I met artist Jon Todd a few months ago, and we got to talking about Russian prison tattoos – a fascination we share – so we decided it might be fun to do an interview together. Jon is 26 and hails from Toronto, where you can usually find him in the vicinity of Jerome Jenner Gallery. What makes his work particularly intriguing is how it cloaks its lowbrow subject matter in a historical aesthetic – by way of a smear of color, a scrap of baroque wallpaper, and a touch of whimsy.
A great many of Jon's paintings incorporate snakes, snake tattoos and snakeskin-like textures. Snakes are a rich and complex symbol, whose significance varies wildly depending on one's culture of origin. The Greeks regarded snakes as chthonic – both earthbound and in touch with the underworld. Serpent-haired Medusa had the power to turn men to stone with a glance. The Hindus have an annual festival of worship called Nag Panchami in which they pray to the five Nāga Devatas, or snake goddesses, for protection. Lord Shiva is often depicted with a snake around his neck, which represents the endless cycle of birth and regeneration. In Haitian Vodoun, a snake god called Damballa is the father of the loas, and brought forth all creation. Judeo-Christian mythology sometimes regards the snake as a symbol of healing, wisdom and knowledge, and at others as a symbol of deception, temptation and evil.
In Jon's work, snakes often slither across naked skin – either in the flesh or in the form of tattoos. They also frequently form a crown or headdress, and perhaps this arrangement of serpents could be interpreted as either a haloing device or as a projection of chaotic thoughts or emotions. Interestingly, Jon says his most recent work explores personal narratives of friends and acquaintances, some of whom are "caught in a web of institutional health and correction."
"The Snake Pit"
Jon is busy preparing for his first solo show at Thinkspace on December 12th, not to mention two group exhibitions at Miami Art Basel, but he was kind enough to make some time to answer a few questions for me.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your experience of growing up. When did you realize you were going to be an artist?
Jon Todd: In my childhood I always liked to work with my hands, painting. I always used art as a venue to express myself, and I realized it was my true passion when I was 12.
I attended Sheridan College, wanting to become a 3D animator and work for Disney. After my first year at art school, I realized that I didn’t like drawing the same image over and over – I wanted to stand on my own with my creations, start to finish. I was accepted into the Illustration program, and there I was exposed to the works of great artists like Mark Ryden, Jeff Soto, Gary Baseman, the Clayton Brothers and Camille Rose Garcia. After seeing these artists' work in Juxtapoz and American Illustration, I realized that the lines between illustrator and fine artist were growing blurred.
"Sin and the Samurai"
EP: You prefer to begin a painting directly on the final board, starting with a simple naïve sketch and letting the piece develop freely. Acrylics are your medium of choice, and you often incorporate some textural collage elements. Could you tell me a little more about your process?
JT: I start with a naïve sketch so I can change things constantly. I love making “happy mistakes.” I am not afraid to kick the crap out of a painting, if it makes the end result unique and pleasing to the viewer. For example, I've spent hours painting detailed tattoos – realizing it was too clean – and then ran it through the belt sander, which made an awesome smearing effect. I've also poured rubbing alcohol, scraped, gouged, and even lit my painting on fire with a blowtorch.
"The Snake Handler"
EP: With your intuitive painting strategy, do you find yourself working on a number of paintings at once and revisiting each one to add elements as they come to mind, or do you tend to concentrate on a single piece until it's finished to your satisfaction?
JT: I usually hip-hop from painting to painting, because I like to look at my work with fresh eyes.
EP: Although you feel an affinity with street artists, you seem to have an even greater appreciation for old things, like antique paper, mosaic and textile patterns, the textures and colors of crumbling walls and rusting metal, jailhouse graffiti, Mexican wrestling and Samurai masks, Victorian picture frames, and the like.
When you're not painting, you help run Jerome Jenner Gallery in Toronto, which exhibits fine art in conjunction with intriguing architectural artifacts. How did you wind up having such an intimate relationship with historical paraphernalia, and what effect are you trying to achieve by incorporating it into your work?
JT: I like the look of old vintage materials – frames, books, posters, factories, print, type – and incorporating it into my own style. I'm a huge collector of ugly naïve drawings, which I also like to incorporate into my work. Working at Jerome Jenner Gallery, I am exposed to awesome unique pieces of art and architecture from around the world, such as an original Chairman Mao propaganda tapestry, 10’ rusty factory windows, 15' Argentinean villa doors and a 9’ hot fuchsia pink statue of Jesus. I'm lucky to have my studio in that setting. It's really inspiring for my work.
"Shroud of Serpents"
EP: It must be challenging to run an art gallery and still keep up with the demands of your painting career, not to mention your Elliptic Clothing line. How do you ever find time to sleep?
JT: I do my best... I don’t sleep much – I require very little, usually 3-4 hours a night. I am very lucky to have my apartment, silkscreen studio and gallery in the same building, so I really have no need to leave my workspace. I have great business partners around me who help drive me toward my goals.
EP: Does running a gallery give you a different perspective when you deal with other galleries as an artist?
JT: Yes, running a gallery with Jerome Jenner makes me appreciate successful galleries. It's a lot of hard work being a fine artist and running a gallery, but it's my passion and I wouldn’t have it any other way... except maybe eat and sleep more.
EP: Though your work is distinctly contemporary in tone, some aspects of gesture, composition and dimensionality in your style bring to mind early paintings from India and Japan, as well as Russian icons that are hundreds of years old. Are those correlations coincidental or deliberate? Do you feel there are any other historical influences that helped shape your aesthetic?
JT: I've always been drawn to Asian woodblock prints and watercolors – I really appreciate the details. I am a huge fan of Mexican art and culture – Mexican wrestlers and the Day of the Dead. After a trip to Berlin, I developed a passion for German and Russian propaganda and graffiti that I found displayed all over the city.
"Scars from the Past"
EP: Dramatic eyes – like kaleidoscope patterns, with expanding rays of color streaming from the pupils – are the focal point in most of your work.
JT: I love painting dramatic eyes. They are an aesthetic focal point. I spend a lot of time rendering them, because it gives the painting its character. I paint them in great detail to draw the viewer to my work. Once they have been drawn to the painting, they will be able to see the rest of work in greater detail.
EP: Nearly all your work incorporates tattooing in some form, so you must find it an extremely powerful medium. Tattoos can serve as rites of passage, designations of status, spiritual declarations, fertility symbols, pledges of devotion, marks of shame and punishment, and good-luck talismans. What makes tattoo art so compelling for you?
JT: Even though I am not a tattoo artist, I have a great respect for the artform. I have always been intrigued by how tattoos can tell a story about a person’s life.
"Enter the Dragon"
EP: Though tattoo art is of course a major influence throughout the lowbrow scene, your fascination with it is quite apparent, with Mexican and Japanese tattoo symbology colliding with classic American ink styles on the skin of nearly all of your characters. You also seem to have a special interest in criminal subcultures, which often take advantage of the indelible nature of tattoos to ensure the loyalty of their members.
For some time, you've been inspired by Japanese irezumi, a highly symbolic traditional tattoo artform heavily influenced by ukiyo-e culture. In the Edo period, decorative tattooing grew into an advanced artform, but at the same time, punitive tattoos were forced on criminals and outcasts, including thick stacking armbands that marked masterless Samurai warriors, or Ronin. The Ronin eventually developed into the modern-day Yakuza, whose complex and colorful body suit tattoos denote status, dedication, criminal clan affiliation and a rejection of society's norms.
In your recent work, you've begun to incorporate Russian prison tattoos, a venerable symbolic language by which a prisoner can infer the crimes, social rank and background of another convict. For example, the cat tattoos in "Crowned Cats" signify the wearer is a thief, and the points of the stars represent years spent in the gulag or prison system. In using these potent symbols, do you mean to impart a coded emotional and narrative history to your characters, or are you using them mainly because you appreciate their aesthetics?
JT: In my past works, I focused on the aesthetic appeal of the imagery, not much narrative. With my new collection I am attempting to tell a story through the use of the Russian criminal and other styles of tattoos. I believe every image can give a glimpse into some person’s life experiences, good and bad.
"Two Samurai Women"
EP: Your female characters usually have a very direct gaze – though they are often baring their breasts to the viewer, they are quite cool, matter-of-fact, sometimes even disdainful – as if their nudity is confrontational rather than alluring. Your approach to painting women is a little different than most artists in this movement – rather than depicting women as innocent, damaged or seductive, you often seem to give them a quality of aloof power. At times, they bring to mind historical and mythical woman warriors, and at others they evoke goddesses, queens, crime bosses or circus ringmasters. How do you envision these women's lives?
JT: I am not modest with my portrayal of the female form. They are nude because their human form is my canvas. I use it to tell my story. All of my female figures are displayed in a confident and powerful manner. They are in control.
EP: Egon Schiele is a big influence of yours. Schiele drew twisted, gaunt, angular bodies that are erotic and grotesque at the same time, and focused on the hungers of the flesh, the ubiquity of death and the hypocrisy of the prevailing morality. What do you find inspiring about Schiele's work? Are there other painters from the past that move you, and what aspect of their work do you find intriguing?
JT: Schiele is my favorite artist! I like his work so much I took a trip to Vienna to view his largest drawing collection. I think he is one of the best drawers ever. The way he draws the body – especially the hands – is so unique. His work, like mine, is a study in juxtaposition. He constantly portrays the opposites – be it control vs. chaos, good vs. bad, erotic vs. cold, power vs. submissiveness, or fear vs. bravery.
In my new work, I am starting to bring in these elements. I am also influenced by Klimt. I love the way he paints textile patterns with bright, bold colors and gold leaf. Whenever I have an artistic block, I always like to draw influence from the past masters.
EP: What are you excited about right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
JT: I'm really excited for my first solo show, titled "Life Sentence," at Thinkspace Gallery on December 12. I will have 9-10 paintings in the show. This new body of paintings is some of my best work. I will also be showing at the Gen Art Vanguard Fair at Miami Art Basel from December 4-7 with Montreal's Yves Laroche Gallery and Mark Murphy's KNOW Exhibition.
In the future, I'll be trying very hard to further my career as a fine artist. My next show will be at Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal on June 17, 2009. It will be a two-person show with my good friend Martin Wittfooth, titled "Babylon." In the coming months, Martin and I will be working on a very large collaboration painting for that show. I'm really happy to be doing this show, because Yves Laroche gave me my start as a fine artist.
Presently, I am collecting the necessary pieces of my art to publish a book of my paintings and drawings. The book is set to be launched at my show in June 2009. I would also like to continue to develop Jerome Jenner Gallery and Elliptic Clothing. In the future, we will be working with fine artists doing one-of-a-kind furniture and clothing. With luck and opportunity, I hope to continue in the career that I have always enjoyed.
EP: Thanks, Jon!
Jon Todd is represented by Jerome Jenner Gallery in Toronto, where you can find several of his prints for sale. He will be rocking the project room at Thinkspace on December 12th with his "Life Sentence" show, so make sure to come check it out.