Artist Jack Penny on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Enduring Allure
The North London artist longs for old New York.
This interview was first published on Arteviste. It has been lightly edited.
I first encountered the British painter Jack Penny at his 2015 debut exhibition, “The Strain,” at Studio Sienko. A Renaissance man, Penny is a trained skipper, skateboarder, and artist who isn’t afraid of rolling up his sleeves. Often found at his easel in a French blue de travail jacket and matching cap, the Chichester-born artist has traveled the world, but is now based in North London. With a background in illustration, Penny works from his imagination to create images fueled by a spontaneous energy and fluid painting style, which have attracted an impressive client list across Europe.
Penny works on paper and canvas using watercolors, inks, and oils as he draws from European and American modernists such as Richard Diebenkorn and Édouard Vuillard. As an emerging artist of the digital generation, he is just as happy taking inspiration from his Instagram feed as he is from sculptures of classical antiquity. Penny simply believes, he told us, that “there needs to be a sense of struggle in each painting…but however wildly the work comes across, they must seem considered. They should not sit in the background. They must demand attention.”
Following the success of Penny’s exhibitions last year at Cob Studios in Camden as well as the Mercer Chance gallery in Hoxton, the artist is spending the winter painting alone in a studio on a boatyard in West Sussex.
As he prepares for his next exhibition, there’s now more energy than angst. Perhaps we should all be moving to the seaside for a little inspiration?
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your passion for art?
I don’t think there was ever a pivotal moment, because I’ve been leading up to it my whole life. I’ve been painting obsessively since I was a child.
What piece of your work would you like to be remembered for?
I think it’s yet to be created, but perhaps that’s just the mentality of an artist. For me though, the body of work over a lifetime is just as important as individual works. It shows you have longevity as an artist.
If you could be born in another period of history, when would it be?
I’d go back to the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York and become part of the Neo-Expressionist movement. This was before New York was cleaned up, and when all of the art and music had a real energy to it. I’m drawn to it because it seems that people were hungry for success and recognition, but wanted it without becoming part of the conceptual art clique.
Another reason i’m drawn to those decades is that this was all happening before the internet. Connections were made through face-to-face conversations and everyone had to actually go to a space and see the art in real life before deciding if they liked it or not. The internet means that you can see so much more, and [doing so is] much easier, but I fear that it has made everyone more passive.
How would you define beauty in 140 characters or less?
Beauty is bi-product of something organic and natural. It’s something that is often gone by the time that we realize that it’s beautiful at all. You can’t hold on to the feeling or experience.
Do you have a favorite book, film or painting, which inspires you?
I have specific things that I find inspirational like blues music, but mostly I’m inspired by anyone who makes it. The musician Lhasa de Sela, who sings in Spanish, French, and English, is one of my biggest inspirations. I can’t even explain why, but some things are just brilliant and not being able to explain it is probably one of the reasons I like them.
What is your greatest indulgence in life?
Being on my own.
What fictional character from literature or film would you like to meet?
Do you believe that true creative expression can exist in the digital world?
Of course. The digital world has changed the way people view art and in many ways has made it more accessible. Although I’m not necessarily involved in digital art, I have an appreciation for people that can express themselves through modern technology. Art exists in all mediums—it’s the person behind the paintbrush or computer who is making the art, not the medium they are using.
What do you wish every child were taught?
I wish they were taught less and left alone a bit more. There is too much rammed down our throats from the very beginning. I believe that we need to let children just exist and give them space.
Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
Every other day, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
What is your favorite museum or art gallery and why?
The Imperial War Museums, London, because it has always intrigued me how human beings can choose to be so destructive. When you go into a war museum, you get the same feeling as when you see an accident—you can’t look away.
Who would you most like to collaborate with and why?
If I could bring him back from the dead, it would definitely be the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. I would love to work alongside him, because his work has a childish flair and he has an organic eye for design.
What is your daily routine when working?
I wake up at 8:30 a.m. when my girlfriend leaves for work at the Sarabande Alexander McQueen Foundation, which supports talented young creatives. I then have a coffee and cigarette while listening to some music like perhaps Abner Jay—an old blues/folk man from Georgia.
Painting is a really physical thing for me, so I’d then effectively ‘warm-up’. I sketch with both hands to get in the flow of just making marks and getting the brain going. Then I’ll look through my art books. If I don’t have a painting on the go then I’ll start sketching ideas to build up a painting. On a good day I could lay in 2 to 3 paintings, but on a bad day I could fill a whole sketchbook with complete madness that doesn’t mean anything.
What has been your most inspiring travel experience?
The times when I lived in other countries, like Switzerland or France, have always been the most inspirational moments. By really living there for a while, I find I can really get a feeling of what the place is about, not only skim the surface.
What advice would you give to a young person following in your footsteps?
Make sure you actually love it, because it’s hard.
Why do you love what you do?
Painting is the only time I feel comfortable. It’s the only time I’m not wondering if I am doing the right thing.
Flora Alexandra Ogilvy is the founder of the digital arts platform Arteviste, which supports the emerging art market across London, Berlin, and New York.
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