John Marshall - Meet the man behind the cows...
Posted on 12 June 2018
We are asked many questions about the cows of Two Kats and a Cow. Collected and exhibited across the globe, the artist went from 'feeling like an extreme failure' to overnight success. We caught up with the artist John Marshall in his studio to find out more about the story behind the work, and the man behind the cows...
What is the story behind the cows and how have they held your interest for so many years?
JM: I used to paint nudes, a lot of them. I had another series of nudes requested for a theatre and I just really couldn’t face painting them, so I replied saying I’m not painting them anymore. I was then asked what was I painting? Cows, I replied (thinking that would end the conversation) however they requested cows, so I painted them. It's an absurd anecdote, but it's true!
When I started painting cows it was properly left-field and punk, a cow was the most absurd thing to put on your wall, I mean who was going to stick a cow on their wall?! However I seemed to attract the most flamboyant people who stepped forward and said I’m going to stick a cow on my wall, and so it began. It was moving away from more traditional ideas of what art we bring into our spaces, and became more of a statement. I was painting on the seafront and to sell these there was just the strangest place to which to sell them.
Cows were invisible, there was no one else painting them and over the years it’s become a genre in its own right. I’ve created a bit of a monster, which does pain me. There are so many shabby interpretations, that the genre has become very diluted with the appearance of so many 'fluffy' copies. I could always move away and paint something else but because this is almost expected I actually want to do the opposite.
Whilst having the same subject could be seen as restrictive it’s actually been hugely liberating. Career artists often get pinpointed by technique, but the cows have allowed me to constantly evolve my technique; they’re not portraits, they’re paintings. Consequently they remain forever beyond the copyists. Cows were invisible and I inadvertently forced people to view cattle differently and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved.
Can you tell us a little more about each of the cows currently exhibiting at Two Kats and a Cow?
JM: I was heavily binge watching the series Madmen, and there was a particular scene where Peggy and Mark would heavily rasp the name ‘John’ and ‘Marsha’ to each other. Don’t know why but it just stuck. The ice blue background is a colour that I never normally use, but it was really inspired by the 50’s decor of the boardrooms and offices of the show. The cow itself is a Charolais, a hefty often drooling breed and often tricky to paint, but this particular female just had a very good nose.
JM: This is really a spin off from the Degas phase. It was a conscious decision to expose the flaws of painting. He was from a rare breed show in Cranleigh, West Sussex. For the last 5 years, commercial herds just don’t go to shows, mostly to prevent a TB epidemic, so pretty much all the cows I now paint are from ‘micro herds’ basically pets. Bergen remains one of my favourites.
JM: I found this cow in Cranleigh, West Sussex - she’s an Irish Moyle, the rarest breed in the world, in fact there are only 147 of them in existence. The name actually came from a friend’s boat. I’d often be painting in the studio and regular facebook updates would show this guy sailing throughout exotic destinations and I guess I just really wanted to be doing the same!
JM: My main tea drinking partner is a metal worker. In his workshop he has rolls of sheet steel. Around this time I was experimenting with backgrounds. Hubble came along with Saturn, and another cow who is soon to join the gallery. I just became fixated with the perfection of these dots. The names of the cows all reference to the cosmos, and exploration into Mars. The name ‘Hubble’ was taken from the Hubble Space Telescope.
JM: I very rarely use black in any of my work, by mixing orange and blue you get the most perfect grey, and these two colour combinations inform pretty much all of my paintings. However I wanted to do something completely different, and break away, hence the golden, buttercup yellow. This painting was really painted for me. The sun was out and the light, fresh colours surrounding my studio really struck me.
'Milford & Bailey'
JM: Milford and Bailey were Degas inspired. I’m preoccupied with hiding the drawing behind the paint. The Degas sketches reminded me that the drawing elements can be celebrated. Milford on Sea is on the coast in the New Forest, I think I was feeling nostalgic for camping trips with my sons. Both cows were from the Bath and West agricultural show.
JM: Horace again has the Degas thing going on too. Horace was an unbelievably cute cow (South of England Show) and almost to subdue the cuteness I painted the Horace ‘splash’. This is all about paint and composition over subject. My favourite motto ‘Carpe Diem’ is attributed to the Roman poet Horace.
JM: Degas has clearly influenced a lot of my work but this painting really came about as a homage to a portrait Degas painted of his brother in law, who was extremely hungover. In the portrait his hair is ruffled and he has a begrudging almost haughty look in his eye, almost that he is pained to be sitting for the artist. I just loved it.
All John's work can be viewed at the Two Kats and a Cow gallery, pop in to take a look, or book an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org