Royal Jarmon’s paintings and sculptures are vibrant expressions of reality that explore visual aesthetics, spatial imaginings, and perceptions of our surroundings. His work creates an alternate view of reality, exaggerating perspectives and forms, saturating colors, and distorting recognizable objects, images, and items.
Jarmon’s works are concerned with social culture and popular human experiences navigating life and the world around us, and his pieces play with our expectations for how landscapes, objects, and scenes are viewed and understood. Fire escapes strewn with bottles, food detritus, and cans of soda and beer become playful landscapes and still lifes. The spatial perspective is flattened and the inanimate objects become living characters reflecting themes of consumption, leisure, and the everyday, while also transforming this space with hyper colors, airbrushed backgrounds, and exaggerated scales into an illusionistic world. In Untitled (Car), Jarmon paints a birds-eye view of a Nascar car, which is flattened into a two dimensional recto-linear form, abstracting our understanding of perspective and movement. All sides of the car except for its belly are visible, and its massive form takes up almost the entirety of the canvas. Jarmon blends airbrush with rougher, visible brush strokes, further complicating the rendering of the scene and critically engaging with paint as a material and the history of the medium. His subjects -- cars, fire escapes, beer cans, etc. -- are all common and recognizable images, which lends them to a larger project of poking and prodding at popular culture, human experience, and our relationship to both our internal and external environments. Jarmon’s works engage with contemporary digital and Internet culture, and his image making is in direct dialogue to our current, present day reality.
Royal Jarmon was born in Sacramento, CA and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Jarmon has been creating art from an early age, and spent years of his adult life educating and teaching himself art history, painting, and theory and developing his practice through these pursuits. His work has been included in shows at The Hole, Castor Gallery, and in the travelling exhibition Got It For Cheap, run by Zero Zero gallery in L.A. You can catch his work in a recent group show, Stand Still - A Still Life Show, at Allouche Gallery (NYC) on view through November 26th.
What is your background in art and how have you developed your current body of work?
I’ve always been into creative stuff and drawing since I was kid. In school I was good at a lot of things, but I was really good at art. I didn’t grow up in a place where I thought you could do anything with that, but through a weird series of events I just kept pursuing it on my own. I didn’t go to school and study art. A part of me wishes that I would have, but maybe because I didn’t go to school I took studying very seriously. On my own, I bought thousands of dollars of books and just went through art history trying to figure out why things were considered good. Sometimes I wouldn’t always understand something, but then two years later I would just love it, so I really just educated myself. Even though I didn’t go to school, I really value education.
But really, I just kept making art. I travelled around a lot in my twenties, but my focus was always on making work. I’ve had some precarious moments in my life, but I always had art and that’s what has kept me going and has made my life interesting, so I never stopped. I love large paintings and I love craftsmanship. I’ve worked a ton of different jobs and just kept painting.
About three years ago I was living in Iowa in a small town called Cedar Rapids where I had a basement studio. I had a job, but I just spent all my time in that basement making work. Around that time a lot of people in New York were seeing my work online and started contacting me, thinking that I already lived there. I was like, ‘no, I’m in Iowa,’ and then none of them got back to me (laughs), but it made me realize that this is real and that I had to leave. I saved up all my money for six months working a lot, and every chance I got I was in the studio trying to get better. I re-contacted the people from New York and told them I was moving there in two weeks and asked if we could meet up. Then I came here and saw a whole new level of art that existed and I’ve just been developing from there.
What attracted you to painting specifically? You also make three-dimensional sculptures, how do you approach both bodies of work?
I love using my hands. I think my paintings feel like sculptures because I’m really interested in the dynamics of space. I want you to look at a piece and almost feel like some of those elements are actually there, and try to really understand how it all holds together, how cheesy and dark it can be. The works definitely inform one another. I’ll learn things from each practice. I’ll see how I use certain techniques effectively with sculpture, and then I’ll try to see how I can apply those techniques into the paintings. It just goes back and forth.
With painting there’s so many elements and components that go into that work. The history of painting is incredibly interesting to me and I relate to painters throughout history. I went to a country school for high school and my art teacher didn’t know quite what to do with me so she gave me free reign a lot of times to play around with materials. But my senior year she gave me this Gustav Klimt book, and I just ate it up. I’m sometimes super social, but also at times very reclusive, and one of the things Klimt would say was, if you want to know anything about me then look at my work. I think that’s very overboard and dramatic, but I like being able to escape into a world where I can still express myself to people through a medium, and sometimes that’s a lot easier for me. Sometimes I feel a lot of anxiety about things. New York is a really good place for art and I like that people have a standard for art and a community around it, but I don’t always want to be a part of that community and a lot of times I feel more comfortable being alone in my studio just working every day, so for me it’s a constant negotiation between connecting with people and being alone with my practice.
In terms of subject matter, I see motifs recurring now in your works -- cars, fire escapes, cans, bottles -- how have you developed the subject and narratives of the works?
I worked for Taylor McKimens who is a really great painter and who taught me about a lot of stuff. He really encouraged me to find myself more, which sounds so cheesy and he would never even say it that way, but he helped me find myself as a painter more and encouraged me to just get down and do the actual work.
I was subletting a studio for a solo show that I did, and my roommate hated when I smoked in our place, so I had to go out on the fire escape and I was out there all the time. I was out there so much that I just started wanting to paint a fire escape, and so I sat down and started painting fire escapes. I loved it. Then I moved out of that space and moved here and began painting cars.
The car crashes came from a lot of things. I was going through some stuff at the time -- I was struggling financially, moving apartments, all of that -- and I just felt like this car. I didn’t realize when I started painting these two works, but one car was my favorite car when I was a kid watching Nascar, and the other was my brother’s, so one painting became me and the other him.
I think that the struggles these represent are both personal and are also representative of struggles that a lot of people go through. I’m interested in pop culture, but I’m more interested in what I would call the ‘popular human condition’. What is going on with people and why are they the way they are? Sometimes I feel like I don’t like people generally, and I don’t know if a lot of people feel that way, but I’m trying to figure out why that is. And I’m also interested in if other people feel the same way about me and why people treat me the way they do. I don’t know why I’m so interested in that, but I am. Why are we the way we are, what is culture, what is style...all of that.
I grew up on a farm and we would always watch football and Nascar. Nascar is filled with these blue collar, tough dudes, but then there’s all these fluorescent colors and crazy graphics, and I think it’s a funny contrast. I also think it’s interesting that people are so obsessed with car crashes. If there is a race, the car crashes are the biggest deals. People are so into excitement. People are into Rocky getting his ass kicked over and over again and just staying in the ring. It’s fascinating to me.
In these paintings, you’ll see fun little things in terms of the graphics or logos. Some of these logos are the real thing, but other times they come from somewhere else. In Not safe to smile, I was in a fight with my girlfriend so I put ‘U Suck’ on the bottom of the car, just venting in my painting. I don’t know, these were fun because there’s a lot of room to just put weird shit in there and play around.
The cars, cans, and bottles are all playing with branding and logos. How are you playing with that imagery and iconography?
I’m interested in so many kinds of paintings, but I’m learning to give myself strong rules and things to keep in the front of my mind while working. I say rules, but usually it’s things I just keep in my head so that when I get to certain points while painting I’m able to remember certain things that will allow me to move the piece forward.
In abstract painting you have abstract value, and I’m also trying to create abstract value in different places in my own work. I think that when people look at art, often times they only look at it for 10 second before moving on. I think the whole challenge is whether you can even make a painting anymore that’s interesting to look at for longer than that because people look at so much stuff so quickly, like why am I going to put a month of time into an artwork if it’s only going to be looked at for 10 seconds? But I think that there are ways to counter that and to make something more interesting. With these Nascar cars, I’ve included logos and stickers that aren’t real brands. That allows for a break up of the branding of the car and forces people to ask what they’re actually looking at. Other decisions are made purely just to make the painting good. There are some elements that are included that don’t actually exist in real life, but they’re there to add visual value in particular moments and areas in the work. Then on top of this abstract value, you need concept value...I don't think about it or dissect the work as much as I am right now talking about it, but that’s what is floating through my mind as I do those things. I don’t want to go and look at a Nascar car and find out what every decal is because that gets boring. I like to have them be organic. I’m really just drawing everything in and trying to remember details from childhood. I’ll look at references, but I have a really short attention span so I appreciate the looseness in it. I like to push the boundary of what’s okay.
Can you talk more about your work process and how you develop a piece?
I have a lot of different tools and techniques that I’ve been collecting for the past fifteen years that I’ve been painting, so I’ll rotate through those regularly. More recently I’ve been getting more interested in using motifs. For this piece, Sorbet, I looked through tons of images of bull riders getting thrown off bulls. I initially found this little logo on a Cheez-it box, or some box of crackers, and thought that it was a really cool composition, and it reminded me of a bull rider. I looked at tons of images of bull riders and then did a really fast freehand drawing, which I ended up liking. I chose the size of the canvas and then scaled up the drawing. I don’t grid images out. I used to use the projector some for parts of paintings, but I don’t do that anymore.
My process is kind of weird and not uniform. Sometimes I’ll start with the background, sometimes I’ll start with the foreground...it mainly just depends on what I consider the important part. A lot of artists I know figure out everything on a computer beforehand, but I don’t usually start a painting like that. I have before, but it just doesn’t serve my strengths. I really love technology, but I’m really strong with hands-on working and pushing a piece forward with action, so I start a painting with action. Once I get a structure of what I’m doing, I’ll work from the image that I have in my head and then just figure out how to make it physically and visually look good. I can get the bones of the image on the canvas and that looks good to me because I can visualize what I want it to look like, but I just have to figure out how to bridge that gap between my mental image and the painting on canvas, if that makes sense.
How are you thinking about perspective and layering/flattening image planes within your work?
I think those are tricks that I’ve learned over the years that help people pay attention. I’m thinking about how do I get viewers pay attention to me. Maybe that sounds dumb, but I’m not going to paint paintings if I don’t even want to look at them. I like looking at my paintings. I love leaving for two days and coming back to the studio and seeing the painting I finished at 4am before I left and being like, Oh damn, that’s good! Two days later, that’s still cool. I shouldn’t expect other people to enjoy it if I don’t. That seems basic to me.
I think having a push/pull in the work is important. I like the digital feel of the work because everything we look at is digital, but I also love classical painting, abstract expressionists, and purely conceptual art. I’ve learned to appreciate so many things and it’s all so available. It’s 2017, so let’s just put it all together. Maybe that’s comical, but I think I’ve had a lot of contexts in life -- I’ve lived a lot of places and worked a lot of jobs -- and I’ve tasted a lot of different flavors I guess.
Your colors are very saturated and also allow for a blurring of reality with non-reality by creating these more psychedelic scenes. How do you approach color?
For me my color has just developed as I worked. A lot of these colors that I use are just colors that I’ve been using for years and I know how to work with them. I keep adding to that and my color ability grows. When I’m working in the painting, there’s a back and forth between super realistic and super psychedelic, which I like blending together. I love psychedelic stuff, but I'm also a realist, so how do you mold those together? I don’t really know what my conscious thought process is, but I know what I have in front of me and I have control over all of my arsenal of colors. If I think of a color, I’ll either make it or go buy it, but usually I just pick whatever I want in my mind and move forward from there. I need the control of knowing and having my own colors because I’m trying to change a lot of other things about the painting. But it’s usually always about contrasts and friction.
It’s interesting to see how you blend mark-making with visible strokes and marks with airbrush. How have you developed your material techniques?
I first got interested in airbrush when I was a little kid because my dad had one. I never really used it a lot, and then a few years ago everyone started using it and around that time I just bought one. I kind of bought one out of laziness, I guess. I wanted to do all these things and have all these techniques in the painting, but I didn’t really want to take the time to figure out how to actually do them when I could just use the airbrush. At the time I bought it, it was all about the airbrush, and I learned how to use it as a tool. But my paintings aren’t about the airbrush. There are artists that definitely have that as a central part of their practice, but I just use it as a tool to help pump things up in my work. I do want the work to have some digital aspects to its appearance. Part of that is because I think that’s where our culture is right now and I think art today is going to have some sense of interaction with that. You can’t separate the artist from the culture. In my job, I’m stretching canvases from the sixties and I’ve seen people make the exact same painting a thousand times since then, but this original work is so different. And it’s not because of name recognition, it’s because the artist was in that time and was making this different work for the first time. It has a specific energy and it’s focused on specific subtleties and nuances. I think that’s one of the cool things about art and I think that’s why sometimes I don’t always understand my own work until afterward.
How are you thinking of engaging your work with digital technology? Your work has been defined as post-digital or post-analogue painting. How are you approaching that in your practice?
I think my approach has been to try to lay off the airbrush a bit. I want to show that I know how to paint, and I’m not necessarily trying to prove anything, but it is important for me to be able to show that. The airbrush isn’t particularly necessary, but I think it does make my work more interesting, personally. I love technology and I love the tightness in that, but I also really love the warmth of brushstroke and the fact that it’s very apparent that something is hand-made and isn’t perfect but is really well done. It’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess and to me that’s real, that’s life. I don’t have it all together, but this is tighter and also not tight at all, there are drips and strokes. Maybe one day I’ll get it all tight because I’ve figure my own life out...but I don’t see that happening.
How does scale enter into your work?
Eight years ago I was trying to make the biggest paintings, as big as I could. I really like the large size. I like painting small stuff because you can really play with that, but in person, I love feeling dominated by a painting and the way you can step way back from it and see what the artist wants you to see, but also really get in there and have it be really messy.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on one piece that will be a hurdler squeezed into a box-like form. I think it’s thinking about the human condition in our society, and how there’s so much freedom in what you want to and can choose, but at the same time there are all these stresses that make it very apparent that you have to choose certain things, and I’m using the box in a figurative way like that.
When I was in high school I loved sprinting and I had a coach that wanted me to run long distance instead. He told me that my legs were too short to ever do the hurdles in track. I wasn’t ever planning on doing the hurdles, but because he said that I basically was like, well now I’m going to do the hurdles. So I did and I became the number two on the team. When I think about that, I see something about myself and I feel like it’s so representative of life -- you’re just hurdling and people tell you you can’t do certain things and you have to figure out how to do them. I also feel like a hurdler now; I’m trying to keep everything together while I work this job and then finish all these paintings and go to these shows and see these people and go back to this other job...maybe that’s what I’m thinking about. Or also maybe my struggle with the art world as well.
What are are you looking at or thinking about and what’s informing your work?
I’ve been looking at Egon Schiele lately. It doesn’t seem like my work is that informed by it, but it is. Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt had amazing landscape works, which most people don’t know about. Everything Schiele does I love, but I’ve always been really interested in his landscape works. When I was making my fire escape paintings I was especially looking at that. I also am thinking about Agnes Martin. I love her work, but I also just love the way she thinks and used to watch videos of her talking about her work. Her way of doing things is on my mind a lot. She really talked a lot about how knowing what you want is really the most important thing. I think that’s really necessary to figure out, because then everything else becomes moldable and malleable and that’s the way to align things. I think it’s a mindset of just knowing what you’re taking seriously and then doing it. I feel like I relate to that on some level. Steve Jobs said something similar in some speech where he said, everyday I look in the mirror and ask myself if I’m happy with what I’m doing that day, and if there are too many days in a row where I’m not happy with myself, then I have to start making changes. I loosely follow that. I spend a lot of time with myself and making some of these paintings requires intense focus, so I have to have myself in the right place that I want for that. If you enter into things with the mindset of, oh I have to do this, you’re never going to make anything that is quality or that’s true to you. It’s just not going to be fun. But if instead I’m like, I have this idea that I get to work out and play with and work through all these problems -- that’s just fun for me.
Are there any things in particular that you’re trying to work through, or any frustrations or challenges that you face in the studio?
I think patience, really. New York has everything you want, but you just have to learn to be patient. For me I just have to keep making paintings and working on refining them. I’m happy with these current works, but I’m ready for the next thing. I like moving forward and I like change. I just want to do different stuff all the time.