Over the past decade, Los Angeles-based artist Jonas Wood has garnered impressive acclaim for his striking, identifiable style, which incorporates both abstraction and figuration, while engaging with myriad art historical movements, most noticeably Analytical Cubism, Pop and Minimalism. Beyond these known influences, however, Wood’s visual language is forthright, honest and entirely his own.
Big Naked Snakes is characteristic of Wood’s oeuvre—it is deeply reflective of the artist’s personal experiences and aligns with his fondness for capturing objects and places dear to his heart. Wood grew up immersed in the arts from a young age. His grandfather was both a painter and collector of Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, his father was an architect and his mother ran the theater department at a progressive high school, so it would have been impossible to ignore his artistic lineage. As a child, Wood regularly traveled with his family from his home in L.A. to New York to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reverting to his roots, Wood returned to the museum in 2007 and began a collection of sketches based off the Greek, Oceanic and African vessels there, including Terracotta hydria: kalpis (water jar) (circa 460-450 B.C.) and Terracotta pelike (jar) (circa 450–440 B.C.). Working at the museum in ballpoint pen on hotel stationery, he redrew the images on a larger scale in charcoal or pencil on paper upon returning to his L.A. studio. The present work likely derives its subject from Wood’s experience at the museum and vividly recalls the red-figure pottery of ancient Greece on display.
For Wood, “like basketball cards, [Greek pots] 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, often, athletic-related stories” (J. Wood, quoted in J. Samet, “Beer with a Painter, LA Edition: Jonas Wood,” Hyperallergic, 12 September 2015). The vessel in the present work features a warrior releasing his arrow toward a group of snakes writhing at the right, an athletic trial that both engages with the heroic sympathies of Hellenistic culture and reflects the enduring theme of sports seen throughout the artist’s oeuvre. In synthesizing the planar, flat style Wood attributes to the ancients Greeks with the geometric, two-dimensional tendencies of his forebearers in the vein of Henri Matisse, Wood discovers a stylistic synergy of old and new in this schematized painting.
Wood’s style is often likened to that of much-admired 20th-century American realists Grant Wood, Alex Katz and Edward Hopper. He is perhaps most heavily indebted to David Hockney, an artist he considers “a conglomeration of all [his] favorite Modern painters” (J. Wood, quoted in S. Roffino, “Hockney’s Children: 5 Artists on Why They’re So Indebted to the Charming British Painter,” Artnet News, 1 December 2017). Like Hockney, Wood implements photographic and collage-based studies, in which he fractures and then reassembles images, to inform his painting process. Conveying depth through layered planes, his painted works often mimic the appearance of paper collage and are visually reminiscent of Matisse’s famed paper Cut-Outs. In Big Naked Snakes, the figures and geometric borders of the pot seem composed of planes and strips of red stacked upon a black background, rather than layered paint.
The narrative image shown at center is charged with frenetic energy. The dynamism of the image, however, is stymied by the physical constraints of the vase’s outer edges. The warrior’s outstretched right arm and leg are abruptly cropped, just as one of the many squirming snakes is chopped just below the head. A similar tension appears in his slightly later work M.S.F. Fish Pot #5 (2015). The spirited image of a majestic red-orange Koi fish swimming playfully through a colorful collection of aquatic plant life is suddenly halted by the depicted edges of the pot. Like a freeze-frame still, Wood stops moments in time by physically encapsulating them within the confines of a defined space—the perimeter of the ceramic pot.
At its simplest, Big Naked Snakes is a vessel on a ledge, one version of Wood’s take on a canonical art historical genre: the still-life. “I decided to start painting still-lifes right out of grad school because all of these other painters I admired really proved themselves in the genre” (J. Wood, quoted in “Picturing Jonas Wood—Ceramics,” Phaidon, 2 December 2019). Often depicting real life objects—pots, plants, basketballs—he diverges from the staid, traditional approach to the established genre by oscillating between representation and abstraction. Reimagining his surrounding world, Wood upends traditional conceptions of scale and dimension. The pot depicted here is massive in size in comparison to its real world counterpart. These discrepancies between real life and the artist’s rendering of it makes his works feel familiar but foreign, intimate yet removed.
Ceramic pottery is part and parcel of Wood’s oeuvre. Sometimes shown alone, like in the present picture, other times adorning shelves or placed atop tables, “a ‘classic’ Jonas Wood painting invariably contains pots,” claims curator and author Helen Molesworth (H. Molesworth, quoted in “Picturing Jonas Wood—Ceramics,” Phaidon, 2 December 2019). His relationship with the ceramic medium blossomed through his marriage to fellow artist and ceramicist Shio Kusaka. Although he and his wife are independent artists, the couple lives together and shares an artist studio where they maintain a symbiotic working relationship; Wood often showcases Kusaka’s vessels in his paintings, and, in turn, she borrows motifs and themes from his visual repertoire. “You could call [my work] a visual diary or even a personal history. I’m not going to paint something that doesn’t have anything to do with me. Of all of the possible things I could paint, the thing that interests me is something that I can get close enough to in order to paint it honestly” (J. Wood in conversation with A. Vejzovic Sharp, Interiors: Jonas Wood, exh. cat., Los Angeles, David Kordansky Gallery, 2012, p. 56). He is similarly affected by the many ceramic artists the couple collects—Rui Neri, Ry Rocklen, Akio Takamori, Patrick Jackson—and takes greatest inspiration from his study of works by ceramic duo and fellow California artist couple Michael and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess. Like Wood, the Frimkess’s oeuvre defies classification and combines multiple genres such as pop, mythology and pottery. Wood’s paintings of ceramic vessels serve as reminders of his intense adoration of their practice and reinforce the collaborative spirit behind both artist couples’ working processes.
Big Naked Snakes was fittingly included in Wood and Kusaka’s first joint exhibition in Europe, Shio Kusaka & Jonas Wood (2017-2018), held at Museum Voorlinden, Wassennaar, which highlighted the couple’s shared influences by juxtaposing his depictions of vessels with her ceramic pots. For Wood, this sort of exhibition is perhaps the ultimate expression of his and Kusaka’s practice: “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” (J. Wood, quoted in P. Pobric, “ ‘I Was So Afraid for Way Too Long’: Painter Jonas Wood on How Going It Alone Helped Him Survive His Immense Market Success,” Artnet News, 28 March 2019).