For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,

Cometh al this newe corn fro yer to yere,

And out of old bokes, in good feyth,

Cometh al this newe science that men lere.

 

[For out of old fields, as men say,

Comes all this new corn from year to year,

And out of old books, in good faith,

Comes all this new science that men learn.]

 

-- Geoffrey Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls, 1373

 

Left: Portrait of John Spinks, 11 December 2005
© Martin Haggland 2006. All rights reserved.

 

L E T T E R S  F R O M  W A L L S E N D

Project Proposal for The Buddle Arts Centre

I have lived in the U.S. for twenty five years and I exchanged weekly letters with my father in Wallsend for much of that time. As an ex-teacher of English and Drama I have retained a respect for the written word. I am interested in the hand-written letter as a form and suspect that in the forseeable future the hand-written message will become extinct.

A person's writing style coupled with the way they form their letters is as unique as a personality. The flourish and verve of a signature is as close as most lay people get to a linear representation of who they are. In the near future the signature could be replaced by the iris or the finger print as counterfeit proof identity passwords. The hand written mark would be as exotic as an Egyptian hieroglyph.

It is this line of thought that made me focus on the hand-written letter as a form. The genesis of the novel grew from the diary and the letter. A letter is a unique document written and composed in real time and dated by the writer as further proof of its authenticity.

My Dad's letters were written at 59 Prospect Avenue just off the Coast Road. The content is very consistent. There are references to neighbours, weather, laundry, the garden, sport and politics. All content is leavened with humour and an "Everyman" Geordie wisdom which is very accessible.

The pieces are beautiful to look at because they are conceived as paintings. The idea is that they should be seen from 10-15 ft. and seen as an arresting image, on closer inspection the "subtext" is revealed and the visual is combined with the narrative.

I have a secondary objective in exhibiting these letters in Wallsend. In our contemporary culture people are lionised and feted by the media regardless of talent or real merit. "Media Spin" is all that is required. Meanwhile millions of ordinary people live exemplary lives and pass away in total anonymity. My father was such a person, as are millions of souls worldwide. His letters reflect the strength of the community of which he was part. Making them an integral aspect of artwork is testimony to that strength.

-- John Spinks, February 12, 2006

 

View Exhibition

 

CONTENTS

 

Critical Commentary:

Energized in America
Cahir O'Doherty, Irish Echo, October 15 - 21, 2003

Beautiful Maneuvers
Mimi Thompson, New York, February 2000

John Spinks Interview
Mimi Thompson, New York, January 20, 2000

Bibliography

Biographical Note

Solo Exhibitions

Group Exhibitions

Corporate Collections

Contact Artist

 


Energized in America

Artist John Spinks' exhilarating pieces are difficult to classify

 

John Spinks' piece "Momentarily Eclipsed" is typical of his work in that the artist uses collages on canvas that are animated with color interspersed with bold shapes.

 

By Cahir O'Doherty
codoherty@irishecho.com

Raised in the north of England, the son of Irish immigrants, the artist John Spinks had a particularly memorable introduction to his own creativity: when he was a boy his mother often asked him to describe the shapes he saw in the clouds. It was, he realized years later, an invitation to look critically, to appraise the world around him, and it helped to train his eye.

"It was a request to use my imagination -- so it was an epiphany for me that I never forgot," he said. "Both she and my father encouraged me to look closely at life, to begin to appreciate it aesthetically, and to see how much of it was actually miraculous. Many Irish people have an agrarian wisdom, a basic respect for the seasons -- and how harsh they can be -- and so they also learn a respect for the big picture."

Take a subway ride on the A train to the first stop in Brooklyn and you'll find yourself in the area where he comes to work these days, an area that has recently -- and quite coincidentally -- become the vibrant heart of the New York art world. Within the space of just one year the formerly derelict neighborhood called DUMBO (Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass) has become a thriving artistic and cultural center replete with galleries, coffee shops, office tenants and retailers.

It's here that Spinks located his studio, but several years before the current boom, on the seventh floor of a vast warehouse overlooking the East River; and if the neighborhood in which he works has become fashionable in the interim, he pays it little attention. He came here to work, and he'll remind you of the fact with an unaffected candor that has kept faith with his parents and his hometown.

As a young graduate in the 1970s he taught English and drama in the UK, quickly becoming head of his department. But his free-spirited ways, then and now, he realized, mitigated against the possibility of creating his own school within the college.

"I didn't fit the mold," he said. "I was passionate about teaching because I believed that it could actually change things, but this was just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power in Britain. You could see which way the wind was blowing culturally and politically. The educational resources were being clipped. So I started thinking about making a move abroad. America has an adolescent energy that lends itself to reinvention, so that's where I decided I would go."

He began to show his work here for the first time 10 years ago, and since that time he has sold paintings to both corporate and private collectors. (Throughout the 1990s his work has been shown in the U.S. and in Europe).

 

"Art is like any faith. I once had a vocation to become a monk, and now I'm an artist, and both are essentially conduits for the big questions."

JOHN SPINKS

 

Looking at Spinks' recent paintings, which are now on show at The Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street in Manhattan, is rather like looking at a map that keeps changing even as you consult it. He uses collages on canvas that are animated with evocative color (a lapis lazuli blue, to signify space or eternity, for example) interspersed with bold shapes (rectangles and circles). The undeniably static, or architectural composition, of his latest works is offset by their simultaneous and paradoxically disorientating emphasis on flux. The effect is quietly exhilarating. They seem to open and open. At one level they're the artists considered response to the thronging sights and sounds of New York City, for example, but they also delve deeper, into strangely unsettling realms that defy easy classification.

Maps are a recurring motif in Spinks' work, but they are made deliberately unreliable, intentionally disorientating, forcing the viewer to assess and reassess their most basic assumptions.

Superficially, at least, you can see where he gets some of it: his studio is in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, taking in the a broad expanse of Manhattan's skyline, so he need only look out his window to find inspiration. But of course there's more to it than that. There's his history, for a start. A spry and arrestingly youthful looking individual, he grew up in the hardscrabble shipbuilding and coalmining working-class estates of Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1950s, among people who spoke and lived with a raw energy he has never forgotten.

Spending every one of his childhood summers in Ennis, Co. Clare, he grew familiar with daily life in Ireland too -- seeing far beyond its tourist board veneer to some of the more sordid goings on that also typified Irish life during that particular period.

"My great pal in those days was a lad named Michael," Spinks said. "Unfortunately, he was the type of lad that John McGahern often writes about: a dark horse, a misfit, a lad who lived with his mother -- he was a figure of fun in the local community, he wasn't popular with the local girls. He was a tragic figure, ultimately. That gothic side of Ireland is just terrifying to me."

Spinks' tendency to reflect upon the darker side of human nature is reflected in his work, too. He can meditate on distress and upset with the same clear-eyed, forensic intensity that typifies his more celebratory work. Irish traditional music has been an influence, along with jazz -- and indeed anything that provides latitude for spontaneity, intuition and improvisation.

Cast your eye about his studio and your curiosity will be rewarded by works that immediately compel your attention the moment you first encounter them: a small letter from his father, hanging unobtrusively in one corner of his studio, is laminated with pages culled from "Robinson Crusoe." Both epistles recount the details of individual lives, lives full of everyday incident and occasion, but their juxtaposition is strangely moving here, because both have -- we realize -- come to an end.

"I sent him many letters over the years and requested that he keep them all," Spinks said. "But maybe it was a working-class thing, some kind of fear of exposure, because he burned them anyway. So in a way, this is my revenge on him."

For all his manifest subtlety as an artist, Spinks is surprisingly frank about his process. He will happily demystify his approach to art for you without reducing it in any way. This is doubtless because he is still so genuinely intrigued by its myriad possibilities that he almost seems to be commencing his explorations for the first time.

"Art is like any faith," Spinks said. "I once had a vocation to become a monk, and now I'm an artist, and both are essentially conduits for the big questions. No one knows what's going on. But people look at art because they hope it will help them to make some sense of the world. My job is to present them with possibilities -- I think of them as benign snares -- if you can pull someone in from across the room, then you've really got them, and the journey begins."

-- Irish Echo, October 15 - 21, 2003

 


Beautiful Maneuvers
Mimi Thompson, New York, February 2000

Chance meetings and long reflective gazes -- this kind of random communication usually goes unrecorded. Holidays and birthdays are the predictable and documented hallmarks in our life. But the meetings and glances, the large painful silences and giddy laughter, and the breathless anticipation of all of the above punctuate our lives in a way organized events never can. The interior memories we grasp are the real journal of record . They spell out a history of our own personal life that, if not completely accurate, is true.

John Spinks takes rectangles and squares for his yarn and spins a jagged paean to life as it is and could be. His story is one of exploration -- he creates his own topsy-turvy world where the Soviet Union sits northwest of Spain, and text swirls about in the sea in between. The text is sometimes as personal as his father's diaries, or as random and poignant as a list of foreclosed properties with the word "home" placed dead center. With a Jesuit passion for detail, Spinks utilizes and reveres the used and the overlooked. A small leaf sits in the center of the painting NONFICTION. Tender and delicate, the leaf holds the center of the painting like a rock. The power of the leaf's shape outmaneuvers its decaying skin.

The maps place and displace the viewer geographically. Countries are torn apart and scattered, floating off like three card monte customers when the police whistle blows. Spinks has created his own version of global warming, and his land masses change position with scientific and mystical purpose. Sometimes map pieces fulfill their geometric duty, balancing the composition, or they give the viewers roads or bays or some means of egress. In Captiva the map is so present, and the water so big, you are able to smell the salt and feel the heat. Spinks has a visceral connection to the land of his Anglo-Irish childhood, as well as the terrain of the dissected countries in his paintings whose sediment is represented by graphic calculation.

Spinks takes both a romantic and knowing look at the modernist canon. His appreciation of form for form's sake is the underpinning of many of his paintings. But that exercise is shaken and stirred by his use of word play and ironic text choices. In Portal, a painted portal is filled with pages from his father's 1943 wartime diary. Charts, statistics, and a revolver serial number sit in what looks like a delicate cave, their reality and hardness dispelling the softness around them.

These paintings exist like visually luscious scrapbook pages. They reveal non-specific histories with specific details, creating a skewed but compassionate world for the viewer to contemplate. We are a part of the world that Spinks describes, and it is a fantastic world -- full of emotion, great natural beauty, war, unspoken feelings and the occasional right look at the right time which causes a connection. Spinks takes us through the looking glass in order to tell us a story. He asks us to look, and to think. Perhaps he wants us to see, to paraphrase the 1914 Endeavor expedition's photographer, how a mass of ice flowers in Antarctica illuminated by the sun can look like a field of pink carnations.

 


John Spinks Interview
Mimi Thompson, New York, January 20, 2000

MT  I wanted to start out asking you about where you grew up, Newcastle upon Tyne. What kind of environment was it?

JS  One of the fantastic things about it, it was heavy industry, ship building and coal mining but in half an hour you could be in the most wonderful open, wild countryside. I had both sides of that coin. I was also going to Ireland for 6 weeks every summer.

MT  Did you look at a lot of art -- were there museums?

JS  My earliest aesthetic memory was lying snug in bed with me mother, and we were looking at the sky and she asked me what I could see in the clouds. I would tell her what I could see, and she would tell me what she could see. Today I regard it as a kind of epiphany. It had that kind of Rorschach blot aspect to it even though the blots were the clouds. It was an act of interpretation. Also my Irish relatives say the reason I became involved with art was from my mother, she used to do embroidery. Me father encouraged me to look very closely at nature. Birds, plants, weather.

MT  You trained your eye by looking around you.

JS  I think so. My earliest major museum experience was a Pop Art Show at the Hayward Gallery in 1969. After that everything looked different. I saw that perhaps it wasn't all nature.

MT  A lot of your paintings seem very diaristic to me, almost like pages from your life. Do you think that's the case?

JS  Definitely. Joyce is a big influence on me and Joyce is a big one for cataloging things . He was big on detail. He would call his aunt in Dublin when he was living in Trieste, and he would ask her to measure the wall outside a certain house to make sure a man could actually climb over it. There's a spontaneous side to Joyce but also a detailed side, it's to do with placing things in time. Lately I've been thinking about the phrase "Once upon a time...". That seems to apply to my work because they're often dated -- never mind when it was made. I might have a date like 1921 in it, there might be a hint of narrative. It is "once upon a time".

MT  It reflects what you're thinking about in your own time, but you also use history. Are these two competing endeavors?

JS  What I'm trying to do is akin to poetry. I'm hoping these things are visually seductive. And I'm encouraging people to read. You can read drawn lines but you can also read words. If you isolate a word it often has more resonance than a whole paragraph.

MT  That's very true. And that is something you have in common with some artists whose work is very dissimilar to yours like Barbara Kruger.

JS  Someone I feel akin to and whose work I admire is Richard Artschwager -- he plays with the idea of visual pun.

MT  Yes, or Bruce Nauman.

JS  In terms of sensibility I aspire to be somebody like Morandi because that kind of contemplative mood is something I really revere in painting.

MT  You said the stillness and passivity of a painting interests you, but I never think of a painting as passive.

JS  What I mean by that is they are mute, they don't actually speak. They can have movement in them. In contrast to a flickering image where we get most of our information today -- they don't move.

MT  Maps are such a big part of your work. What began this interest in maps and topography?

JS  Me father was fascinated with maps. It does purport to be something that it's not. In that sense it's akin to a painting. It's a picture of terrain.

MT  You mean it's a two dimensional picture of a three dimensional landscape?

JS  To me it's connected to the tradition of painting and what painting pursues. I'm interested in the idea, like in the painting Skin Deep, that the map represents the skin of the earth.

MT  Your use of found materials reminds me a bit of Rauschenberg, again with quite a different result. But your respect for detritus seems to match his.

JS  The quality I admire in Rauschenberg is his ability to swing. He goes very far out with his imagery but there is harmony, again I have to say swing. I like the way he dignifies humble objects.

MT  Do you have any intellectual or emotional connection to work that went on in the 1970s -- process art like Richard Serra flinging lead? You talk about pouring the paint and chance. Was any of this work inspirational to you?

JS  My work is some kind of synthesis of what I've seen. I worked with Helen Frankenthaler and I've worked with Jim Rosenquist and they are polar opposites. However, from both of them I've learned a lot. From Helen I learned good studio habits. I learned to come to the studio prepared and I learned a certain discipline from her. I also picked up a knowledge of the range of the rectangle. From Jim I learned not to be afraid -- because you can always try again. I'm very conscious of Duchamp and Jasper Johns -- again because of their use of puns and found objects. I feel there's meat on the bone there.

MT  The way Johns constructs his painting reminds me a bit of the way you construct yours, they are hierarchical.

JS  And there's formality?

MT  Yes.

JS  I was raised a Catholic and that gives you a taste for theater and ritual and a certain formality. I'm very fond of the proscenium arch for example. I know there's different ways of staging things. I like the window, the whole contre-jour idea, I like the door. I like the vignette. These are things that appeal to me. It's instinctive. Although the jury's still out on this I do sense there is something spiritual at work in the best art. When I think of Vermeer for example I see this timelessness and this willingness to confront the everyday and make it into something profound. That seems to me to be close to something spiritual.

MT  I agree. I think the time and passion and thought the artist puts into whatever they are making comes back out to the viewer if the viewer is receptive.

JS  I also like the work to look old. I'm influenced by Tantric paintings, Indian paintings where there isn't any personality that you know of but there is this immense view. I like the idea you can give something a monumental scale without it being huge.

MT  You haven't been burying any of your work to age it have you?

JS  No, the closest I've come is exposing things to light, I have burned things on occasions and rubbed and burnished things.

MT  You've used some of your father's letters in your work. Do you ever think of using any more contemporary personal correspondence?

JS  You mentioned the diaristic aspect -- I'm extremely cautious about this collaboration with my father because he's not here and he hasn't given me permission to do this so as a result it has to have a certain dignity. I can't just ride roughshod over his thoughts so in The Crux of the Matter, the center has two erased pages from my father's diary in which he poured out his soul when he found that his mother had died. He erased those pages. That I can use because his privacy is not violated and the emotional content is there. And it's also connected to the erased De Kooning. It's tight, you see. In the painting Portal I used me father's diary but there is no personal information in it. It's information about chemical warfare, sunrise and sunset, telephone numbers, a revolver number. It implies a background of war -- it was 1943. There's no personal information in that but there is still that "once upon a time" quality to it.

 


Bibliography

Cahir O'Doherty, Energized in America, Irish Echo, New York, October 15 - 21, 2003.

Mimi Thompson, Beautiful Maneuvers, unpublished manuscript, New York, February 2000.

Mimi Thompson, John Spinks Interview, unpublished manuscript, New York, January 20, 2000.

Vivien Raynor, More Fuel for the Debate on Abstraction, The New York Times, New York, February 18, 1996.

Vivien Raynor, 12 Times 12, The New York Times, New York, August 23, 1992.

Vivien Raynor, What's New in the Northeast?, The New York Times, New York, June 9, 1991.

Souren Melikian, An Alternative Market, International Herald Tribune, New York, June 1, 1991.

 


Biographical Note

John Spinks was born in 1946 in Ennis, County Clare, Ireland and received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Durham University, England. He lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

 


Solo Exhibitions

Letters from Wallsend
Lisa Solomine, curator
Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
March 16 - April 29, 2006

Converting Chances
Andrew Edlin and Steve Romano, curators
Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
November 20 - December 20, 2003

Pictures from the Film of the Book
John Spinks, curator
Bridin Murphy Mitchell, curator
Irish Arts Center, New York
October 7 - November 30, 2003

 


Group Exhibitions

Champions of Modernism II
Denise Bibro and Steven Lowy, curators

Denise Bibro Fine Art, New York, 2004

Northern Light
Renato Danese, curator
Danese Gallery, New York, 2002

Landscape
Stephen Rosenberg and Fran Kaufman, curators
Rosenberg & Kaufman Fine Art, New York, 2002

Maritime Works
Exhibition and conversation with the artist
John Spinks, curator
South Street Seaport Museum Whitman Gallery, New York, 2001

Time and Place
Stephen Rosenberg and Fran Kaufman, curators
Rosenberg & Kaufman Fine Art, New York, 2001

Inaugural Exhibition
Andrew Edlin, curator
Andrew Edlin Fine Arts, New York, 1999

New York Undiscovered
Jim Murray, curator
Markham-Murray Gallery, New York, 1999

Art as Spectacle
Thelma Golden, curator
Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York, 1998

Champions of Modernism
Steven Lowy and Dominic Lombardi, curators
Brevard Museum of Art & Science, Melbourne, Florida, 1997
Sunrise Museum, Charleston, West Virginia, 1997
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, 1996
Mary Washington College Galleries, Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1996
Castle Gallery, College of New Rochelle, New Rochelle, New York, 1996

Drawing in Tongues
Elena Alexander, curator
Stark Gallery, New York, 1996

Reader
Katherine Gass, curator
Curt Marcus Gallery, New York, 1996

The Book As Art
David Audet, curator
Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Florida, 1996
Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1995
St. Petersburg Center for the Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1995

Small Works
Violaine Bachelier and Darby Cardonsky, curators
Galerie Gianna Sistu, Paris, 1992

Small Works
Arne Glimcher, curator
Washington Square East Gallery, New York, 1992

Small Works
Brooke Alexander, curator
Washington Square East Gallery, New York, 1991

Three Great Britons
Violaine Bachelier and Darby Cardonsky, curators
Bachelier-Cardonsky Gallery, Kent, Connecticut 1991

 


Corporate Collections

Sony Music
Miami, Florida

Coca-Cola Company
Atlanta, Georgia

Marsh & McClennan
Greenwich, Connecticut

 


Contact Artist

John Spinks, 158 Saint James Place, Brooklyn, New York 11238. E-mail: andreajohn@earthlink.net