Swill Magazine Issue 5 - Out Now

The Bulli-based artist reflects on his love of the quiet, domestic details of ordinary life

Edwina Throbsy

John Bokor
John Bokor - Single Rose and Striped Wallpaper 2021 oil on canvas 122 x144cm
oil on canvas
Gypsy Plate 2020 oil on board 27x30cm
John Bokor - HyperFocal
HyperFocal: 0
When looking at John Bokor’s paintings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re meticulously created from life. The carefully composed table settings, the inviting sitting rooms, the peaceful street scenes. They all look familiar: places you might have visited, couches you may have settled into, cups you might have drunk from when calling in on an old friend. It’s easy to imagine the artist at work, eyes flicking between subject and canvas, faithfully rendering what he sees.

But if you thought this, you’d be wrong. In fact, these days John Bokor is not especially troubled by reality. “I spent years working from life,” Bokor tells me from his cluttered studio. The long, narrow workspace is at the bottom of his house in Bulli, a beachside suburb just north of Wollongong in NSW, where he lives with his wife, teenaged son and his dog, Bird. ”I was always working from still life, set up on a table. And then I had a child. And if you left anything set up, the tablecloth would be pulled and things would fall over. And, you know, it would disappear.”

As the small, destructive hands of his toddler forced Bokor to reset his compo- sitions again and again, it occurred to him that this is actually the way that we live. Family life is seldom still, and it is a rare table that isn’t constantly having things moved around on it. Places are set, food is brought out and consumed, plates are cleared. Reflecting this process in his work became important to Bokor. “Things move and things change,” he says. “And you could make a really static representa- tion of that being just a moment in time. But I kind of like to show lots of different moments, or crash one moment into another. That, to me, is more like what life is.”

When starting a still life, Bokor might first paint in five objects: say, a cup and saucer, a vase with flowers, a piece of fruit, a plate and a knife.The next day, perhaps he’ll paint out the fruit and the plate. And a coffee pot might appear. A few days later, he’ll paint in a jar of jam. What was actually there in the first place becomes less important than how things were lived and experienced. In his finished works, you can see impressions of what has been there before – pencil marks, and ridges where dried paint has been gone over. In this way, Bokor makes explicit the fact that people are never far from these scenes, even though they never actually appear.

“What reason would you have to make something out of paint, instead of something that you can get very quickly and way more accurately, with a lens?,” he asks rhetorically. “Well, you can get the human experience of it, or your interpreta- tion of the human experience. When you work on something, it’s no longer about exactly what it looked like, but more the feelings you have towards it, what it looks like to you, and what it looks like in your fantasies of what it could be. I’m never going to be a camera.”

Bokor does all the cooking for his family, and is close to all the domestic details of family life. Meals get served on handmade crockery, slowly collected over years and now threatening to burst out of cupboards. “I cook all the dinners,” he tells me. “Lunches, too, if anyone’s home. I’ve always loved food. I also really like cookware: knives, chopping boards, the whole lot. I think they’re beautiful objects. I like ceramics too. So I’ll often swap a drawing with a ceramicist and get a couple of plates. And my wife also loves ceramics, so we’ve got more tea cups than anything. They often creep into my work. I like the colours and the textures of them. I like ordinary things.”

In a time where a lot of what’s being made by artists engages with big political themes – climate change, identity, human rights – the fact that Bokor prefers to focus on the quiet, domestic details of ordinary life feels almost radical.

 

This is an excerpt from issue 3 of Swill magazine. Grab your copy today to read the whole thing.

 

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Words

Edwina Throsby

Art

John Bokor

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