Absurdity, identity and grace find union in the work of Jason John
Jason John combines the skills of an Old Master with a cutting edge, creative vision. Still in his early thirties, the painter creates pieces informed by a bulletproof understanding of a half millennium of visual arts. Utilizing classic techniques and the highly contemporary methods of photorealism, John gives the viewer purchase to strangely moving worlds featuring people that are bound by what he considers a kind of “nobility.” Adorned with junkyard crowns and surrounded by deliberate signifiers like shifting clouds and universally recognized still-life motifs like fruit and birds, the people in John’s paintings that can appear as poignant as they are ridiculous.
But these aren’t the random, free associations of some gifted dilettante. Over the past fifteen plus years, Jason John has developed compositional and technical skills that transport the viewer through his work by way of a hard-earned, proven logic. Yet perhaps most refreshingly, John has the rare combination of humility and open-mindedness where he is willing to adapt the way he renders his interior vision by acknowledging the comments, whether they are good, bad or indifferent, of his actual audience.
Starehouse interviewed John at his West Beaches apartment, where we sat in his studio along with his sidekick, his Shorkie dog named Vasari. John spoke in great detail about his punk roots, Atelier training, creative perceptions and both detailed process and fascinating approach to making truly singular works of art. Below is a transcription of most of our conversation.
SLAM PITS, ATELIERS AND FOUCAULT
Starehouse: How was Art Basel Miami Beach?
Jason John: Well, we took down like 30 students (laughs) in a bus and at one point we thought lost about ten of them because they decided to wander off. But they took a cab back to the base camp and all well.
S: Yeah, I guess it’s probably bad form to come back “ten less” with a roomier ride back home. Have you shown your work down there?
J.J.: Um, you know I showed there maybe five years ago? My studio is back there but it’s pretty tiny.
S.: Can we at least take a gander at it?
J.J.: Sure. We can talk in there. But it’s a mess. (Walks us into studio) This is the only room I’m ever in so (waves hand around to show us the studio, laughs.)
S.: Dude, this is great.
J.J.: Well, nothing is really done right now.
S.: So you paint primarily in oils?
J.J.: Uh, yeah. They start with marker and then I switch over to oils. I dunno (…) I have this idea that I might start using some spray guns and actually doing the oil on top of it.
S.: Oh is that right? Is that like an airbrush?
J.J.: Yeah. I got a gun a long time ago but I never used it. I want to try to play off – and I guess we can talk about this eventually – but the different kinds of sensibilities with layers and things like that.
S.: Well, we’re rolling now. So what do you think would be the benefit of using the spray gun? Would it be a more consistent form of under-painting?
J.J.: Well, you know I think when you’re looking at realism (…) let me get another seat (leaves and returns with another chair) you probably know Jim Draper and he has that great space but now I probably look like I work out of a closet (laughs).
S.: Oh, that’s what Draper does to me, too. He just looks at me and makes me feel shame. He’s the Shame Bringer. Of course, everyone I meet makes me feel that way.
J.J.: (laughs) So with realism with this one is kind of coming close to what I want but any time you make a deviation from pure realism or what you would call representational, we associate with this kind of stuff, so the more real it is the more that association takes place. Anytime that’s “bent” to some degree, it creates certain kinds of psychological effects.
S.: Like a tension and resolve.
S.: So how do you describe your work? I was actually almost pleased to not discover an artist’s statement online about your work.
J.J.: I do have one. Usually I use it for shows and stuff so a lot of my ideas are (…) the artist’s statement’s not talking about a lot, it’s just kind of running off with the top of the ideas. This one’s kind of maybe, half way done (points to painting on easel) There’s an airport show now and there’s a few pieces there.
S.: Is the thing at JIA? At the concourse?
S.: Let me ask you about that because I saw a comment on Facebook where you said that some were taken down due to complaints (laughs)?
J.J.: Yeah, some were taken down and then a couple days later I got a call from a guy and he said he was the CEO for some company and he really liked the work and he could really relate to it. And then another guy sent me an e-mail and he really liked it. But you’ll get all kinds of comments but it [the complaint] was more along the lines of “You’re a devil worshipper.”
S.: (laughs) Right, you’re in good company. Did they complain to you directly or was it to Cabeth [former JIA gallery director Cabeth Cornelius] or the airport?
J.J.: Well, Cabeth actually left to work with Steve Williams. So what she did was I guess pulled me into the show but maybe the committee didn’t get the final review of the specific pieces that went in. So I guess they didn’t feel like even though she chose them, they might not have picked those specific pieces (shrugs shoulders). You know, I don’t really care that much if they didn’t like it.
S.: Yeah, well she’s gone from that gig and did a lot for them. She put the airport on the map by presenting all of that amazing art.
J.J.: Yeah, absolutely.
S.: So where have you shown locally? You were in Christina Foard’s CITYscape 2012 show back in the spring. Did you get any feedback from being involved with that Highway Gallery project? That was kind of cool.
J.J.: I don’t know, I guess. Actually, you know most of where I show right now is in L.A.
S.: Where do you show there?
J.J.: WWA [Wonderful World of Animation] is one of them and Sylvia White Gallery, which is kind of off of 405 in Ventura; and one in Santa Monica. I’ve flipped a lot of galleries. I was in on in D.C. I just left there.
S.: So you really have more national gallery representation than anything local.
J.J.: Yeah. I started in D.C. Then I was in a gallery in New York, then the ones in L.A. and then I moved to Jacksonville because I was living in Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh. And then I stayed in the galleries in D.C. and then I was [represented] in New York, L.A. and Chicago.
S.: Wow. How old are you now?
S.: Are you from Pennsylvania?
J.J.: I’m actually from the Poconos, which is the last exit in Pennsylvania before you’re in New Jersey.
S.: Right on. Was it a rural area?
J.J.: Kind of a rural-suburban place. Kind of like a little less than the suburbs of New Jersey. It used to be kind of a resort town and it was where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed.
S.: Oh yeah? Now this interview is getting spicy (both laugh). What is the city?
J.J.: Strasburg. Now it’s kind of suburbs. When I moved there, it was from Detroit with my family and it was really rural. Now it’s just more suburbs (…) Jacksonville-ish.
S.: Can we talk about this?
J.J.: Yeah, sure.
S.: Because I’m really obsessed with the roots and background of artists. I’m assuming you were the kid that just drew constantly.
J.J.: Yeah. You know I did when I was little. Like a lot. Then I stopped for some reason. I’m not sure why. It stopped for years. Probably all the way through high school, I wasn’t drawing at all. It was kind of weird.
S.: Oh really? Was that from a Generalized Defiance Disorder or something, like “I’ll show you – I’m not going to draw” (laughs)?
J.J.: It is weird, because why would I have stopped, you know? I mean I kind of got back into it, maybe right before I graduated from high school and started college. But for years I just stopped. Totally. But I got into punk rock and stuff (…)
S.: Is that right?
J.J.: I think maybe that replaced it, (laughs) I don’t know.
S.: Sure, sure. When you were younger were you a “Star Wars” kid? I definitely suffered from that syndrome. Were you like a sci-fi person?
J.J.: Nah. I just drew – guns (laughs).
J.J.: Yeah. I dunno if I could even make sense of it. I just liked weapons and guns (…) shotguns. Then it kind of went into the punk thing and towards the end of that I just got into drawing these trippy things.
S.: You and I are kind of the same generation, even though I am an old, broke down 40, but it seems like people get into the same things. They might go into the science fiction/fantasy deal, and then punk rock satisfies that same urge-
J.J.: Yeah, I always loved “Star Wars.”
S.: But I mean, with punk did you that appeal to you due to the imagery thing as well? Because that’s a pretty visually charged realm.
J.J.: You know I think that punk rock was just an outlet. That was the first time I was really pissed off and I needed an outlet (laughs).
S.: Punk rock is like “dual service” – it shows you that are pissed off and then it shows you how to aim that hate.
J.J.: Totally. And I just didn’t like the conventions and things happening in the country and politics. I think now I look at it and it’s almost a more primitive version of my ideas and it makes sense of why I ended up in art. Because I still have friends that are still into punk and they never left, they still follow it. One went to Japan and he follows the punk scene there. He’s a writer for magazines. But I don’t know it’s like I follow a lot of politics now and follow a lot of philosophy and art history and theory. And I kind of look back and it was kind of like the beginning of that outlet.
S.: Like that first detonation of “you”?
J.J.: Yeah, when you’re just not happy with things and society (…) and the bands talked about that.
S.: What were some of the bands that you were into?
J.J.: Um (laughs) I was into a lot of Oi! and (…) oh God, where do I start?
S.: Like British punk, ‘77 style and that kind of stuff?
J.J.: Yeah, The Business and more of the gritty, Ska kind of stuff. Not really anything too poppy.
S.: I gotcha. We were rockin’ The Specials last night (nods to photographer)
J.J.: Yeah, The Specials –absolutely.
S.: So you had a real specific taste.
J.J.: Yeah and you know I gave away probably 500 CDS and LPs to this record store and I beat myself every day for doing that. I mean, I had so many good things. He gave me like $10 or something for all of them (laughs).
S.: Right. Well that’s like as punk rock as anything else. Selling your records when you’re broke!
J.J.: Yeah (laughs).
S.: Do you still see bands?
J.J.: (laughs) No.
S.: We won’t see Professor Jason John in the slam pit?
J.J.: I think the last show I almost went to was Avail in Pittsburgh and then they played here. I mean I still listen to this stuff (thumbs through his iPad for playlists)
S.: That’s like one of the ultimate signs of getting old: not caring when your favorite band is playing in town. “Eh, I’m kind of tired. And my knee hurts.”
J.J.: Now I’m more into Sad Bastard music.
S.: Like mopey music?
J.J.: Yeah, like Eliot [Smith] and that kind of stuff.
S.: Well, that’s cool and kind of natural arc of that experience. Punk rock, it refers you back. In the same way that some contemporary painting might refer you back to the Venetian School, punk bands give up their sources, too.
J.J.: I still rock some of this stuff (shows The Misfits albums on his iPad)
S.: Yeah, yeah.
J.J.: But now I’m more into Belle and Sebastian. I don’t know what happened (laughs).
S.: So I guess before you went from the gun enthusiast kid (laughs) to Glenn Danzig scholar, did you have memories from when you were a kid, like some epiphanies or something (…) a field trip to a museum where you saw some paintings (…) and you felt that (snaps fingers)?
J.J.: I kind of grew up in like a lower-middle class family so there wasn’t a lot of art. You know, we would go to New York a lot but it was mostly for business than culture; just family trips. I think maybe the first time I went to the Met was maybe in late high school, I went to community college for two years, so maybe when I was in community college (…) I think once I got into “college” was when I really got into it. That’s kind of like when the punk went away and I realized there was this whole thing, this whole outlet. You know, I just didn’t know that it existed.
S.: What year are we talking here? Were you 18 or 19?
J.J.: I believe that was 1998, when I graduated from high school. And then in 2000 I graduated from community college, then I went to a school near Philly.
S.: So you started as an art major?
J.J.: Yeah, but it’s actually a funny story. I was a graphic design major and I got put into the wrong course. They put me in painting. I think because they had low enrollment. And I noticed that all of my friends were doing the computer stuff [design] and I thought “Well, what am I going to do with the computer” and suddenly it was like “You are in a painting now.” And I thought “Oh crap!” (laughs) but thankfully I liked it.
J.J.: Yeah, because I did almost end up a graphic design major.
S.: The fates intervened. You’re such a technically strong painter (…) I mean (…) I’m imagining that you must have had these fundamental skills and abilities when you started school.
J.J.: Um, I actually went to an Atelier so when I was at the community college, I studied with this guy and he actually ran a private technique school. It was like a classic Atelier, so you had a master and you studied with fifteen apprentices. And he was this photorealist painter and that’s kind of where I first learned the technique.
S.: What was the artist’s name?
J.J.: His name was Anthony Waichulis. It’s actually become franchised and now it’s called Ani Art Academies. It’s a real strange situation, but a guy from New York that was a stockbroker or something bought the school. It was just a small, local enterprise and he bought it and now he’s actually franchising these schools all over the world with these DVD sets you can order (…)
S.: Is it like an Old Masters technique?
J.J.: Yeah. That’s really big now because once the economy crashed, a lot of these guys that were selling – including myself (laughs) – I mean once you’re at the very, very top you’re safe, but it was weird – people that were once selling weren’t selling and others who had never really sold anything started selling (…) so a lot of people started to market their ability through workshops and DVDs.
S.: Sure, well it’s a valid market in the same way where they have these workshops and books on “How to Sell You Art,” for artists learning how to sell their work.
S.: I’m really interested that you chose to study Old Masters painting techniques. You’re 19 years old and it wasn’t like “I read Juxtapoz magazine and now I’m going to paint Hot Rod, Betty Page-meets-Frankenstein.” What was it that allured you to that realm of painting?
J.J.: You know that was probably the teacher at the school, it was it a real traditional school. It was weird because right at that time that kind of classical training was getting big again. And I don’t know if Juxtapoz was around at that time or not. It was a lot like you had contemporary art like Art News, Art in America and Artforum and on the other end you had post-modern kind of peaking and all of this classical art coming back up the tubes. So a lot of people were teaching it again when it wasn’t being taught for a long time. And I kind of just kept falling into all of these more classical teachers. It was really weird how that happened. It was kind of fate. I was learning to paint from these same kinds of people.
S.: So do you think it was almost accidental or just a course of study and the way that you learned?
J.J.: Yeah, I was just kind of falling in with the right people to teach me that kind of stuff. I actually went to a grad school that was conceptual because I just wanted a break from it [Old Masters technique] for a while.
S.: Did you find that there were qualities in that technique that you really liked? It seems, not rigid, but at least a very deliberate technique with ideas like under-painting (…) it’s not like abstract painting in the sense that you can’t stray too far from what you are approaching. Did you enjoy that? It seems like a really concentrated experience.
J.J.: Yeah, I think I did enjoy the structure of the education. I just taught a class called Advanced Techniques and the one weird thing about the class is that you find out that there really was no structure. When it came down to it, a lot of these guys were highly experimental but the Atelier system is structured and I think it really teaches you about hitting that right note. I think it is very narrow in its scope when it really comes down to it (…) it teaches you a lot but I think it also misses a lot as well.
S.: That fascinates me and I think because I have talked to some younger painters who more coming at this in a very conceptual way in their materials and approach. But they still very much consider themselves to be simply painters. But in your work, the technique is so traditional but the subject matter isn’t tied into any Old Masters ideas.
J.J.: I also think a lot of it comes out of your education or who you are studying under.
S.: I found this statement about you online. Do you mind if I read this and you can comment on certain parts?
J.J.: You know – that is kind of old. Can I print you out the new one? (laughs.)
S.: Sure. Do you think this is kind of dated or (laughs) goofy now?
J.J.: No, but you know what, just recently I had an English professor contact me. I don’t know where he saw the work, maybe at the airport or whatever, but he’s like “Hey look – I got this book I want you to read. And it’s gonna be over your head” (laughs). And it was, to some degree.
S.: Well, at least he was honest. What was the book?
J.J.: Let me go get the book (goes in other room).
S.: (takes deep breath) Man, this place smells refreshingly not like oil paint. I was afraid I was going to get a headache from the fumes.
J.J.: (comes back with book) Yeah, so of course there’s like Foucault (hands over “The Foucault Reader”) and he’s talking about control and structures but the guy is like read this (hands interviewer a copy of “Giving and Account of Oneself” by Judith Butler) and it is more about the building of identity. So she’s like kind of talking a lot about him, Foucault. But instead of it being about outside power structures and things like that she’s talking more about this idea of how through life we develop an identity and it’s just really a complicated situation between society, power structures, our relationships with other people, our relationship with where we are from. So I started looking at the work and it’s like, it is kind of about identity. It’s about these people and their environments. I guess we could talk about that in a little bit. But that’s where the technique really becomes important to the work because it’s like (…) when I started painting these, my grad school work was so different. It was very expressionistic; it was conceptual (…)
S.: Was it still figurative-based?
J.J.: No. There were like these organic landscapes that were like these tubes and things (…) and then I started desiring to do the figure paintings again and, you know, it’s just really weird how long it can take you to develop. You get something in your head and it takes years to work out exactly why you’re doing it, why you want to do it (…) and originally they just started being figures. And I was always struggling with these landscapes and thinking “What do I do back there,” you know? So I just wanted to get back to painting more traditional figures again. But that was kind of the key to what these were all about: putting these people in this certain place. I was also in a gallery in New York and this guy, he was a real jerk, he was like “Look – portraits don’t sell, kid” (laughs).
S.: Did he have a stubby cigar?
J.J.: Yeah, right. He had like a sequined shirt and was like “I pay too much effin’ money to be in this place and I don’t have time for this portrait crap.”
S.: Right, right. I’m curious, who are the people in your paintings? Are these people you know?
J.J.: Yeah. This (points to image) is a husband of one of my students, this is a student, and this is also a student (…) actually this one is not really completed (points to a piece that sits on the easel with an image of two African American women flanking George Washington).
S.: George I know. Is that a new approach in you adding kind of a “known” figure with lesser known or unknown people?
J.J.: Um, you know I still don’t know about this one. I took a risk putting him in there but in my head I was thinking of, you know the elections were going on and now we have had these shootings [at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn.] and we have all of these people constantly referring back to the forefathers and “when they wrote the Constitution this is what they meant and this is what they meant” (…) so I had this idea of this double figure. But I don’t want this to be as much of an icon so I might do something to diminish him or get it knocked down a little bit. This is actually going to a show in Chicago called “From Motion to Stillness.”
RICHARD SERRA, ACTIVATING THE IMAGE AND A NEW EDUCATION
S.: I had my little loaded question from that older statement but now it has been dismantled (laughs) but I guess I’d just like to know how you describe your work? It doesn’t seem like “pure” realism.
J.J.: You know, I think the realism is part of (…) I mean in a lot of ways it’s kind of like (…) it’s important to it in the sense that it’s important for the viewer to actually make that connection. You know who Richard Serra is?
S.: (nods head) Mmmm-hmmm.
J.J.: Well, I was looking at a Richard Serra piece at Art Basel actually it was just a big steel piece (…) and the one thing that is great about his work is how the viewer holds a relationship with a Serra piece. You feel your presence with something that could crush you (…) you feel the gravity; you feel your own gravity and weight and body in relation to something very big and heavy. And I think realism does that in a lot of ways. If I was to maybe paint something where it’s like, completely real, you’d have only this full association of saying “Wow, that’s so real” in the same way where you see 3-D TV or something (laughs) –
S.: Like focusing on the effect rather than the content.
J.J.: Yeah, yeah, exactly! And you get that.
S.: And that’s its own kind of art, like with the Old Masters perfectly rendering a lemon rind of light hitting a glass (…) but it can kind of dominate the message of the painting.
J.J.: Yeah and I just started thinking people would see how “real” it looked and wouldn’t want to think about anything else. And then all of the sudden, the “stories” started coming (rubs chin and speaks in lofty manner) “Ah, yes I know this. It is the story of me and dah dah dah” (laughs) so there’s all of this association happening.
S.: But if nothing else, people are identifying with you work.
J.J.: Absolutely. And I wanted to kind of “break that” and it took a long time for people to stop reading into these in terms of putting all of these layers of meanings into the paintings. Collectors would do it all the time: “Ah yeah, this is about how he cheated on this woman, she’s his wife and this is what he is feeling…” I don’t know. This guy came up to me and he said “These are good paintings but why do you put those stupid boxes on their heads?” (laughs) And it’s like, something is not working, something is not connecting. And every time that would happen I’d go back to the drawing board and try to figure out what’s going on. Anyways, going back to Richard Serra, I think there is always going to be an association that happens with realism but every time you deviate from that there’s a lot that can happen in that situation once it’s broken.
S.: So it’s kind of a dance.
J.J.: Yeah, and like I’m always buying books (…) I buy them for students to look at because I like them to see contemporary work [thumbs through art book] and I’m really moved by some of these pieces (…) not necessarily my style. Like some of these it’s not completely “real” but there’s a lot happening in terms of the psyche when you look at this.
S.: So what do you mean by the “psyche” when looking at a painting?
J.J.: Just like the relationship to the piece (…) have you ever seen shows where they have to put those warnings out? I remember when I was in graduate school they had this one show about a shooting, you know it had these guys in masks and the cops going in to get them (…) it was shot kind of like “The Office” with these shaky handheld cameras and in the beginning they had a disclaimer saying “This is not real. It is a re-enactment.” Kind of like Orson Welles and “War of the Worlds” (…) so people don’t freak out.
S.: The reality disclaimer?
J.J.: Yeah, and now we’re living in this weird world of “what’s real/what’s not real?” to the point where with politicians, you don’t know if they’re bought by lobbyists, what to believe in, where ethics begin and end (…) and I think that the realism is a really good platform to play with that. So I can’t really talk about the paintings in terms of what they’re doing but rather what I hope they will do (laughs). I really feel like a lot of art work is really passive, you know? I don’t know why it can be ambitious but it’s still passive, meaning maybe it is too personal or too confusing for the viewers. But the one thing you always notice about really great artwork is that it’s not passive. It’s active. There’s a great relationship to the viewer and a piece, going back to Richard Serra or Chuck Close, Jackson Pollock (…) so I think that if you look at great art – and hopefully everybody tries to make great art and I do try – but hopefully I want to create some kind of activation so the viewer looks at a piece and they feel a churning and a turning that’s taking place where you can feel like there’s some kind of physical change taking place. Where people are in the process of building identity and they’re working their way through this kind of murky place of conflicting shapes and dimensions (…) dimensionality versus flatness and glazes versus opaque paints and things like that. And that’s another thing about painting: you get really bored with the technique. So there are things like learning the proper technique of gradation and value (…) all that stuff you learn in an Atelier and the more you are in it you realize that the Old Masters were not limited to that. It almost seems like the French Academy came around and French art at the turn of the century, before Impressionism, Realism and Symbolism (…) there was just a loss (…) you think of Rembrandt and the physicality of the fleshy paint and you can almost feel the flesh of the person when you look at the painting. And it was almost like when Modern Art was born people stopped looking at the Old Masters as being masters of working with all of the properties of paints and saying “well, these are just the old guys we have to respect.” So, last time I went to Italy – we teach there every summer in Rome – between teaching that and this Advanced Techniques class it was like kind of a wakeup call. You look at these paintings and it’s incredible. You get one thing when you look far away but when you get close and inspect the painting there is like this whole other tapestry of different sensibilities of paint handling, very abstract in a lot of ways (…) Rubens, for example, just the way that really thin glazes were juxtaposed with these really thick patches of heavy bodied paint (…) you almost get this like spatial “pop” and you think (sighs for effect) “Wow, this is why it is so great” – not because they were just great at drawing (laughs)! And you could say a lot of the same things about Abstract painters, that some of the great ones had that same kind of paint sensibility.
S.: So you think it’s more than just celebrating the obvious facets of technique. As far as the potential for what can resonate from a painting.
J.J.: Yeah. Absolutely.
S.: I’d like to talk about narrative and I’d like to maybe go through some of the pieces. It seems like there are these specific motifs, like the cardboard box, or the hanging birds and swans. You use recurring items. What is the cardboard hat or crown used for in your paintings?
J.J.: On the most primitive level, they’re a lot of fun to paint. They add a level of abstractions, flatness (…) they also kind of talk a bit about popular culture and mass production with boxes and labels and things. They’re also a great way to work in compositional arrangements. But I think, most importantly, they kind of give an “alter-identity” to the people. You know, they point on kind of these absurd guises and they become something better or something more pathetic (laughs) depending on how you want to look at it. And that’s kind of where they came from. It was just really from trying to play around with giving them these identities. I was watching “The History Channel” one day (laughs) and they had this special on about Vikings and they were talking about the Vikings’ clothing and helmets and how as destructive they were when they would invade territory, they would also kind of appropriate the kind of fashion of the helmet (laughs) so you knew where they went depending on what look they were stealing.
S.: We are going to destroy you and adopt your couture.
J.J.: Yeah, (laughs) and so much debate about did they have horns, did they not, but the one thing that was important about the clothing was just how fierce they looked. So I think what the Vikings, or any kind of warrior was doing, was to kind of “one up” their identity and they would become almost like these god-like creatures.
S.: Just pure exaggeration.
J.J.: Right and they would scare the crap out of everyone. It was a way to kind of play that into the pieces but then they [the hats] just look like junk (laughs).
S.: In pieces like “The Lookout” and “Crowned” it resembles this Statue of Liberty-like crown as well.
J.J.: Yeah, that was also like a Crown of Thorns or uh (…) you know it’s kind of funny because I remember seeing an artist talking, she was a sculpture, and she was trying to remember the names of her pieces and I remember wondering “how do you not know the names of your own pieces” and now (laughs) I have a hard time remembering my own work. But when I think back, there was one called “Golden Heart” and the girl had a crown on (…) so I can show you my references, too. I have some on the computer. But a lot of them are kind of (digs through pile of reproductions on table) some of these portraits, you know are so absurd.
S.: So like this (holds picture) –
J.J.: This is van Dyck.
S.: So you modeled your figure after this?
J.J.: Yeah. You know it’s just one of those portraits (…) I was looking through them and these people are just so (laughs) (…) there would be these kings and rulers and they would be in the middle of war campaigns, and they would bring their court painter with them, you know Velazquez would travel with King Philip (…) and during the war they wouldn’t not necessarily stop the war but during fighting he would paint the king (…) just this idea of how consumed they are by themselves.
S.: In the sense of vanity and glorification of self? “Hey! Let’s take an ‘art break’ and you paint me in the middle of this war.”
J.J.: Yeah, so people that are kind of posing for these. Some of them I get a sense of what I want it to look like and in this one (points to unfinished piece tentatively titled “Fierce”) there was a text just kind of working its way across the flesh. So what I was trying to do was kind of smash apart that dimensionality by having a flat text laid across it (…) but I’m not sure if I like it yet so I’m kind of just sitting with it (…)
S.: Here’s another example, where you use this symbol of a dead bird or poultry (…) isn’t this a common image from those classic paintings?
J.J.: Yeah, I pulled them out of Old Masters paintings and just appropriating them into my work.
S.: So why do you like that particular image of the bird enough to keep replicating it?
J.J.: A lot of times it’s just part of the mask (…) you know it just smashes apart this believability and I just the placement of these weird things found throughout the pieces so I was taking them out of Dutch still life paintings and flipping them on to mine.
S.: It sounds like you really just like the imagery and I might be imprinting more of my own (laughs) esoteric meaning to everything.
J.J.: Well, it a lot of it is taking (…) it’s not so much symbolic as it is just breaking apart the realism of it, you know? Taking something dimensional and making it “flat” and creating these kind of weird (…) I started really getting into who the eye actually would walk through the piece and trail along. So I get this idea in my head that once the model is shot, and I’ve taught a lot of 2-D and 3-D classes, I start getting this feeling that I need something up here (points to corner of a painting) that’s going to kind of “punch” the eye up here and then I need something over here to block the eye as it travels down. So if you look at the piece, I kind of want this turning and moving in the model and there is a bizarre sense so I also want the environment to be churning as well (…) so when I am doing them, I’m trying to think almost like an abstract painter: what do I want flat, what I want dimensional, what I want transparent, what I want opaque (…) maybe I want something that would have a lot of weight, maybe I want something shooting across the composition (…) plus, for this series I’m going off of these more classical type paintings.
S.: Do you model these from classic, Old Masters paintings from your training or are you honoring them? Like the Velazquez or van Dyck?
J.J.: Yeah, I think they’re a tribute. The one thing about art is that most of it is stolen in some way or another or, who’s to say, inspired by something before (…) you know you look at Kiki Smith and there’s a piece [Smith’s bronze sculpture “Rapture” from 2001] of her kind of walking out of this wolf and the wolf is upside down, it’s modeled after a great piece, a masterpiece, so I’m looking at her piece thinking “where have I seen this” so later I’m watching TV and I see a documentary and realize “holy shit” and you know what it is? It’s Donatello’s “David” [bronze, 1430-1440] and sure enough, both in bronze, both the same body posture and everything except she’s coming out of the wolf, holding a paw and he’s holding a sword, you know? And you just find these all over and I don’t know how many people catch them. But as artists, we’re always looking and we’re always pulling away (…) and I thought kind of look back at these Old Masters paintings and restaging them was kind of what I wanted to do with these people; put them in these kind of glamorous, almost royal portraits, and then start to smash apart this relationship the viewer would have with it.
S.: So there’s this nobility but you definitely wanted it to be equally absurd.
J.J.: Yeah, they are absolutely absurd and the one thing about these pieces, as far as composition, is that composition isn’t just arrangement of form or direction; it’s also a lot to do with texture and line work. So when I think out a composition, I want them to be grand and uneasy. And I guess that’s where a lot of the birds and clouds come in (…) and I guess when I am working on these a lot of it just becomes intuitive , like “Okay, I need a something here and I could build something off of this hat” (laughs) and I’m kind of looking through imagery. So one thing, especially with the environments, is a lot of people could sat “oh, it looks loose, it looks fast” but the one thing that happens in all of these is how much is underneath, how much I wiped out. Originally, some of the birds won’t be there or a flower (…) I think I kind of work backwards. I think an Atelier will train you to – I’m not going to assume this since I know this – they’re very “OCD” on planning everything.
J.J.: Very orthodox and rigid. So a lot of these are worked out during the process. I kind of have an idea of what I’m shooting for but they never wind up looking exactly how I wanted them to look (…) even with the models – I have some in my head and then others after I shoot it [photograph] I’ll say “no, I don’t like that” and I’ll end up with something different. So I’ll shoot about 200 pictures.
S.: In a lot of them the people seem distracted or looking off at something. Is that some kind of classical convention or more of a psychological idea in the narrative?
J.J.: Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I had a gallery say, “never, never have a model looking at the viewer!” and that’s obviously not a hard fast rule (…)
S.: You’ve sure experienced a lot of unwanted advice from gallery owners: “Enough with the hats, kid — and have ‘em look to the side!” (laughs)
J.J.: (laughs) Yeah, it could be. Actually, I’ve taken a break from galleries. And they’re not bad. The money is good when it’s there but they can really drag you down a little bit when they criticize.
J.J.: But I don’t know, when I shoot the images of the models I have them really do a lot of different stuff and then I just try to get a feeling for it. I’ll have them looking away, looking up, standing, sitting (…) and the arrangement of lights has an influence on what happens as well. One of the things I’m looking for is how can I make this work with this image? But I’m also thinking about (laughs) how easy will this be to paint, because some references can be very difficult to paint (…) how a shadow falls, or hands (…) a friend of mine was doing a painting of a figure doing this [bends right hand back at wrist so fingers point upward] and just the foreshortening in doing this of the hand going back into the body (…) if that reference is bad, it would be so hard to create the value and atmosphere but he pulled it off just right and the image just popped off the canvas.
S.: It seems like this [“Fierce”] is a larger piece for you since you tend to work smaller. Are you trying to focus on larger scaled works?
J.J.: Yeah, definitely. I just sent one out and it cost me about $400 to get it out to L.A. and it was about 40” x 40” (…) what I look to do is make the figure slightly bigger than life-size and I think I’ve also gotten the best response from that. If they’re smaller, they just don’t work as good.
S.: It’s actually interesting since in talking to you, it seems like you have a very refreshing since of having an open mind and listening to what people think, whether it’s a bossy gallery owner (laughs) or someone e-mailing you to tell you what they think about your work. And it seems like you might even adjust accordingly. Do you think that’s true?
J.J.: Yeah, it’s true. I take every comment absolutely seriously, even if I don’t like what is being said (laughs), I mean, I sit on everything.
S.: But you know, many artists will say “I don’t care what people think” or “Damn the public” but I think it could be just this recycled cliché. I don’t even personally believe that. I know that I am looking for a reaction or some acknowledgement in what I do. And having an open mind can save me a lot of heartache (laughs).
J.J.: Well, it’s funny because I also teach at UNF and I think that art education for so long has been, like the movie “Art School Confidential.” There’s no rhyme or reason as to why they’re saying that it’s good. A student comes in with a work and you ask, “What were you trying to convey or create here” and they say [in tired voice] “I dunno, I was just drunk” [pauses] “Well, good job, Jimmy!” (laughs)
S.: So nobody questions these ideas? Like, why not listen to what the audience says? And why not even consider that they might ultimately have a beneficial or even opinion that might influence the artist?
J.J.: The one think about art education is that this is a visual language and we need to start talking about in terms of: what are you getting out of this piece? What do see when you look at it and what do you feel when you look at it? What are your inspirations and how do we tie this all together into something that is new and has a purpose. And has a meaning and most importantly still has a meaning for you. We need to think about our viewers. Because when you get freshmen, and younger students, and start talking about how art isn’t really activated until a viewer “activates” it. If I do these paintings and put them in my closet is it still art? And of course they all say “of course it’s art!” but I would say, “not really.” No one saw it except you. You made it but it doesn’t really exist “out there” – only hidden in your world. And they say [mock indignation] “Well, my high school teacher told me it was art!” But what is the viewer to a piece? Because otherwise, you don’t really need to go to school to learn how to paint your feelings; I mean that’s fine and that’s all part of it, and intuition is highly important, but there’s more to it.
S.: Art is a bigger experience than that. Personally, I know from playing music that there are many, many musicians hiding out in band rooms that will never play out, or record, or tour and music is a performing art in the same way that visual art is made to be seen. Do you think these kinds of ideas are based on a weird sense of trying to be precious, or is it just laziness? And on an academic level, maybe it’s easier to propagate these kinds of ideas?
J.J.: I think it’s just really, really hard to articulate what you are doing. It’s easier to sit down and just float away (laughs).
S.: It’s like self-induced obscurity.
J.J.: (laughs) Yeah, you know. But if you never even try to communicate in a way that’s larger than the original idea, no one will ever know. And you might be creating something truly amazing and even beautiful.
Daniel A. Brown
Photographs of Jason John and studio by Erica La Spada