Pop Art Is A Good Lubricant To Take In The Hard Stuff - Interview with Jonathan Casella

Jonathan Casella is an American abstract painter, born in Texas, based in Los Angeles. Some of the museums and galleries he has shown with include Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Luggage Store Gallery, Scott Charmin, O.N.O, and Open Gallery. He is the owner and curator of Caravan Contemporary, Los Angeles. 
Pablo de Pinho - Did you move from Texas straight to Los Angeles? How long have you lived in each place?

Jonathan Casella - Ha! I probably should've done it that way. I grew up in Houston... actually, I grew up in Galveston County, and went to high school in Houston. But, I moved to San Francisco right after high school. I lived there for a little more than five years. Then moved to New York, and more or less got “stuck” there for another five years. I did a quick year in Portland. And, now, I've been in Los Angeles for about a year.
How was your experience in New York City? Did it motivate you to produce more art work?

Living in New York was a funny time for me. I moved there really ambitious, making these big paintings, and trying to cultivate what I thought being an artist was, and how I would make my living doing that (just any day now!). But, there was this shift, and I think a lot of people have a shift like this, and I realized my studio was full of unseen paintings, and all the installers I worked with had these expensive Ivy League degrees, and none of us were making it ahead in the "art world." I realized how small of a voice everyone has. It sounds like a bad thing, but I liked it. I needed that lesson. A revelation of self. I started to focus on my personal taste, and what I wanted from art/art making, and not what I thought would impress attractive women or land me in Art Forum one day. I took a break, and worked on photo stuff/documenting my paintings in photos/photos as paintings. 

I think from that, my work became more realistic and honest - it was more realized. I also worked as a preparator, and got to see a lot of artwork, which was really educational and insightful.
Funny though, it also desensitized any romantic feeling I had about being an artist, or the glory of the "solo show." Another good revelation. All that said, New York is a great city, and I owe a lot to my experiences there. A lot of good comes from suffering, which I think is motivating to some people. I'm more motivated by sunshine and Mexican food though.
Tell us what a creative day is like for you. What do you start off with and what you end up doing? Is it always planned?
Ideally, I’d like to spend about six hours working on stuff. Somewhere in there I'll get a burrito and an iced tea. I try to work on, at least focus on, the same thing from the beginning until the end. But, I'll start other paintings while paint is drying. It's more efficient that way. I generally stop working when nothing’s drying right, or when I get that agitated/buzzy feeling from sitting in front of the same thing for a long time.  I wouldn't say anything is planned; maybe I follow some sort of routine, but a lot of it is hanging out and making a mess.  I have found it’s better to get about a quarter or halfway through with something, stop, and then go back to it later. It's not always balls to the wall.

Would you say your work graduated from collage to painting?
For better or worse I don't think I've graduated from anything. I have almost made the same artwork since high school. Maybe I shouldn't be telling the public that. But, in a way, I think that's true. I've developed in the way I articulate myself, and my approach has matured a little bit, but the underlying application has always been the same. I've always thought of myself as a painter, and I think sometimes I employ some of the same tricks found in formal collage. I've also made work that is technically collage, but I always saw it as painting. That said, I think the term collage/ the idea of making a collage is interesting and valuable. I've always made work that involves combining and overlapping image and shape, pattern and color, image and painting, and then also weaving materials and applications together.
I always saw it as just painting though. I think what I've graduated to is an understanding with myself of what I want from painting, and how to articulate it efficiently.
You have combined collage with photography in earlier series. Were the photos found at random or was there a relation between the image and the abstract patterns you create?

There was... the work I was making ten years ago was really focused on building up an image plane by combining color, pattern, and unrecognizable imagery. The images used were normally scraps of photos I had taken, photos I had collected, or magazine clips and baseball cards (the ones from the '80s and '90s had good colors and paper). There was, maybe still is, a place in Tenderloin called the Magazine, and they had bins of great photos. But, with that said, I was more interested in the fragmented, anonymous, image as being equal parts identifiable (in whatever way), and maybe relatable somehow, and then the value the cut up shape/image had on its own. At the end of the day, the work was about manipulating color and shape to make something it wasn't previously. Also, being young, I was really interested in the idea of painting with paper, and experimenting with the definition of painting.
Do you view your work to be a combination of pop art with abstraction?

Yes, totally. That is exactly how I explain my paintings. I see it as a pop representation of abstract painting. At least, that's how I try to approach art making. One of my favorite bodies of work is Lichtenstein's brush stroke paintings. Especially the stuff from the '80s where he'd paint the strokes (a representation of a stroke), and then make some wishy-washy "painting" next to them. Brilliant! That's what I'm interested in. That idea of representing what makes an abstract painting, or re-articulating the values of what makes abstraction/non-representation so powerful/beautiful. If that's even possible. I want to make paintings that are easy to relate to/ easy to enjoy. I think both pop and formal abstraction are the easiest types of art to engage with. Pop art is a good lubricant for taking in the hard stuff. And, I think using one to make the other makes the experience almost fully inclusive. I try to synthesize the formal application and language of painting down to, at least how I see it, a limited, more efficient vocabulary. Lichtenstein did that well, but was mostly restrained to that comic book look. I wish he could have lived another 15-20 years.
Have you always worked with abstraction, was there a moment you painted figuratively?

Almost always abstraction/ non representational.  I don't have any real interest in depicting or presenting the human condition. For me, there’s more to color and shape, and why and how it was put on whatever it's on. Experiencing a painting, not a painting about an experience. There's more dialogue. For a while, I was incorporating my paintings as props in photos of my friends; but again, I was more interested in the painting part, and the person in the image seemed trivial. I’m also a really bad photographer. However, I really like looking at portrait painting and still life painting, but the experience is limited and restrained more times than not. Every couple of years or so, I'll do a couple of portraits just to prove to myself I can still do it. It's just exercise though.
More specifically about your paintings, can you describe your work process? In addition, do you think of a spontaneous title after the painting is done, or you think about the title while producing the work? What are the titles generally about?

The titles are always first. I'm constantly writing down word combinations, or little narrative sentences and pairings. Actually, I say they're first, but I'll occasionally edit them later. That's not to say I'm trying to depict something literally or even metaphorically. I mostly use titles as a way to get a mindset going; and, in return, giving a bit to captivate the viewer. Anything is better than, "Untitled;" or, "Green Grid with Shapes." Give that baby a name! It's almost like saying, "Once upon a time...", but instead of telling a story, I just put a bunch of shapes and colors on a panel.

A lot of good color pairings and shapes instinctively come from word associations. The titles themselves stem from things I think about or dwell on, or me trying to articulate a moment in time. But, other times, it’s just a word or words that I think sound good. Words that ring well with how I feel. But again, the work isn't contingent on any narrative or depiction, it's just a way to get the conversation started.
The work itself is just putting down a general composition, which is normally a shape or an armature to hold other shapes, and I start building from that. The process is additive and reductive with layers...
How different for you is painting the recent large-scale canvases?

It's actually so much easier to make a 10 x 8 foot painting than it is for me to make a 10 x 8 inch painting. With the big paintings, I wanted to make paintings that were big and exciting, but fully readable and approachable in the moment. A lot of it is planned, and the hardest part is waiting for the paint to dry. There’s not much to dwell on. The smaller ones are so dense and layered, and take forever to complete. I haven't determined if I completely see the big ones as backdrops, but I've been toying with the metaphor that my smaller paintings are like written plays, and the larger ones are like backdrops or stages. But I also think that’s a bad association because there isn't any narrative involved. I'm working on that though.


Do you ever leave your work unfinished, when do you consider it to be finished?

I happen to work in a way that allows for development and failure to coexist. I go over a lot of stuff, and re-shape things that don't work out. I don't normally leave stuff unfinished. I have some panels where I'll try out a technique or pattern combination just to see if they work, and if they don't, I just keep it around as a reminder not to do it again. With the smaller paintings, the composition normally dictates when it's done. There's a density that I like to achieve. The larger paintings are very planned, and done in layers - they’re done when the paint dries.
What has inspired your work's visual style the most?

I’m not totally sure directly, but I know I'm a victim of influence. I can tell you this, the first person that ever taught me how/ what it was like to be an artist was Keith Boadwee. And still, he's the standard of what I see an artist being. The golden standard. He didn't necessarily teach me how to make art like him; but, instead, what I needed to do and learn in order to make fully realized work. I learned more from dropping out of school and hanging out at his and his husband's house every weekend. I don’t think I make work that he’s too stoked on, but I owe a lot to the guy.

I also owe a lot of personal development to my friend Brandon. We've always been on the same wave together. We've been trying to one up each other for 12 years. There has been a lot of back and forth and bickering between us over 'who the originator of something was', but it’s always been a healthy, open dialogue. I think we've traded and shared a bunch of stuff just shy of collaborating. We did try to run a gallery together though.

As far as aesthetic taste goes, or artistic influence, I think a lot of what I pull from is easier to list than to explain. So, here's a non-definitive list: Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Imi Knoebel, the Warhol/Basquiat collaborative paintings, Brice Marden, Stuart Davis, Barry Mcgee, Cary Leibowitz, Yayoi Kusama, Cy Twombly, Joe Bradley then and now, the entire Menil Collection, Tauba Auerbach's 2009 show at Deitch, James Turrell installations, Pruitt and Early, Tal R, Mark Grotjahn's Butterfly Paintings, Jean Dubuffet, David Hockney, Moroccan rugs, some early subway graffiti, and Colby Posters’ poster blanks (RIP). The way Chuy's Tex-Mex on Westheimer was/is decorated was also a big influence on me.
Caravan Contemporary, 2017
Tell us about Caravan Contemporary, a moving platform for contemporary art. Is it a project you run by yourself? How would you describe your curatorial style?

I started Caravan Contemporary initially, as an escape from my first gallery, Open Gallery. I helped open Open with my friend Brandon. But, we bit off more than we could chew, and had problems with a partner of his. So, I built a gallery in the back of an old box truck, and moved to LA. Initially, I was hoping to have it be free range, but the truck was in such bad shape, I was afraid of it getting stuck on the freeway. So, I just parked it around Eagle Rock, and did shows in the neighborhood. I did four shows over the course of (almost) a year: a group show, a show with Edgar Meza, a show with Paul Wackers, and a show with Tara Booth. The truck got seized by LADOT on the opening of Tara's show. So, it's no more.  I have a new space though. I've been using it as a studio the past few months, but I'm hoping to start doing shows again this summer.
Curatorially, I am interested in artwork that is brutal, sincere, and relatively personal, or has a lot of personal investment in it. That sounds very vague, but a lot of art contains none of those virtues! I'm also drawn to artists that are underrepresented for whatever reason, and also artwork by established artists that is under appreciated or unmarketable. I also tend to shy away from artists/artwork that came out of an MFA program (not always, just mostly). If I were to compile a roster of artists, it would be: Tara Booth, Brandon Shelly, Dylan Roberts, Edgar Meza, Orion Shepherd. All of them are raw to the bone, head to toe, brutal artists, one or two of them have MFAs though.
What are some of your next projects coming up?

I spent the better part of 2016 focused on building Caravan Contemporary, and showing artwork out of it. Naturally, some of my projects got sidelined. I promised myself I was going to finish my checklist before I start showing work and pretending to be a curator. Aside from my day to day painting, I have the big paintings I'm working on, and that's new and ongoing, and I'm hoping to fill a very small space with them by the end of the year. I'm also hoping to release another print to follow the one I did last year with O.N.O. Press. I did these drawings to sell in support for Planned Parenthood, and it kicked my ass doing so many. So I was thinking an edition may be easier for everyone. And, hopefully Caravan Contemporary reopens this summer.