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Like many of the most remarkable artists of the Modern and Post Modern epoch, Joe Machine is self-taught. As it happens, being self-taught is also very much part of the English – or should I be politically correct and call it the ‘British’ - tradition. Francis Bacon, notoriously, had no professional formation as a painter. William Blake, in many ways a precursor of Joe Machine, as some of the illustrations in this book amply demonstrate, spent six years studying at the Royal Academy, but the instruction he received seems to have bounced off him. All it did was to instill in him a profound disrespect for academic ways of thinking, at least as these were understood in the England of his time.

Joe Machine’s art is also often autobiographical. Autobiography, as a theme for visual art, is essentially a product of the later phases of the Romantic Movement. Before that time, artists had very often, certainly from the time of the Renaissance onwards, produced self-portraits. Sometimes they were likenesses made as independent works of art. Sometimes they were inserted into multi-figure compositions, as a form of signature or guarantee of authorship. Sometimes they were offered as proof of skill, such as the young Parmigianino’s portrait of himself reflected in a convex mirror, presented by the artist to Pope Clement VII. Parmigianino, newly arrived in Rome, wanted to show the Pope what he could do.

 Only rather rarely did pre-Romantic artists attempt an additional dimension. The paintings in which they did so are the ones that our contemporary sensibilities cherish today. Famous examples are Durer’s likeness of himself using an image-type usually reserved for representations of Christ, Michelangelo’s grotesque likeness of himself as the empty skin of St Bartholomew, dangling from the hand of the naked saint in the artist’s huge fresco of The Last Judgment, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, where we see the painter a work on a portrait of a young Spanish princess surrounded by her attendants, Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, and Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the decapitated Goliath, held up for inspection by a youthfully triumphant David.

What these celebrated paintings have in common, with the single exception of the Velazquez, is a sense of troubled self-examination. In other words, they are therapeutic works, undertaken to bring to the surface emotions that the artist who made them was unable to access otherwise.

 

When we turn to Courbet’s series of self-portraits, made in the mid-19th century, we become aware that they are much more deliberately theatrical than what had preceded them. The Desperate Man (1843-1845) and The Wounded Man (1844-1854) invite the viewer to construct narratives about the painter’s life. The more famous and more ambitious Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854) shows the artist, informally dressed, encountering his then most important patron, Alfred Bruyas. Their stances, gestures and expressions make it clear that Courbet considers himself to be the superior being.

 

Courbet’s successors, the Post-Impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin, took a less sanguine view of the position of the artist in the society of their time. Both are now celebrated for their self-portraits, though Gauguin painted fewer of them than Van Gogh, and in both cases the likenesses they made of themselves are expressions of inner anguish. The same can be said of the self-portraits made by their Norwegian contemporary Edvard Munch.

 

I think it is evident, from the earlier paintings reproduced here, that Joe Machine was aware of the painters I have just named. Modern means of communication, the ever- wider availability of art books and art magazines with illustrations in colour, the rise of programs about art on television – all of these have democratized the art experience. As this has taken place, the life of the artist has more and more become  assimilated to the formulae of popular myths whose validity stretches well beyond the boundaries of the art world. This popular world is one that Joe Machine belongs to by birth. His parents ran an amusement arcade on the Isle of Sheppey, an island near the mouth of the river Medway, which originates in West Sussex but flows largely through Kent until it reaches the Thames Estuary.

 

As the ‘Chronicle of Violence’ included in this book attests, Joe had an extremely turbulent childhood and youth, marked by many episodes of theft and violence, which continued into his young adulthood. These overlapped with the beginnings of his life as a creative artist and a creative writer.

 

His first association with other creative spirits was with the poetry group the Medway Poets, who gave regular recitals at venues in the various Medway towns. This group was essentially disenfranchised, and divorced from the sophistication of middle-class literary circles in London. Though Joe Machine did not come into contact with the group until the late 1993, the impulse that led to its formation was rooted in a much earlier epoch. Essentially it could trace its ancestry to the rise of punk rock in the Britain of the mid-1970s. The Sex Pistols – perhaps the most famous of all the punk rock outfits, played their first gig in 1975. They released their single, Anarchy in the UK, in the following year, and their notorious second album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This promptly rose to the top of the British charts, despite being banned by most record shops.

 

Punk music was always linked to poetry. Its remoter ancestry included the poets of the Liverpool Scene, who were the subject of two best selling anthologies published in 1967, and always placed much emphasis on performance. One of the poets central to the Liverpool Scene was the painter Adrian Henri. As Roger McGough, another leading participant in the Liverpool Scene, remarked “The kids didn’t see this poetry with a capital ‘p’, they understood it as modern entertainment, as part of the pop-movement. “ An American ancestor of punk – or ancestress, if you prefer – is the poet-performer Patti Smith, once the companion of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Joe Machine, at his beginnings, was affiliated as much to the music scene as to any purely literary one. He was a founder member of the ‘junk’ band The Dirty Numbers.

 

Junk bands, using almost any instrument – or non-instrument – that could be employed to make a sound, were a phenomenon of the 1990s and early Noughties. As the founder of the original Junk Band once explained “[It] was created in part to prove that kids don’t need a lot of money to be in a band and make great music. They perform their music using instruments they either built themselves from ‘junk’…or thrift store/yard sale prizes.”

 

Though he is still a prolific writer, Joe Machine was eventually to make visual art his chief vehicle of expression. As the illustrations in this book demonstrate, he was already making paintings, based on his stormy personal history, in the 1980s.  Paintings from this time, such as Pub Fight (1987) and Mask (1989), seems to show the impact of German Expressionism, and in particular, perhaps, the influence of Emil Nolde. It is worth noting, for instance, that Nolde made some powerful paintings of masks, easily assimilated to the painting of a single mask that one sees here. If he knew of them at that stage, two well-known pronouncements of Nolde’s must certainly have appealed to him. Nolde once said: “The artist need not know very much; best of all let him work instinctively and paint as naturally as he breathes or walks.” He also said: “What an artist learns matters little. What he himself discovers has a real worth for him, and gives him the necessary incitement to work.”

 

The dominant figure in the Medway art, poetry and music scene was the painter, poet and musician Billy Childish, from Chatham, a rough dockyard town that is also on the Medway, and already familiar territory to Joe. Pamphlets of Joe Machine’s poems were published by The Hangman Press, founded by Childish and for a period managed by Childish’s then girlfriend, Tracey Emin. He also embarked on a course of psychotherapy under a therapist whom he met through Billy Childish, in order to try and curb his pattern of violent and self-destructive behaviour.

 

In 1998 he met another painter-poet, Charles Thomson, at a performance poetry reading at the Limehouse pub in Chatham. Thomson told him that he and Childish were going to form a new art group, in order to counter what he described as “the conceptualist degeneracy” of the existing British art world. Thomson asked Joe if he would participate, and in1999 he became a founder member of the Stuckist Group, co-founded by Thomson and Childish, which described itself as the first “Remodernist art group”, which would attempt to return to basic spiritual principles in art, culture and society. The name derived from Tracey Emin’s impatient outburst to Billy Childish, from whom she was then about to separate: “Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! – Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” Childish incorporated this in a poem entitled Poem for a Pissed Off Wife, written in 1994, a considerable time after Emin left him.

 

Despite his major role in founding it, Billy Childish did not remain with the group for long. Having disagreed with the way in which Charles Thomson presented its activities, he resigned in 2001. Joe Machine, however, has remained involved with Stuckism to this day. He participated in the first major Stuckist exhibition, held in Shoreditch in 2000, and was prominent in the Stuckist show held at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool 2004, which marked a certain measure of reluctant official acceptance for the group, whose activities are still excoriated by many critics.

 

The irony is that the Stuckists are in many ways obvious successors to the avant-garde groups that have emerged on various occasions in the past. The sequence of groups of this sort can be traced back to the very start of the 19th century, or even a little beyond it. The first such entity was the sect of Primitifs or Barbus, formed in 1798 within the studio of the great neo-classical painter Jacques-Louis David, who felt that David’s brand of classicism was not pure enough. Its members attracted more attention for the extraordinary clothes they wore, than for any art they produced, but this was not true of related groups that followed. Soon after came the German Nazarenes, who originally came together in Vienna in 1809, and who shortly thereafter settled in Rome. The Nazarenes in turn had a direct influence upon the British Pre-Raphaelites. What the three groups had in common was the fact that they rebelled against the present by looking back to a supposedly ‘purer’ past. The name the Pre-Raphaelites chose for themselves of course suggests this.

 

The press release for a recent (2012) Stuckist show, held at the Bermondsey Project in London, appropriated the release issued for a concurrent Tate Britain exhibition devoted to the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. Changing only a very few words, the Stuckists were able to use this to say exactly what they wanted to say about their own enterprise.

 

Pre-Raphaelitism, much abused at its beginnings, just as the Stuckists have been in their time, stood at the beginning of a long chain of avant-garde enterprises. It in later years it segued into the Aesthetic Movement, which abandoned early Pre-Raphaelite religiosity and moralism, perhaps under the influence of the Positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who held that “the goal of knowledge is simply to describe the phenomena experienced, not to question whether they exist or not.” Oddly, but also logically, this, in purely aesthetic terms, meant to substitution of a cult of beauty – verifiable through the use of the senses – for the dictates of religion and morality, which are not so verifiable. This variety of Pre-Raphaelitism had a marked impact on the European Symbolist Movement. Its chief representative in Britain, Burne-Jones, had a Europe-wide influence. One of the artists who is clearly in debt to him is the young Picasso, whose early Blue Period paintings are obviously linked to Burne-Jones., though the Spanish artist probably only knew the work through prints and reproductions.

 

Though Joe Machine’s paintings do not, perhaps, have an immediately obvious resemblance to the Picasso of this phase, there are some interesting points in common. The most obvious, perhaps, is the emphasis on what the French call misérabilisme – the emphasis on a down-at-heel sleazy milieu, which must somehow be redeemed through art. Joe Machine’s milieu is the gritty Chatham he grew up in, not the marginally glamorous Montmartre that Picasso inhabited when he first came to live in Paris at the very beginning of the 20th century. The misery Picasso depicts is essentially passive. The inhabitants of his world seem folded in upon themselves, often literally so. Joe Machine’s protagonists, on the contrary, are pro-active and frequently violent. What both these depicted worlds nevertheless share is a sense of isolation, a feeling that they are universes unto themselves. Chatham is a grimy, working-class dockyard town, dominated by the naval population that it services, sometimes offering service in more ways than one. Painting the sailors who fight and roister in the town, Joe Machine acts out and, by doing so, also controls the issues of violence that have haunted him since his childhood. These Chatham paintings also focus very overtly on eroticism – this is something that Picasso would certainly have empathized with.

 

As Joe Machine’s work has developed, he has started to examine other themes. One of these is the Kentish countryside within easy reach of the Medway towns. He is fascinated not only by the Kentish woodlands as things in themselves , but as settings in which to learn about ancient methods of fire-lighting and shelter-building. Travels elsewhere have also focused on the idea of the ancient and primitive. In 2003 he made a painting exhibition to the Sleive Mish mountains in County Kerry, and visited the Neolithic burial chambers and Celtic settlements to be found in the region. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mountains are named after an exceptionally cruel Celtic princess. He also visited the Black Isle region in the Highlands of Scotland, with its Holy Wood and holy (clootie) wells, where small offerings of cloth are left by pilgrims tied to neighboring whitethorn, ash or hawthorn trees. Yet another visit was to the Untersberg, a mountain close to Salzburg in Austria, within which the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is reputed to lie asleep, tended by dwarf-like creatures called Untersberger Mandln. When the Emperor wakes, it will be to fight the last great battle of mankind, on a plain at Wals, also close to Salzburg.

 

Throughout this period in the early 2000s, Joe Machine was studying intensively – his chosen subjects being psychoanalysis and social science, socialist politics and nature.

The result has been a considerable blossoming and broadening of subject matter. One new series, called Failure of the Russian Revolution, is about radical politics, and in particular the politics of violence. These paintings have a much stronger element of direct social commentary than previous work, but always combined with fantasy. In no sense are they attempts at social or socialist realism. In fact, one might even go so far as to think of them as derivations from narrative icons, used by Byzantine and Russian artist to recount the lives of Christ and the saints.

 

Another series, The First Revolution, is openly concerned with religion. It employs Old Testament symbolisms, material taken from the Book of Genesis, but only in a heterodox fashion. The theme is the Fall of Man. Joe Machine hints that some of the content of these works comes from studies of the Kabbalah. If this is the case, one needs to consider that one of the aims of those who study the Kabbalah is to understand and describe the divine realm. Another is to achieve ecstatic union with the godhead.

 

What these images inevitably bring to mind are the things we find in the Prophetic Books of William Blake – the artist with whom this essay began. One of the things that most people agree on about the work of Blake, whether they respond to it or not, is that is completely individual. It is sui generis, and resembles nobody else. I believe one can say the same thing about what Joe Machine produces, despite all the comparisons I have suggested with the work of other artists. Whatever the subject matter – God, men of the Royal Navy, prostitutes, film stars, Kentish woodlands, Trotsky being assassinated in Mexico – the artistic handwriting always remains immediately recognizable. Can one say this about the now fashionable conceptual art forms that Joe Machine opposes? The question of course answers itself – in those no mark of the human hand is present. Or, if it is present, it remains an irrelevance to the intended meaning of the work.

 

I think it is significant that Joe Machine, like Blake, is a writer as well as being an artist. For him, writing and painting are parallel means of expression, but he doesn’t expect one form to do the job of the other. The paradox is, that, being untrained, he has been free to discover what he really wants to do. This seems doubly paradoxical when one looks at the curricula now offered by many leading British art schools offering M.F.A. degrees in art. In these institutions the cry often is that the students must be “left to find themselves”. In other words, don’t offer instruction in techniques – just leave them to work it out. After several generations of this one suspects that art schools often now run away from offering technical instruction, not merely because they have a moral disapproval of doing so, but because those who are supposed to instruct are uneasily aware of their own technical deficiency. In other words, the barrier that once separated the professional artists from those who are self-taught supposed ‘outsiders’ has more or less collapsed. It’s really no accident that Francis Bacon, who never went to art school, is now very probably the most respected, and also the most celebrated, British artist of the 20th century. Joe Machine, starting his creative career in the most unfavorable circumstances on can imagine, has had the courage to remake himself as a whole man.

By Edward Lucie-Smith