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Meet 

Joshua Nathanson

“I feel as though my paintings are a continuation of art history.

 

Joshua Nathanson is writing himself into a new chapter of the history of paint. As our eyes become more and more accustomed to luminescent on-screen colours, traditional colours are suddenly beginning to seem dull and spiritless. Our sight is becoming more two-dimensional and imaginary, and the classic one-point perspective is losing its meaning as we become able to move freely through the infinity of cyberspace. Nathanson’s painting reveals a passion for artifice and unaffected curiosity, but also a mournfulness for the loss that inevitably follows progress. The history of painting is more than just a chronology of styles and subjects. It also includes the history of the actual paints used, which is at least as exciting and full of twists and turns as that of the other aesthetic aspects. It started with the egg tempera, which was followed by oil, and then, in the latter half of the 20th century, by the bright pop flavours of acrylics, which arose from a need to mimic the mass-produced fetishes of consumer society. 

How did you become an artist. 

Like most kids I was really into cartoons and video games but for me it was really about the way they actually looked. I dreamed of someday being an animator. On Saturdays, we would get up early and watch cartoons like Tom & Jerry all morning. That, and the fact that my mom kept taking us to art classes. Also I was very curious about the way things worked and some big questions aboutlife and death. But it wasn’t until I turned 20 or so that I decided I wanted to be an artist. My interests in history and philosophy found a home in art. I was able to combine it all in this sphere. 

Back then, in the early-80s, Pac-Man had just been released. It was such eye candy! We kept staring at it, almost obsessively. And then, all the big blockbuster movies with lots of special effects, like E.T., came out. All the colourful arcade games with their cool sounds. Even the big shopping malls had an enormously seductive pull on me. But at the same time, I wanted to understand what it was all about. During those years the shopping mall aesthetic peaked and achieved its own kind of perfection. The colours were saturated, and it was all rich and beautiful to look at. Sure, it’s all based on lies, but it’s beautiful all the same. I had so many questions, and I somehow knew that a career as an artist might allow me to address some of them. If I had chosen another profession, I would have followed a more well-trodden path. I wanted the challenge of solving deep mysteries.

When I was 20, living in NYC, I wound up working for an artist named Bernar Venet. We were hanging a Rothko in his house and he realized I didn’t know who Rothko was so he basically told me “You know nothing. If you want to be an artist you better get serious.” And I realized he was totally right. So, from that point on I started working really hard in every way I could think of: I read a ton of art history, I saw a ton of shows, I did tons of studio visits and I made a ton of art. It took a long time, and it wasn’t until just recently (seventeen years later) that I was able to really show and sell my art. I didn’t sell anything at all for ages. To me, every paintingI make isn’t an end point. It just indicates where I was THEN. 

 
 Joshua Nathanson in L.A., 2018. Photo: Daniel Sahlberg.

Joshua Nathanson in L.A., 2018. Photo: Daniel Sahlberg.

 Joshua in company with the artist Lauren Fischer Davis and a friend at the opening night of the exhibition L.A. Dreams in Stockholm, 2018. Photo: Ivan Nunez.

Joshua in company with the artist Lauren Fischer Davis and a friend at the opening night of the exhibition L.A. Dreams in Stockholm, 2018. Photo: Ivan Nunez.

 

What is life like for an artist in Los Angeles?

I moved here 15 years ago (when I was 29) to go to the Art Center MFA program. Then, in the early 2000s, there was a kind of renewed interest in early modernism going on. The conceptual had been very dominant, but people began to show a genuine interest in aesthetics, and in the possibilities of painting. For me, it was all about formalism and type of poetic expression. Allowing myself to explore the subconscious. We had very good teachers, who put a lot of emphasis on ideas but also on maintaining a playful attitude and interest in the experiential. They also valued the inexplicable. 

It was much more affordable in LA, a studio cost half as much to rent as it did in New York. And there was a laid back atmosphere in general. But strangely enough, I think people were making better work because the extra time and space allowed them to be more reflective and to simply make more work. There have always been a lot of art schools in LA and that attracts people from all over and when they graduate they mostly decide to stay. That really helps create a nice community. A lot of my favourite artists live here.

What are you going to show in Stockholm?

Two large-scale paintings. For the past few years I’ve mostly been painting things from real life, a kind of stylised, distilled form of plein air painting. But these more recent paintings, which I’ve brought to Stockholm, are more from my imagination. I’ve been thinking about how we look at and relate to the things that we see on our computers and smartphones. I mean on an inner level. And I’ve been reading about the effects that these things have on our psyche.

I’ve always thought about our subjectivity, what art means to us, and where it’s headed. Art is a record of how we feel as a culture. But when I’m actually painting, I work more intuitively, without thinking too much. I just draw what comes to mind. 

I’ve always felt comfortable creating on a computer. But I’ve also painted. Lately, in my work, I’ve been moving back and forth from the iPad, Photoshop, and painting. I see colours on the iPad, and I want to recreate them in an analogue form. And having these colors show up in a painting feels unexpected. It’s just like the art historian T.J. Clark wrote in his seminal book on the impressionists, The Painting of Modern Life.

I’ve always felt comfortable creating on a computer. But I’ve also painted. Lately, in my work, I’ve been moving back and forth from the iPad, Photoshop, and painting. I see colours on the iPad, and I want to recreate them in an analogue form. And having these colors show up in a painting feels unexpected. It’s just like the art historian T.J. Clark wrote in his seminal book on the impressionists, The Painting of Modern Life. They were relating to a new urban environment, and to the phenomenon of photography. The camera didn’t care if it left half of a person out of the picture. When the camera presented things that way, painting began to do the same and that felt unexpected. 

I feel as though my paintings are a continuation of art history. In a really obvious way you can see that I’m adding some of the digital aesthetic into painting. I don’t think of it as an escape, it’s more likean addition. I’m not trying to make a radical statement, like with theinvention of land art or minimalism. However, it is about creating a new way of seeing. It’s not extreme but it’s still about newness. 

Joshua Nathanson was born in 1976 in Washington, D.C., and lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. He has has solo exhibitions at Downs and Ross, New York; Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Tokyo, Japan; Various Small Fires, Los Angeles and most recently at the YUZ Museum, Shanghai, China. Public collections include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago and the YUZ Museum, Shanghai.

How does the new presidency affect life as an artist in LA?

I try to stay optimistic, but I think he’s the worst thing that could have happened to the US. It’s insane, as much as my friends and I detest him, there’s still 40 fucking percent of our country who approve of him. And he’s totally fascist. My art used to be optimistic. And although it’s still intense and energetic, it’s not as optimistic anymore. Now, I use more bodies and interiors, the opposite of the boundlessness of the Internet. Body parts, dirt, and caves are ancient, and I think it’s some kind of reaction to all that crap. Maybe I’m looking for an escape. 

You live in the age of the Internet. Do you still feel connected to art history, or Western art history?

You can do anything on a computer, right? But still, when you draw, even when children draw, something happens. A magical space appears, with its own aesthetic, which you can’t find anywhere else. It doesn’t even exist in dreams. It’s the most unique and creative experience of all. I’m very aware of art history, and I steal from it shamelessly, all the time.