Interview with Jack MerninJack Mernin is an American artist who divides his time between Manila, Philippines, New York, NY, and Belleville, PA.
Dani: Please tell me about your studies in art, where you went to school.
Jack: I went to RISD and graduated in 2014 with a BFA in Painting. That’s my degree. ButI’ve always drawn, and my mom’s a calligrapher so there would be ink and watercolorsaround growing up. I would make stuff and draw and paint, always.
D: How could you resume what is your practice based on?
J: With these paintings, I wanted to emphasize their relationship to sketching and watercolors. That’s what I’ve been up to for the past year or two in my apartment. My practice has gone towards making quick gestural watercolors from life, so it’s nice tohave this space and time to make big works which translate that practice. The idea wasto make them look like big watercolors.
D: So would you say that this body of work is like an exercise to migrate the sketchbook watercolor technique into a big scale?
J: It’s definitely that. And it’s my quickest body of work. They’re unfussy. I just let them happen, in a fluid single sitting that relates to the works on paper. So I’m not working a little bit and stepping back and judging or fixing or overpainting. A lot of my other paintings that are more time and process heavy, I do that a lot, I’ll change them quite drastically throughout, and it might take several months to make a painting. But here I just have these slices and impressions and let them sit as is.
D: Okay, so you experiment with your own creative process? You’re trying to establish new rules into what will become a final piece?
J: Definitely. And I respond to past bodies of work. It’s kind of funny to have an audience see these isolated paintings without that. Because I’m always thinking about my own history and past, thinking about things I haven’t done or tried yet, with new constraints or techniques.
D: So you aim to constantly being surprised with your work?
J: Yeah that’s the goal for sure.
D: And have you ever done something that really takes you out of your comfort zone?
J: These do. I always feel uncomfortable with a new body of work. But then I question “Why do I feel uncomfortable?” and so you accept them and think, “This is what I was able to do, this is what I wanted to do.” But with these ones they felt really jarring or aggressive, but also restrained and sparse and quick, so that creates a tension between contrasts that makes me feel unsettled. Or even the imbalance in the compositions, since they’re loose and gestural, and there is a difference between painting them on the floor versus when they stand up. It looks a little off, but I want to be okay with that imbalance or ugliness or unrefined quality.
D: So when you say one of your paintings is done, it’s done, you’re not gonna fix it. Only in this process, these works?
J: More heavily emphasized in these works, with more emphasis on brevity. But that one (points to Velleity) I painted like ten times. That was the only one where that happened, which you can kind of notice in the surface quality. It just wasn’t happening, so I had to wipe it down, re-gesso, and try again.
D: Was “Velleity” the first one made of the group?
J: It was the last. But there are little details and signs that you can notice or feel upclose. It’s even heavier, the physical weight of the canvas. I think those details are interesting. Because that painting looks the quickest and cleanest and freshest, but actually buried underneath the surface there is frustration. But I also don’t want to be like “Oh I struggled so much, it took so long and was arduous and fraught,” because I don’t like work that shows off in that sense or tries to do too much or be too much. It becomes melodramatic or self-important in a way that I find off-putting and kind of dumbas a position. Like, it’s not that deep.
D: Ha ha ha! So you would never measure success with physical work?
J: With time investment, physical labor, slaving away in the studio. I used to think that was a strength, but that was a childish position. Maybe now I’ve been working too much in the opposite direction. And I do like thinking about time and labor and the image that comes about as a result, and playing with those expectations. And also biding my time. Because these works, even though it took a week to make the six paintings here, I’ve definitely had this body of work in mind for a really long time.
D: How do you pick your colors?
J: With these, it’s natural color. I was matching the color of a still life or figure or object. (Points to Belacqua) Like that’s the color of a papaya and a banana. (Points to Felix Culpa) That’s the color of a light blue couch, blue pants. (Points to Diablito) That’s the red of this little devil figurine. So the palette links to the objects and scenes I’m looking at. All of the works relate to something being seen. And there’s a playfulness to them as well, since it’s an impossibility to paint the thing, regarding basic questions about space and how space is flattened on the picture plane, and using my own eyes, there’s always a weird disjuncture, so you try new ways to depict parts of how we see things in space, and how I might translate that encounter.
D: Can you tell me any specific achievements in your career that you’d like to share?
J: Umm, not really. I feel like with achievements, it feels really satisfying when I make the painting, when I compose something that I haven’t done before, that feels like it comes from me but is also estranged or other, that puts me in an intensified headspace. That gets me excited. Or having my friends come visit and having conversations, like this interview, like moments of exchange, that really excites me, and those are my favorite parts of having a studio practice and being an artist. Using these things to get
to know people better and for them to know you. That makes life interesting.
D: What about any exhibition, solo or group shows with artists you admire?
J: Umm, yeah, like the careerism... like I know it’s great to have the big solo show and there’s buzz and hype but I’m always... I don’t like that emphasis on career achievements because it feels weird to take pride in that, because, there are so many advantages that I’ve had that leads to any kind of achievement, I don’t know... But on the other hand, being an artist is my life and that’s what I’ve been up to. This is how I spend my days, and I’m really serious about what I do, so it’s nice when people respond to that. Like I for sure want to sell these things and have financial stability that comes through my practice. And not scrap together a bunch of odd jobs that I’m so sick of doing to pay rent. But that’s life and you figure it out and things happen at their own pace. And it’s good to take it slow and not skyrocket. Like, art stars that just get consumed by the art world and market in a really grotesque way. I like thinking about trends and the way history unfolds and what fosters attention, depending on the time and your community and history, because you can get— I get a little too caught up in that. I used to be interested in artists who would link themselves to small histories which haven’t been oversaturated by institutions, but then I became too much into that, where I would then think “Actually Picasso is so cool, like he’s the coolest because everyone thinks he’s overrated and is sick of Picasso. Like no, Picasso is great.” And Picasso is great. But then it becomes too heady, and actually I need to think about the work for the work and not think about outside circumstances, and just see something for itself, or try your best to. But I also do like big histories. It’s what I grew up around, with proximity to New York, so I think about Ab-Ex, and Modernism, and Impressionism, and I definitely link to major schools of painting and continue them, even though it’s not like painting today is so major... and like, I don’t know what schools exist. Or, it’s impossible to know when you’re in the moment, as a contemporary. Like I think about how my work aligns with people today, pretty directly or deliberately, or it feels like that, but you never know what will become of history...
D: That leads to the next question, could you talk about your biggest influences?
J: When I went to school and took painting seriously, I had several professors who rocked my world. They changed the way I thought about art, or even how to make apainting or what constitutes art. They just totally shifted me, blew me away. So there was Judy Glantzman initially, and she was the first person who got me exited about being an artist. And then there was Patricia Treib, who makes work much different fromJudy, and I was like “Wait, that’s super cool,” and so she was super influential. Then there is Angela Dufresne, who is the third, and again, it’s encountering a different position and thinking about how it relates to your own self, and being attracted to something and enthusiastic and challenged by it. And then you kind of internalize that, take it in like a sponge or whatever and then, like... sometimes it becomes a little combative, or even obsessive, which is frustrating. Like I feel impressionable with artists I’ve met and respected. But then I step back and realize how my work is different, and I remember myself. And I think it’s good to copy people and try out what they do to see how you are different.
D: What was it like growing up in Pennsylvania in relation to your practice?
J: Pennsylvania is right next to New York, and extremely different from New York. My hometown is the complete opposite, it’s farmland. It’s really pretty, spacious, pastoral. It’s this cute family farm and I have a nice big studio in the barn. So yeah, thinking about removing yourself... I need New York and energy and my friends,and I feel like I should commit to New York, but when I go home, yeah, it’s a remove that’s also important and generative where I don’t have distractions. It’s Amish country and super conservative. Like I would not choose to live there, and it’s not like I can be myself there, but being able to work there is really great.
D: Would you say your art practice, or what you do, contributes somehow to society or people around you?
J: Well, if it turns into something with an obligation, with use value or something, then it’s kind of spoiled. I think it’s crucial to have a space where you’re not proving a point, or bettering anything, you know. Having that space of being unconcerned, not worried, not obliged. I want to carve out that space. They’re not political. I’m really into Beckett, and he offersthis pessimistic headspace, a really hard and honest one, that feels super nihilistic,super, like, “Fuck this, but I’m also still going to do this.” And that attitude resonates andfeels accurate to a feeling of my own. It’s really easy to step into that kind of nihilism,but then, I do think of these paintings as potential counterbalances, like something tooffset that kind of attitude. Through something that feels exciting and vital and strangeand pleasurable. Like, I love painting these things, yeah.. yeah so there’s that. Whenever you were like, describing that frustrating headspace of “I can’t do this,” that’s how Beckett ends. The ending is so beautiful. The ending is like, I can’t do this, but I must, I will.
Jack in his studio at JO-HS. 2022