A British Original

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    A Solo Exhibition of Joe Machine: Machine Evolution,
    Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, Tramshed,
    3  

May  

–  

24  

May  

2013

    The history of British art, from William Blake to Francis Bacon, is littered with artists who have followed extremely unorthodox paths to artistic achievement and maturity. Recently a particularly fascinating example of this  

 has  

 began  

 to  

 make  

 an  

 impact  

 on  

 the  

 current  

 art  

 scene  

 –  

 just  

 at  

 the  

 moment when the much-touted YBA group of the Nineties and Noughties has started to run out of steam.

    Joe Machine, born Joe Stokes, owes his beginnings as an artist to the ‘re- modernist’ Stuckist Group, best known as vocal opponents of the Turner Prize,  

and 

foes  

of  

Tate  

Modern’s  

official,  

state-subsidized  

version  

of  

avant- gardism.

    Stuckism  

has  

more  

tangled  

origins  

than  

may  

appear  

to  

be  

the  

case  

at  

first  

 sight. Its roots are in the-as-yet little chronicled Medway arts scene of the 1990s, which was in many ways a new version of the now revered Liverpool Scene of twenty to thirty years earlier, with the same mixture of punk  

rock,  

performance  

poetry  

and  

art.  

Other  

well-known  

alumni  

of  

this  

 are the painter, poet and novelist Billy Childish, and the Royal Academy’s current Professor of Drawing, Tracey Emin CBE. It was in fact Tracey Emin who provided the group with its name, on one occasion yelling at Childish, then her boyfriend, ‘The trouble with you, Billy is that you’re Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!’

    Joe  

 Machine  

 first  

 came  

 to  

 Stuckism,  

 not  

 as  

 a  

 painter,  

 but  

 as  

 a  

 writer,  

 a  

 member of the Medway Poets group, and through publishing pamphlets of his verse with Billy Childish’s small guerilla imprint, Hangman Books. Through Childish, he met another poet and painter, Charles Thomson. In 1999, when Thomson told him that he was putting together a new art group, intended to counter ‘the conceptualist degeneracy of the British art world’, Joe Machine volunteered himself as a founder member.

    What he brought to Stuckism was considerable personal baggage. His father ran an amusement arcade in Leysdown-on-Sea, on the Isle of Sheppey, which, in turn, is located at the mouth of the river Medway. His family origins are part Romany and part Jewish. Constantly in trouble as a child, he graduated to petty theft and then to shoplifting and burglary. He was sent  

to  

an  

approved  

school  

at  

the  

age  

of  

fifteen,  

and  

then  

to  

Dover  

Borstal  

 in the following year. In 1998, he began a course of psychotherapy for problems of sex and violence. Most of his early work as a painter is directly autobiographical and often extremely erotic and violent. The imagery has a  

fairly  

obvious  

therapeutic  

function  

–  

by  

putting  

images  

of  

this  

kind  

into  

 his art, Machine was able to gain control over his own dangerous feelings and impulses. This gives what is represented the kind of memorable force that also emerges from a number of Francis Bacon’s early paintings, made for the similar reasons of self-therapy. The paintings show a particular fascination with the sailors who are part of the urban scene in the naval dockyard town of Chatham, which is also on the Medway.

    More recently Joe Machine’s work has started to expand into a much greater variety of themes. The chief new series are one devoted to the Book of Genesis, one about the Russian Revolution, and a series of landscape paintings inspired by Kentish woodlands.

    Anyone who looks at the paintings of the ‘Genesis’ series must, I think, be struck by the way in which they often seem to echo the mood of the images in Blake’s Prophetic Books. Stylistically, the resemblance is not so close, as Joe Machine has little, if any trace of Blake’s Neo-Classicism. The drawing, in fact, is more like what one sees in Romanesque and Early Gothic book illuminations, but with none of the self-conscious aping of the medieval  

that  

one  

finds  

in  

the  

early  

phases  

of  

Pre-Raphaelite  

art.  

At  

this  

 point, however, it is worth noting that the Pre-Raphaelites were aware of Blake,  

and  

to  

some  

minor  

extent  

were  

perhaps  

influenced  

by  

him.

    It is noticeable that his interpretation of the text of Genesis is often heterodox. For example, one painting, entitled Chemical Wedding, refers to a famous Rosicrucian text, The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. In it, the hero of an allegorical romance is invited to go to a castle full of miraculous happenings, in order to witness the Chymical Wedding of the King and Queen, the archetype of all husbands to the archetype of all brides. In another, the serpent that tempts Eve is replaced by a red robed Catholic cleric. Joe Machine says that his interpretation of Genesis is essentially ‘the story of a failure.’

    This can also be said of his narration of some of the events of the Bolshevik Revolution. We see Stalin robbing a bank in order to gather funds for a Revolution that is yet to happen, and we see Trotsky in Mexico, being assassinated with an ice axe. However, we also see desperate cannibals eating  

human  

flesh,  

victims  

of  

the  

great  

Russian  

famine  

of  

1931-2,  

brought  

 about by the Soviet government’s forced collectivization of agriculture.

    One  

major  

interest  

of  

both  

these  

series  

is  

the  

fact  

that  

they  

are  

extended  

 narratives, made at a time when narrative has become unfamiliar in painting, though it survives more successfully in artists’ video and also in photography.

    The landscape series made at the same time has no narrative content. We are confronted by the stillness of nature. The style Joe Machine adopts for these paintings is deliberately stylised and formal, but they also have something about them that will remind spectators of the mystical Shoreham period paintings of Samuel Palmer. Shoreham, as it happens, is also in Kent, not on the Medway, but on the River Darent, at the other end of the county.

    A striking feature of all three series, despite the disparity of their subject matter, is that they share an immediately recognizable artistic language. Once  

 you’ve  

 seen  

 a  

 Joe  

 Machine  

 you  

 will  

 have  

 no  

 difficulty  

 in  

 spotting  

 his hand in any other, though the subject may be entirely different. As a working  

 critic,  

 constantly  

 looking  

 at  

 new  

 art  

 of  

 all  

 varieties,  

 I  

 find  

 this  

 faintly ironic, not least because Joe Machine is an untrained artist (once again like Francis Bacon) who has never attended an art school, and who has  

had  

to  

find  

his  

own  

path,  

without  

any  

sort  

of  

professional  

formation.

    We live at a time when major art schools have in fact very often been reluctant to offer technical instruction, on the grounds that students must be  

left  

to  

‘find  

their  

own  

way’  

and  

at  

the  

same  

time  

‘find  

themselves’.  

Yet  

 the  

work  

done  

by  

these  

young  

artists  

is  

often  

so  

much  

of  

one  

–  

at  

a  

given  

 moment  

 fashionable  

 –  

 kind  

 that  

 it  

 is  

 difficult  

 to  

 distinguish  

 the  

 products  

 of one of these aspirants from those made by a contemporary trained, or deliberately left untrained by the same institution.

    Joe Machine is about to reach his fortieth birthday, and looking at his current work it is clear, however one reacts to it in other respects, that it is the record of a quest for the self. It seems to me fascinating, and also wonderfully  

ironic,  

that  

he  

has  

been  

more  

successful  

in  

finding  

that  

self,  

 and pinning it down in memorable images, than almost all of his ‘insider’ contemporaries.