Jonas Wood

The sense of freshness and clarity conveyed by Jonas Wood’s paintings, and by their emotionally cool and unruffled air, have sometimes prevented them from being taken quite as seriously as they should be. And that was true right from the beginning—for instance, when the New Yorker ran an unsigned notice of the Angeleno’s first New York exhibition in 2007, saying, “Wood’s paintings are extremely likable—although ‘reassuring’ might be an equally apt description. Like fashion designers or musicians who draw on styles of earlier eras, Wood has hit on a formula that is at once familiar and fresh.” That’s not exactly a bashing by any means, but still, according to the art world’s implicit value system, “likable” and “reassuring” are not positive characteristics, and neither is “formula.” “Edgy,” “critical,” “confrontational” are the things to be. Wood is talented, was the implication, but lightweight, maybe even superficial.

Jonas Wood, Blackwelder Self Portrait, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 120 x 97 x 1.5 inches. Photos: Brian Forrest. All images courtesy the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

What was it that gave that impression of superficiality? Part of it might be his subject matter, often tied to middle-class heteronormative domesticity, sometimes to a stereotypically male fascination with sports. Another part might be his style: crisp and undemonstrative paint handling, lots of high-keyed colour and a tropism away from deep space toward planarity. Today, a century and a half after Manet, people still imagine that pictorial flatness and shallow space equate to shallow thought and flat emotion. In Wood’s paintings, there’s no Sturm und Drang, no expressionist melodrama, but still less is there any of the offhand slackerism or Bartleby-like avoidance of effort that was considered elegant, for example, in the Cologne of the 1990s. Wood’s self-effacing craftsmanship made it easy to overlook how complicated his paintings are—how hard he could be on himself. That’s the problem with making things look straightforward: people tend to believe it.

Making intricate pictures, Wood takes chances, and not all of them work out; the paintings in the last show I saw of his, “Portraits” (at the Anton Kern Gallery, New York, 2016), were full of awkwardnesses unresolved by his always-evident compositional finesse. Actually, that was as close as I’ve ever seen his work to anything like “reassuring.” It reassured me that in most of his other paintings, he was really pulling the rug out from under himself— and then landing on his feet with a dancer’s poise—as regularly as I thought, and wasn’t just pretending. It’s a good thing, too, because my having the formal gawkiness of the portraits in mind made it all the easier for me to overcome the usual first impression of mere facility given by the paintings in Wood’s most recent show this past fall, “Interiors and Landscapes,” at David Kordansky Gallery in LA.

Jungle Kitchen, 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas, 100 x 93 x 1.5 inches.

The show consisted of 13 works, all painted in 2017 and mostly of considerable dimensions (the smallest, Romancing the Stone, is a 65-inch square; the largest, Vegas, measures 110 x 132 inches). All the paintings are filled with understated compositional complexities and enigmatic self-contradictions. Whether the scene is set at home or out in the world, some unease lurks behind the lively surface. Wood’s method—not a formula—is perhaps most evident in Scholl Canyon 2. The painting’s lower half shows a hill and valley with some utility poles and transmission towers on the horizon. The terrain is rendered as a dappled array of interlocking colour zones with sinuous contours, mostly in many shades of green. The sky above is composed of large rectangular blocks of bright blue, two different lighter, whiter blues (with clouds) and grey—as if collaged together from photographs taken on three days with distinctly different weather. The evident constructedness of this part of the painting calls the viewer’s attention to the less obvious fact that the verdant landscape, too, has been composed of mismatched geometrical zones—the intricacy of the enmeshed forms camouflaged this, which is a funny thing to realize because it makes you see that the dappled greens and earth colours could as easily have been sourced from camouflage patterns as from any observation of the landscape. The painted landscape camouflages its own artificiality.

And then you notice that the poles and towers are completely out of scale with everything else—many times the height of the trees nearby. This is a self-evidently false image of nature, and the reason for that became clear to me when I Googled “Scholl Canyon” and discovered that this paintings shows an area that includes a golf course (and there’s the little red golf flag, bottom centre-left) that’s been constructed on top of a landfill that contains, it says, “such waste as segregated asphalt, municipal solid and inert waste, clean dirt, manure, segregated uncontaminated green waste, scrap tires, and construction/demolition and industrial material.” Not only is the painting an artificial image of nature—so is the landscape it pictures.

Installation view, “Interiors and Landscapes,” 2017, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Each in a different way, the other paintings in “Interiors and Landscapes” all contain comparable slippages and tensions built into them, creating a sort of density of implications that belies its seemingly banal subject matter and workmanlike manner. You can look at Wood’s paintings and come away reassured, if that’s your inclination, but his complex surfaces repay a longer look that may not be so comfortable. ❚

“Interiors and Landscapes” was exhibited at David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, from November 3 to December 16, 2017.

Barry Schwabsky’s recent books are The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and Heretics of Language (Black Square Editions, 2017). He is editing a new series of monographs on contemporary painters for the British publisher Lund Humphries.