I met Jon a few years back, when I was a graduate student at Pratt. He came to do a studio visit with me for his blog ffffffwalls. I have admired his paintings ever since. Jon and I met at his Bushwick studio on a cold snowy Sunday night. As I was led up the stairs of this warehouse building I couldn’t help but notice the fluorescent glow of the lights that in some ways harken to Jon’s paintings. We had a long and varied conversation about his process and how he divides his time between two-day jobs and his studio practice.
What kind of images are you searching for? What kinds of things are attracting you? The paintings you were doing before were paintings of interior scenes with shades/blinds and lighting.
Those paintings were from cell phone photos. They were not found, other than me taking the image as I was walking past or put in a place and taking a picture, then using that to paint from. In these new works, I am inventing the space and the characters. For the space, I usually Google search when looking for specific objects, like a chair or specific types of things that I want to talk about. The spaces are coming from domestic magazines likeHouse and Garden, old Sears catalogs, that type of thing. I do look online if I can’t find a physical magazine of it.
The figures for the most part are not found online. They are mainly found from screen captures of television shows or portraits that I take. I use the screen capture as the base composition, then taking multiple pictures and collaging them together. It becomes this disjointed anamorphic image of someone. Different elements are stripped away, retaining composition, lighting, and the mood of the sources.
The thing I immediately think about, specifically with the portraits is a cinematic feeling, and they also have this feeling of something from 1980’s. Not to say they look like a Nagel painting but they have this kind of flatness. Could you talk about that a little bit more, is it coming out of the collage or is there a real effort to create these flattened forms with paint?
Yeah, it is coming from that digital subject matter that I am painting from. I consciously push it as far as it can go. I’m always trying to find new ways of pointing that out. Obviously, the gradients are a computer-derived thing for the most part and it’s a computer’s way of making space in the most dumbed down way possible.
For instance in Simulation and Mirror the gradients create this space and you can tell that the gradient is describing a back, but it’s not quite right. Where the backbone should be it is shifted off. The gradient on her pants and t-shirt and the overall shape of the swatch, it all snaps together. It’s these three different elements in the simplest of terms creating something but also referencing something completely flat, and not what it’s actually supposed to be describing.
Looking at the landscapes, are these also coming from the digital realm or are they images you are creating yourself?
Emulated Landscape came from this old 1980’s test landscape of one of the first CGI based simulations. It didn’t look real at all, but at the time everyone thought ‘how is this even possible?’ It’s a beautiful and weird image, and that’s where I took the composition. There are these two hills coming out of the water. It didn’t even look like hills or water. It referenced it more than anything. I had already been working with these sort of water droplets as a screen and I thought it was a funny idea to bring together.
From there I’ve started others. In one, the mountains are coming from an old Sega Genesis game called Echo. The video game designers found the easiest subject matter and described it in this digital shorthand. I’m interested in exploiting this idea and and appropriating the subjects that come with it.
The portraits are not so easy to represent and inherently pose different problems. They are the opposite of the landscapes in the lack of simplicity therefore becomes funny or awkward in trying to describe it in this flat language. That hand should never look that way or be described that way if you are trying to describe a hand; they are like these sausage things. The same with the lips, they become these tube shapes. To me that’s what makes it funny.
It creates more of an interest if it is off, because it makes me question more about what is going on.
It’s also one of those things where intentionality is key. Describing the lips in red, and the flesh a certain way. Those choices become more and more apparent. I painted this painting 5 times to get the surface and the colors right. With each time I get closer to arriving at my idea.
By using the colors you are choosing you are creating additional shorthand. If you were using red to describe lips, most people would use that color to describe lips. The skin tone is this peached out white kind of tone which most people don’t have.
Right, but in this character it becomes the most obvious thing.
It becomes identifiable for a viewer, how have people found these paintings?
I don’t know actually. I think people have different reactions to them. Some are opposed to the figures but the landscapes or the interior scenes are ok. Some are more drawn to the figures. My hope is that there is this kind of familiarity that is received. I think for the most part people get that.
I definitely have multiple associations. Is cinema playing a big part in what you are doing?
That’s what I see and that’s what is reverberated. I watch TV constantly. It’s terrible. It’s something innately part of who we are and these kinds of tropes or archetypes are a way to describe the world.
With all of these paintings they are all in the same space or they close to one another. Especially with all the landscapes and interiors they are all part of the same house, you are navigating through this house. If you are playing Mist you see an image and you click and move 20 feet. I am repeating the same plants in various paintings. There is a vocabulary in mark making but also in terms of objects that are repeated.
Growing up as a kid in the late 80’s and early 90’s is this in a way for you to understand your world now through the lens of childhood?
I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say I am painting my childhood, but I definitely think these things and the things we are dealing with now will continue to deal with the rest of our lives come from our childhood. We are still dealing with choices that our parents made in terms of the economy and everything. Those are choices and decision we have grown up with that we will pass on. Whether it be a potted plant that I am holding onto through multiple paintings or a certain vantage point I think we are all coming from there. Hopefully that is what is coming to the forefront.
With the portraits, do you think of the people doing specific actions, or do you see them as frozen in a specific time?
It depends on the portrait. With the painting of this woman it was very much that she was looking at something. You know she is looking at something and getting some sort of reaction. She is described in this nonhuman idea. In terms of that there is a base narrative. For the guy smoking, it’s more about describing him. Specific ideas of masculinity, it’s more of a portrait. I can navigate through those in different ways. I can let go of a narrative or pull into a narrative, yet they still connect to one another. I like that freedom.
She is much more active than he is. The guy in green is more active in the way he is painted and the light that’s coming into his forehead. There is something that is happening that I am not privy to but I want to know.
I like that, I want to starve the viewer of that action. It’s these in between moments, if you were to play an action film but then pause it at a standstill right before something is to happen.
Something else I am conscious of is the objecthood of these paintings. I am referencing backlit screens; with this green one I wanted to describe the idea of looking through this technology like a screen. That’s where this glow is coming from, that one is more like he is looking at a screen and that’s why there is that reflection. It’s describing a screen but it is also a screen at the same time.
There is always this kind of play, because they are collages that are coming from a computer. There are multiple layers of this digital realm.
Yea, also when the wood comes back up. It becomes obvious that I am just painting on a piece of wood.
It seems deliberate that you are painting on these floating panels. They become something in our space more than a typical stretched canvas.
That’s important, to have them be these floating images but also tangible things. That is the overall message these opposite, polar opposite ideas being in the same object.
I find it compelling that you start digitally, then you go to something that is so completely analogue which is painting. Can you talk about that switch from digital to painting?
These are sketches for the landscapes, I will start there to get a composition and then I will use different photographs of sunsets to get colors. I already have the concept and overarching image. This sketch I will scan it in then I’ll start working with colors in Photoshop. I know how to make these gradients with paint and the textures change. It gives me a basis or a starting point for it. There are decisions I can make in the computer that I could never make just drawing or painting. A mouse click or a vector tool or pen tool in Photoshop gives me certain lines or line quality. Those things give me this vocabulary that I can start using in the painting. It gives me this separation or other vocabulary. That’s the integral thing for using Photoshop; it gives me a vocabulary that is innate to that program that I can then use in the painting.
It goes from analogue to digital, from digital to analogue.
Yes exactly, It goes full circle.
Is that important to the object that you are making? That it goes through all of these stages?
Definitely, I know I couldn’t get to the same place otherwise. At a certain point, once I get everything that I can get out of the Photoshop file I’ll put that away. That’s the worst part in the painting is when I am using Photoshop then working back into the painting because sometimes I can’t make the decisions because they have already been made in Photoshop. I am repurposing those decisions. The most exciting part is letting go of those digital decisions and responding to the painting.
I’m going to be making more of these portraits. I’ve been getting a little sick of making these interior scenes. I want to start doing portraits that have spaces behind them, but making it more about the portrait. I want to intertwine those two things. The portraits came out of the idea of how would these people look in this world. That was something I had to get through in order to start creating this overarching world. I had to figure out what these things would look like.
Do you think these characters will come back, when you start creating these new paintings?
Maybe not the specific characters, I like the idea of switching it up a little bit and creating new identities and troupes that I can deal with. Maybe it’s the same sort of archetype but it gets handled differently. The characters I create are not going to stick throughout, I’m not going to create 5 characters like a Sims environment and try to play out their lives. I’m not interested in doing that. I am interested in placing certain ideas together creating the different characters that way.
When you see them from far away they look like this pristine flat surface, but when you get closer it’s visible that it’s painting and that it’s made of wood. Are those multiple readings important to you?
Yeah, that’s always a struggle. How much do I need it to be intentional or how much do I want to let paint be paint? It’s something I’ve always dealt with. At a certain point you need to let things exist. That’s an exciting decisions you can only make with paint. You can’t do that with an inkjet print, or with airbrush. With paint there are these imperfections and these variables that are things you need to push against or embrace. That’s something I am always working through or trying to figure out.
What is a typical day in the studio for you? How are you arranging your time here?
I work two different jobs. They take most of my time, unfortunately. I have had to get strategic, “Ok, I have 3 hours, what can I do in 3 hours?” It used to be that I would sit here half of that time just trying to figure out what to do. That’s where working it all out in Photoshop or sketches and collages help when I get into the studio. It allowed me to do exactly what I needed to do when I got here. I have 5 or 6 paintings going and I know 3 of them I can touch today, and 3 I can touch tomorrow. It becomes this way of pushing through ideas and letting them go and revisiting them in a quick succession. The decisions have to be made relatively quick. I kind of have to roll with it in a certain way, which allows for that immediacy without going through too much hesitation. It’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way. If I am going to make these precise things how can I do it without being too controlled? It’s all about setting up time in the way that I can prop myself up to create these images in an efficient way.