What intrigues me so much about Jonathan Tracy's paintings is that they are nonobjective and yet somehow toy with this very idea, and the longer I look at them, the more I wonder if I'm supposed to be seeing something there. And because I can't, I'm sure it's a good thing! Raised in the Midwest and now based in Manhattan, we chat about his influences from an early age as well as the importance of the idea of "where" in addition to "how" or "why" the work happens.
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I'd love to know more about you! Where are you from, and where are you based now?
I was born in rural Eastern South Dakota - though I was raised primarily in a rustic river valley town in Southern Minnesota. Fortunately I was able to travel west to San Francisco for art school. Much of this history propelled me to live in Manhattan, where I am based now.
What first interested you in painting? Do you primarily work in oil?
The very first experience that interested me in painting came from a friend's dad. He worked as a painting professor. Just seeing his personal studio filled with oil paintings and watercolors made a big impact on me - that people did this. The gray, gloomy winters in Minnesota drove me to paint too. My hometown was a soybean hub so trains covered in colorful graffiti passed through.
You consider your practice to be highly personal -- a response to constantly changing perceptions and opinions of the world around you. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?
I feel like it's often asked "why" something was made. The answers to "why" are often sought through writing about how a work is important and meaningful. In terms of my suggestion that my work arrives from the personal or is culled from within, what I broadly mean here is that my work is a psychological response. Personally, I am most attracted to the question "where?" From what psychological place is this imagery originating, and how does making the work inform my thinking?
What is your process like? Do you work on pieces individually, or as a series?
My process is quite slow. My thesis exhibition at Hunter took nearly two years to come together. I rely a lot on drawing as a tool to understand my relationship to the content of my work - in fact the content originates in that medium. Only through drawing am I able to feel through thought; to see in the lines how I actually feel about these places. These recalled places are experiences that the drawing retrieves, and are a mixture of blind contour drawing plus technical observational drawing. Distilled. Memorialized. Recollection.
Drawing is the mediation I use as reference for my paintings; this answers the "where" and "why." The work is built up together, although not as a series - more so as a polyphonic project, as there may be many series within one given project. The "how" happens with each painting differently, as I try to hold a specific place in my mind and subsequently feel that form through paint being shaped.
What is your studio space or workspace like?
My studio is currently a dedicated room in my apartment in an old tenement building. And to give more context: it is located in the zone between East 61st and Lexington where Robert Ryman first started painting, and East 69th between Lexington and 3rd where Mark Rothko worked. My apartment is railroad style, and my studio is situated between my bedroom and living room. It measures 9 by 14 ft with two windows that look out onto two brick walls.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally –or both, especially as an MFA graduate just recently out of the university setting?
What I find most challenging post-MFA is managing momentum.
How would you define "success?"
The goal is to continually be in the work and making it. For me Instagram has played a large part in staying connected with an artist community after graduate school while spending nights and weekends making my work. There's a lot going on in the world right now, and seeing friends' shows, plus coming together in support of other causes through this platform is incredible.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
I'm in the studio a lot right now since it's winter. Plants are dormant. The way my life is structured it could take a few years to make and then show this current work. I welcome the time. Going to work every day allows me freedom and possibility in the studio.
Anything else you would like to add?
Henry Miller wrote an essay I enjoy entitled "To Paint is to Love Again." Just the title alone conveys what I feel about painting. When I am painting and drawing, I love everything a little more.
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