Jeph Gurecka Interview

By Jason Clay Lewis | December 9, 2023
Jeph Gurecka Interview

How did growing up in western Pennsylvania form your artistic experience?

Growing up in a very small and isolated hamlet in the middle of forest drenched western Pa., was by no means a hotbed of creativity and social discourse, let alone skateboarding which I always longed to do. The amount of hills, valleys, and dirt roads was enough to discourage any activities without a motor. As an only child with a plethora of pets ranging from one horse to seventy ducks and pretty much all other genus mixed in between was from what I recall idyllic but there was a sense of foreboding uneasiness. As I developed more formidable thoughts and awareness these creatures lacking intellect became less interesting over the years.

What people were available to you in your formative years?

There was a cumulative total of three families that lived within a three mile radius all much older with differing lifestyles that ultimately led me into a life of debauchery at an early age. There were neighbors that never wore shoes and had no running water and never attained a high school diploma. The other neighbor where I spent most of my time with was a teenage girl and two brothers who were collectively between five to six years difference in age than me. The oldest one was killed by a shotgun while cleaning it with his best friend who I only knew by the name of Pecker. Pecker said it was an accident, and ultimately it was left at that. I remember that being a very confusing, sad day for me. The parents were a quite hardy redneck family who drank, chewed and smoked tobacco religiously. One interesting year in my childhood was when one day a young girl showed up tatterly clothed but sexy as far as I remember. I later found out she was a runaway that the parents took in to have sexual relations with. The boys in the family would get their money's worth also. Her name was Cherry and late at night after working in the bedroom with the parents she would moonlight late at night being a model for X rated polaroids with my older friends, which was always shared the next day with me.

Jeph Gurecka

A Sunday Afternoon on the River, 2023, Acrylic and charcoal on printed canvas, 57" x 149"

With all of these crazy situations and people you encountered and shared relationships with, how do you think your understanding of arts and crafts differed from other kids your age?

One would think a ten year old boy might find these deviant acts obcenly satisfying and entertaining but I was Catholic and devout, I was supposed to abhor these things and so I pretended. Embracing every aspect of God. attending Parochial school, being and serving as an alter boy. Later on I fell into a rabbit hole of light drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex and disciplinary woes. The older kids taught me all kinds of redneck activities that were actually very exciting but morally corrupt. I drew and did paintings in parochial school, tons of pictures pronouncing my love for god and catholicism, but the activities that involved stealing gas from cars via sucking on a long hose to generate a continuous flow to our empty gas cans, stealing aluminum road signs and copper wires from abandoned building to sell to scrap yards to buy alcohol with were the most interesting and fun. These creative redneck activities which were not found in the boy scout troop where I was the acting Chaplain.

Halloween was always popular, elaborate pranks and parties with stolen car burning parties lighting up peoples patios with kerosene while filming myself dressed as Satan reciting aleister Crowley. Thank you OZZY for turning us into the cryptic and dark path that we would continue pursuing and developing. We also enjoyed blowing shit up. Thanks to venerable publications like Soldier of Fortune magazine among others we would send for schematics on how to make bombs and implement them onto people's property and possessions. Many cars were forced off of the side of roads with our ghastly dummies that were zip lined onto traffic on dark, lost highways. My rosy blotchy skin around this time of the year was always peppered with rock salt from shotgun shells that were fired upon us from angry assailants. There was a played out game of being a complete degenerate with an angelic and pious goody two shoe persona. Driving around in a hemi muscle car late at night with the older kids, shooting raccoons out of trees and a keg of beer in the trunk with the tap stretched through and under the back seat for easy serving. I suppose at that age I never had the intellect to decipher true right from wrong. Perhaps I had the intellect of my various pets, and I just conceded to pack mentality.

It must have been difficult having so many expressive yet suppressed emotions. What was it like being stuck in an area that is not a friend to art by no means?

The problem with being an only child in the deep woods of western Pa., you learn to think in great depth on your own but when around other people you become a follower. Most likely you can learn and grow emotionally and socially with whatever is handed to you for examination by others. We later got more creative with cutting out cardboard figures and situations that were projected onto the side of the scrappy house for any oncoming traffic to view, almost in a stop animation way and always vulgar. After the neighbors moved to Florida because they couldn't handle the horrific death of their son, things got worse. These grieving hopeless rednecks left the house to their eighteen year old son and fifteen year old daughter. Soon after that a group of young adults from various households in the area pretty much moved into the house and a den of sin enveloped the small hamlet. Drug fueled sex parties, the girls were given whore status and heavily used at the house parties. with all these creative forces at work the neighbors officially without shame created "The house of gigolos" I didn't even know what a gigolo was but I gleefully helped implement the design and signage that was painted over the self exiled mothers old upholstery sign prominently displayed in the yard next to the house. For some reason I don't recall any rage or even bias from my parents or others. This is still a mystery to me. I had become creative with fucking with the world, even though it was a small one I resided in I remember phone pranking became really popular with us, before the Jerky Boys we had an elaborate system with multiple phone lines, recording devices and unique method "actors" to play with unsuspecting victims. Some of my neighbors were extremely intelligent and probably with commitment and training could have become some of today's popular right wing conspiracy influencers.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

Considering you were once involved in performance art and theater, what were the early roots of your performative art making practices?

These were the formidable days that led me to think outside of the box, even though for all the wrong curiosities. I believe in my head this educated me to counter culture activities, creative deviance , and less interest in the boredom of Normalcy. The persona I took on was a devout catholic, shy, naive and overall a good student in accelerated classes in school. After leaving parochial school I went to public high school and for once felt a sigh of relief , now that I no longer had these catholic restrictions and coding I was not as concerned with blowing up the world and more about how I could use all these useless experiences and knowledge to better me. I also knew that to continue with my bad behavior I needed to lose some of the negative constructs that I picked up along the way. but not all As Nietsche stated, "don't get rid of all your demons , you might need some of them someday" so with that I entered the public school realm.

I hung out with the bad kids and studied with the smart ones. noboday fucked with me, I understood how powerful the mind could be and deption became my number one hobby. With all of this in my toolbox I was ready to continue my practice of counter culture activities but now with a moral compass that adhered to certain codes and an understanding of my past bad behavior instilled in me by redneck culture.

As a teen how did you interpret the idea of making art?

Upon starting my very first public school art class my expectations were low. With most classes in Jr high school being boring, uninteresting and too much work , I was sure that the education system would also ruin art for me. I was proved wrong. Immediately my teacher told us that he has a different approach to art and that he is also a working artist himself and that there would be no tests or grades based on ability. He wanted us to do whatever we wanted and we would be graded on how much we worked and the integrity that was put into the final product. He would be responsible for helping us execute whatever we had in our mind. I was ecstatic , no more religious iconography and a scripted agenda that had to meet bullshit criteria. I was off and running, painting rock stars and ceramic skull incense burners. I owe much to this man, who ultimately probably really just didn't want to teach.

Food +culture+ travel was very important to you as a young adult, how did that accentuate and inform your later work?

During High School my first job was at a restaurant and it was amazing I was working as a team, no longer deprived of social stimulus and fast paced action. It was hectic, fun, and everyone swore and were mostly despicable people and I loved it. I quickly worked my way up from busboy to line cook. This I feel was my first time feeling appreciated and of worth. I was putting things together, working as a team and creating a final product that would go to an eager recipient.

The zen of the kitchen and food would always continue throughout my life and take me places I never dreamed of before. After high school I wanted to travel, I packed my bags a thousand times in my head, waiting for the day of graduation. I had no idea of what I was going to do, I just knew I had to leave. This place where I was raised was morally evil and abject, all the while being nestled in this false sense of purity , family values and the teachings of good hard working people.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

How did you first become seriously interested in art?

Dad was a college professor, and mom taught kindergarten at the local school nearby. At this time my family stood out like a sore thumb with a golden band aid in this "neck of the woods", but were accepted and ultimately fit in fine. At seventeen my dreams of travel were squashed and I was pushed to go to college . With Dad being a professor in Pennsylvania I had a free education waiting for me, and with disfavorI did just that. I abhorred the notion of being imprisoned for four years at a state school. When would I finally be able to do what I wanted to do?

I not only didn't have any idea what I wanted to do in life, I also didn't want to do anything in life except for travel. When I moved into the dormitory system my first year, my disruptive behavior continued with stupid destructive antics and again fell in with the wrong people. I was still undecided in my major and it wasn't until I moved off campus in a rundown trailer court that I decided on a field of study. I knew a few things that I wouldn't do, get up early, take a lot of tests, and be responsible. It just so happened that The mobile home that I moved into was directly across the street from the Art department. It was never so clear what my major would be. I excelled immensely in printmaking and painting. I Hated sculpture funny enough. Having to take tests in my minor which came to be art history I did have to get up early for some classes, but I loved it. I found my people, I found true healthy communication and dialogue with others. I no longer wanted to blow up the world. My quiet insular voice was being accepted by my peers , I shared private thoughts without hesitation, I felt safe and for once accepted.

Was there any early work that you were proud of and made you feel confident that you were going in the right direction?

Printmaking was my thing. I would stay up all night working, and I was allowed and encouraged to do so. I didn't have to sneak around doing pointless aggressive acts to quell my mind. If I wanted to retaliate or take something out on the world I would do it on paper or canvas. For once I was openly showing my true self and not hiding behind a persona. Everything I was doing was accepted and taken to critical forums for discussion. It was hard to believe this was possible. I remember entering into my first print show in Washington DC, it all felt so odd and it left me feeling so exposed and vulnerable as to what I thought was expected of me. From that very first show a gallery contacted me and was interested in my work. This could not be happening and my peers were even dumbfounded. The gallery wanted to see more printmaking work from me and I hadn't much more to show. After working two weeks straight to create more I gave them more. Unfortunately they did not pursue it, they knew that I was green and not ready, but confidence was born in me and I knew that I was on the right path. I believe as an only child growing up in the country you tend to need approval for things you do on your own. There is a need for acceptance, a need to understand competition, a need to understand there are others like you. Being in an area where contemporary art or progressive thinking is non-existent makes it all so much harder and misunderstanding can lead to you feeling like an inadequate mutant.

Based on your creative but deviant lifestyle as a child, what asymptomatic art practices were evolving for you?

As a person who never had any knowledge of art ,music, and culture I really came to studio and art history classes blind. I ended up really obsessed with the German expressionism movement. That raw, unadultured range of emotions was so gratifying for me. I had always been an angst ridden, Mountain Dew loving, depressed kid so this seemed to fill the void. The immediacy, the emotion and the candidacy of wildly formulating your thoughts and ideas onto a reflective of your emotions was highly desirable. It was like self taught psychotherapy for my mind and body, which later in life I would continue with Mind and body therapy and the writings and actions of Wilhelm Reich and scream therapy.

After graduating I finally had my own sense of self and direction. My free will immediately took me back to travel mode, and no one could stop or influence me.

Being confident with my background in cooking I knew I could get a job anywhere. So for the next few years I traveled and lived in a few different states that were quite interesting and inspiring. All of this experiential knowledge was adding on to building a solid foundation for many things I was lacking in life and was not available to me as a young evolving child. I was sucking everything life had to offer, it was amazing times. I reference plato's cave to these feelings of finding, identifying and understanding these new doorways that were opening for me. While living in Key West, I ultimately fell into boredom with just living for the moment with no real aspirations for the future and cooking was not of interest any longer. I now was ready to step it up, take something that was close to my heart and commit.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

How did you find your way to New York?

Being a cook or even chef for the rest of my life seemed ultimately horrible in the long run, I've seen these people. Cooks, chefs, restaurateurs, all wind up looking like death warmed over after so many years and I didnt want to be subjected to a life that dictated everything I do everyday of my life. Restaurant life makes you into more of a disciplinarian than someone who creates and aims to please. Attempting to Please people everyday also became a very underwhelming and annoying factor.

When I feel constricted I know to get out, I hold onto that animalistic instinct. My desire to go to a big art city, not to mention a desire to go to a real School of Art was at the top of my agenda. Looking back I probably was too afraid to go to a big city blind, so I probably chose the "soft opening" via grad school to get me acquainted with the city.

After working on a solid body of work I applied to graduate schools across the country. My first reply came from the Pratt Institute in NYC , and I needed not to see more. I was sold on New York and no looking back and I could give a shit how much it costs, I'm living for the moment. I remember driving straight from Key West Florida to NY. Looking back, the culture shock of that trip is still overwhelming to this day.

What new influences and thought processes affected you after being in New York?

Upon coming to NYC things opened up fast on many levels, I met great people and started making more thoughtful work. Within that first year I no longer had an interest in painting or 2-d art in general. Of all things I found love in sculpture for the first time in my life. What was it about moving here that had such an amazing influence on my direction in art?

This is when I knew this city had incredible power and influence. It would be my home, no need to ever move again.

The resources that were available to me, the people who were a wealth of knowledge was beyond anything I ever dreamed of. With some knowledge of art history and practices I continued to be overwhelmed by more in depth and specific art groups and "isms" that I was introduced to, both in school and out in the landscape of the city. All the while getting more and more obsessed with philosophy and critical thought, I had a strong allure for early conceptualism which went hand in hand as to what I was reading. I dedicated some time to purely conceptual pieces, but it was not quite enough. During this time when I was into Conceptualism, Process art, and Earth art all were greatly appealing to me and again something that was unknown to me prior even though they were decades old. There was something to these periods that ever since had a hold on me and gave me satisfaction in the process of going from idea to product, a clear lineage of my MIND/BODY therapy that I would be later involved with. It was fulfilling to make art that had a visible line from concept to product. Full transparency, mistakes that become deliberate over time, no safety and security, no insurance for the viewer. The finished piece has nothing over the idea that never completely ends,it continues beyond the product. It can fade, it can be destroyed.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

How would you categorize yourself as an artist?

Because of what was aforementioned I consider myself a conceptual artist, it makes sense to me, with the only consequence being limitless.

What is the genesis of wanting to challenge the acceptable norm in your work, and are there certain criteria that you use in order to stay true to yourself?

My process of concept through product begins with a narrative that may be taken from anywhere from my environment or a fixation on a certain subject, situation or device. Easily expanded upon and referential on multi levels.

The following criteria is used in my creative process:

  • it must have art historical reference to present situations
  • it must appeal to the human condition, as in the sense of self awareness and discovery of the other
  • it must have a shallow and sensitive spot or entryway for the viewer
  • it must be darkly "tongue and cheeky" and lend itself to the absurd and abject.
  • it must be suitable for a host whose material, chemical makeup, and/or texture is attracted to it superficially and critically
  • it must not be color as we know it
  • it must incorporate organic matter taken from the natural or man made world alternate material should be used as much as possible to reflect concept of piece
  • it must have the ability to be a double agent as in the way it presents itself to the host
  • it must use material that is heavily loaded to the senses and takes the place of what is known as color
  • it must engage the viewer to recognize an idea and a thread throughout to product
  • it must show all imperfections and artists' hand
  • it must understand that mistakes will soon be deliberate and not to be covered up

Are there specific materials that evoke or act as a host for your ideas?

In past work I implemented an array of materials that were used to host ideas of transience, reflection, and transcendental states. The materials used evoked a historical permanence in the way that they were controlled and manipulated by using casting and mold making techniques and the suspension of organic matter in crystal clear acrylic resin. This work combined elements of the plastic man made world with organic materials from nature to ground the world of illusion to the physical. The work exists to reflect on the absurdity of the moment, the preciousness of the past and the impermanence and fragility of life known to us. There is a type of symbolism throughout my work that is inherently embedded in the materials and the emblematic properties they hold.

Over the ages we have accumulated an abundance of symbols illustrated through superstitions and storied accounts passed down through generations of a society. Development of cultures have grown with these beliefs that have been about desire, necessity and fear. Family and civil life was completely dependent upon these beliefs for progress and attaining a homogeneous society.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

Its been a really difficult past few years. What kind of things have changed your art practice?

Having to leave New York and a return to Western Pa. after thirty + years being gone has left me in complete despair, with an onslaught of growing depression and anxiety for the future. The only thing I have to work with is a mind littered with thoughts and stories of depravity, regret and a futile outlook on the future. All I can do is record what is around me in some fashion and hope for better days.

How has the art itself changed?

My art making practice has changed dramatically. At the moment I'm interested in storytelling, allegory and archetypes which creates a type of chaotic pictogram which leaves no room for breath nor gives out any feeling of comfort. Hectic and scattered controlled chaos, a type of moral sublimity cited by Immanuel Kant, is my rescue to soothe the tumultuous life I am presently [re} living. Everyday I rely on superficial humor that squashes and lightens these feelings of living a life not worth living and being back at a place that I abhor. Once again I wish to proverbially blow up everything around me. Just like, as a child I am stuck for a long moment in a purgatory state that addresses and reawakens my past sins, a penance that never ends looping itself over again with none to blame, only to send out as a beacon to broadcast my pain. Through introspection I wish to promote a study of existential loss and the fortitude of the human spirit that I must continue to bring to surface, but no longer glossing over my faults and living behind a persona.

Currently are you looking at any specific artists for reference?

I have been looking back and revisiting artists with storytelling capabilities such as Robert Colescott, Hieronymus Bosch, and Marc Chagall among others with abilities to create an allegorical storyboard on a one picture plane. As an artist I look at it as a jigsaw puzzle without predetermined fixed elements. I find solace adding pieces to the puzzle, with each addition a new line to the story unfolds. The visual elements disclose while at the same time camouflage certain information that ultimately creates wonderment and curiosity. By this I imply a discovery but more often an imparting of information previously kept secret. Although a sense of finding satisfaction and closure will not be found within this vortex of information one will find that what is presented is only a loop of the same information with differing interpretations from one viewer to another.

Jeph Gurecka
Jeph Gurecka

What is it that you desire from the viewer?

With the ambition of hidden meaning being revealed, one will find that ultimately it is futile and the viewer is still trapped within the same paradigm. In a sense I am creating a visual mantra that what is put out there is actually an examination of a moment trapped in time but just like a memory that moment can have movement, and can be comprised of a timeline with multiple events occurring at the same time. Its essence reduced down to a single image confined to our minds. This single flash of a moment reveals something bigger than all of us, our fixation on a memory, the realization of a situation makes us identify with who we are and that looking further into its past or future is not necessary. Being circumspect of this understanding we can carry on with fortitude and consolation. What one does with that moment is variable and with that the next step will follow but with a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Tell me about a memorable experience as an artist?

My time spent in Prague where I lived and loved on many levels.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Before you start working on a piece, first imagine where you will sign your name.