detail of a piece by featured artist, Joan Stack. Image taken by Patricia McCormack

A showroom for tomorrow: artist Joan Stack on the marketing of reality and her work at Plymouth Contemporary

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Joan Stack is an Edinburgh-based who’s strayed into the new possibilities of 3-d paint sculptures. Influenced by the prevalence of retail culture, her work ‘and you are like no other’ will be on show at the Plymouth Contemporary. We caught up with her to find out more about how she questions reality

AC: Which of your work is on display at the Plymouth Contemporary?

JS: I will be exhibiting a sculptural installation entitled ‘and you are like no other’. It is comprised of multiple steel baskets, with constructed fake plant-like shapes inside.

AC: Could you describe your work?

JS: My work has evolved over the last number of years. I initially studied Painting in the Limerick School of Art and Design, Limerick, Ireland. I was interested in paint as a material, and focused primarily on the creation of imaginary landscapes or abstracted landscapes.

Soon after completing my degree I moved into Wickham Street Studios where I began to experiment with collage and 3 dimensional drawings and sculptures. I think I began to struggle with paint and how I was using it and desired to move away or at least in another direction for a while. I guess in that time frame of being in Wickham and before I moved to Edinburgh in 2014 my main focus was on trying to find new direction in my practice which excited me. Shifting from working in 2 dimensions to 3 provided me with new possibilities.

The opportunity to study for my MFA in Edinburgh College of Art gave me the space, facilities and opportunity to carry out this research.

I would describe my work as being somewhere between painting and sculpture, paint-sculptures perhaps, there is still so much for me to learn on a material level and that is definitely motivating new works.

AC: Currently your work is investigating the ‘marketing of reality through retail visual marketing’. How far do you see this retail marketing stretch into modern life?

JS: My research and recent works have been heavily influenced by retail – physical retail environments, advertising and especially window or in store retail displays.

I first became interested in this while working part time in the sector during my studies. I became fascinated with how trends informed or made people’s decisions for them, clothing, food eg. Pre-packaged, sliced fruit being sold in small bags as opposed to actual apples. I was reading more and more about consumer culture and cultures of convenience and began to consider retail as this place almost separate from reality. This is when I came upon the concept: the marketing of reality.

Our reality is retail marketing, it’s everywhere, buses, bus shelters, our phones, in our social media news feeds, it’s constant – fast fashion, lifestyle aesthetics, it’s almost like we are in a showroom for tomorrow.

AC: You ask of your work if it’s an idea of the future you’re creating. Would you be able to give some clues as to the possible future your work presents?

JS: I think everyone is concerned with the future or ideas about possible futures. I was initially drawn to applying for Plymouth Contemporary as it focused on ideas relating to Visions or alternative realities.

I guess in my work I see nature as an area which has seen great advancements in terms of synthetic biology, the design of nature and its manipulation and how we have created a synthetic aesthetic for ourselves; but also as an area which has witnessed much abuse and misuse.

I am intrigued by fake plastic plants and how they are stand ins for the real thing. I wonder sometimes what that means, to buy and have a fake plant, if it is just about convenience? I would like to think my work questions what is real, by creating a situation for the viewer which is visually stimulating and appears almost like a showroom, where hyperreal versions of plants are presented that it will somehow make you more aware of how fake it really is.

AC: You say you identify as a painter, how does that sensibility inform your diversification into installation – as well as your desire to move into video works? Do you see a time you’ll move back into painting?

JS: When I applied for my MFA in Contemporary Art Practice in Edinburgh College of Art, it was with a proposal to work towards an expanded painting practice. As I mentioned earlier, it was an original desire to construct 3 dimensional objects which saw me move in a new direction.

I see the work I make now as painting and describe them as paint sculptures, I still look at and collect random images from magazines and papers and assess them as I would a painting. I still think about pictorial sensibilities when I am coming up with ideas in studio. Collage in 2 dimensions is one of the first things I do before attempting something sculpturally. Painting informs every aspect of my move into installation, it really excites me.

I see myself as moving around somewhere in painting, so I never really left it.

AC: How has your work changed over time?

JS: The most notable development has been the progression from working in 2 to 3 dimensions, but also in terms of my research interests, beginning initially with an interest in landscape painting.

Early on in my degree in the Limerick School of Art and Design I was composing alternate or imagined spaces where the only people present were the viewers of the work. Now I want the viewer to move around within the work itself, to experience ideas in a shared physical space.

AC: You had a residency in the Irish Museum of Modern Art, how did this help your development and should there be more of these sorts of opportunities available?

JS: I was awarded the residency not long after graduating and knew it would be an amazing developmental opportunity. So many people choose to study art but the path once you complete a degree can be difficult to navigate.

The residency gave me the time and space to re focus and its where I began a series of small scale 3 d collages which would eventually lead onto the path I am on now. At the time I was based in Wickham Street Studios in Limerick City, so the chance to have a studio space in Dublin for 3 months was really beneficial, in terms of the studio visits that took place and also being able to see what was happening in the Dublin art scene.

The residency greatly impacted on my work, in a subtle way at first, but in later months upon reflection I realised I was slowly beginning to make the shift to working in sculpture and installation. I learned a lot while there and it gave me a real sense of what participating in a residency programme was about and how to make the most of it.

After graduating it was incredibly important to me to have a studio space and feel part of a community where I could continue to develop as an artist.

It is wonderful when you are invited to participate in an exhibition, group discussion or residency but equally important is seeking out opportunities for your work through various platforms, and seizing as many breaks as you can. There should be more opportunities for emerging artists, these could take a number of forms – studio bursaries, subsidised studios or even material bursaries.

AC: You’re an Irish artist working Edinburgh and taking part in an exhibition in Plymouth. You’ve also had work shown in the Tate and in Los Angeles. How well does art travel? Is it able to transcend borders and how important is your background to making your work?

JS: One of the biggest differences I notice from completing my undergraduate degree and completing my MFA is the influence of social media, especially platforms like Instagram or Facebook.

It is no longer enough to have a website, so much is happening in digital platforms, opportunities to show in exhibitions, online residencies and so on. I believe in accepting as many opportunities as I can whether it’s an exhibition or educational opportunity.

There are so many ways in which to get your work out there and to bring it to new audiences; you are not limited to your location. I see Edinburgh as a base, and another place in which I have sought to develop my practice as an artist. Depending on the type of work one makes there can be challenges in showing work especially if transport is required. But these things can be overcome.

I definitely believe that art can transcend borders, and although there is nothing quite like seeing an artwork in person, we live in a world where there are now more ways to engage with art and I think that’s amazing.

I hope that my work speaks for itself, perhaps my background can provide some context for the viewer, or factors which influenced my development as an artist, but it’s really all about the work.

AC: Could you describe your artistic process? Does it start with an idea, or with materials? And do you take cues from other artists or movements?

JS: For me it starts with an initial curiosity for a particular material or colour, the form can be anything but recently I am drawn to plant or organic forms. Then it moves into experimentation, in my sketchbook or in Photoshop. I usually work on a number of different things at the same time, and develop small studies before working on a larger scale.

My process as an artist is constantly evolving and there is no one way of making, but it usually starts with drawing.

Installation artists Isa Genzken, Sarah Sze and Haegue Yang continuously provide inspiration for me.

AC: What are your favourite ‘action words’?

JS: Paint, throw, skip, run!

AC: Joan Stack, thank you for your time!

Joan Stack | Twitter: @joan_stack

Plymouth Contemporary | Twitter: @PlymouthContemp

(image: detail of a piece by featured artist, Joan Stack. Image taken by Patricia McCormack)