Jean-Pierre Roy, who teaches at the New York the New York Academy of Art, is currently having a solo show—Certain of my Uncertainty—at Gallery Poulson in Copenhagen. Mixing science fiction, metaphysics and psychology, Roy concocts bracingly strange vignettes of characters seemingly caught between the tangible and the ineffable. By consciously removing the “filters” that allow the self to be able to function in the real world, Roy generates strange energies and sublime confrontations.
John Seed Interviews Jean-Pierre Roy
Tell me a bit about your early life and how it shaped you.
I grew up in West Los Angeles, near the beach, with the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the coastal mountains on the other. It wired the idea of the “horizon line” deep into my early visual memory.
I remember when my father took me to see the Space Shuttle when it was on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force base. I was around 6 or 7 years old. The Shuttle and the Large External Fuel tank pierced the line where the ocean met the sky with such a clear, material and symbolic drama. It represented Technology as an extension of the human sensory structure and a manifestation of a deep desire to unify the finite with the infinite. Of course I didn’t have the language for this at the time, but the feeling never left.
Growing up in LA, where cinema was not just the dominant visual language, but also the place where sequential visual culture was made, I had proximal access to an industry that thrived on making stories that supported and challenged this feeling. I started working in the film industry as a teenager in design and FX work, but secretly yearned for a fine art dialogue that I didn’t even know existed yet. The art world in LA in the 80’s and 90’s was just not on my radar in any significant way, both because of my own ignorance, but also due to the way the LA art scene was structured so differently than the NY art scene that I would find later.
Where did you study art and who were your mentors?
I studied film in undergrad at Loyola Marymount in LA with a minor in studio art. It wasn’t until I studied abroad my junior year in Florence, Italy at Studio Art Centers International that I began to shift away from film to fine art. I met so many people that embraced my need to make representational work and the content that I was interested in, but challenged the way I was making images. Teachers like Jules Maidoff at SACI, and Ed Buttwinnick at The Brentwood Art Center really took me under their wing and began to help me shape a dialogue within myself.
Things really took a sharp turn when I saw the Mark Tansey retrospective show at LACMA in the early 90’s. It was the first time that I encountered a contemporary artist that made me feel like the I could have a part in the conversation without letting go of the ideas that I felt were intrinsic to making images for me. That show was the beginning of a process that led me to NYC and to the New York Academy of Art. From there, artists and teachers like Wade Schuman, Vincent Desiderio, Peter Drake, Julie Heffernan and Sarah Simblet showed me a incredible range of models for being an artist and how to deal with externalizing an interiority through art making.
Have you always been attracted to cataclysmic and unfamiliar situations and imagery?
Growing up in LA, we had our yearly Earthquake, Mudslide, Flood, or Fire. because of the geography of Southern California, the way these things played out was usually on the scale of miles, sometimes dozens of miles, and was almost never just “local”. They imbued in me a feeling of “scale” and of “change” and how they could be used as a metric for when you as a viewer are no longer able to process the immensity of an event or phenomena. So in a sense, it wasn’t really the artifice of a cataclysm that i was drawn to, with all of its death races and warlords and smashed buildings, as much as the feeling of when the discrete bubble of the “self” pops and the unprocurable nature of an indifferent universe comes flooding in. Every painting I make is, first and foremost, a picture about the moment when one of the filters or biases that allow the “self” to operate normally is removed.
Tell me about one of the works in your current show and what it is meant to suggest and represent.
I guess The Participants is really the key painting that helps unlock most of the work in the current show. The whole show is really a story about perception, and what model of reality is the best outcome predictor. How do we gain access to non-local knowledge when all of our perception, by definition, is local? I am always in “me”, and you are always in “you” and we seek to share truths that often presume that those differences can be obfuscated. We can’t share experience in-and-of-itself. We can only share a mutually agreed upon and predefined vocabulary about that experience. When examined, it really is a terrifying proposition- how many filters and biases do I have to remove before I can truly see the world the way it is? So many it seems, that by removing them, we would to cease to be a person.
The Participants attempts to build a picture around what it feels like for me to be a person caught in the middle of this proposition: The desire to have a greater access to the world and its makeup than my senses will allow, while acknowledging its very impossibility. The figures in the painting are linked by a psycho-conceptual space filled with shared Art Historical references and are attempting to build a common model of reality. The painting is stacked with different layers of Optical Grammar to suggest how technology serves as an extension of our senses in our attempt to have greater access to “the-world-in-itself”.
In what ways does your work represent what you call the "yearning for the immaterial?”
That’s a tough one to unpack. There are many competing positions in my head. I accept that I am living in a physics-based, empirical cosmos with unbreakable laws based set on constraints and constants that give rise to all manner of detectable phenomena. I also accept the fact that much of the reality that I see is a useful illusion and there exists beyond it a reality that will forever be outside of my senses and comprehension. I’m not talking about a traditional “metaphysical” reality: i don’t really accept that notion. All forces in the universe are physical, but not all of them are material, and the majority of them do not fall within our range of senses.
For me, “the immaterial” is all that lies outside the range, or locality, of my senses. From the true nature of our relationship to time and entropy, to the gravity waves that ripple between galaxies, to or the granular make-up of sub-atomic reality, I yearn for the ability to extend my senses out of the limited bandwidth of my body into that of the exterior. Art, science, technology and philosophy have helped to extend that range a bit, and will continue to do so.
Who are some living artists that you admire and/or identify with?
Whew that’s a big one, and impossible to answer without leaving anyone out. I’ll tell you right off the bat that I’m just thrilled to be surrounded with so many incredibly smart and talented people at Gallery Poulsen, where my current show exhibition is.
Everyone single one of them is inspiring. We’re a big supportive family and I know I’ve become a better artist by being a part of it. In the larger art world, I’ve always admired the work of Kurt Kauper. His paintings make the case for high representation without the crutch of sentimentality or exploitational narrative drama.
Kerry James Marshall resonates with me on many levels. Getting to see Los Angeles through the eyes of another artist, especially of a time that I lived through, in a recognizable and yet unfamiliar way really had an impact. I love Laurent Grasso’s work and the way he examines many of the things I’m interested in through an unfamiliar lens.
I usually am not that interested in video work, as it is rare that I find someone who is beating “The Industry” at their own game, but damn it if Bill Viola doesn’t still make pieces that blow me away. His Inverted Birth was my favorite time at the movies a few years ago.
Speaking of film, I’m always so drawn to authorship and narrative, in any medium, and I’ve been really drawn to everything by writer/director Brit Marling. She’s not a fine artist, but as a visual thinker and story teller, I think she’s doing a pretty compelling job of using genre storytelling as a way of intelligently getting at themes that I hold dear.
What do you do when you aren't making art?
I’m fortunate to get to spend the vast majority of my time in the studio. I’ve consciously built my life so that almost every decision I make funnels me in there. Whether or not I’m in the studio, I’m constantly reading about Art and Science. They form the bedrock of my content, and are natural extensions of my own curiosities. Outside of that, I try to exercise as much as I can, as the long hours in the studio get harder on the body the older I get and I find my mental health is in direct correlation to my physical health. I have a little gym set up in my studio because if the squat rack isn’t in the same room with me, I won’t give myself permission to leave the studio to use it.
At the end of the day, though, I love New York and my favorite thing to do it continue to explore it with my wife, Amy. She owns a bakery in Brooklyn, and if I have a day off, I start my day there with a cappuccino and a piece of quiche and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
I’ve used the word “technology” a few times. We tend to think of technology as of being certain kind of machinery, usually electronic, but I think the definition is very different from that. When I talk about technology I talk about a procedure or practice, either material or conceptual, used to solve a problem. I think it is also important to remember that all formal aesthetics started out as a technology (i.e. they started as specific solutions to specific problems.) All technology eventually becomes outdated and survives because it transitions into an formal aesthetic.
Oil painting was a technology as much as a steam engine was, and both survive even though the problems they were meant to solve are now solved far better by newer technology. This, in turn, frees them from their original purposes and allows them to be defined by their user, not their originator. The problem, from my perspective, arrises when we talk about aesthetics as if they were technologies and technologies as if their were aesthetics. This problem applies to art, religion, politics and almost any other pressing human dialogue. So when you hear me talking about technology in my work, I’m not just referencing robots and lasers, I’m talking about a fundamental part of the human condition.
Jean-Pierre Roy: "Certain of My Uncertainty"
March 17 - April 29th, 2017
Staldgade 32, Den Brune Kødby
1699 Copenhagen V