September 13, 2010

Neon Homeland

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John Jurayj’s (a Lebanese-American artist from New York City) paintings are on display at the Johnson as part of the exhibit Tarjama/Translation. His paintings are displayed prominently — one hangs in the lobby and the other is the first piece in the gallery. He visited the Johnson last week to talk about his work, but before he spoke at the Johnson, he talked to the Sun.

Sun: John, thanks for letting me interview you. So, how did you decide to make a life out of painting?

John Jurayj: Well, I fell in love. That’s how the story goes. In school I did a year abroad in Rome and I fell in love with this guy. He was a painter. And his name was John. Narcissistic, right? That falling in love, that coming out, was painting to me. And I was falling for it badly. It sounds so obvious and narcissistic but it was a pivotal moment when I realized that I could be who I wanted to be. Then, the idea was, “Get to New York.” Show up and do something. That was 20 years ago for me. Seeing seminal artworks was influential for me then — Picasso and his intensity, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol. And I started thinking that art is make-able, that these were even made.

Art was not an option to me. It was not part of my middle-class upbringing. So of course it was linked with desires outside of my world. I had a strong feeling then that if I didn’t go forward with painting that I would regret it. It’s a good feeling, to be fortunate enough to know what you will regret.

Sun: Your work is obviously in dialogue with the New York School and with Post-Impression in terms of the materiality of paint. But then parts of it are new — there’s the gender play with feminine neon colors, audacious splatters, textured obsidian …

J.J.: Yeah in the city I got into the New York School, not only painters but poets also, Frank O’Hara and Willem de Kooning and such, Warhol and high-camp faggotry. I needed for these things to be layered to produce friction. And as I see it, friction is where meaning comes out. I was looking at the Disaster series by Warhol, I was looking at all this really violent stuff, you know, the car crashes, weapons, people jumping, and there’s this very singular contrast between the celebratory and the violent. Then there’s this dialogue between Pollock — the utterly masculine, “jerking off on the canvas,” versus Warhol, the referential little gay boy, worshipping popular culture. It became fertile space to work in, to excavate it. Here I am excavating myself.

Sun: How do you see your work as it relates to translation and the rest of this exhibit?

J.J.: Well, translation can fail. Arabic can fail when you put it in English, but a good translation will embody poetry as well as information. I’ve taken and digested my translation. I don’t read or write Arabic myself. I am part of the diaspora. And I think it’s an interesting choice to include my work in this show because translation shouldn’t come down to writing.

Including my paintings points to a wider understanding of translation, that it can also be visual. The question for me is how do I unbury the work of the past [Pollock, Warhol] and bring it back alive for the viewer. I get to bend things. Otherwise it’s not of any use if you don’t make it relevant and keep it alive. Most work in this show is text-based or documentary [like the films]. I use documentary photos but they aren’t my end point, it’s not so literal. The artist takes a fiction and it needs to become a truth for the work to be successful. There is that back and forth between the photo and the pool of paint, [between the document and the fiction of paint, which becomes a new truth]. For me color is my mark making, color is my form of text. These paintings are in a way a loose homage to Pollock. The paint runs where it will, like with Kenneth Nolan and his stain painting. It’s about taking it horizontal, laying it asunder. It’s this break in the history of art where the canvas is brought off the wall and onto the ground, a power play. It was an intuitive choice for me to work this way also.

Sun: Your work is prefaced in the exhibition catalogue with a reference to your native Lebanon as “a special kind of wasteland.” How does this interpretation play out in your work?

J.J.: My work is regional, in a sense. [I live in New York but] I have other locations. I’ve always been trying to simultaneously acknowledge these conflicting identities. And in terms of Lebanon … there is an inevitability to Lebanon, this inability to weld a major national narrative and this confused situation of Lebanon and Beirut is conceptually interesting.

Are we European? Arab? French? Islamic? Catholic? [Geographical] Lebanon is almost a fiction that only exists because of colonization, countries were delineated arbitrarily and Lebanon was part of it. War informed my childhood emotionally, geographically, literally, it was a war of “who’s narrative is the true one?” All these factions make for a fertile space — who says what is true, who wins? Well, Pollock won. Warhol won. You know President Johnson organized this art show to promote American art and art begins to be entwined with Cold-War politics. [Pollock was used as a tool by the CIA in this show to present American art as fiercely individual and modern in contrast to Soviet society.] That’s interesting to me, the political within the aesthetic.

Sun: You are very confident in justifying what you do. I read an interview with the artist Dan Colen in which he said, “It’s such a weird self-confidence that an artist has — to conceive of this thing that serves no function and say, ‘I’m going to really work hard for it and give it and it’s just going to matter to people.’ You really have to believe it all on your own.” Why does your work matter to you?

J.J.: Thinking of painting there are first thoughts of negativity, there is no structure to it. Phenomenologically, painting is strange and unique because it is both amply narcissistic and decadent and yet it is utterly impoverished and in times of crisis it can make a difference. That’s how I feel.

Thank you for sharing your insights with The Sun, John. I look forward to seeing how you process confusion, politics and personal experience in your work in the future.

Original Author: Amelia Brown