On Saturday, September 8, Australian artist Jonathan Zawada opens a new exhibition, Free Roam Above the Mist, at Prism in Los Angeles. exhibition is centred around an expansive suite of oil paintings ? painted depictions of digital renders of the Elbe Sandstone Mountainscapes, a topography most significant as a site represented by Caspar David Friedrich in Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. To mark the occasion, we look back at our interview with Zawada in the August 2011 issue of Juxtapoz.
Interview by Hannah Stouffer
If you were to really break down the makeup of the human brain, such a chaotic soup of particles, neurons, all those guts and bits, and really attempt to define this complex jungle of our inner workings, you would realize this embodiment is merely a strange network of abstractions that we have created. Each unique in perspective, some prone to geometrical states, some compelled to create and obsess, or spend an eternity collecting Garfield rotary phones, sea shells or Chicken shaped salt and pepper shakers at flea markets.
Others might find higher meaning and importance in researching the creatures at the bottom of the ocean, decoding planetary myth or involving themselves in detailed knit work. We are made up of a mass of tangled wires in which resides our own compulsions, attractions and tendencies—which brings me to Jonathan Zawada.
If you were to somehow “Honey, I Shrunk The Kids” yourself and take an Innerspace tour through Zawada’s inner makeup, you might uncover what looks to be a hyper-colored optical illusion of the surface of Mars. Mix that with a cat named Phatskull, the continent of Australia, and the infiniteness of time and possibility—then remind yourself that this galactic embodiment is still just Jonathan Zawada. —Hannah Stouffer
Hannah Stouffer: So most importantly Jonathan, what are you wearing? What about Phatskull, what is he wearing?
Jonathan Zawada: I’m wearing rather large glasses that make me look studious. Phatskull is wearing the black tuxedo with white shirt collar that he’s been wearing for the past 8 years and it’s beginning to stink.
All we need to do is teach him to serve martinis on a silver platter and start collecting tips! You seem to be the kind of guy who always has the answers, what are you drawn to researching further right now? What is your favorite means of collecting information for your work?
I remember some astrology chart once telling me that my most spoken phrase was “I know” and it advised me against it. Recently I’ve been researching waveforms in repeating search trends on Google, which I’m calling Google cycles. I used to really love going to the library, ever since I was in high school, but in the past decade that process has been completely replaced with limitless tabs in Google Chrome.
Tell me about it. I miss those days of hanging out in the library for hours and thumbing through old books, periodicals and microfiche. All of those images of what 2011 would look like in 1964 came true and here we are in the future. Pretty soon people will start marrying aliens via Google Universe Mate and it will be no big deal. What are your thoughts on extraterrestrials? What about the afterlife?
I don’t believe in either. I pretty much only believe in hard, fast science, which makes me quite the party pooper amongst most of our friends.
It doesn’t get much better than science. Your work is such a constant process of evolution and change. Do you find yourself going back to similar ideas or themes as your work progresses, like consciousness, science and the fourth dimension? How’s your memory?
The ideas part is the part I like the most so I generally find I’m reluctant to return to ideas I’ve previously explored. I do worry that this often results in my not having fully explored those ideas though so I’ve recently been trying to force myself to spend more time with them and return to old concepts. I really explored the different ways that multiple mediums can be used, either independently or in conjunction with exploring different concepts. Different aspects of science are definitely what interest me most though and it’s a limitless well to draw upon which, in a world completely filled and shaped by technology is very fertile ground. My memory, however, is pretty terrible. I generally have to rely on my wife to remember things for me!
I feel like artists and individuals are becoming increasingly more curious to research and explore on their own… I mean, before this transition to technology we have been documenting our realizations and discoveries for thousands of years, by hand, on rocks and paper! Are you familiar with the work of Edward Tufte? I totally see how you two could rap out on quantitative information, statistical graphs and data maps For. Like. Ever. What is your favorite kind of chart?
Yeah, I love Edward Tufte! I have a couple of his books. I think he would definitely be appalled at the work in my recent Over Time show. I think he terms those sort of aesthetic presentations of graph data as chartjunk. If you like Edward Tufte you should definitely look at the work of Mark Lombardi. He was one of my first art obsessions. I have a soft spot for the Venn diagram, not in the least because of its affiliation with additive and subtractive color theory.
I’m sure Tufte would have nothing but positive remarks, would probably make a chart on his opinion of your current state of progression versus improvement towards eternity in relation to weather patterns. I’ve definitely seen Lombardi’s work, it’s a little information heavy for me but his ways of breaking down the world’s biggest and most complex scandals are so genius! I love that kind of conceptualism in contemporary work and I definitely feel like your art has connections to that. It seems very intelligent and heavily concept based, though sometimes it feels like you get by without thinking about anything at all, which is so nice, do you agree?
I know what you mean about it being nice to think and nice not to think. For me that’s the major aim in my work, to be able to create work that can be appreciated with or without knowing the conceptual side. I think conceptual art in some ways has damaged art’s reputation with the broader public. It’s ended up alienating art from the general public and given the impression of being an elitist intellectual affair which, for me, is a long, long way away from the virtues of good art. Lately I’ve been trying to combine the conceptual side and the non-conceptual side by making an effort to utilize expressionist, gestural marks that are created at once and then combined with further work at another time to articulate a deeper idea that binds the two pieces together.
Those pieces are such a great juxtaposition of thought! I find it so important to be able to create and have a discussion about our attractions, as stated simply as shapes, colors, or the marks that are made. Art shouldn’t be intimidating, especially for the viewer. Its intake and even desire to know or understand the basis and reasoning is so subjective. Taking the gestural marks from the expressionists is a brilliant way to bring that up, such creative freedom makes me envious.
The prolific versatility you display between your exhibition work, commercial jobs and side projects is so insane, your skill level is all over the place! Any direction you’d like to take that work in the future? I’ve seen you do a little bit of installation work and your images seem to lend themselves to that very well. Is that something you consider becoming more deeply involved in?
I’ve definitely come to art from a background of illustration and design, so I do mostly think in terms of images rather than in terms of ideas as objects. I like using installation to expand or enhance the core ideas but it’s not something I’m all that interested in exploring on its own at the moment.
I’m currently trying to focus more on exhibitions and that’s really where I see myself heading in the future. As they become bigger and more involved it becomes harder and harder to swap between the commercial and artistic headspaces and they require more and more big expanses of time to be able to produce the work. I really love design though so my hope is I’ll be able to continue doing at least some of each till I die!
Do you ever get stuck in those kinds of Photoshop dreams where you keep trying to multiply yourself and change the opacity but can’t find the right layer and the history palette isn’t working?
I’ve never had a Photoshop dream, that sounds amazing! Sometimes when I paint or draw and make a mistake my left hand twitches as if its pressing Cmd+z though. Very disheartening and strangely jarring when I realize it’s not an option...
That seems to be the tendency of our generation- it’s like this strange futuristic tic. I read somewhere that you were inspired by Alex Troucht and Corey Arangel, definitely two of my favorites. Every time I see Alex’s text illustrations I just want to give up. Have you heard Corey’s variation of Iron Maiden’s “Number of the Beast” that he re-dubbed 666 times?? That was so epic.
YES! Epic and genius. When I first heard it I was reminded me of this Busta Rhymes album I downloaded, called Anarchy. I got it from Limewire and every song had those weird digital pops and skips throughout. At some point I got a proper version of the album and I was horribly disappointed to discover none of those aberrations were in it. I thought they were clever and intentional in keeping with the theme of the title, and to be honest, it sounded a hell of a lot better with them.
I think human error within the universe directs the most perfectly executed accidents. There is definitely something gorgeous about altering the standards that exist, or letting things happen. I see the play on words and language in your work sometimes, and as an artist, I am almost as visually attracted to the connections and connotations of the words as I am to their meanings. Do you ever find this to be true? Like in Free Dumb?
I’m glad you got Free Dumb! I only realized my short-thinking when I decided to have that show in Barcelona when the owner of the gallery came up to me on opening night and asked “Is there any meaning to the two words, ‘FREE’ ‘DUMB’?” and it took me a few minutes to explain to him why it was really a play on words and why I thought it was funny. I’ve heard it said that puns are the lowest form of humor but I love them. A good friend of mine, Shane Sakkeus, is the king of puns, and to me they’re kind of like optical illusions made with words. There’s always something appealing about that point where concrete reality breaks down when something can be two things at once.
Whatever, I love puns and popsicle stick humor, and bad dirty jokes and all of that- the older and more dated the better. I always look for those kinds of books at thrift stores and flea markets. How are the flea markets over there? Do you call them flea markets? Do dingos even have fleas?
The flea markets are pretty dire really. In a country with a 200 odd year history since white settlement, there isn’t a whole of old stuff around. We’re lazy so we just call them markets here. I assume dingos have fleas. Probably ticks too. When I was a kid my granddad had a couple of dogs that were half dingos and, it not being all that long since the Lindy Chamberlain incident, we were never really allowed anywhere near them. But they were beautiful and pretty special.
I try to picture you working away in your studio, and can almost see you listening to something like the vibrations of the airwaves or electric energy in the atmosphere or something. Am I right? What do you listen to?
Mostly I listen to podcasts of science based radio shows. There’s a really fantastic broadcasting body in Australia called Radio National that weekly produces fantastic shows about science, philosophy and culture, a bit like NPR in America I suppose but maybe a little more dry. There’s a bunch of NPR shows I’m addicted to too, with “Planet Money” absolutely on the top of the pile. That’s the sort of stuff that I find inspiring to listen to but when I need to work I definitely find that music by artists like Autechre, Battles, Meshuggah, Terry Riley, Steve Reich or David Behrman are conducive to productivity and clarity.
What book do you keep on your coffee table? Do you even have a coffee table or is it just a floating pyrite slab?
I bought a book about Victoire de Castellane’s photography of jewelry for Dior, but it came in a pretty box so it never sits on the coffee table. Your description of a floating pyrite slab isn’t too far off the plan, so we better make a new coffee table for ourselves, out of agate slices though!
I knew it! I love that idea. Keep the agate slabs clear and the books in their boxes. Tell me about the book, I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstader and your take on his ventures of awareness and consciousness; it seems like something you’d be into reading. How does his idea of exploring the loop relate to you, or does it?
I was in the middle of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace when I bought it, thinking it would be something good to balance out the fiction. But I got sucked into the world of Infinite Jest so Strange Loop kind of just sat around our house for a year until I ran out of things to read. I bought it thinking it would be really inspiring and would connect to everything I was working on at the time, ideas of fractal consciousness and the like but it turned out to be much more subtle than that. At first I couldn’t get past its seemingly being about “souls,” an idea which I find pretty absurd, but by the time I finished it realized its much more a book portraying how science is employed in place of religious faith to explore fundamental and very personal experiences and questions about life.
I thought the preface sounded interesting as well but that just takes all the fun out of science. Speaking of life experiences, what are your thoughts on California? You mentioned that you had plans of moving from Australia to Los Angeles?
As I’ve been saying recently, for a white, 18-35 year old male with no kids or health problems, what’s not to like about America?
And Danzig lives there! Perfect! What are your plans later tonight? Indulgences?
I’m recovering from a flu but my wife is cooking what I can smell is going to be an amazing dinner. After that I think we might watch a couple of episodes of The Walking Dead - brilliant!