From the High Line to MOCA: Jonas Wood’s ‘visual diary’
A guide to the painter whose plant-themed exterior works have brightened up both New York and LA — who has been described as ‘connecting the dots from Henri Matisse to David Hockney’
Boldly coloured, strongly graphic and encompassing paintings, prints and drawings, the works of Jonas Wood (b. 1977) form a kind of visual diary, drawing heavily on the objects, sports, rooms and people he encounters both in real life and online.
Critics have feted Wood — The New Yorker described his work as ‘painting at its colourful, pattern-happy, and energetic best… (connecting) the dots from Henri Matisse to Stuart Davis to David Hockney’. Commercial success has followed.
Last year, at Christie’s in New York, Wood’s painting Japanese Garden 3 sold for just under $4.93 million. The large-scale work was donated by the artist to raise funds for a national park through Art for Acres, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to raising funds for land conservation through art sales.
Jonas Wood describes his art as ‘a visual diary’
Wood’s densely patterned paintings buzz with energy despite often being bereft of human figures and comprised of two-dimensional shapes. Foliage appears frequently but with a carefully detailed rendering of the patterns and textures of the plants, which Wood imbues with his own experience and aesthetic.
‘You could call [my work] a visual diary or even a personal history,’ he has said. ‘I’m not going to paint something that doesn’t have anything to do with me… The thing that interests me is something that I can get close enough to in order to paint it honestly.’
Wood grew up around art
Wood recalls a childhood spent largely outdoors in the wilds outside his native Boston. He has art-inclined parents (his father was an architect), while his grandfather was a doctor and a serious collector, owning pieces by Calder and Warhol as well as Francis Bacon’s George Dyer Talking (1966). Wood’s grandfather bought the painting the year it was made, and sold it in 1980, putting the funds towards the education of his grandchildren.
Wood went on to study psychology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, before working in a brain-imaging research lab to fund his painting. He later enrolled in the MFA Program in Painting and Drawing at the University of Washington.
Wood got a lucky break after art school
On commencing his art studies at Washington, Wood was advised by the painter Nicholas Ruth (who had previously studied there) to commit 40 to 60 hours a week of studio time to learning the fundamentals of drawing. This advice dovetailed with the course, overseen by Denzil Hurley, in which drawing was emphasised as the root of painting.
After art school, Wood worked for Laura Owens as the painter’s assistant, an experience he described as being ‘the second-most lucky thing that happened to me. It was like grad school, part two.’
Wood’s billboard-sized works have brightened up New York and Los Angeles
Throughout 2014, Wood’s Shelf Still Life — a billboard-sized depiction of pots, vases and plants — sat above the High Line in New York, its flashes of tropical pink and verdant green contrasting with the surrounding concrete. The same year, his work took over the exterior of Los Angeles’ LAXART gallery.
In 2017, a site-specific version of his painting Still Life with Two Owls covered MOCA Grand Avenue. The museum described Wood’s mural, designed to be seen by pedestrians or through the windows of moving cars, as treating ‘the urban architecture of Downtown L.A. as a dynamic canvas on which to further explore his playful manipulation of scale, texture, colour, and pattern’.
Wood is inspired by the work of his wife, ceramicist Shio Kusaka
In 2002, Wood married the ceramicist Shio Kusaka, who works from a studio adjacent to his in Culver City. There is a strong thematic interplay between their work: she has appropriated his basketball motif; his still lifes include paintings of the ceramics collection they share, including work by Ruby Neri, Magdalena Suarez, Michael Frimkess and Akio Takamori.
‘When I met my wife… I started looking at vessels,’ Wood told an interviewer in 2015. ‘I became interested in the Greek pots. Like basketball cards, they have a shape and a form, and they have images that are very flat, graphic, and simple. Basically, there are cartoons on the sides of the pots that tell stories.’ Gagosian Hong Kong exhibited the couple’s work together in 2015.
‘We share staff members and a studio and kids, of course. And we appropriate each other’s work, but we actually don’t make objects together,’ Wood told Artnet. ‘We just have created this environment together that’s super-creative and potent and fun and beautiful in our own way, together. We’re the best because we’re together.’
Wood works from photographs (but not always directly)
‘I collect photos, ones I’ve taken or I’ve appropriated, or that other people have sent to me,’ Wood explained in 2019. ‘And then I either make a collage of those things or work directly from photos.’
The end result contrasts the rich density of his colours with an arrangement of flat forms, creating something reminiscent of both traditional collage, and the blocky geometry of a scene from a primitive computer game.
Wood does not paint for an audience
In interviews, Wood has stressed the importance of painting for himself, rather than for an audience, and of artists not being tied to particular dealers which then creates a pressure to produce a certain kind of work to order.
‘I would prefer not to know what anybody wants,’ he said in 2019. ‘They would offer to give me money to buy stretchers and buy stuff for my studio, and I didn’t really want them to because I didn’t want them to know how many paintings I was making… I didn’t want any pressure, because I was already putting tremendous pressure on myself to paint, because I was so motivated.’
Jonas Wood has updated traditional genres for a modern audience
While working in the traditional genres of landscape, still life and interiors, Wood has succeeded in rebooting them for a modern audience. He has done this by fusing Fauvist colours, Pointillist dots and Pop references, which range from Nike sweatshirts and basketball player Shaquille O’Neal to the pyramid-like Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
In elevating the mundane to the status of fine art, Wood is following in the footsteps of Warhol and perhaps, most obviously, David Hockney. ‘You can put Hockney together as a conglomeration of all of my favourite Modern painters,’ he said in 2017.
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Wood has worked on a number of books
Much of Wood’s work is grouped thematically, with a single idea being explored repeatedly. These ideas have formed the basis of a beautiful series of books Wood has produced with Picturebox. Sports Book (2009), Interiors (2012), A History of the Met (2013), Portraits (2016) and Clippings (2017) are currently all out of print and fetch high prices on the secondary market.
Wood’s market value is rising
Wood’s first solo museum show was held in 2010 and just seven years later, in a TWO X TWO for AIDS and Art fundraiser, one of his paintings, Pink Plant Patio Landscape Pot, sold for $1.2m. In March 2019, his first institutional survey opened at the Dallas Museum of Art.