Joshua Willis – Brooklyn, New York

OBLIVION I Oil on panel 23 x 20 inches 2012

OBLIVION I
Oil on panel
23 x 20 inches
2012

Briefly describe the work you do.

My work is the result of sequenced and layered processes that begin with a set of parameters limiting materials, approaches to mark-making and content. At the outset, the parameters are functional, or they serve to define the scope and scale of the works in the series, so I will often limit the number and scale of works, materials, palette, or the amount of time spent working on each piece. At other times, the parameters might serve as a source of content in the work. For example, I decided that the Oblivion paintings would be made using alternating phases of additive and subtractive mark-making, reinforcing the dialectic of growth and decay, which is a major theme in the series. I am interested in the interdependence of intention and chance: steps and cycles are often predetermined on the one hand, but their execution in the moment is imprecise. The resulting images depend a great deal upon the way in which I respond to materials and integrate the effects of chance over time. The images I make always retain traces, residues of the ways in which they were made. As the products of a serialized chain of interactions, the images display their own micro-histories, of which my authorship is authoritative in terms of conception, and self-mechanized in terms of execution.

At what point in your life did you want to become an artist?

I decided to be an artist sometime in my late teens, and like most of the decisions people make at that age, mine was ill-informed. I had no idea what the life an artist was like in contemporary America. All I knew was that DaVinci was a genius and a painter, Van Gogh was a little bit crazy but still a good painter, Norman Rockwell was a good painter and a patriot, and I thought that maybe I had some combination of the attributes that made these people into artists good enough to have books on the shelves of the public library in Hamilton, Ohio. I was somewhat morose as a teenager and liked to spend lots of time drawing alone. I considered myself to be an emotional person and, like most American teens, I thought that the way I saw the world was special, somehow more intense and poignant. But I had no living role models to look up to—art was something magical that other people did in distant, shiny cities—so it would be years before I finished college, moved to the city and realized that much of what I had thought about art as a teenager was simply nonsense. It turns out though that even after most of my misconceptions have (hopefully) been stripped away, I still want to be an artist.

FOREVER OVERHEAD Oil on 25 panels 53 x 43 inches 2013

FOREVER OVERHEAD
Oil on 25 panels
53 x 43 inches
2013

Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

I am originally from a part of the country that is not exactly rural, but not exactly suburban either, which means that there was lots of natural space around, but not enough that I had to worry about bears. As a child I spent most of my free time outdoors, hiking through the woods, building forts, playing sports, etc., and as an adolescent I enjoyed running and cycling through the cornfields that straddled the border of Ohio and Indiana; if I have ever had an experience of a higher power, it was in those fields. The agricultural landscape of the Midwest, and a respect for the land in general, is something that influences many of the formal and conceptual decisions I make in my work, even though I have lived in large urban areas for over a decade.

My grandfather was a mechanic. When I was young, he built his own airplane over the course of seven years and eventually flew it successfully. He passed away in a plane crash in 1990, but I still remember his workshop very clearly: each of his hand-tools had an assigned place in the space around his workbench, power-tools went on the peg board lining the walls of the shop, and large machinery was placed strategically around the perimeter. He was equipped to weld, fabricate his own metal parts, cut wood, etc., so he was able to do most the work on his airplane (and on his farm) by himself. There is something about his self-sufficiency that I admire and try to emulate in my own studio. I fabricate all of my painting supports, crates and frames, document my work photographically, update my website, mix my own paint and clean my own brushes. I know that ‘collaborative’ is a valuable artworld buzzword these days, and I agree that collaboration can be useful and productive, but following my grandfather’s example I try to be as self-sufficient as possible by doing essential studio tasks myself, respecting my tools, and maintaining a working environment that is almost totally private.

What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?

One of the main conceptual features of my work is that it is palimpsestic: fragmented, densely layered, artifactual. I use painting processes that allow me to preserve or recover the history of my images by building up and then sanding away layers of paint, or to create objects that reference mundane artifacts such as postcards or snapshot photos by using a four-color photomechanical transfer process (however imprecisely), or to complicate meaning by layering and superimposing imagery by cutting several images apart and physically weaving them together.

My work is replete with dualities—growth/decay, urban/rural, craft/art, intention/chance, local/global—that are difficult for me to reconcile, but nevertheless cohere in individual images, series and in my body of work as a whole. Though they make me somewhat uneasy, I embrace these dualities by working with processes that allow for multiple levels of interpretation: for example a painting can be a metaphor for the futility of all effort because it has been laboriously built up and then subsequently destroyed with a palm sander and plunge router, only to be built up and destroyed again, but it can also be a celebration of that wasted effort if the record of alternating accumulation and erosion, the finished painting itself, is beautiful.

WAVES Watercolor on paper 22 x 17 inches 2014

WAVES
Watercolor on paper
22 x 17 inches
2014

We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?

I agree that hard work is important, but to forego inspiration over the long term leads to work that is a bland, brick-by-brick recapitulation of itself, kind of like building a suburb; it takes lots of labor, and everyone involved is surely working very hard, but it’s a type of labor that could be done pretty much anywhere and is responsive to nothing. So while I do think that it’s important to work hard in the studio, to put in the hours, to sweat a little bit, to build up the ole’ callouses, it’s equally important to take a step back and reflect on what I’ve done and to allow my responses to my work, along with changes in my emotions, temperament and surroundings, to inspire—for lack of a better term—new projects with concomitant shifts in scale, subject matter, process and duration.

What artists living or non-living influence your work? 

My work is influenced by series- or systems-based painters like Byron Kim, Spencer Finch and Allan McCollum (all living!). I also am inspired a great deal by Courbet, who embraced his working-class origins, refused to be part of any school, and used his own experiences as a lens through which to comment on larger artistic, political and social issues. And like many college-educated Americans my age, I am influenced by the writer David Foster Wallace. In a passage from E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, which basically sums up my thoughts on artistic integrity, Wallace outlined how sincere and un-cool artists might actually be part of a shifting avant-garde,:

The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point[…]The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh, how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.

When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in?

I have been exercising pretty regularly since I was about 14 or 15 years old. These days, I try to keep in good physical condition by running and lifting heavy weights at the gym; there really is no better antidepressant. Every now and then I entertain the fantasy that I might someday be a troubadour in the vein of Woody Guthrie, playing songs on the guitar, speaking out against war and injustice, fighting the good fight through music. So I play my guitar and try to learn to sing, but for the life of me I simply cannot write a song. And though it makes me angry and sometimes depressed, I read a lot of anti-systemic literature by writers like Immanuel Wallerstein, Wendell Berry and Derrick Jensen.

About

willis_joshua_headshotI spent my childhood and adolescence in southwestern Ohio before moving to Atlanta and then to Brooklyn, where I have lived for almost a decade. I received a BFA in painting and printmaking from Miami University and an MFA in painting and drawing from Brooklyn College, and have been an artist-in-residence at the Misaki-Cho Arts & Crafts Village in Okayama, Japan and the Jentel Foundation in Wyoming. My work has been exhibited nationally at venues including the Carnegie Center for the Arts in Kentucky, Manifest Creative Research Gallery in Ohio, Montclair State University in New Jersey, Harper College and Bradley University in Illinois, and Eastern Michigan University. In New York, my work has been exhibited at the Painting Center, the Katonah Museum of Art and the Pelham Art Center.

In the Studio

In the Studio

www.jwillisstudio.com

All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission. 

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About Frank Juarez

Frank Juarez is a Wisconsin artist, published author, presenter, gallery director, art educator, advocate, and community leader living and teaching in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In 2005, he committed his life to expose, educate and engage others on the importance of experiencing and supporting the Visual Arts. Organizing local and regional art exhibitions, community art events, facilitating presentations, and supporting artists through professional development workshops, use of social media and networking has placed him in the forefront of advancing and promoting local artists and attracting regional and national artists to interact, collaborate, network and exhibit in the Sheboygan community.
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