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.