Jonas Wood: New Paintings and Works on Paper
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, NY
April 24 - July 19, 2019
By RAPHY SARKISSIAN, June 2019
Drenched in ravishing shades of red, the five captivating paintings of Jonas Wood that are mounted on the westernmost wall of Gagosian gallery on West 24th Street in Manhattan are nifty retellings of several specific paintings by Henri Matisse. There is, however, a dramatic shift from the highly painterly vernacular of Matisse to its somewhat opposite, where Wood stoically submits his well-defined outlines to clear-cut linearity and flattens surfaces through planarity, as a given section of a painting is primarily monochromatic. Astonishingly, the outcome of this antithetical transformation of Matisse does not entirely come across as un-Matissean, for if the observer were to go up close to the surface of the painting and witness the details of rendition of Wood’s discrete disegno, there is a sense of balance: here the calculation of design is firmly negotiated with the immediacy of the application of paint. Wood bewilderingly arbitrates the dichotomy of the Rubénistes that championed color and the Poussenistes that favored line, an aesthetic quarrel that takes us back to the discourses of Charles Le Brun and Roger de Piles in the seventeenth century. Whereas Le Brun characterized line as an agency to satisfy the mind while color was to render pleasure to the eye, de Piles favored color over line in two of his influential publications.1 Although the paintings of Wood may appear to privilege linearity through his indisputable sharpness of contours, that strategy is nimbly exchanged with ample linear marks that proclaim the texture, raw materiality and autonomy of coloristic traces.
The riveting Romanian Blouse (1940) by Matisse of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in the Centre Pompidou in Paris appears as a tableau within an interior space formulated by such still life objects as floral arrangements, potted plants, fragments of furniture and a second, significantly abstracted tableau on the upper left side of Red Pot with White Blouse (2018) of Wood. Indeed, these pictorial elements of the interior space are extracted from the remarkable Large Red Interior (1948) by Matisse, also at the Centre Pompidou. Yet the set of vases and pots depicted here simultaneously echo the elegant porcelain and stoneware vessels created by Wood’s wife Shio Kusaka.2 As this eye-catching simulacrum of Wood is pictorially contained within the silhouette of a red vase that is itself set within a light gray ground upon the canvas, mimesis and autobiography are unmistakably synthesized. While by no means are the artworks of Wood, Kusaka and Matisse tantamount, Red Pot with White Blouse renders them somewhat inseparable, intimate, mutual and capable of being shared by an audience.
Red Pot with Lute Player #2 (2018) of Wood is an emulation of the sensuous Lute (1943) of Matisse and transforms such terms as decoration, artmaking, originality and simulation into interchangeable concepts. Here Wood has edited The Lute, crystallizing its figures, objects and decorative motifs, as if to demonstrate the possibility of fusing the model of collage and the mediums of oil and acrylic in a manner that at once pays tribute to Matisse, Cubism and japonisme. These are evident through the pictorial flatness present upon the surface of the virtual pot and the contour of the pot as well, itself a palpable tribute to the artistic production of Kusaka who was born in Japan. Inasmuch as Wood retains the figural details of this painting of Matisse, there are overall and specific revisions of the original painting. Such alterations are manifested for instance through the facial expression of the lute player that has been further stylized or the seven yellow lemons depicted upon the tabletop that evoke a sense of perspective and a hesitation in it at the same time. Whereas the representations of lemons within the still-life section of the painting of Matisse are ethereal and come across as homages to the legendary lemons, apples and oranges of Paul Cézanne, Wood expands that history by treating his portrayal of lemons and almost all else represented upon the illusive vessel through various aspects of the distinct vocabulary of Roy Lichtenstein. The extraordinary Cubist Still Life with Lemons (1975) of Lichtenstein is one painting that is conjured up through this appositely calculated and masterfully executed painting of Wood. Hence Red Pot with Lute Player #2 incorporates a set of diverse art-historical referents, unceasingly expanding if not subverting the definition of the term appropriation.
Wood has fluently merged two paintings by Matisse in his Red Pot with Two Still Lifes (2018): Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table (1947) of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium appears upon the left side of the pictorial pot of Wood, while Interior in Venetian Red (1946) of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Dusseldorf is displayed toward the right in a continuous manner. Here Wood submits details of both of these paintings to a significant degree of revision, whereby the fluent, overlapping, free brushstrokes of Matisse have become transformed into distinct coloristic entities that range from the forms of minute squares through thin, rectilinear line segments. Having united and further stylized these two paintings of Matisse in a manner that may vaguely be referring to the technologized imagery of our digital era, this image of Wood can be read as a mirror of our time—a mirror that nonetheless preserves the pleasure of the mediums of oil and acrylic, along with that of the aesthetics of the twentieth century.
The entrancing Michaela (1943) by Matisse reappears in Red Portrait Pot (2015) of Wood, in virtually every detail except for its overall palette that has been rendered in deeper colors, along with its transformation from being thoroughly painterly into a primarily linear and planar style. Nevertheless, Wood does not completely abandon the autonomy of coloristic traces, as a given line or contour is often amorphous and stands above the picture surface as an independent physical entity, as evidenced for instance through the simulated signature “Henri Matisse 9/43” and the neighboring set of outlines that define the edge and surface of the sitter’s dress. The elegant yellow garment of Michaela in the painting of Matisse has been rendered mainly in two shades of caramel here, while the burnt orange background of the original painting has been transformed into imperial red. Through the strategy of pastiche, Wood amplifies the decorative elements of Matisse, generating a series of associations that overlap styles and cultures, overcoming simplistic dualisms of space and time as well, recalling the French philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of the durée—the indivisible, continuous and subjective flow of our experience of time.3
The exquisite Black Fern (1948) by Matisse housed in the Beyeler Collection in Basel has become translated in Red Pot with Yellow and Black (2018) of Wood, who has distilled the free, gestural brushstrokes into well-defined, flat entities. As if Matisse had intended to have the vacant face of the model serve as a mirror that would reflect the viewer’s imagination, Wood has animated the unfinished figuration of the face, along with a Cubist rendering of the body, arms and hands, implicitly pairing the colossal legacies of Matisse and Picasso. In addition to the completion of the face of the female figure of Matisse, Wood has converted the dark foliage into solid black that furthers the flatness and collage-like attributes of the painting. Upon the yellow floor, black spots and patches of Wood appear as mediations between the pure gesturality of Matisse and its diametrically opposite, mechanically produced Ben-Day dots of Lichtenstein, a signature of the artist that we find, for instance, in his astonishing Bellagio Hotel Mural: Still Life with Reclining Nude (Study) (1997), a collage that contains a pictorial reference to a sculpture by Matisse. Hence Wood amplifies the punchy palette of Matisse, while shifting the style of the painting toward that of Lichtenstein in order to arrive at a resolution through his own singular modus operandi, one that encapsulates opulent and absorbing set of historical and cultural parameters, transforming the painting into a metaphorical container of France, Japan and the United States—to name only three direct citations within the above five paintings.
Through such remarkable paintings as Young Architect (2019), Inglewood Listing (2019), Still Life with Wood Panels (2018) and Jersey City Apartment (2019), Wood has transformed a given photograph into a painting, thereby editing and reconfiguring the imagery in order to highlight, for instance, the wood grains of the beams and panels of an architectural space under construction. Derived from a 1966 photograph, Wood depicts his father, an architect, in the upper center of the intricately detailed and absorbing painting Young Architect. As if it were a theatre of sunlight, timber and green foliage of trees, Young Architect comes across at once as a touching tribute to the artist’s father and the remaining elements that surround him, thereby imbuing the painting with a sense of the significance of life, the passage of time, its continuities and inescapable halts. Pictorial sensuality here frames mankind’s ontological quest. And yet the painting is also an equal tribute to the medium of photography (a direct, indexical citation of life) and the technique of painting based upon a photograph (a paraphrase of photography). And in between these two mediums is a series of other mediums that participate in the formation of the images of Wood, who appears to have embraced our postmodern condition and celebrates it through such paintings as Superhero Pot (2018) and Mickey and Minnie Mouse Frimkess Pot (2018), themselves explicit homages to Pop art. As these two paintings also signal to the oeuvre of the artist’s wife Kusaka through the silhouette of the vessel, along with likely references to their daughter Momo and son Kiki through popular icons, Wood liberally offers viewers the possibilities of expanding the boundaries of the autobiographical and collective, of mimesis (showing) and diegesis (telling), of direct citations and paraphrases.
Within a long, relatively narrow, rectangular subdivision of the gallery, fifteen preparatory drawings and collages of Wood provide the viewer with an intriguing glimpse of one of the steps through which the corresponding fifteen paintings were produced in oil and acrylic. These absorbing drawings that are rendered though such mediums as gouache, ink, acrylic and colored pencil on paper reveal their fifteen larger equivalents as their enlarged mirror images. This space emblematically provides the visitor with a partial access to the artist’s studio in order to witness the highly calculated yet also explorative methodologies through which this Promethean undertaking of Jonas Wood has become materialized. WM
1. See, for instance, Alain Mérot, French Painting in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Caroline Beamish (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).
2. Suzanne Swarts, “Pas de deux,” in Shio Kusaka & Jonas Wood (Netherlands: Museum Voorlinden, 2019), revised edition of a catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition Shio Kusaka & Jonas Wood at Museum Voorlinden, Wassenaar, Netherlands in 2017.
3. John Elderfield, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992), pp. 65-66. See also Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution (1911), trans. Arthur Mitchell, forward by Irwin Edman (New York: Modern Library, 1944).
Thumbnail credit: Jonas Wood, installation view, April 24—July 19, 2019 at Gagosian. Artwork © Jonas Wood. Photo: Robert McKeever. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Raphy Sarkissian is an artist, writer, curator and art historian currently teaching theory and praxis at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He received his MA from New York University and an MFA from SVA. Sarkissian lives and works in New York and can be followed on Instagram @raphy_sarkisssian.view all articles from this author