Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s solo show, “Rosebud” opens March 18th at Lord Ludd Gallery in Philadelphia and will run through April 17th. Doron Langberg recently visited Jonathan’s studio and interviewed him about his paintings, their meaning, and his process.
DORON: What struck me first about your work is how expressive it is. What is the emotional world you are looking to create in your pieces?
JONATHAN: It’s important to me that the characters are the center of the narrative and that their emotions are free and open. I want to make a relationship of similarity and contrast between the mood of the characters and the spaces. Sometimes I want the figures to be in a safe and protected space and sometimes something more ambiguous. I like contrast between beauty, and ugly and things like hyper moods also are important to me. Mania and depression, the back and forth and in between of things, I like to talk about emotional tension. Sometimes I have days where everything is going wrong and I’m 6 feet under but somehow I press on and these moments of “okay-ness” or stability are still present.
DORON: You deal explicitly with sexuality and race in your work and the images you depict feel very personal to me. Do you perceive your work as a record of your own experiences? How do you see it operates ideologically in the world?
JONATHAN: Yes many of the images are reflections about personal things I have been through or about people I know. I think that they are specific in some ways but not to the point where they are always about me. Themes about race, sexuality, and gender are universal to me like beauty, love, and pain. I think that as a queer African American we hardly ever see ourselves in the art world or in popular culture. Our sensibilities and visions are being consumed by others leaving us out of the conversation, unless it’s a negative one about how we should live our lives and so on. I think as Americans when we think of progression in terms of marriage equality and things like that we often picture a middle class cis gendered gay white male. Although marriage equality for example is one of many battles, being able to get married as a queer black man won’t stop racism or my death by an officer. Our bodies are always policed by others, who don’t inhabit our stories and struggles. They want us to be sexual objects, football players, entertainers, sassy friends and silent Our phrases and terms deemed ghetto or ratchet when we use them or dances and our slang inappropriate but often consumed and appropriated by those very people who tell us our full lips and gravity defying hair makes us ugly. I feel like the work talks about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and body type from different lenses. Often as a queer black body I find myself and I think other black queer bodies think constantly about themselves through the eyes of others whether white, straight, cis-gendered, religious and even blackness-blackness as a culture and self-reflection of am I black enough? Because of similar and different reasons black peers can be destructive to queer black bodies through religious trauma, parental trauma, gender, violence both emotional and physical etc. Being queer and black is enough, black people at times police other black people’s blackness, by body type, gender, sexuality, class, and personality… or in other words try and tell them they are not black or worthy of being such. Sometimes it’s not just about confidence or self esteem but about survival.
DORON: The characters in your paintings feel desired and desirous. What role does pleasure play in your work?
JONATHAN: I enjoy painting people and characters that I find beautiful. Usually these body types are not what mainstream society deems as such but I think I’m after the everyday and real. I think through the lenses of a queer or non gender conforming individual. I think some people enjoy the roles of gender. Some people like to act femme or masc roles, which is valid. People are attracted and desire certain energies femme, masc, or in between, while others totally go against it. I think in some cases ideas of these roles can be good, the problematic part is when it becomes limiting/ restrictive. I remember a conversation once where someone pointed out that “it’s as if these guys were looking at women” he knew obviously I was gay but it was interesting seeing him have kind of a light go off in his head. Many people aren’t used to seeing the male body, the black male body in such positions and poses. I think sometimes to feel desired is also to feel powerful. Men should be allowed to find confidence and power in being sexy, cute, and desired. Pleasure is happiness and that’s important for me. The mouths, anuses, breast are pleasure points on the body as well as thresholds- doors to happiness. Places of confidence, security, and honesty where the bodies validate their place in the world. The bodies in my work are not perverse and antagonized by society, but just as every bit normal and mundane as heterosexual and cis gendered interactions with bodies. Men too are also very desired, not just for the limited ideas masculinity often tells us. Men can be desired for being round and soft experiences. Roses are both delicate and dangerous they have thorns, they smell good and are soft but not as easy to claim for ourselves. When we see things we like or are attracted to our impulse is to have it for ourselves. We pick flowers because they are beautiful, I think something even like a gaze on to someone is in a way of touching them. You kill it, we shouldn’t just take what we want but it should be about people willingly giving themselves to one another.
DORON: In your studio we discussed how violence and safety operate in your work, could you talk about that?
JONATHAN: Some of my figures sleep or dream in bed gardens, this is a moment of peace and meditation for the body. However the body is sort of vulnerable, not knowing it is being watched. It also acts as a corpse- often I see images of dead brown and black bodies on the web and never any white bodies, its strange and unsettling. We always see violence inflicted upon black or queer bodies and there is this weird line between awareness and consumption or enjoyment of seeing our pain.
It is important to create these spaces for people like myself to be themselves and to see a safe, confident, and strong visibility and being able to relate to an image that isn’t on the surface white or straight. We should be able to access ideas about love, power, tenderness, and space through other perspectives despite them being universal ideas to their own experiences and bodies. Violence doesn’t always have to be shootings and lynching, rather the feeling that the world is mostly not made for us. Not made for black bodies and not made for queer bodies. The everyday interactions with, and blasting images and experiences of straight or white bodies says two things at the same time- One, we are the norm and you are to be tolerated and two, you need to follow our rules and standards of respectability, beauty etc.
Ideas about dream, or utopia float around often when I think about home-ness and connectedness between these bodies. Many black queer men form tighter bonds with those not blood related and have to established a home in the sense of a home in a body of friends/ brotherhood.
Some of the spaces I depict are a little more abstract and ambiguous in nature, I think black queer men are aware of the danger of being in some places for sure. But often it happens in less expected times and places. You never know when entering a white or straight space when a word or gaze or even someone’s fear will bring harm to you.
Many of the faces have a mask like quality. We all have different moods and identities we take on around different types of people and upon different places we enter. I am saying that as a queer and black person who is thinking about masculine, femme, gayness, and straightness. We use different masks to view ourselves through the eyes of others and even when we are alone in intimate spaces. It’s a safety mechanism, playing a character for a short while when you enter off into the world can save your life and possibly prevent different levels of harm coming to you.
Personally I’m always dealing with a balance of safety and danger, both as being queer and black but also as being bipolar. It seems that at times it is a constant search for this balance of feeling safe even within your own body.
DORON: Your figures all have a specific body type that pushes against contemporary conventions of masculinity. How do you position yourself in relation to these societalnorms?
JONATHAN: These bodies are real and everyday to me. Along with being femme some queer black experiences also have to deal with fatness. Fatness evokes so many different negative associations that are so dangerous to one’s self esteem and interaction in the world. Dating or even going in to a shopping space can be anxiety charged because you are looked at for the wrong reasons. Ugliness.
Even sometimes being totally fetishized because of skin tone or body size, approached as a momentary experiment or reduced to nothing but sexual pleasure. Men are told they have to be strong, muscled, and flawless in ways similar but also very different from women. Tops have to be so hyper masculine, muscles, zero body fat and hairy. Bottoms having to be “thick” not chubby or fat just having a large ass and be light skinned with full lips and good hair or lack of hair in some cases. Both have to balance femininity. The top cannot be girly at all to keep up this straight acting persona, bottoms have to be just passive enough but still look straight enough to pass.
DORON: Line seems to be a structuring element in your work, could you talk about the role of drawing and stylization in your paintings?
JONATHAN: For me the line is a way to talk about tenderness and sensitivity. I feel like I really find out what is happening in a painting through touch. Looking is important obviously but I try to figure out how it would feel through searching. Being honest is really important to me, I feel like drawing for me at least is a way to do that. I look at it as a skeleton and a way to describe the weight of an emotion or the weight of flesh and the tenderness of a hump. Thinking how my body feels and how other bodies feel from life or from memory. It seems lots of work is described as primitive or something like that, but to me it has more of an emotional charge and its honesty seems to be a part of what’s at stake in the work.
I think about identity and masks. Roles we take on in private spaces and in public spaces. Masks are sort of flat but not really- flatness comes from my interest in college and the idea of something or someone fitting in to a space. I am literally developing this space and the narrative, and sometimes literally cutting and tearing parts to fit in to different areas. Something about ancient art, like Egyptian hieroglyphs and images of bodies being iconic or powerful means something to the history of how black bodies are depicted and owned by black creators.
I see lots of graffiti here in Philadelphia, and I am very interested in Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu.
DORON: How do you arrive at your imagery, and what kind of source material do you use?
JONATHAN: I draw a lot. Everyday I try and draw something, the images come from the drawings which come from imagination and colleges. I start out with a memory or a feeling I am thinking about and then I go back and forth between photoshopping an image and drawing it. Photoshop is faster and easier to do some things with, and I can always have a backup in case I want to use that information again. I take photographs myself many times of places, I try to abstract them or dissolve them to make them have more meaning, more complexity for what I’m talking about. I also use found imagery, sometimes it’s really for color and composition and not about a total marriage to the photo that I’m working from, what I mean is that it isn’t about copying what I see down to every detail. Often I am honestly drawn to something that I find attractive in a place, color, or a person. I guess pleasure plays a role in deciding some things.
I think about the 90’s a lot and how I grew up through it so I think about hip-hop/ rap and queer culture. Fashion, graffiti, poetry, and ideas relating to Boyness and Queerness are in my head a lot. I attempt to keep all of this information and source material organized both digitally and in a hard copy format, my sketch books start out as individual units and then I edit, cut, collage them down in to a bigger binder where what matters makes it in and I use that as a jumping off point often and a pool of material.
Doron Langberg is a NYC based painter whose work is engaged with figuration, identity and materiality.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase Instagram @jonathanlyndonchase