The Belfast studio of abstract artist Jack Coulter is a mess. Layers of house paint coat the concrete floor from years of energetic, sometimes frenzied, painting. Random objects lie on the shelves including a vintage Olivetti typewriter, a candelabra, an odd shoe, countless tins of paint and a Panasonic radio from 1977; all of which are splattered with multi-coloured specks of paint.
“When I first started to paint I just used what was lying around. That shoe, this stick, whatever I could find, really,” says Jack, speaking from the Victorian former-outhouse-turned studio where he has put paint to canvas since he was a teenager. “I’d never used brushes before – not to be nonconformist – but purely because I didn’t have them. Recently I’ve started using them as I’ve found depicting certain elements of a musical piece is easiest with the movement of a brush.”
These artworks are created while listening to particular songs. Music informs his practice, not just through the atmosphere it sets or the rhythm and composition of a piece, but through the hyperreal colours each note conjures in his mind. As a synesthete, Jack experiences colour when he hears sounds. Synaesthesia, the neurological condition affecting up to four percent of the population, is experienced when two or more of the senses blend. In Jack’s case, the dominance is sound to colour, known as chromesthesia, and the one most often linked to creativity. Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, Duke Ellington and David Hockney are among a growing list of artists who have had or have the condition. With a perpetual influx of colour, “sometimes faded, sometimes very strong, but a lot of it is dictated by emotion”, Jack has found painting to be a form of release. “It has really helped me and it’s the time when I feel most comfortable,” he says.Jack’s preferred way of working is with a large canvas on the floor. He paints fast, leaning his body over the work-in-progress. The sense of urgency and aggression in his mark-making is palpable, more a compulsion to release his feelings onto the blank canvas than a considered painting. “It's that psychic automatism thing where I step into a completely different space when I'm painting,” he explains. “If I'm in a mood, something needs to come out and I instantly feel better when I've got something to represent what I was feeling.” The resulting works are dramatic and visceral, full of energy and complex emotion.
Since painting his first large-scale work titled, 1994 (the year he was born), Jack has won legions of fans for his vivid and harmonic paintings. Before graduating from Belfast School of Art, he was already working on commissions including the album art for Northern Irish indie-folk musician SOAK. In 2018 he painted Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto live with London Chamber Orchestra in front of a full audience and the same year he collaborated on the album artwork for Brit Award-winning musician Jack Garratt. Collectors include Anne Hathaway, Antoni Porowski and Ben Lovett, to name a few. “Jack’s paintings are so visually evocative you can see the music and feel the emotion of the song he’s painting,” says Rain Phoenix, who commissioned Jack to paint the song Lost in Motion from her album River. The proceeds from which went to the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding. “He’s all heart and no artifice – the truth of his expression shines through every piece,” adds Rain.Now 26-years-old, the Northern Irish painter feels he is developing his technique and finding a greater understanding of how the artists he admires have worked. He references American abstract expressionist painters Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, along with his late Aunt Christine (also an abstract painter) as his favourite artists. “I just felt like they were talking to me, you know? I saw the work and I was like, that's me,” he says. “I've learned a lot from Joan Mitchell about leaving space, structurally. The whites and creams she used as backdrops really gave power to the colour she’s done over the top. It’s very chaotic but also so structured at the same time, which I love.”
Having never exhibited a solo show with a gallery nor been managed, Jack is creating his own path in the world of art, taking commissions and opportunities he feels energised by, offering pieces to charity and refining his style with hours spent each day in his studio. He is in the process of opening his own virtual gallery called Coulter Gallery, a focus which allows him to work on another passion: composing his own music to work to. Jack learned to play a multitude of instruments growing up, including the violin, viola and piano. He knows, for example, that “strings are always varying shades of white” and there are continuous colours that he sees with a repeated sound, which he attempts to recreate by mixing his own pigments. The resulting pieces flow with a balance of colour and space, control and uncontrol. “Rhythm really is the most important aspect of my work,” he enthuses. “Structurally, poetically, musically, it’s everything.”
Interview by Andie Cusick.
All images courtesy of Jack Coulter.
From top: Jack Coulter, detail of 'Translation (2) Color of Change', 2020, 60 x 48 inches. Jack Coulter, detail of ‘1994’, 2012. 100 x 70 inches. Jack Coulter, self portrait, 2018. Studio detail. Jack Coulter, National Panasonic Radio. Jack Coulter 'Untitled 27'. Jack Coulter, second detail of ‘1994’, 2012. 100 x 70 inches.