British Stuckist artist Joe Machine is best known for his raw paintings depicting violence, sex and crime; all images drawing on his childhood. However his exhibition in Prague also shows visitors the long journey he has travelled to find self-understanding and inner peace. Shortly after the opening of the exhibition “From the Gutter to the Stars” I spoke with Joe Machine about his life, his painting and how much has changed over the years.
“I am an artist that very much paints from my life experiences and drawing on my life experiences and some of those from the earlier parts of my life have been very dark. I have a very specific style which is instantly recognizable and I have tried to move out of certain periods of my life through exploring in paint what my life has meant to me, through the crime I have been involved in, moving through this as a way of exploring my life, studying Nature and religion through depicting these things in my paintings.”
And the exhibition is called From the Gutter to the Stars?
“From the Gutter to the Stars, yes. It is basically intended to be a spiritual evolution. The stars are representative of a heightened state for me, whereas the paintings that I took part in years ago represent a more lower base state, whereas now I am trying to work with a more heightened state, a more spiritually evolved and physically and mentally evolved state through my work.”
A lot of these paintings are of sex, crime, violence, things that you witnesses as a child – are they seen through a child’s eyes or a grown-ups?
“Becoming the kind of person that I feared as a child was the greatest defeat of all.”
“I still have the same fear of violence, I still have the bad dreams and still have the fears of the things that I saw as a child. So yes, looking at the paintings I do still feel in a very similar way. Of course, years have gone by and those years have provided me with a safe space. When I was living with them, making drawings and those drawings became paintings, that was a real period of fear to me. Now I have moved through to a more holistic area, though I am still afraid of the things that happened to me and looking at these paintings does produce a very similar response, but I have a greater overview of them now and I understand that although they maybe were not necessary, that was the material that I had to work with in life. I have tried to evolve past it. They were just lessons as far as I am concerned, lessons that I have had to learn as a person and as a man.”
You said that in a way your work was autobiographical and painting them was a form of therapy. You also said these raw paintings depicting sex and violence expressed your fear of having become this way, that you had become the man portrayed in them? Did painting these help you to prevent that?
“Yes, because for me becoming the kind of person that I feared as a child was the greatest defeat of all. It was a dreadful period of my life. I have had to learn, through my own experiences, to try to move past these things, to try to be more civilized.”
When did you realize that you needed to paint to get all this out of your system?
“From a very early age, because there was no help. I came from a violent background. I had parents but both of my parents were …my father is 83 now and he was from a different group of people who did not see violence and exposure to violence as a problem. My gather was a violent man, his father was a violent man and his father before him as well. They were all violent men. I was not like this as a child. I was an extremely sensitive child so this was a huge problem for me.”
“I think goodness comes when you acknowledge that what is within you is a problem, and I have had to do that.”
Basically your art helped you to escape. But you had no schooling of any kind –how did you start drawing?
“I had very different schooling, I was expelled from school when I was just six years old, and I went to different schools…and I always used art, from a very early age, through drawings to try and bring out the fear I had in me. It was the only way, because there was no other help, I had no one to talk to, there was no one I could deal with, I don’t think the social services were very good in that area at that particular time, I think if it had been now things would maybe have been very different. But there was no help for me, I only had myself to rely upon in that sense and drawing and painting was all that I had. It hasn’t always been that way because I was in psychotherapy when I came out of prison for twelve years to work out my problems.”
“Yes, drawing and painting has been the one constant in my life and I continue to do it, I was also writing as well, but it was mainly drawing and painting that helped me make sense of the things that were happening in my life.”
The paintings have changed over the years because some of the paintings now are very optimistic really, promise of a better future. Some are spiritual which probably also helped you to heal, but you are still painting the horrors of your childhood –does that mean they are still deep inside you?
“Yes, it is all part of a whole. I cannot not acknowledge what happened to me, it is all part of the journey. As Yung said “I would rather be whole than good”. I think goodness comes when you acknowledge that what is within you is a problem, and I have had to do that. Once you make that acknowledgment you understand what the problems were, you have worked through them rather than me setting out to be good. There was no moment of seeing the light, there was no one specific religious experience, nothing like that, it happened rather over a long period of time, after many mistakes, after many mistakes, working with things and so on.”
“Not all art is about pretty pictures, for me it must show the spirit, and spiritual evolution and you must have something to evolve from.”
Many of these paintings, the violent ones, are of people you know, the prostitutes, the sailors, do they not haunt you, does looking at these painting not keep all this alive?
“Yes, they do. But I do not let those things assume any more space in my mind than need be. I think one time it did engulf me. I was engulfed and that’s why I went into crime and became that which I feared most and I have had to learn over the years. I just don’t do anything that doesn’t work. It is all about common sense, if there’s no common sense in it I don’t do it. So I have had to learn common sense aspects to life and it has been a very difficult process but certainly worthwhile.”
And you taught yourself to paint basically?
“Yes, I have no formal art training, I taught myself to draw, taught myself to paint, this is something that seemed to come naturally. I developed my own style – I wasn’t aware of anyone else’s artwork for many years and even as a painter now there are very, very few artists I actually look at. I very rarely go to art exhibitions, I’m fairly secluded. That’s always been my way, I work with whatever comes up, whether it be impulses drawn from my past, whether it is the love I feel for my children, whether it is my relationship with God – I work with whatever comes up in my life.”
And you are inspired by dreams as well?
“Dreams, yes, dream symbolist, images drawn from meditation, prayer.”
You co-founded Stuckism, I believe?
“I didn’t actually cofound it, that was Billy Childish and Charles Thomson, but I was one of the original 13 members in England.”
Can you explain in what way it is different?
“I think my work is very different because I have a very different past to the vast majority of painters and I was primarily a self-confrontational artist for the first part of my life and wouldn’t draw or paint anything that didn’t come directly from my life. I have taught myself a specific style which the world-renowned art critic Edward Lucie-Smith has said is instantly recognizable. So I think that is something that has helped me a great deal in the past having this background – I have used my experience to create paintings drawn from my life and to evolve out of a situation that was causing me problems and gone on to make paintings of what is in my life now. I make paintings of God because God is in my life, I make paintings of Nature because Nature is all around me where I live.”
These paintings are part of your life, your past, your hopes. Is it difficult to sell them?
“Surprisingly, no. And the paintings I have sold a lot of have been those which are drawn from my earlier life – paintings of crime, sex, violence – I have sold a lot of those over the years. Some very interesting people have bought my paintings, people that I would not expect to go for the sort of imagery that I depict, people that had me thinking ‘why do you want this painting?”
Yes, that also had me wondering. These pictures are very raw, brutal –blood, sex, violence – not something I would expect to see in someone’s living room or even company space…why do people buy them? Is it because they evoke something in themselves as well?
“Yes, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I think that is the case with some people. Some people that have bought my paintings want to have something that is real, that is drawn from someone’s life, to experience an element of danger without actually experiencing the danger themselves. There are many artists, even some of those involved in Stuckism, that have painted unpleasant images but many have never been involved in that world, they have no understanding of gang-culture, no understanding of drug culture, no understanding of crime, no real understanding, only what comes from television and walking around in the streets day-by-day. And I am not saying everyone should live like that, but that’s what makes me very, very different, that I have a street view, a street experience as to what happens when a man’s face gets cut – I know because I saw it when I was five years old; or when someone received a glass bottle in their eye, when someone’s throat gets cut, when someone’s stabbed. My background sells the paintings, knowing that I have had this background and that the paintings are drawn from my experiences, has helped sell the paintings again and again and again. Because not all art is about pretty pictures, for me it must show the spirit, and spiritual evolution and you must have something to evolve from.”
What has made you happiest from the feedback you have got? Is it that you need to paint these paintings and don’t care what people think or do you want them to help people in some way? How is it?
From the Gutter to the Stars is on show at Prague’s Černá labuť Gallery from August 30 until October 29.
“I think that when I was initially involved with Stuckism and even before that I didn’t give a damn about what people thought of me and my work. I just didn’t care. I had that attitude for many years but now I have come to care more about what people think about my work, because now I am not alone. I am part of a wider tradition, it is no longer just about me. I am part of a tradition of people who try to evolve and maybe evolve the hard way. This is what I have done or attempted to do. So it is very, very nice when people recognize what you are doing and why you are doing it; people who understand the journey and are able to connect with you on that level. Whether they appreciate everything, or agree with everything, is a different matter. But I think that many people who have seen my work understand what it is that I am trying to say, they understand where I am coming from and I think that is important to me –connecting with people that view the paintings. For me that is everything.”