Rooms (on Jonas Wood)

May 2012

Jonas Wood: Interiors
New York: PictureBox


A 2007 painting by Jonas Wood captures the strangeness of staying in somebody else’s house. Heroically scaled at eight by ten feet, the painting seemingly frames a view from the bed, which is, I think, unseen. Along the bottom edge of the painting is a wildly patterned expanse that bulges upward at the center of the composition, dizzying with folksy motifs (Amish? African?) that cohere, if barely, in geometric orders and a riot of color—reds, blues, black, pink, tan, green. This could be a blanket on the bed, with the bulge suggesting a body (ostensibly the viewer’s, but what part, exactly? Feet? A knee, slightly bent?) undercover, but it’s most likely the floor of the room, and the “bulge” I’m observing is, in fact, a patch of perspectival space leading toward a partially open door and a hallway beyond. But the intense pattern sits flatly on the surface of the canvas, butting up against another pattern seen through the doorway, and the spatial confusion is compelling: It somehow replicates the groggy disorientation of waking up in a bed that is not one’s own.

The arrangement of photos on the pale wall of this particular guest room is funny. Obviously they are family photographs, albeit more ambitious examples of that genre, taken in a professional studio against a white seamless backdrop and printed to reveal the black edging of each photograph. Two large group photos, pets included, dominate the left half of the picture; a half dozen smaller shots of singles or pairs are situated above and beside the door to the right. Given the fashions documented—those tapered pants on the women are the first giveaway—I’m guessing the pictures were taken in the early 1990s, and I’m specifically reminded of the opening sequence of Beverly Hills 90210, with its stars peacocking for the camera against an infinite blank space while a guitar wails outlandishly from the void.

Photographs appear frequently in Jonas’s paintings; so do other paintings (often the artist’s own). To the right of the door is a painted portrait of a woman in a fancy black dress, classically posed against a smoky background, framed in gilt. The sobriety of the portrait stands in stark contrast to adjacent photos. I assume she’s part of the family, too, but distantly so. Eerily, in Guest Room the only human subjects that appear are once-removed, sequestered inside these pictures-within-pictures.


Photographs are often seen in Jonas’s paintings, and they frequently serve as his source material. Sometimes these are found images—for example, in the pictures of athletes on trading cards, but also in family photos. Jonas also takes a lot of pictures, and he occasionally appears reflected in mirrors within the resultant paintings. At the top of the drawing Self Portrait in Downstairs Bathroom, 2011 a reflection of the artist appears in the bathroom mirror; he’s wearing a green t-shirt with the camera’s strap visible around his neck—a telltale sign. The rest of the bathroom, in cool tones of whites, grays, and blues, appears, from the sink’s faucet down to the tiled floor, from a nearly bird’s-eye perspective—a vertiginous distortion implicating the use of a wide-angle lens. This bathroom, photographed from another angle, is also the subject of the later painting Untitled (Fish Bathroom), 2009.

The charge of these works is in the translation from photographic data—sometimes several photographs, collaged together, not always seamlessly—into oil or gouache or pencil through the most traditional of means: the artist’s hand. Jonas takes the source photograph (or photographs) as his guide, but continually makes tactical choices in its replication, a negotiation that is remarkably consistent, but hardly exact. (Curiously, I imagine my own process of writing about any image negotiates representation in a similar way: I can’t possibly describe everything; choices must be made, etc.) Not unlike a camera, his approach to painting is totalizing—“all-over” one might say—instantly recognizable as his own, but it is anything but mechanical. Nor digital: His “system,” if that’s the right word, is not the algorithmic smoothing of Photoshop’s Gaussian blur—more like its opposite. Shapes and colors are often heightened, exaggerated. In some cases, forms are simplified, details are lost—as if to acknowledge the minutia in a photograph that cannot be “read,” or readily identified with language: abstracted, in a word, though any “abstraction” Jonas deploys exists within a system of representation. In Untitled (Fish Bathroom), for example, a plane of red fish floats parallel to the picture’s surface and light oozes in from a small window behind it; we soon read this plane of fish as a shower curtain, even though the plastic substrate itself largely disappears.


I don’t remember most of my dreams, but the few I do recall tend to take place in labyrinthine spaces. Or, to be precise, these are seemingly familiar spaces that reveal unexpected, heretofore unknown doors, portals. Occasionally these dreams involve urban space—say, for example, I’m driving through the industrial areas at the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles and suddenly discover a “hidden” neighborhood, and a new vista opens before me. (This still happens to me sometimes, in the waking life, when driving in L.A.) But, more often these dreams involve interiors where one room, more or less drawn from memory, gives way to another, then another, and so on, all seamlessly stitched together with no apparent transition, no need to step outside. I’m not sure what this means, nor have I consulted a metaphysician to find out.

Still, Jonas’s paintings of interiors often work according to a similar logic: Doorways offer tantalizing views into adjacent rooms (as in Guest Room); hallways act as punctuated passageways, connecting twists and turns in the speculative labyrinth. See, for example, Downstairs Hallway, 2008 a surprisingly dense intersection of potential ins and outs: a vibrant, closed orange door (a closet?) on the right side of the painting; on the left side a purple door, decorated with dozens of pictures of animals, that is open yet partially occludes our vantage; between them, an arched door allowing a peek into deep space and a distant window. Despite a fastidious, even hyperbolic attention to detail in these paintings, whatever space lies beyond the edges is—at least to most viewers—ecstatically unknowable.


Matisse’s masterpiece The Red Studio, 1911, is a significant ancestor to Jonas’s interiors; David Teniers’s extraordinary Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, c. 1650, is another, depicting a vast artist’s studio chockablock with paintings—mostly portraits and religious allegories—and in the distance a slightly opened door, hinting at still more paintings just beyond the reach of vision. This device, situating a picture or mirror within a picture, has been given the name mise-en-abyme, meaning, “set in abyss.” This “abyss” originates in heraldry, and developed additional meaning in literature (e.g., a story within the story) and in painting—famously, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656, in which the painter and several subjects look toward the painting’s viewer, while a mirror on a wall in the background reflects the king and queen who, in an apparent pardox, stand in the space occupied by the viewer.

Mise-en-abyme, which often serves to plunge the viewer deeper into the space of a picture while simultaneously opening up the space well beyond its edges, has been given considerable critical and theoretical attention—particularly as it was used by Velázquez in Las Meninas. The self-consciousness of this device has been frequently observed: The artist is acknowledging the very artifice of constructing the picture (even a “realist” one is, of course, largely invented as a picture), while often implicating the viewer in the trick. This device is used frequently by Jonas—in the mirror in the bathroom, in the photographs on the bedroom wall, in a humongous painting of the artist in his hypnotist’s garage office, decorated with movie posters and framed magazine covers—to various ends, but generally in the service of reiterating the absolute flatness of the painting’s surface.

Momo with Stuffed Animals, 2011, is a painting of the artist’s baby daughter lying on a blanket before a gray studio wall densely covered with photographs, postcards, and studies. Situated at the bottom left corner of the painting, on a star-spangled blanket, Momo is at the beginning of a loose coil spiraling away from her, counterclockwise, that comprises a pile of stuffed toys (a dinosaur, a giraffe, a doll), and several arrangements of photographs and postcards, ending with a large picture in the middle of the painting—a painting of six dogs titled Dogs (Robots Roots), 2010, made around the same time. The space of the Momo painting is incredibly shallow, though each of the individual pictures within contains its own spatial logic. For example, small images of a hot air balloon and an airplane and even a building’s interior are relatively expansive in contrast.

The artist’s baby, who stares directly at the viewer, is nearly camouflaged by the sheer quantity of brightly hued visual information throughout the picture. One is likely to notice the painting of six dogs first, or perhaps the orange giraffe and purple dinosaur below it. (A small nearby image of a pink flamingo nearly mirrors the crooked neck of the dinosaur.) In other words, Jonas’s use of pictures tends to collapse space as well as the hierarchical relationships between the objects depicted. (A dot of color in the background might hold a viewer’s attention rather than something large in the foreground.) This surely recalls the indifference of the source photo from which the artist worked. Another model of mise-en-abyme emerged in the richly ornamented interiors of Édouard Vuillard. In Vuillard’s La lectrice, 1896, a small horizontal mirror is positioned near the center of the picture, between a woman seated on a sofa and two women standing in a doorway. The mirror is surrounded by pattern: floral wallpaper, nearly psychedelic in pinks and greens; multihued fabric on the sofa and throw pillows; striped carpeting; vibrant dresses on each of the woman; and so on. The mirror reflects, of course, more decoration—crisscrossing arcs of black paint riddled with brushjabs of red oxide and pale yellow: Who knows what this reflection signals, beyond a seemingly endless abyss of pattern?

Vuillard’s interiors are so claustrophobic with visual information that the human subjects in them are often engulfed by the surroundings. In this sense, Jonas’s paintings seem closer to Vuillard than the other examples I’ve mentioned: Matter is compacted in the collapsed space between foreground and background, and subsequently full of dense visual material. In the painting Untitled (Rosy), 2006, the plaid shirt worn by the artist’s grandfather merges, wildly, with the wallpaper of day-glow fruit and flora behind him. His pale face and especially his outstretched arms practically leap from the visual fray. These paintings are a lot of fun to look at, but then again there is frequently too much to look at, with no apparent hierarchy or evaluation provided by the artist. The picture restructures—disarms—a viewer’s innate ability to differentiate bodies from their surroundings. In Momo with Stuffed Animals, the adorable baby is hiding in plain sight.


Compared to the optical overload of Momo with Stuffed Animals or The Hypnotist, a painting such as Gray Room, 2007 seems relatively empty, even somber at first glance. The picture is devoid of figures, save one portrait sitting on the floor and leaning atop a stack of other paintings against one of the room’s grandly arching windows—an abyme that adds a small jolt of pinky flesh and primary red and yellow to the chilled tones of grays, blues, and browns that otherwise define the space. Bright light filters in through these two windows, but the room remains rather dark.

There is a modicum of furniture that follows the folded contour of the wall: a side chair and several plinths, each adorned with ceramic vessels. Given the smattering of art objects, a viewer might reasonably suspect the room is a gallery or museum rather than a domestic interior. In some ways, it is both: a domestic space with paintings and ceramics but few signs of “domesticity.” I believe it is the home of Jonas’s parents, who collect art. It runs in the family: The artist’s grandfather, the subject of several works, was an amateur, but serious painter. Jonas has returned to this room on a number of occasions—the elegant crown molding, in dark wood, makes it quickly recognizable—and he has indeed treated it like a gallery, with artworks both observed and imagined. In the 2006 drawing Ideal Living Room the walls are decorated with a Warhol Cow, and Picasso’s Three Musicians. In Grandfather Clock, 2011, the room reappears, decidedly brighter and airier, with three black-and-white images in a staggered row on the wall. Two appear to be floral still-life pictures, recalling a series of exaggerated plant paintings the artist made in recent years; the middle picture is seemingly an urban landscape. It is unclear whether these are paintings or photographs, or whether these images were, in fact, actually in that space. “Reality,” here, is not the point— or, perhaps, only a point of departure.

There are many hints of autobiography in these paintings. I know I could ask Jonas more questions about these things, but choose not to. (I feel weird enough referring to him as “Jonas,” not “Wood,” but his casual demeanor almost demands a more personal approach.) For me, the complex negotiation of space he constructs for a viewer is more curious and more satisfying than narrative resolve. Gray Room is a relatively spare picture, but also agitated, agitating. The stack of paintings on the floor intimates instability, if not disarray. On the center divide of the canvas the room appears to fold. Presumably, this is simply a corner that projects toward the viewer, but the line also appears to crop one of the picture’s two windows. It is unclear whether this event is the result of painterly shorthand, or a rupture caused in the act of abutting two photographs in parallax. In any event, the result is quietly unsettling. Collage is often at work in Jonas’s compositions, and the possibilities of bending or eliding photographic space surely add a significant layer of editorial control to his process: Despite his recurring use of photography, it would be misleading to assign too much credit to the source image, rather than the painter translating it. Yes, these interiors exist, or once existed, in life and in photographs, but they persist as paintings, evoking a sutured space of history and memory.