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Jack in the bardo

The painter emerges from hibernation. Arthur Hawkes speaks with Jack Trolove about his wilful artistic isolation.

Jack Trolove in the studio inspecting Thresholding

Painter Jack Trolove has become a hermit, shutting himself in his Paparoa home studio for up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for the past four months. Unlike Goya two centuries prior, Jack has not been wracked with psychological darkness during his isolation or painted on his walls. But he has been exploring the time before and after darkness; the twilights of dawn and dusk. Jack discovered the word crepuscular, referring to these twin periods, shortly before commencing the suite of 11 large paintings for his exhibition at Pātaka, Thresholding.

His previous shows, Mangrove (2020) and Keening (2021) also examined liminality, the transitory phase of something becoming something else. Mangroves are, of course, trees that grow where the sea becomes land. Keening refers to Gaelic laments for the deceased – a traditional Scottish and Irish ritual at the boundary of life and death, and by extension, any such wailing or lamenting.

“My practice has been about thinking of these boundaries as manifestations or bodies,” says Jack. “For Thresholding I’ve been spending time in the dusk and dawn watching how light behaves, and how my feelings and sensations are modified by these times.” Jack has a lot to say on the theory underpinning his art. He’s two years into a PhD, which he’s paused because of other commitments. Its focus is on the intersection between keening and painting. Is this theory manifest in his practice? There are certain areas where the synergy is clear.

Jack Trolove, Turlough (detail), 2022

Jack’s style for the past eight years has typically involved depicting faces, with striking eyes, emerging from thick impasto. Their expression resists easy recognition. Strained or blissful? Sad or overjoyed? We remain unsure. The layers are worked quickly, while still wet. The layer we actually see represents only the final few hours’ work. “By the time I get to that last point, managing exhaustion and tiredness becomes tricky – there have been times where I’ve ruined everything at the last minute.” The resulting visage emerges from broad strokes of the palette knife and brushwork around the eyes: a figure in some kind of transition.

The palettes are also, to use Jack’s mot juste, crepuscular. His paintings are full of the ochres and rusty oranges that follow sunset, the purples of twilight, or the ethereal whites and cyans of a misty morning. Colours are recalled from memory: a certain dawn or dusk experienced in the Northland bush. “Finding the colour is a bit like speaking a different language: you say it in English first, then translate it in your head. It’s the same with mixing paint: you think of the colour, then you think of the pigments you need to mix.” After several weeks of painting, this translation process quickened, then dissolved entirely. “A whole day had passed and I hadn’t worked out a colour recipe at all. I’d think of a colour, my hands would make it, and then it was on the canvas. It felt like being fluent.”

The threshold between night and day is also made manifest in the exhibition space. The walls in the gallery have been painted a deep midnight blue, with lighting on a timer to simulate the sun rising and setting repeatedly over a few minutes. Jack says this idea came from a moment late at night in the studio. “I ended up going in there at two in the morning, not turning on the lights, and having this amazing experience of being able to read the paintings in very low, almost non-existent light – it was really pivotal.”

Curator Mark Hutchins-Pond describes the colour theory behind this feature: “Lower light activates the cool section of the colour spectrum. This recedes as the light level increases and warmer colours become more prominent. Blues and greens activate first; then the purples and mauves as the light gets brighter; then reds, oranges, and yellows at the brightest setting – so the paintings become animated in the changing light.”

“Liminality” certainly gets bandied about in arts academia. But is its invocation here theory for the sake of theory? Jack says not. As part of the public programme of the exhibition he’ll be hosting a panel discussion with trans and gender diverse artists called Trans Ways of Making, about the idea of exploring transitory spaces (mangroves, keeners, dusk and dawn). He says these communities – his communities – represent unique ways of seeing and making art, which is another source of inspiration. “There’s lots of pathologising: people want to know what’s wrong. I want to flip that and uncover the strengths and unique approaches; the ways in which this between-ness can be a useful artistic methodology for creating work.”

First published in Art Zone #91


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