In the Studio with Jonah Pontzer

Words by

James Ambrose

In the Studio with Jonah Pontzer

Your show Fresh Hell just opened at Rose Easton. Was there a specific concept for this show at all, and how did you plan it?

I wanted there to be a strong sense of the domestic, for the paintings to operate as functional objects, with the transom window used as a framing device both physically and metaphorically, to further charge the pictorial subject of each work. Light, in a large sense, illuminates surreal depictions of everyday life, the blinds in a dark room, my cats' eyes, an obsolete aerial atop my house, seemingly fixed within the presence of black holes or bright collapsing stars, and trapped by embossed surfaces that recall decorative wood grain patterns in the basements of my middle-American upbringing. These are screen memories, in the psychoanalytic sense. There's a painted psychological plane beneath what is a physical, structural, and indeed decorative one. Windows that open but offer no escape. These works have an intended load of hiraeth, wherein hope and dread both share the threshold of an open door.

Jonah Pontzer, Fresh Hell, Installation view, Rose Easton, London 29 June –16 September 2023, Photography by Theo Christelis

Born in the States, now working and living in London, what brought you to the city? Do you see it as a long-term base?

I've lived in London since 2008, nearly 15 years, longer than I have in any other city or town my entire life. I arrived to study at Central Saint Martins. This was my first experience of expatriation and real autonomy, and I suppose I "grew up" here, or at the very least, continue(d) to grow here. Life as I knew it and know it now entrenched itself in these boroughs. It's been a long-term base, and I imagine it will continue to be my primary home for any number of reasons, least of all because I love it. My family is now here, my friends, the community I've helped to build and nurture, and continue to live and work in, is here. I'm not done with any of it yet.

The title intrigues me, what was the reasoning behind it?

Fresh Hell communicates the simple apprehensions and anxious fears I confront daily, objects out of place, a spider menacing in the corner of the room, the bright light of day intruding on a curtained depression. These feelings are sometimes compounded by heavier emotional weights, colored by various remembrances and tragedies, tripled or more in their gravity in my own head. So these works also, I suppose, explore a mind grappling with loss, estrangement, grief, and ultimately, hopefully, transcendence. There is a sort of grand literary myth attached to the title itself, the phrase attributed to the American poet and satirist, Dorothy Parker, who would call after every ring of a telephone or doorbell, "What fresh hell can this be?" Culture's own game of telephone shortened that to the more common, "What fresh hell is this?" It felt encompassing of the situations I found myself working through to make this show, which all began with the window above my bed, at the back of my studio, that for many months I'd taken to studying and making drawings of. I live through great bouts of anxiety that often manifest as agoraphobia. I can find leaving the house incredibly difficult, but at some point in the last year, the monotony of this depression, the sameness of the window, its sunlight began to offer me a sort of escape, a sense of calm and control through routine, and a framing device through which to view my various feelings and explore them. The window framed the sun directly, most days, in the mid-afternoon. My studies developing a sense of kaleidoscopic light. This was at once a product of technology, my iPhone camera, several filtering and drawing apps on my tablet, as well as what I call slow or direct media: pencil, marker, watercolor, paper, etc., which I would spend hours copying from screens. These paintings act as much as screens as they do windows, and this is largely related to their genesis.

Jonah Pontzer, Fresh Hell, Installation view, Rose Easton, London 29 June –16 September 2023, Photography by Theo Christelis

How do you come by the source imagery and material used in your paintings?

My works comprise many references, a vast personal archive of snapshots, photographs, screen grabs, clips, pieces of writing, and phrasing from the last decade or so of my life and practice. I lift secondary or supportive images and subjects from popular culture, literature, news media, music, memes. I recycle certain images and redirect scenes and compositions with characters and motifs over and over again, merging them. In some sense, my practice is diaristic. I use images to meditate and 'work out' or towards my own understanding of situations I face in life, in art, in personal and universal history. I'm always trying to make sense of things for myself and to communicate my feelings of that sense through images, pictures, yes, but also color. The window drawing studies were almost all studies of color as described by light. I take a lot of photos of the sun, flat horizons, loved ones. I take pictures all the time, and through them and with them, I make worlds that illustrate my interior. Again, the windows offer a viewpoint outward and inward in this sense.

Your process for creating the intimate and delicate images that are the hallmark of your practice is very complex. Can you talk us through the composition process and how it has evolved?

As I mentioned before, the studies that gave rise to these paintings began in my bed: photographs of sunlight, lens flare, dust, etc., were edited and drawn into digitally. When I say drawn into, I don't mean just copied/pasted/dropped or cloned. I use layers to trace contours and select areas of an image to redraw and recolor organically on a blank digital canvas. Once I'm satisfied with an image and its components, with its composition more or less set, I transfer this image to paper, sometimes freehand or with a dot matrix or classical grid. Sometimes I use a projector and faintly trace contours, and sometimes I print them faintly, just beyond white. If the scale is outsized or the work calls for rigid/rigorous proportion. When I was making what I call pure paintings, i.e., solely oil paint on canvas or linen, I would often spend days on the drawing, the mapping, and arrangement of the foundation of the painting. I found and still find this part of the process monotonous. I developed various strategies through digitization of drawings and their projection to select my contours and trace or print them as the "structure" of each work, leaving more time for optic strategy, color mixing, and 'wet prep.' Painting for me in recent years has become a synthesis of all the techniques, technologies, and materials I've encountered to date. Markers from my childhood are still-deployed materials of facile joy. The layering of watercolor pencil, ink, and alcohol to float dry pigment into and across a page are strategies I've developed as a natural problem-solving approach to making images in the manner I desire over the course of my lifetime.

Also, the use of form employed has expanded beyond classical painting material and substrates. The use of screens in "Cancer Son Greets the Day, Dresses Accordingly," 2023, in your last show, for example, and doors and windows within this one. What prompts this use of form?

This applies to form. "Cancer Son Greets the Day, Dresses Accordingly," 2023, is a paravent or room screen based on Edouard Vuillard's "Place Vintimille," 1911. As with the windows and door, again, it is a domestic object and very much a false wall—something both concealing and revealing of bodies, of spaces, an object of intervention and, to that extent, discomfort. What is unknown, lurking behind it or beyond. The transom installation in this exhibition, the open, empty doorway, crowned by two "windows," deploys this literal, functional form to underscore the psychological pressure proffered by the works, mimicking transparent windows, depicting cascading light, alluding to a world beyond, but one that is never arrived at, merely longed for, imagined, or conditioned by the objects themselves. Though paint layers may be transparent, the works as windows indeed paintings are not. Their form allows the viewer a near-exact point-of-view, one inward or outward, that is hopefully psychologically analogous to my own.

Jonah Pontzer, Fresh Hell, Installation view, Rose Easton, London 29 June –16 September 2023, Photography by Theo Christelis

Do you have any specific expectations of what you hope the viewer will interpret when they first view your works?

I have no expectations as such, at least, I won't allow myself to hope for anyone to meet all my intentions in these works (there are so many). But I do imagine various reactions. There's a level of dismissal of certain paintings of mine that I've witnessed silently in the gallery space or gleaned second hand. My garish coloring and color harmonies play across realistic, hyper-real, and sometimes xeroxed images. Social media has trained even casual viewers of art to dismiss such works as image alone, almost as readily as they can swipe. I suppose I hope the construction of the works as objects, the treatment of their surfaces as near-pure abstraction, and the intricacies of their pictorial planes keep viewers looking.

What does a standard day in the studio look like to you?

My studio is a domestic space, my home in London. And whether the current work is borne of that decision or if the reverse is true, I don't know. In some ways, when I kept a separate studio, there was a disjuncture a near-daily thwarting of flow or comfort necessary to my own practical experimentation. At home, my office at the front of the house is primarily a drawing space. It looks out onto my street and allows me a sort of passive voyeurism that occupies my mind while drawing or painting does my hands. What might be another's living room or lounge space is my multi-functional painting studio. This is a flexible and changeable space that allows me to recondition needs as work demands. And since I am often plagued by insomnia, it's nice to get out of bed and wander out into my work and accomplish something when sleep is fleeting. Otherwise, most normal days start with coffee and a sometimes-loop of the park, followed by news, doom scrolling, calls to my people, and NPR headlines. Then, of course, music or audiobooks are queued up, and I begin to undertake whatever order of operations (of material processes) is dictated by my layering method to pick up where I've left off in my work.

What is it about being an artist you love?

Other artists, undoubtedly. I enjoy the sort of secret language spoken by works. An artist I revere describes the communion with another's work as a séance, and this I find so apt. I fill my life with the work of friends, and I know some people very well only by marks they've made and impressions they've left. There's a deep comfort in supporting other artists and a satisfaction in the everyday learning living with such objects allows. It's a privilege all its own, and unless a person is truly an artist (not a choice, but vocation, or more accurately a literal compulsion), it can be difficult to engage with this idea and fully immerse oneself in the psychological space of another maker, materially. One might engage with the works but not necessarily their construction. The research, the discovery, the unpicking of the machine to reveal its workings, is like a drug for me. Artists are both the supplier and the supply, and I've got very poor impulse control.

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Photography by Sofia Hallström