With a unique finish to all his works, John McCarthy adds hyperrealistic effects to a variety of different subjects through a distorted lense. McCarthy experiments with taking a second-hand image and focusing on it as an object, ultimately producing a painting of a piece of paper, rather than a portrait in the classical sense.
John McCarthy was born in Essex. He studied at St Martin's School of Art, London from 1996-97. He was selected for the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, London for which he won the Visitor's Choice Award in 1999. This led to successful solo and group shows in London in 2000 and 2001, followed by a group show in Los Angeles in 2003.
"For me, the paintings from reproductions in the 1960's by Malcolm Morley and Vija Celmins were a breakthrough. It opened everything up, following on from what Duchamp had done. Morley's claim that painting from a reproduction was 'painting from still life', was a statement that seemed to resonate."
"I want to experiment with that idea of taking a second-hand image and focus on it as an object. When I take an image from a magazine advertisement, I remove the text and information so that the original message is lost and the painting develops an ambiguity and becomes like a ghost. I try to find images of beautiful women who are photographed in a particular way; a kind of non-smiling vacant glamour, which fashionable magazines like to present. Once the image is selected, I screw the picture up and re-photograph it, adding new light sources to accentuate the creases, then crop it to fit the canvas. The image is then painted. The original image, with it's new information, becomes a painting of a piece of paper, rather than a portrait in the classical sense. The reinterpreted picture also gains fresh connotations associated with the fragility of paper and human existence. The elements of detachment and lack of emotion that I am trying to incorporate in the work are crucial to representing a kind of tragic quality that seems to always accompany beauty and glamour."
“My attitude about what I make as art is fuelled by a determination to not be boring or cliched. Very difficult to do, actually. There has to be a dedicated thought process for me to make sure I am totally committed to each piece and the direction I am going. To switch off and make art on auto-pilot is, in my opinion, a descent into mediocrity. It's easy to be 'comfortable' with what you're making every day. You have to be trying to push yourself; this is why being an artist is such a difficult job. It's full on for eight hours a day.”
“My main medium is paint. It's an archaic medium - I'm basically doing what Caravaggio was doing half a century ago. Paint, brushes, canvas. But, that simple process can become so complicated when you add the human imagination.”
“When I see someone's work that is blindingly brilliant, I have to get to the studio straight away and paint. It doesn't happen very often though, if I'm honest. I see a lot of average work. I saw a Chuck Close show many years ago, and I realised that I wasn't trying hard enough. It was the early gigantic realist portraits, and I suddenly understood what quality, and dedication and sheer hard work were. I went home and threw out all my work and started again. I still think the work is fantastic, but it was his commitment that changed me as a painter. All that pain he went through with his illness, with the doctors saying that his career was over when he became paralysed and yet he didn't give up. Amazing. He learnt to paint all over again, and became an even greater artist. Sounds like a Hollywood movie doesn't it...”
“The emotions that have inspired my recent paintings are doubt, Excitement and Confidence. Every time I start a new group of paintings, I have the same feeling of doubt. It's an acute feeling of thinking that I have bitten off more than I can chew regarding the intricate nature of the process of the new work. I try to push myself every time I paint by trying something I don't feel particularly confident with, which naturally fills me with terrible doubt. Be it more complex in detail, or colour or just subject matter - even though I am used to the feeling now. In fact that feeling of doubt is essential for me to know I am at the edge of my ability. But, that helps me because I feel that I am improving steadily. It has taken a long time to be comfortable with earlier works. But, I'm over that now. I realise that earlier works show your journey. I still have that buzz of excitement every time I start a new painting. I can't explain that, or tell you why. My desire to paint is overwhelming. It's obsessive. The third feeling of confidence comes only at the end of each painting, as it is almost finished. Because the act of painting is basically to repeat over and over again a methodical action, it is only natural, if you do it eight hours a day, that you will reach a point where you think Tm safe now, it's plain sailing from now on to the end of it'. Then, I relax and feel confident. As corny as that sounds, I still can't believe that when you fall in love with someone, you become a complete idiot. The stakes are so high - when it's good, nothing else matters, but when it's bad, it's hell. Yet, it's the most important feeling in the world, isn't it? It's my favourite emotion for sure.”
“When I am not painting, I am very active. You just can't sit in a studio all day, every day, I have to get out. I exercise regularly; running and cycling, which actually helps with ideas.”
“In terms of artists that I admire, the list is long. Glenn Brown, Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, James Rosenquist, Manuel Ocampo, Richard Patterson, Patrick Caulfield, Ray Richardson, Norman Rockwell, Richard Philips, Moebius. When I was at college, I did a project on the artist R. B. Kitaj and decided to send some questions to his studio - I spent weeks finding out where his studio was situated in Fulham. He was at the peak of his career then, having just had a major retrospective at the Tate. Unfortunately, as is well documented, critics panned it. Kitaj was furious, and his wife suffered a heart attack as a result of the stress (according to Kitaj). She died and Kitaj never forgave them. The questions I sent to him arrived amidst this whole thing. Kitaj sent me a reply in a short handwritten letter: 'Dear John McCarthy, Thank you for your kind letter. My wife just died and the lights have gone out for me and my 9 yr. old on. I hardly answer any letters because I'm too broken. But I wish you great good luck in this vale of tears. Kitaj.' It shocked me beyond belief, and I couldn't include it in my project because it seemed too sad. He died not long after this. I have kept the letter (dated 1994), and it has become something I treasure.”
“When I first thought about approaching galleries with my work, I was naturally apprehensive. Was I good enough? What was the correct method? Which galleries? It seemed very complex and intimidating. But, looking back, I think I was ready ten years before I finally decided to go for it. The problem with being an artist is that no one really gives you any advice on how to go about making a career in it. There is no real definitive way. You have to find a way that works for you. I wouldn't really change anything about the way I was back then, in fact, I'm not much different now, but I always knew If I was honest, reliable and dedicated, I might be able to be successful.”
“I teach an art class once a week, so I'm around hopeful young painters quite a lot. One student asked me, 'How can I become a professional painter and make loads of money?' I gave her a canvas and said, "Paint something interesting on this canvas." "And then what?" she asked, "Do it for twenty years." I replied. "Ah, fuck that!" she answered, and left. My favourite childhood memory was drawing on the living room floor all day with my mum hoovering around me as if I was a permanent fixture that couldn't be moved. Which I was.”
“Happiness to me, is being with my wife, Julie. But, also being privileged enough to be able to paint all day. I am fortunate enough to have a lot of good friends around me who are encouraging and show an interest in my work, which is great. It's not wealth that makes you happy; it's the people around you. If you are surrounded by people that care about you, life is much easier.”
- John McCarthy