|The Islander by John Stark -Part of his show Apiculture starting this week|
I don’t believe in luck, or fate. Which is helpful for a fiction writer, because attributing any plot twist in a story to coincidence or kismet is usually seen as a cheap shot. Audiences want explanations, we are told: to be able to perceive cause and effect behind a series of encounters and actions. The cliché ‘you couldn’t write it’ takes on a warning tone – you couldn’t write it because nobody would accept it.
So, when a passing pedestrian borrowed a cigarette from me, as I guiltily skipped a tour of ‘first Thursdays’ (the monthly night when galleries in East London kick off their new exhibitions), it was amusing to find out that he was in fact an artist, working hard on preparing his show for the very next ‘first Thursday’.
When I found out half a conversation later that he had shared a studio for two years with one of my very favourite artists, Tessa Farmer, it seemed lucky indeed that we had been given this chance to chat. He is creating art driven by myth (a key theme in my reading and writing), in particular his latest series based around bee keepers. How funny, I said. I live in a building decorated with a plaster façade of bee hives…
So it went on. By another stroke of luck, you might think, I had just posted a tiny piece of fiction on my blog inspired by a piece of art, and my new acquaintance, John Stark, liked it. Since then I have visited his studio in Hackney and seen for myself the paintings of serene, hooded bee keepers in their colour-soaked pseudo-utopian landscapes. I have also written pieces in response to them, to go into John Stark’s exhibition catalogue to complement the images. As a writer this is wonderful opportunity.
Coincidences or fate aside, I found the worlds in John’s paintings very easy to engage with imaginatively. They lie somewhere between reality and fantasy. They are not pure folklore but there is folklore in there; hints of myths without explanations, both hope and fear lurking in landscapes that are rich and peaceful and yet sinister in their stillness. They reminded me of worlds created in words that I have fallen in love with – those of Margo Lanagan, Mervyn Peake, Margaret Atwood or Angela Carter.
I am not a reader of sci-fi or fantasy genres per se, but I love fiction that moves far enough outside of the everyday to release me from the real world, yet keeps my human concerns and tastes alive within it. John’s paintings are transfixing in the same way as, say, Angela Carter ‘s short story the Erl-King. We recognise the elements of human history, culture, myth and desire, yet they are made strange to us. We find ourselves asking questions about the elements of the story or painting, all the time knowing that our sub-conscious has the answers.
So, if you are in London, I urge you to visit John Stark’s exhibition Apiculture at the Charlie Smith Gallery in Old Street from Thursday 6th October. (If not, take a tour online at www.johnstarkgallery.co.uk.) In a world where plots are stranger than fiction, who knows what will happen if you come along?