life: to a large extent I avoided the miserable, tortured lives of addiction and mental illness led by my siblings because I had an escape strategy that they lacked. They faced the trials of our childhood head on and were pretty much destroyed as a result.

My first realisation that there was such a thing as an artist came through encountering the comics of Jack Kirby, and he remains one of my all time creative heroes. As a very young comic book fan I noticed that some stories looked different from others, and Kirby's were more distinctive than any. The way his figures flew, leaped and fought was always charged with crackling energy and in creative terms Kirby himself represents pure energy. The level of invention that he brought to popular culture over the 50-odd years of his career is as significant and enduring as any artist working in a popular medium. Whenever I run dry I think of Jack hunched over his drawing board in his Long Island basement inventing whole universes with a number 2 pencil and it all seems possible again.

As a teenager, Pop Art allowed my interests to expand to encompass fine art as well as comics. This led me into studying fine art on a full time basis and eventually gaining a degree in painting. At art school in the mid 80s I was a devoted adherent of postmodern theory and subsequently cultural studies, postmodernism's very own academic discipline. Soon after graduating I was offered teaching work in a local art school despite the only work on offer being in the Art History department, so by default I became an art historian, having to learn very quickly on the job. I soon found the work interesting and fulfilling and, as a result, my painting ambitions temporarily fell by the wayside.

This situation continued for fifteen years, a span of time without painting that I find unthinkable now. In gradual stages teaching became less satisfying and the thought of restarting my artistic practice seemed more exciting and necessary. I was fortunate enough to find a studio close to my home, the same space that I use to this day, and falteringly began to make paintings again. Recently, after a gap of several years, I have found that the impulse to teach art runs pretty deep so I have now established a weekly class for teenagers at Metal arts centre near my studio in Southend-on-Sea, Essex.

Since the beginning your paintings have featured plastic toys in polythene bags. Where did this idea originate? From childhood memories? Were you a collector?

After several false starts my first big breakthrough came with the initial use of the polythene bag. I knew that I wanted to make paintings of objects and I knew that I did not want them to be conventional still lives. This meant that I had to avoid traditional painting devices for displaying objects, such as the shelf or the table. The bag seemed an ideal solution to this problem as it appeared to be of the contemporary world and had rich metaphoric potential. Unlike so many forms of contemporary art such as performance, installation, etc., paintings present themselves as objects for sale. Furthermore, due to the labour intensive nature of their production they are, at the very least, luxury goods. For me, the device of the polythene bag is both a tacit acknowledgement of this situation and a way of humorously undercutting it, bearing in mind the tacky plastic nature of the objects that I use.

 I often feel that I am painting from the point of view of an imaginary character. This feeling is vague and only semi-conscious but my suspicion is that this character is an obsessive collector and hoarder and what I have shown so far in my work is merely the tiniest fragment of a vast collection that would take me much more than the remainder of my lifetime to document fully in the form of paintings. In my life outside the studio I am a collector of many things such as books, comics, cameras, wristwatches, pens, propelling pencils, etc (all things that fit in the hand, nothing too big) but none of these collections is disciplined or authoritative, they are all fragmentary and pretty unimpressive. I am far too fickle to stick to one thing and make a really good collection.

With your 'Secret Identity' series you focused on plastic figurines of superheroes. Are you a superhero fan? What do they represent to you?

As I mentioned before, superheroes were vastly important to me throughout my childhood and continue to be significant. A classic superhero trope involves the victory of the hero against seemingly insurmountable odds. As often as not the hero's superpowers are insufficient to achieve victory and their innate human characteristics such as determination, hope, trust and empathy are the factors that allow them to finally succeed. Anybody struggling to survive as an artist will recognise the essential truth of this narrative structure

Why did you portray plastic toys of the superheroes rather than their representation in action using their superpowers?

Until I recently completed a painting of Wonder Woman for a private commission, the 'Secret Identity' series featured exclusively male characters. This was no accident as I intended the series to say something about the limitations of machismo; despite all their power and potency these characters are unable to transcend their status as an imprisoned object. In this way the rage of the Hulk and the pride of Superman are rendered futile and silly. I am also intrigued by the way in which a modern myth of the enormous, enduring power of Batman can be embodied in an object as humble as a plastic figurine, not to mention pyjamas, underpants, pencil erasers and so on ad infinitum; as Manet said, 'No ideas but in things'.

Why are the paintings titled after the secret identity of the superhero?

When I first started reading comics 40 years ago the idea of the secret identity was crucial to superhero mythology but has receded to the point of irrelevance now. I was always intrigued by the contrast between the apparent weakness of the secret identity and the unbridled power of the hero revealed. This was most strongly figured in Marvel comics of the 60s where the extremity of the difference between Bruce Banner and the Hulk or Dr. Donald Blake and Thor made Bruce Wayne and Batman or Clark Kent and Superman seem untenable as true alter egos in that they were so similar they were barely disguises at all. As a child I identified most strongly with Don Blake / Thor; Blake's blonde hair and skinny sickliness seemed to mirror my own but however hard I tried I failed to turn into a thunder god. In a sense I do feel that in some ways the life of an artist is analogous to that of a superhero: in your civilian clothes you travel to a secret hideout where you don special garb to perform feats that will astound the public (hopefully). Unfortunately the analogy falls apart when it comes to defeating super-villains or even rescuing cats from trees.

To answer the question properly though, I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of the exotic and the banal, the fantastic and the everyday, and all of my work is centred on an exploration of this contrast. Consumer culture presents us with a glittering sequence of images of smooth perfection: in car adverts the vehicle glides through an unpopulated, romantic landscape. In reality of course the car will spend it's time battling traffic and weather to take groceries from supermarket to home and kids to school and back. One looks around the edges of the slick billboard advertising beauty products and sees peeling paint and rotting wood. The parallel between all of this and the relationship between Peter Parker and Spider-Man may seem tenuous but in my mind it is significant and I'm trying to work out why as I go on.

In the 'Trapped Batman' series the use of such things as sellotape, rubber bands and string seems to located the images more firmly within the world of work, office work in particular. Looking back on the paintings now they seem to ask questions about the relationship between fantasy power and real power; how many of us have the financial power to exist while avoiding employment with all of its attendant pressures and anxieties? Being an artist, for me, is as much a way of keeping out of offices as it is anything else. In fact, my next series of paintings is concerned with my enduring hatred of A4 ruled notepaper and takes the form of trompe l'oeil A4 sheets - face your demons head on.

As far as ridiculing superheroes goes, that was never my intention. I owe superheroes, and comics in general, far too high a debt to ever subject them to ridicule. Admittedly I have represented them in a reduced, powerless state but these modern myth figures are so potent and enduring that they can easily survive any amount of prodding and poking from artists such as myself.

In what way is the photo-realistic style of the series important and functional to a better communication of the concept behind your work?

Although my paintings are often referred to as 'photo-realistic' this is not strictly true for the simple fact that I don't use photographs when I make them. My painting process is really as simple as making the models, setting them up on the wall in front of me and then painting them directly from life. Using photographs would potentially make my life easier as I would not be limited to painting only in daylight hours; when the light goes I have to stop work. In my experience trying to work from photographs has only resulted in paintings that look like mere copies of photographs. Of course, this is a perfectly valid and widely employed strategy in contemporary art but I am looking for a type of realism that is other than photographic.

I do tend to spend a lot of time on each painting and I think of this in terms of an invitation to the potential viewer. I offer my paintings in the hope that the time and effort I have put into making them will encourage the viewer that it may be worth spending some time looking at them. It is a truism that our culture is more drenched in images and contexts in which to view them than at any other time. For an artist such as myself, using materials and techniques that date from the late middle ages, it is only through making an image that is the result of many hours of concentration and work that I can hope to be noticed by an audience among the never ending flood of images that characterises our culture.

Do we still need superheroes and superpowers in the world?

I can remember a time in my childhood when I suspected that Spider-Man was not really swinging around New York but could not be sure; I certainly hoped that he was. In mythological terms we need superheroes as much as we needed gods in ancient Greece, regardless of the supposed sophistication of our culture. In practical terms, as cheesy as it may sound, I believe that the only true superpower that we have as humans is our creativity, in whatever varied and marvellous forms it may take.