Untitled (Mirror Image, #18), Oil on Orange Mirrored Plexiglass, 48” x 36”, 2008
Cheap & Plastique interviews Brooklyn-based artist John Jurayj for Issue 9.
C & P: Your work deals with events that have taken place in Lebanon and how war and internal conflict have affected the country and its people. Your parents emigrated from Lebanon to the US before you were born. Have you been to Lebanon? Do you still have family in Lebanon?
John: My father’s family still lives in Lebanon, both in Beirut and in Kousba to the north. I have visited regularly since the end of the civil war in the early 1990’s.
C & P: I see that you have shown your work in Beirut. Is the reaction to your work different in Beirut than in NYC?
John: I think that the work is read differently depending on where it is shown. The viewer and his or her background, knowledge, and experience alters the work’s meaning. Certainly when the work is shown in the Arab world, and in particular in Lebanon, its resonance is different. The ostensible subject matter is fore fronted by the viewer’s subjectivity.
Untitled, Installation View, Participant, Inc., NY, 2011
C & P: You just showed your work at Participant, Inc. Gallery in NYC. Could you speak a bit about this show.
John: I have been working for a number of years on two different projects that are inter-related yet formally different. Undead furthered my explorations of “disrupted representation”. A non-profit and, in particular, Participant, Inc., allowed me a lot more leeway to show what I needed as opposed to what might work in the market.
C & P: The show included a video work, (Untitled) We Could Be Heroes, who are the figures in this video? Is this your first time working in this medium? Do you think you will create more video work in the future?
John: This is my first video but since its creation I have continued to explore this medium and have a large piece in my current show at Alberto Peola Gallery in Torino Italy. Untitled (We Could Be Heroes) is a piece sampled from my early paper and screen print work of the same title. It is an anthology of significant political players of the Lebanese Civil War, including American politicians. All the “men” are equalized when their eyes and vision are disgorged.
Untitled (Luggage), cast gunpowder and plaster, 14.75″ x 21.25″ x 7.25″, 2010
C & P: Your sculptures of luggage, (Family Baggage), made of plaster and gunpowder, have been referred to as “ghost objects.” Do you intend these objects to function as memorials in any sense? If so, are they meant to evoke memories of people or of broader concepts?
John: As opposed to a memorial which has the intent of commemorating, these objects are shadows or ghosts that float alongside the present. They are the darkness, the other side of what we see.
C & P: Given that the sculptures are of luggage and contain gunpowder, have you had any trouble shipping the works for exhibitions?
John: Not yet…
C & P: I imagine they might not easily clear customs.
John: You would think, but they always make it through. Maybe things are not as tight as they say.
Untitled (Boy With Shorts), Gunpowder and Ink Screened on Polished Stainless Steel, 67” x 44”, 2011
C & P: Can you speak about your use of mirrored surfaces/stainless steel in place of traditional canvases? Is this more of an aesthetic choice or is it intended to give rise to an interactive element in the work, as the viewer sees their image reflected back at them from within? With this particular series, Untitled (Undead), the reflective quality of the work seems to drive home a sense of not only being a witness after the fact but also of participation or complicity in past events, as the viewer sees themself with a “ghost image” of a dead figure.
John: Mirrored stainless steel is commonly used in psychiatric and penal institutions for safety purposes. I find this popular use important to the meaning of the work. Of course mirroring is a critical phase in child development and its absence can produce a rupture of self. In the case of painting, the mirror dissolves the privileged and separate space in which viewer stands, participation and implication is not a choice.
Untitled (Girl With Shorts), Gunpowder and Ink Screened on Polished Stainless Steel, 67” x 44”, 2010
C & P: The figures in Untitled (Undead) are painted from images of those killed in the Lebanese Civil War. Where do these images come from? Newspapers? Are they published images? Are these people strangers or do you have
a personal connection to them (are they relatives or friends of your family)?
John: The people are anonymous and are sourced from journalistic archives. It is important that their anonymity be the bases of the attempts to give them dignity through verticality.
C & P: Do you always work from photographic sources in your painting?
John: No, my abstractions are pure material as representation.
C & P: The subjects in Untitled (Undead) bring to mind Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities drawings from the late 70s. Interestingly, the figures and poses in both end up looking very similar although the intentions behind the work are completely opposed. Longo’s figures are jumping into the air, celebrating being alive, whereas your figures are fallen men and women, lifeless. However, your subjects seem to take on an almost triumphant air of reanimation when removed from their original context and placed upright and vertical. Could you talk about your decision to present the work like this? Have you looked at Longo’s work as a reference point?
John: Longo is not a reference point though I am conscious of the reflection. That said, I am interested in my work echoing the history of other work, whether recent or the deep past.
I think that it is best to let go of the anxiety of influence and play with the productive possibilities of aesthetic recycling. Whereas Longo seems to celebrate motion and the city, I am more interested in an attempt at changing time and altering space. Whether that is possible or not is also part of the work. It could be a heroic failure.
Untitled (Mirror Image, #27), Oil on Yellow Mirrored Plexiglass, 48” x 36”, 2009
C & P: Are you a fan of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s work, particularly the Mirror Paintings? Have these works influenced your decision to paint on a reflective surface?
John: I am a fan of his materials and some of the possibilities that his work opens up, though I am not interested in the seeming passivity and politeness of his work.
Untitled (Marine Barracks, 1983, #2), Oil on Linen, 74” x 84”, 2006
C & P: You studied architecture as an undergraduate, when did you decide to pursue artmaking rather than a career in architecture?
John: Architecture was a compromise with my parents. It allowed for me to have some aesthetic expression while maintaining the illusion of stability and social acceptance. It really wasn’t me. I have never functioned well in compromise and group settings. What drew me to architecture as a kid was my inability to distinguish between destruction and construction.
C & P: In your earlier work you paint pictures of buildings being bombed using a very colorful, day-glo palette, even though the paintings depict somber subject matter. Your newer works are rendered in much more subdued tones. Can you discuss this change in palette?
John: The nature of the materials actually changed—from traditional oil to silkscreen. And then there is depression which is always at my edges.
C & P: Do you mix gunpowder in with the paint/silkscreen ink in all of these works? How did you first begin working with gunpowder as a medium?
John: Yes, gunpowder is in all the screen printing and casting. I was looking for a medium other than standard ink or plaster to actualize instability, corruption, and volatility.
Untitled (Purple Diptych, #10), Digital print on watercolor paper with burn holes and purple mirrored plexiglass, 58.25” x 74”, 2011
C & P: Your paintings seem to have progressed from using buildings and architecture as their primary subject matter to using images of people. Can you talk about this progression? Is it indicative of a shift in your interest in subject matter or something necessitated or dictated by the particular cycle of work?
John: The work moves between source material which is public and spaces which are very personal. I think this is a continuous circle.
C & P: Do you paint specific buildings in Beirut? Do each of the buildings that you depict have their own story?
John: Yes and no. In general, anonymity prevails, yet certain moments such as the bombing of the U.S. Embassy or the U.S. Marine Barracks are iconic and unavoidably knowable.
Untitled (Orange Diptych, #8), Digital print on watercolor paper with burn holes and orange mirrored plexiglass, 56” x 73.5”, 2011
C & P: What painters/artists having you been looking at most recently? Past? Present?
John: When I paint my paintings, I look at myself. Otherwise, Warhol seems to always shadow me.
C & P: You teach at both SVA and Cornell, how does teaching influence your practice?
John: It allows me to be on the front lines. Thinking and rethinking what is pertinent, what is possible, and what is the point.
C & P: What are you working on right now?
John: I have been working with bricks cast in gunpowder and am thinking about a large scale sculptural installation to honor my father, and reflect his death.