Los Angeles has always held a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans, but for most it exists in an almost fictional capacity. Hollywood isn’t a real place – it’s a postcard, a huge sign on the side of a mountain bracketed with strategically placed palm tree silhouettes. Certainly not a place to call home, but for artist Justin John Greene that’s exactly what it is. Hollywood is a part of his heritage, and the work reflects that. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, Greene’s work is strongly imbued with the history of the most romanticized industry in American culture. In his most recent solo show at Actual Size (an exhibition space he co-runs in the Chinatown gallery district of east L.A.) the influence of the film industry is in full focus. You Oughta Be In Pictures is a comprehensive installation that utilizes painting, sculpture, and video to create a truly immersive experience for the viewer. Installation may seem like a bit of a leap from Greene’s primarily two dimensional practice, but a closer look into the artist’s process bridges the gap seamlessly. His work is a distinctly enjoyable blend of sly historical references, direct compositional tactics, and cleverly applied humor. If you have the opportunity to see the work in person I strongly encourage you to do so.
Most people draw at some point in their lives, but for a select few the action becomes compulsory – the impetus behind a lifelong obsession. You are clearly one of those few. How has drawing played a role in your development as an artist?
Drawing is certainly at the root of my practice, it is part of how I think and solidify concepts. I can recall at a very young age understanding drawing as an essential tool to engage with my soundings and imagination. Drawing was seamless with play. As I grew older and began to associate drawing with art, it was quite clear to me that I was going to be an artist.
I’ve noticed a certain level of immediacy to your drawings that I do not see in your paintings. Is there a difference in the way that you approach the idea of painting verses that of drawing?
When I approach painting, I set out to make a work that shows the intuitiveness of drawing, but I also engage a more analytical approach. I’m focusing more on the elements that make a picture; its composition and mood. I am also making direct references to imagery that requires rendering and layering. I want my paintings to be able to stand on their own. The paintings that have most influenced me were seen in museums, singular masterpieces that command a presence without the aid of their kin. Those are the types of works that set the bar for me with regards to painting. I am also interested in where these works will end up, beyond an exhibition. Even paintings that were created as a series, once bought, will often end up on their own. It is important to me that my paintings can feel complete in that setting and not just be an example of my practice.
I have a more fluid and casual relationship to drawing. If I’m unsure of what to paint, I’ll draw. When I’m making drawings that are intended for exhibition, I don’t do a lot of the same preemptive planning that I put into my paintings. Unlike my paintings, the drawings may be viewed as studies that rely more on repetition to solidify an idea.
Regardless of the medium, your work has an inherent structure to it. What is your process for assembling an image?
For years I’ve been interested in collective nostalgia, and in exploring that idea I have arrived at working with imagery that I think the viewer will approach with a sort of uncanny feeling of recognition. I gather source material from film, the Internet, advertisements and objects I come across in my daily life. I create composite images and use the application of my medium as a visual vocabulary that evokes emotion in specific elements of one picture. The visual descriptions also often refer to other figures and styles from art history. I build up layers of composite imagery in an attempt to transform this “research” into a singular visceral experience. I like to work with a variety of aesthetics, which I think is very much inspired by the convoluted landscape of Los Angeles.
In the series Fashion Drawings the bodies and heads quickly become protagonist and foil in a well-composed comedy. Where did the inspiration for this series come from, and how important is the role of humor in your work?
I was teaching art classes to some teenage girls that were interested in fashion design. I was flipping through magazines and books filled with fashion illustrations that the school had on hand and I was struck by the aura of these drawings. I had seen all sorts of design illustrations, for products and cars and they all seemed to share a similar cold accuracy to them that felt necessary for instructing production, but the fashion illustrations didn’t look like that. They were full of attitude and the line quality was sparse and elegant. The idea that these were being used to draft the production of a garment felt humorously arrogant to me, which I really liked. I then remember thinking of my students, and questioning whether they felt at all inspired by these fashion illustrations merely as drawings beyond their association with clothes, and I compared that in my mind to the types of drawings that inspired me at the age; drawings from artists such as R. Crumb and James Ensor. I started collecting images from fashion runways and interpreted them in what I thought looked like the style of fashion illustration that most resonated with me, and I then topped them all off with a grotesque adolescent doodle.
The Fashion Drawings as an ongoing series enables me to engage with my compulsory desire to create cartoony doodles, while still making a piece that fits into a conceptual framework. The monster-like heads of runway figures that I think represent a specific cultural ideal, act as the punch line in a joke. Humor has always played an important roll in my work. I’ve often felt that concepts of culture are often most vividly revealed when viewed through a parodical lens. I believe that humor even when it is dark is a positive force. It lets me be optimistically critical about the concepts that I’m addressing.
Comparing the painting Some Mornings (2011) to that of Red Room (2009), I notice a definite shift in the amount of visual information you’ve chosen to present. Do you see your paintings becoming progressively more reductive as time goes on?
At the time that I made Red Room, I was interested in creating an illusionistic space that had the type of bazaar impenetrable charm that I was seeing in what Jim Shaw calls, “thrift store paintings.” However, the image Red Room is painted from is a picture of a lavishly designed interior. That high and low contrast is of central focus in that painting, and I employed a wide array of clashing techniques to address that idea. When I was painting Red Room, I realized how much I wanted to share my process with viewer. Since then I’ve been simplifying the level of visual information in my paintings, because I think that will bring the viewer closer to understanding the process of how I piece together the work. In the painting, Some Mornings, the various elements that make up that space are more easily distinguishable apart from the greater composition. With that painting, I want the viewer to feel as if though there are mentally bringing the imagery together to then arrive at a space, as opposed to being struck with the illusion of one at first glance.
With the exhibition You Oughta Be In Pictures, you’ve arrived at installation as the next progressive step in a practice that relies heavily on composite sensibilities. It is almost as if the different aesthetic departments of your mind had some sort of corporate merger, and that was the end result. Did you set out with the intention of creating a participatory experience for the viewer, and is this “full immersion” method something we might be seeing more of in future endeavors?
Yeah, I’m definitely going to continue working in this method. I see it as vital element to my practice. It’s making a composite image in the fourth dimension. A work like You Oughta Be In Pictures lets me engage in a more communal process beyond a solitary studio practice, which is important to me. It took a collaborative effort to produce and like a performance it was not complete with out the viewer or audience present. When I was planning, You Oughta Be In Pictures, I knew that I was making this self-parodying portrait that was flirting on the edge of being manically heavy-handed, and because of that I felt it necessary to create a way for the viewer to be directly placed into the show. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were being approached by the exhibition in a manner relatable to a participatory performance. Every element in that installation directed its attention at the viewer.
Thanks for letting me pick through your brain for a little while.
My pleasure, thanks for taking an interest.