Jesse in his Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.
Cheap & Plastique’s Heather Morgan interviews Brooklyn-based artist Jesse McCloskey for issue #12. Portraits and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Jesse McCloskey. See more of Jesse’s work here.
Various works in studio
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York originally?
Jesse: Actually, I live in Manhattan and paint in Brooklyn. I’ve had a cheap place on First Avenue forever. I came to New York in 1987 to attend graduate school at Parsons, where I got my MFA.
C & P: You have maintained a studio on the edge of Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn since the nineties, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood since you have been in this location?
Jesse: I got my first studio in Williamsburg around 1995, I think. It was on Lorimer and Bayard, facing the running track across the street from McCarren Pool. But they sold it for condos so now I’m at my current location on Grand and Morgan. It’s also changing rapidly, with new billboards for “Eyewear” nearby so I think I’ll have to move again soon but you know we’re survivors so I’ll come up with something hopefully!
C & P: You make darkly romantic paintings by layering and drawing, sometimes carving back into cut shapes of paper. The first time I saw your work I was blown away by not being sure of what I was looking at, how it was done. How did you arrive at this process?
Jesse: I remember my teacher Ben Martinez at the Swain School of Design, telling me Giacometti would draw and erase so much that he would rub holes into his drawings. I wondered why he didn’t just glue on a patch of paper and keep going.
I make paintings by cutting out painted paper shapes then adhering it to a canvas, I often paint on top of that, making changes until the picture comes together. Sometimes I use knives, digging down into the floorboards of the work to see if I left something useful down there. On occasion it reveals a helpful color or form. (Sometimes it’s best old decisions remained buried.)
I didn’t plan on making pictures this way, but the surface had become dead from over working so I added a slab of paper and then I had a patch over as well as a new shape and color to deal with and I just went with it.
I think it’s important to have the “Fuck It” moment. Where you don’t give a fuck about another fuckin’ painting so you just fuck it up and it forces you out for what ever pretense you’ve talked yourself into.
Ann is Salem
C & P: Your work presents a world of witches and demons, seductive and tormented figures. Sometimes it feels like you are tapping into powerful, ancient myths, and sometimes it reads as allegory for the artistic process. Tell us about the characters that are inhabiting your work, what they mean to you.
Jesse: I remember a few years ago a Christian conservative was losing a senate race in Maryland. In a last ditch effort, she said in a campaign ad, “ I am not a witch.”.It confirmed what people from New England, like myself, have always known, that our superstitions are so close to the surface. It’s only a steady supply of food, water, and electricity that keeps us from burning people or pressing scapegoats to death with field stones.
I don’t know who shows up in my paintings. They are the acting company of my desires and anxieties. They change costumes and masks but it’s the same group in different garb. My job as an artist is to make them a comfortable place to rage.
C & P: I know you to be a relentlessly driven painter. Talking with you about your progress on individual paintings, it almost sounds as though you are battling them. Does this passionate approach to producing the work inform the narratives within
Jesse: I love that Johnny Cash song, “I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.” My process is always the same and it’s kinda awful really, I start out on a tear with all the hope and expectation that I finally know what I’m doing, only to find that I don’t. The painting is alive! Then dead, then dead but not without hope, then yes, it’s hopeless. Then not! It changes and changes mask after mask until months later it suddenly snaps into place and the picture is at a point where it can’t get any better or worse. I do not change them for the sake of changing them, but I am obsessed with getting them right.
It does inform and build the narrative, in that if I believe in anything it’s this, that if I make a painting, drawing, some kind of art, whatever, then I destroy, not for the sake of destroying it but by pushing it until it’s a mess, then I really own the work/process. I gotta make it, kill it and bring it back. I might be terrified, like so many artists in New York, of losing my studio but I’m not afraid of making a mess in there. Forcing the painting come to me as much as I come to it.
C & P: I heard your still life once described (by me) as “a Cezanne if you set it on fire.” Describe some of your influences and how your use of these materials pushes past those influences.
Jesse: The Italians like Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto and De Kooning really are my most important influences (mainly how De Kooning, himself, processed the Italians). I love the muscle car paintings they put together with such an economy of means. Everything in these artist’s pictures has a purpose to the greater whole. I believe this comes from building and pulling apart each element in a composition until it works for the greater good. Certainly its how De Kooning made pictures. I remember you and I talking about how great artists don’t show you how to make a decent painting, they show you how to arrive at one. The materials are built for speed, I can and often do change a picture drastically in one evening. It’s thrilling really, the material and it’s application become extensions of my visual mind and I think my dusty dead friends would approve.
C & P: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist when you were growing up on a horse farm in Massachusetts? Were themes of New England—the gothic landscape, witches and hapless sinners—always present in your work?
Jesse: When I was 4, my mother bought me “The Christmas Mouse” It’s a coloring book that tells of a little mouse that makes his own Christmas by stealing from the people whose house he lives in. Kind of an odd message for a child now that I think of it. Then again the only advice my mother ever gave me was “Never live within your means, you’ll never have anything.” Well, the coloring book looked great, so off I went to be a painter.
Yes, my work has always been drawn to the dark. The Satanic tint to New England fueled my early visual imagination. And the demonology and superstitious slant of late medieval early Renaissance painting formed a seamless link in my mind to Italian painting and beyond.
C & P: There is a very gleeful and mischievous quality to your work. When taking on themes of death, sex and the torment of the soul, do you think it is important not to be too serious?
Jesse: For me I do think it’s best to sit on the fence between humour and alarm. That’s why I’m drawn to the classic New England witch. It’s both comical and alarming. It the Blair Witch as well as a consumerized pop culture symbol. Used beautifully, if unsuccessfully, both ways by would-be senators from Maryland.
Drawings in studio
C & P: Your female nudes are erotically charged and quite self-possessed and the males are usually trapped in struggle or have the grotesque face of a rascal-y demon. As a woman, I really enjoy this about your work! I get the sense that no one is really winning though, in the struggle for power in your world.
Jesse: The great painter and my friend and teacher the late Paul Georges was painting one day when he was asked what he wanted for lunch, he didn’t hear the question so he was asked again and again each time a bit louder and with more annoyed insistence. Finally he was asked “What do you want?!” He raised his arms and head to the skylight above and with brush in hand said “I want to be free!” Me too.
C & P: I would describe your palette as “stained glass”; you don’t shy away from primary colors and your compositions are illuminated and accentuated with heavy black lines. Does your work comment on the sacred?
Jesse: De Kooning spoke of “The sexuality of doubt.” What a spectacular phrase! I understand it as the erotic charge of uncertainty. If my work contains a vein of the scared it’s in being clear in uncertainty. That regardless of the endless possibilities, clarity of conviction in painting is the difference between being artistic and being an artist.
C & P: While we are on the subject of religion, your personal pantheon seems to begin and end at Mick and Keith. Their lithe bodies take center stage on door of your studio. What do they represent to you and to your painting?
Jesse: The public image of the 70s Mick and Keith have been fascination from my earliest memories back in my little home town of Plympton, Massachusetts. I was drawn to the gender bending bone thin bodies and what I saw as it’s demonic power. It represents freedom to me, a glimpse of another world, another place where misfits were revered and sexual roles not clearly defined. And yet my love for the image of Rolling Stones is deeply personal, I don’t wanna know anything about their private lives, it’s none of my business. It’s the illusion I’m drawn to. I wont talk to someone if they wanna impress me with detailed knowledge of Stone trivia, I’m not interested in any of that. I feed on the dark lyrics of “Sway” and “Memo From Turner” to turn me on. Remember that passage in “A Death in Venice” where the narrator writes about how if the public knew the true inspiration for so much of the art they love they would confused, horrified and repulsed? Some stones are best not looked under.
Jesse in his studio
C & P: What is on your easel right now? Are you killing it, or are you laying on the floor beneath it with a bourbon soaked rag?
Jesse: As you know all to well, Heather, our old brick studio building heats up like the pizza ovens on the Lower East Side, it takes days to cool down. The painting being yanked around is of a blond wig that morphs into yellow pumps with snakes and a palette. As well as a Tudor rose and some other stuff. Today It’s a mess, I am not killing it. I only have some Vermouth so that’s no good. My next show was cancelled, my gallery dropped me, I don’t remember the last time I sold something. But ya know, whatever, I’m gonna attack this painting again and it will give it up.