LONG MUSEUM WEST BUND
From January 13 to March 24, 2024, the staircase gallery of the Long Museum (West Bund) will present Psychopomp, artist William Monk’s first museum solo exhibition in Asia. The show consists of 19 paintings created between 2019 and 2023. Produced over the last four years, the canvases are as autobiographical as they are abstract. Having lived in cities such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York, much of the work in this exhibition was made in his studio in London where he was quarantined during the pandemic and his studio in Brooklyn, New York.
Monk is a seer of sorts, using his canvases as portals into another realm. Whether that realm is one of fantasy or reality, only he may know. Working with oil paint on canvas, the artist moves through and onto each surface as if guided by a spiritual source. His work traverses any definition of time, harkening back to a moment not easily defined in art history. It’s as if a natural phenomena has taken place on each surface, an eclipse of sorts. The paintings are abstract and strangely recognizable, even if the viewer just grasps at visual symbols in hopes of finding clarity or familiarity. His thin applications of paint are a gauzy curtain that if shifted would reveal a window into a new or different world. One might think of the concept of journeying through time or what others might see as a result of a Vision Quest Ceremony, an entryway into the subconscious mind. Monk’s work opens a vast if uncanny dialogue with a higher power that seems to be a guiding force.
In a body of work titled, The Ferryman (2019-2022), Monk conjures what could be figures, sculptural and unnamed, that emerge from landscapes only defined by color fields. Warm pinks, rusty brick colored reds, earthen hues, and pastel blue together in conglomerate form a mountainous triangular shape. Centrally placed, architectural figures sit or stand right on the edge of the canvas, cropped just above what would be the waist. With titles such as Underworld Psychopomp (the ferryman), 2020-2022, and The Ferryman (ship of fools), 2019-2022, Monk allows for a vagueness or distance that is just far enough for inquiry and wonder. Indeed the ferryman, in Monk’s mindseye, emerges from dissecting the cover artwork from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, a metaphorical symbol of youth.
Parallel to The Ferryman, a series of circular canvases are on view. Volleying in coloration between shades of bright yellow, pink and deep violet, at first glance they look like large pupils or the globular expanse of the sun. Each of these works are painted with strokes that go inward bringing our gaze into an apex of light, Son (return I, II, III), 2021-2022, or darkness, Nova (deadeye I, II, III), 2021-2022, respectively. Like the non-descript figures in The Ferryman, these circular paintings seem to embody or summon a far-off star. Yet, whereas The Ferryman are grounded, these are ethereal and without gravity, installed in succession, appearing to float. The circular forms are an illusion of classic perspective, each surface becoming slightly smaller, traversing space. Monk moves his brush lyrically on each surface, as if through a hallucinogenic lens, a distant memory, or a recurring dream.
The use of the word son is repeated once again in Son of Nowhere, a series of four, nearly square paintings made in 2023. These, unlike the spiritual or figurative notations in the aforementioned canvases, feature stark rectangular forms painted in muted shades of seafoam blues, deep clay orange, and an unsuspecting yellow. The painted totems sit on the lower edge of the canvases, pointed towards the same pale pink sky, situated on the same lightly defined sandy earth.
In an interview with Dan Golden for Curator William Monk stated, “I think very much about how an individual might be in front of my work.” He continues, describing environment and installation, “Space and time are everything. It takes time to take in space. Our eyes will track across a space, a painting or a room or anything. It will track and stop only at a point of contrast. Let that moment be special. Beautiful or disturbing — whatever, but let it not be a waste of our time.”
All of the paintings in Psychopomp conceptually create space for an expansive interpretation to seek beyond what is earthly, and without walls. Painting can be just that. The artist seeks truth whether personal or collective. It's this same passion and obsession that Monk embodies in his Smoke Ring Mountain series —one that may even happen after staring too long at the sun.
“A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky,” said Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. The artist’s mountain has been made using Pointillism, numerous small, colorful dots. Corresponding with the soft tonality and subtle palette of each work, Monk is able to navigate a microcosm all his own within the scope of the canvas. Without any direct references to figuration or narrative representation outside of what is proposed through the title, the world within the Smoke Ring Mountain series is reliant upon the relationship between the audience and the landscape in which it exists.
William Monk’s paintings delve into metaphorical arenas. They encapsulate complex narratives without ever having to use the written or spoken word. And where the unspoken might at once seem like a void, in this exhibition it is indeed filled with a metaphysical blueprint, just like the star we may never see with the naked eye, invisible but ever present.
Text by Katy Diamond Hamer
About the Artist
William Monk (b. 1977, Kingston upon Thames, United Kingdom) is known for his vibrant compositions that feature mysterious and otherworldly forms. The artist’s semi-abstract paintings are deeply engaged with the rich tradition and history of the medium. Monk paints enigmatic and vibrant works, using starkly divisional compositions and often works in extensive series that gradually evolve over time. The canvases carry irregular intensities of detail, line, foreground and background, a sense of repetition breaks down the figuration, creating visual mantras. This rhythm happens throughout Monk’s work, surrendering figurative logic to arrive at something stranger and more powerful. Atmospheric and energetic, these paintings invite a more direct physical connection, drawing in the space between our inner and outer realms of experience.
He was awarded the Koninklijke Prijs voor Vrije Schilderkunst (Dutch Royal Award for Painting) in 2005 and the Jerwood Contemporary Painters award in 2009. Monk’s work has been exhibited at Pace Gallery, Hong Kong, London, and New York; Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, Netherlands; Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen, Netherlands; Kunstmuseum, The Hague; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Norwich University, Norwich; PSL, Leeds; and Summerfield Gallery, Cheltenham, London. His work can be found in the collections of the Kunstmuseum, The Hague; He Art Museum, Foshan, China; Long Museum, Shanghai; Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; AkzoNobel Art Foundation, Amsterdam; Roberts Institute of Art, London; Fries Museum, Leeuwarden; ING Art Collection, Amsterdam; Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, Manchester; ICA Miami; Blenheim Art Foundation; Marciano Art Foundation, and in many private collections. The artist lives and works in New York.