JM: A lot of people know who you are in the Sacramento & Bay Area region, but many of the people that have been following the blog lately have been from foreign countries, so in order to get the word out, let’s just start from the beginning.
I knew right around 13, maybe a little earlier that this (being an artist) was what I was supposed to do with my life. Was it the same with you?
JD: No. Not at all actually. I didn’t grow up art making. I have three younger sisters, a little brother, and one of the my sisters was the artsy one growing up, through recreating still life’s and what not. But it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20’s living in Santa Cruz when I sort of discovered this desire, to express this aesthetic, and that was in the form of photography, first. You know just that natural beauty of Santa Cruz; it was easy to take photos of pretty trees and landscapes.
It’s of course capturing a moment and from there it went to writing silly poetry, keeping a journal etc. I’ve always been proficient in drawing, they would be abstract to plein air drawings I guess, and then I just sort of formed this desire to move away from photography and move to painting. And I would say that was in the late 90’s, say 1998 or 1999 when I started to transition form photography to painting.
JM: How did Mom & Dad feel about the whole art making? Because when I went to school in Chicago, I found I was one of the rare people who had parents who supported me. And most of the kids I came in contact with, Mom & Dad, “Thought yeah art school is cool for now, but maybe when you’re done, you can go get an MBA and then get a real job”…How did yours folks feel about that?
JD: That’s an interesting question. I have parents who immigrated here, my Dad is from Argentina and my Mom is from Puerto Rico; after they married, they moved to California but they’re were not educated. They worked factory jobs; they just didn’t have much of an understanding of an education system in general. So you know my Dad dropped out of school when he was 10 years old to help my Grandpa work on sewage lines. And my Mom, almost the same, she dropped out of high school when her parents died. So I think for them, anything that I did that progressed in whatever it was that I was seeking, whether it was education or a career, or anything really, they were always proud of me, as parents are.
And that was unrestricted; like when I barely graduated from high school after two years of being a senor in high school, I mean barely, just squeaking by, they were proud of me. When I would travel and live on a shoestring, they were proud of me. So when I told them I was going to college, or anything else it didn’t matter.
JM: My baby’s going to college!
JD: Yeah, my baby’s going to college for basket weaving! I think there was just this general pride, like I said any parent would have. Just seeing me go to college was a big deal because in the family there was no history of it and because I felt confident in my decision. I could tell them confidently this is what I wish to pursue. And for them it was such a fog, “Art? Art as commerce? How does that work? “
They just had to go with what I told them.
So if I told them it was totally lucrative and if I pointed out “ Oh hey look at this guy, his name is Jeff Koons, he’s a full on millionaire. That’s how all artists are like,” they would have just said ok go with that. There was never, ever, ever you know “The Talk!”
JM: (laughing) That is so, so rare. Like everyone’s parents at The Verge, I don’t know all the circumstances of course, but those parents I would think would be more supportive than other artists I know because everyone there is serious and doing it. You know, after a certain point if you don’t get it as a parent, you see you’re child just grinding it out, year after year, you sort of have to surrender. “Ok, I guess you really like painting...”
JD: Yeah all that said though, the ethic I would instill in my own kids, there are lot of people pursuing art; which is fantastic, but it’s difficult. Especially if you wish to live comfortably.
Whether you figure out another form of financial means or the understanding that you live within a certain parameter. You know, you really have to bust-your-ass!
And enjoy the ride of course. But also be intelligent about the decision of making special things.
JM: The hard work transitions right into my next question. There are what 17 pieces here?
JD: 25 actually
JM: Shit…obviously you’ve spent a lot of time indoors, getting this done. I remember seeing some of the precursors at the Urban Hive and thinking, “Ok these are different from the pipe cleaners works.” Then I saw these and I thought, “Whoa, ok we’re tackling something”…at least for me, maybe I’m way off base, the Cosmo Cathedral title within itself, it seems like there is an otherworldly beauty in them.
Wow I’m looking at the question I wrote down and it seemed interesting at the time, but now I look at it and it doesn’t make any fucking sense at all.
JM: Ok, there’s this beautiful, yet terrifying realization that man comes to when the infinity of the universe is brought up. You know we compare our existence to that of the greater universe…Does that make sense, am I off base?
JD: No, I know where you’re going with the question for sure. As an underlying theme in my work, I have always dealt with sublime. With issues, things that are kind frightening and beautiful. Now I’ve said it before, that I don’t really consider myself a conceptual artist. I’m definitely a formalist in the sense that I focus on the immediate aesthetic and on what paint does, on the process of making the work. I had my moments in art school that I would over conceptualize and trip on my words.
JM: I think that’s just a natural part of being in art school.
JD: Yeah where you want to compete and come across as original and obscure and intelligent. You use these $20 words you don’t even know the meaning off and you’re reading philosophy authors that are definitely a challenge. With that background, I’m glad that I had that as a period of my life so that now I can take a step back and say that I was struggling, and I wasn’t sincere about why I was making the work. I’m going into a tangent with that. But to get back to your question…
JM: No go wherever you want to go.
JD: As a formalist, things have come and gone in my work. I’ve created a lot of different bodies of work, where on one level it was a departure from what I was doing before. Sometimes they were adapted from an earlier piece and sometimes it was a radical departure. Sometimes I would work figuratively and work with a particular theme, like when I worked on the rotten.com series, taking grotesque images and creating a pop culture reference with each of them. Whether it was gang signs with the guy who had half his face burned off or whatever.
JM: Which are fucking hilarious by the way. I remember seeing them and thinking, “ Ok, I’m going to get along great with this dude!” Especially when right next to them were the rainbows made from pipe cleaners! I said, “This guy is all over the place, I need to incorporate more of that.”
JD: That’s cool you say that. I’m proud of being all over the place with the work. I enjoy the feeling of just enjoying what I want to do, at the moment. If I feel like doing the theme of gory shit, I’m just going to do it. And if I’m inspired by what my daughters are working on with the pipe cleaners and that takes wind, I’m just going to go that direction. And with the work, the Cosmo Cathedral, with the drip paintings, this is something I’ve been doing for almost 10 years.
But I’ve done these derivatives on paper, and they were smaller, and they were kind of mock nebula. You know more or less trying to mimic what you would see in science magazines, because they are just gorgeous.
And then just working with different color palettes and seeing what colors compliment one another within each piece. Taking a red as a primary in the foreground and using pink to accent it. But what I found when I had the show at the Urban Hive, I had a number of different color palettes, there were a few that really struck a nerve with people. There was this celestial color palette that just had this look to it, white over black and deep blue that people just responded to. And the timing couldn’t have been better, because I had this show lined up.
So that show was in July and I was still coming up with a theme for this show and I understood the constraints here, in that there are just two walls and there’s the ceiling. I tried to come up with something that went beyond just looking at paintings on the wall and trying to stretch my own comfort when it came to conceptualizing work.
It was the realization that, “Fuck, there are three walls.”
There is a ceiling that has an abundant amount of space that can be utilized. So with the celestial color palette and the space it just became a confirmation to me to make it dense and go with 25 pieces. I wanted to not leave much wall space. I mean I could have done an installation where I painted the walls, but I liked this idea that you take these paintings of various sizes and you create an installation with paintings alone. So they’re paintings, they’re framed and the people who have purchased them take them home.
JM: And nice work by the way. Selling paintings in a market like this, you know high five!
JD: Thank you. I feel very fortunate, which is why for this show I donated all the proceeds to The Verge. I wanted the idea of the show being this synergy, where you take one part and put into something else that when combined makes something bigger than the two parts. Taking paintings and making them into an installation to create a metaphysical feeling. So when people came to the show, one of the moments of validation for me, the night of the opening, aside from seeing a lot of heads looking up, was seeing people take photos.
I’ve had lots of shows were people just stroll in and look and say that’s cool and walk out, which is ok cause I do that all the time myself. For me that was unprecedented to see people taking so many pictures. Just cameras out all night was rad. Even if it’s just people sharing like “Hey man this is cool, check it out,” which is fine. But also to go back to revisit the moment again. Whether it’s just an image on their camera or just to really study it. Contemplate can be a heavy word, but just to think beyond the immediate aesthetic.
JM: And that is what art should do, take you out of your comfort zone and show you something about the world that you may have not seen. Especially if you have to literally look upward. Most people go to shows, the work is at eye level or it’s on a monitor that’s eye level, but when you have to look upward, you’re using a whole different set of muscles and your perspective it totally different. The paintings up there are totally different that the large ones down below.
JD: You have to stand almost directly under the paintings to see what’s happening as far as the line work etc. It’s like I said, it’s one thing to look at the paintings if they were just on the wall, the title being Cosmo Cathedral, I think people could have taken something that I eluded to and just ran with it.
JM: But they wouldn’t stand there and look up; they wouldn’t get the whole thing.
JD: Exactly “Paintings on the wall cool. Paintings alluding to the cosmos? Duh!”
JM: “Cool, I’m going to get a beer now.”
JD: Yeah the ceiling really brought the show together. There have been some people that haven’t seen the show yet, and I’ve told them you can at some point you can see it at Verge however, to see in the right context is key. At least I’d like to think so.
The following 3 photos were graciously provided by Jairus Tonel. View his work here.
JM: Do you have a favorite one? One that just encapsulates everything?
JD: It’s easy to say the title piece and the three 8 footers on one wall with the one in the center, that was the one I created first. I could see from that one piece what I was going to be doing with the rest of them. But I wouldn’t say it was the favorite, but it was the catalyst for the others. But of course the ceiling pieces are different in that they don’t have the drip lines. I knew that the ceiling pieces were going to be created a certain way, and that was one of the things that was really cool about this show. As soon as I knew what I was going to do, all I had to do was make it; the show was already laid out in my mind.
And I forget the term that someone told me what that phenomenon is called, when you know exactly how you’re going to line the show up, just have to make. And that’s what happened. I knew exactly how the ceiling pieces were to be laid out. With these symbols, which I want to point out, these symbols that I created geometrically they’re not arbitrary, to an extent.
They were just sort of made as I went along. I might say ok on this one I’m going to create three circles and just start to work off of that. Or this one put a triangle here, invert it so it’s kind of like the Star of David and then from there, just see where the lines take me. And from there people can gauge what a meaning is. You can make reference to astrology, combined with the celestial color palette and go wherever. Even though I sort of proudly made them up as I went long and it was totally made up and fun to see how they were going to end up.
I would just step back and say, “Yes! That came out better than I anticipated.”
Which I intend to continue actually, and I could tangent from there and tell you about some new works that I plan to do.
JM: We can talk about that more toward the end. Doing random shapes and having them look ordered and precise and meticulous, and yet they’re simple it’s kind of how the universe is. For example every new scientific discovery finds a layer within a layer, within a layer, within a layer, within a layer, within another layer, and they all sort of line up and on the surface it may look simple but it’s not. Like on a level you don’t even know what it is, but there is something there that’s just ingrained in the human brain in the consciousness that just makes everything come together. And that’s what I like about these paintings. It’s not just shapes, it’s not just drips. It’s very deep and spiritual. Me personally I do believe in God but it’s so infinitely more complex than a Burning Bush and Moses coming down from the mountain with stone tablets telling us how to live our lives.
JM: It’s so far beyond human comprehension. Because if it’s a being or an energy that created or is in touch with everything, how are we going to grasp it when we’re just advanced monkeys? And yet, every once in a while there is a door that opens we are able to peer in.
JD: I’m glad you point those things out. I’m not all a spiritual guy, however I mentioned the sublime earlier that has always been an ongoing thing. And I think another word for sublime would be spiritual. I’d like to think that a spiritual experience doesn’t have to be like that ones we’ve grown accustomed to, like the Jesus Only spiritual experience. Trying to grasp that understanding, the infiniteness of the universe and how small our time is. And that goes along with what they call sublime. So they’re not detached themes, sublime as spirituality and I think certainly those can be intertwined. As kind of a layperson to science, I mean the universe, what a lofty theme…
JM: You know existence whatever. We can talk about it and totally figure it out!
JD: Right, exactly. Part of why I try to refrain from any sort of conceptualizing of my work, I gave it the title, presented the aesthetics, and from there I tried not to delve too much into what it means to me personally, because you have somebody like Jiayi Young who’s a physicist as well as her husband and they can describe some really fascinating things and they can go into detail. And that goes into an area that I am entirely unfamiliar with and yet totally captivated by.
So I’d like to think that just creating the aesthetics gets people thinking metaphysically beyond the spirituality that we have come to know, that the infiniteness of the universe is spiritual within itself, and how amazing it actually is. I’ll read science or physics for dummies on how those things work. But it would be a disservice to try and describe what science is beyond just sort of basic terms.
JM: Let the physicists and scientists take care of that part, and we’ll make the art and we’ll worry about the art. And something that a lot of artists have trouble with is letting go. You can only take something so far before you have to let it go and let it become something else, so people can get a difference experience from it beyond what you had in mind. So that it becomes something else and again what I think art should do, it should change people. And I’m glad to touched on that. Instead of saying this is point A to point B all the way to Z and you can’t detour off the path.
JD: I can’t spoon feed the whole thing.
JM: Yeah. What’s the point? It’s about the cosmos and the universe, roll credits the end. There’s no room for interpretations.
JD: I like people to peek through the conceptual veil in a way and make conclusions about what they are seeing. I have learned over time, like you said to let it go. I just like to make things special; I like to just make things. It’s sort of an innate thing; I just like to do it. I like the ability to take nothing and transform it into a metaphysical experience. When I was in college I was a painting major, but I studied a lot of printmaking and art history. I was doing lithographs of these, basically these blobs, blobbish things. And they were derivatives of these drip paintings. They had 5 colored layers, you know there was weight; there was gravity that went down in these prints. And for a print they were a bit larger than normal, 11 x 17 or maybe 18 x 24 in size.
So I was in this group show and I played in punk band in college and one of the lyrics to one of my songs was “Sweet Most Loving Cancer” and the lyrics, you know go on.
JD: No no no! Well that can be interpreted a number of ways.
JM: (laughing) I’m just being an asshole.
JD: (laughing) I know you’re a horrible person! But she said that this piece really spoke to her and she was just overwhelmed with emotion. She could bring her own interpretation to the piece based on the title. And she bought the piece because she felt so strongly about it because she felt it was an homage to her sister. I was totally moved.
I mean can you imagine this tangible thing of death, of someone you love and here is this guy that you don’t know who makes this piece and it speaks to you so profoundly that it causes you to be physically moved by it? It was a validating moment.
JM: Those moments are better than any critique in school, better than any nod from a professor, or whatever. To make someone cry with one of your pieces, forget about it, there’s no going back after that.
JD: I’ll never forget that. So there’s a lot of power in art making and what it does to people. Because of commerce, culturally most people don’t approach art as important as the other basics. Art and aesthetics on any level not just fine art or subversive art, there’s advertising and designers looking at something from a particular aesthetic in order to get a certain reaction. It permeates our lives in so many ways like the colors you use to paint your walls at your home, they way you lay out your house. There so many ways to approach these things artistically. I was sort of a guest speaking, it’s funny to say it that way, at this business symposium or something, I’m not sure what it was.
But basically it was group of business people, these entrepreneurial types who wanted to hear from an artist on how you approach your art, what is your life like. And I was there thinking, “How the fuck can I relate to these guys who are in suits and you know at the end of the day go to the sushi bar and high five each other about how much money they made!”
So I decided to approach the discussion, in that as business people, you probably don’t realize, that you might approach something artistically, like a PowerPoint presentation. There is a certain way you make it, you try to create in your own artistic sense, how am I going to make it, cool fonts, cool animation etc. It may not be fine art by my definition but you can definitely approach it artistically.
By doing so, (treating the process with more respect and coming from an artistic perspective) it will enhance how you do it. It’s like when Ellen Dissanayake and her book Homo Aestheticus talks about the"making special", and you make it (whatever "it" is) special, and by doing so you take better care of "it." The old prehistoric dudes would make their spears special, and therefore took better care of the spears, which in turn made them better hunters. And that can be said of society today, take better care of your shit, when you think about it more artistically. That’s quite a fucking tangent from whatever the original question was.
JM: (both laughing) I don’t remember either, but that is a good point, in that people who are non-creative or non-creative educated have a hard time comprehending a career in the arts. Even though it’s REALLY difficult to make a comfortable life from it or to feed your family with it, it’s still a viable, legit career path.
I’ve had this conversation with people who don’t quite get and I try to tell them, “ Ok imagine your life with no creativity in it. Imagine the people that designed your car. Imagine the people who designed the freeway you drove on to get to work. Imagine the designer who made your suit. Basically everything that’s in front of or around you…”
JD: Little by little, people will catch on and you really touch on some keys points with creativity and people’s lives. The person in the street kind of understands, because commerce is so important in our society, that most artists don’t sell a painting or make enough from their work to feed their kids diapers, I mean make enough money to feed their kids and pay for diapers.
JM: Feed your kids diapers is funnier, so we’ll use that!
JD: Well actually as an artist there are times when you kind of have to. To get beyond the level of commerce and explore what art making is beyond that, takes some time with most people. My parents understand the arts a little bit better and they were here for the show. And they still don’t understand, but they have grown to appreciate it more and more and that alone is shaping what art means. And they are very religious and go to church a lot and I don’t know what kind of conversations they have with the people there. But I’m sure it’s, “What the, I just don’t get it.” And I don’t mean that in a negative connotation, it’s just beyond them or most people.
And I love the idea that it’s not; it’s as simple as looking and asking questions. You just stand there and look at something and it takes you somewhere or not. It’s not like going to a big fancy museum where you pay $15 to look at paintings by dead or rich artists, it’s as easy and accessible as your kids making these things and over time they become more thoughtful about it.
JM: I think the whole commerce aspect and the commoditization of certain cultures has really distanced people from the greater art world, they feel so intimidated by it all. I’ve come across countless people who have lived here their whole lives and never once been to the Crocker. Or they have never been to an art show, even with the whole 2nd Saturday thing, because they feel that they don’t know a lot about art and it intimidates them.
And I don’t know if it’s the fault of the public school system that just cuts arts education to the bone, or is it a byproduct of the contemporary art world that says,” Ok you don’t have money and you’re not educated, so we don’t want you as part of our exclusive club.” I think it might be a combo of the two, and it shouldn’t be that way. Even if you don’t get it, at least you had the opportunity and experience to be a part of it.
JD: Right, at least they looked. There is this detachment from “art” where it’s different from people who are into sports. When I was a kid I liked the Raiders, not only because it was in my region, it was all black and it was all badass, and the dude has an eye patch, and it’s tough. And there was the aesthetic involved and I would always laugh at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
I don’t remember what colors they wore, but the aesthetics alone, I didn’t think they looked badass, I thought they looked kind of wimpy, as a color choice, as a logo. It happens now, you associate things regionally with religion, with sports, with what’s your favorite this, what’s your favorite that. And people should realize that there is definitely an aesthetic there, whether it’s a painting or a logo, there is something that you agree with. With the Raiders logo: the color, the eye patch, and the rogue guy who took it in the eye.
JM: I’m so badass; I lost my eye for football.
JD: Right, right. I’m kind of regurgitating what I said earlier that it’s more innate than people realize and I like to point that out to people, but it’s not a conversation I have all the time.
It’s not as if every person I come across, they look at me and say, ”So you’re an artist, hmmm that’s something I know nothing about. What’s it like living in that mystical world?”
Just by the way I conduct myself, they can say see, ok this guy has kids, he has a strong marriage and it doesn’t have to be all these preconceived notions of what artists are like.
It goes the whole spectrum from people thinking we are all tortured and erratic, to using this example again of Jeff Koons. Here is this guy who’s polished and created a whole industry for himself, based on his name. And he’s in the top tier 1% of artists financially.
JM: He’s not starving.
JD: No he’s not starving. He has warehouses that make his work and he’s as successful as you can get in any industry. And there is everything in between.
So me living in suburban East Sacramento among people who go to regular jobs, just being a standing member of society, being a stand up guy, paying my taxes, I want people to see that despite the notions they might have it’s far more dynamic than that.
And it goes back into the whole accessibility thing of, I make art and have shows and you can go see the work.
JM: Yeah it’s art and it’s special, but it’s all around you and you can go see it.
JD: It’s an enhanced special. Like you said earlier, they car we drive is special to us. Ok as a painter, the end result of my painting is the painting itself, it doesn’t serve a function, and it just exists as is. And it’s up to you to decide how you interpret the work or whether you want to spend time and energy observing it. You can’t open a bottom of beer with it, you can’t…
JM: Watch ESPN on it.
JD: No I can’t, because I work with paintings on panel. Therefore, I’d like to think it’s an enhanced special. The whole purpose is for people to gain something from it, even if it’s just them saying, “Cosmo Cathedral, that’s interesting, or the colors are pretty, ” or whatever.
JM: Or it would look awesome over my couch; I’m going to buy it.
JD: Exactly! However people interpret it is a step in the right direction, as long as they’re looking, even if they don’t like it. That’s ok. I would rather not hear people say, “Oh man this is shit,” I’d rather not hear that of course. But if people formulate ideas based on something they are seeing I think that’s better that not.
JM: I think some reaction is better then “Ehhh, it doesn’t really do anything for me. I’m going across the street to get a cup of coffee now.”
JD: Indifference is death.
JM: Even if it’s anger to the point of “I want to smash this painting and punch this guys face in! Well I’ve obviously hit a nerve, fantastic!
JD: (laughing) I can refer the rotten.com paintings as being ones that people responded to immediately. I didn’t get feed back directly, you know people coming up to me and saying “How dare you” but when they were shown at Tangent Gallery, they had to put them in the back with a disclaimer saying something like:
The work beyond here is of an adult nature and grotesque.
And that’s because of children of course and to what extent parents want to engage with their children about what that visual is. And now that I have children of my own I get it.
When I was making that work, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I half joke about that after our first daughter was born I went to making rainbows paintings. I can understand that perspective and I have some friends and acquaintances that might see the work and based on their background, would be deeply offended. I don’t consider that a badge of honor. In respect to the rotten.com paintings if someone were to approach me and get in my face, “How dare thy blaspheme!” I wouldn’t come away feeling, “Hell yeah I offended!”
It is more along the lines of “Why. What happened to make that effect you so negatively?” And doing my best to understand their perspective. I think that getting reactions, however mild, or positive, or negative, it’s been an ongoing discussion in art for centuries.
JM: Now with the new work, is it in progress or is it still in your head? And where is it going?
JD: It’s in my head and physically it will be in some shows next year, mentally what I’m looking to do is still work with the geometric lines, the celestial color palette, but instead of the traditional rectangular or square structure, I want to precut designs & patterns as the surface itself. I might create a structure with a bunch of jagged edges that are coming out of it, and from there draw my geometric patterns, but have it be framed and everything. It would take a lot more work, but in my own little way, I’m beginning to think more sculpturally.
They are still flat panels, however for me it’s seeing how I can expand on the images I’ve been using. I have a group show next year at The Nelson and I think it’s called Slant Step. I think it’s in place of the Flatlanders they do every year. And the Slant Step was originally from William T. Wiley; it was this object that made no sense that he found in a flea market and he gave it to one of his students Bruce Nauman and from there over the years people have gone onto make their own views of what the Slant Step was etc.
So in this upcoming show I will create a piece that goes up on the wall, but comes out more than just two inches on 2-d panel and will be slanted outward like a slanted step. And I’m excited to see what direction I go with it. Basically with future work I want to expand on the idea of making things, to some degree, a little more sculptural than the rectangular shapes. I’m really excited to get in front of a gig saw and not cut my finger off and get started on the new series.
JM: Anything else to add that I didn’t ask?
JD: You know, we’re really lucky, and I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I have come to know the people I’ve known that also enjoy making art. It really is a spectacular thing to be a part of, to be able make to make special things and put them on the wall and have people experience them and I thank you for the interview.
More of Jose’s work can be viewed on His Site.
As added bonus, once you’re there click Total Eclipse & The Greatest Love. You're Welcome!
Jose is a resident artist at Verge Center For The Arts and also serves on the board of directors.