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JKB Fletcher

JKB Fletcher artist talks to Nalini Haynes of Dark Matter.  The interview seems to start abruptly because the dictaphone died so the interview had to start again.

Fletch with Luke Cornish (ELK)
Fletch with Luke Cornish (ELK)

Hi Fletch, thanks for talking to Dark Matter.  

The current artwork is a commission for a band called Artist Proof. They’re performing at the Fringe Festival on the 2nd and 9th of October. It’s called Artist for Artist Proof and they’ve commissioned 4 or 5 artists, myself and Luke Cornish from Metro Gallery and another one of my friends called Rehgan De Mather from my studio to build a creative piece of work either based on their whole message, the artist in particular or a particular song.

Mine is about a particular song. There’s this guy (John Galliano) who’s this huge fashion guru, he’s a big deal anyway. He said some racial things, some anti-Semitic things, and it’s basically killed his career. That’s what this piece is about. They want me to literally reference the lyrics. They mention crowns, falling,  and blood on the hands. So that is what the work is about. It’s a Wonder Woman figure holding her head in her bloody hands and red paint dribbling from the star on her forehead. Also her hair falling is supposed to be representing the fall from grace. You  could read it that way, but at the same time the work needs to be my work. They were very strict about that, that I could display it with my collection. That was one of the stipulations. Which I think is quite good. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see this, because these guys are going to be literally singing in this room around this artwork. I think there’s time periods devoted to viewing the art work. I believe there’s an artist creating a piece there as well. It seems interesting, yeah. Artists for Artist Proof. There’s a little plug for that.

It’s the first time I’ve painted a female superhero on a female.  It’s one of the more intimate pieces. Everything’s out of focus
except the eye. I don’t know if it’s supposed to look a bit sympathetic towards him. I think it’s supposed to be like ‘fuck! I totally ballsed up here!’ You know what I mean? For want of a better description.

the current project
the current project

in the beginning
How did you get started? When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?

There were no defining moments. It was an easy, natural process for me to fall into. I was always relatively capable with a pencil
and paintbrush. It was a little bit easier for me than most of the kids at school. My mum taught us all to respect our talents. My
dad had a strict work ethic. It took me a bit of time to catch up to that work ethic; the ‘respect the talents’ I could understand.
So it was a natural process for me. I finished school. The next step was college. I was good at painting, so I thought I’d give
that a go. I went from there to university and just kept going. It was a natural process. During the times of college and school it
seemed like lots of forms and tests, ‘will you qualify for this?’ It seemed like a hard struggle at the time but in hindsight it was
quite an easy process.

You said your artwork has evolved over time.

There were some rules that were stipulated very early on. With my end of year college show, that’s like a display of work that I’d done over the few years that I’d been there, it was very haphazard.  Mismatched. It was a bit of an eyesore. Lot’s going on, all over the place. It could have been 20 different artists’ work all on display. There was no obvious individual creator, or it didn’t appear  that there was. It was obvious I’d just had a dabble at everything and not really found anywhere to go. But I had. In that show there was one painting of a couple of skaters out of a magazine I used to buy every now and again. I was into skating at the time. I painted it a couple of weeks before the show. That was when I realised that I’ve got to create paintings that I am interested in outside of art. It was the things I was interested in life and my usual everyday entertainment as opposed to my artwork. I couldn’t create from my passion for artwork, I had to create from my passion for other external sources and express that through my artwork. It became obvious then that artwork was a way for me to visually communicate as opposed to trying to create a thing from studying artwork. So instead of manipulating other people’s creations I’d found a way to express myself through a creation. The work other artists had done became a new way for me to view them or the way they saw the world. It kind of opened up from there. I’d found a way to use it as a visual voice, so from then on I knew I had to paint things I was interested in outside of my interest in artwork.

Then the other stipulation was that I decided to make all paintings the same sized canvas. I’d already decided at this point that I was doing drawing and painting for my degree. All paintings the same size would at least leave some kind of uniformity and that meant I could paint whatever I wanted without worrying about it being a big old mess at the degree show, like it was at college. If you’d seen it you would have thought ‘Poor kid, he’s not going to do anything with this.’

From there it was relatively straight forward. I’d started to paint flesh of friends and girlfriends and magazines. I’d paint folds of skin and I really enjoyed painting to a technically competent level. I enjoyed pushing my talent for copying as far as I could. And that lead me down the photo-realistic path. I liked taking pictures of flesh because, quite simply, other people liked it and were saying ‘nice work’. I kinda like that feeling, so I explored that avenue a bit more and started painting flesh a bit more. It was easy for people to relate to. I could relate to it. It was easy to build sensuality and intimacy in the painting. I could paint something that was photo-realistic, technically competent and still be very ambiguous and hard to pick out. I like it when it’s not necessarily obvious. When people are kinda like ‘I recognise it, but I don’t’. I quite like that.

That’s how the ‘In the Flesh’ series got started. I got influenced by someone called Marilyn Minter, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her work. She does fleshy stuff too, like eyelids and stuff hugely covered in glitter and heavy makeup and there are bubbles,  water, mud… it’s sounds crazy but beautiful photo realism painting.  After Marilyn Minters influence I started to use props instead of just having the flesh raw. I started to introduce other things onto the flesh like oil, glitter, what have you. I did that for a while. But just before that started I’d been paralleling the flesh, hanging it next to other things that were interesting me. Flesh was like a  key to make it relatable to the viewer, anyone could relate to flesh. Then you hang these inanimate objects next to it. I was painting BMXs, toys, dice… it was the toys in particular that I really enjoyed. There were a few levels to it, one was what these toys represented to the children. That’s what led to the hero face project. I started to see heroes as little teachers or models. That’s when it became fascinating to me. I’d painted toys for a while but soon started to just use the symbols, the logos, the masks and the familiar faces and I started to paint them onto every advert that I’d see, from all these magazines all over the place and it became the ‘hero face project’. It was just a bit of fun. I’d paint up a model, or a famous personality out of a magazine, literally just paint over their face and then stick it in a cheap frame from a $2 shop and hang them up around shopping centres and stuff. There were a few bus stops that were subject to my creativity. I’d get great satisfaction from seeing people sat next to a huge poster I’ve altered,
completely oblivious to the fact that Spiderman is washing his hair with shampoo. It’s quite amusing.

That’s when the Hero Face project started to kick off.  I was painting them everywhere so it was no surprise when I decided to take the Hero Face project and merge it with the ‘in the flesh’ project. So I started painting the heroes over the top of the models I photographed. I had this personal, sensual, relatable thing with the fleshy paintings. You could say spiritual; it’s a mythology almost. But once I combined the two together, that’s when I started thinking about the archetypes and stuff. You’re playing off the idea of aspiration and improvement and that was quite fun territory to be playing in, particularly because it started off as role models for children, quite innocently. Not that it is contrived or anything. But it started off very simplistic. The Hero Face project initially wasn’t saying this so much but asking ‘were these really the people you want to look up to?’ That was a question you could apply to the work. If I’ve got this model who is dressed up in all these clothes and she looks like this, is that necessarily something to aspire to?

Then you put someone we’re told we’re supposed to aspire to, has got good morals, values, like Spiderman or Superman and you paint a model up in it, then that question is kind of asked twice. Or it could be a joke at the same time. It’s like she’s painted up like Wolverine, that doesn’t make any sense. But you can either make Wolverine seem ridiculous or, from a more philosophical view, you ask ‘Is this someone I can look up to? Is this someone I necessarily want to be like at all? Why the hell does Estee Lauder think I want to be like this person?’ So it was that whole play, then bringing it over to the sensual fleshy paintings. It’s more questions I’m  asking. I’m not making statements. It’s really interesting territory to play in. The beautiful thing about it is I don’t necessarily know what’s going on, I’m learning about it just as much as all of you guys who are following this. I’m happy to see where this is taking me.
You’ve come from Scotland and been to San Diego and San Francisco before moving to Australia.

How did all this travel happen?

That’s a girl you’ve got to blame for that.

But it wasn’t a girl who got you to San Diego was it? 

No. I was on exchange at uni. I actually wanted to go to Italy.  At the time I was cutting up pornographic magazines and referencing porn and plastic surgery with car design. That was Fletch’s studio here in Melbourne the area my work was in. My professor was like, ‘you don’t want to go to Italy, you want to go to California. This is where they celebrate this stuff a little more, they seem more open to it than Italy.’ I think it was just a fantasy of an art student to explore that European historical Italian heritage that has a long rich artistic history. But I went to San Diego California on the prof ’s advice.

What was interesting about San Diego was that my work got worse. Particularly my painting ability but I think that was because I spent a lot of time enjoying San Diego instead of honing my art. The good news about all that was I met Tianna over there. She came back to the UK with me for about a year. And then we were staying in this place called Arbroath which is a beautiful fishing village down the road from Dundee where I was studying. I needed to finish my studies and get my year over and done with. Get my degree and then I was free to do my thing.

So the deal was I’d finish my studies then we’d go to Australia so she could finish her studies. She was well and truly too bored and cold over there. It’s a beautiful village but there really isn’t much to do. The big deal was the comparison. When I came to Melbourne I could really see why she thought Arbroath had nothing. It’s beautiful, it’s quaint, and they’ve got some lovely scenery and fish and chip shops and stuff, but I’ve come to Melbourne and there’s this massive injection of cultures and food and beautiful city that massively supports its arts. I came from a place called Reddich, which is a small working class town south of Birmingham in the Midlands. Dundee looked amazing to me. This was brilliant, why would you want to go anywhere else? Then I came to Melbourne.

Fletch's studio in Melbourne
Fletch’s studio in Melbourne

So I came over here on Australia Day 2007. I’ve been back home for a few months here and there to visit family and friends. That’s the hardest thing about moving anywhere is leaving family and friends behind. But it’s a beautiful place to live. I’ve been here for four and a half years now, so it had to have been pretty good.

So have you seen much of Australia apart from this little room?

Pretty much from 7 to 7 on a daily basis here. My first solo show here in Australia, at Carbon Black Gallery, was where I showed my ‘In the Flesh’ pieces. In between Carbon Black and my show at a gallery called FortyFive Downstairs, I proposed my idea of my fleshy works going into FortyFive Downstairs. The woman there, Martina Copley, beautiful woman, really good at her job. She’s so much help. Martina says to me ‘It’s great, love your work. It’s brilliant. Looking forward to seeing progress. We’ll put on a show in May of next year.’ So I started creating works but in between I started to combine the fleshy works and the superhero works. And my work’s just changed all of a sudden.  Anyway, luckily, she was happy with the new paintings the ‘Dirty Faces’ series. Ever since my show at FortyFive I’ve pretty much been grounded to my studio. My ‘hero face project’ has taken off, and ‘Dirty Faces’ has gone crazy. I’m here from 7 till 7.

Before then I got to see a bit more of Australia. Me and my girlfriend did a drive up the east coast of Australia from Melbourne to Cape Tribulation, past Cairns. That was fantastic. I definitely recommend it to everyone.

San Diego again? 

You went to San Diego before you started your superhero project. Have you thought about going back to ComiCon with your superhero project?

I’ve wondered about how well my work fits into that scene. I could see it being perceived as not staying true to the original  characters.

Not canon.

Canon? Is that the term?

That’s the term! 

I’d like to, I’d like to see how it works with the faithfuls, the real experts in the area. It’s funny, I was listening to ‘the Partially Examined Life’. It’s this 3 university lecturers getting together once every month on Skype just talking about a particular reading. One of the guys was talking about heroes. He was saying it’s quite interesting in how it’s developed. He’s only just started reading comics and he’s in his early 40s. He’s tracked it back and he’s started reading the first DC comics back in the 40s and Marvel in the 60s. These things were literally written for children. The influences are from philosophical backgrounds but the actual writing and publication is for children. But nowadays you have The Watchmen. I’ve got this 4 hour edition. It’s cracking. I really enjoyed that actually. There’s some really hardcore philosophical writers, really good at their craft, putting into this work. It’s funny where it’s come from and developed into this. I think it might be because these people have grown up with it and brought their heroes with them. You justify it and make it relate to yourself. That’s what’s great about any archetypal symbol like a hero. You can literally adapt it. That’s why it works so well with the flesh and the posters and stuff.

Like rose-tinted glasses in the sense that you can put them on and change the mood. I’m saying yes, I would like to give it a go
and see how it works over there.

The different reactions would be interesting. 

Absolutely, yes. I’ve had reactions to the work. I think I mentioned in the lecture about the rampant feminist who smashed my work?

I don’t think I remember that.

art questions culture

Back in university there was a project I did on that car design, plastic surgery and pornography intermingling. There were some collages of what looked like females having sexual intercourse with cars. It sounds very crude.

And yet what do car magazines and porno magazines do? 

Exactly. That was the kind of avenue I was exploiting I suppose. It was quite interesting how well these things fit together. There was a car interior and this woman straddling over this work perfectly. It was a nice composition, like they were made for each other. It was quite interesting. There were a few raised eyebrows. One of the days was a workshop, we had to put together a frame. You had to bring work on paper, and I didn’t have anything other than these collages. It was on my desk. I came in the next day and  somebody smashed it on the floor. So someone was disgusted by it. Which is quite ironic considering it was a statement about what they were probably fighting for. It was a good lesson in how thought provoking and how strong an impact this can have on people. It was a good lesson to learn.

It would be really interesting to see how the hard core comic book fans would react to the paintings or posters. So far I’ve been pleased with the fact that it’s not been used as a kiddie avenue. Obviously there are some very strong psychological issues in the work that really gets some nice messages across. One of the reasons I enjoyed The Watchmen are there are some really interesting philosophies on morality, how somebody can connect with day to day life if they were such an individual or felt they had such a  responsibility. I quite like that. I get the impression you didn’t really enjoy The Watchmen?

I found The Watchmen was really violent and really heavy but then I look at the depth as well.

It was, it was quite a trawl to get through. I quite like that heavy, dark, when a film kinda leaves me exhausted. I enjoy the effort.
It’s rewarding. Rather than all these Hollywood movies that are all just the same. I’m very much for the psychological struggle and battle. I think a superhero is just an amplification of somebody who feels they’ve got a responsibility to do a particular thing. It amplifies that issue in life, and the way that the different heroes respond to it. I see Spiderman as he’s got a job that he doesn’t really
want to do, you know? Hence his slogan: ‘Great power, great responsibility.’ Then there’s the archetype of the Seer. Eastern traditions might call it a Reeshi, who can predict or see how things might be. They can see the rhythms, the dance, and how
it might all turn out. That is how I see Dr Manhattan. He just kinda took a back seat. If you can see how it would all work out, I can see how you could get detached. If you can see so openly, then why would you even bother participating?

Getting too bombarded with the possibilities.

Yeah. He kind of detached. He just wanted to watch. That’s like the great Seers. You’ve obviously got the redeemer in Superman, the Jesus Christ figure. That’s what he represents. He comes from a higher place, no parents ect… It seems that it’s just the same story told over and over again, you just change the name of the character. And Batman. I’m sure it’s not healthy but he’s driven by this unanswered, unsatisfied need for revenge on his parents’ death. He’s just living off revenge and that’s really unhealthy shit, you can’t keep living like that or you might end up dressing in leather and a cape if you’re not careful.

Being a millionaire helps.

Or a billionaire, they moved him up a notch now I think. Billionaire Bruce Wayne. So that psychological issue provides a lot of ground for me. Regarding my work, even particular posters have particular heroes now. They’ve got to best represent their hero or particular struggle. With the Hero Face project, I’ll paint a particular model to represent a particular thing. But the oil painting, I’ve got to have a model who works best with the Hero Face project. So I’ll look through a magazine and find a model who will best represent Wolverine. Wolverine is lonely, can’t fit anywhere. He’s a bit of a sulky kid, he’s got a bit of that attitude. The rest of the time he’s just a badass. I find a model that best represents those images I’ve found in mags. So the media itself is in charge of the models, the poses, the main piece of it.

the future
Where do you think you’re going from here?

That’s a good question. The Gallery keeps asking me that. I’m very interested in a cross-culture thing. I’ve noticed that even though Western cultures have been powerhouses in terms of superheroes, but there are superheroes all over the world in different cultures, so I’ve been doing a bit of research into that. Also the tradition of painting on the skin in other cultures, whether it’s Henna, Maori, Aborigines, Native American, there’s a rich history. There are a few exceptions where it’s completely not allowed, it’s against the rules to be painted on the skin. I’m thinking about introducing this into the work. My last Captain America was an Indian. I think it worked really well, I liked that intermingling of the cultures.

That says more, doesn’t it? Is there a chance we’re going to see a Monkey or a Pigsy?

I don’t know, I’ll keep you posted. I think it’s important that it represents people as opposed to a particular nation or culture. I think it’s people.

Do you think you’d reverse it? Maybe do a geisha on a male or something like that?

I’ve tried painting the males as heroes. With the Flesh project I painted a few males. It worked in the flesh, it was fine because it was just flesh, different lines. But when I started painting heroes on them, it ended up looking like a cross-dressing thing. Even though it looked interesting, it wasn’t what I was looking for. It goes to a different place.  Altogether. Completely, yeah. So I ended up doing the women because that ended up best representing people. If I could find something that worked, if I could find a cultural  reference and it worked on a fella, I’d try it. But most of the time it just ends up looking like a transvestite-y type thing or like I’m trying to recreate that particular hero, which isn’t quite what I’m looking for.

I’m happy with the way things are going. The Hero Face project is on the back burner because of all the oil paintings, so I’m looking forward to getting back to this. But at the minute I’m just painting hardcore and seeing where it’s going.

graffiti as art 

This Hero Face project – is that like street art? 

Yes, it is. That’s the best way to describe it. It’s art on the streets.  My favourite thing about it is the interaction with the local community. It’s a bit of a cry for attention I guess. But that’s one of the prerequisites for any art. But it’s the way you participate that’s really interesting. You are interacting with your city by creating visual stimulus. Even if just one or two people stop and have a look and notice, then move on. It’s kind of cool. There’s something really nice about that. It’s not in a gallery so it’s not expected. You kind of create a visual space for somebody without it being expected. At the same time it’s one of the oldest traditions in the book. Cavemen painting on cave walls is where it all kicks off. It’s just about decorating your space. If you’re a visual creator it’s only natural you’re going to want to decorate your space.

Banksy takes photos of his work. Have you taken photos of anyone interacting with your work?

Yeah. With the Hero Face project, the stuff goes into frames in shopping centres and they literally last hours. With the exception of one or two that have lasted a few months, because they think they’re part of the decoration of the shop, so it just sits there, minding its own business, which is kinda nice. But usually they last just a few hours, so I literally take pictures of everything in every situation, so I have a record. There is some ownership there. You’re still attached to the work, cos it’s your creation. Sometimes you’re reluctant. You’ve even got favourite pieces and you put it up on the wall and it’s a bit of a shame that this is going. I do it with my paintings as well, I hang them in the gallery and secretly I’m hoping nobody buys it so I get it back. That kind of stuff is weird. It only happens with a few pieces.

Most of the time I’m happy for everything to just go. They go up on the streets, they’re free for whoever to take. They’re kind of like gifts. I know they’re not going to be there permanently. So taking pictures is a way of keeping hold of them. It’s important I think to keep a record of them.

Absolutely. Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.

My pleasure.

Follow Fletch on his website, on Facebook, Google Plus and twitter.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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