INTERVIEW • GREGORY JACOBSEN
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you initially got into art?
I’m from New Jersey, the butt of every joke, and the land of the garbage dump. I liked MAD Magazine and album covers when I was a kid, and drew fake funny advertisements and imaginary record covers. When I was in my early teens I was part of the Commodore 64 demo scene- pixeling graphics for “demos”…stuff like logos and sprites that would fly and bounce around the screen. It seems like it maybe has nothing to do with my current work, but it taught me to work with restrictions at a young age. For file size purposes, I had to limit my palette to three colors and figure out how to make the most of the blocky pixels. I would lay in bed unable to get to sleep trying to figure out how to make something work within the limitations. I also met a lot of people from around the country and overseas through this scene.
After that, it was the usual…doing little art zines, photocopy experimentation, etc. It was similar to the C64 demoscene, in that I was making connections around the world through art; sending out my zine, ordering zines from the back of Maximum Rock & Roll, sparking friendships and collaborations. Every day I anticipated what would be dropped in my mailbox.
I came out to Chicago to go to The School of the Art Institute in 1994 and have been here since.
You connect and mix visual art, performance, and music to your work. What inspired you to produce multi-disciplinary work?
I love both performing and visual art. It’s very hard for me to give up either, but it’s also very hard for me to work within the two simultaneously. One is very solitary, the other is very social, and both require a lot of focus and dedication. For painting, I need to have the performance aspect in my life- it helps me brainstorm on ideas and concepts for paintings, in that what I’m performing will eventually come out in a painting, be it a gesture, mood, scenario. It goes the other way as well- for performing with my band, I am always thinking of my placement on stage, how I relate to the other people on stage, how each moment can be an isolated tableaux.
With my band, we play a sort of difficult music; odd time signatures, weird rhythms, strange harmonies, etc. It’s stuff stuff I truly love. My role within the group as singer and director is to make it accessible, and to put it in a sort of narrative umbrella. A lot of experimental music can sound the same, or just be impenetrable to an audience.
I present these two aspects of my work separately. I find when they are combined, things can get a little gimmicky, and focus is diverted from one of the disciplines.
You synthesize and play around with traditional ways of painting with new and unique techniques. Can you tell us a little more about this direction in your work?
I am a big proponent of working with chance. I leave a lot of things open so that I room to improvise within a painting. It’s so I don’t get bored, and so the painting is able to breathe and not seem so formulaic. It has led me down some interesting avenues. It’s also extremely frustrating sometimes and leads me to dead ends.
Some artists I always look to are Picasso and Cezanne, especially the way they deal with space, be it the small area of a face, or an expanse of a landscape. They approached space in flat planes, but used them in such a way that space is both crowded and expansive. It heaves and breathes.
You’re involved in performance art, music, and visual art, which to some extent relies on an audience to constitute its full effect. Do you think about the affective intensities your art generates within your audience members at all?
I’m always thinking about an audience. I’m always thinking about how to make the biggest impact either through something delicate or something monumental. I, of course, have my own odd ideas about what makes things great and interesting, so I often misfire. I try not to just agitate through grossness or shock, but bring an audience in through just sheer force of beauty of craft- be it painting or music. I am always trying to create a dissonant situation, but also trying to keep an audience from feeling alienated. But ultimately, I think if you are totally honest with your work, and you enjoy doing it, people will respond to the work in a positive way.
With the music and performance in regards to audience, I always think about stand-up. I’m not much of a fan, but having watched a great deal of it, I’m always impressed with how a good comedian, even if his material is shit, can captivate an audience. It’s a very naked experience, and you’re opened up raw.
The themes of metamorphosis, transfiguration, and deformation is prevalent in your work; a lot of feces spewing from the orifices of deformed and ambiguous creature/human like figures. Is this all intentional, this material and bodily indeterminacy? Is the ambiguous creature intentional?
I relate most to androgyny. I also enjoy being able to amplify certain characteristics of gender- my own body and the characters I paint. They’re all a form of self-portraits. With some of the characters being deformed, or whatever, I often feel like a failed experiment, a monster, with feces spurting out of my eyes.
Why have crowds in the forest? Why have viewers in desolate places?
The whole lowbrow “cute characters in the woods” trope has been beaten to death, hasn’t it? yeesh! Why do I incorporate that in my work?! I ask myself that question often.
It comes from growing up in a small town in New Jersey. The one place all of us weirdos would hang out was the woods. It was the place of experimentation, exploration, and a way to escape all the banality. Of course, the “woods” was a narrow strip of land next to a stream where all manner of garbage flowed down and collected on the bank. That factors into the paintings as well. The jokes about New Jersey are all true.
I also paint characters in the woods because it does not bind them to a particular place or time.
Your works are populated by grotesque scenes of the decapitated bodies of ambiguous creatures, while organs are strewn across the landscape of classically painted landscape and decomposing fruit, and it’s a jarring contrast—it’s beautiful. Why the obsession with traditional with phallic imagery?
I’m surprised you don’t pick up on the vaginal imagery. It’s everywhere…often embedded in a phallic shape. I like dicks and cunts. They’re fascinating. They’re funny. They’re absurd and disgusting. There’s no more to it. They’re located in an area of the body where everything oozes out. Everyone is leaking!
Where does your obsession with the body come from?
When I was young, I was very skinny. I was obsessed with TAB and Crystal Light and being as skinny as possible. At some point I became really fat for a few years. I would eat three frozen dinners in an hour topped off with a bag off chips, washed down with a liter of soda. I told everyone that I was gaining weight so I wouldn’t float to the top of the pool when I tried to do a handstand. I spent a summer when I was eleven losing the weight through a very strict diet of Diet Coke and a cup of Kix cereal. I had never felt so invigorated by discipline. It was exciting. It was very unhealthy and most likely shaved a couple inches from my heigh, but…hey…ha ha.
It’s through this constant change that I became very focused on the ways you can transform your body. It’s like putty, all it takes is work, or a few slovenly months. A body is like a very truthful catalogue of experience.
Do you sympathize with your characters?
I would say I relate to them. I think saying “sympathy” means that I would pity them. I don’t. What I hope I get across is that these characters proudly live and display whatever perceived flaws they might have. I think a viewer’s perception of the characters, and what sort of intent they project on me for painting these characters definitely reveals where the viewer is coming from.
Why the juxtaposition of banal objects such as underwear and blankets over phallic imagery of the vagina, vulva, penis, etc. ?
Underwear is like a catalogue of all leakage that comes from the body. It’s hilarious, abject, and sexy. A blanket is similar- it’s like a net for filth, smells, and cum stains.