Jason Jägel

Artist / Writer, San Francisco // December 2012
What inspires me? All old records, all books, all films, all comics. My daughters. Experiences miniscule, momentary and massive. I want to arrive with as much as possible and let the process sort things out.

Jason Jägel is a compulsive doodler who always has a little notebook and pen on hand. Inspiration comes to him frequently, prompting him to quickly fill up the blank pages with fragments of text and simple but expressive drawings. Rather than functioning as preliminary sketches for his work, these rough images and snatches of language are more like nervous tics— manifestations of obsessive observation and interpretation that reveal a lot about his loose approach and graphic sensibilities.

Jägel’s studio is behind his house—originally built in 1899—in the backyard of his Mission home where a horse stable once stood. His process is spontaneous and instinctive and he prefers to work on several pieces at once, purposely letting random associations come and go and keeping language and imagery open-ended to challenge our notion of reality. By using “disciplined improvisation” Jason aims to keep his work unscripted, personal and ambiguous.

Jason comes from a long lineage of artists: His father, John Jägel, was a painter who studied under the famed color theorist Josef Albers at Yale University, his grandfather Frederick Jägel was a tenor at the Metropolitan Opera, his stepmother Beatrice Hawley was a renowned poet, and his great grandfather was the writer Dhan Gopal Mukerji. But early on Jason went his own way and immersed himself in comics from the late-80’s and early-90’s with the hopes of becoming a comic book artist. Things didn’t quite pan out that way, and instead while Jason was an undergraduate at California College of the Arts he realized that the idiosyncratic and indefinable doodles he uncontrollably drew were worth pursuing. Though Jason’s aesthetic is heavily influenced by comic book art, his work is less linear and more chaotic— colors splinter and swerve, space contracts and expands, text explodes forth without much reasoning, and multiplicity seems to exist everywhere.

What mediums do you work with?
For the last 15 years I have primarily worked with gouache on paper. I also make paper sculpture. I like to carry a sketchbook or two and a pen or two with me whenever I go out. Ideally, drawing–and thinking in drawing–holds a close parallel to living.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Well, I have many philosophical feelings about my work and how it is produced. Meanwhile, I’m interested in narrative content with a variety of common themes, but reluctant to label work as “about.” The foremost –even objective– content of my work is how it is made: using disciplined improvisation while working between multiple pieces at once to maximize the use of my associative, spontaneous and intuitive characteristics. Switching from piece to piece fosters a conversation within the work itself regarding the structure and fictional narrative. While many works take a restrained approach, I always have other, ongoing pieces designed to receive the raw panoply of a day. I decided long ago that I wanted my studio to welcome my skittering attention span, to incorporate mistakes, stuttering, randomness, and more.

Years ago, when I was stymied about what to do next on a painting, I’d respond by making some doodle somewhere on that piece. Now, by extension, I make works at various distances, in the manner of a painting, and also up-close, in the manner of a comic. They are both written and painted, made to be read as much as looked at. Physically, they change by being viewed at varying distances.

You bring together language and imagery to create layered compositions that seem to have a narrative structure, but it’s quite loose and ambiguous. How do you go about choosing the text fragments? Do you have a ‘story’ in mind when starting a piece?
Language has rules and then regularly breaks them. It’s structured with contradictions and multiple entendres. Jokes often refer to loopholes in meaning within language. Kidding around picks at the seam edge of reality. Using images combined with text multiplies the possibilities of meaning, but also can complicate the message. I’m interested in piecing text and imagery together similar to how we all gather, piece together, and interpret information and experiences— we are constantly making up our own world, construing our private sense of significance and understanding. Storytelling proclaims reality, symbolically.

I combine the syntax of comics and the language of painting to make objects that are both read and looked at. Colleagues tell me that to enter my paintings they ignore the vast areas, dive into details and follow a pathway. Like a piece of writing, when working I read and re-read what I’ve made to further refine and structure the text. Studying sections up close, the remainder of the painting saturates my peripheral vision; it becomes more felt than seen and acts as the narrative’s landscape. To me, the pathways are self-evident, but for others –I expect– the overall, non-linear organization can be difficult to absorb and is likely to become more tangible over time. When viewed as a painting the text becomes a staccato pattern, but when the work is explored up close, the paint, color and raw mark-making transform to text. Image, words and paint combine in syncopated arrangement. “Syncopation is a conversation among the instruments, with each one speaking a part of a bigger statement.” (I am quoting someone, but I don’t record who, only the quote. Someone like Stanton Davis, perhaps him, but I can’t be sure. I take full responsibility for irresponsible, uncredited quotes.) Speaking in fragments, with stops and starts, I can express something that I can’t say in a coherent voice. Though unconventional, my authorial approach has refined over time –it is a form of writing I practice– and the challenge remains to counter-balance refinement with my base, impulsive voice of old.

Your work seems heavily influenced by the aesthetics of comics— did you ever want to be a comic book artist?
There’s an essay by poet Brenda Coultas, where she identifies herself as a “failed short story writer, in the traditional sense.” And, reading that, I thought, Oh! I’m a failed comic artist. Years ago, when I tried to structure a story or comic I’d be far too stressed out by my own expectations to create with any openness. Yet, in the margins of notebooks and on scraps of paper everywhere I made unrestrained images that told parts of stories. I didn’t preconceive these doodles, so the right ones held my attention, and I could look at them and imagine.

I admire writers: musicians, poets, authors, filmmakers and comic artists. There are examples of comics, and its origins, from more than the last 100 years that are strongly influential to me (at one time or another). Yummy Fur, Dirty Plotte, Eightball and the Acme Novelty Library were comics from the early 1990s that were significant in how their style and tone (both in drawing and writing) approached the question of autobiography. I was captivated by the choices these artists made, whether it was to use an austere narrative voice, to incorporate structural self-reflexivity, to mix fact with fantasy or to reference the work of past artists or time periods, among other things.

Ironically, comics are still a fringe medium (even with the marketable, bourgeois branding of the “graphic novel”) in the midst of a culture that has adapted a popular language of polyphonic text-image or text-image-sound-video. As a species we appear programmed to respond to symbolic representations. The act of perception is one where we make an internal, abstracted and symbolic version derived from sensory data.

Twenty years ago, I began to sublimate my general desire to create comics towards a painting form that offers multiple perspectives by combining imagery and text. At the same time, I’ve wanted to be making things where I don’t know what’s going to happen next and create new forms. I experience my work as a conversation between the form itself and the fictional narrative. Within my paintings, I leave evident or reveal phases of the process, in order to add consciousness regarding the work’s construction. Self-reflexivity is a fundamental narrative tool. With layered significance, the relative imagination-value of each facet is enhanced by counter-point.

You have done some album cover art; can you tell us how this work came about and what the process is like?
Around 2000, the musicians Daniel Dumile and Otis Jackson, Jr., who –among other aliases– publish music as MF DOOM and Madlib, respectively, enthralled me. At the same time on separate coasts, they independently created genre-exploding records with aplomb and disregard for the commercial mainstream. Each has a long creative history, but both emerged around 1999 with stunning, inwardly looping, self-reflexive narratives. These are awesome examples of fictional autobiography; they possess such complex inner-workings that their work constitutes an entirely new syntax. The albums are documents; apparently made having no audience other than themselves and their immediate circle. At the same time, they both are connoisseurs of music, and their work uniquely connects to specific, past albums, genres, artists and fragments. Both are crazy, in their own way. DOOM is a literary evil-genius and one of my favorite authors. Madlib, basically born in a recording studio with a sampler in his hand, possesses a staggering work ethic and creates music like he is breathing. He consumes past records worldwide with a pace of information absorption on the highest of scholarly levels. Otis’ consumption and production occur in the same action. His listening is transitionless with his making.

I’m very proud to have worked with both these gentlemen. For me, it is a social project not a commercial venture. While I love album art in general, my desire is to associate with artists of the highest level that I admire, both as a fan and to connect with on a creative level. Facets of these two artists exist in me– they speak for me.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I think of my work as fictional autobiography.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
My day jobs are to be a good parent, husband, individual, artist, teacher, illustrator and front office employee. I’m not always good at all of these jobs, but I strive to be.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I have a great studio that is packed to the gills. I use all available spaces to make it work for me. I’d love to have a really big space to work in someday.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work? Apparently you’ve got a pretty extensive record collection— does music explicitly inform your work?
Music is something I experience that I can layer in with my other activities. While engaged in reading, writing, speaking and making artwork, music fertilizes my mind. In the studio, music is the one form of consumption that translates into production in real time.

What inspires me? All old records, all books, all films, all comics. My daughters. Experiences miniscule, momentary and massive. I want to arrive with as much as possible and let the process sort things out.

How do you navigate the art world?
As a work in progress, and with a good attitude.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
This past summer I had the opportunity to see dOCUMENTA (13). It was my first time seeing an exhibition that existed on such a large and diverse physical scope. I was truly moved by the show’s placement of certain works and artists. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev brought together a mysterious and profound combination of artists and works. The emphasis was on artists engaged in research; a common, apparent preoccupation in the art world today. Yet, the exhibition included a startlingly diverse array of artists and objects, such that the focus opened up the world instead of closing it down. Significant to me, there were artists whose research was / is themselves, and is spiritually, even mystically, driven.

I am very interested in the idea of being in conversation with other artists. I believe very much in the connectedness of cultural production and less in the idea of divine or supreme authorship. As a champion of non-linearity, it is inspiring to consider a shared creativity where an artist can draw forth from the past to make a profound effect on today. A list of artists who influence my making or I feel connected to for one reason or another: Kurt Schwitters, Bruce Conner, Phillip Guston, John Jägel, Max Beckmann, Chris Ware, Robert Wyatt, Philip Cohran, Chester Brown, Otis Jackson Jr., Edan Portnoy, Marconi Notaro, Haruki Murakami, Vikram Chandra.

Do you have a motto?
Shut up and do your job.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Recently closed exhibition in Copenhagen.
Recently released picture book, Hang Glider & Mud Mask, co-created with Brian McMullen, published by McSweeney’s.
Also, I created paintings for skateboard designs for Atlas, released December 2012.
There’s some stuff brewing for 2013, but nothing firmly established yet!

To see more of Jason’s work:
Galleri Christoffer Egelund