Joe Brommel: You spent six months in Wassaic, from May to November 2019. We’re now having this conversation a few months later in your new studio in New York. What did you work on in Wassaic? How did your work change? How did you change? And what's changed in the intervening months since?
Wood: Being at Wassaic for six months was funny, because it just doesn't feel precious after a while. Every residency I've been to, the first few weeks are really intense, and I make a lot of good work. But I slowed down as I was there for a longer period of time. I think that it just, like, works that way.
I mean, now that I’ve moved to New York, I'm like, Fuck, why didn’t I just stay? I saw a lady smoking crack on the subway the other day, and I was like, Get me the fuck out of here. You know? A woman smoking crack literally in front of this seven-year-old boy.
We’re obviously not having this conversation in a subway car, but in your studio. Which is —
Where I come to feel safe!
Where you come to feel safe. Say more about that. How has your time in the studio been affected by having a more stressful outside world?
I feel like I have to come here. Coming to the studio has become the way that I assert agency about my life. It's how I remember beauty, or that things can be beautiful.
Why is remembering beauty in particular important to you?
I think there's some kind of transcendence that lives inside of beautiful things, or in our understanding of them. It’s maybe not about the objects themselves, but the way that we attach ourselves to them. If I can bring about things that I want to see in the world, then maybe in some small form it’s a deflection of some of the more terrible things other people are bringing into the world.
Which kind of sucks to have to say. But there are people who actively bring terrible things into the world. I think we all do a little bit of that.
How does that relate to the way you think about your practice? As something that's counter to that terribleness?
I don't know. I guess lately I've been sort of identifying my painting with the esoteric tradition of painting.
Which, I googled what that means today, because I think the word kind of gets mushed with mysticism, but if you call a person esoteric, it basically means that they're pretentious. [Laughs.] I think the definition is, like, “Ideas that only pertain to a select few, and that are specifically related to a certain area of expertise or obscure knowledge.”
The mystical association is typically centered around Western ideas about religion, and sort of points to New Age religion. So I guess, yeah, my work is about transcendence, but I also accept the fact that there is no such thing. And so, to a certain extent, my work is about the absence of humanity. A little bit.
You've also said that you’re “trying to find both truth and mistakes in the esoteric.” Regardless of your discovery of that word’s literal definition, what's important to you about the process of finding both of those things?
It’s like, if you're making a painting and you put a thing down, or you glue a thing down, or you paint a thing down, then you have to be just as ready to fucking fuck it up. Committing something to the surface is dually a commitment to erasing it or obliterating it.
But do you think if you've placed something and it looks right then it's true?
No. No, it's the opposite of what you just said. It’s that nothing is true. [Laughs.] Truth and mistakes are the absolute things. The shift between the two is a constant.
Why is it important to you to maybe pursue truth, then?
The only true thing is the option of mistakes. I mean, art is sort of inherently esoteric, if we’re going on the definition that I said before. A lot of people aren’t going to think it’s cool, and the vocabulary’s utterly specific.
I had [painter] Freddie Greis up in here the other day, and we were talking about novel gestures in painting and esoteric painting. Specifically, I was talking about how sometimes certain painters look like other painters that came along 50 years before them, how there are shapes and compositions that crop up again and again and again, and Freddie was like, “You know, I don’t really think it matters.” Something about doing the work of painting and trying to bring it forth: that just being worthwhile. It being a conversation. That being enough. Somehow we figured it out that it was enough.
To be in conversation with people?
Yeah. I think that the most important thing about art is that it's a language of relation. And that there is something truly nitty-gritty about it, but it’s nitty-gritty human stuff. And if you can use it to make other people feel at home, that's good.
I think that kids get art a lot. I really like to help kids make art. That was something I learned at Wassaic. Man, if you want to get some fresh looks on your work, either let the kids see it, or just make art with kids for a day or two.
Do you try in your process to get back to that childhood mindset? Or just to import it in some way?
I'm trying to import it. At the same time I don't have to. It might be proximal. Being around kids making stuff reminds you of that fearless thinking. I think I maintain a deep connection to my child self through my work, in my dreaming and subconscious life. I think that until you turn 30 you're kind of a kid. But then you just start to realize, like, Okay, I had fun. But maybe I want to be happy. There's a sort of severance that I feel is “supposed” to occur around that age. As I approach my thirtieth birthday I feel like I'm balancing a resistance and acceptance of this notion of growing up.
Are you happy?
Yeah, but I don't know if I’m having fun.
Are those separable for you?
That's actually a quote from this Esquire profile on Macaulay Culkin. He was talking about lots of times in his life where he was having a lot of fun, but he wasn't happy. And then a lot of times in life when you're happy, but maybe you aren’t having fun. And that it's really important to distinguish between the two.
Like, a lot of times, making art is not fun. Right? It's not just like, “I'm in here having fun! I’m here loosey goosey. This is lots of fun, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” No. I'm thinking about it, and sometimes it's fucking frustrating. And other times I'm just editing photos for hours, or applying to shit for hours, or dealing with email correspondence that isn’t super exciting. You know? But, ultimately, all of it kind of makes me happy. Because it feels good to have a handle on it.
In a recent Instagram post, you said that, in your recent work, “The layering feels like the juicy I have been circling for a couple years now, and suddenly it feels like mine.” Why did you feel like your work wasn't yours before?
I think that I really want to make sculpture, but no one has ever let me do that. Not that I need permission from anybody but myself, but it's a question of space and materials and, like, I just never learned how to do it. There's things I'd like to know how to do, or questions I feel are too big to answer on my own. Maybe?
I guess I've always had a hard time slowing down the work. I have never been one to want to take a bunch of time to build a sculptural support for painting. And maybe that's what the work is pushing towards, but there's just so many people working that way right now. And I guess I really want to have the right reason. It’s not even about the right reasons, it’s about how I'm gonna do it, or if it's necessary. Just trying to be really aware of what my work needs.
What do you think the work needs?
I don’t know. Time will tell. I want to push scale. I have all these 48” x 84” stretcher bars. I don’t really have space for them right now, but I’d like to use those. But right now I'm just gonna make a bunch of 20” x 16” paintings and just see what they tell me.
You also mentioned earlier that your work is about an absence of humanity. Why?
‘Cause it’s about to happen, dude. Unless we elect Bernie motherfuckin’ Sanders. Surprise. This whole thing has just been an advertisement for Bernie Sanders! I am once again asking you to buy Jack Arthur Wood’s paintings!
[Laughs.] In any case, you don't sound hopeful about our prospects.
No. I think we’re gonna fuck this shit up so hard. We've been doing it for like 100 years, so why would we stop now? We need to stop in, like, five. And, I'm sorry, but I just don't trust humanity to stop driving cars in five years. I don't even want to do that.
There is an interesting contrast, though, between your work being in some sense joyful —
No, man! I think that humans disappearing is just as hopeful as them not disappearing. It does not matter if humans are here to see it: the world will prevail. And I think that that's nice. Like, the natural forces of nature are not fucking contingent on human life.
How does that relate, if at all, to what you said earlier about transcendence? Your personal sense, not the general sense.
I think that maybe there's transcendence in being matter. All of this is just subatomic particles. The world is infinitely small and infinitely large. And we barely understand any of it. And the more you think you know, the less you probably actually know. And I think that that is transcendent. That is just some wild shit.
[Pauses. Takes brush to painting. Forcefully. Without paint. Thus reflecting the futility of mankind of which we had just spoken.]
[Laughs.] In brackets: “Takes brush to painting. Forcefully.”
“Thus reflecting the futility of mankind of which we had just spoken.”
[Still brushing the painting.] I change the surface. I change the surface. Or does the surface change me? Ah! It is the work.
Anyway! The work being “about” an absence of humanity —
It's not only about that.
Sure, but what I’m saying is that “about-ness” is a weird bucket to put it in in the first place.
Yeah. The work isn’t about anything. Do I think about that sometimes, though? And has that been a thought that's been present in the work for a long time? Yeah, sure. But is the work about a bunch of shit? Yeah. The work is about how I love all these painters. It’s also about mark-making, and it's about this big brush that I like to use. And the work is also about how I love the way my girlfriend laughs, and the work is also about the time that my grandpa fed me too many mashed potatoes and I barfed on his sweater. And the warmth of those weird memories. You know? I think about a lot of stuff when I’m painting. Sometimes in an effort to not think about painting.
I don’t want to push this too far, but why do you think that not thinking is so important?
I think that when you say, “I don't want to push this too far,” what you really mean is, “I want to push this right up to the edge!”
[Laughs.] Yes. To be transparent, it's, “I want to push this far, but I don't want you to judge me for it.” But why do you think it's important to not think about it?
‘Cause, like, the most delicious moments in painting are when you surprise yourself. ‘Cause you give yourself a little gift. You know? You can't force that shit. And if you're thinking about it, you're forcing it. So if you can unhinge a little bit, and get lost in a song, or a memory, or a podcast, or a movie, or whatever it is that you've got, it keeps the painting at a distance, maybe.
Yeah. If you can not think, it’s better than thinking. I just like this chunky brush.
Jack Arthur Wood Jr. (b. 1990 Cincinnati, OH) is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. Wood’s approach to image making is combination. Paint, print, drawing, cloth, collage, and found materials are laid down or exchanged like blankets responding to changes in color temperature. The reductive thinking of printmaking is his painting method, satisfying relationships are teased out through layering. Wood holds a BA from Guilford College and an MFA from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, both in Print Media. Through research and reaction Wood approaches beauty, queerness, idiosyncrasy, and the sublime. Wood attended the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in 2018.
Now, more than ever
2019 Haunted Mill
2019 Print Fellow
2019 Summer Residency