April 23, 2019
Ken D. Allan

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

In Schindler Apts (fig. 10), Jonas Wood hints at his interest in using structures of the past—in this case, an example of European modernist architecture in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles—to build vivid contemporary pictures. The bones on which Wood puts down layers of flat, bold color in his paintings run the gamut from modern architecture, the compositions of Henri Matisse, and the rooms of his childhood home to the arrangements of houseplants from 1970s gardening magazines. Wood became aware of the history of art at a young age through visits to museums in Boston and New York, and from his grandfather, who began collecting modern art in the 1960s with the help of dividends from early IBM stock. Wood remembers experiencing works by Bacon, Rauschenberg, Motherwell, Calder, and Lichtenstein on a regular basis in his grandparents’ house during his childhood in New England.1 The intimacy of his initial encounter with Modernism, then, explains Wood’s incorporation of its lessons into his depictions of friends, family, and the spaces in which he lives and works.

It is perhaps no accident that the kind of steep hillside seen in Schindler Apts, with its rhythm of foliage broken by the geometry of house walls, roof planes, and window frames, would appeal to Wood since it recalls the kinds of sites chosen by artists such as Paul Cezanne and Georges Braque for their own painterly experiments. A comparison of Wood’s painting with Braque’s 1909 La Roche-Guyon: le château (The Castle at Roche-Guyon) highlights some of these correspondences (fig. 11).

Braque’s landscape paintings, inspired by Cezanne, led him to the fully fledged Cubism he and Picasso developed in the 1910s, in part because the locations he depicted already contained the kinds of spatial contrasts that he sought to make the basis of his avant-garde art. The twelfth-century tower and La Rochefoucauld family castle that climb the hill above the Seine in La Roche-Guyon provide the compositional tension between surface and depth that Braque makes the focus of his painting. The high horizon line and the shallow space create a disorienting picture that becomes more about the arrangement of shapes on its surface than a traditional depiction of a landscape.2 In Schindler Apts, the Silver Lake hillside offers Wood a similar verticality and flattened plane on which to play the angularity of the architecture against the organic form and detailed texture of the surrounding plants and trees as the composition ascends to the top of the canvas. Braque reinvents a medieval castle and seventeenth-century French palace as a modern painting, while Wood makes a contemporary painting out of a 1920s modernist apartment complex. But one could argue that a Rudolph Schindler building in Southern California serves a similar function for Wood as the castle did for Braque—it is an iconic historical site on which a painter can strive to make his mark as an ambitious and innovative artist.3

Schindler Apts is based on a photograph that his mother took while touring Schindler and Richard Neutra buildings in Los Angeles with his father. Wood had been working on a series of etchings based on his paintings around this time, and the emphasis on line and draftsmanship in the printmaking process helped him solve the problem of how to convey the different layers and variety of foliage that structured so much of the composition. As he recalled in an interview,

I basically took everything I have learned, from all these different mark-making parts of the etching process, and applied it to painting . . . I found it reinvigorating seeing my mark, and then I got more exploratory . . . It made me become way more aware of the idea of how powerful these individual marks can be versus the whole image . . . It gave me a better understanding of myself.4

The passage in the lower left of Schindler Apts in which residential plantings and shrubbery become a remarkable experiment in abstract shapes and repeated mark-making is one example of the kind of insight that Wood describes here. Since the painting is 11 × 9 feet, his “exploratory” marks in this area of the canvas are very legible, overwhelming their traditional status as mere ornament in the image. This tension between ostensible subject matter and the striking visual impact made by the depicted surfaces and material objects that fill the spaces of his compositions is seen throughout Wood’s work. He creates these effects by painting in oil on top of layers of acrylic, but the relationship with printmaking reinforces the importance of flatness and pattern to the overall graphic quality of his aesthetic and connects his work to some of the central debates about the status of painting in the twentieth century.

What happens when the abstract components of a figurative painting, or the decorative ornaments found in furniture designs, textiles, carpets, or wallpaper, become just as important to the visual impact as the figures themselves? Can a painting carry meaning when the artist’s expression seems to be contained within these traditionally marginal aspects of a composition? In response to these kinds of questions, in 1908 Henri Matisse explained, “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive . . . Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s disposal to express his feelings.”5 Wood’s return to such questions allows us to see that painting’s delivery of visual pleasure has a history—a history that Wood’s work surely continues. Yet this return also brings into relief how removed we are from the urgent need of modernists such as Matisse to understand the medium of painting itself in the early twentieth century. Wood reveals a self-consciousness about this past in his paintings that asks us to think through the changed status of the ubiquitous, yet dematerialized image in contemporary culture. Wood declared his interest in Matisse most pointedly in a series of pot drawings and paintings, for instance Red Interior Pot (fig. 12), in which he reproduced a section of Matisse’s famous 1908 canvas The Red Room (Harmony in Red)6 as if it were the design on a large ceramic vessel. This mode of direct quotation aside, Wood engages the question of the decorative in portraits such as N. Lowe (Peach Faced Love Bird) (p. 81), Robin with Phoebe (p. 67), and Leslie and Michael (p. 77), as well as in his paintings of interiors.

In Self Portrait in Alexis’s Room (fig. 13), Wood’s play with pattern, framing, and reflection suggests a relationship to the groundbreaking treatment of these issues in paintings Matisse made before World War I, such as Interior with Aubergines (fig. 14). Matisse confuses the viewer’s sense of the distinction between the depicted room, the mirror’s reflection, and the view out a window by emphasizing the flatness of the decorative patterns in the folding screen, the wallpaper, the floor, the tablecloth, and the prints hanging on the wall. Wood borrows some of Matisse’s tricks in Self Portrait in Alexis’s Room, but one of the most striking aspects of this painting is the slight break in the alignment of the mirror frame and the edges of the two pictures hanging on the wall. Similar to Matisse’s complex exploration of surfaces and their representation, this disjuncture works like an exposed seam, drawing our attention to Wood’s process in making the painting and to the photographs the artist is depicted taking with a small digital camera in the mirror. This glimpse of the reflection of Wood’s partial figure, mostly obscuring his face, conveys a sense of the almost reluctant presence of the artist within this private space. The painting is in fact based on multiple photographs of his sister’s bedroom in their childhood home, indicated by the personal effects and a large photographic portrait hanging on the wall of Alexis and her friends, taken by the Boston-area photographer Elsa Dorfman.7 Wood’s portrait of a portrait within a self-portrait suggests the layers of representation through which he depicts his subjects, projecting our connection with them onto other elements in the composition. In this painting, as in Wood’s other work, the traditional focus of the self-portrait gets displaced onto the furniture, reproductions pinned above a desk, the patterns on the bedspread, or the clothes of the young women in the photograph on the wall. Scholar Jenny Anger describes the role of the decorative in the history of modern art in a way that provides perspective on Wood’s approach:

The decorative [is] found not in a rarefied, idealist realm but, rather, in the objects around us. The rugs, the pillows, the wallpapers surround us daily without our paying them any attention, yet they are loyal accompaniments to the events and emotions of our lives, memories of which we project upon them . . . arabesques on the wall are empty signifiers made full by our projections, made rich by our intimate, lived connection with them.8

Since we often assume modern artists such as Matisse were painting from life, their distortions of interior space and experiments in depicting everyday objects can be read as a form of personal expression, a report on their feelings about a scene and the things within it. How is our belief in this “lived connection” between painter and painted affected when we consider that an artist like Wood constructs his interiors from photographs, and oftentimes from collages built out of a combination of personal photographs, online media, or other reproduced images?

The intimacy of a painting such as Momo with Stuffed Animals (p. 45), a portrait of the artist’s infant daughter, is complicated by the fact that Wood created it by combining a photograph of a bulletin board in his sister’s childhood room, a picture of dogs found on the internet (which he also made into a stand-alone painting called Dogs (Robots Roots) (see fig. 6, p. 16), and a photo of Momo lying on a bed with animal plush toys and a baby doll. Wood’s process for this kind of painting is the same for much of his work, and often involves collaging together different source images, making a small test drawing or painting, and then scaling up the image onto canvas via a projector. The eponymous subject of this portrait is at first hard to find, so distracting is the visual information contained in the postcards, photographs, and other assorted imagery that dominates the 6 × 6–foot composition. Furthermore, Wood’s rendering of his child lying on her back at the bottom left is easily confused with the image of the doll on the middle-right, lying on its belly and seemingly clutching a stuffed giraffe. This blurring of the distinction between representation and the real is thematized throughout this painting. The pixilated line, the shallow pictorial space, and the flatness of Wood’s application of color put the collection of images hanging above his daughter in the same visual register as her little figure even as she looks out at us from the composition.

Momo with Stuffed Animals is primarily a painting of a wall with pictures on it, a feature that recurs again and again in Wood’s work. Paintings such as The Hypnotist (p. 47), Rosy’s Masks (fig. 15), Ovitz’s Library (p. 37), Guest Room,9 drawings of his own work in exhibitions such as Hammer Projects: Jonas Wood,10 and even the still-life arrangements of potted plants such as Night Bloom Still Life (p. 51) or Studio Exterior (p. 31), all emphasize pictorial spaces that face the viewer and present a variety of visual material and objects on display. If Wood’s references to Braque, Cezanne, and Matisse signal his interest in the foundations of modernist painting, these compositions might indicate how his work tracks the response to the orthodoxy of modernism in the late twentieth century: the emergence of what historian and critic Leo Steinberg called “the flatbed picture plane” in the work of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Dubuffet, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and others. In his 1972 essay “Other Criteria,” Steinberg identified the reproduction of pop-culture imagery and the collagelike compositional strategies in postwar art like Rauschenberg’s Combines as components of a new kind of flatness in painting. He used the analogy of the opaque work surface of the “flatbed” printing press to articulate a new relationship of viewer to artwork that he saw as postmodern. Work in this mode rejected the traditional model of the canvas as a window onto nature, which, he argued, still guided our comprehension of even abstract compositions: The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards—any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.11

While Jonas Wood makes paintings that have none of the avant-garde provocations of a 1950s Rauschenberg, his approach to the traditional genres of portrait, still life, landscape, and interior acknowledges the kind of paradigm shift that Steinberg details in his essay. In Steinberg’s reference to printmaking, we might recall the impact that medium has made on Wood’s approach to painting. In some respects, Wood’s studio practice resembles Steinberg’s description of the “operational processes” that were just beginning to impact the work of painters at the dawn of the electronic age when the essay appeared. The artist has multiple streams of imagery flowing into his studio: pictures emailed by friends that they think he might like; piles of old gardening manuals and magazines; particular categories of imagery gleaned from Instagram; stacks of printed images from the internet; a wall with reproductions of photos from his family albums, his own shots of friends, interior scenes, and various locations that he might use in a painting. Much of Wood’s work, in fact, focuses our attention on the spaces and surfaces within his compositions that naturally convey the kinds of visual information or data Steinberg identifies in his essay. One of the largest paintings he has made to date, The Hypnotist, provides a particularly clear example of this phenomenon.

Wood has described the inspiration for this painting as an overwhelming visual experience he had when first walking into the small garage-office space of a hypnotherapist he visited to help him quit smoking. The far wall was filled top to bottom with such a variety of different images—movie posters, framed magazine articles, travel pictures—that Wood instantly knew he wanted to paint it. He quickly snapped some photographs when the therapist left the room to get him some water.12 Wood’s painting is based on a collage of these photographs, the misalignments and distortions of which further emphasize the space itself as defined by the visual imagery on display—the slight tilting of the plane of the wall and subtle variations of the frames’ rectangles echoed in the warped grid of the floor tiles. While these features of the painting may resonate when seen through Steinberg’s model of the flatbed picture plane, the odd interiority of this picture harkens back to an even earlier moment in the history of modern painting with which I will conclude.

The shifting, unstable space, heavy with ornamental detail, that Wood creates in The Hypnotist suggests the kinds of effects seen in late nineteenth-century paintings of the psychologized domestic interior by Post-Impressionist painters such as Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. In Vuillard’s Large Interior with Six Figures (fig. 16), for instance, the furniture, ornamental rugs, and densely decorated interior walls mark shifts in perspective in a way comparable to the composition of Wood’s painting. Vuillard sought to convey the social anxieties of fin-de-siecle France in his depictions of the interior spaces of his family and friends. He even wanted the viewer to feel these tensions through their bodily relationship to his compositions.13 At 9 × 14 feet, The Hypnotist is a similarly ambitious painting, but if Wood’s work immerses us in the disorienting space of this interior, and those of his own family and friends, he does so in a historical period in which the privacy of the home, the workplace, and any other space we occupy is permeated by the technology of the internet and social media, creating another level of psychological intensity. It is Wood’s return to the traditional subjects, familiar spaces, and critical problems of modern painting that asks us to take account of how the medium can still offer a place for us to think through the increasing complexity and persistent seductions of our contemporary culture.

I would like to thank Jonas Wood for discussing his work and career with me and Karisa Morante and the rest of the staff for facilitating my visits to Wood Kusaka Studios.

1 Wood, interview with the author, September 7, 2018, and Jonathan Griffin, “The Competitor,” Cultured Magazine (Fall 2017), 156–61, at https://www.culturedmag. com/jonas-wood/.

2 Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 27. Hughes provides a good introduction to Cubism and the role of paintings such as this in its development.

3 Given Wood’s interest in ornament and decoration in his painting, it is a striking coincidence that these apartments were originally the home of a modernist designer and muralist. The Sachs Apartments pictured in Wood’s painting (also known as Manola Court) are located at 1826-30 Lucile Avenue to 1809-11 Edgecliffe Avenue and were originally designed by Schindler in 1926 for his friend Herman Sachs, a Romanian artist, textile maker, and interior designer, who used his background in German Expressionism and applied arts in his designs for the interiors of Los Angeles landmarks such as the Bullock’s Wilshire Building, Union Station, and City Hall. See the Pacific Coast Architecture Database entry on Herman Sachs, http://pcad.lib.washington.edu/person/705/.

4 “Brian Sharp in Conversation with Jonas Wood,” in Jonas Wood: Paintings and Drawings (Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2015), 7.

5 Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” reproduced in Art in Theory, 1900–1990, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 73.

6 Henri Matisse, The Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908. Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, GE-9660.

7 Dorfman’s distinctive large-format portrait photography of the artist’s family can be seen in other work by Wood, such as Guest Room (2007), and fully reproduced in a painting such as The Bat/Bar Mitzvah Weekend (p. 77).

8 Jenny Anger, Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 191.

9 Jonas Wood, Guest Room, 2007. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

10 Hammer Projects: Jonas Wood, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, February 5– May 9, 2010.

11 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 84.

12 Wood, interview with the author, September 7, 2018.

13 See Susan Sidlauskas, Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth-Century Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).