Revisiting Past Through Drawing: an Interview with Jonah Criswell
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Revisiting Past Through Drawing: an Interview with Jonah Criswell

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Revisiting Past Through Drawing: an Interview with Jonah Criswell
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“At Work” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist) 

Earlier this summer I visited Jonah Criswell’s studio in downtown Kansas City before work was shipped out for his upcoming exhibition, Fernweh, at ReTramp Gallery in Berlin. The converted warehouse space had the walls lined with small shelves holding various scales of paintings, still life setups, and drawings. These tiny piles were organized like groupings of photos in a camera roll, some with a seemingly sequential narrative and others experiments in capturing one’s visual fascination in that moment.

Criswell just returned from co-teaching a summer workshop in New York City to students at the Kansas City Art Institute, the institution where he teaches full time in the Painting Department as Assistant Professor. The workshop revolved around a larger idea that seemed to be pulled right from the conceptual organization if his studio practice. Asking that students see their world in the same way they do the museum. Finding “moments in life to cherish and describe through picture making.” 

Jonah Criswell was born in Springfield MO but raised in Warner Robins, Georgia and Pensacola, Florida. He graduated with a BFA from KCAI in 2005 and an MFA from Pennsylvania State University in 2008, he has been teaching in KCAI’s Painting department since 2011. In 2008 he was awarded a Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project Residency and in 2014 he attended TaktProjekt, a residency in Berlin.

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What are the larger ideas that your work is exploring?

Nostalgia, longing, and there’s a concern with parts of my own life, I am interested in the things that I’ve made in the past as objects to think about. Making a little painting, or finding things like a mix cd, or these photographs I took while in Vancouver; using those as a symbol for an unnamed emotional condition or desire. The drawing with the leaves is about me thinking about where I want to live and whether or not I just long to live in that place, or would I actually like living there. The cd playlist is more of wishing a person were there as opposed to the CD but yet the CD is all I have. Longing, not necessarily regret but a sense of having missed something is definitely something I think about a lot in the work.

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“The Window” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

 What about the different mediums you’re using? How do you work between these ideas in both painting and drawing?

I don’t think the paintings are anywhere near where the drawings are. That’s why most of the time I show drawings. Amanda Lechner, who’s a painter I really admire visited my studio in October. She said “everyone’s drawings are always going to lead the way, it’s an older skillset allowing for it to be a more rapid and intimate thing” I think that for the drawings I am using a lot of straightforward materials but I like the fact that a drawing is never quite as real as a painting. A painting has a greater capacity for illusion making, while drawings stand outside the presence of reality because it is a tonal thing. I like that with the conceptual and emotive forces that are at work in my studio. They implicitly are considering the ideas of longing, the inavailabilty of something, and also a kind of historical presence. A thing that is temporally located outside of the present but not quite in the past.

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“Make A Call” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

 What have you been listening to or reading while making this work?

 I listen to a whole lot of narrative podcasts, lots of science fiction. I can’t wait for them to come out every week, so in the meantime I will go and download older podcasts from EscapePpod which has years worth of stuff. I heard the Screwfly Solution by Alice B. Sheldon recently and it was just a heartbreaking story, very Margret Atwood-ish. The woman who wrote it worked for the CIA and was this fantastically complex and fascinating person who then wrote this story. I listen to a lot of horror, sci-fi and weird fiction online.  

For the work, I had been reading a bit about nostalgia but that wasn’t very helpful. I read an article called Tourism and The Semiotics of Nostalgia by John Frow and that was really interesting because he kind of talked about modernity and the simulacrum and the way in which the binary of the genuine and the artificial is an insufficient binary paradigm to explain what actually being in the world is. That was really helpful because it gives you a little bit of latitude to think; Ok, so nostalgia isn’t just a kind of lame force that happens to you when you’re in your mid thirties but it’s a part of living in a world that is constantly evolving. 

As you get older you become more and more orphaned to the world.  The world changes and all the familiar things disappear and are replaced by things that are more helpful, more scary, and also more interesting. I read Alastair Reynolds Slow Bullets which is sci-fi which is great in the summertime after teaching all year reading theory, and talking about it all the time. Fiction is really exciting because it’s easier to read and think about in studio because it doesn’t turn your brain on the same way that theory does and so it doesn’t gobble up your mental faculties.

When the studio work starts getting really tedious, i’ll take 10 minutes and read a few pages and that reboots my whole mind. Which is really helpful. I also listen to a lot of history podcasts and a lot of Skinny Puppy, a fantastic industrial band from the early 80s and lots of other intense industrial music.

 

What about the change in the work’s scale, it is moving larger and then smaller?

The smaller drawings were an exercise in creativity. When I work on something really time consuming I get fatigued really quickly or get hungry for something novel so the smaller drawings were me watching the X-Files a whole bunch, taking screen shots from every episode and then trying to have a conversation with the picture I liked so much. Far less a description of the image that I saw and instead a superimposition of some other kind of logic. These were kind of like fun holidays from the larger, more time consuming and craft conscious pieces. There are almost thirty of these but I only show about seven of them

With the larger drawings, I didn’t want anything to be too much bigger than fifty inches, then I found that I really love drawing on bristol paper because it takes marks superbly and it’s pretty mutable. So the drawings of the paintings, I want them to be about three to four times the size of the originals. That way the detail is still recognizable but at the same time it is not so compressed that it feels impenetrably dense. The smaller these things get, the smaller marks you have to make and then for me I wanted there to be more breathing room.

For the more tonally realized drawings on the oil grounded paper again I kinda wanted them to reference the everyday but re-scale the eye of the viewer to make them and the reference of their body much smaller so they can be invited to something thats a little bit overwhelming or a little bit larger than life. Scale for me is in relationship to the rendering of the image and the image has to scale the eye up or down a little bit. In the smaller paintings that I make just out of a kind of habit, I like the intimacy that those bring and the fact that you can be incredibly confident in some of those and you don’t have to second guess yourself. So much of my work is about craft on command so its nice to take a holiday from that periodically.

 

So in these you’re making reference that are far less direct to pop culture while in the small drawings, the images are hard to recognize?

The titles were hard for that. I wanted to title them “season_1_episode_3” or how you download it off the internet “x-files_s01e03.mpv-hackers” Titles are kind of tricky because I have a lot of saccharin heavy handed impulses so it was nice to kind of push the cultural reference a little bit to the side. That gives another narrative so that when I tell people “These come from X-files” that becomes a point for them to see how an artist sees something nowadays is about a conversation with a subject matter or an influence, history etc and not just a re-translation of it.

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“Over The Hills” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

 

This is from a scene where there is just fog rolling in while Mulder and Scully are lost in the woods and there are these bugs just trying to kill them. The fog rolling in was such a romantic image. I wanted to capture just the things that I thought were beautiful and then discard everything else that’s not relevant.

In a lot of ways that’s how the other drawings were, trying to essentialize an inspiration and then just highlight things that inspired me. Sometimes it can be just the texture of the paint on a surface.

 

Yet these smaller drawings are really pixelated so did you physically distort them?

Yes, there’s this thing called an Ames lettering guide and it’s awesome. I used to draw all of my grids by hand which was time consuming, frustrating and really tedious. Ames lettering guides used to be used by people who made isometric and orthographic drawings. It allows you to draw a grid really fast because it has an adjustable dial that lets you change from metric to standard.

I would do a loose sketch of the picture and then hide that away by putting different kinds of grids at different widths down on top of it. Then I would just think, oh how do I want to massage the essential qualities of the image away from its source into something I thought was more provocative, more strange, or interesting. When you see something you’re really interested in for the first time there’s always a sense of rupture. There is always a sense that you’re not looking at something familiar and that’s why it is special. I wanted to double fold that special thing that I saw and make it new again.

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“His Sister” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

 You can see it really clearly in this one the grid that underpins the whole thing. You can also see the changes in the width. I have a few rules where I was embracing the consistent error. Its interesting to see how you can communicate with that. This image was where Mulder looks down off these stairs and he sees a kid who is trying to make a picture through this binary language of his long lost sister.  I like that the grid allows you to abstract something which gives you a little bit of freedom. Craft itself is like a cave and you can go really far into it but there’s a nice moment where the wall of the cave is more shallow. I dont need to go into drawing every eyelash on a person’s face, I have a limit. That limit allowed me to think about design — drawing a line and then responding to a previous line. These were thinking about different kinds of playful structures and how you can respond to each one of those.

 

I thought those were glitched in a computer?

No, however I did that for awhile I have maybe 3gb of data moshed images, I would take trailers from movies I was really excited about seeing and then datamosh the trailer and do screen shots and pick the one I really liked, then doing a really uptight drawing of that. It seemed a little too gimmicky. I still love looking at those pictures because when I was doing the TV drawings I had to learn a little bit about CRT televisions, the way they have a certain refresh rate and the way the pictures are structured and the fact that they have only 3 green dots per 8 dot space. I liked seeing the thumbprint/failure of technology on this newer image. You would see the subtle moire pattern which was really beautiful. Sometimes the thumbprints on the glass are really beautiful even though they might obstruct the purity of the image.

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“I Like Your Owl” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

There was a thing you mentioned earlier about “appropriation as karaoke” can you explain that metaphor a little and do you feel that it relates to your work in any way?

Yeah Angela Dufresne gave a lecture at the college (KCAI) and she said her work was a lot like karaoke. I thought that was a really exciting premise which is basically being really honest about what we do as artists. We’re in conversation with history and the present, Dufresne said it was like singing a song from Tina Turner, and so she’s pushing that song through her body and its changing. At same time she is using a format or a structure that has a shared narrative. So with my drawings now, I am thinking a lot about a painting that takes an hour to make, then spending 3 months drawing it. There is something about paying very close attention to a really ephemeral organic moment of “oh I’m going to make a painting of a cottage” but then when you meticulously look at every brushstroke that you made there is something about looking at the performance of each mark and thinking about where in that performance lies some kind of beauty, excellence, excitement, passion of those things.  So when I was going through and drawing the paintings, they are all earnest attempts to understand why this thing is beautiful to me. The drawings of objects are much more staged, and that’s more like trying to write a song or changing words around in a song to make it do something different. Theres the one part where you’re trying to make something that explains a certain emotional condition and your using objects and then pictures to do that. Then the drawings of paintings are more like doing something amazing once and then figuring out again, how did you do that? The thing that I’ve learned making art for so long is that controlling the instrument of your own psychology when you’re making something is really important. Thats been the subject of my thoughts for the past year. Dufresne’s lecture made me realize that she has a lot of control over her instrument of performing a painting.

 

You just taught a class in New York over the summer. What the focus there?

The second week in June I taught a class on “what is the museum” Being next to a museum is nice because you can go over there and see something that is a controlled presentation of a really beautiful thing. Museums hold information and cultural anomalies of relevance. They are also places you go to see something extraordinary. The premise of my part of the class was “where are the boundaries of the museum?” In a lecture at KCAI, Dawn Clements commented on how she found some rubbish on the ground walking to some place and then made drawings of it. She was inspired by a little wrapper and in a lot of ways the museum for her is anywhere that she needs it to be.

The thesis of the class is a question of can we pay attention to our lives as an undecipherable and complex museum? When we go into a museum were going into a place that – for all of its problematic qualities –  if we take it at face value, we see that the museum is a place. That there are not singular locations that we can be inspired by but when we leave the museum we take the walls with it. Every place is the museum. Thats one of the things that I love about contemporary culture is that people are shooting photographs of things all the time. They’re collecting things that they found impressive or noteworthy. When you look through and see the highlights, that’s like an artistic practice. Its subconscious in one way, or one might say culturally ubiquitous but I think that one of the best things for teaching people to appreciate being is making everyone photographers with their phone.

It may be a little bit lame if someone sits down and shoots a photograph of what they’re going to eat and yes you can question, “are they just shooting it so they can brag on facebook” but at the same time these people are really paying attention to something that we might not share or something that we might overlook.The class was challenging student’s thoughts regarding the museum experience, and then bringing that back to their lives. There is something about looking at our lives, being able to appreciate that and find a way to describe it through picture making and that’s what i wanted students to think about.

 

How did the class go overall?

It went well actually! The students in some cases were very autobiographical and in other cases were definitely looking at their previous works and thinking about how they can present different aspects of their experiences, instead of staying in their comfort zones. I only had them for about a week but I think for an exercise such as that one, a week is good enough to plant a seed. Personally, I was also interested in how I could see the city, New York, as one continuous aesthetic experience, which is basically a cheeky way of saying I spent way too much money on food and chocolate! I was really impressed with the students’ commitment to being in New York and making the most of it.

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“The Cottage” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist) 

You have an exhibition coming up this fall in Berlin, what is the work in that exhibition about?

These drawings for me are an act of longing for a better self. Using personal artifacts as still life subjects, I work to find and converse with my youth. Additionally, some of the works reference television shows that I watch. The conversation between my visual language and the “returned image” in all of these works describe the exchange between a strange world and a fragility that I find exciting and humane. Its new work and it feels strange to have it not in my studio. I miss it but I am thrilled to see it in an exhibition space, which often reveals a lot that I couldn’t see about it in my studio.

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“Greek Storm” (image by EG Schempf, courtesy of the artist)

Criswell’s upcoming exhibition Fernweh will be presenting new work at ReTramp Gallery, Reuterstrasse 62, Berlin, Germany on October 2nd, 2015. For more information on his work visit http://jonahcriswell.com/

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