Artist Snapshot: Marshall Jones

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Marshall Jones interview
Marshall Jones in his studio, 2020

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I never really decided. It just happened. I was a really curious and engaged kid, so I had my hands in a lot of stuff. At some point painting just stuck. Or better said, it just started opening doors and before I knew it I was doing it all the time

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I have a strained relationship with my parents. They were always sorta supportive of what I wanted to do but at the same time didn’t have a large amount of interest. So in the nicest way imaginable, I guess it was met with indifference. I think if they ever saw my art they would find it a bit disturbing. I was functionally on my own very early, so I didn’t really check in with them much. I do remember going to figure drawing groups as a young teenager and hoping they wouldn’t find out. They are quite conservative, and I don’t think they would have approved.

Who are your favorite artists?
Bosch, Bob Dylan, Tim Burton, Nick Cave, Hank Williams, James Ensor, David Foster Wallace, Ice Cube, Susan Sontag, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Cecily Brown, the Misfits, Kyle Staver, Bosch, Van Eyck, David Lynch, Jodorowosky, Wu-Tang Clan, Leonardo, Mark Rothko, Jenny Saville, Robert Motherwell, the Velvet Underground, Andy Warhol, Käthe Kollwitz. I could do this for hours there are so many.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
That’s hard to pick. For some reason the name that comes to mind is Mark Rothko. Maybe Otto Dix.

Art book you cannot live without?
Andrew Loomis’s Drawing the Head and Hands, David Bayles’s Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, Eliot Goldfinger’s Human Anatomy for Artists: The Elements of Form. That one is special because it was the text I would carry to anatomy lab where we dissected cadavers with Michael Grimaldi. Molly Bang’s Picture This: How Pictures Work, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, anything by Joseph Albers, anything by Harold Speed, Glazing, Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, Harold Speed, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
It’s not so what I admire as much as what intrigues me about an artist. I appreciate how some artists remove themselves from leader and follower structures and take on more of an observer/commenter role. I think when artists use that tactile position and vantage point responsibly they can achieve wonderful things for the culture.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, many. Some are drawings, but most are actually paintings. I gesso the pages of a sketchbook and do mini oil studies in them. I think it’s the most valuable thing I do for myself. It often feels like a luxury because I don’t sell the books or pages; they are just for me and my process. The reality of being an artist in this age, however, is that everyone sees everything. That’s something I’m trying to work out: how to make some art truly for myself. This is not unlike what like J.D. Salinger did at the end of his life. I have fantasied about that way of creating, but, unfortunately for the time being, it feels like I have to keep the machine running.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
It feels a little hometown fan to pick The Met, but I believe its collection is second to none. I really know those paintings, and I have copied them in many different ways. The imagery has shown up in my own works. I enjoy thinking that the museums you are closest to must have an impact on the art you create. Seeing the same images over and over in person must get into the subconscious somehow. I’m really fortunate that museum for me happens to be the Met.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I’m in New York, so I get to see plenty of great ones, but it is impossible to pick. The first that come to mind would be Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer; Giorgio Morandi, 1890–1964; Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible; Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination; Fragonard: Drawing Triumphant. The last thing I did before quarantine was see Kyle Staver’s show, and it was excellent.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
I have so many interests, but it’s still difficult to imagine what I would be if I wasn’t an artist. I’m someone who can adapt easily and am intrigued by a lot. So I wouldn’t really know what I would be until I was in a situation where I needed to be something else. I think functionally an artist is someone who can recognize patterns and communicate them, someone who has insight to the underpinnings of human structures and comments on them. I think I have an aptitude for that sort of stuff. From that place, I think I could have been anything. I think I started painting because it was easy to setup, and I didn’t need others around. Like I didn’t have to worry about getting a band together or anything that seems like a logistical nightmare.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I had a fantastic time in school and at the League in particular. I was constantly learning and seeking out new things to learn. The League is the perfect place for someone like me. I was always a kid in a sandbox, and school was no different. I had excellent teachers, and after I left, I continued to learn new things, not because they weren’t taught to me but because I was building on what I was taught.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It changed my perspective on what I knew art to be. I was at the time a very academic painter, so to see someone painting using so much imagination really captivated me. It truly changed me forever. I went to the Prado to see the Velázquez paintings, but for me the Bosch really stole the show.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, constantly. It’s rare I don’t have something on. There’s a good chance I’m actually more passionate about music, at least as a consumer, than I am about painting.

What is the last gallery you visited?
Zürcher Gallery in NYC.

Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?
So many. As in most art forms, the best are well below the mainstream. You really have to seek them out. Jeffrey Catherine Jones comes immediately to mind as does Charles Pfhal.

What art materials can you not live without?
I have an incredible Craftsman tool chest I keep everything in. I’m obsessed with it and would be a literal mess if I didn’t have it. It keeps everything I own incredibly organized and immediately accessible.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Yes. It’s a compulsion where I experience anxiety if I can’t paint, which, by the way, I’m positive isn’t healthy. There is a lot of my avoiding other more important things in that compulsion.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
Probably only about a day. Even when I go on vacation, I have something ready to work on.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Regardless of anything, I work. I have an endless amount of ideas, and it’s just a matter of getting them out. I’m not someone who has ever been bored, so this is an extension of that. There’s always something to do. There’s always something to create.

What are the questions that drive your work?
What are we doing here? Is any of this real? I thought, not too long ago, that I’m a mass of tissue that used to be a fish, or whatever, which came from an enormous explosion a billion years ago. Now that mass of tissue is walking around with thoughts like, “God, cancer, cows, flavor-blasted Goldfish, us/them, belief.” Now in the middle of something called quarantine on earth in a galaxy in a universe that’s so massive, we call ninety-eight percent of it dark matter because we don’t understand what it is. And I was thinking, “There is no way any of this is real.” I’m not saying that’s a belief or a philosophy of mine, but feelings like that are mostly what my art is about.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
The strange thing about artists is that they can have whatever qualities they have and somewhere someone made a life out of them. If you take what we would consider artistic virtues—talent, hard work, passion, artistic voice, and intelligence—and then a complete lack of those virtues and mix it all up in any combination, someone has made it work before.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I don’t look at life that way. I don’t really think of achievement or lack thereof as a problem. I create art every day, and anything I want to do, I do. I don’t feel particularly limited in any way, so anything I haven’t “achieved” is just something I haven’t had time to do yet. Also when I win something or meet a goal, I’m always surprised how meaningless it is. It’s always, “OK, what now?” On to the next thing. I think a true component to happiness is to find contentment within yourself. Create your work and let the chips fall where they may. Let others worry about your success and failure—if they are so inclined.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Honestly, I think that’s a difficult question to answer. Art in general isn’t nearly as fun or powerful in this age. You could say there’s a positive side to all the access we have to art, as well as the exposure, as artists, we can get outside of the traditional structures. But I wonder if it’s worth what we gave up. Too much art exposure can bore a person. You can also become impervious to the effects that art can have on us. It’s hard to tell now if you’re doing something because you have an actual interest in it, or if it’s because social media has somehow convinced you to do it. I think the majority of us now make art so a twelve-year-old kid in Boise will like it on Instagram. If you think about it, the whole cycle is really gross. We are voluntarily complying with some entity’s guidelines and standards of censorship, which exist for the sole purpose of collecting your personal data to exploit your insecurities by selling you bullshit products that help you feel better about yourself by alleviating the psychic pain that they are magnifying and exploiting to begin with. Also, a bunch a kids without any art expertise can keep you riding a calculated algorithm of emotions so precise that it will keep you glued to the screen for as long as possible. Overall, I would say that social media has really declawed and whitewashed art more than it has helped, but since this is now the world we are living in I can only say, Proceed with caution.

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