Jeremy Wolf works in Acrylic and Oil stick, creating readable narratives with mostly featureless figures. Motifs from the history of painting reappear at different resolutions and physical angels to create a a sort of foundational mythology. Click through for some recent work and a short interview.
1. First, Have you seen any really good painting shows lately? Along the same lines, I was wondering about a painter you’ve been thinking of who maybe isn’t on many walls. That is, if you could think of someone due for a critical renaissance, someone you think is under rated.
I’m always hunting for good painting shows, and I happen to have seen a number in the past few months that stand out in my mind. I accompanied my wife to Copenhagen maybe in October (she had a work conference and I just tagged along to screw around) and got out to the Louisiana Museum where they had a retrospective of Marsden Hartley’s work. I think that kind of hit on both parts of your question for me as he’s not someone really talked about with the giants of American painting, but the work was really phenomenal and kind of a revelation for me. I also got out to the Felix Vallotton show at the RA when that was up which is another name I wasn’t too familiar with and was kind of blown away by. Another at the RA I enjoyed was the show of Lucien Freud’s portraits. He’s kind of a complicated figure for me because I find him to have been a pretty big scumbag in his personal life, but the work is undeniably amazing. I’m a big fan of bits of texture and impasto and he definitely used those devices a good deal.
2. You have a degree in economics, would you talk a bit about how you came to painting, or how it informs your work to be mostly self-taught? I’m reminded of a bit of TS Elliot, writing his poems during his walk to work at a banker’s office.
You know, it’s funny because the degree in economics is probably more random than my interest in painting. I had always drawn and been encouraged creatively at home as a kid, but it was never really pushed on me or structured in any sort of way. When I was looking at college as a high school student I didn’t have a strong direction. I had been a fairly well regarded musician on the trombone and thought I might go into a jazz studies program or something like that. However, I was also very lazy and while I had some talent I just knew deep down that without the work ethic to back it up I wouldn’t amount to much. I was also terrified of auditions, so that didn’t help. As a result I just picked a major that sounded sort of specific and challenging but in reality was fairly general and hazy in terms of curriculum. I thought I would figure things out and switch majors after freshman year or something like that. But by the time I realized I really enjoyed painting (and would be willing to put in work to get better) it was junior year and I would’ve needed to add a year to my education to graduate with a degree in art. So I just stuck with economics and here we are.
In terms of how it informs my art, I feel like it has a double-edge effect. In the first place, I feel very free to explore whatever I want in terms of subject matter, medium, style, etc. There really aren’t any boundaries for me in terms of idea generation when it comes to my art. It also leaves me with a lot of rough edges in terms of style that I kind of enjoy. However, on the flip side, not having that education background can leave me a bit unfocused, and I don’t necessarily develop a narrative with the work. I’m not great at speaking about my work either, maybe because I’ve never had to sit through a critique with other artists and explain myself. So it works both ways, but at the end of the day I think it’s probably a good thing because it makes me me, you know?
3. Cooling towers are a reoccurring motif – Is it sort of a stylistic nod to (for example) pictures generation artists, or is it kind of a narrative device, a stand in for other anxieties?
I’m definitely interested in nuclear energy, bombs, the atomic age – all that sort of stuff. I think it speaks in microcosm to a lot of the other issues facing the world today. In all honesty, I had never even considered the reference to Picture Generation artists, but that’s a very interesting thought. For me, though, it was definitely more of a narrative device, like you say, about anxieties in today’s world. I want my paintings to feel uncomfortable or unsettling and there’s something about cooling towers that does that. Like, who wants to live next door to a facility that has those things?
4. Tell us a bit about Leda and the Swan painting. Some renaissance versions of this story include an audience, which is perhaps represented by the video camera in your version. Paintings based on Ovid tend to show the encounter as more tender, and paintings based on Fulgentius more violent. Yours is a bit ambiguous. There you go with that mushroom cloud again.
Greek mythology has always been one of my favorite topics. I always found it fascinating when we studied it in primary and secondary school. I think they’re really interesting stories just on the face of it, but when you consider that it was all a part of the foundation of what they believed I think it takes on a whole different connotation. I’m very critical of religion in a lot of my work and this is really no exception. I find it interesting (or perhaps disconcerting?) that whether you look at the Bible, the Koran, or Greek myths, so much of it we’re told is prescriptive and a guide as to how to live our lives. But at the same time there’s just so much senseless violence packed into those stories that it’s hard for me to look at any of that and view it as a pathway to a higher existence. Obviously, the Leda and the Swan story is no different. I know there have been more sympathetic takes on the encounter, but I’ve personally always imagined it as more of a violent scene – I mean if an animal was about to try to enter me there would be a serious struggle. What I wanted to capture here, though, was that false feeling of ambiguity around the story and how to me that could really represent being desensitized to that level of violence and abuse of power. So, the female in the image is rendered in such a way that she looks almost disconnected from the entire experience. She even nearly has the appearance of being a blow-up sex doll, which would obviously provide no resistance to the advances of the swan, but in my view wouldn’t make this any less of an unsavory scene. I felt like the strange devil-man filming the whole thing just made the whole image even stranger and the viewer ask more questions – Are these willing participants? Does that even matter if the whole thing is just wrong? I think the mushroom cloud again adds to the uneasiness of the image – What’s happening outside? Why aren’t the subjects in the room reacting? How close is that bomb? Are they going to die?
5. Do you worry about finding an informed audience? Have you found you get a different reaction to similar work when you’re in the UK versus stateside?
In all honesty, I don’t worry about that. I really do this because it’s who I am and I can’t imagine any other way. If people are informed and they bring that to the table when they see the pieces, that’s great and it’s a bonus to be able to talk to people about the work on that level. But if people just find them visually striking and interesting to look at, then I’m ok with that, too. I’m able to say what I want to through the work and that’s what’s important to me.
I definitely have received a stronger reaction to my stuff over here in the UK. I think the scene in general is a bit less cutthroat here – not that it’s not very competitive in its own right, but I don’t think other artists mind seeing you succeed as much here as in NYC. It’s a bit more collaborative in my experience and so I’ve enjoyed being able to participate a bit more now that I live in London. I’m sure there’s also a bit of a novelty element with my being an American and having that perspective in my work, but hey it’s working for me right now, right?
6. After asking about painting and audiences, how about a lighter question, I was wondering if you’d be willing to share a guilty pleasure with us, something that you really love that you think is truly dumb.
Oh man, I love this question. I have so many, so I’ll try to give you a nice variety across categories. I’m a huge fan of bad action movies, whether it’s a big budget one like the newest Rambo, or a B-movie like the more recent Steven Seagal stuff, or even lower end than that. I saw this really bad movie with Vince Vaughn where he’s playing this truck driver with super human strength who goes to prison for trafficking drugs. It’s called Brawl in Cell Block 99 – definitely one of the shittiest best movies I’ve seen in a while. He’s just punching through skulls and stuff like that. The Steven Seagal flicks are really weird because he has this strange love affair with Russia going on in his real life and that all plays out on screen in the new movies. He’s also like 70 and fat and can’t move anymore so the fight scenes are disastrous. I remember I watched a movie called Assault on Wall Street with my old roommate a while back where this guy basically has a Job-like experience in his life where his wife and kid die, he gets fired, loses his house, etc. And he just goes nuts and goes to a firm on Wall Street and shoots the entire place up. That one was pretty wild. I would consider myself a true connoisseur of the genre.
I also love Professional Wrestling. The WWE kind of sucks these days, but I’m into some of the new promotions that they have going like AEW and NWA. There will never be anything like the Attitude Era in WWF ever again, though. I’m a massive fan of Stone Cold Steve Austin. But I think probably the most overlooked character in the entire thing is Vince McMahon himself. He’s the epitome of being an over-the-top moron and I just can’t get enough.
I’ve got loads more like pop music and stuff like that, but we’ll leave that for another day.
Interview By Ben Duax