April 23, 2019
Anna Katherine Brodbeck

Jonas Wood, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, April 23, 2019

Jonas Wood’s Face Painting (p. 73) functions as an allegory of the act of painting. There we see the reflection of a young girl in a mirror, painting her face a patchwork of shades of purple. Propped in front of the mirror is a how-to manual for the craft, highlighting a distinctly novice version of what all portraiture is at its most basic: face painting. Abutting the manual are a painter’s palette and a gray plastic tray. The tray casts a shadow on the table, and the table’s wood grain appears in the tray’s central passage, recalling the visual games of Cubism, which are echoed in the distortion of the forms to the right of the child’s reflection. Cubism exemplifies the avant-garde defiance of the conceit of painting as a mirror of, or window onto, the outside world. This illusion is broken explicitly here. At the painting’s left extremity, an iPhone can be seen reflected in the mirror—the now familiar pose of a “mirror selfie”—that captures this scene.

Face Painting contains many of the key, self-referential characteristics of the work of Jonas Wood. Often featuring mirrors and photography, it puts into question the relationship between reality and the illusory world of painting. The artist draws on his own life as subject matter: the child depicted in the mirror is the artist’s daughter. But most importantly, Wood’s work, so intricately tied to appearance, identity, and the family, can be read allegorically. An allegory is a story that tells a parallel story, often with characters that serve as personifications of ideas or concepts, as in a fable. Perhaps the most emblematic example of allegory— and the use of mirrors—in painting is Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (fig. 1).1 Velazquez’s inclusion of his own self-portrait in what should be a portrait of the king and queen of Spain (who are just barely visible in the mirror in the background of the painting) turned what was otherwise a royal commission into a powerful argument for himself and his craft. Illustrating this, the artist presumptuously dons the insignia of the Order of Santiago before actually receiving such an honor.

Wood’s oeuvre also foregrounds self-presentation. In his masterful Calais Drive (p. 69), he relies on the same “mirror selfie” format used in Face Painting but here employs the reflective surface of a poolside window to capture his own likeness. Wood adopts this seductive pose in numerous works (for example, fig. 2), pointing to the compulsion to capture the image of one’s own reflection. However, just as Michel Foucault famously argued that Velazquez’s game of mirroring signaled the modern awareness that we as viewers are being addressed by the painting,2 Wood’s self-portraiture points to something beyond vanity. Indeed, he seems to paint his own image, his own family, and his own studio and home life in a way that surpasses the convenience of what is close at hand and points to what is existentially compelling about the subject matter for the artist. While self-portraiture and its use for allegory have been hallmarks of painting for centuries, our predilection toward creating self-images has dramatically intensified, honed by social media and the creation of avatars in gaming. To approach Wood’s formal and conceptual treatment of people, places, and things through the lens of allegory illuminates how his work transcends its own specificity to speak to universal stories of relationships and, ultimately, the vulnerable position of artistic subjectivity.

As Wood’s paintings elicit a movement toward psychological interiority, let’s begin with the exteriors, move inward, and conclude with the portraits, echoing the format of our exhibition design, which follows a similar trajectory toward intimacy. Upon entering the gallery, one sees the various worlds Wood inhabits: a Japanese garden (p. 39), a snowy landscape in rural Massachusetts (p. 41), the exterior of the artist’s studio (p. 31). Other works move in closer, depicting empty rooms in a house: the kitchen (pp. 33 and 43), the library (p. 37), the bedroom (fig. 3). These places are devoid of people, yet personal effects animate them as if they are awaiting habitation (or revealing narratives of past use).

The missing subject is even more notable in Wood’s still lifes, a favorite genre of the artist. Recent examples depict tables and shelves stacked with indoor plants, pots created by his wife and other ceramicists, and pattern-rich carpets. Earlier still lifes, which showcase crates, screens, and bird cages, are most striking for their depiction of claustrophobic enclosures, a formal effect of nearly all of Wood’s paintings, with their shallow sense of space. The very name “still life,” or nature morte in French, points to the essential lifelessness of these objects—suggesting human use but ultimately divorced from it.

It is this quality of lifelessness that calls to mind the most influential modern theory of allegory, which Walter Benjamin put forth in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928). There Benjamin argued that the historical past can only be represented through allegory. The allegory is presented in strict opposition to the symbol, which Benjamin saw as irrevocably intertwined with the theological and the eternal—a unified presentation of truth as if in a divine revelation.3 In contrast, the allegory is fragmented and decaying, and finds its ultimate expression in the ruin, or in the “death’s head”:

Everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face—or rather in a death’s head. And although such a thing lacks all “symbolic” freedom of expression, all classical proportion, all humanity—nevertheless, this is the form in which man’s subjection to nature is most obvious and it significantly gives rise not only to the enigmatic question of the nature of human existence as such, but also the biographical historicity of the individual.4

The “death’s head” Benjamin alludes to is apparent in one of Wood’s earliest still lifes, simply titled The Still Life (p. 49). A skull, in what looks to be a textbook reference to memento mori, lies atop a plinth. A folding screen stands in the background, surrounded by a set of crates and a few potted plants. The death’s head is the quintessential blank canvas for the projection of identity. It belonged once to a specific person but now stands in for petrified history and the arbitrary nature of signifiers. This literal hollowness or emptiness, waiting to be filled, is matched by Wood’s repeated depiction of empty cages, crates, and boxes in contemporaneous still lifes. This memento mori, created so early in his career, sets the tone for his production to come.

While I do not contend that Wood consciously engages with Benjaminian theories—indeed many of his works incorporate a sense of humor and levity wholly absent from Benjamin’s writings—they do have interesting implications for both the form and the content of his work.5 Formally, Wood’s use of preparatory photo collages recalls Benjamin’s other canonical text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). For Benjamin, art in the modern age has lost its aura because of the easy reproducibility of images through photography and film. One implication of this is the reclassification of the artist from “magician” to “surgeon,” whereby the relationship between the artist and the viewer has changed. The magician maintains what Benjamin terms a “natural distance” from the viewer, whereas the surgeon penetrates the viewer’s experience with totalizing control. Wood, in his manipulation of the composition via photographic studies, acts like the cinematographer who carefully selects angles and light, pasting together various views to get the desired effect and creating a new (sometimes fictional) space unburdened by realistic representation. In the upper third of Snowscape with Barn (p. 41), for instance, a subtle shift is evident— the tree branches splinter and no longer line up with their trunks. These scenes aren’t observed from life at all; they are re-created based on collaged photographs likely taken years ago (fig. 4), and the trees in those old images might be long gone by the time they are painted (quite unlike the plein-air painting revolutionized in the nineteenth century). In this way, they also function as ruins. They recall past versions of themselves, living on in fragmented form. Wood’s depiction of ancient pots is a more explicit exampleof the artist’s affinity for the ruins of history (fig. 5).

For Benjamin, history is an enigma that one mustdecipher through obsessive deliberation, or melancholy, a concept productively applied to Wood’s work. A melancholic stillness pervades the artist’s landscapes and still lifes. This quality is most conspicuous in the Clippings series (pp. 55–65) to which Wood has increasingly turned his attention over the past several years. The Clippings take pieces of his still lifes—the potted plants—and show them at their most abstracted. Divorced from sources of life, from soil and sunlight, these extracts are set against solid colored backgrounds. In the striking case of a small series of gray and white Clippings, Wood employs stark black backgrounds almost as if to underscore the draining of vitality (p. 55). Benjamin theorizes melancholy as the prerequisite sensibility through which to filter past events into allegory:

If the object becomes allegorical under the gaze of melancholy, if melancholy causes life to flow out of it and it remains behind dead, but eternally secure, then it is exposed to the allegorist, it is unconditionally in his power. That is to say it is now quite incapable of emanating any meaning or significance of its own; such significance as it has, it acquires from the allegorist. He places it within it, and stands behind it; not in a psychological but in an ontological sense.6

Benjamin’s critique of the allegory, applied here to German Baroque theater, was updated for the conditions of modern life in his unfinished Arcades Project, notably in terms of the rise of the commodity allegory in the industrial nineteenth century. Such theories have cast a large, but intermittently fashionable, shadow on the interpretation of art, revived by Craig Owens in his seminal 1980 essay “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” Writing in October, Owens concentrates mainly on the darlings of that publication at the time, Robert Smithson and artists of the Pictures Generation whose work inspired the theories of postmodernism in the visual arts. His analysis of allegory is especially insightful; he defines the “fundamental impulses” of the allegory as “a conviction of the remoteness of the past, and a desire to redeem it for the present . . .”7 Interestingly for our purposes, Owens underscores the intimate connection between allegory and psychoanalytic practice. Wood, who has a degree in psychology, addresses familial relations in a way that approaches psychoanalysis with its focus on filial relationships and the importance of recounting past events to determine their influence on the present (quite similar to the role of melancholic deliberation in allegory).

For Wood, self-presentation is often directly tied to familial relations, and as in his self-portraits, mirrors and photographs often accompany portraits of the artist’s family. See, for example, Self Portrait with Momo (Momo is Wood’s daughter), Rosy In My Room With His Cat (Rosy is his grandfather), and The Bat/ Bar Mitzvah Weekend (pp. 70–71, 87). In the case of the latter, a painting based on a photograph by Elsa Dorfman, past pictures of family members are placed at their feet as they pose for the current photography session. The painting captures the act of posing in two temporal registers, making it a meta commentary on the relationship between painting and photography, family and the passage of time. And as is evident from its title, Sears Family Portrait (p. 89) is a rendering of a photograph, the kind most popular among American families during Wood’s childhood. His use of appropriated source material is reminiscent of the artists of the Pictures Generation who were the subject of Owens’s essay. While other works are based on publicly available images (see P Guston, p. 83), it is striking to see this same treatment of his own family photos.

For Wood, there is much at stake in the depiction of the family. It is not just an exercise in nostalgia, but rather provides for the artist a clear system of identity creation through oppositional relationships and substitutions. Take the portrait pair Robin and Ptolemy and Robot (Self Portrait) (pp. 84–85). Wood looks directly at the viewer in his confident self-portrait, which stands in stark contrast to his mother, who shies away from the viewer’s gaze. Wood had a difficult relationship with his mother, and one can sense here the deliberate effort to differentiate himself, revealing her as withholding or withdrawn. His exploration of identity, and history, is thus tied to a series of relational oppositions, what Owens describes as “add[ing] another meaning to the image . . . only to replace.”8

The difference in dates of these works is telling for their relation to allegory and history. Wood revisits scenes from years past, repopulating them with new characters. The most striking illustration of this filial replacement is when he directly substitutes himself with family members, as he does in Self Portrait with Momo and Rosy In My Room With His Cat. The portraits have identical settings—the artist’s room—but in one, the artist holds his daughter, and in the other, his grandfather poses with his pet cat. This signals another key characteristic of allegory—personification, or the transference of a human quality to an object, which Wood incorporates through his use of attributes or animals, calling to mind the prevalence of animals in fables. As we can see, family members are often accompanied by animals, real or stuffed, who serve as extensions of their own personality traits. His mother is often shown with a cat, Jonas with a dog. The stereotypically “feline” qualities of his mother are thus enhanced—skittish and shy, she hides her face behind her cat Ptolemy—while Jonas’s gregarious side is emphasized.

In Momo with Stuffed Animals (p. 45), Momo is accompanied by a doll that is itself hugging a giraffe, in an act of transference. On the wall of the room are source materials that appear in other paintings by Wood. In the center of the wall looms Wood’s large canvas of a brood of canines, Dogs (Robots Roots) (fig. 6). The painting explores the hereditary origins of Wood’s beloved pet Robot, and its pairing with the artist’s daughter continues this line of familial affiliations. Momo herself is shown beside a stuffed dinosaur. Dinosaurs stand in for familial collaboration in Wood’s work. He has long depicted the pots of his wife, Shio Kusaka, including her dinosaur-themed ceramics (pp. 51–53). (Drawings done in collaboration with their children have also found their way onto pots, and those pots into Wood’s paintings.)

Wood depicts artists with attributes or creations that directly connect them to their vocations. Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Akio Takamori are shown behind their ceramics as if they themselves are extensions of their production—Takamori’s pot displays a face, in fact a self-portrait, which is magnified in scale from the original (pp. 74–75). Mark Grotjahn stands triumphantly in front of a painting from his Face series, which brought him fame and with which he is closely identified (p. 79). (In another work, not included in this exhibition, the young Grotjahn twins sit in front of a painting by their father—a familial association par excellence.9)

Wood’s depiction of contemporary artists like Grotjahn, with whom he has collaborated, along with veteran modern artists like Philip Guston, suggests an artistic lineage to which he aspires. This lineage is also tied directly to the family. Wood’s grandfather was an amateur painter and a collector of modern art. Wood inherited, quite literally, this love from his grandfather—not only did he serve as an early exposure to painting, but Wood is now in possession of works from his grandfather’s collection, such as a Calder drawing. The artist created his own rich series of Calder-inspired abstractions, whose inspiration can also be felt in his later Clippings (fig. 7). Other paintings and drawings feature miniature reproductions of Picasso’s heads and Matisse’s collages that grace the walls of his interiors (fig. 8). Wood appropriates the work of such modern artists and incorporates it into his own; in conjunction with his interest in self-presentation, he seems to suggest an aspirational posturing similar to Velazquez’s gambit in Las Meninas.

This suggests another apt reference in Wood’s work, which is to avatars. In the digital world, users often create surrogates that are idealized versions of themselves, primarily in gaming platforms but increasingly appearing as well in messaging applications. David Joselit has explored the use of avatars in art, taking as his example another great contemporary allegory, Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle:

In Cyberspace an avatar is a movable icon representing a person, a virtual-presence capable of navigating mediascapes. More the index of a location than a traditional form of subjectivity, an avatar does not possess an identity but rather exercises one (or many) provisionally in order to chart a particular path: As a fictional character controlled by an actual body, it is defined by where it goes rather than what it is.10

This idea of surrogacy is illustrated more explicitly in Wood’s depiction of masks in works like Rosy’s Masks (see fig. 15, p. 25) and My Old Bedroom Shelf (fig. 9). Wood’s grandfather collected African art, calling to mind the influence of decontextualized “primitive” artifacts on the development of modern art. Masks, of course, also suggest the differences between public faces and core identities.

The Hypnotist (p. 47), a monumental work that Wood painted during a pivotal moment in his career with which I will conclude, suggests an interesting parallel to the “death’s head” and the avatar in its presentation of the possibilities of identity projection. The painting depicts the occasion when the artist himself visited a hypnotist. In hypnotism, one’s body is overtaken and control is relinquished to the practitioner. Indeed, the figure of Wood in the painting, with his eyes almost completely closed, appears lifeless compared to what so vividly surrounds him: posters, books, photographs, memorabilia, and the intensely outlined depiction of the hypnotist’s face, as if this accumulation of stuff has been literally animated by the vacated personality of his body.

The Hypnotist is an outlier in Wood’s practice, in as much as it is a commemoration of a specific event in the artist’s life rather than a posed portrait, casual family anecdote, or vacant locale. The importance that hypnotism thus holds for Wood is instructive. It points to a fluidity, or even hollowness, of identity that one would not expect in an oeuvre that otherwise obsessively chronicles one’s personal life in art. But when his work is considered in light of theories of allegory, it actually seems to fight against the supremacy of the artist’s own biography, as in Benjamin’s questioning of the “biographical historicity of the individual.” In this way, Wood’s oeuvre can stand the test of time, not as personal narrative, but as an allegorical operation of relations. Wood presents art as a way to recall history. As through an act of hypnotism, in which a body or an object can be conjured up and inhabited, he allows us to recover what is otherwise irretrievable. The Hypnotist, like Las Meninas before it, seems to suggest that we as viewers might have the ability to inhabit the artist’s work and embody the “other” to see what lessons that might hold for us.

1 Michael Ned Holte also explores the important precedence of Las Meninas and other examples of mise-en abyme painting in his essay “Rooms,” in Jonas Wood: Interiors (Brooklyn: Picture Box, 2012). Like allegories, mise-en-abyme paintings, which include other paintings or mirrors, functioned didactically beginning in the medieval period.

2 See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2002).

3 “The distinction between the two modes is therefore to be sought in the momentariness which allegory lacks . . . There [in the symbol] we have momentary totality; here we have progression in a series of moments. And for this reason it is allegory, and not the symbol, which embraces myth.” Walter Benjamin (quoting Friedrich Creuzer), The Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 2009), 165.

4 Ibid., 166.

5 Indeed, Wood’s accumulation of “stuff” seems to beg a dialectic reading. One need only think of Susan Buck-Morss’s evaluation of the commodity—“if the social value (hence the meaning) of commodities is their price, this does not prevent them from being appropriated by consumers as wish images within the emblem books of their private dreamworld.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), 181.

6 Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 183–84.

7 Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October, no. 102 (Spring 1980), 68.

8 Ibid., 69.

9 Jonas Wood, Grotjahn Twins, 2011. Gouache and colored pencil on paper. Private collection.

10 David Joselit, “Navigating the New Territory: Art, Avatars, and the Contemporary Mediascape,” Artforum (Summer 2005): 278.