John John Jesse is a celebrated, controversial Catholic schoolboy-cum-punk rocker-cum-gonzo pop artist who came up in the dirty streets of NYC’s Lower East Side in the 80s and 90s. Luscious, filthy, fantastical, Jesse’s illustrative paintings are imbued with a lifelong appreciation for the fierce and rebellious girls he grew up with, and convey a deep understanding of the psychosexual underpinnings to work by a wide variety of fellow artists– from Gustav Klimt and Béla Iványi-Grünwald to Jamie Reid and Caravaggio. Most of the people featured in Jesse’s work are friends of his; many others are recognizable figures from sub/pop/countercultural spheres. A couple years back, Jesse moved from the big city into more pastoral climes, but his passionate love affair with the imagery and narrative of Punk Rawk New Yawk continues. Today on Coilhouse: a recent interview with JJJ conducted by Coilhouse contributor Sarah Hassan. ~Mer
L.I.E. ’88 by John John Jesse
As the quintessential ‘punk rock painter’ from the Lower East Side, a neighborhood now known more for it’s expensive rent and boutiques than heroin addicts and street gangs, how did your move from the city affect your work, if all? Is New York City still what inspires you, or is there something to be said for the quiet of small-town living?
I left New York City because it no longer is what it was. It has turned into an extremely over-crowded college dorm. I mean, now you actually have to wait in line to cross the street and some intersections. That’s fucked! But moving didn’t affect my work at all, it just removed the distractions. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy, as they say. My life story is what inspires me and most of that took place in New York City, so being here – the country – just gave me the clarity to get my point across in my works.
New York can be rather distracting for an artist, there is a simplicity to living outside it that seems to enhance ones creative output. Your work appears and is often credited to be extremely autobiographical; the music, the drugs, the girls, the heartache. As you’ve developed as an artist, have your inspirations changed in anyway, or do the same themes resonate with you even more than ever?
It’s a lot of the same; I am just discovering new ways to tell my story. After time, your craft always becomes more refined and that gets me pretty eager to keep painting. And as it – my work – is autobiographical, my life continues, so therefore my story does too.
The 3-Headed, Tattooed Waif by John John Jesse
The ever-evolving body of work; it’s inspiring. The exuberance and anxiety of youth is a major theme with your paintings, which music has always been successful in addressing. How has your experience as a musician affected your fine art?
I’m now retired from touring and playing in punk bands, I don’t have the time they need to commit. Better to give a one-hundred percent to one thing than spread myself thin and do both crappy. I had been on tour or recording most of my life, so it had a huge impact on my art. I mean, we weren’t the Jonas Brothers, but you can imagine what we were like on tour. It’s pretty much a free pass to do whatever the fuck you want.
Cis for Crucific by John John Jesse
That lifestyle does lend itself towards such an attitude, and your work reflects that but in a very tender, approachable way, I think. You seem to have a healthy obsession with the antique and macabre, your collections of taxidermy, Catholic icons, old weapons, and comic book ephemera… Can you speak of this, the handicrafts and talismans you keep close to you and what makes them so appealing?
I just really love old items; furniture, taxidermy, antique cowboy guns. There was a pride and craftsmanship that is long lost in our current society. Maybe I’d prefer it if i were from another time, then again, who knows? But then there wouldn’t be punk music and computers, so…
We are products of our time, aren’t we? You’ve worked in and on a variety of mediums; is there a particular one that speaks to you more strongly than others? Is there a medium you haven’t tried yet and wish to?
I’ve always wished I was better at oils, but I never went to school and I dropped out at fifteen years old. Anything I learned, I just “winged it”.
80s Family Portrait by John John Jesse
Inherent talent is rare, and there is a playful experimentation with your ‘winging it’ that I believe comes across in your work; you’re not attempting to out-do others, you are telling your story in the best way you know how. But to speak of an ugly subject, so much of what is produced by contemporary working artists these days seems to be affected by rising trends and the market value of such pieces. Do you pay attention to what other living artists are doing, where the trends seem to be, and how much money is out there?
It has been years since I’ve bought an art magazine and I don’t go to any art shows, so I have no idea what is popular or trendy. I like it better that way. Not to say there isn’t some brilliant work out there, and when there is, it usually finds me or someone will show it to me. There’s always been a lot of money in some art but who makes it is like one in a million, so I am very grateful for my relationship with Opera Gallery in New York City for keeping me very comfortable so I can concentrate on and do what I love.
Rival Schools by John John Jesse
Each of your pieces seem to tell a story or recall a snapshot moment that you may or may not have experienced; with such narratives, do you find yourself drawn to the work of writers or poets? Are there other artists you believe are successful at this, capturing a moment with such clarity?
Creating a narrative isn’t an easy thing to do seamlessly and timelessly. My rule of thumb is to portray, sometimes, a very dark theme but present it in a beautiful and colorful scenario that I hope stands the test of time. Honestly, I rarely do any reading; I’m just not a “wordy” type of person.
Faces of Me by John John Jesse
Well, your work speaks volumes for itself, words be damned! What is it that you miss about New York City? What do you love most about living outside of it? Do you believe it is easier or harder to be an artist and trying to live and work in New York City, which has always drawn artists?
I miss some of my friends and of course, my family. I also miss the array of good ethnic restaurants. It’s ridiculous for artists starting out to live in New York and try to pursue art as a career. The rent is obscene, so getting ahead is nearly impossible for anyone. But I know that if you make it in the art world of New York City, well, then you have “made it”, at least in reputation. The problem is the fact that a million artists are trying to get one single prize.
The Story of My Life by John John Jesse
There are never enough prizes to go around for all the talent that is out there; the struggle is what either excites or cripples people. But to speak of your prize, being represented by Opera Gallery in New York’s Soho, have you any specific upcoming projects in mind? Do you envision a series before you’ve picked up a brush?
I am still looking for the right publishing deal for my coffee table book and I would love to exhibit in one of Opera’s other galleries in Paris or Asia. Hopefully those things can and will happen, but in the meantime, I just keep painting. It’s exciting, as every year I work larger and get more obsessed with detail. I’ve stopped envisioning an entire series; I just go for it now. I gave up doing pre-sketches as sometimes the sketches have so much magic that is impossible to recreate them for the actual painting. The spontaneity is also fun, as I actually don’t have an idea what the hell is going to be there when I start.
by John John Jesse
It’s always nice to be surprised, isn’t it? Tell me five thing that are inspiring you at this very moment: Go!
My girlfriend, old Western movies, the new Amebix album “Sonic Mass”, American history, and my boston terrier, Bela Lugosi.
by John John Jesse