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Jonathan spent the month of August 2017 as an artist-in-residence in the village of Tatuamunha, Brazil, along the country’s Coral Coast.
Through his painting, Jonathan sought to evoke some of the natural and social experiences of daily life in this rural part of the country.
Mixed media on canvas • 63x63in • 160x160cm
By straining the sand from his beachside residence, Jonathan filtered out everything but the finest-grained black sands to be used as raw materials in his paintings. Added to a limited palette of black, white, ochre and gray, these sands were used to create a textural and aesthetic reference to the black-washed beaches that result from the receding tides.
Mixed media on canvas • 63x63in • 160x160cm
In addition to the use of sand, Jonathan incorporated mud, clay and cement in his work in order to allude to the humble mud-brick houses that can still be found in these rural areas of the country. These works - which are not only visually textured but also intrinsically tactile in their nature - serve as a metaphor for the simplicity and humility that underlies the daily experience of so much of the local population.
Despite the persistence of what might be labeled as the area's ‘underdeveloped existence,’ Jonathan did not create these works to serve as a moral or political statement.
Instead, he sees these paintings more as a poetic reference to the individuals who - with hope and humility - continue to find beauty and dignity in the simplicity of their lives.
Attempting to move beyond merely aestheticized references to simple homes, Jonathan sought to tie his work more directly to the immediate realities of the local population. To this effort, Jonathan created a painting that would be completed by the house staff at the residence where he lived.
The locals who worked on the property were responsible for cooking, cleaning and gardening - typical minimum-wage labor that is characteristic of the area's quickly growing tourism industry.
The 'painting' that Jonathan prepared was a nearly-completed work which could have stood alone as a final version. However, this 'completed work' was merely intended to serve as the basis for the remainder of the work that would be carried out by the staff.
Jonathan recruited the gardener to spend some time scrubbing the 'completed painting' in an attempt to remove some of the dried paint. The objective was to make the canvas 'clean' again with the basic tools that the gardener or maid would use for daily work: a hose, dish soap, sponges, laundry detergent, scrubbing brushes, etc.
The involvement of the gardener in the process of creation immediately brings to the fore certain underlying questions.
Mixed media on canvas • 63x63in • 160x160cm
For one, it calls into question the definition of a completed painting - it requires us to grapple with an underlying teleological definition of
art-making that presupposes a particular finished product whose development is intended and prescribed by an artist.
The intervention of the gardener on an already 'completed' painting begs the notion of what it means for the work to have been complete in the first place. Under standard definitions, we might be inclined to say that either the painting wasn't finished when the gardener got to it, or he was the one to actually complete it. It is rare that we allow ourselves to think about an artwork as having numerous states of 'finality' that are equally valid.
While the end result of the gardener's intervention is visually similar in style to the painting's previous state, there is an undeniable shift in the relation of the visual elements that comprise the painting to the actions that created them. As a result of the intervention, the physical canvas becomes an archaeological record of the gardener's engagement - thereby becoming more of a dialectical tool than an aestheticized object.
The 'post-dialectic' painting literally embeds the actions, intentions and realities of a person who (by the restrictions of his social and economic status) is likely to live in a home and neighborhood that resembles the fracture and decay that is present in the aesthetic elements of the painting.
As such, the aesthetic elements (which result from the actions of a man who lives in a community that resembles the painting) call into question certain basic relationships that drive and sustain the world we live in. Critically, these visual elements begin to unravel relationships such as the value of an artwork vs. the value of a human being (i.e., the value of their time, their labor, their energy, etc.) - especially in light of the fact that the market value of such a painting greatly exceeds the economic power of a low-wage worker.
Despite the fact that the service rendered by the gardener was neither difficult nor time consuming, the basic premise of the social context problematizes the issue of what the appropriate compensation might be for the gardener's assistance.
This painting (and the socio-economic dynamics that it intentionally embodies) strives to explicitly highlight this tension - a tension which is often present in works of art, but which is typically overlooked (or ignored) when the artwork is being admired above a fancy living room sofa, in a board room, or on a gallery wall.
We live in an age where a great number of contemporary artworks are made by assistants - as opposed to the artists who otherwise claim authorship of the work; an age in which an artist often serves more as a director or manager and whose hands may never sculpt a single aspect of a final product.
Who, then, should be named the author of this work?
Many may reply (as did the gardener himself) that the artist bears such rights - in virtue of having created and developed the idea - and that the participation of the of the gardener was merely a mechanical intervention; a basic execution of menial tasks.
However, one might rebut that the artwork could not contain its dialectical significance and critical value without the participation of the gardener; that the interaction of the gardener is intrinsic to the meaning of the work - regardless of the simplicity of the task he may have been recruited to carryout.
Mixed media on canvas • 63x63in • 160x160cm
Although these views are rooted in competing conceptions of power and authority, this painting and, more importantly, the context it creates, was not intended to answer this question.
The goal was merely to make visible certain questions that are often suppressed, but which must be addressed. This painting makes these questions undeniable by making the central significance and function of the work to be that of a catalyst and tool for deconstructing itself and the circumstances that produced it - regardless of whether it resulted in something aesthetically pleasing or economically valuable.
Similarly, Jonathan sought to explore beyond the two-dimensional confines of paint-on-canvas in a work that represents the weathered wooden doors and battered wooden gates that are common to the area.
Historically, entryways have not only been used to block or admit access, but have served as symbols of social status. In this way, doors and gates are often socially loaded objects that represent the status of the people or authorities that reign behind them.
In the case of Tatuamunha, and throughout the entire country, there are countless gates and doors that, despite their aesthetic beauty, represent corroded socio-economic dynamics - in an way analogous to the beautifully decaying homes there are similarly prevalent.
However, despite our ability to view the aesthetic beauty of these physical structures, they remain manifestations of dark cultural realities that economically imprison and psychologically undermine those individuals who are constrained to experience such structures as quotidian realities; Individuals who are not fortunate enough to have the socially-endowed luxury of perceiving them as artistically beautiful.
In order to tie this cultural reality more deeply into his work, Jonathan again requested the help of the gardener, as well as the assistance of a maid on the staff - a woman who’s typical responsibilities were sweeping and changing bedding, but who did sewing and alteration work on the side as a source of additional income.
Similar to the first of the ‘gardener’s paintings,’ this canvas was prepared as if to become a standard painting. Early in the process, however, the canvas was torn into vertical strips meant to evoke the wooden paneling of gates.
Using paint, mud, cement and sand, the canvas was continually elaborated, washed and reworked. Once fully dry, the maid was asked to sew the strips back together, resulting in a piece that contains the implications of a sculptural form and a clear reference to a three-dimensional object, despite being made of otherwise two-dimensional canvas and paint.
Mixed media on canvas • 59x40in • 150x100cm
It is not simply the fact that the semi three-dimensional canvas refers directly to a real-world object that makes the painting relevant.
Most importantly, it refers more generally to the idea of a wooden gate that could very likely stand at the entrance of the gardener or maid’s home - a gate that, in turn, stands as a testament to endemic social and political inequalities of access, wealth and power.
Potentially the most polarizing work produced during his residency, Jonathan sought to tease out the
visceral realities that are present in the lives of the
local population and their relationship with food.
Beginning with our earliest origins, we possessed (by necessity) a most primal connection to life through the hard-won bodily sustenance of daily hunting and gathering - a connection that was of the most basic, essential and fundamental kind.
In this pre-modern sense, there is perhaps no inherently stronger and more direct way to engage with the realities of living than to consider one’s relationship with food.
However, in the context of modern life in an industrialized world, a person’s connection to the food they eat is often almost entirely one of consumption; a connection that vacates the food of nearly any notion of its origin, production and development.
Although the local residents of Tatuamunha live simply (often without many of the basic amenities and comforts of modern living), they can certainly be said to be living a modern life - albeit, a life at the lower extreme of that continuum. Accordingly, one of the implications of their ‘underdeveloped’ lives is the fact that they have an undeniably more immediate and direct connection to their food.
Perhaps the clearest example of this is the daily habit of personally chopping down and opening green coconuts (for their water and meat) from one of the innumerable palm trees that constitute much of the local vegetation.
Similarly, many local residents fish during high tide and hunt for octopus along the reef during low tide, or scour the swamps for crabs - catches they might sell or eat themselves.
In addition to this ancestral affinity, many locals also raise chickens - both for their eggs and their meat. It was this reality that Jonathan intended to capture in his work.
During a trip to the local market, Jonathan was asked by the staff cook to choose a chicken that she would later prepare for the afternoon’s meal.
The chicken was chosen among a half dozen specimens on display by a local resident who raised chickens in the small yard of his home - not a farmer, just a simple man who raised chickens as a part of the various activities of his normal life.
Upon returning to the residence, the cook removed the feathers from the chicken’s neck and secured it in a position where its feet, wings and head were immobilized - a position that caused for a complete and immediate pacification of an animal that was, only moments before, struck with a knowing and unbridled panic.
Just before the first stroke of the knife to the aorta, the cook cautioned Jonathan not to feel pity for the chicken as its blood was drained, or else it would suffer an otherwise painless death.
In this statement, she was voicing a gentle acceptance and benevolent understanding of what it means to eat; of what it means for one being to survive off the genuine sacrifice of another.
Through the personal responsibility of slaying a beast for the sake of one’s own sustenance, the cook prepared the chicken with the unavoidable knowledge, care and respect of what it truly meant to provide a meal.
Despite the external violence of the act, and the neutral pragmatism with which she carried out her task, there was a tangible purity in her relationship to the process of converting a living being into a source of nutrition, energy and vitality.
With an absolute minimum of additional color, the blood drained from the chicken was collected and combined with cement, dirt, sand and clay, and applied to an unprimed panel of raw wood, so as to evoke a connection to earth as a source of life that few of us in the modern world can even pretend to understand.
In this way, this painting seeks to embody the many struggles, tensions and contradictions that underlie what it means to live and to survive, and the authenticity with which these villagers represent this profound facet of human experience.
Moreover, this painting echoes the undeniable fact that our food, our buildings, our institutions, our nations and our histories have been built on the backs of people who - by the serendipity of their socio-economic status - have been required to confront the actual realities of living, on behalf of those who have the luxury of remaining aloof.
Perhaps most significant are the last three works that were produced.
In the aforementioned works, aestheticized markings stood in as references to larger cultural contexts. However, even when the hand of the gardener or the maid was directly responsible for a final result, the visual display was still somehow mediated by some form of distance: the visual traces of the gardener/maid’s interaction was the result of a specific request for them to engage in the artistic process - a process that was neither designed nor initiated by them. Despite an attempt to refer beyond the context of making the artwork, the entire exercise was nonetheless established explicitly within that context.
As with the life of any human being, there are infinitely many details that cannot be fully accounted for, contextualized, explained and understood. But the fact that his home stood as a crumbling-but-permanent monument to his death and that this story was consistently recounted as simple matter of fact, reflects a reality in which the community takes such a situation to be an ordinary part of life. In this way, this crumbing house does not simply represent the history and experience of a lonely and troubled man, but it contains within it the lives and realities of everyone in the community.
Certainly there is no way to shield a community and its children from all the perils of living, but it is a more than unfortunate circumstance when young children are confronted by the relentless decay of a decrepit building that so immediately represents a morbid death that is extremely near to them. It is unfair that they should be forced to consider (even if subconsciously) this gruesome reality as a possible part of their future - either through a similar fate of a relative or, perhaps, their own.
In the final three works, Jonathan again prepared canvases as if to become regular paintings, but then used them as if they were blank canvases. He lathered them with glue and pasted the canvases on the walls of a crumbling building. Once dry, Jonathan peeled away the canvases, thereby pulling with them pieces of the walls on which they had been hung.
Of significance is the nature and history of the building: it was once a home to a man who had recently passed away - an alcoholic who literally drank himself to death. The house stood abandoned and crumbling at the top of a hill in a humble neighborhood. There was not a single person in the community - neither child nor adult - who did not know the basic outline of the owner’s demise. Moreover, that the owner had suffered a painful death through alcohol abuse was frequently stated as a simple matter of fact (by children and adults).
By incorporating actual remnants of this crumbling home into his canvases, Jonathan sought to conflate the aesthetic of the paintings (i.e., the look of crumbling walls) with the actual objects to which they visually referred. These final paintings do not simply look like crumbling structures from the surrounding neighborhood. They simultaneously look like and contain those crumbling structures.
And with those structures comes not just a conceptual or metaphorical reference to the larger social and political inadequacies of the community and nation, but the actual weight of human loss and suffering that results from those inadequacies.
Despite the heavy nature of the paintings, the goal was not to politicize the work. Ultimately, the paintings are still meant to elicit an experience of beauty - however complex that experience may be.
They also serve as a reminder that art can help us restore a sense of balance and dignity to people who deserve it.
Mostly, they serve to remind us that, despite the injustice they often suffer, children deserve the luxury of being able perceive their lives and surroundings as beautiful.