John Honeywill

John Honeywill is an artist of observation. His still-life paintings render his observations of quiet moments of everyday, domestic objects. From a vase of wilting flowers to a delicious piece of Turkish delight, his paintings observe the presence and stillness of the object in a moment in time. Removed from their context, the subject matter of Honeywill’s hyper-realistic paintings is not driven by telling a narrative but, rather, by capturing the intrigue that first caught his eye. Artist Profile met with Honeywill in his Brisbane studio to discuss what captures his attention and why he is enticed by the simple things that surround him.

You’ve balanced your art-making with being a high school visual arts teacher your whole career. Is routine a big part of the practice?
Yes. Often I won’t start painting until 8:30 or sometimes 9pm – often when you’re least wanting to go painting. So that thing of the discipline of just forcing yourself to go to the studio is important. But once you get down there and turn on the music or the radio and start painting, it’s all good. And there is the advantage of the holidays – usually a time in which I work intensely.

Do you usually set a theme and paint towards an exhibition in that manner?
I don’t sit down and go, “Alright, the next group of works will be such and such.” It’s just something that comes. If there is that cohesion with a show, often that’s just something that’s come about on an intuitive basis. You discover something and then that leads to something else that is connected, and which leads to something else.
The underlying theme of last year’s show was to introduce more colour into the work. This was a result of six weeks in Italy and just looking at art. It was just a fantastic trip; the colour from the Early Renaissance work is amazing, and so I said to myself, “If they could do that kind of colour 500 years ago, what am I doing?” So, there was that real desire to introduce more colour and to have kind of a lightness too.

You paint within the realm of still-life – a genre you love. How do you go about finding subject matter?
Well, invariably it’s things that come into the house, in a lot of cases they’ll be things that just start attracting my eye, and sometimes that can be a quick thing. There’s a little jug of wooden spoons that’s on top of the fridge at the moment that has kept pulling at me for the last week. So I go through a period of verification in a way, asking “Is that something that would be good to paint?” There is also the thing of questioning: “Does it have what I want? Does it deserve to be painted? Just because it looks good or is attractive or whatever, does it meet the things that I want in my paintings?”

What are some of the qualities of an object that draw you back and speak to you, or make it deserving of being painted?
Sometimes it will be a formal visual quality, but this is never really enough. Up until recently a significant thing was the relationship between the objects, and that’s still there, but often it’s an irrational relationship which many people have done for decades or centuries. There’s no rational connection between them, yet within a still-life they will have that conversation so it makes it an interesting thing. Other times it might be the quirkiness; a little bit of humour like the Random House box. That one is a good example of how things will just kind of nag at me. I had a box of books at work, in a Random House box, and they just sat on the floor in my office at work. I kept looking at it and laughing at it and, “Yeah, it’s a Random House.” But, it would have been a couple of weeks where, not really on a conscious level, I’d be looking at it and then eventually, I thought “Oh!”. So, I brought it home, set it up with lighting and painted it.

There is a very conscious stillness to your paintings. They feel like really marked moments, like they are championing the object themselves.
It’s always amusing in that people often very graciously say that at my exhibitions. Obviously that’s something I’m after, that stillness, but that’s also an absurdity. “It’s a painting, of course it’s going to be still.” But in reality it is a central aim of my work and something I am not fully aware of if I have succeeded until I see an exhibition up.

But, as objects they are presented in isolation – they stand alone, quietly in the picture plain.
Well, the paintings are not naturalistic paintings in any way – they’re not a still-life of a domestic scene. That hasn’t been something that’s ever interested me. What I’m interested in is the act of looking, perceiving an object and trying to capture more – its presence, and also the relationship to the space around it. That’s the most important thing really, and that’s why when I paint I do all the background first because that seems to be the most critical part for me.

Still-life painting sometimes gets a bad rap as being a bit “old fashioned” or passé, in the context of contemporary art. I don’t necessarily think that, but I’m interested to hear what it is that draws you to the genre and your subject matter.
Art is about the relationship you have with your world and my world is here, so there will be naturally that domestic aspect. It isn’t about a corner of the house, it is purely about the objecct to it, but my interest in still-life isn’t that domestic scene. It isn’t about a corner of the house, it is purely about the object and the objects are things that l like. I like to paint objects which have served us, not on a sentimental level but objects which have acquired a human quality over time. I’ve always wondered what it is about the singular nature in my work – often my works have that very singular central thing which is potentially a very boring composition, but it is like an offering in a sense. Sometimes it will be when people give me something. A few years back Trish, my wife, gave me a bundle of wrapped fabric, asking, “How would this be to paint?”. That is her making me that offering, and in my painting it, it is a kind of return offering I give back.

You’ve said before that your paintings are often a conversation, they’re talking to us about what they are, they’re histories …
They all have meaning attached to them, whether it’s the meaning of the fact that someone has given it to me or the meaning that’s imbued in the object. However, an intentional meaning is not something I want to get caught up with – paintings as a narrative. So that’s why I just always call them dumb names, like ‘Lavender’ and ‘Jar’ to avoid that. But, at the same time they do have all that stuff in them, well that is the hope.

John Honeywill is represented by Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane

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