Not About Flowers: Jonathan Solo at Catharine Clark

Jonathan Solo, Worship, 2010, Collaged graphite drawings on paper, 43.5 x 34 inches. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Jonathan Solo wants to make you uncomfortable. I met with the artist recently at Catharine Clark Gallery, where his solo show, Shadows, is up until February 19th. This body of work has come out of recent struggles in his life—coping with the loss of his mother, overcoming addiction—and his message as an artist comes across with a generous amount of conviction and a courageous sense of identity.

The delicate drawings and cut-outs in his San Francisco exhibition are an investigation of the Self and the experiences that have shaped him. Solo’s technical mastery as a self-taught artist is remarkable. Originally from Sacramento, Jonathan Solo has had shows most recently in the Bay Area, Berlin, and New York. This is his second show at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. His comments and pics after the jump. —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor

Jonathan Solo, Hunt, 2010, Collaged graphite drawings on paper, 41.5 x 61.5 inches. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

NF: Tell me about this body of work. What was the process of creation?
With this particular body of work, I isolated myself. I didn’t want any outside influence, so I relied strictly on what I had been dealing with—the loss of my mom, the diagnoses of my father, drug abuse, alcohol, and what we use to cope. I really utilized being alone to get into my head. Carl Jung’s philosophy of the shadow was something I came to identify with. The idea of the shadow is that it exists in all of us. It’s this other part of us, our repressed self, and Jung’s theory is that it’s more prevalent when you don’t know it exists, and more absent when you do.

You mentioned Diane Arbus and Romane Bearden as influences. Arbus relied a lot on context when she photographed—she loved to photograph her subjects in their natural environment—and Bearden, too, would build context into his collages. You’ve chosen to specifically eliminate background. Can you talk about that choice?
I don’t like clutter. I mean, in my work. My personal life is shit, my studio’s a mess, but when I’m looking at a piece, I really want it to be as visceral and as raw as the artist is willing to make it. And when you have a lot of clutter, and you have a lot of information to process, you can get lost in that. Hunt (2010) is the most clutter I’ve ever done in my life on a piece of paper. But it was a playful, dark, fun piece that I wanted to add [to the show]. I like isolating the figures in a space that doesn’t have a background or a foreground, because psychologically, that’s where we exist. Who are we when we’re alone? When you’re walking alone, or sleeping, when you’re quiet and in your mind—I want those moments to be conveyed. Most of my work is isolated one-figure portraits that are highly rendered. I feel that a work comes across stronger when it’s not manipulated with a large narrative in order to convey your message.

You can only hide for so long Ms. Tina Lohan, 2010 | Collaged graphite drawings on paper, 21 x 15 inches. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

These cut-out flowers appear in most of your pieces. They’re very whimsical, but you pair them with dark, sinister scenes.
Let’s see, where do I start? My mother and I were best friends, she was everything to me. When I was a child, she was the one that gave me a pencil and paper and told me I had talent. I didn’t go to art school, I am self-taught, and she recognized that [talent] early on. In kindergarten, while all the other kids were drawing happy faces, I drew this face with eyes, eyelashes, pupils, teeth, lips, moles—and at a very young age. So she recognized that I was different than the other children (laughs), and she really nurtured that.

When she was diagnosed with her illness she would say, “Mijo, when I die I want black roses at my funeral”. That was six years ago. When she passed away, it felt like my soul was being ripped out of my body, so I turned to drugs. In order for me to make it okay to do what I was so against—both of my parents had been recovering addicts, and it had destroyed my childhood —in order to make it like I was not disrespecting her, I called it ‘flowers’. So that’s what you’re seeing.

Death Jacket, 2010, Collaged graphite drawings on paper, 33.5 x 23 inches. Courtesy Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

So this was like your own euphemism for addition. That totally changes the meaning.
Right?! (laughs) This piece, Death Jacket (2010), is [an image of] my mother’s back. I took this photo a few months before she passed away, and this is how I felt when she died. I felt like this screaming figure, with no eyes, who couldn’t see anymore. I felt trapped by her. So here I am standing in the roses that she loved so much… There’s this illusion of beauty and the idea that because it’s pretty, it’s okay.

The black cut-out figures remind me of Kara Walker’s work. Do you ever get similar comparisons?
I know Kara’s work, but it’s funny—when you’re so wrapped up in your studio, you’re not looking at other artists’ work. Then at the opening I hear people compare it to Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu… It’s interesting because I was never really drawn to the silhouette, it always seemed too easy to do, and too pretty. I wanted my stuff to be raw. In my drawings, I purposely play with proportion on bodies because I want you to feel a little awkward. But my cut-out silhouettes are graphite, not black paper. So the paper starts out white, but then I rub graphite powder into the paper, and then cut the figures out.

The surface is so consistent, it’s interesting to know it was created through a very laborious, very meditative process.
[Carl] Jung talks about the birth of the shadow. So, while I was in the studio working with graphite powder instead of graphite pencil, I created a new process. No one else is using graphite in this way. With this work there’s the beauty of the rendering, and there’s delicacy in the drawings, but in order to get to the final piece, I had to take this sharp blade and cut these pieces out. In taking something so sharp against something so fragile, it becomes tenuous because I can slip up and destroy it. In creating these shadows, I’m pushing into the paper, and paper has a memory, so you can’t push too hard because it will heat up and ruin [the surface]. So there’s all these things that I learned in the process of giving birth to this new idea. And people have asked me, where did you get the paper? And I say, "Honey I created that paper. I don’t cheat! (laughs)"

Jonathan Solo was featured in edition #61 of New American Paintings. His current solo exhibition, Shadows, is on view at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco through February 19.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).


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