A Dialogue with Jason Hoelscher

House of Wren
Jul 23, 2018 4:15PM

This interview marks the first in House of Wren’s dialogues, a series of conversations that provide verbal tours of exhibitions, stories from the artists and insight into their means of making. Despite his mastery of house-hold paint and color fields, Jason Hoelscher is not just a painter. As an avid creative thinker, Hoelscher explores ideas and findings through his studio practice in a self-intuitive and pragmatic method. Hoelscher is finishing up a PhD in philosophy (focused on aesthetics and art theory), and has honed his technique while remaining true to the project of knowledge as a writer and researcher. In this conversation, Hoelscher discusses the importance of this balance to his work, where he has been, and where he is going next.

A Geodelic painting in progress at Jason Hoelscher Studio. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

WM: With so many components to your life, how would you define yourself? Who is Jason Hoelscher?

JH: Hmmm, those are big questions! I would say that a unifying theme that runs through the different aspects of my life is that of seeking, finding and/or creating interesting / cool / rewarding stuff, and then sharing it with others. I'm like the proverbial town gossip who tries to tell everybody about whatever's going on, except instead of who did what it's more about ideas, concepts or potentials.

For example, part of my love of philosophy is that it tends to focus either on ideas that can be shared, or is actually itself about sharing (in a broad sense—ethics, for example, might be defined as an exploration of how one might act with and among others in the shared and generative experience of a social system). My art too is very much about the thrill of coming up with a visual that works and then sharing it with viewers and gallery-goers. My favorite thing about being a professor is sharing and mingling ideas and viewpoints, seeing where the point of connection comes in with a student—what's pointless to one person might be profound to another, and vice versa—and seeing where it goes as they integrate it into their own future. I like to take in (or generate) ideas, give them my own spin, then send them out into the world to see where they end up, and to see how (or whether) they change during the journey.

WM: What prompted you to begin to paint?

JH: I've been drawing as long as I remember, but didn't start painting until I was in my twenties. Nothing in particular prompted me to paint other than curiosity. That said, overthinking things is one of my life-long hobbies, and I think one reason I approach painting the way I do is because I can invest a lot of thought and overwrought complexity into a work, but then boil it down to something very terse and specific by the time it goes out to meet with its viewer. The paintings look pretty direct, blunt and simple, but there is a lot of playing around and obsessive nuancing of every shape, angle, curve, color and relation before I get around to the act of actually making the painting. There's a lot going on under the hood, so to speak, but at the end it's nice to say something using a direct and fully upfront mode of communication.

WM: I happen to know the style of work displayed in Simplexity was not born on canvas. Can you tell me a little more about the evolution of the work?

JH: These paintings all begin as sketches on post-it notes, my thought being that if I can arrive at something with visual impact at 3 by 3 inches it'll really have some oomph when scaled up to four or six feet. The initial sketch might range from a cool curve to a fully-fledged set of shapes, which I play around with to get a feel for how they seem to want to work together—a process that can range from four or five sketched-out versions to 40 or 50 versions. At a certain point the forms relate in a way that has an underlying logic that makes sense, while also looking somewhat contradictory or problematic at the same time. Attention Span Management III is an example of this, in that I must have refined that sketch through 30 versions before it dawned on me to tweak the angle at the bottom left to suggest something perspectival. At that point the image resolved instantly, from that one tiny modification.

Once I get something that finally clicks into what I consider a kind of visual inevitability, I draw a more formal version to scale on Bristol, scan that into Photoshop, experiment with color options, and so on. Then I convert the colors' Pantone numbers to Benjamin Moore's proprietary color codes and order the paint (I began using Benjamin Moore paint as a kind of pun or reference to Frank Stella's Benjamin Moore series of paintings from 1961, but now use it because I like the surface quality I can get, which is both plastic and expressive at once). Lastly, using rulers, various curves, and pencils I draw the finalized sketch onto canvas and paint from there, by hand. The result is an artwork that's a pretty tight weave of digital and analog approaches to art-making, from post-its and Photoshop to rulers, brushes, and Benjamin Moore store paint colors as readymade.

Jason Hoelscher Studio. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

WM: Who have you found to be your major influences?

JH: Artistically my major influences would be Raymond Pettibon, Jack Kirby, Frank Stella, and Mary Heilmann. Ever since I discovered the punk band Black Flag as a teenager I always thought their logo (designed by Pettibon long before he was famous in the art world—he and Black Flag's guitarist/founder are brothers)was weirdly cool and intense, considering its simplicity. There's a density of potential to that logo—four black rectangles slightly off-set from one another—in that it can work as both an abstraction of a flag waving, as pistons firing, or just as four rectangles. The combo of simple directness and visual impact made a big impression (and in fact, the Black Flag bars logo was my first tattoo). Prior to that, I learned to draw as a kid by imitating comics, and Kirby was such a master of no-nonsense visual aggression and directness of form, that I think that influenced my approach quite a bit (not to mention my paintings' color forms floating on a white background resonate with comics panels set into a white page). I like Stella's 1960s work particularly for the way his paintings both address and complicate their dual existence as both artworks and as material objects covered with paint. That all of my paintings have white borders is a direct Stella reference, in the way they transform the work from a transcendental representational painting to a right-there presentational painting. Lastly, Heilmann's work is amazing for the way she can simultaneously pay homage to and undermine the underlying codes of abstraction and minimalism. The first time I saw her work (while a junior or senior during my BFA studies) was a real eye-opener that gave me all kinds of permission to expand my art practice in ways I'd never before considered as possibilities.

WM: I am curious about the dynamic between your research and your artwork. In a way, your PhD in philosophy/aesthetics brings an authoritative stance to the work but this is obviously personal to you. How to you offset the finality of what you know versus what you are physically exploring with your materials?

JH: Well, if there's one thing my PhD studies have taught me it's that there is always more to know, more to think, and more to question. After six years of PhD studies I feel I know much less than I did before, because my sense of scale regarding what one can learn, think and question has expanded so dramatically. So any sense of finality has just gone right out the window!

This is reflected a bit in the paintings, which have always been a hybrid of strong and assertive visual frontality combined with illogical connections or underlying hesitations. For example, nearly all the works suggest the potentials of picture space that simply don't make sense relative to the apparent flatness of the forms and colors (Quadratic Charm, Minimal Spin III, or Unichrome II are good examples of this, seeming both flat and perspectivally spatial at once, while not quite being either). The paintings present forms that seem direct and stable, but which reveal problematic relations that make them less logical or rigorous than their first impression, and so on (Boundary Conditions II, for example, seems at once logical and simple, but the ways the forms come together and the actions of unfolding or the spaces they suggest make no sense at all).

Benjamin Moore household acrylic paint a Jason Hoelscher Studio. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

WM: Do you have a vision for your next body of work?

JH: I do, and I'm looking forward to making this next series. Most of my paintings are generated from sketching my own ideas, though occasionally I'll see a curve or form in something (whether an angle on an automobile fender, a logo or a building) that serves as a starting point. For my next body of work I'd like to work from photographs I took in Siena, Italy.

In the last few years I've taken to photographing the spaces between things rather than the things themselves, and Siena is a great place for that. Built up over centuries with little in the way of coherent city planning—most of the city existed before such an idea even existed—and sitting atop a hill with little room for lateral expansion, the architecture in Siena is amazing in the ways buildings bunch up against one another, emerge from atop one another, and so on. The result is a city that's not only beautiful but is organically arranged in a way very counter-intuitive for those of us accustomed to cities built on grids—Siena is like an architectural swarm formation that's unfolded and swirled around itself over the course of a thousand years. All of this combines to create a city of bizarre and highly active negative spaces—and creating peculiarly active negative spaces has long been something I aim for in my own work.

Accordingly, my next body of work will be what I'm thinking of as the Siena series, which will maintain the crisp and direct look of my work (and the flat, un-modulated colors), but will emerge from my experiences meandering around Siena and envisioning it in the most abstract terms possible.

Jason Hoelscher Studio. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

WM: What is the ultimate goal of your work? Is there a scientific take away or do you feel that your paintings offer an experience for viewers?

JH: This sounds shallow, but a primary goal of my work is simply to present something cool to look at. Many things in our culture are made to be "cool to look at" in the service of some external goal: look how cool this logo is and then buy the soft drink brand it represents. My work is intended to be cool to look at as something in and of itself—there is no direction away from the painting, just the painting itself, offering itself up for experience. In this way the works somewhat update Kant's notion of the aesthetic free play of the faculties, merged here with contemporary quick-read culture—using the semiotics that logo design is based on not to sell or represent anything other than the experience of experiencing the work that is in the viewer's field of vision right at that moment.

Beyond that immediate quick-read aspect, my approach to painting emerged originally from a desire to make work that would offer something both to someone like my dad, a truck driver not educated in art, and to an artworld initiate. It has plenty of discursive entanglements and art history references and all that good stuff (elements that are there if someone wants to look, but which aren't necessary for enjoying the work) but also borrow from the grammar and syntax of mass media design, t-shirt illustration, and advertising—stuff we're all fully literate in by now whether we consciously know it or not. So on the one hand it's important that I activate a node or two in the art-literate viewer's web of art world ideas and connections, while at the same time offering something that the everyday viewer might simply find compelling or cool to check out.

WM: Could it be both?

JH: I hope so! That's been a big part of my artistic agenda going on twenty years now. The work is made to be seen very quickly—I'm okay with a quick 1/2-second glance—while also offering something to the more attentive viewer who might look more intensively and try to figure out why the surface is the way it is, or what the "empty" white margins are about, and so on. At base is always the role of attention, an important topic to address these days, through prompting questions regarding what "attention" means, how it operates, what does it cost to "pay" attention, and so forth. I began considering these "short attention span paintings for short attention span culture" during grad school, and what counted for a short attention span in 2000 seems deeply contemplative and relaxed compared to attention spans in 2018.

View Jason Hoelscher's online exclusive exhibition, Simplexity.

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