Pop-UP Art has invited artist Jon Rappleye to temporarily furnish the groundskeeper’s residence in Harsimus Cemetery in Jersey City with a collection of his paintings and sculptures from the past two years.
At first glance, Rappleye’s exquisite menageries of exotic and everyday animals in the wild strike me as ornate, gaudy, and playful-even saccharine. On repeated viewings, his work reveals an artist whose dedication to depicting the natural world borders on the religious.
The hallmarks of his work include attention to detail, craftsmanship, and picturesque color. For me, the true subject of his work is conflict: a battle between life and death, chaos and order, preservation and obliteration. I recently caught up with Rappleye to discuss this show, the current state of his work, and the business reality of being an artist.
You hail from Utah. What brought you to Jersey City?
I moved to New York City after graduating with an MFA from the U-Wisconsin Madison to work as a studio assistant for an artist. I also came here to pursue my own artistic endeavors, to be around all the energy and submerge myself in the arts community.
When did you begin to paint and draw?
I really have been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember. I feel lucky to have parents who nurtured my creativity and non-conventional quirks. One of my earliest memories was drawing on the living room walls with markers and crayon, then later making murals on the backside of my fathers auto body repair and paint shop, I would sneak the beautiful gallon cans of metallic paints from the shop and use paint brushes and sticks to paint with. I once painted a bucket full of worms red and blue then let them loose so that I would be able to find them again later, I was only 5. Later on my parents sent me to private drawing and painting lessons.
You are an important role model for a lot of artists, having built a life – and a profession – around your artwork. Jeff Bailey Gallery represents you; commercial galleries and museums exhibit your paintings and sculptures on a regular basis; colleges and universities frequently hire you as a guest lecturer. In addition, numerous artist centers have invited you to be an artist in residence. I am interested in the day-to-day realities of this stuff. I want to concentrate on your relationship with the Jeff Bailey Gallery. How long have you been with the gallery, and why did you choose them? Also, what does gallery representation mean for you, and how does it help sustain and nurture your career?
That’s really nice to here, I never really think of it that way so It’s good to know. I always tell students it’s about dedication and hard work, making art takes certain sacrifices but the rewards for me out weigh the sacrifices. I just got back from the U-Wisconsin Milwaukee where I was lecturing and meeting with students, It’s important for me to give back to the arts community and I know from my own experience how valuable it is to hear from a working artist, when I was in school I saw it as a rare opportunity and I always looked up to the artists who came to visit and share with us.
I have been very fortunate to be in a situation where I can do artist residencies, for several years I was doing back-to-back residencies. I enjoy the changing environment and the kind of support and solitude that a residency provides. It can be a really good time to submerge myself into my artwork without the constant disruptions of daily life. There is a great sense of community there, I have met some of my closest friends and support through residencies.
I stopped doing residencies about a year ago as I wanted to be back in my own studio and nurture my relationships at home, that’s not to say that I won’t do more, in fact I was invited to teach a course for one semester at the University of Las Vegas, Nev. last semester. Of course I did it. It’s difficult to pass up a good opportunity like that.
I have been showing with Jeff Bailey Gallery since 2004. I didn’t have my first solo show there until 2006. Really it’s a situation where you choose each other. It has to be a good fit. I was interested in his program and he liked my work. We did studio visits for over a two year period before I ever showed with him. It’s about nurturing your relationship and taking your time to get to know each other and the work.
As young artists we are always eager to get our work out there, I am thankful that we took the time as the work matured. Having representation has been very important to me and my career. It has given me the exposure that I would never be able to attain on my own from public visibility to reviews and other exhibition opportunities. There is a certain regard that comes with showing at a commercial gallery.
I also show with Richard Heller Gallery in Los Angeles. He had been following my work for a number of years and I had always liked his program, then one day he asked me to join. My experience with both galleries has been very positive.
As a young artist, I have the tendency to place the cart before the horse. I want my work out there now, regardless of the reality of the situation. It is imperative for me to hear an artist speak about patience, time, and relationships. I love making work, but the studio can get lonely. What do you think is the most important action an artist can take to cultivate and sustain a career in the studio making art?
I know the loneliness of studio practice. I quite think of myself as a loner at heart. It is difficult for me to get motivated to go out and face the public, attend that opening or make that contact but it is true that every little bit makes a difference. There have been many situations where I was in the right place at the right time or one opportunity has led to another. I have at times just wanted my work out there without regard for the maturity or the venue of the work but I have also been most grateful for the times that I waited and in the long run they have been the most lasting and meant the most to me and my career.
While getting out there is important I think it is more important to make the work, to put the time effort and hard work required, without the work then there is really nothing. Also cultivate the relationships that you have, and the ones that you make. It’s give and take, even small things count. Your friends will be your strongest support, your biggest allies, this works both ways.
How did you become involved in the exhibition “In Spirited Company,” and what work will be on view?
When I was asked to do this exhibition and what the venue was I was immediately intrigued. I went to visit the space and thought this could be very interesting.
I also feel that it is important for me to be supportive of the arts community here in Jersey City. They have given me many opportunities and there are many artists and a thriving community in New Jersey. There will be a collection of paintings and ceramic sculpture on view, drawn from the past two years in addition to some recent work.
The exhibition space is distinct. Your paintings and sculptures will be installed in the groundskeeper’s residence in the Harsimus Cemetery. What can a graveyard do for you that a white cube in Chelsea cannot?
I really like the idea of creating an environment for the work an installation of sorts. A few years ago I had the opportunity to create an installation at the Jersey City Museum. It was a very rewarding experience that allowed me to think of the work in new ways. The cemetery seemed like a perfect match because of many of the themes I deal with in my work, the cycle of life and death, beauty and decay.
The groundskeeper’s house is an older building with Victorian furnishings and light fixtures; I like the ambiance and the way it encompassed the work and tells a sort of story. The cemetery itself is from the 1800’s and has a lot of history. It’s very beautiful with trees, overgrown vines and sculpture. There will also be a tree lighting in the cemetery, food vendors, caroling and a band.
Your newer paintings explode off the canvas with the controlled aggression of a veteran boxer. Explain the concept behind your new series of paintings.
Thanks. I see making work as an evolution; one thing leads you to another My last body really investigated the landscape and I felt that I pushed that as far as I could. For the new work I wanted to try to push the work in a new direction, to a more ambiguous space, and up the chroma with some of them.
I have always been drawn to a very central composition and symmetry. The ideas for this work comes from many sources, I have been calling this body of work “totems and ghosts”. I have been looking at a lot of Dutch still life vanitas paintings. Vanitas was a style of painting that was popular in the 16th and 17th century, vanities means “emptiness” referring to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity, an interest in death and decay.
These paintings are filled with symbolism and lavishly painted with flowers, insects, skulls and an array of dead animals. I have also been investigating native cultures and mythologies, The totem is a central column filled with animal spirits. Each person is thought to have nine different animals that represent them, each animal having it’s own symbolism. Also if you study the work closely you will find that the basic underlying structures are taken from old human anatomy books.
If you had to pick one animal that you most identify with in your work, what animal is it, and why?
I would have to say the owl. I know that a lot of animal imagery has become a sort of fad for artists in the past few years but the owl holds a lot of personal meaning for me. I also think that growing up on a farm in rural Utah where we were surrounded by rabbits, geese, ducks, pigs, horses, cows and deer has informed my work. As a child I use to draw owls all the time. I made sculptures from small rocks and glued them to pieces of driftwood and for the beaks I would use the thorns of a rosebush. I once painted a huge boulder to look like an owl and my father hoisted it up between the crook of an old wooden stump.
And how do these relate to your earlier work?
Like I said before making art is an evolution for me. I have a committed interest in the investigation of nature and animals and a deep reverence for life. These interests are manifest in the works I make.
Jersey City is post-industrial city of brick and mortar. How do you nurture your deep reverence for nature in this place?
To a certain degree making the work that I make is escapism. It’s the place that I would like to be at times. That is part of the reason I have done a lot of artist residencies – to submerge myself in nature. Most of them are in very remote places away from an urban environment.
What is the relationship between your paintings and sculptural pieces?
I made my first sculptural piece several years ago when I was asked to be a part of a show at the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco. The curator said that he wanted a sculpture, so I made one. I had actually been thinking about it for a few years and this was the perfect opportunity. I made the sculpture out of paper mache, basically interpreting the tree forms from my paintings. I later made more and bigger tree forms for my exhibit at the Jersey City Museum.
I then did a residency at the John Michael Kohler Center for the Arts in Sheboygan Wisconsin. Kohler makes faucets, sinks and toilets. The artists work in the factory right along side the factory workers. I was there for 5 months. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have had, often working 12 hour days. I made Slip Cast China sculptures further investigating the imagery from my paintings.
Let’s discuss your exhibition “Awakened in the Peaceable Kingdom” at Jeff Bailey. Peaceable Kingdom, a series of paintings by Edward Hicks, inspired the title of the show. What is his series about, and why is it important to you?
I like to work from concepts, but basically that is just a jumping of point. Hicks was a folk painter, he was interested in portraying a utopian society but his work is tempered with the darker more destructive impulses of man and animal. As a lover of nature and concern for the environment, I am intrigued by the themes of his work.
How has his body of work informed the parade of beasts in your paintings and sculptures?
His work has a sort of quirkiness that I am drawn to. I try to bring this kind of spirit to the work by creating hybrids and creating toxic environments.
Peaceable Kingdom was inspired by this passage from the Book of Isaiah: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and the calf, and the young lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”. Does this passage speak to you, and if so, how does it inspire your own work?
I am drawn to the childlike naiveté of his paintings where animals gather together with disregard for geographic habitats or the role of animals in the food chain, in this way our works are similar.
I am always struck by your paintings deep sense of space as well as the otherworldly sense of light and color. Does Utah and its natural treasures play a role in your work?
Most definitely. The west has a very different kind of light, it is sharper and clearer. I am always amazed when I go back home how different the light is. Also the open space – you can see the horizon and the expanse of the sky and land. I feel like I can see off into the distance forever. The colors of the landscape there have also informed my pallet, especially southern Utah’s red rock country, which has a sort of pastel look ranging from deep reds and violets to delicate coral pinks. Also the otherworldly formations always play into my work, the natural formations have a strange biomorphic composite which I am attracted to.
For me, the tone of your work is cool, detached, remote, if not melancholic. The creatures do not mingle as much as they co-exist, side-by-side but alone, isolated, seemingly oblivious to each other’s situation and the world’s. (Your paintings remind me of Journal Square-a menagerie of people, hustling on the corner of Sip Avenue and JFK Blvd., a toxic sunset over the Meadowlands.)
I like your reference to Journal Square. I remember when I first moved here I lived in New York City in Tribeca. I was really amazed at the variety of people, languages, cultures and how they all co-exist together, next to each other, on top of each other and sometimes without even knowing or interacting directly with each other. The same thing exists here in Jersey City, maybe even more so where it is even less gentrified.
I have heard somewhere that living in a city like New York City can be the loneliest place on the planet and yet you are surrounded by millions of people at any given moment. I think it can be easy to turn a blind eye to the problems around us and to get caught up in our own daily lives and existence. It’s important that we pay attention and do our part no matter how small.
As I understand it, Hicks hoped that his paintings would help reconcile the schism between rival factions of Quakers. Do you often think about who your audience is? How do you expect viewers to respond to your work?
As an artist we all have a message. My work investigates the environment through animals and nature. I have a deep concern for our world and preserving it for future generations. I am disheartened by headlines of real world travesties like disappearing species, loss of habitats and toxic pollution. I really try not to over analyze my work, I like the viewer to bring their own experience and interpretation to the work and hopefully raise questions in the viewer’s minds.
What is the process behind the paintings?
My process is very long and involved. I work in acrylic and spray enamel on paper. The animals are basically drawn with diluted acrylic paint to the consistency of India ink. They are delicately drawn with a very fine brush hair by hair. Elements are contrasted with bold outlines and colored grounds. Areas are then masked out so that I can apply thin layers of spray paint creating a deep sense of space. In the new work I am then coloring the animals using colored pencil.
What is up next for you?
In February I am giving a public lecture on my work at Hudson Community College. In April I will be a visiting artist at my old alma mater, U-Wisconsin Madison, I am very excited about it. I also have some exhibits in the works.
Any last words?
I really like living in Jersey City. It’s a nice change of pace from NYC with its own diverse culture. It’s also cheaper! It’s been very good to me, I am proud to call Jersey my home.
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