John Stark, The Fall (from Mercurius Complex) 2010, oil on panel, 20 inches diameter
Mercurius Duplex is John Stark's first solo exhibition in the U.S. An innovator in the dark undercurrent of London's contemporary art scene, Stark integrates styles and themes from recent and past artistic traditions to form his own system of meaning. The London-based artist makes his much anticipated American debut with a powerful new series of paintings in oil on wood panel.
The show's title, meaning "Dual Mercury," reflects the artist's conception of his work as a Mercurial marriage of 'high' and 'low' art. Stark's paintings contain a world of desolate landscapes, imaginary destinations appearing at moments in crisp, exacting detail, only to dissolve into light or mist elsewhere. Never giving away too much information, or surrendering to academic formulas, he converses easily with traditions of landscape and figure painting, while also evoking colorful sci-fi posters, or sublime filmic vistas. Stark presents us, in one painting, with a spare, moonlit terrain that echoes the cool stillness of Caspar David Friedrich. In another, he conjures the cosmic symbolism of Albrecht Altdorfer and Matthias Grunewald, painting a vivid sunrise, glowing with otherworldly colors, and lit with hints of meteorological phenomena. Stark updates these German masters with pop culture references, populating his unattainable, foreboding spaces with skulls and grim, hooded figures, which can read dually, as memento mori, or as death/metal insignia.
Stark's symbolic imagery, including flasks and salamanders, explores the medieval history of Mercury as a duplicitous material, identified by alchemists with chaos/order and lunar/solar powers. Drawing viewers into a realm between darkness and light, Stark suspends us within a strange, uncertain time. Is this the end of a forgotten era, or the dawn of a post-industrial age? Using, at every turn, the slippery nature of Mercury as an analogy, he undermines scholarly enquiry with sardonic references to death metal album art. Stark moves deftly back and forth between the roles of a black magician - who masterfully calls forth our superstitions, fears, and fantasies with paint - and a diabolical prankster - who wittily cajoles us into laughing at our own seriousness.