Pre-modernism meets the digital age : John Devane, RBSA Professor of Painting

His work captures fractured times, through collage and inspiration drawn from disparate, coexisting sources…

And John Devane readily admits that juxtaposition, so subtly integral to our daily digital experience, is a powerful tool in his work.

‘I tend to fuse things together and find a rupture in the logic in some way,’ he says.

His paintings are concerned with representation and, more particularly, with the human form. His technique is pre-modernist but the themes at play are varied, brought together in a narrative that weaves the personal and the political, the cinematic with the theatrical.

ART BLOG presents a tour of the work of the RBSA’s Professor of Painting…

The Contract

The Contract
The Contract oil on canvas 122cm x 92cm 2013

‘I was sitting opposite my son Louis and he looked up at me and I felt I caught something. Then I got to thinking about Rembrandt and illumination. And I thought about clothing. Clothing is quite important in my portraits.

‘The world could be painted from life, but I like the freedom to bring in ideas from a photograph or a film…

‘I have friends who paint from life, but I don’t work like that. I hover around an idea.’

The Uncertain Time

Uncertain Time
The uncertain time oil on canvas 172cm x 249cm  (runner-up and second prize in 2013 BP Portrait competition)

‘My daughters are quite protective of each other. We were at a friend’s house and Laura sat down on Lucy’s lap as there weren’t enough chairs.

‘That instinctive gesture prompted this picture and the technical challenges of incorporating three figures in a painting. The idea that two of them might be on one chair and the third figure was standing seemed to offer up an interesting compositional challenge.

‘Balthus was a point of influence for this painting – Louis has the air of a Renaissance prince, and is the only one of the three looking directly at the artist and thus the viewer.

‘It’s composed… the room was in fact nothing like that. I invented the space to suit the idea. His expression is ambiguous but also confrontational in a sense. Essentially a shallow stage like space.  Again, the influence of the theatre! The three figures contained within a narrow strip of floor space.

‘The positioning of the feet was difficult and crucial for linking the figures in a coherent way. I wanted their feet to be touching either side of the stool.’

Pacific Heights

High Rise
Pacific Heights  oil on canvas 2014   236cm x 160cm

‘There was a block of flats being demolished in Manchester and it reminded me of being back in Cyprus when I worked as a war artist. I saw burnt out villages, and quite disturbing things… the figure in my painting went in quite late. I like the element of chance.’

In this work, we see influences spanning centuries come together.

‘I was thinking about 18th and 19th Century landscape painters and their use of tiny figures, and I did a series a few years ago looking at demolished car parks, buildings in a state of disrepair. I’m also a child of photography.

‘In the 70s people were squeamish about photography as a reference point for art but now, in the 21st Century we deal with a world that is saturated with images. I accept it as a tidal wave of material, some of which turns up interesting stuff.

‘In fact, going back, Degas and Manet all used photographs in the creation of their works, but it isn’t much discussed.’

John very much sees himself as a product of his time.

‘I like using photos,’ he asserts.

‘Francis Bacon had lots of photos in what he described as a compost heap in his studio, and often his inspiration would be quite random, or serendipitous. He’d see a figure or a bird emerge from the pile, and that would become his idea.

‘My approach is like a mental collage. I had a very good art teacher who could see it. What I like, for example, about Hockney is his fusing of reality. And so I would make collages. More latterly I will stick a photograph over an image, and paint over it.

‘I’m also quite interested in Edward Hopper – the sense of isolation and melancholy. Hopper was fascinated by film, and particularly Hitchcock. The same themes emerge.’

Studio Space…

studio shot

John has worked from the same studio in Coventry for 20 years.

‘I work in cycles and can have four, maybe five, works on the go at once. I like the fact it’s a partly domestic set-up. I used to work in squats and warehouses, but when you work where you live, you can go to your studio anytime. I sometimes find ideas come to me at night, or I can pop up there and review a work.’

He draws from what he describes as a mix of sources. Real life blends with film, or more particularly film stills.

‘I used to work as a stagehand in a theatre at Blackpool, and I loved watching the performers. There’s something about that world. Lynch captures it… it’s normality disturbed.’

John will often pause a Peter Greenaway or David Lynch, and mentions Tarkovsky, which instantly sheds light on some of the subtler aspects of his work.

‘They aren’t always films I like,’ he says, ‘but they stay with you. Tarkovsky is very slow. I can stop it anywhere and find things that inspire me. My approach is eclectic and hybrid.’

Two Figures

Two Figures
Two figures 2019 (work in progress)  oil on canvas 142cm x 182cm

Devane’s portraiture is born from a stubborn stance.

‘I was told in the 70s not to paint figuratively. The zeitgeist at the time was ‘the figurative is dead’. I dug in my heels, despite the fact that most people were interested in Beuys and Cage and Jasper Johns.

‘The Modernist adventure was followed by a Post-Modernist ‘anything goes…’ People saw Frank Stella at the Tate and thought ‘What more is there to do?’

‘I don’t see it like that. My figurative paintings were tolerated…. but it’s a personal passion of mine. Ron Kitaj said, ‘The human figure is a swell thing to draw.’ When I look at Rembrandt, Goya, Velasquez, I want to tap into that.’

Good and Bad Government

Good and Bad Government
Good and Bad Government  2001   oil on canvas    160cm x 236cm

‘The title comes from Ambrogio Lorenzetti. He produced the first cityscapes in Western art. They are intriguing, damaged and eroded. My painting is based on a city in the Middle East.

‘Sometimes I think about the implications of using war-torn cities, or journalistic photography… is it wrong to aestheticize them?

‘These scenes are familiar in one sense in that Afghanistan and Syria are in the news. I depict convoys, traffic, explosions, car parks, monotypes. I explore the idea of things eroding, being damaged, breaking, and a painting, an expression, can be damaged in the process of making it.’

John’s fascination with dystopia, with Ballard, McCarthy and Tarkovsky resonates today.

‘It comes in at a tangent. I absorb it through reading, through watching the news, and through ideas that I have. I feel it filter into my thoughts.’

John Devane is a painter and printmaker, Professor of Painting at the RBSA, and a Professor at Coventry University. He will be judging the Biennial Portrait Prize. Entries close on 12 June.

Since graduating from the Royal College of Art he has taught and exhibited widely, and his work is held in public and private collections. In 2013, his painting ‘The Uncertain Time’ was awarded second prize and runner-up in the BP Portrait Competition.

More recently, a painting entitled ‘Weeping Woman’ was selected for the Columbia Threadneedle Prize in 2018.

By Louise Palfreyman

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