Photos and Interview by Linnea Stephan
Jonny Alexander couldn’t possibly be a painter. He doesn’t wait tables, he doesn’t have a studio, and he doesn’t seem to be very lonely, introverted, or moody. But Jonny Alexander is as punk rock as his name suggests, so he paints anyway. Every weekend the beach becomes his workspace, alongside his witty girlfriend Bethany who is also a total smoke show. I stopped by for an afternoon booze break to hear more about his pattern making techniques and life mantras.
LS: Hey Jonny! Becoming a painter seems quite daunting. Tell me how you grew from student to a fully freelance artist?
JA: I’m from San Diego and I went to school at Chico State in Northern California. At the time, I was doing a lot of automatic drawing and sketchbook stuff and it wasn’t until my earlier 20’s when I realized I could spend several sittings on a painting and make more complex compositions. School taught me to become more focused on drawing landscapes and building them together as composites, or “psychedelic landscapes” as some friends in undergrad called them. I graduated with a degree in printmaking and had full access to a studio 24/7 so I’d make screen prints, etchings and monotypes. I had a certain style of building images but in the past year since graduation, I’m just back to drawing and painting. That’s my bread and butter and my comfort zone. I had never painted murals until but I got a bunch of free paint and I started painting abandoned structures in Northern California. I’d find a building and approach the property owner and paint these box-shaped pillars of earth. It was nice to have a method and approach that would work on any type of wall I applied it to. I’ve recently gone back to more free form landscapes because using this composition has started to become stale. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut.
Is there a color that holds the most significance in your work?
Skewed primary colors developed my palette: a deep red, a warmer yellow, a dark teal, or nighttime blue. I’m stuck on earth tones. Really, my favorite color is the blend of tones that happens about 30 minutes after the sun goes down – that really small strip of fiery orange that suddenly hits dark blue. That’s a recurring, integral color in my paintings.
You clearly enjoy studying the natural world. Do you have a favorite texture that you find in nature?
There’s an artist named Max Ernst who was a surrealist painter who used a natural occurring branching pattern method in his paintings called decalcomania. I was obsessed with this pattern and finally found the name of the pattern and all the info about it in a library book. That started a mission of about two years of me trying to really fucking get it down. It said “dilute ink between two pieces of paper, push it together and peel it apart.” I started trying to do it and could get little glimpses of it but I couldn’t really formulate it. Over time I used all these different materials and techniques. After a lot of random smooshing things together, I was finally able to get it to work on glass, so I’d take the glass and scan it and make a screen print image of it and mass produce the pattern. That pattern got me really interested in micro to macro. A lot of my artwork has to deal with perception, and you can see this pattern in the smallest and the largest forms of nature. The neurons in our head, the way water cuts through stone, blood in veins, it’s all the same fractal branching pattern and it has dictated a lot of the conceptual themes in my work.
What other specific inspirations or places show up in your paintings?
As a kid I spent a lot of time going to the mountains, to Mammoth and Yosemite. Our vacations were always camping. I get a lot of satisfaction from being out in nature. The Sierras were somewhere my girlfriend Bethany and I explored a lot in our early twenties. You could spend a lifetime trying to see all of it, it’s massive. I still haven’t seen barely any of it.
On the topic of exploring, I was told to ask you about some sort of literally shitty illness you picked up in Thailand? What where you doing there besides fertilizing the lands?
Bethany was studying in Thailand all summer and I managed to line up a grant to work at this printmaking studio called Chiang Mai Art on Paper. So over a week I made an etching with Thai artists and then spent like two or three weeks traveling. I then jumped directly into a home-stay with her class so my first days were spent in a Hmong village. The second night there Shaman’s hut with mud floors and a straw roof with around 30 people crammed inside and lots of excitement in the air because a couple had just gotten married. We sat down at a dark table and there was food everywhere. Raw meat blood, bamboo, intestines. So as I’m eating a lot of white rice, a guy hands me a water bottle with clear moonshine whiskey and says, “Have a shot of mountain whiskey!” The men can’t turn it down because that’s rude and that’s when my sickness all began. I ended up getting a bacterial infection in my intestines and thought it was Dengue Fever because there was a massive outbreak while I was there. I was hospitalized for two days but I think it was probably the best sleep that I had the whole time.
Worst mountain whiskey hangover imaginable! Let’s say some famous person’s agent hits up you to do a mural, who would you hope to hear from?
Mitt Romney. Fuck, just kidding! One of the best bands that has given me so many good times of painting and making stuff is Tame Impala. I would love to make something for those guys.
What would you say is a common misconception about painters?
I think there’s a lot, one being that painters are solitary and socially awkward and shy. That they are in their studios by themselves and they have to have their ritual and have to have a very specific set up. Obviously that can be true but everyone varies. I do consider myself a painter but I don’t have a studio and I’ve developed the ability to work anywhere I please. I think some of that misconception is being broken down by graffiti and street art and mural festivals. Painters want to be able to meet musicians and vice versa, and be able to enjoy the same events. These days there is a lot of art created during social events, which is great.
I’ve seen you mention in other interviews that you are “studying being human.” Can you elaborate on that?
Some artists want to document culture or they make artwork that is intensely personal or about their own interpersonal interactions. My own focus and what drives my art and creativity is trying to understand natural processes and the larger scheme of things. Philosophy and existentialism provides you a more rounded outlook about life and gives me far more of a spark of creativity. I think understanding how we view the world allows us to move forward and not be so pissed off, judgmental, or scared. That’s all it is really. Studying being a human.