Isus i Sid Vicious, Klimt i Caravaggio istovremeno.
John John Jesse is a celebrated, controversial Catholic schoolboy-cum-punk rocker-cum-gonzo pop artist who came up in the dirty streets of NYC’s Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s. Luscious, filthy, fantastical, Jesse’s illustrative paintings are imbued with a lifelong appreciation for the fierce and rebellious girls he grew up with, and convey a deep understanding of the psychosexual underpinnings to work by a wide variety of fellow artists– from Gustav Klimt and Béla Iványi-Grünwald to Jamie Reid and Caravaggio. Most of the people featured in Jesse’s work are friends of his; many others are recognizable figures from sub/pop/countercultural spheres. A couple years back, Jesse moved from the big city into more pastoral climes, but his passionate love affair with the imagery and narrative of Punk Rawk New Yawk continues. Today on Coilhouse: a recent interview with JJJ conducted by Coilhouse contributor Sarah Hassan. ~Mer
L.I.E. ’88 by John John Jesse
As the quintessential ‘punk rock painter’ from the Lower East Side, a neighborhood now known more for it’s expensive rent and boutiques than heroin addicts and street gangs, how did your move from the city affect your work, if all? Is New York City still what inspires you, or is there something to be said for the quiet of small-town living?
I left New York City because it no longer is what it was. It has turned into an extremely over-crowded college dorm. I mean, now you actually have to wait in line to cross the street and some intersections. That’s fucked! But moving didn’t affect my work at all, it just removed the distractions. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy, as they say. My life story is what inspires me and most of that took place in New York City, so being here – the country – just gave me the clarity to get my point across in my works.
New York can be rather distracting for an artist, there is a simplicity to living outside it that seems to enhance ones creative output. Your work appears and is often credited to be extremely autobiographical; the music, the drugs, the girls, the heartache. As you’ve developed as an artist, have your inspirations changed in anyway, or do the same themes resonate with you even more than ever?
It’s a lot of the same; I am just discovering new ways to tell my story. After time, your craft always becomes more refined and that gets me pretty eager to keep painting. And as it – my work – is autobiographical, my life continues, so therefore my story does too. - Coilhouse magazine
Interview: John-John Jesse
John-John Jesse opened his latest solo show at the Opera Gallery this past April 16th, his first solo show in years. I worked up a few questions and was able to get John-John for an interview when he came back from the reception.
Creep: You have stated that among your favorite artists is Caravaggio, a favorite of mine as well. Can you tell me a bit about what first drew you to his work, and if there is any influence he has had on your style?
John-John: Its just soo dark and beautiful and narrative. I wish i could paint like him but i can’t, I just tell my story as i remember it and with the best ability i can. I can honestly say i’m not influenced by alot of art especially whats out now. and my favorite artist isn’t even a painter. It’s Jamie Reid. I’d rather be at a museum loooking at old masters than checking out paintings of hot rods and frankenstein at a lowbrow gallery.
Creep: The figures in your paintings are friends and people you knew growing up. One of the first things that struck me was the feel the figures have, You can tell when an artist doesn’t quite have anatomy down as the flesh clearly looks like there is nothing behind it, empty. With your figures however you can sense density, muscle and bone, and easily get the feeling that the flesh is soft and represents something real. As you are self taught what did you do to give yourself a better understanding of anatomy?
John-John: Only some of the figures are friends growing up. Most are live models i’ve shot pictures of for the paintings. And i use those figures to narrate me and my autobiography. pretty much. As for anatomy. i work from photos ive taken or were sent to me so i have a good reference point. But school. No not for me. I’ve always felt like i was in prison when i was in school. Like a caged wild fucking animal waiting to explode. I can just paint the human form it just comes natural.
Creep: Coming from a wild background myself, when I decided to clean up and and focus on art, the only way I could describe it was that the volume on life had been turned down a bit. It took a while to get that feeling back up again without doing the same old things. Did you experience something similar, if so what things along with painting do you do to keep life loud and colorful?
John-John: Life ain’t much different. I just don’t shoot drugs or drink 2 fifths of whiskey a day anymore. I guess love, painting, hobbies and firearms gets me high these days.
Creep: American Dreamer is your first solo exhibition in a few years. There seems to be a trend with some artists overworking themselves and almost showing too much. What sort of things did you do during this time to prepare for the show, or any new techniques you have learned?
John-John: Well i think most of those artists are in group shows alot and if it seems they have lot of solo sows well its probably alot of leftover unsold pintings from previous exhibits. I mean i work almost everyday. Being a painter is a lifestyle. Such as Punk Rock.
I can’t say if i learned any new tricks but as an artist of any kind be it musician or painter you must always grow as we grow as people hopefully. And theres always new life experiences, good and awful that makes the story expand.
Creep: Your upbringing, punk rocker and former catholic school boy, has helped to create this juxtaposition in your work, or “gravitation and trials of those two opposites” as you have stated. For me the two backgrounds blend perfectly in your work. One of the things that always interested me as an art historian was some of the elements that might be inspired by classical works, The unique way you sign your name, the altar like layout of some of the paintings, and the idea that some of the elements in your work, guitars, crowns and clothing are in way like the religious iconography one might find in so many works during the Renaissance. How did the influence of this period, aside from school, make its way into your work? Do you spend a lot of time looking at classical works, going to museums, etc?
John-John: Its true BUT i didnt say that. it wasn’t written by me. It was partly written by some gallerist years ago.
Its not such a conscience decision to make it this or that or this iconography or that. Its just part of the life story being in Catholic School for years, touring with my anarchist punk band for many years, being hooked on drugs, fallig in and out of love and rising from the gutter.
I dont get out much so i get to a musuem like once every couple of years. Im not an art buff or anything. I became a painter as a career by accident. I do it because i have that need to, like eating or sleeping. It makes me complete.
Creep: Being self taught and making your way through the trials of learning materials and developing a style, is there any one area in your first few years of painting that gave you the most trouble?
John-John: nope. Its just something i can do, that i was born with i suppose. It feels natural.
Creep: You have created music and paintings, is there any other artistic things you would like to work on or something we might see in the future?
John-John: I don’t know. I always have some kind of project or hobby going to keep me out of trouble. I recently put together a .308 sniper rifle together and im currently working on building a big Jabba the Hutt’s gangster palace diorama. Thats pretty fucking cool. But nothing I can do well enough to make a career out of. I already do what i’m suppose to.
Creep: In the Fecal Face interview back in 2010, fans learned that along with an amazing house, you are also a collector. Have you ever had a hard time relinquishing a painting to a new owner? Is there one, or more than one painting you have kept and will never sell?
John-John: I don’t own any of my own work. not one they’ve all sold. There’s 2 i wish i owned. I think it was “The St. Martyr Twins of Williamsburg” and “Sugar”.
Creep: Most of your inspiration is drawn from past experiences. When you are working on new paintings, is there anything else you do to help build a perfect creative mood? Any music or movies that always help?
John-John: ALL of it is from past or current experiences. No i just paint. no need for anything to make it happen. like i said before. it comes natural.
Creep: Finally, is there any contemporary artist that you have not shown alongside that you would love to share wall space with?
John-John: Not really, i’ve already shown with a few i’ve admired already. But maybe a collaboration of some sort someday would rule. - www.creepmachine.com/
Punk rocker, and former Catholic school boy. John John's work reflects the gravitation and trials of those two opposites. Born in New York City's then crime ridden and drug infested Lower East Side, John John first gained notoriety as the founding member and bassist of the legendary influential political punk band Nausea. Nausea toured the D.I.Y. punk circuit all over the United States, Canada and Europe in the late 80's and early 90's, and released LPs and various 7" singles. Though since disbanded in 1992, to this day they still maintain a huge loyal following, and have influenced the next generation of the political punk rock genre. (Their Punk Terrorist anthology CDs are now released on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacle Records.
Having left school and home at 15 years old, equipped with no formal art training, he began doing posters, flyer art, and record sleeves for bands like Agnostic Front, Destroy, and the Squat or Rot record label, as well as Nausea while squatting in the Lower East Side. Those works can now be seen in the follow up book by Feral House “Fucked Up and Photocopied” called “Punk Is Dead Is Everything” which exhibits a number of John John’s punk and hardcore flyer works as well as him being a contributing writer. His unique style during this, "Black & White" period has been recognized on everything from Downtown New York light poles and t-shirts, to "Baby Demonica", his first published work of pen and ink drawings with Sirius in 2002 with limericks by Jesse, and former Danzig/DGeneration bassist Howie Pyro.
With his now widely collected paintings, we get glimpses of behind the scenes participation with peers and what the oppressed youth stumbles into. He declares his works as his autobiography narrated through paintings rather than with words. A true voice of his punk rock generation, John John gives us more of the anarchy of youth. A portrayal of class war struggle, street anarchism, and his past teenage destructive punk rock lifestyle of heroin addiction, alcoholism, love, heartbreak, crime, teen suicide and triumph. It is a heroic fight from the gutter of the streets of the 80's Lower East Side, to the triumph of post-addicted street youth.
His ever present attention to detail has certainly become his signature style. The paintings are finished in various antique ornate Baroque and Victorian lavish gold frames. The models delineation, facial expressions, their clothing and inanimate objects, all reflect the artist's pronounced attitude of familiar experiences. Vivid color, built up in translucent layers of graphite, ink and gouache, erupts alongside mists of spray paint. With increasing volume, portraits and surreal landscapes of young rebellious punk girls and boys, or elaborate dream-like narratives of demons and angst amidst inner & outer destructive natures, and experimentation with sexual discoveries (but he adamantly declares it not as Erotica).
The same old tale of "No Future" is questioned with the addicted, political and lovelorn rising from the bottom of society to finally being heard. John John Jesse's amount of energy, precision, idol worship, angst and ceremony, alongside sub conscience delight and fear, gives us an imagery with all it's beauty and defiance. What innocence should be, and what it tragically often becomes, with conviction that can visually speak to generations. He does this with such obsessive detail and flair for originality. To show us that the only hope beyond the tragedy of life, is the fact that he has survived it with his art.- www.neocollective.com/
John John Jesse - Studio Visit
|Written by J.L. Schnabel|
Interview by J.L. Schnabel
Photos by Adam Wallacavage
You were born and raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is very different now than it was then. What was life like for you as a boy growing up there? Can you pinpoint a moment when you had an artistic calling?Yeah, the Lower East Side isn't like it used to be like in the 70's and 80's when I grew up. It was chaos all the time. Crime, gangs, there was a heroin shooting gallery right across the street from our apartment and next to the shooting gallery was a huge catholic church. There were abandoned buildings for blocks on end. It was in a weird way the coolest, always an element of danger in the air. I believe that's why all the best music and art came out of the neighborhood back then. Now the Lower East Side is gentrified, full of hipsters and yuppies paying 2500 dollars for a studio apartment. It's so sterile now.
I don't know if I ever had an artistic calling. I was always a good artist. I was born with it. When I was young it was only about playing in punk bands for me. Touring, recording and anarchy. It wasn't until I got clean off heroin and alcohol, that I committed to sitting down and being prolific. It was more of a survival strategy actually to keep me sane in between NA meetings to keep me distracted and out of trouble. It was the truest blessing that it manifested into this career by accident.
You recently moved from NYC to the quiet town of New Hope, right outside of Philly and NYC. Has this transition affected your work? Do you miss city life?You heard the saying, "you can take the boy outta the city but you can't take the city outta the boy", so no difference in the paintings I've done while I've been here... New Hope is like paradise for a life long NYC native. I miss my good friends, family and I miss food delivery. But I don't miss the over crowded subways and rude people.
You also recently transitioned from composing your work on Illustration board to wood panels. Can you describe how this shift may have changed the technical process of your work?Yeah it was suggested that I try it by Eric at Opera Gallery. he said the great masters painted on wood panel, so I gave it a try. Fortunately my mediums transferred over quite lovely with little adjustments to technique and I love the heavy gloss varnishing now.
The "pretty suicide", sugar colored aesthetics of your paintings are so different from the dark, Victorian, catholic tone of your home and studio. Do you think they compliment each other?I guess it's just what I wanted my house to look like, which is still a never- ending project. I don't even think the way I look all punk rock matches my house to tell you the truth. The paintings look all "sugar colored" basically cuz i feel that a painting, no matter what the theme or tension in it, should still be beautiful and alive and stand the test of time. You can always look closer and the story reveals itself.
I'm also fascinated by all the amazing collections of taxidermy, Virgin Mary statues and Batman toys you have in your home. Can you talk about what attracts you to the things you collect? Does your proclivity for collecting influence your work?
I love anything antique or super vintage. Nothing is made with the same love and craftsmanship anymore. Everything is made so half-ass now. A lot of the items I have, I have had for so many years and some since I was little like the batman collection. The Catholic antiques I have I guess are an extension of the heavy religious upbringing I had and the 8 years of Catholic school I did time in. I am not religious nor do i believe in that god but you gotta admit that the Catholics were the most "bling" of all the religions. I just have some weird attraction to old Catholic iconography.
How much does your personal living landscape effect your working environment?Well If you are working at home and you're there almost 24/7, your home must be full of inspiration. For me being an artist is a lifestyle and everything reflects my work.
You use a variety of mediums in your work and achieve such an interesting glow in your figures. As a self taught artist you must have experimented a lot with different methods and materials. Can you offer any advice for those who aren't in art school yet still want to pursue making art?I definitely don't know any techniques they teach in art schools since I dropped out of high school at 15 years old to play and tour with Nausea. I just "winged" it. Some trial and error, some magnificent accidents. It was years of tooling around with different mediums till I found what would be seamless and fit my skill levels at the time.
My only advice is to do what you love and commit 100%. You may get hurtful critique along the way so try and not let that bring you down. I know, it's hard because any real artist is hyper sensitive, like myself!
What is a typical workday for you like? Do you work on one piece until it's complete or on multiple ones at a time?Wake up, coffee and straight to work. I look forward to it. I love it. Only one love at a time.
I know you consider your work a painted autobiography. Is there a specific period of your life that you focus on? Are the figures in your work based on real people?It's my entire life up until now. Focusing heavy sometimes on the teen til' now punk rock lifestyle and my life in the Lower East Side. The people in my paintings are all real people and models. I use them to represent my story because they're much prettier than me!!!
There is a lot of youthful sexual tension being explored by the female characters in your paintings. Can you explain why this is a major theme in your work?It's just the make up of a life story. So much love, heartbreak and sex. It's just real and honest and everyone can relate to it.
Apart from making visual art, you were also a founding member of the influential band Nausea. Do you still play music?No I retired a few years ago. Like I said before I had to give 100% to being a painter. I needed to eat drink and sleep art. And i couldn't have done that touring for months in a van. But I miss it sometimes, playing in front of a thousand or more kids going nuts every night on tour. There's nothing like it.
You have a teenage son who has followed in your footsteps with music. Can you tell us what you and your life was like when you were his age?It was so different. The neighborhood, the punk scene. All the skins and punks were like a tight family back then. You couldn't just start "hanging out" with everyone. You had to pay your dues. We were a gang and we ran those streets in the 80s.
You have some fantastic new work up this month at Opera Gallery in Soho, who also currently represents you. How does it feel to have achieved this success in your hometown?It's an honor and I'm extremely privileged. I came from nothing. A gutter punk living in squats, panhandling, stealing, shooting drugs. Definitely a true rise from the bottom story. When I first visited Opera after they had a couple of my new works hanging up, it was across Basquiat, and Picasso. I can't describe the feeling I had inside. Unbelievable. So cool.