Our interview for this month’s artist focus is with Jack Mcguire from Toronto, who works primarily in pen and ink to create melting, fractured images of the human form. His figures exist in their own space, twisting and dissolving inside the empty world of blank white paper. After escaping a life of public and media relations, Jack returned to his passion, drawing inspiration from early 20th century British painters like Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Now just a glance at his Artsia collection demonstrates his unconventional style and original perspective on the flowing, fading human form.
How would you describe your style and how did you find it in the first place?
I don’t remember who it was but they described it as deconstructionist. It’s not a bad description I think. Pieces do start with a basic drawing. I look for the forms that appeal to me and explore them so that the final piece retains the essence of what I started with, but takes on a life of its own independent of what it began as.
Originally I did straight up paintings of people, friends or acquaintances that I knew from day to day life, but I never found it very satisfying in a way that really allowed me to express what I wanted to express. The more abstract things were something else that I did for fun as a nonsensical counter to architectural drawings that I do on commission. I abandoned the portraits and tried to apply the nonsense to the more recognizable forms and these ‘deconstructions’ came out of that.
A lot of your pieces are without color, or done only in one shade. How do you know which style is right for which image, and does one choice have an advantage over the other?
Most of the drawings that I do are either monochrome or of a limited palette. I did begin with attempts at including more colour. I really liked the works of Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. I had stopped drawing and painting completely for nearly 20 years. I had developed a rather serious problem with alcohol but with the birth of my first child, I gave up drinking and found that there was a huge hole in my life that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. It was rediscovering these artists that got me interested in art again. I tried to rekindle my own creative drive by doing my own take on the work of Freud and Bacon but found that as much as I related to them, their style just didn’t jive with what I was trying to do. I started getting into Giacometti. His work really spoke to me as did his use of a limited, somewhat muted palette
When I decided to give up colour and focus strictly on form, I found I was much less distracted by things that ultimately didn’t matter to the final outcome of the piece. Since then I haven’t really felt the need to employ a lot of colour. I do photography as well so what love of colour I have finds an outlet that way.
What most inspires you to create an image: injustice, beauty, or something else?
If there are any external motivations to create a piece, I’m generally not aware of them. In fact when I am working, I am most successful if I’m not really aware of what I’m doing at all. More, I think it is an expression of feelings and ideas that I otherwise can’t get in touch with. I suppose I am channeling something subconscious that only speaks a broken version of the language of images.
What ideas are you conveying through your melted and fractured human figures? How did you come up with this interpretation of the human form?
I think there are aspects of the human psyche that don’t express themselves with a really satisfying clarity, movements of the subconscious that ebb and flow in dark and dreams. I love those moments when you look at a piece of art and it registers with you very deeply because they express something that you’ve always felt. Like the first time I saw Freud’s portraits. A light went off because someone saw the human form in a way that really hit me. I’m not trying to convey anything specific. Just trying reach through the clutter of being conscious to reach into those dark places and perhaps shed a little light.
A couple of your pieces feature the same woman, Erin. How do you know her and how does she inspire you?
Erin is an artist and model in Toronto and she was the first model who really took me seriously. I love the female form. I think it is without parallel for beauty and I was having a devil of a time finding models who would let me photograph them to use those pictures for reference. I don’t really have much of a relationship with her and we only shot just the once. There are other models who have since helped me out who take art in trade for their time. I do have a relationship with them but tend not to post the work that I do for them.
How did you make the jump from public and media relations to art? Was there something about public relations that made you run the other way?
Making the jump from public/media relations to art was easy. I think to do that sort of work you need to be capable of a professional detachment I’m just not wired for. I pretty much live on the knife’s edge of my emotions and I can take things very personally. The people who were able to do the work and excel at it had an ability to put it in some sort of context.
Maybe they can make that separation between work and personal life but I can’t. I only just have the one life and everything mixes all together into quite the loveliest mess. For a few years when I was still drinking very heavily I could use that cope with it. There were people that I really did like but the business itself was not for me.
When my first daughter was born I didn’t want my problems with that world to affect her. My wife has a good job and so we decided that I would focus on my art. It has worked out for the best. I think as my daughter has become quite the little artist.
What’s the most difficult part about being an artist?
I would say the hardest part of being an artist is the loneliness. When I struggle with a piece, I struggle with it pretty much alone and there are times when work after work is not coming together in the right way. It is easy to lose faith in my abilities and really all I can do is keep trying.
What do you like most about being an artist?
The best part of being an artist is that moment when a piece is completed and it expresses my intentions perfectly. It is a bittersweet moment since once that perfect piece is done you have to face the blank page again. But those moments do last long enough to make it all worthwhile.
How long do you typically spend on a single piece? Do you have a daily routine or particular creative process that results in your work looking the way it does?
A piece can take anywhere from a week to a month depending on how big it is, what else there is to do and whether or not the drive is really there. I have children so I don’t really have a routine and I do photography as well so that takes up a fair bit of time.
But when I do have the drive and the time, then loud music is the absolute best thing for shutting out the world and really focusing and losing myself in the work - that and a steady supply of tea.
What techniques and materials do you use most frequently in your work? What is it about that medium that’s better for your particular style than others?
I focus primarily on ink and watercolour paper. When I was painting, there was a lot of mess and time cleaning up, and then if a particular colour ran out, I would have to start again balancing the whole piece so that new shades made sense and it became more of a distraction and took away from the focus. Pens, ink and ink washes provide the predictability and facility of clean up that I need when I’m looking after a family.
Aside from your piece, Flowers of Industry, is there anything particularly “Canadian” about your work?
I wouldn’t say there is anything really “Canadian” about my work other than me. I have tried to get more political with my work but it always comes off as preachy or bitter and so those pieces just end up under my bed or as the other side of another drawing.
Who are a couple of your favorite artists? And did they play a part in the formulation of your own art and style?
My favourite artists are Freud, Bacon and Giacometti but I am also mad about Caravaggio. I have based a couple of drawings on his paintings. I also like Hieronymus Bosch and Jenny Saville.
They have certainly affected my work but I think their effect is more percolated through me. I did have my time when I just tried to be like them but after a time you just give that up and do your own thing. Whatever effect they’ve had remains but I think it is more about how their work reaches me rather than how it affects my style.
What do you think about the art world today and how would you like to see it changed?
I honestly don’t know all that much about the art world. I’m not really part of it so I don’t have an opinion. I do think that familiar things are rewarded a bit too much but that’s just the way people are.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your body of work? Is there a single expression or mantra that you’re dedicated to?
Ideally I would like for someone to look at one of my pieces and chuckle, delighted that someone else has the same strange ideas that they do. Ideas they might not have expressed or not wanted to. I spent a lot of time sitting on ideas or flushing them away with alcohol. It’s a terrible way to live. All I really want is to express myself in a way that satisfies me. I want to be able to look at my work and say “yup, that’s exactly what I meant to say.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
As for aspiring artists, I still consider myself to be an aspiring artist. If I had any advice it would be to say what you mean and not what you think people want to hear or see. For the longest time I didn’t say what I wanted to say because I thought it was too stupid or embarrassing. That would be it, I guess. Say what you mean.