Artists around the world have responded in many different ways to lockdown: for some, the period has been the cause of creative block; others have taken to social media, streaming new ideas and transforming their typical methods of exhibiting. William Monk, the British artist currently based in London instead of his usual New York, has used the time to return to a 2017 painting of an ambiguous vapour trail, depicting it again and again in a range of electric colour ways, whose vibrant tones belie the unsettling subject matter. The series was recently shown in Pace Gallery‘s online viewing rooms.
Monk has long depicted catastrophes, painting the flumes of bombs and violently bubbling volcanos in Pop tones, which nod to sci fi and comic book aesthetics as much as grim reality. “As an artist, I’m used to not knowing what’s around the corner, not having job security and working in isolation,” Monk tells me from his home studio. “What I’m not used to is the rest of the world joining in and having to hear about what this lifestyle does to our mental health.”
Your work often hints at natural or manmade catastrophes, albeit in disarmingly bright and positive colours. How has it felt to make work during a global crisis?
It is odd to find life imitating art. People are trying to find the good in the bad. The cinematic extreme of this is Slim Pickens riding the bomb in the film Dr Strangelove. Even in an apocalypse we can find the beautiful.
There does seem to be pressure on artists at the moment though to have something to say about this situation we all find ourselves in. I think this is unnecessary. Good ideas and thoughts sometimes take time to filter through the bad ones. I think any attempt to make a conscious statement as an artist tends to fail. It’s better not to force it. If you have anything to say it will come through when you are quiet.
Perhaps because of the nature of my work and temperament I may seem more naturally equipped to react to this moment, but I’m panicking the same as most. I never needed much of an excuse to stay indoors and needed to be encouraged to go out. Social interaction is usually thought to be healthy—not these days.
“Even in an apocalypse we can find the beautiful”
This series was inspired by one of your own paintings from 2017. What made you want to return to and expand on that one specifically?
I often make a single painting and then let it sit in my thoughts for some time, years even, without knowing why I made it or where it might lead. This was the case with that first painting. When I was asked to make an online show, I was working on other paintings but the rhythms of life at home and the studio have changed so much with the pandemic that it felt right to put these other things aside and instead work with this single image. This has given me the chance to focus my thoughts. I find that by returning to an image I am able to lose what I thought the idea was and find something else more valuable. They are like mantras in that regard. The repetition is crucial.
Your work straddles brutal reality, and the creative expressions that we often use to explore and understand these realities, such as sci fi. How do you strike this balance in your paintings?
I don’t think about these things. You can’t. Early on I tried to put everything in. Now I try to take everything out. What is left still captures my interests but without the exposition and collective baggage. It’s not easy for me to talk about my paintings because I am not asking conscious questions. It’s more a feeling of “lift off” that one might get when one accepts their own mortality and insignificant place in the universe.
“This has given me the chance to focus my thoughts… The repetition is crucial”
You have said before that your work is a reminder to slow down. Do you think this current period has had a positive impact on the way we live our lives?
People consume images in the same way they consume everything. Fast. Wash, rinse and repeat. You come away with no memory of the things you see. Perhaps in the current climate we will allow ourselves more time for a deeper experience with those around us, and whatever benefit we get will release itself slower and with more intensity. Maybe that will carry over into art and we might come to appreciate things with a slower burn. Rather than looking for the next quick hit we might give more time to the things that ask more from us.
How has lockdown impacted your process, for good or bad?
As an artist, I’m used to not knowing what’s around the corner, not having job security and working in isolation. What I’m not used to is the rest of the world joining in and having to hear about what this lifestyle does to our mental health. It’s no wonder artists are historically thought of as being a bit mad.
Normally I lead quite a solitary life, working alone day-to-day in the studio, and it is beneficial for me to be around the activity and buzz of a city. My studio would be calm and quiet while the city was noisy. I have two small children, and here in London my studio is also our home. Normally I’d be working when they are at school. I still am, except I can now hear the lessons going on in the next room and I am reminded how life has changed on a daily basis—and how I forgot, or never paid attention to, anything I learned at school.
When I lived in NYC, the city was the social antidote to my self-imposed isolation. I left temporarily last year for what was meant to be a year in London, with plans to return this summer. Now there isn’t much a city can offer. I love New York and want to get back. I only hope it gets its mojo back soon. But this lockdown has focused the mind on what is important. Maybe “essential”, this phrase that is being used a lot at the moment, will stick, and we will learn to live with less and appreciate more.