Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Social outcasts

People watching:
Greg Rook, Artist and Course Director, Fine Art, London South Bank University

Hours before Paris suffered a series of devastating attacks last week, I spoke to the contemporary artist Greg Rook about his latest collection of paintings, entitled Off-grid. For much of his painting career, Greg has been intrigued by communities of people who exist on the margins of society, sustained by the rigours of their own belief system. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, this preoccupation with survivalism feels strangely prescient.

The Good Life by Greg Rook

Through his early depictions of cowgirls/boys in the American West, Greg explored the myth of the "guy out on his own, working out what right and wrong should be". Comparing the dusty, raw linen on which he chose to paint with the rough ground of the American landscape, Greg explains how the lone figure became a metaphor for his position as a contemporary artist. Later he became interested in the hippy communes of the 1970s and their dream of an enlightened future that never quite came to pass. Greg refers to this notion as "past potential futures" - in other words, hopes for the future that were not fulfilled.


Greg's first solo exhibition launched in Tokyo in 2001 and soon caught the attention of the international art world. In 2007, The Guardian newspaper described his cowboy paintings as combining "the bleak detachment of Norman Rockwell and the romantic aspirations of the sublime artists"
. Since those heady days, the credit crunch has put the squeeze on the commercial art scene and left many artists struggling to make a living from selling their work.


Despite these challenges, Greg remains moderately optimistic about painting's place in popular culture. "In the post-modern art world, there is no manifesto, no particular way to paint. Anything is possible, but it also means that there are a thousand and one wrong paths to take." While he is working, Greg also battles an impulse to make his paintings look "too right" or too finished. "I want holes and mistakes so that they can come to life and breathe."


'The Good Life'



With his own move from London to the green woods of Surrey, Greg has become increasingly fascinated by the possibilities of 'The Good Life', also the title of a TV sitcom from the 1970s that celebrated self-subsistence living. As a child, Greg used to watch this comedy, starring Felicity Kendal and Richard Briars, with his family and clearly the emphasis on self-reliance and making-do still chimes with him. "I got the sense I should be culture-crafting, painting on what I had." For example, he primes his paper with rabbit-skin glue that he found lying about in his cupboard.

Barn door by Greg Rook

Greg is aware that he has a tendency to romanticise agrarian, self-sufficient lifestyles and is quick to admit that he would be "absolutely useless" if there was ever a breakdown of society. "I love the idea [of living outside society] but I don't think it would suit me." This tension is present in his new work Off-grid, where he alludes to the paranoia that often colours a survivalist way of life. Beautifully rendered barn doors let in strips of natural life, but are also designed to keep people out. "These survivalists were also called 'preppers' and were incredibly safety-conscious," Greg explains. "There was this idea of protecting themselves."


The new collection also examines what Greg calls "weird in-between moments", points of transition (pregnant with possibility) before the real action kicks off. Three paintings entitled 'Books', 'Burning books' and finally 'Burnt books' use static images to show a sequence of moments. They also harp back to Greg's interest in "past potential futures" and the sense that technology or modern life has taken us away from the future we once envisaged for ourselves. The burning books come to represent a collapse of confidence in politicians, scientists and thinkers.

Books by Greg Rook
Burning books by Greg Rook
Burnt books by Greg Rook

I asked Greg if he thought there was still a place for traditional paintings in our age of social media and quick fixes. "The greater problem is not our attention span," he argues, "but the fact that paintings have become consumables." He is clearly irritated by work that has been designed to sell easily, with superficially clever or decorative elements at the expense of well-referenced ideas that require the viewer to work a little harder. Off-grid, informed by Greg's ideas about survivalism, aims to provoke a deeper response. As an artist, he is continually questioning where we are headed as a society. He won't be the only one looking for answers.


You can see Greg Rook's Off-grid paintings for yourself at The Aldridge Theatre in Farnham until 10 December 2015. Please note that Greg is a university friend of mine.