sketchbook : Rough justice

Harsh and judgmental, the parables proved a perfect touchstone for Ian Pollock's stark creative vision.

You know Ian Pollock's illustrations from magazines and newspapers, including The Independent. The colours are bright, liquid and luscious, while his figures are raw and distorted, the stuff of nightmares.

The trouble with commercial illustration, he says, is that editors tend to want more of what they have seen before. So in his spare time he has illustrated the Bible's 40 parables, in watercolour, ink and gouache.

An attempt to get away from the horror? Hardly. The biblical world of the parables, he discovered, is full of violence and rough justice. "This has been my way of keeping my edge rough," he says. "Sometimes I feel quite in awe of the parables. They are nasty stories, damning and unforgiving. The Bible addresses the harshness of nature, the culling of the inferior, the condemnation of the failure to procreate. I like the idea. It's so wicked."

Artists of the past, even the Old Masters, have preferred the story of the crucifixion to the parables. That said, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, have been depicted many times before, and Bosch and Brueghel knew how to paint horrors.

Pollock, 49, who graduated from the Royal College of Art, claims to know nothing of past parable painters. But as a child in Manchester in the Fifties he experienced the kind of harsh judgements of nature that the parables seem to applaud. His father made clay pipes, loading 40 or 60 gross into his coal-fired kiln every month - and sometimes the lot was ruined.

"He would come back covered in soot and say either, `We've had a good burn' or `It's gone wrong.' If it went wrong there would be a dreadful atmosphere in the family for weeks."

A moment's inattention, the wrong temperature, bad coal, or a gusty wind, and nature took its unforgiving revenge, just like in the parables. Is that why he took to them? "If you sat me in a psychiatrist's chair," he says, "things might point in that direction."

`The Miracles and Parables' by Ian Pollock is at the Eich Gallery, Humberside University campus, Hull (01482-462-060), until 14 January. www.eichgallery.abelgratis.com

`The Watchful Servants', Luke 12:35-40

"Happy are those servants whom the master finds on the alert when he comes," is the message of the tale. "So interesting, this master-servant hierarchy," muses Pollock. "The waiting is a kind of subjugation. It's still the case - the weaker wait for the more powerful. Employees wait for their employers, students wait for their teachers. It is a vulnerable state." His pair could be prisoners doing time, down-and-outs waiting for Godot, or, Pollock suggests, laboratory animals waiting for the vivisector.

`The Rich Man and Lazarus', Luke 16:19-31

Bad news for the rich. The starving Lazarus goes to Heaven and the rich man who denied him even scraps to eat goes to Hell. "It's that hierarchy again," says Pollock. "It's endemic in the Bible." His Lazarus is painted with fervour - a crouching blob of flesh covered in sores with protruding bones. The dog licks the sores, as do the dogs in the parable. "It's even more disgusting when you update it to contemporary times. I was reminded of the beggars I saw at the gates of Fez, Morocco. They're not erupting in revolt. They know their level. But just what is it that makes one man a beggar and another a Bill Gates? "I feel guilty if I give to a beggar because I believe that people should use their own initiative - but then I feel guilty if I don't. Is there nothing one can do except donate downwards? I'm part of the hierarchy too; there are people much richer than me, yet there's always somebody in the next bed worse off than yourself."

`Vineyard and Householder', Matthew 21:33-42

Pollock found this parable unfathomable. Jesus asks his disciples what the owner of a vineyard would do if its tenants murdered his servants and then his son. The disciples reply that he would bring those bad men to a bad end and give the vineyard to other tenants. "Have you never read in the scriptures?" Jesus retorts reproachfully, before giving an answer that seems to agree with them: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone." Pollock says: "I could get no moral guidance from it." So, since his pictures are designed to "loosely accompany" the parables, he decided on a simple representation of the story's elements - there's the vineyard owner's son, in what these days would be called a life-threatening situation, and there's the vineyard with its tower and tenants.

`The Friend at Midnight', Luke 11:5-13

"Knock, and the door will be opened." The friend's request to borrow three loaves at midnight is so shameless that, according to the parable, the householder must let him in. For Pollock, it's too good to be true. "My nature is to subvert the parable at a playful, family level." So instead of a friend cadging bread, the little boy in his evening bath is confronted with an intruder offering him a scorpion. "It's the sort of practical joke I'm inclined to play, like hiding a plastic spider in the cereal bowl to make my wife scream. I do have a couple of dead scorpions in the house. I brought them back from Morocco."

`New Cloth, Old Garment', Matthew 9:16

A brief quip of a parable, this: "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on to an old coat; for then the patch tears away from the coat, and leaves a bigger hole." Pollock would get 10 out of 10 from an RE teacher for his interpretation of this one. He homes in on the fundamentals of its message. "It's about ineffective repairing. Obviously one needs to go deeper to effect an improvement." Which leads him to think of cloth as a metaphor for the human flesh that so fascinates him - "cosmetic surgery, facelifts, skin transplants. It's about the vanity of surface values. I think of Michael Jackson."

`The Barren Fig Tree', Luke 13:6-9

The barren fig tree must be cut down, according to Luke. For Pollock, "it's an invitation to involve yourself in some violence". His mind turns to the amputation of human limbs. The trunk of the fig tree is ghastly white, like a corpse's skin. There's clearly pink flesh and a bone in the middle of the amputated limb and inside the gaping fistula are failing organs. He admits, "The picture says more about me and my hang-ups than about the Bible. I was thinking of Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson. I'm fascinated by carcasses. I like looking at medieval anatomy drawings and medical web sites."

`The Lost Sheep', Matthew 18:10-14

The shepherd is more delighted with the lost sheep he has found than with the 99 he has left behind in order to look for it. A puzzling parable for Pollock. "The nobility lies in going for the one that went astray. That's a damnation of socialism, isn't it? It certainly contradicts the parable of the barren fig tree that was cut down." His picture is puzzling, too. The lamb does not appear to have strayed, and where are the 99 others? Instead of painting them all, which would have been a bore, he chose to paint what he says really excites him - a close-up of the rear view of a sheep. "I'm so horrified by the exposed genitalia and the sheer filth of it - the dangle- berries and all that. Actually, I find sheep quite intelligent beings."

`The Royal Marriage Feast', Matthew 22:1-14

One of the most nightmarish parables. The king's servants, sent to summon guests to his son's wedding, have been murdered, and the king's troops have killed the murderers and burned their town in revenge. Now, the king has invited everyone in the streets to the wedding. Among them, he sees a man not wearing wedding clothes. He orders him to be bound and cast out into the dark, to "the place of wailing and grinding of teeth". The moral: "Though many are invited, few are chosen." Somehow, it doesn't seem fair. There's a primitive, infantile savagery about Pollock's interpretation. The king's crowned head is drawn in childish fashion and the cast-out wedding guest, who is naked, looks like an abandoned new-born - "a screaming, anxious, misplaced person". We've all had nightmares like that, but perhaps not with crocodiles as bouncers.

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