John Westmark’s paintings convey a sound sense of composition and an attention to detail that allows conceptual elements to be seamlessly woven through the narrative without diminishing the aesthetic of the work. By these means he is able to create a subtle intellectual dialogue that quietly speaks of sociopolitical issues and gender.
The context, imagery, narrative and media are all carefully considered. His work comments on the portrayal of women in art from the standpoint of a contemporary male artist and feminist. Aesthetically his work has common threads with diverse genres including: Western formal portraiture; Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints; early 20th Century Russian propaganda posters, and monumental Mexican muralism. These paintings are grounded in art histories, drawing on archetypes to both document and question the portrayal of women, gender status, and power relationships.
He presents his female figures as agents of revolt, stoic martyrs, or fantastical beings. In every instance the identity of the figure is obscured by wraps, bonnets and bound faces. It is hard to avoid parallels with the use of clothing such as the burqa to mask sexuality, especially as the unavoidable “male gaze” remains a disquieting discussion in regard to the depiction of women by male artists. The absence of religious or cultural cues suggests it is more likely a devise to create ambiguity; a void in which meaning is sought through dialogue rather than dictate. The anonymous nature of these veiled entities poses the question of where the privilege of choice, control and power lies.
Much of his current work incorporates store-bought paper sewing patterns applied directly to the canvas - his interest being, “the metaphorical potential of unorthodox materials”. This particular material provides a rich stream of associated themes creating an undercurrent to the main narrative. We can choose to draw on feminist discourse regarding the role of fashion in the repression and/or liberation of women; or make reference to sewing and homemaking skills; or we can admire the nature of the material within the construct of the work as a whole.
Westmark explains that, “By embellishing the garment patterns with custom text from contemporary feminist writing and criticism, a conceptual narrative is created alongside the existing material narrative of imprinted assembly instructions. This added textual narrative disrupts the nostalgic or stereotypical notion of “women’s work” and admits an aggressive feminist dialogue into the visual conversation. The viewer is asked to read both the text embedded surface and the image.”
Remembering John Westmark’s 2014 solo exhibition Narratives, Amanda Breen, Curatorial Assistant at Gibbes Museum of Art, comments that, “it took me longer than I’d like to admit for me to realize these subtle messages the artist weaved into each piece. This realization forced me to slow down and examine each work closely. No longer just figures on the canvas, these small lines of text added to my interpretation of the piece and I eagerly sought out new details I may have missed.”
The strength of John Westmark’s work lies in the nuanced way in which he combines conceptual threads with skilled manipulation of material to create visually engaging paintings. The work would fail if the paintings could not stand in their own right as powerful compositions, provoking an emotional and intellectual response.
John Westmark received an MFA from the University of Florida and a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute. His work is held in numerous private and public collections including the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington DC; Weisman Art Foundation and Museum, Malibu, CA; Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Omaha, NE; Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; and the Kansas City Art Institute. John’s work was also selected for the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program. John is the recipient of two Individual Florida Artist Grants. In 2011, John was awarded a Pollock-Krasner grant and was selected as a finalist for the Arte Laguna Prize, Venice, Italy.
In 2012, John was awarded The Gibbes Museum Factor Prize for Southern Art (Charleston, SC). The Factor Prize acknowledges an artist whose work demonstrates the highest level of artistic achievement in any media while contributing to a new understanding of art in the American South. In 2014, John was a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant nominee. John’s work has been featured in New American Paintings, American Art Collector, Studio Visit Magazine, Surface Design Journal and Art in America.