The Untitled Magazine caught up with artist John Krausman Lark about his artwork and new virtual exhibition presented by The Untitled Space from February 9th – April 30th, 2021. Lark is a representational painter from Lansing, Michigan who creates oil on canvas paintings that depict interactions between figures and environments. In 2012 he received an MFA from New York Academy of Art. His interest in art dates back to his childhood years in Michigan. Lark graduated with a BFA, Cum Laude, in 2005 from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design where his concentration was in figure painting and printmaking. He later studied abroad in Florence, Italy where his appreciation for Renaissance and Baroque periods blossomed. His work has been featured in a number of exhibitions and will be featured in a solo show at The Untitled Space this July. Check out our exclusive interview with the artist below.
Tell us about your painting, where do you find your inspiration?
I make abstracted, representational–usually figurative–oil paintings on canvas that depict interactions between figures and environments. Within those fairly loose parameters, there are a lot of opportunities to explore a wide range of ideas. I like that. I don’t want to get bogged down in one particular style or too narrow a theme or concept. This way of thinking keeps me connected to my surroundings and focused on interpreting experiences that may be able to benefit my work. Each work is an attempt to put down the sum of those experiences to try to better understand my relationship to the human condition. Some paintings are pieces of, or studies for, parts of larger paintings that I am planning. The major themes of my work deal with the gap between expectation and reality, the attempt to find truth in repeated memories, the formative effects of vulnerability and humiliation, and the desire to project control over those feelings and experiences.
I am always looking for inspiration because I am always thinking about my next painting, what to paint, how to paint it, and how it should feel. My surroundings provide a ton of information and inspiration–urban, suburban, and rural, colors, the time of day, lighting and space–and when explored they often generate a provocative feeling. I am hyper-aware of these things and try not to miss them as I complete my daily routines. Also the media, social and traditional, is always available and always attracting my attention. I look for the same triggers in the media as I do in nature and then ask myself why and how these occurrences are able to elicit a reaction from me and then I look to incorporate those triggers into my work.
What draws you to oil painting specifically over other mediums?
Oil painting is versatile. It can be made to look and feel like any other two-dimensional medium. It can look wet, dry, sculptural, rigid, or soft. There are endless means of application, endless ways it can become representational, and has a tremendous range of textures and colors. I can be spontaneous or considered and still produce completely unpredictable outcomes. Oil painting requires a nimble hand that can adapt as the surface of the painting changes, which keeps the work fresh and interesting or insanely frustrating. Oil is also resilient and has been around for hundreds of years. When I paint with oil I feel connected to artists of the past and imagine them confronting the same painterly issues I deal with, which gives a sense of camaraderie. Also, knowing how well the medium holds up, it’s exciting to think there is potential for my work to have a relationship with artists in the future.
What artists have influenced your work and why?
I am always looking for work that can relocate me, take me away from where I am literally and place me in a different space, real or imagined, past or future. There should be an atmosphere that is otherworldly where an artist’s manufactured world is so compelling it sucks you in. It happens in music and in film, where a guitar tone or auteur can totally change your mood and bring you to exactly the space, time, and atmosphere they have created. David Lynch is the king of creating his own worlds in film, with his own mysterious laws and tons of transformative spaces. I am drawn into these unfamiliar places and can experience what his characters are experiencing and I am transplanted. I think that the old idea of entertainment as escapism, especially now with everyone trapped in their homes, is still incredibly important for art. So when I look at which painters are successful I think about those who are able to create their own comprehensive and believable realities that I can be absorbed into. All the great painters do this, Richard Diebenkorn comes to mind, Vuillard too. More contemporarily, two shows that really stand out in my head are Michael Borremans’ show, The Devil’s Dress and Neo Rauch’s, At The Well. Borremans’ show felt so still and calm, yet had this repressed, burning, red-hot tension under the surface. The space really brought me into his head. Similarly with At The Well, it was this carnival of mythology, where consecrated illustrations of an unknown religion drew me in and made me a believer. I remembered being floored by the way I became transplanted into their worlds. I think Natalie Frank’s paintings do this and Kyle Staver, too.
Your work is very mysterious with many of the faces unrecognizable or figures partially rendered, what inspires the subtle and other subversive imagery and your choices of what to reveal or conceal?
It makes the spaces more believable. It’s like in a horror film when you finally see the thing that you’re supposed to be frightened by and your brain immediately works to expose its absurdity and you become way less terrified. These films are most terrifying leading up to this reveal. I don’t want to have too much specificity. I like to let the viewer imagine what they fear or love and make sure there is room for them to insert those things, and themselves, into the work, allowing them to create their own understanding and meaning and develop their own relationship to it. For this reason too, I keep the characters and spaces floating, fragmented or incomplete. Not only does that allow room for the viewer to become a part of the work, but it also addresses the gap between expectation and reality; people, places and things aren’t always put together that well. If the imagery is subversive, it is about widening constraints to allow for additional perspectives and also about pushing ideas of what is comfortable. When I am experiencing art I don’t always want to be transported somewhere safe. It’s important for me to take my viewer someplace exciting or unexpected, and for that place to be believable. To have authenticity, the work can’t look overly produced or slick. That kills the atmosphere.
Tell us about the characters we see in your work, are they painted from photos or live models? Are they people you personally know or sourced imagery?
The characters come from a variety of sources, random photos I’ve taken, photo shoots, found images, screenshots, film and pornography stills, and my imagination. I am always on the lookout for reference material to build my paintings and create my characters. Often, the characters are repeated or made of repeated images. For me, this is about the passing of time and how repetitive actions collectively make up who we are and tell the story of how we got to where we are. The sources and characters are all reinterpreted through my head and hand. In this way, they are all somewhat reflective of myself. I read this interview with Mike Kelley, where he is discussing one of his performance pieces. He talks about his characters appearing to be engaged in dialectic dialogue, but he realizes that this is actually false dialogue, because he wrote all of the characters’ words. He was actually splitting his own thoughts into different voices. He went on to say that all novelistic writing was like this. I find that really interesting and also true of my work as well. I inhabit all the characters in my paintings and any interaction that takes place is just an illustration of my own internal narrative.
You describe your work as depicting the interaction between figures and environments, what sort of environments inspire your paintings and are they places you have personally visited or where are the references from?
I try to carefully consider my surroundings and dig for any potential significance. I’m open to making paintings based on any environment that is interesting. In my paintings, I try to make my environments imprecise but familiar, with a little mystery. One of the most recurring settings in my work is the suburbs, where in a way homes become characters. I think they arrive in my work because that is the setting of my childhood: homes built in rows, by the same builder, roughly the same size, in a preordained matrix. As a kid I spent a lot of time at home, involved with my imagination. I remember going into other houses for the first time that were, architecturally, nearly identical to mine. However, the insides were decorated differently or smelled differently or were painted differently or had a different general anxiety, and this was a strange revelation to me. There must have been a part of me that thought every house was the same as mine inside and out and I think the realization that this wasn’t the case had a powerful effect on me.
Tell us about your experiences engaging with art as a child in Michigan?
Well, despite the neighborhood developers’ best effort at uniformity, and the societal push for the same, there is a nature in some people that makes conformity impossible and I always sought out others in my community who were strange in some way. Like me, I think a lot of the kids I grew up with were looking for an alternative to all the sameness. I think our desire to find something different was the reason my Midwest suburb became such a fertile ground for creativity. We were so far from the coasts, where all the “cool” stuff was happening, we had to search hard for art and counter-culture and we took it seriously. I was always begging my parents to see live music. I remember in middle school my mom would take us to the all-ages punk and ska shows in Lansing and one time drove like six of us in a small car a few hours away to see Tool. On the weekends we would ride our bikes to the skate shop, record stores, and head shops to look at the band t-shirts and magazines and see what counter-culture objects had been freshly delivered. These objects, however, came from so far away, that when they arrived we weren’t always aware of their proper context. We didn’t know what to do with the information and had to assign our own meanings to things and give those objects a new context. As a result, I think we found meaning where it wasn’t always intended and it trained and tuned our creative instincts.
Your work often seems sexually charged, can you talk about what influences that?
Yeah, well, I think sexuality occupies an enormous place in human and animal psychology. In modern American life, the drive to procreate has been sublimated into a catalogue of mischievous and deviant activities, sexual and otherwise. Procreation has become secondary to satisfaction and the least productive actions become the most gratifying. This lack of utility is very analogous to making art. A painting is not very useful but the beauty and intrigue of both creating and viewing the work can be tremendously pleasurable. Sexual interaction is a catalyst for, and a reaction to, a ton of other themes in my work because it is so hugely responsible for motivating our behavior throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Most of the sexually charged material I use in my painting comes from pornography, where I sense a disconnected, instability in the actors that I find relatable. This disconnected, autopilot mentality is not unique to the pornography industry. I’m sure it’s relatable to all kinds of employees in the modern workforce. Workers are reduced to a muscle or a brain, exploited for profits by whoever happens to be signing their checks.
Out of all of your paintings featured in the Online Viewing via Untitled Space, what painting resonates with you the most and why?
I think Cowboy 1 was a launching point for me. I used the cowboy hat as an entry point for the viewer, it is a symbol of a well-known identity that the viewer can immediately recognize and I can both confirm and subvert the tropes associated with that character. I have made a few other paintings with hats as signifiers and plan on making more.
What do you hope viewers take away from looking at your work?
I have always felt lucky to be able to escape into my paintings, especially this past year. I hope the viewer can jump into my world, experience it for a while, and then retreat into their own private spaces where they can be critical of their own environments, not in a negative way, but as a means of exploring their own unique relationship with this place in time.