Since I had had my first question answered as to the origins of the objects and natural forms that appear in Standing’s painting, I knew that the work was drawn and painted from objects physically placed in front of him. There seemed such a love of the natural world, so I ask him if he was a country or a city boy at heart. “I was born in Zimbabwe and there was always the wild there, but the natural element is something I have only become interested in the last three years or so.” Standing says he has always used birds in some way, but more in the background. “Before there were people and figures, but I have moved away from that.” He indicates towards an earlier example of his work, a couple of portraits on the wall. Again, the work has that beautiful and disturbing quality I had seen in his still life collection, the main focus here being the face. He explains that he has found it virtually impossible to reach a Hong Kong audience with figures in his paintings. “I suppose the figures ended up being quite scary, quite unnerving for many viewers.” I subsequently notice that Carol, the photographer with me, is not appreciating the skull, at all. “And then coming here, I made a conscious decision to stop using the figures, and to start using other kinds of imagery and see where that took the work,” the artist continues. And indeed he has. Hong Kong started to reshape his work. Being born in a country that no longer exists, that somehow leaves you, causing you to seek another, gives a different perspective on identity to a person who has pretty much lived all their life in one place, under one culture (with a few, unhappy exceptions). For the latter there is a concept of ‘normal’. You ‘belong’. You can read the ‘vibe’. It was safe yesterday, it is safe today, it’s going to be safe tomorrow. But step far outside your comfort zone, (I’m not talking about that time you had to stay in a horrible hotel and the car was late meeting you at the airport) and it’s amazing how fast the sense of ‘normal’ can disappear. And the ‘belonging’. But you can pretty much forget about tuning into the vibe and the safety thing. Those certainties are gone. Uncomfortable things happen. You become aware of how your own strangeness might appear to others and your senses become extremely acute, essentially in order to protect you, should you need it. You are thinking everything looks strange and a little scary, and wondering if you are safe.
He takes me over to another canvas. It is a fragment from a larger painting he had abandoned after embroidering on it, not liking the result, save for this piece. In the claws of a sparrow, made from thread, is a molecular, crystalline structure, like a jewel drawn by a laser. “I want to bring this kind of geometric shape into my work. It is like the effect the Hong Kong skyline has on me, the sharpness of the angles.” On one painting there is rice scattered into the oil paint. “When it dries I just brush it off; I love it when it naturally creates circular, cell-like structures. It’s about not being precious about the imagery and finding more spontaneous ways of working.” We move to the shelves again. “My interest in the natural world is really increasing and in some ways I would rather go to a natural history museum than an art gallery, especially if I could see the exhibits in storage. This is really where my interests are starting to go. I love cabinets of curiosity.” For a while we peruse the objects on the shelves and pinned to the wall, I ask “what is this?” And “where did you find that?” We talk about our childhoods, both spent in exColonies, the strange mementos from Edwardian times onwards that were familiar to us both. He says of leaving Southern Africa, “I knew that was it was over. I’d like to go back and visit again sometime but I will never go back and live there.” There is a silence for a while after this and we move round the room. There is a large mask from Papua New Guinea hanging from the ceiling, which leads us back to Standing’s art. In his figurative work the figures are always obscured in some way. They are almost masklike, eyes blurred, almost missing. There’s no real horror or threat, it is all implied. “I have a thing about masks, I love shrouded things,” he says. There is a picture on the floor of a heavily pregnant woman with a mask-like a cloth bag dropped over her face with two holes cut out for the eyes. I can see the early work is something, as he says, “Hong Kong is not ready for…yet.” But in the new work, the colouring becomes delicious, you almost want to lick some. The birds are delicate and fragile; there are microbe-like structures and seedpods floating across the surface. The whole thing is like a dream where your auditory and visual senses are all heightened. There is a beautiful, sharp realism and a total abstraction competing for dominance in front of your eyes; background colours just starting to run, as if melting, and as if the whole thing is about to fall apart, like a landslide. Gone is the dark, the obscure and the static ghoulishness. These works are alight, joyful, moving and inviting. But like the artist’s still life on the other side of the room, like his figures, they still leave you with the sense of the hair prickling on the back of neck. The threat remains just undetected and you somehow know that tranquility will be broken any second now.
T he Island
You are starting to understand the work. “I think it’s more about creating a surface first and letting that surface speak to me,” says Standing. The canvases are mottled like marble in bright colours, splashed and dotted with red oxide, the now familiar birds perched on twigs staring out. There are circles of coloured paint floating across the surface. “I won’t necessarily know what I want to do on top of the surface but that will eventually come.”
Mark Standing is represented by Cat Street Gallery
Published on Apr 17, 2013