Jon Elliott Interview

By Jason Clay Lewis | February 25, 2020
The Approach (detail),  2011,  333 panels, 120" x 192"

The Approach (detail), 2011, 333 panels, 120" x 192"

I know your father was a scientist and worked for the CDC. What do you think are the parallel's between art and science?

The grid is a pattern originally used for mapping and for other rational, graphic displays of information. It is a metaphor for rationality, and I believe that is why the grid played such a big role in some threads of modernist art. The feeling was that rationality was the antithesis of superstition and religion, and cast aside the kind of murky romanticism found in so much art. The grid could be said to be a tool of the sciences. The grid based patterns that I make can also feel clean and rational at times, almost describing space or structure, but they are coming apart in places as well. They are often completely falling apart, and maybe reorganizing into something else completely. I've been able to manipulate the pattern, and alter the metaphors to suit my various moods and impulses. Its not just one thing in my images, I've piled so much meaning onto this pattern over the years that they aren't really even grids anymore. They're sometimes just multitudes of trapezoids and rectangles, freed from the confines of the grid, and swarming in spaces, displaying various levels of organization. The patterns I make often create irrational spaces and can be suffused with what I think of as that murky, somewhat surreal romanticism.

The methods of Art and Science are so different that it's hard to see sometimes how they could be related, but some art practices and some science practices can be related. Art takes ideas from anywhere it wants, something Science can't do and still be Science. At its noble best, Science attempts to find the truths that are normally hidden from us, and use that knowledge to improve lives. But it's tied up with so many other things, and has been used in so many different kinds of ways, that there is no simple definition or description as to what it is. Art is undefinable and subjective, and Science tries to define and to find knowledge that isn't subjective. I try to maintain a certain complexity, subjectivity and undefinability in what I do.

How did you first become interested in art and do you think science helped develop you as an artist?

A calculus class is the only class I ever failed in school. I was 19 and I had been assuming that I was heading into a future of many more Math and Science classes. But, failing that class was freeing. I remember spending time between classes in the library, and then afterwards show up to a science lab, or some other class, with a backpack heavy with Art History books. After I failed that class, if only for a break, I started taking art classes. Luckily I had some good professors who, unknown to them, encouraged me to stay with Art. I was salvaging cut-off chunks of plywood and boards from the dumpsters in a carpentry shop at the University to make paintings on. Eventually I started arranging all the different sized rectangles of wood into patterns, and hung dozens of these plywood scraps on the wall in groupings. With these patterns I was creating spaces with horizon lines and fields of vision. I was imbedding the panels with different colors, collage and other information. I thought of these large groupings as structures of knowledge, filtered through emotional lenses, loosely held together, and with no solid foundation. Sometimes the patterns would be flying apart or dissolving into the wall. One installation was over 30 feet long and 6 feet tall, tapering toward the ends, almost like an elongated eye shape made of dozens of paintings. I thought of it as a river of consciousness, constructed in a rhythmic pattern of individual paintings all working together in some way to create something more complex then the individual bits would suggest. I was interested in theories of consciousness (coming out of neuroscience and philosophy.) By this time I was designing patterns rather then relying on found scraps of wood, and precisely cutting out hundreds of panels out of full sheets of birch plywood. An individual design might have panels as small as 0.5" x 1" all the way up to panels in the 20" x 40" range. Eventually the patterning became too complex to realistically cut them out, so I made individual paintings of them instead. This was the beginning, and since then I've been working with those general patterns and ideas in various modulations.

I know you are an avid reader... What are a few things that you have read lately that have been inspirational?

I've been reading a lot of Neil Stephenson lately. Some of his books are a unique mixture of historical and speculative fiction, many of his characters are historical. For instance, Alan Turing is an occasional character in Stephenson's excellent book Cryptonomicon.

Who are a few of your favorite artists and why?

I've liked Sarah Sze's wild, inventive installations since I started seeing her work around 20 years ago. Her last show I saw in 2019 was amazing. David Altmejd's bizarro figuration is another favorite. Too many favorites really. I still enjoy the paintings of the early Modern era, and the first forays into new modes of abstraction. A culture of restless energy and invention.

Jon Elliott

Cabal, 2019, Acrylic on printed canvas, 40" x 30"

Your work has always had a futuristic dystopian feel. In the past, it was landscape based and now is more of an aerial view. Where does the imagery come from?

I don't feel that my paintings are dystopian at all, at least not for the last 11 years or so. Some of them have a darker feel, but they aren't as concerned with social issues these days, more psychological. The first paintings you remember from 2004-2008 were landscapes/waterscapes, wrecked by pollution. They were meant to be Hudson River Valley School type scenes, but ugly and encrusted with plastic and thrown away computers and TVs. You could see city light beyond the horizon, sometimes blending into lurid, ugly sunsets. Some of them actually had broken plastic and glass encrusted into the foregrounds from the many TVs and Computers I gathered from the sidewalks in my neighborhood. All of this filth held together with resin and sand, etc, like a toxic cement. Some of them were heavy paintings, one was 130 lbs due to all the glass, metal, sand and resin I used. In the paintings, some of the computer monitors and TVs were turned on, displaying images from American mythology and Pop culture. They were pretty hideous paintings, and they were slathered with uneven, sloppy skins of epoxy resin, which is an ugly, noxious material. I painted the resin on with a brush, so that it wouldn't be slick and flat, but lightly smeared on in places and missing it in others. Thats why I used it, because those paintings were intended to be nasty. The grid based patterning was also present, but was mostly lurking in small areas of the painting, around the mouldering monitors and TVs, as if they were toxic runoff or smoke billowing off of the pollution. The grid-as-rationality metaphor was still present, but yes, showing a darker/dystopian side of the fruits of rationality and what our culture thinks of as progress. These grid patterns had reorganized themselves into monsters, snaking through the debris and debasement. The ideologies of technological progress were transmitted through these computers and TVs. The clean, rational environments of the offices in Mac commercials, America the Beautiful, fighter jets and Fourth of July, etc., were displayed on the screens of these piles of half buried, half sunk, oil smeared computers and TVs, still refusing to die. This was what I was making paintings of back then; the nasty side of commercial culture, the sides not seen or known about by most people in that 2004-2008 timeframe. All the older computers and TVs that we were all throwing away were noxious pollution. These transmitters of the ‘better lives through technology' ideologies, were themselves helping to destroy the environment, along with all the other plastic and poisonous shit we carelessly spill all over the planet. But, in some ways those paintings (and many other dystopian projects) can be seen as optimistic, since they were so overblown in the scale of environmental devastation. They were saying, "Things could be much worse, we need to wake up and make changes." I'm not an activist, but I briefly tried to work with an organization that was making documentaries about the huge, world-wide "e-waste" problem. I tried to get them to donate copies of their documentaries to local video stores in my neighborhood, with the idea that they would be free rentals. I wanted to get the word out. Part of the reason I made those paintings was to help spread the word about what was happening. But they weren't interested. They were making the docs in order to try and secure corporate monies to help pay for their organization. They weren't interested in sharing their knowledge. I already had realized that yelling about things with my paintings wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Just like finding out that the companies making those e-waste documentaries weren't interested in sharing knowledge, it was a bit disheartening to realize that it was a futile, useless gesture to be making these paintings for such a small Artworld audience. I felt like I was merely, and repeatedly declaring which side I was on to an audience who was pretty much already with me anyway, if they cared at all. And just like I can't listen to the news these days without getting depressed or angry, I needed to move on to something else with my paintings.

2009-10 were transitional years for me in art and life. I was a bit angry and needed to find ways to be more positive. I made paintings the way I think of Jorge Borges stories; little vignettes with metaphysical content. And in 2010, when I learned that I was going to be a Dad to someone, I had a real change of attitude, and started thinking more about the future of the things I was making, and how I wanted future people (my daughter, for instance) to think about my works. I went back to my roots and made an installation of 333 individual paintings while at the Albee Foundation Residency in Montauk, and finished it in my then new studio in Ridgewood. The paintings were installed in a pattern on the wall. All the colors, and images on the panels were based on a 4-5 hour afternoon experience I had hiking to the source of a mountain stream up in Ellenville, NY with friends. We eventually followed the stream up to a swampy, shadowy area high on the mountain among the trees which was the source of a fairly large stream down below. The painting installation was meant to represent the fragmented memories and colors of that afternoon experience, a metaphor for going back to the swampy, twilight source of my own creative stream. And always thinking of that piece as a kind of re-start, my work has continued on that trajectory for the last 11 years. This is where my new imagery comes from, no longer dystopian.

I know you are mainly a painter, but when did you first become interested in ceramics?

I've made ceramics for awhile, but mostly as a sort of job. Because my wife is a ceramicist, I have access to a ceramic studio and kilns, etc, and I've been helping with her business for years. I've also made several installations of hand cut tiles, similar to the installations described above. Some of my paintings have looked like tile installations. It just seemed like an interesting path.

Jon Elliott

Detail of tile commission, handmade tile and light blue grout. Photo credit: Eric Wolfe.
Commissioned by the NYC Department of Education, NYC School Construction Authority Public Art for Public Schools
program, in collaboration with NYPC Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art program.

You have just completed a public art piece for a local school here in Queens, NY. What was the creative process when developing the project?

I found out I was a finalist for the commission a few years ago. I went to a meeting where the parameters of the project were laid out, and it seemed like they were almost asking for a ceramic mural. Ceramics are popular in the public art world for the longevity of the material, and this project has to last 100 years outside in the NYC free/thaw cycle. So I began to think of ways I could translate my painting imagery into ceramic tiles. But, it is also for K-5th grade school, so I wanted/needed to address those concerns as well. My design ended up being a combination of the patterning I've been doing for many years, with figurative/representational elements appropriate to the K-5 school situation.

How was it working with outside contractors or were you able to do any of the installation yourself?

I designed and fabricated it myself, and installed it myself with a friend. It was a very DIY situation that I think is fairly unique in the pressurized world of public art. But my project managers were good, and they let me do it. I felt like I had the qualifications and ability in all three aspects of the project (design, fabrication, installation) to do it all myself, so I did. Most of it went fairly smoothly really. It is a mural on the facade of the school, and it had to be installed during a two week window in the month of July this last Summer, which happened to be during a heat wave, so our brains were fried from the long hours in the sun and heat. But, we fought through it, and despite some stress during install, it all turned out well.

What are your currently working on in the studio?

As usual, I'm working in several different but related threads all at once. I'm not trying to bring everything all together, or unify my process. Someone once told me that I don't dig any deep holes with my paintings. That I don't dig deep enough in any particular direction to find anything of value. But that's not my goal, or my metaphor. I dig lots of holes, constantly expanding outward, connecting those holes like the nodes in a network. And I don't want to dig any 6' deep holes for myself.

The Royal List Profile: Jon Elliott