Naive John – More Shaman Than Showman?

by Rubén P
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Naive John is a self-taught artist based in Liverpool, UK, but is originally from Scottland. He has worked in various media including 35mm film, egg tempera, oils and, more recently, acrylics.

At the heart of his studio is the computer – which he has been using to enhance his skill set since the 1990s. Taking centre stage is the digital sculpting package ZBrush. This software offers up the possibility of reinventing reality with physically accurate shadow placement and lighting. This digital element – of what is a very lengthy creative process – is largely instinctive and involves a lot of trial and error. The eventual aim is to produce a sculpted model from which he can produce drawings and paintings – an artefact which will blur the boundaries between the analogue/digital and hand made/machine made.

Naive John is collected internationally and has had his works purchased and placed in several important collections including extensive representation in that of influential British super collector David Roberts’ Art Foundation. His first exhibited painting –Yellow Envy– was bought by Scotland’s poet laureate Edwin Morgan. This painting is now in the permanent collection of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum. He is, in addition, the recipient of the Susan Cotton Travel Scholarship Award.

Hi John, thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in Liverpool?

I’m usually downstairs in the kitchen drinking coffee by about 7.45am. I e-scoot to my studio and start work around 10 and work till 8pm. Sometimes I play music – all kinds from Baroque to Techno. I work seven days a week because I want to make up for lost time – I’m one of nature’s late bloomers.

So, you’re originally from Scotland. What brought you to Liverpool?

My partner moved here for work originally and I followed on later. It’s a very creative city, cheap to live in compared to, say, London and the people are very warm and friendly.

Alright, so with that out of the way. I know you started out drawing. At what age did you start painting? And when did you start taking it seriously?

I got my first set of oil paints when I was 13 but I’d always enjoyed painting with gouache and watercolours before that. Drawing and painting always went together for me. They still do.

It was a very rough and tough Glasgow of the 1960’s that I was born into. My background was solidly working class and as a wee boy I had next to no exposure to art other than the kind which appeared in various comics I read. As such I’d no notion really of what an artist was. And despite showing some ability at school I was never encouraged to be an artist. But neither was anyone else at my school. Instead, I was expected to find myself a trade; become an electrician etc. I ended up becoming long term unemployed instead and basically drifted through life aware that I was ‘good at art’.

And then the Internet happened. Which, as it turns out, has been very good for me. And I invented Naive John. Or he invented me, who can say? At any rate, I discovered I was an artist in my 40’s. 

While we’re on the subject. You’re actually self-taught. You did go to art school though but were expelled. Can you talk to me a little bit about your experience there, and what led up to you being expelled?

At 21 I was getting by on welfare benefits and living in Cumbernauld, a small Scottish town near Glasgow.  Applying for art school was a chance for me to escape and improve my life opportunities. I didn’t have the academic requirements for art school, but I applied anyway and was accepted for Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen. I was excited, I was going to learn how to paint better!

In the 80’s, when I attended, the school style was Impressionistic – no black was allowed on the palette. It was not a supportive environment to make paintings that looked ‘refined’. ‘Putting paint on like toothpaste’ was the order of the day. I found a lot of these rules to be stifling and nonsensical to be honest. One morning I made a life drawing with my left hand (I’m right-handed) and it was judged to be better than my previous efforts – which I’d drawn with no deception in mind. I started to get depressed.

I quickly came to realise that, for me, art school was a waste of time. I’ve always been more Van Eyck than Van Gogh, it was never going to work out for me. I thought, back then, that we were being taught to rationalise our incompetence. Only now, with age, maturity, experience and (hopefully) some wisdom, can I see that I was totally correct in that assessment, ha-ha!

And so it was that I was booted out of that particular establishment – with as many qualifications as I had entered with – sometime at the end of my second year. I broke out the ivory black in celebration but continued to feel depressed.

You use regular brushes together with airbrushes. How did you get introduced to it and how long have you been using one?

I have been using the airbrush for around three or four years now. Before that I was essentially making very smooth painted surfaces using traditional brushes and oil paint. As art students we were taught that the airbrush was a commercial instrument (a legacy of the car manufacturing industry) and therefore not a proper way to make fine art.

I think I rediscovered the airbrush when I Googled ‘hyper-realism’ and saw the work of Marissa Oosterlee online. She has been instrumental in guiding me along my journey with the airbrush. People of my generation who follow contemporary art are probably surprised by how popular a tool it’s become. The airbrush is trending now.

Your attention to detail is crazy. Here’s a few keywords that come to my mind when looking at your paintings: Details, clean lines, cartoony, realistic, emotions, surgeon. How do you feel about that statement? Have you always been detail oriented? And where do you think your attention to details come from? 

My partner has joked in the past that I should be paid the hourly rate of a surgeon. So, you and he are in agreement there. Currently I think I’m more oriented towards rendering a smooth highly finished surface than painting a lot of details as such. Forms are now reduced to geometry and it’s really all about the play of light and volume. Any texture details etc. are visible only in certain tightly focused areas. The other aspect of work I put a lot of effort into is edges. Classical atelier trained artists are aware of the importance of edges and their effects when it comes to creating atmosphere in their paintings. You don’t see that kind of thing so much in contemporary art.

I work using magnification towards the end of a painting’s construction. It’s really important to me that the paintings look good up close as much as they do from a distance. Everything must be balanced.

It’s basically high-grade chaos when I journey through the actual world a lot of the time, I’m very untidy and clumsy. But in the studio, it’s a different story. Here the apparent lack of order in my life is compensated for by the canvases upon which I couldn’t be more rigorous with my attention. 

I have always loved precision – the blurs in my paintings are extremely precise blurs. I think trauma is the engine that drives my creativity. It’s the grit that got turned into an oyster. Maybe it’s like that for every artist?

Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?

No. I believe in the pursuit of excellence. Excellence is achievable through hard work and perseverance whereas perfectionism has disappointment hard wired into it and I like to leave myself room for the odd emotional burst of self-satisfaction. Only in modest amounts though, nothing too unseemly.

Can you tell me a about your creative process for your paintings, and while we’re on the subject, I would like to ask you about your creative process for your 3D sculptures as well. And lastly. What is it about 3D sculptures that made you choose that form of expression as a medium.

The computer is integral to my practice, but I have little interest in making digital art as such – it’s mostly been a means to an end; a generator of source material for drawings and paintings.

That being said, I’ve been using the computer in my art since the days of the Atari ST in the mid 80’s. Back then I would make drawings using the mouse and fill in the boundaries with colours chosen from a palette of 16. They looked like glorified Etch A Sketch doodles. I got quite good with the mouse and eventually progressed to drawing photorealistic portraits with one just as the first Wacom monitors with styluses arrived on the scene.

The introduction of high-end pcs, faster processors, styluses and, notably, software like Photoshop were game changers for me. For the next twenty years I essentially became a collage artist. I used digital software to merge layers of many sections I’d drawn or lifted from other images. Ultimately manipulating these layers into a cohesive new image. I’ve always felt an affinity with musical sampling in those respects. Next, I would print the image out to scale for use as reference material. The goal was always to invent my own reality, to fashion a world or environment and make it believable. 

That digital process, however, produced results which were ultimately disappointing to me because my knowledge of how light falls and creates shadows is very poor. Then I stumbled upon ZBrush, which is a digital sculpting software package. Here – in a virtual 3d space on my monitor – I can stretch, carve, join and otherwise endlessly manipulate virtual balls of clay or stone – whatever material my software can render. Then I can position lights around the finished object to create expressive lighting and shadows. I really like the sense of continuity this method offers; it’s known that Titian and other Venetian masters built small stage sets and used wax model figures alongside candles to aid in their Renaissance compositions.

My actual sculpting skillset is very low, but I can just about get something I can live with after the software has tormented the living daylights out of me for a few weeks. I normally don’t make any drawings; I just start playing with it till something clicks with me. This doesn’t make my life any easier but sometimes it works (eventually). Here is where I might have happy accidents. Later, during the painting stages, there’s only tragic mistakes.

The cold minimalistic clean look you achieve in your paintings looks nuts 🔥 Can you talk about your approach to colour?

Perhaps, at this juncture, I should point out that my paintings don’t reproduce well, especially on monitors. I use a lot of scumbling and glazing to create the illusion of depth and volume and these subtle effects are lost in reproduction. On more than one occasion I’ve heard people swear when they’ve seen one of my paintings for the first time in real life. That’s my benchmark for success, ha-ha!

Basically, I came to the conclusion very early on that – if I wanted to stand out as an artist – I should make sure that my drawing and painting skills could rival a computer’s digital renderings. This aim was totally in keeping with my previous goal; that I could make a painting that didn’t look painted. I’ve never shown much interest in loosening up. The next thing to stress is that, for me, technique matters less than the ability to judge pictorial values and replicate those with pigments. It’s all about seeing. The more subtleties I can see and reproduce, the better my painting efforts. 

My preferred methodology is to paint indirectly in layers. I aim for translucency therefore each layer is semi-transparent and is affected by what lies underneath. This means that I must be able to predict what colour will occur when two or more colours overlap. This is essentially the so-called Flemish technique as practiced by some Old Masters. With this technique a great range of subtle optical effects are achievable. It’s possible to make colours appear to glow and achieve sfumato type effects amongst other things. However, everything shows – including mistakes, so making these paintings is always a high-wire balancing act for me. Each one requires an unreasonable amount of concentration to produce but there are emotional rewards to be had along the way as I struggle with it. And it’s always a struggle. I don’t trust things that come too easy.

Timewise these paintings are very expensive to make despite being stripped down in terms of complexity compared to earlier work like, say, Strange Attractors (2015). The compositions have grown much simpler as my self-confidence has grown. By way of contrast the precision in these paintings is off the scale by comparison to anything I’ve ever done previously. In the past I think I employed a lot of details and visual props to act as a distraction. Maybe I was nervous that a viewer would rest their critical eyes on some area of the painting and pick it apart! Throw some more detail in… And so it went until comparatively recently.  

What is it about cartoons that resonates with you? And while we’re on the topic who are the protagonists in your paintings?

Cartoons are the first examples of art I can remember seeing, they were on my toys and television screen. I love the expressiveness of old rubber hose style cartoons and vintage stop frame animations too. The protagonists? Keywords are cypher, disinformation, self-portraiture, consciousness, avatars, history and Zelig.

The titles of your paintings are often full sentences. For example: “Paris, 1937. And a stint in prison. Here we are taught how to smoke by none other than Jean Genet”. Tell me a little bit about how you come up with title names.

They exist explicitly to guide the viewer down a rabbit hole. They’re as important as the image, performing as counterpoint does in music.

I think daydreaming is a very important part of my process; the most satisfying titles pop into my head when I’m not actively looking for one. 

Alright John. So, your nickname, or artist name is as we know, Naive John. How did you get that name?

I can, effectively, divide my life into two parts; pre and post Naive John.
In my 30’s, I suffered a nervous breakdown and was suicidal. I ended up being an outpatient in various hospitals for about 7 years. Things were not great. I didn’t make any art at all during this period.

Eventually I found myself self-medicating with psychedelics and the accompanying experiences literally changed my mind. It’s funny because I used to tell my friends that I was ‘playing with the plasticine’ when I found myself in one of those ideal psychic states. I had no idea about neuroplasticity and the brain until many years later.

That was the end of a journey which had taken many years – a whole lifetime led up to that transformation happening. It was tortuous but I crossed the desert and came out the other side ready to make ‘the great work’. I’ve described it to people as being reborn but without the religious aspects. Or the depression, it had disappeared.

It was this unconscious process of self-actualising that produced Naive John; a lie that tells the truth. He started off as a vague notion in a psychedelic daydream. Someone who lived an enchanted life and who could make things happen. Someone who knows that magic and art are the same thing. I’m very lucky he showed up.

Appreciate your honesty… You describe yourself as a “Purveyor of Absurdism for a dumbed down world.” Could you explain that to me?

In the 1930’s French Philosopher Albert Camus states that it’s futile to search for meaning or God in this incomprehensible universe. Ergo to look for meaning is absurd; there’s no higher purpose. Now I don’t necessarily share that philosophical viewpoint, but it has been very influential on Western thinking and the arts in particular. My personal interpretation of Camus’ words is to regard them as a caution to not take life, myself or anything I do too seriously, it’s a cosmic joke. Not, of course, an easy thing to do in practice. For role models I researched court jesters and The Fool in Tarot cards.   

When it comes to art, I don’t do propaganda, I do ridiculous. I’ve never wanted to make didactic work, I have no moral, social or political message to promote. I want to connect with the viewer and give them a very particular feeling not a message or a lesson.                     

Many of the artists I know like to relive their student days and have critiques, group meetings, write about academic theory etc… I guess many of them would consider themselves ‘serious artists’. I’ve never really wanted to belong to anything and prefer being independent of studio groups. 

Then, there was, of course, that nervous breakdown I spoke of earlier. The fallout – mentally and emotionally – from that culminated in me losing my sense of self-worth and wanting to be dead. Surviving and battling through it was the ultimate deconstruction and reconstruction – an experience that was with hindsight one which changed my perspective profoundly. My consciousness expanded, I felt – and still feel – plugged in to something. It became clearer what kind of art I wanted to make, and it would be playful and soft.

Alas, I’m not qualified to know if the world is any dumber than it’s ever been, but the words look very fetching written on my business cards.

So, you actually only just started exhibiting your work recently, with your first solo show at “Hello”, as Seasons LA. Yet you have some pieces in very good collections including The Hunterian Museum, Glasgow and The David Roberts Art Foundation (DRAF). I am super curious to know about your journey. Why did you only just start exhibiting?

I spent the first half of my life finding out who I was. I wasn’t the most together of people – I had mental health issues, there was substance abuse etc. For a short particularly miserable period of my life I was homeless. I rarely had the mental peace to apply myself to art, so I worked infrequently – though obsessively when I did. Most of those works are long gone. I destroyed or lost most of it, but some made it into collections. I’ve always had collectors, both great and small. 

Prior to Naive John I think I was in 4 shows. I just never enjoyed it. There’s a vulnerability that comes with putting yourself on display that I wasn’t comfortable with at that time. 

Then the Internet happened and with it the eventual appearance online of my paintings. An early website generated interest in my work. One such interested party was David Roberts – who is a very influential UK contemporary art collector – and he bought everything I produced for the next ten years or so. His patronage meant that I never had to exhibit or hustle for cash. It was perfect for me. Naive John was a quiet success and that’s how I liked it. None of the work produced then has ever been shown.

Fast forward. We’re in Liverpool, England and now I’ve been given a second bite at the cherry. Much of that is down to the arrival of Instagram. Instagram presented me with a chance to reach a far broader audience than a gallery could provide. And I didn’t need to leave my studio or spend time networking. The feedback was encouraging. Exposure on that platform led to show invitations etc. and brough me to the attention of Guy Rusha from Seasons LA gallery who offered me a solo show and now represents me. 

The ‘Hello’ show was a great success and I enjoyed that experience. I’ve agreed to do more shows, but they will be comparatively rare events due to the development time that is required to make the work. 

That’s a dope story… Ok, so even though you’re self-taught, you’re a trained art historian. How long have you been deep diving and soaking up art knowledge?

I’m a very knowledge hungry type of person. I had read books like Max Doerner’s famous The Materials of the Artist before I’d even attended art school – obscure recipes for varnishes and such like, as well as instructions on reputed old master painting processes. This technical stuff was complimented simultaneously by a growing interest in art history. I wanted to know more about the context of why and how things were created. To understand the arguments, to read the manifestos and ultimately to have confidence in my own ideas about art. 

I’ve heard that you’re interested in metaphysical idealism. Can you talk to me a little bit about that. Break it down for me.

Matter is merely a representation or appearance of what is, in and of itself, mental processes, the extrinsic appearance of thoughts. Put simply, reality is an idea in the mind rather than an independent, objective thing ‘out there’.

This is a very old idea and has its variants in Hinduism, Maya, simulation theory, Buddhist mind at large etc. Its principal spokesperson is Bernardo Kastrup – a Dutch computer scientist and philosopher. Amongst other things his interpretation of reality removes the so-called ‘hard problem’ when it comes to our understanding of consciousness and how it arises from apparent dead matter.

The philosophical ideas he proposes really resonate with me. I feel very connected to things and his nonmaterialist theories about universal mind make a lot of sense to me. I wouldn’t say these ideas have influenced me as an artist, they’re more like an affirmation to keep doing what I’m doing because I see echoes of these ideas in my own world view and work.

Alright. Another one of your interests is Western magic. I’m super curious about that as well. Could you break that down for me too?

There is magic in the world and artists are its alchemists. As above, so below; quantum entanglement; everything is connected. We are all one. The great comics writer Alan Moore believes that it’s the artist’s job to manipulate symbols in order to alter the viewer’s consciousness. To make art one must produce something from nothing; make manifest something which previously only existed in mind. I would define magic as a technique for bringing about change in the physical world through the force of one’s will. Naive John springs (in) to mind.

I practiced Zazen meditation for a while but it’s traditions were too ‘other’ and esoteric for my Western mind to really grasp. One night I watched Netflix’s The Midnight Gospel, a fantastic podcast-based cartoon featuring a space caster (Duncan Trussell) who ‘traverses trippy worlds inside his universe simulator, exploring existential questions about life, death and everything in between’. This particular episode featured Damien Echols. Echols is an American writer, best known as one of the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers convicted of a triple murder. He spent 18 years on death row before being released and survived in prison through what he describes as the spiritual practice of High Magick. He’s a remarkable man and appears to be entirely sane and reasonable especially given the circumstances of his incarceration. I watched interviews with him and realised that a lot of my experiences with altered states of consciousness were like his occult experiences. Magick gives you access to the best kind of plasticine to play with.

Alright John, is there anything else about you that might surprise our readers?

My hands shake very badly apart from when I work. You’d never believe I could make those paintings if you saw them. I haven’t got much patience. I have to work at it.

What motivates and inspires you?

Existence.

Who’s your favourite artist(s) and why? 

Glenn Brown. He quietly produces visually breath taking and conceptually clever pieces – which is what I want from visual art. 

What’s your favourite movie(s) and why?

This one because I appear to be its star! (I know I’m not).

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