His paintings develop a highly stylized work – on Jonathan Gardner’s canvases floats a wistful and comical atmosphere. The New York based artist tends indeed to paint richly colored cartoon-like positions, bringing the viewer into a colorful and tad irreverent universe of sense. Yet Gardner anchors his works into art history, mainly by looking for beauty.
Mystical mise-en-scène, trompe l’oeil details, candy-coloured oil paintings – this artist wants us to jump on a trip to the History of Art. From canonical art to neoclassicism, Surrealism and Pop Art, Gardner can refer from Ingres and Magritte, to Fernand Léger, Lindner and Currin. Yet his work develops his own logic – far from postmodernism recycling, Gardner is the kind of painter who re-uses and re-interpretes in different paintings the main elements of his masterminds. Quite discreet about his life, he would let the viewer understand his practices through his own interpretations – as one of a number of young artists reinventing figuration to connect with their own time.
How would you define your work – what do you say to someone who has never seen your artwork?
I’ve never had a good short description for my work. I prefer to just show the images to someone, but if that’s’ not possible I would say that it’s figurative painting that comes from invention and imagination.
What do you like in painting as an art form?
That is too big of a question to really get into here! That said I love almost everything about it. Most of all what makes it distinct is that it is not time based like most other art forms. It is always frozen in the present tense. I remember the first time I saw a Picasso painting in person as a kid, I think it was the guitar player at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I thought “wow I’m looking right at a brushstroke that Picasso painted in like 1909 or whatever!” It’s almost like seeing the actual person there in front of you, because that physical trace is stopped in time. Also, I love being able to get lost in the reverie of staring at a painting for a long time. Paintings can be like portals into other worlds. As a painter I like being able to spend my days alone in the studio, and the process of dealing with these painting problems that we create for ourselves.
Painter Glenn Brown once said: “A painter always has a father and a mother. He doesn't come out of nowhere” – understanding a painter as always anchored in Art History. Do you agree?
I agree, but I think not only are you anchored in Art History but in a more literal sense you are also bound by your genetics, there is your personal identity which you cannot escape and which you have to accept in order to move forward and become an artist. A lot of people start out trying to paint in a type of style or attitude which they eventually have to move on from because its not who they really are as artists. So in the end it is not so much about influence or intention as it is about temperament. Whatever your temperament is, it will be anchored in Art History.
It seems to me that in your paintings we can recognise Magritte's clouds turned into smoke; Picasso's women look like they are re-adopting human forms yet with very angular positions. What do you find so relevant when it comes to Magritte, Picasso, or even Fernand Léger's ways of painting silhouettes? Cubism and surrealism – you seem to reconstruct what they have been deconstructing.
In a sense that's true. I think what contrasts with artists who are referenced like Picasso, they often observed an object or figure and abstracted from it, where as I often start with abstraction and create a figure or objects out of it. This also leaves the narrative to contain the remnants of abstract thoughts. They all created a timeless quality in their work, which is something I am very interested in. They all drew heavily from classical tradition, and found a way to bring it into their present, and I admire that.
Painters usually grab inspirations from everyday life: dreams, all walks of life, emotions, music, colours. Where do you grab your inspirations from?
Every so often I might see something in life, a situation on the street or in cafe for example, and think that I should try to make a painting of that. It’s great when that happens, but it’s also rare. Inspiration often slips through your fingers when you try to use it directly; it works better as a kind of fertilizer for your ideas. I’m very much a studio-based painter, and the idea of the studio itself is often a theme. I start drawing and ideas are formed in the moment, reacting to what is on the paper. Some of the drawings get refined and become paintings.
When you produce a painting, do you have a precise idea of what is gonna look like – or does the brush sometimes lead you towards different inspirations?
Since I work from drawings, when I start a painting I know about 99% of what the image will be. It doesn’t deviate much, but I struggle to figure out the color relationships and resolve the forms. When I am drawing to make a painting, things can go in many different directions, and that is the part of the work in which I am the most intuitive and open.
There are often women in your paintings. Is there a particular reason?
Painting women has come very naturally to me, as it does to many women who are artists. Whenever I make a painting it always comes from a place of love, and a desire to make something beautiful. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that some part of the motivation to paint women has come from being a man attracted to women. I realize that this is politically incorrect and distasteful, but I really believe that when you make art that comes from a real, romantic, or bodily impulse, you are able to make much stronger work than when you are making art out of an intellectually based argument, or some perfectly defensible, critically approved, academic position. My process of painting draws on intuition and my subconscious, something necessitates exposing oneself in a way. I have also been interested in art historical examples of the nude done for its own sake. That said, lately I’m finding men reappearing in my work for the first time in a few years.
Are all your paintings linked together – like in a story?
I think of the paintings like different views into one shared world. I’m not sure about a story, but the idea that things could be happening in between the paintings is intriguing.
How would you define figuration today, when the genre is actually stepping back into the art world?
I'm not sure if I can define figuration today because there is such a diversity, but it seems to be an approach which has a different, perhaps more direct, relationship to the figure than post modernism did. Figuration goes in and out of fashion as different generations come and go, but I think it will always be around.
Last but not least – where and when can we catch up with your work? Any exhibitions coming soon?
I will be doing a solo show with Mary Mary in 2018, in Glasgow.