“I’ve always thought of painting as a compulsion, but a compulsion that I just happen to really love,” says Jake Troyli. He’s a passionate artist, one that has thrived in a surrounding that didn’t expect him to pursue a career as a painter. “For the longest time, I thought I was going to be a basketball player. Being 6’9”, Black and athletic, it almost seemed like that’s what I was supposed to do,” he confesses. But his love for art and an innate need to paint and express himself through brushstrokes, color palettes and balanced compositions led him to where he is now.
In sixth grade, Troyli was drawing and selling “hardcore porn comic strips” to his classmates for five dollars each. His cheekiness has evolved, and now he focuses more on self-portraiture and large-scale works reflecting on themes like labor or race – but embedding them with a witty sense of humor. And in the coming years, he hopes to evolve with his life experiences, something he’s eager to reflect on his paintings.

On September 12th, Monique Meloche gallery in Chicago is opening his first solo show after completing an MFA program at the University of South Florida. Thinking of it as “a larger piece in its entirety,” Troyli has approached the process of making the exhibition more conceptually to create a narrative within the multiple micro-narratives. If you want to get to know him better, read this interview where we discuss his first artistic milestone, performance and humor in his work, and his hopes for the future.
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Rapture with Cubic Zirconium (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
I want to start off by explaining to our audience who Jake Troyli is. If you can tell us about where you’re from? When was art introduced into your life?
I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but grew up in Saint Petersburg, Florida, so I claim Saint Pete (as we affectionally call it) as my hometown. In terms of when art was introduced into my life, it was always just me and my mom, so as an only child with a single, working mother I had to learn how to entertain myself. I would spend a lot of time in my room drawing weird little characters and comic strips, voicing all of the parts and screaming with laughter at my own comedic genius.
Early on, I remember my mom buying me a subscription to MAD magazine, and I think that pretty quickly became foundational in the development of what I see now as my visual language. The artists I started to idolize were all amazing illustrators and used humor with a lot of finesse, even while handling more broad and important topics like politics and social justice.
When did you know you were going to turn art into a career? Was this a conscious decision or did it occur more naturally?
I honestly think the first time I realized that I wanted to be an artist was in sixth grade. I was drawing and selling hardcore porn comic strips to my classmates for five dollars each. I was actually becoming something of a school-wide phenomenon until I got caught by my earth science teacher – Mr. Folsom. He called my mom and did the whole concerned teacher thing, but he also mentioned to her that he was impressed by the draftsmanship and attention to detail. That was an artistic milestone for sure.
It’s interesting in retrospect though, because for the longest time I thought I was going to be a basketball player. Being 6’9”, Black and athletic, it almost seemed like that’s what I was supposed to do. I played D1 in college, got a full ride, even had a couple of professional overseas offers when I graduated, but as cliché as it is, my heart just wasn’t in it. So I spent a couple of years post-undergrad working in financial aid at a college in Tampa, working all day and then painting all night, doing little shows at bars and coffee shops and shit like that, until I got accepted into the MFA program at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
So to answer your question more concisely, it definitely wasn’t a conscious decision but more of an idea that I was always attracted to, and then later started to feel like something I needed to be pursuing.
Pharrell Williams briefly talked about how the Wu-Tang Clan were first received early in their career. He explained that their style was so different and unique, people didn’t even know if they sounded good or bad because they had nothing to compare it to. I have that some kind of reaction to your artworks; I’ve never seen anything like it before. Your ability to create something so uniquely yours speaks to the authenticity of the artist. Would you agree or disagree?
I agree with that. But authenticity is a complex idea, right? We’re so consistently affected and influenced throughout our lives by our surroundings that I think sometimes, without even consciously doing so, you could be channeling aspects of someone else’s work, even in what feels like a completely novel endeavor. But with that being said, I think that a lot of the things that I considered to be disadvantages early on have actually helped me develop my own lane.
When I started my MFA in 2016, and even more so when I went to Skowhegan in 2019, I met all these amazing artists from New York, Los Angeles – really everywhere in the world (except Florida). They had incredible backstories, growing up in these contemporary art hubs, able to literally walk out the front door and see the best art and artists in the world every day, and to them it was just a routine part of their life. I envied that at first and was a little insecure about it because I didn’t have that.
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Deposition in Burberry (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
How so?
There really isn’t a major contemporary art scene in Florida, and definitely not in Saint Pete. And I grew up playing basketball, so I wasn’t actively seeking any art world exposure on my own. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know who Kehinde Wiley was, or Jacob Lawrence, or Faith Ringgold, or even fucking Jeff Koons or Hirst until I was in grad school!
So I think I was able to develop an artistic foundation that was really kind of free from contemporary art influence, and I’m thankful for that now. My work was able to respond to the world and my life in a way that pulled from sources outside of (or on the outer fringes of) the art world, instead of echoing other work existing directly inside the same conversations. So when you say that about the work, that you haven’t seen anything like it before, I love that because what felt like a handicap at first now feels like something to be proud of.
You often work with bright and saturated colors, placings your subject into flat spaces. How did your painterly technique develop into the personal style we see now?
I think that goes back to the early influences I looked at growing up and the kind of images I was most attracted to. MAD magazine, Calvin and Hobbes, a pretty expansive comic book collection, R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson… You know, a lot of weird and eclectic shit, but I was really drawn to the graphic and sort of frontal quality of it all. I also think one thing that I was really struck by was just how good all of the artists were. Like aside from the content, those homies could fucking draw! For me, that’s always been important. I want to be a technically great painter and make images that are as well-executed as they are conceptually complex.
Regarding the flat spaces though, one of the undercurrents that flows through a lot of my work is the idea of performance, so most of the time I’m actually considering the subjects as being on display. My mom was an actor, like a stage actor, and she did a lot of community theater stuff while I was growing up. She roped me into it a couple of times before we realized it wasn’t my thing (I sucked). I amassed an impressive resume including blockbuster roles like kid #3 in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Even though my acting career fizzled out early, during this initial thespian stint I became fascinated with the concept of the prop and the backdrop. So in the paintings, there’s this play with flatness and depth, where some moments of the work can be completely flat in contrast with more classically rendered subjects, but the subject will be casting a harsh drop shadow, like the figure is under a kind of spotlight from somewhere outside of the frame of the work. And I think this creates questions for the viewers to ask themselves about the figures – Are they acting? Are they being interrogated? Or are they just under a spotlight, their presence serving as an unending performance for an eager audience? 
There are layers of messages embedded in much of your compositions. The pieces that I noticed this the most are your large-scale works, such as Don’t forget to pack a lunch! Where did the idea to create these compartmentalized, semiotic images come from?
With the large-scale works, it’s always been important to me that the paintings don’t rely on their size alone. I want these pieces to have so much going on that, at first, they can feel kind of visually frustrating and encourage deeper looking. In fact, even though Don’t forget to pack a lunch! is technically one painting, I think of it more as multiple smaller paintings in one. I want the viewer to move through the piece with intent, examining each smaller moment and vignette in relationship to the last and the next. I think that’s when the work really gets interesting.
So, to answer your question, when I was considering how to compose the works with all of the small moments, it made sense to me to create some actual physical boundaries and borders within the frame (in a lot of ways, it also feels like an ode to the paneling of the comic strips I grew up studying). By creating these rooms or compartments, but then opening them up to the viewer by using that overhead isometric perspective, it forces the viewer into the role of the voyeur, with maximum access to everything going on inside and outside of the walls.
Like I mentioned earlier, in my work I’m really interested in performance and spectacle, and alongside that, the relationship between the performer(s) and the audience. All of the vignettes, the small-detailed moments, are happening right in front of you, completely exposed, each figure performing their little role in the gestalt.
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Untitled (self-portrait), (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
Your body of work does not strain away from a clever narrative and double entendres while also containing a quite complex draftsmanship as well as being detail-oriented. How does your process work as a painter?
My process is actually pretty rigid in terms of making each piece. The compositions and content are constructed and almost completely fleshed out before they even hit the canvas. I’m a little bit of a control freak – people tell me it’s because I’m a Virgo, but I’m not sure. I draw a lot as part of my studio practice, so I make a few different preliminary sketches of each piece as I’m figuring out what would make the best painting. A lot of the early drawings kind of flow out, and I tack the ones that I think have the most potential up on the wall – to draw from, tighten up, and reimagine later. I also have a running list in my phone of all the ideas as they formulate in my head.
With the larger, multi-figured works, I usually have a moment early on where I see the finished piece in a really abstract form in my mind (just like a general layout and kind of an overarching theme), and then over time (days, weeks, sometimes months), I draw all the individual vignettes and start to sort of stitch them together into what ends up being the final composition. Then I transfer the drawing onto the canvas and start painting.
You are the son of mixed-raced parents, and when analyzing your work, one can see that you paint about race, stigma, stereotyping as well as the commoditization of urban culture. How have you chosen to present these topics/make these topics apart of your compositions? And why in the manner in which is specific to your style?
I think when you say ‘the manner specific to my style,’ you’re referring to the graphic palette and use of humor. And I think that it works because it’s accessible, or at least it feels accessible to the viewer. But there’s a tension between the vehicle and the content which I think creates a much more interesting and complex experience. These conversations aren’t easy ones to have, and they’re definitely not easy to integrate into a painting practice that is, by necessity, so introspective. So I think although the humor functions as a tool considering the viewer, it’s also for me. It’s a coping mechanism, you know?
From Chicago to San Francisco, your career as an artist has blossomed and only seems to be continuing to evolve. For example, you’re about to open a solo show in Chicago. Can you tell us more about it?
Yes! The show is titled Don’t forget to pack a lunch!, which is also the title of the painting you mentioned earlier, which I think of as the centerpiece of the show. It opens Sept 12th at Monique Meloche Gallery, in Chicago. Monique’s space has two different galleries, a front room that you walk into first, and the main room, which is connected by a narrow walkway. So I decided to use the front gallery for my small works, the more classically handled self-portrait pieces, and then in the main gallery I will have all the larger works.
When I think of a show, I don’t just think about a lot of separate pieces co-existing in a space; I want the show itself to kind of be a larger piece in its entirety. So there are relationships between all the separate works, like they’re all in orbit with each other around the central painting.
As far as some context, one of the main points that I was considering with this body of work was my own relationship with labor. Coming from the lower class, being a Black man, and as an ex-collegiate athlete, I’ve always subscribed to the idea of sweat equity, directly equating labor with output, on some ‘If you’re not working hard, you’re not working at all’ type of shit. That’s where the name comes from – it’s this kind of urgent reminder not to forget your lunch pail in preparation for a long day on the job.
I’m interested in the concept of labor as performative, a demonstration of value. So the central piece, the show’s namesake, features the small orange figures, this time in a construction scene, wearing little hardhats as they go about their individual and endless tasks, working toward their sort of ambiguous goals. But there are different kinds of labor, right? The figure in the hardhat is working, of course, but so is the figure under the spotlight, playing whatever role it is that the audience expects (or demands).
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Offense wins games. Defense wins championships! (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
Much of your work consists of self-portraits where you include personalized iconography. How do these fit into the theme for this particular exhibition?
I think although there is a kind of overarching ‘theme’ for the show, the self-portraiture is a thread that has always run through my practice in the broader sense. I think of my own image as this sort of elastic avatar that I can manipulate and stretch, and can be placed into situations and motifs that are very interesting. And like I mentioned earlier, I think a lot about the idea of performing, of being on display. So the figures become these kind of self-conscious self-images, toeing the line between subject and object.
Lastly, how has your evolution as an artist led you to this point in your life? Where would you like your career as an artist to take you in the years to come?
I mean, at this point in my life/career, I’m just getting started. I just finished my MFA in 2019, and this really feels like the debut of my work outside of the local Saint Pete/Tampa Bay scene. And as far as where I want my career to go, that’s one of the most exciting aspects of art making. I fully expect my work to grow and change with me, and as long as the work is growing, I’ll be satisfied. It’s so interesting because this work (and making it) is just part of who I am. If I didn’t have a gallery I would still be making these paintings, you know? I’ve always thought of painting as a compulsion, but a compulsion that I just happen to really love.
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Portrait of the Artist with Hors d’oeuvre (2019). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
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Jake Troyli, Joyride, (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
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Ready When You Are (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
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Jake Troyli, Don’t forget to pack a lunch! (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
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Catch of the Day (2020). Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.