Jonathan Wright’s Dynamic Painting Exploration
by Paul Weiner
Jonathan “Jono” Wright is a figurative and abstract painter living in Denver, Colorado. He holds a BFA from the Metropolitan State University of Denver and has also studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Boulder Academy of Fine Arts, and the Studio Art Center International in Florence, Italy. Jonathan’s work is available online at http://www.jonowrightart.com.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m working on a collection of abstract pieces that are 12”x15” for a boutique called Moxie. I’m really excited about this project, as there is a sense of collaboration with fashion, something from which I find a lot of inspiration. Hopefully I’ll be able to strike a balance between true aesthetic exploration and commercial viability.
Since you’ve studied art at various programs in Boulder, Denver, Philadelphia, and abroad, which of these experiences has shaped your artwork the most?
It’s hard to say which educational experience has shaped my practice the most, as they all play a part in my current approach. For example, my early interest in graffiti and the training that I got as a teenager from Elvie Davis gave me a real appreciation for drawing and having a sense of attention and elegance to line quality. The training I got in Phillly gave me an introduction into how to paint the figure and how to mix colors. What I got from Metro was a sense of approaching art making in an elemental way such as line, volume, composition, focal point and so on.
Having all these different experiences presents me with the challenge of unifying my vision, which is something I’m learning about right now in my practice. I feel like I have a good technical foundation and a decent level of skill, so the question that is in front of me now is what do I really want to paint. What really turns me on? Also, what is commercially viable? So there’s a balance that has yet to be found.
As an emerging artist, would you say that you feel limited or not by the commercial art market? Do you feel that the commercial level of art gets in the way of your attempt to unify your work in the way you would like to?
I would say that I feel influenced by considering the retail viability of my artistic ideas. Sometimes I make work that I strongly intend on selling, such as still-lifes or landscapes, while other times I make work that is focused on exploring something just for my own enjoyment.
What I’m finding about Denver is that it seems to be a market where you have to ride the razor’s edge of producing work that is decorative enough so people feel comfortable hanging it over their couch while simultaneously being edgy enough that it still has a spark of authentic exploration. That’s a tough road to navigate. Sometimes this dynamic feels limiting, but it can also feel like an interesting challenge. It really depends on where you want to take your career. If you want to be really avant-garde than your retail viability will probably be minimal, so you make your living doing something else. I suppose I’m trying to ride that razor’s edge of selling interesting and beautiful work.
To answer your question about unifying my work I would say that yes, this dynamic does make it hard to find unity. It takes a while to sort through all the educational influences and all the art market influences to come up with something I truly want to focus on that’s also commercially viable. But I feel ok with that. I think that’s what a true artist has to cope with.
Take us through your process for starting a new painting and developing a concept.
My process begins with an aesthetic impulse like a color or a form. It can come from nature or other art, such as painting or dance, something I’ve sketched in my book, or maybe something I’ve seen on the street. Oftentimes I find inspiration from fashion or textiles.
One thing I think is interesting is when multiple artists begin putting out similar aesthetics independently, as if they are responding to a similar impulse floating around in the culture that they then explore independently of each other.
But back to me. I begin with an impulse and sketch it out. However, my process and interests are kind of bipolar at this point. Sometimes I like to hone my skills and make highly realistic work, while at other times I’m interested in exploring something non-objective. Thus, depending on what I feel like making, whether it’s realistic or non-objective, my approach is quite different.
If I’m going to paint something realistic, I’ll use Photoshop to collage an image from which to reference. Then I begin the classical process of painting with oils, starting with an underpainting and continuing with opaque layers of paint. If I’m interested in exploring something non-objective I like to use acrylic on paper. With this approach, the medium is really forgiving, and I can edit, destroy, and create as I go along.
In all honesty, I find the non-objective approach more interesting as far as process goes because there is more that is unknown and more to discover. However, I still really like the results I can get when painting realistically. So one of my long-term problems, and remember it’s the problems that keep us going, is to get comfortable enough with my figure painting that I can incorporate the destroying/creating dynamic into that process. Artists like Alex Kanevsky, Kent Williams and a host of others are inspiring to me in this vein.
As far as “concept” goes, that term is something that I find terribly inadequate to describe the nuances of what visual art communicates. Painting especially is incongruous to this notion. The information that develops in a painting during its creation comes from the merging of the physical world of the materials and the subjective world of the artist. During this process, one has to let go of expectations and conceptual rigidity. Some initial impulse to create is needed, which could be conceptual, but you have to release your expectations and just let go at some point. In my opinion, art is most interesting when it presents something fresh and unknown, which is kind of antithetical to conceptual art.
I like the idea of bringing abstraction and figure together for the sake of dynamism. To that extent, how do you feel about Anselm Kiefer’s way of melding expression and figurative art?
Although I haven’t studied Anselm Kiefer a lot, I would say that he is fairly post-modern in that he is drawing from representational painting and sculpture in a way that activates their culturally collected meanings. He utilizes that history and then adds some expressionism into the mix. And he is successful with that mixture. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one of his works in person, which I expect is more impactful than on the page or online, but I believe it must deliver quite an impression. But, in speaking to the representational/non-objective dynamic, I think it’s a really vibrant solution to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, which kind of became too subjective, too limited.
There’s a long history at this point of artists negotiating this terrain, from Willem de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Neri to contemporary masters like Sangram Majumdar, who totally blows my mind. In the case of Majumdar, he transcends representation by dancing with materiality, illusion, and, most important of all, spontaneity. It’s his ability to include it all, so to speak, that’s so interesting. He harmonizes the result oriented approach of realism with the subjective spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism.
Another aspect that I see within this dynamic of what we could call form and formlessness is that it speaks to the transience or impermanence of our time. On the one hand, there is a lot of fragmentation going on in the collective psyche and on the other, we see that nothing lasts forever, which is a very Buddhist point of view. It’s a tumultuous time, which is being reflected in this aesthetic device.
What do you find most appealing and most frustrating about the Denver art scene?
I think Denver has a specific flavor of energy that is unique and interesting. I’m not sure if I can really articulate it, but is has everything to do with geography and history. It’s dry and dirty and a bit outlawish. This is Denver’s strength, but I don’t think it can ever be pinned down.
That being said the art culture here can definitely feel out-of-touch and a bit late on the scene. Denver is kind of catching on to the ideas that originated in the big art centers five years prior. This, in my opinion, gives no one in this town the right to be snobby or exclusive because the people running the show here aren’t all that tapped in anyways. So Denver’s isolation is a strength and a weakness. It’s got an underdog vibe, which is invigorating, but also an air of exclusivity based on insecurity. Take it or leave it, I guess. Overall, it does provide a good emerging art scene, someplace to get your feet wet and perhaps continue to show even after one is more established.
It’s great. It’s home.
You mentioned how Denver is a great place to get your feet wet, which makes plenty of sense. Are you considering making a move to a larger art market like New York or LA at some point?
At some point, I think it’s inevitable if you want to keep going with your art, as I do, to make that move. Some artists have stayed in Denver and have made a good name for themselves; maybe Phil Bender would be an example. But, yes, I would like to make a move to the West Coast within a year or so. Like New York, there’s a lot of great figurative work going on in LA and other styles of painting as well.
This whole thing has a lot to do with money. There’s simply more money in LA or San Francisco, perhaps also a more sophisticated market, not to mention a more diverse demographic. That equals a more vibrant and commercially viable art scene. I’m excited
to get a few more exhibitions under my belt and to develop a stronger artistic identity before I make the move. That being said, I would never turn my back on the community here in Denver. I’d still love to show here if the opportunity were to arise.
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