Tulia Thompson talks to Paparoa painter Jack Trolove and considers his new body of work, on show in Auckland from Sunday.
After painting all day, Jack Trolove walks along the mangrove coastline. It is dusk, as the day is turning, dark gathering, the mangroves becoming more shadowy. The way places you love slip into your consciousness, like the phrases and gestures of a loved one. Likewise there is something of in-between states about Jack’s potent new paintings.
The dark eyes in a large oil on raw linen painting, ‘Aerial Roots’, are brimming with tears. The young man looks either triumphant, or destroyed. Which is it? This is what makes painter Jack Trolove’s portraits so compelling. There is the visual immediacy of the faces, often in close-up, simultaneously slipping back into abstract lines of thick, bold paint.
I meet Jack during level two. The required lack of hug feels a bit awkward but necessary, and the vegan cafe is otherwise empty of customers. He is wearing a dull black shirt with muted red roses. He has only just finished painting. He is still “close up in it”. I ask him what it has been like working during lockdown, and he explains he stopped painting. He thought his new exhibition Mangrove at Whitespace in Auckland would be cancelled, and got a shock when it wasn’t.
“I just quit my life in an amazing way.” Instead, he grew vegetables.
Jack lives in a hut in the bush in Paparoa, one and a half hours north of Auckland. “You have to walk through the bush to go to the loo.”
Mangrove, a collection of 11 portraits, draws visual cues from the palate of Trolove’s surroundings, but the central concern of being liminal, between things, is an ongoing preoccupation and lived experience. Mangroves, those dark, waxy, horizon-dwellers that cleave to shoreline, are resolutely intertidal, they can tolerate being submerged in sea water.
‘Aerial Roots’ is so called because of mangrove’s pheumatophones – the muddy sticks you see around mangroves that take oxygen to their roots. A breathing device.
Mangrove has also been propelled by technical and aesthetic curiosity; the thick impasto work Jack has done previously is still exciting to him, but it was a challenge “to work with mark marking”. Colour became “intuitive”. He wanted to create “shifting space”.
The blue eyes in another painting, ‘Bones’, look tired. Maybe his subject is exhausted. Maybe her gentle face is just watching something distant, her mouth uncertain. There are dark greens and browns that harness the work to the earth. Jack feels this painting does what he dreamed for it. Some devastation, some hope. Sometimes when he walks past the studio he says she looks peaceful.
I’ve noticed the same faces popping up between collections. I’m wondering if the paintings are love letters. I ask him what it is like to paint people he is close to. Jack is pragmatic: they are often people around him a lot.
One of the women he paints is a friend, a theatre-maker, a shapeshifter. He uses her form as “scaffolding” or “bones”, but takes the paintings to diverse places.
The portrait is “not recognisable, it has to work to communicate something that is nothing to do with them, or me”.
Jack’s creative process, then, is “being right there with the paint”; to follow the feeling. “Get everything away that isn’t there.” The paintings are their own boss. Jack laughs. “Sometimes they just want to be really beautiful, be really pretty, and I try to ruin them on the way through – argh, it keeps you humble. Creativity leads what is happening.”
In ‘Moss’, the mid-green eyes bring to mind a character in a Mike Leigh film. Is she somebody’s worried mumsy, feeling muted, but painful emotions, while pleading, or acquiescing? Or, is she broken or breaking open? Is she proud? Wide, thickly painted strokes of light green and orange make moss aesthetically present. I remember the phosphorescent moss I’ve seen on slim, even trees in woods in Vancouver; the way in half light, moss appears forward like a sign from the gods.
I ask Trolove about the eyes and repeated form of the uneven teeth. He says they are “a point of deep space on the body, a point of opening you can articulate”. They act as a portal.
Besides, “Teeth are gross and beautiful and weird.”
In ‘The Keener (Salt)’, messy, uneven brushstrokes of thick-black intermingle uncomfortably with pale pink, a sense of unravelling. It is almost uncomfortable to look at. I am conscious of bringing my own story. I ask Trolove if it’s about trauma. He is non-committal. For him there is trauma in the piece, but also hope because of its fluidity. It is more an exploration of form: “How to hold forming and un-forming simultaneously.”
But still, he is happy to “invite hideous spaces”.
Humans often have such a pressing need to name things, and categorise. Why is it that we are also mesmerised by human expressions that are unfathomable? Why does it walk a psychological tripwire into the sacred? I spent a frustrating evening trying to Google insight from art history, which made me deeply regret being someone who writes about art. We are drawn to faces that are enigmatic.
Maybe we are curious. Maybe we can project our own inner world, and feel seen. Our feelings are always complex. When did you ever not feel some relief, alongside your deep despair, or residual sadness creeping in alongside moments of love and joy.
Jack tells me that mangroves germinate self-rhizomatic pods, which spend up to a year floating, until going to where they can survive. There is in these paintings something of how we survive. That is, getting by in heteronormative worlds, until you can burst or bloom or transform. It’s the magick of queer and trans survival. Not feeling seen or heard. Feeling hyper-visible or invisible, not able to be seen. Yet the liminality is broader than gender. It is inhabiting all those in-between places, understanding the transitions between life and death.
Jack came from a large, Irish Catholic family: “Mum was pregnant every two years until I was 14.” He lived with his nana and great-aunty in the old folks home they ran. There was always death and new life.
Mangrove tells stories of ebb and flow, resisting the settling place, finding the places in between. It is embodied, and abstract; passionate and sorrowful. “I keep expecting to be an abstract painter,” Jacks says, “but it just never happens, it is always back to the body.”
Trolove’s paintings seem fit for the strange, clambering and fretful world we live in. I am reminded of black lesbian poet Audre Lorde’s poem ‘Littany for Survival’. “So it is better to speak/ Remembering/ we were never meant to survive.”
Mangrove, Jack Trolove, Whitespace Gallery, Auckland, June 15 to July 10, 2020