Simon Kirk’s intriguing painting ‘Claude’ depicts a solitary figure, sat in darkness, at a table with a cup of tea on it. The painting is emotionally charged, the loneliness palpable, and despite the lack of any detail in clothing or facial expression, Claude is absolutely full of character: Kirk cleverly leaves just enough gap for the viewer to feel inclined to dream up a back story for this curious soul. In this third interview with artists selected for this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, we ask Simon Kirk about his multi-layered, imaginative pictures.
Lisa: Who is Claude?
Simon: Claude was initially going to be just one element of a more intricate composition. I intended the piece to be a semi-abstract painting of an artist in his studio. However, as I painted I was listening to a radio discussion on poverty and I began thinking of the different way poverty is perceived. The romantic notion of the penniless artist means it’s almost seen as proof of integrity, compared to the modern media portrayal of the poor as feckless and lazy. I began stripping the composition back further and Claude became the focus. It became more ambiguous. It could still be an artist in his Parisienne garret, but it could also be a man in a room somewhere in England.
Lisa: You have exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition a couple of times before. Does it get any less exciting each time you get in?
Simon: I don’t think so, but ‘exciting’ is a good choice of word. I’d say it’s probably become more exciting and less agonising. The ‘pressure’ is off a little bit. I can’t realistically expect to be selected every year, so now I don’t have to give myself a hard time if I’m unsuccessful. Those successful selections are in the bank, so to speak.
Lisa: Do you have any tactics for dealing with the selection process and how excruciating it is?
Simon: I’m quite prolific, so I do have trouble selecting which works I want to enter. Over the course of the year I earmark certain works for consideration if they haven’t sold in the meantime, but I look for advice on the final selection from my partner Karen Christensen (also an artist). She has done very well for me so far! Ultimately I don’t think there is much point trying to second guess the judges. The exhibition is so eclectic and surprising from year to year it’s best to keep it simple and concentrate on choosing work you are proud of.
In terms of the tension, I try not to make plans on the back of a potential successful entry and I don’t set myself up for disappointment by making it the pivotal point of my summer. Having said that, I think the process is more ‘stressful’ now. I first applied in 2010 and as far as I remember there was one notification – either yes or no. This year we had to wait for two important emails before the final crucial one.
Lisa: How long have you been an artist for? Did you go to art school?
Simon: I graduated from Coventry University in 1999 with a degree in Fine Art and I moved to London. I couldn’t face jumping straight back into education so my plan was to find a studio space and go from there. However, I found that working to pay the high rents left little time to paint. It was only when I returned to my hometown of Leigh-on-Sea in 2007 that I really had the opportunity to start my career.
Lisa: What is your favourite medium to work in and why?
Simon: My work is a combination of painting, collage and decollage (ripping, tearing or sanding away at built up surface to reveal layers below). This amalgamation was my solution to the problem of translating my sketchbooks onto a wall. I always found my sketchbook work far more dynamic, and much was lost in simple reproduction. So I gradually began working on my pictures as I would a sketchbook. I build up layers, paint areas out and rip bits off; ideas are developing and decisions about composition are all taking place on the piece itself. Everything filters through me quicker and doesn’t have to be rendered a second time. It’s taken years for me to develop my style, and it’s the way I feel most comfortable working.
Lisa: What in your eyes constitutes a successful work of art?
Simon: For me personally, I want to engage the viewer’s imagination and leave space for their own stories to emerge. I’m a big fan of haiku, the finding of profound meaning in modest things and the gentle playfulness that helps us view everyday life with fresh eyes. That’s part of the beauty of combining otherwise unrelated images and text. The resulting narrative is always greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a success when people want to engage, and they bring their own experiences and associations and make their own connections. In a larger, more general analysis I’m disappointed when I perceive an artist has tried to second guess the audience by creating fashionable work that has no ‘voice’.
Lisa: If you could own any work of art in the world, what would you choose and why?
Simon: Tough question. I think it would be ’The Three Dancers’ (1925) by Picasso. When I first saw it at the Tate in my early teens I was captivated by the sensation of movement and the layers of imagery that appeared through close inspection. It was the beginning of my understanding and appreciation of Modern Art. I’d very happily make room for a Rauschenberg too.
Lisa: Where do you make the majority of your work?
Simon: I have a home studio space, but I also work outside. My process of decollage creates a lot of dust and debris so I’m working outside with a mask a lot of the time.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Simon: I’m working on large feature pieces inspired by cave art; paintings that would serve as maps and stories but also reflect man’s innate desire to paint and to create. The emphasis with these is on the painting process itself. I’m combining improvisation and a high physical energy to reach a balance of chaos and control.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Simon: I have a website which offers an overview of my work (www.simonkirkfineart) and I also have a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/simonkirkfineart) which I update daily. I’m on Twitter too (@simonkirkartist). In terms of viewing work in the flesh, I’m a resident artist with the Turner | Barnes | Gallery (www.interiorangle.co.uk). They have galleries in Chelmsford and London, and they’ll again be showing my work as part of their collection for the Affordable Art Fair, London in October.