The playful cynic: Jonathan Lux blends wilful naïvety with perceptive shrewdness

The world of Jonathan Lux’s paintings is a seductive one. His lines are voluptuous and flowing, his figures languid and loose-limbed, his colours ranging from screaming neons and candied pastels to deep browns and stormy greys. The painter’s gaze flits back and forth between one of childlike innocence and one of well-seasoned cynicism. His pictures have all the playfulness of picture-book illustrations and colourful advertising iconography, all the mocking sardonicism of satirical cartoons and all the languorous elegance of Matisse’s reclining nudes. The surface of the paintings is scrubbed and scraped, painted over and scraped off again, the different elements jostling for attention while casting one another sidelong glances. In short, the compositions are a swirl of provocation and preclusion, earnestness and apathy. They interpret at the same time as subverting and deriding any attempt at interpretation. The figures in the paintings are ambivalent about their own intentions, so that the object of mockery or desire becomes uncertain – is it the woman with the horse’s head or the slick-haired man sitting beside her? Or is it, in fact, the viewer?

Born in West Virginia, Jonathan came to pursue visual art through his unconventional schooling experience of attending a creatively-focused high school for the arts. Having moved to London to study for his MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art, Jonathan still lives and works in the city. He has exhibited his work across the UK and the USA, as well as in Italy. Jonathan speaks to us here about recurring dreams, intuitive colours and the critical role of sketchbooks in his artistic practice.

Girl, Garden & Apple, ink on paper, 40 x 30 cm

AMM: Hi Jonathan, can you tell us about your background and growing up in the US?

JL: My childhood was the sort I’d like my own daughters to have. My brother and I grew up in a Craftsman-style 1920s bungalow near a park and a small creek. My mom worked for a hospital and my dad was a salesman. I didn’t know much about art, but I did know I loved drawing. Luckily, at age thirteen, I was accepted into a performing arts high school which made available a tremendous amount of technical expertise and art historical knowledge. Everyone there was theoretically working toward honing a skill-set in their field: creative writing, drama, dance, music, visual art, etc., so to this day I have no idea what a normal high school experience is really like. At mine, the basketball courts were torn down to enlarge the theatre – and no cheerleaders, but lots of ballerinas.

AMM: How has your approach and practice developed over the course of your artistic career?

JL: When I was younger (but already exhibiting) I remember being less enthusiastic about the work I was producing than the gallery which was selling it. I sort of reset my practice and began a self-imposed project of working directly from life. I did this for about seven years. The better paintings were rather in the mould of someone like Fairfield Porter, meaning I made a wide range of domestic images that were linked through technique. Landscapes, studio nudes, portraits, some still-lifes. The project was already losing steam when I was mugged while painting outdoors, which killed it for good. Immediately after that I became a studio painter making very elaborately constructed, dense narrative paintings, which I think attempted the same subject matter from a new point of view. I was building lots of props and costumes, taking lots of reference photos and working on a very large scale, which is more easily done in a studio than outdoors. At some point after moving to London, the weight of all that preparation and forethought became too much (or too unnecessary) and I began to discard it all, bit by bit, hoping to discover a way forward that would also give me a little more contentment. When I was finished throwing the ballast overboard, what remained is more or less the painter I am today.

AMM: Can you tell us about the different mediums you work with? How do you go about matching the medium and materials to the subject and content of the image you are making?

JL: Oil is almost all I’ve ever used. Many painters I know who spend years using oil say how, over time, it makes other types of paint feel wrong, and I’m the same way. I expect to continue on that way, as long as I can. I got involved with coloured ink by chance while on a road trip, and really appreciated the convenience of it, for paper and smaller gessoed panels. It satisfies a desire to work quicker. It’s easier, without being easy. I use FW ink which is really opaque, and allows for lots of layering, which I like.

AMM: How do you describe the world that your images seek to convey?

JL: It’s a world that’s very conventional and formal, with a perverse element that’s in active rebellion against the rest.

AMM: There is almost an illustrative element to your works in the use of line and colour; do you tend to draw on the techniques of illustration?

JL: Well, I drew for many years prior to learning how to paint. I had banished line from my practice for many years, and now that I’ve let it back in, I do rely on it quite a bit. Most of my points of reference are 20th century trappings, and there’s a case to be made that it was the era of abbreviation. Line is really good for that.

Midnight Girl, ink on cotton over plywood, 70 x 60 cm

AMM: There is such a richness of character and expression in your paintings, as though there is a story and a set of relationships contained within each image. Is there a narrative element to your works?

JL: Absolutely. In painting, I like narratives that are fragmentary. Because of the way I work, I revise a lot and I anticipate that most of what I have in the beginning won’t make it through to the end. If there’s a story present, I’m fine with that, but it’s not something I’m really conscious of. I like to suggest, but never insist.

AMM: We loved reading the text by Rose McLaren on your work. She writes of your images that “…A childish delight in slapstick japes accompanies the seasoned insight with which each dumbshow is directed”. How does your work negotiate between naïve playfulness and shrewd cynicism, between childhood and adulthood?

JL: That’s a great question. I think negotiating between naïve playfulness and shrewd cynicism might be my main pursuit in life. Being placed between those two positions is my most wilfully autobiographical self. I have a reoccurring dream about an architect who designs a beautiful library, inviting to children, with lots of natural light. But anticipating the cynicism of men, he also had the building rigged so that it could transform at some point in the distant future to be able to eat the property developers and politicians that, in the building’s declining years, would seek its demolition. It’s about the realignment between desire and a reality. Cynicism is easy to acquire, but playfulness has to be cultivated and nurtured to even be present, let alone hold its own weight in a fair fight. A pair of legs eight foot long. A head companionably stuck to an ass, or angry buildings and edible politicians. Why not?

AMM: Can you tell us about the role of colour within your works?

JL: For me, colour selection tends to be an intuitive process. I do like pink, acid greens, and earth tones, so sometimes I might be motivated to use them less, so my predilections don’t interfere with setting the proper course of a picture, and getting its tone right from the beginning. Williamsburg makes really great colours, Dianthus Pink, which is one of my favourite colours. It’s sort of like chewed bubblegum. Super light in tone. It’s full of potential, and I use it regularly. I think it’s just fine for colour to be weaponised for a mischievous purpose, but not every work would need a tactic like that, so it’s important to not abuse the tool. Often a degree of detachment from wondering what a colour is up to can lead to a more unexpected and satisfying outcome.

AMM: McLaren also points out the elements within your work that are reminiscent of children’s story books and the colourful world of advertising. With that in mind, where do you seek visual inspiration for your pictures?

JL: I read a lot of fiction, but most of it is just being present in everyday life, and being aware enough to look around. There’s been probably a dozen potential influences just between breakfast and lunch. Over time I have mastered the art of knowing what I like and what to ignore.

Conscious Uncoupling, 120×90 cm, oil on canvas

AMM: Do you think of your practice as resonating with any particular artistic movement or single artist within art history?

JL: That’s not something I ever really think about. But on a personal level, I would have loved to have been able to listen to David Park play with his jazz band, or maybe hang out with Oskar Kokoschka to get his thoughts on fur-covered women.

AMM: Do you make use of sketchbooks when you’re away from the studio and when you’re planning for a painting?

JL: I tend to carry sketchbooks around with me everywhere I go. I scribble things down while I’m having dinner at a restaurant, or at the park, or on the tube, or just waiting around for any reason. Everything I do later is developed from the things that happen in the book. Content-wise, there’s a smattering of observational drawing, scenarios inspired from fiction I’ve read, and memories and nostalgia play a part too. A big part of what makes the process work for me is that in the beginning I don’t know everything about what’s happening or why. Subconscious forms and interesting themes suggest themselves and I try to allow them to live on the page without any initial expectation of immediate understanding. Lots of sketches go nowhere, but as they’re all bound up together, it’s really easy to assess which ones have the potential to be developed further. Because the initial sketch is relatively crude, it makes no difference whether I’m doing a small ink drawing or a large oil painting; I’m still expecting that I’ll have to work out some of the unresolved elements from the reference sketch in mid-process such as positive and negative space, anatomical irregularities, colour palette. When making an artwork, I try to retain that quality and process of improvising and making course corrections, documented through the way the paint is applied, or scraped off and applied again.

AMM: What has been the most significant and sustained influence on your practice?

JL: The pursuit of pleasure.

AMM: Is there an autobiographical element to your work?

JL: Oh yes, definitely. I would say that it’s a critical element, but to be clear I’m referring more to the process of painting than the outcomes. Within my practice it’s always been necessary for me to connect in the beginning with things I care about, people I miss, places and moments that I’ve experienced. But it’s just an ingredient. If that’s all the paintings were ultimately about, I imagine they would bore me to death. Those elements get splintered and fractured and combined with a theme or idea or some external content to make something else, something unexpected. I don’t like it when painting exhausts itself through its own meaning. I’m perfectly content for meaning to be opaque. Yet if I can look at a finished work and locate myself in it somewhere, then I’m usually satisfied that I got what I needed, if not what I was expecting. That’s a quality I look for in other people’s work as well.

AMM: Beyond visual art, where do you seek inspiration?

JL: Ideas happen organically and the world is full of influences. But if something really impacts my practice, it’s often not because I sought it out – it’s a consequence of my being in the right place at the right time and not being able to avoid it. I get an enormous amount of pleasure from reading and living with books. I enjoy fantasy and strange tales, suspense and detective fiction, with an affinity for good books by obscure writers. This book habit of mine has been very beneficial for my practice.

Find out more about the artist: www.jonathanlux.com

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

The Shared Studio, oil on canvas, 150×120 cm