In the studio: John Scurry

Melbourne artist John Scurry’s paintings are described as ‘beautifully nuanced, unassuming landscapes’ yet, it is his interior compositions and still life arrangements, elegantly rendered in a calm, soft palette, that command our attention, allowing us to ruminate in their quietude and sublime beauty. Scurry discusses creative life during lockdown in conversation with Alexandra Sasse; Caulfield North, 16 August 2021.

Studio equipment, John Scurry studio, August 2021. Courtesy the artist and Alexandra Sasse Gallery, Melbourne

How has life been for you under rolling restrictions?

Luckily it hasn’t impinged in a desperately negative way, just a lot of small personal injustices… With life under lockdown, now number six, I am just thinking day-to-day. Modest pleasures. I am fortunate to be able to work from home and admittedly stick my head in the sand a bit.

I can still get on with what I am doing, making pictures, for better or worse as it were. Perhaps it’s a way of trying to stay balanced and putting the catastrophes going on around us into the background. Which sort of takes me back to when I started out and the question of what is meaningful or worthwhile. One eventually comes to the conclusion that meaning is the activity itself, and what eventuates from that is ultimately in the hands of the viewer.

You mention meaning. Has the content of your pictures changed? How do world events affect your work?

It’s difficult to articulate these nuances. I have always liked depicting things and depictive imagery. I work very much from picture to picture and assume a coherency via the “how” of what is depicted rather than the “what”; something to do with the handwriting and a way of seeing. For me, to find meaning in looking, to prioritise the eye, however unfashionable that may seem, is fundamental.

When working toward a picture, the question arises, ‘Is this a credible proposition?’ The same question is asked in making music… It’s creating links and constructing forms – finding an appropriate tempo and rhythm, performing it, and hopefully giving it an independent life.
As to world events, I think certain secondary imagery such as photographic references have played a role in juxtaposing elements in pictures inferring another realm. But there is no overt attempt at commentary.

John Scurry, Distancing, 2020, oil on linen, 81 × 101cm. Courtesy the artist and Alexandra Sasse Gallery, Melbourne

How does your work fit into the broader cultural landscape?

Pass… I never consider such things as having a place or seeing myself in some sort of cultural schema. However, I might say that at any given time, there is always a panoply of differing styles, practices, genres, fashions, and philosophies in mutual co-existence. It reminds me of the word “contemporary”, which now seems to mean one particular prevailing dominant moment in 21st century art driven by a massive international market of mega dealers and auction houses. For myself, apart from taking an ongoing interest in all that, I feel quite removed from it.

I am living now, responding as I have done, to individual moments prompted by diverse interests. When you are making pictures, you are conscious of other artist’s pictures. You live in a world of pictures; there is some sort of coherence. There are many works from across the centuries that speak to you, and they, to me, are alive and fresh and relevant regardless of their era.

Still life set up, John Scurry studio, August 2021. Courtesy the artist and Alexandra Sasse Gallery, Melbourne

Have you always had a sense of being an outsider?

No. I am aware that stylistically I have generally seemed to be at odds with whatever has been seen to be of critical value or attention at the time. From early on, while I was interested in figurative and representational painting, most were looking at and imbibing abstraction and conceptual art. I went to England in 1967 for nearly a year after one year at art school. While I was away looking at historic works in the Tate, the very influential ‘Two Decades of American Art’ exhibition came to Melbourne and other capitals. It had a significant, almost overnight effect on the Australian art and art schools, and I think [it] opened up a new generation of younger artists ambitiously looking to a broader international context.

What is important to you now?

Basically, to get on with my work which is primarily painting and retaining a belief in the value of it. For me, it is a day-to-day thing to attend to. It’s quite simple really, and the lovely thing is that there is always (hopefully) something to work from…

I have no agenda, save that of giving each piece my full attention. Work makes work. The greatest anxiety is quite often what to do next, but the next always arises and with it, its own demands.

At the moment, with the pandemic, we can only plan for the next day within our limited locale. Everything becomes subject to that immediate future… The options narrow or get more concentrated but not in a negative sense. They are formed into a particular trajectory and… that trajectory keeps me busy.

 

Alexandra Sasse Gallery in Kew, Melbourne, will present John Scurry’s recent paintings in February 2022.

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