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Within the 60’s and 70’s cool of the recent work of American painter Jonathan Viner is a commentary on the recent rebirth of the Cold War, reshaped for the 21st Century. It may be distracting for younger generations to try to attribute current events as just an updated James Bond style movie to keep our minds off the realities of the situation, but as Jonathan makes clear … it’s cold out there, and getting colder. Taking up the mantle of past greats of the figurative form his work creates a snapshot into the lives of his characters, but allows his audience to develop their own narrative. Just remember, the work, like the artist himself, bears more than a passing scrutiny. This is the genius of the work of Jonathan Viner.
Many of your paintings seem to pay homage to the 60’s / 70’s, in fact it seems to me a slightly futuristic view as it would have been seen at that time. What draws you to this period stylistically?
That’s a great question. This is going to sound bad, but I wouldn’t say my paintings really pay homage to anything. They are too egocentric to pay homage!
I loved figurative painting from an early age. But I realized early in my career that I didn’t want to be an anachronism. If you’re not careful, being a figurative painter can be like walking around in period costume. I had to figure out how to make my work unmistakably contemporary, fresh, and relevant to a sophisticated, contemporary collector base. To this end, I often mine the late 20th century era, as well as the present, for aesthetic cues and content that grabs me.
Your palette is definitely on the cool side – even when the figures in them are in bikinis or nude. Why do you work with these tones, rather than warmer hues?
In general, I just use the colors that feel right. Why did Picasso have a blue period, a rose period, etc? Your guess is as good as mine! However, in 2014 I exhibited a solo show in NYC with Sloan Fine Art called “Cold Snap”, which on one level was an allusion to the 20th century Cold War, and what is now shaping up to be a new 21st century Cold War. This theme and cool color scheme carried over into my 2016 solo exhibit “Strange Math”, at Roq La Rue Gallery in Seattle. The cool color scheme is a context in which certain intense colors can really pop. It’s like finding the welcoming glow of civilization in a dangerous and indifferent universe. Or the warmth of a shot of whiskey on a cold winter night. Or something. So that’s my guess.
Figurative, oil on panel, technique driven … these aren’t necessarily the things that have been in vogue in the fine art world is recent years. What inspired you to develop your style? Have you found that recently ‘figurative’ is making a comeback alongside ‘conceptual’?
For better or worse, I never cared about what was in vogue in the contemporary fine art world. I just had a strong desire to make things, and I felt that urge most intensely for painting figurative imagery. I instinctively sensed enormous power there. It was pretty visceral. I would get butterflies and surges of adrenaline. There’s still a certain optimistic mania about starting a new canvas. It’s a pendulum swinging from worm to god, and I just ride it back and forth, over and over.
Figurative art seems much more accepted in the fine art world than it was 20 years ago. Whether it’s made a more recent comeback or not, I don’t know. From where I’m sitting it never left in the first place.
Who were your inspirations that have brought you to where you are in your artistic practice? These can be film, literature, music as well as art, anything that gets your creative juices flowing.
The use of dramatic light and shadow in Baroque art really grabbed me as an adolescent. At that time, I was into typically adolescent stuff. Fantasy and sci-fi. Comics. Horror. Computer games. Heavy metal. But I also loved old fine art and old classical music. I remember my first serious medium was charcoal. Great for my infatuation with chiaroscuro. While normal teenage boys were playing sports, sneaking booze, and chasing girls, I was copying some dramatic photo of Leonard Bernstein from a Rimsky-Korsakov cd cover, and then copying a paused still from Metallica’s video for “The Unforgiven”, and then copying grainy old black and white photos of pre-Holocaust shtetl life by Roman Vishniak. This was just the stuff lying around my house when I was growing up. A few drops in the ocean of random things that influenced my creative development.
RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) was a huge influence of course. The intense boot camp of freshman foundation, exposure to the complete span of the academic art history narrative, drawing and painting from live models, studying skeletons and taxidermy, experimenting with color and mark making, drilling down into the physics of light, dissecting the compositions of Velasquez, or Degas, etc.
Shortly after art school, Dave Hickey’s essay “Enter the Dragon” opened my eyes to the dissonance within the art world and the psychosocial mechanisms of taste. I knew figurative painting was frowned upon at the time, and it made no sense to me. Even though I didn’t share Hickey’s taste in art, this essay gave me hope. It also led me to Foucault, who wrote about systems of power and the ‘the gaze’ of authority figures.
Later on I happened across “The Black Swan”, by Nassim Taleb, which is basically about the limits of human understanding and the enormous consequences (for better or worse) of unforeseeable events. The unlikeliest of things frequently occur.
More recently I’ve been influenced by the writing of George Friedman, who’s a geopolitical realist thinker. He offers a counterbalancing perspective to the unpredictable universe of Nassim Taleb. Friedman acknowledges that the world is pretty unpredictable, but with enough understanding some people can still make pretty sharp predictions that seem crazy to the rest of us. His books “The Next Hundred Years” and “Flashpoints” fascinated me and partly inspired me to look at the Cold War era for inspiration at a time when it seemed pretty irrelevant to most of us. He also got me thinking about the role of nationality in art and culture.
Speaking of music, with your headphone portrait series – do you have a track or album in mind for each as you paint them, and if you do how much does that influence the look of the final piece?
I painted the “Harem” series back around 2010. The title of each painting is a Russian girl’s name. Irina, Zhenya, Yevgheniya, Nadezhda, etc. This was a time when Russian oligarchs were making headlines with big art purchases. A few years before I realized the Cold War would make a comeback.
I always paint with music playing, but the music changes. I don’t really keep track of which music I listen to with each painting.
Another notable influence I see in your work is architecture and design – is this a field you have ever thought of pursuing further?
I would love to be involved in architecture and design, but seriously pursuing it would require so much time and training that I wonder if it’s possible without detracting from my studio practice. But hopefully I’ll figure out a way to collaborate with architects and designers someday.
In art school, I took an intro to filmmaking course and loved doing it as much as I love to paint. Editing in particular. I’d get butterflies and lose track of time. Good stuff. But film is an expensive endeavor that would require the support and cooperation (and potential interference) of many other people. Painting doesn’t hinge on anyone else, so I decided painting was the best way for me to execute my vision, over the course of my life, simply and directly.
Now to the future, what are you working on at the moment, and what shows do you have coming up?
There has been a wave of galleries closing in recent years. Social media is taking up more and more of everyone’s attention. It’s a confusing time in the art world right now, so I’m keeping all of my options open. I’m working on a new body of work that I’m very excited about and looking forward to exhibiting when the right gallery comes along. There seems to be a major shift of some kind underway. I’m just going to keep painting until the dust settles. In the meantime people can follow me on social media, purchase prints on my website, and contact me directly about available work. Also I’ll be showing six smaller paintings in a summer group show at Arcadia Contemporary in LA.