Jonathan Wahl showed his large charcoal drawings at the Pulse fair last month with Lenox, Massachusetts-based Sienna Gallery. Jonathan was trained as a jeweler but explains how he became interested in drawing instead, and the conflicts he encountered along the way. His work is beautiful and the story is a tale filled with intriguing twists and turns. He tells it well.
Susan Cummins: Your drawings are so beautiful and have the allure and seduction of a gemstone. Let’s talk about beauty. Is it an old-fashioned concept?
Jonathan Wahl: Beauty is an old-fashioned concept and an eternal one. I don’t think we will ever escape the allure and need for beauty although what we consider beautiful shifts with each age. For me, beauty is very important. I am seduced by beautiful things and I do want to make beautiful things. Allure and seduction are powerful. The drawings are based on gems, which sparkle like eyes, the seat of seduction. So that look, that flash of seduction, attraction to a person, sparkle of a stone or shimmer on an eye is part of this work. It’s no wonder we give gemstones as a sign of our love and fidelity. And seduction from another person I hope will never become old-fashioned.
To me there is a nostalgic element in the landscape-oriented and mythological imagery you are using. Do you think the beauty you depict is accompanied by nostalgia?
Jonathan Wahl: I was shocked when I saw the work up in the booth and realized how calm and meditative it is. I have always considered myself a very social person who would rather be dancing than doing yoga. But to me to be nostalgic is to be thinking, reminiscing, and being quiet. Landscapes and landscape paintings are about looking, gazing. None of the drawings have people in them so they are lonely, one could say. I think loneliness is nostalgic. Being nostalgic acknowledges loss as if one is remembering a moment past.
You were educated to be a jeweler at Tyler and then in New Paltz, but as far as I know you no longer make jewelry. Is that correct? Why did you give it up?
Jonathan Wahl: Well, you could say I never really started making jewelry. At Tyler (1986–1990) I made some big 80s-style jewelry, but it quickly started to morph into sculptural objects that sort of masqueraded as jewelry. I made a lot of boxes and containers that often revealed a kind of broken narrative or theme. The last piece I made at Tyler was a clock that was about my sexuality. I realized that I was more interested in making a point or telling a story than making jewelry. That certainly was the case in New Paltz, where I re-created early American tinware. After New Paltz, in Berlin, and later in NYC, I made sculpture for a decade that eventually became figurative and historical until I created my jewelry line. I put the line together really to make some extra $ and to prove to myself I could do it. I realized I did “do it” when I got a huge write-up in W Jewelry and Barneys and Bergdorf called. Then things started to get weird for me. After being a sculptor for a decade and still considering myself one, I was now a jeweler to the outside world, as you know “you are only as good as your last review.” Telling curators I was now a sculptor and a jeweler seemed to make their eyes glaze over. You can be more than one thing it seems to the art world, like bartender and painter, go-go boy and potter is great editorial, but mixing up the Art with the big A and the little a, in this town, was a hard sell. It’s not the case for all, and it is changing to some extent, but I found it rang true often. But that experience, strangely, is what brought me to drawing the jet jewelry. Also, I realized that if I pursued the jewelry line, that would be it, it would be a full-time business. The line was pretty conservative, wearable. It wasn’t art jewelry, it was a fashion jewelry line, and I liked it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do full time. Careful what you wish for, they say.
And yet your recent drawings are all about jewelry or, to be more specific, the gemstone. So are you still enchanted?
Jonathan Wahl: When I lived in Berlin my friend Roger and I used the word “enchanted” as a code word for gay so, yes, I’m still enchanted, hee hee, chuckle, chuckle. No, seriously, I am still enchanted by gems; they are fascinating. It is said people covet gems because they are reflective, shiny and translucent like our eyes. Our eyes are where we connect emotionally, so we covet gems like we covet our emotional connections. A few years ago we got a few very large donations of gems at the Jewelry Center. I don’t teach anymore but, overseeing the program, I sorted the donation. As I poured out the tourmalines and iolites and amethysts on the table, I had the urge to roll around in them, they are so seductive. Another reason I’m intrigued by drawing the gems is that, drawn large, the shift in scale abstracts them from what they are. A black cabochon becomes a pool of night or a portal. The drawings that reveal landscapes which are inspired by landscape agates and occluded gems invert our sense of scale; as from a distance the gem drawing looks like a gem, but closer up it reveals a place or landscape. The opposite of how we understand those things normally as grand versus intimate. So, yes, still enchanted.
Your show with Sienna Patti gallery was during the Pulse fair in New York. Overall what did you think of the work you saw at the fair?
Jonathan Wahl: The Pulse fair is very contemporary and youngish in feeling. The trend with many young artists is to work in a deconstructed blasé manner, and that isn’t work I usually respond to. But overall Armory week in NYC is pretty intense and amazing and the Pulse show is no exception. You see a lot of work. It’s always informational to see it all.
Anything really spectacular? What was your experience showing in an art venue like that?
Jonathan Wahl: There were a few painters I enjoyed, but what I most responded to were woodcuts by Katsutoshi Yuasa. I saw his work at the Volta fair last year and they are absolutely exquisite. I want to own one. Art fairs are fairs like any other fair. You set up your booth and people come through and you have some very funny conversations and meet a lot of people.
Do you feel that you are forging a path between an art practice and jewelry? What are the challenges you face to make it work?
Jonathan Wahl: I think I am drawing on my life experience for inspiration. I have learned now that a different perspective is good, and drawing on my background is important. I really think often about what I bring to the table as an artist, and my hybridized professional life does inform the work. Combining the two fields is a bit tricky, particularly since they are being combined two-dimensionally and I was not trained as an image maker but as a thing maker. I have been reminded by drawing that creating an image of a thing is completely different than creating the thing itself. I also made a conscious decision to draw gems, not jewelry, as it leaves the image more open to interpretation. And the work at this moment really isn’t about jewelry, it is about gems and landscapes.
What have you seen or read recently of interest?
Jonathan Wahl: I saw Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian yesterday at the Guggenheim and her work was pretty powerful and mainly made of mirror. Her work glitters like big gems or minerals. She is 90 years old, currently lives in Iran, and has an incredible life story. She took a freighter alone to the US in 1944, landed in L.A., and took the train to NYC to pursue her art career. While here she hung out with the crew at the Cedar Tavern in the Village. She eventually retuned to Iran, then had to flee on two occasions, and is still making work there. I encourage your readers to look her up. As we seem to all have some affection for the shiny object, I think the AJF crowd would enjoy her work as much as I have.