Artist Jonas Wood Discusses His Latest Exhibition Focused on His Drawing Practice, ‘The Backbone of His Studio Practice’

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Los Angeles–based artist Jonas Wood is best known for his paintings that feature landscapes, vessels, interiors, plants, and his love of sports. Recent exhibitions include “Henri Matisse & Jonas Wood” at Nahmad Contemporary in Gstaad, Switzerland, which displays both artist’s works in comparison, with a text written by curator and art historian Helen Molesworth.

But his drawing practice has been just as important to his development as an artist. Those works on paper the subject of his latest exhibition, “Drawings 2003-2023,” at Karma in New York (on view until August 18). One-hundred works on paper are displayed in chronological order in a salon-style format showcasing the artist’s wide breadth of subject matter, color, and mark-making. Bright and colorful, this show will also travel to Karma’s Los Angeles space in November 2023.

To learn more about his exhibition, ARTnews spoke with Wood by phone from New York. During the conversation, Wood spoke about his biographical roots, his trajectory through academia, the working world, and the advice that shapes his career and legacy. Wood also discusses the materials he employs and the process behind his vibrant body of work.

Jonas Wood: Well, this July will be 20 years of living in Los Angeles as an artist, post-grad school. I created an installation of drawings from over the years. I am happy to work with [Karma founder] Brendan Dugan and Karma on this project. Brendan does such incredible historical shows, and I wanted to do something different. I have never exhibited a collection of only drawings.Artist Jonas Wood Discusses His Latest ExhibitionThere are a lot of people that work to find themselves after grad school. Can you tell me a bit about your life then?

I graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2002. My wife, artist Shio Kusaka, and I briefly went to Martha’s Vineyard before moving to Los Angeles six months later. I asked myself, “Do I want to live in New York? Or do I want to live in LA?” So, I moved to LA because I had one friend there and started painting and drawing. I kept thinking, “How do I keep practicing? How do I get better?” Making drawings was a big part of that. I received excellent advice about how to keep working post-academia from a few of my teachers in grad school and how to practice outside their watchful eyes. When you’re in school, you have your peers and professors who observe and critique what you’re doing. My professors asked me, “What artists do you like? What did they paint? How did they practice?” I focused on the word practice to keep practicing painting.

What was some of the advice they gave?

My grad school professor Denzil Hurley, who died a couple of years ago, was incredible at activating young minds. He just had a show up at Canada Gallery in New York. He advised me to challenge myself because the University of Washington wasn’t a finishing school, like UCLA or all the great art schools in California, where the grad students are so exceptionally talented that they’re almost ready for the bright lights of gallery exposure. In Seattle, they focused on how to have an art practice and most likely apply to be a professor of art—teaching painting was more like a ceiling. The idea that you would be painting somewhere by yourself was more what I was focusing on. That was great advice, even in an atmosphere like Los Angeles, where many outstanding artists surrounded me. Also, the job I subsequently had when I first moved to L.A., assisting [artist] Laura Owens in her studio, paved my path.

How did that job come about?

I worked with Laura for almost a year and a half. The one friend that I knew in California was artist Matt Johnson, who is a fantastic sculptor. He and I went to high school together. Matt was already working for artist Charles Ray, and then he had taken a class with Laura at UCLA. After I was in LA for a couple of months, she was looking for an assistant and asked if some students were interested in the job. She asked some grad students if they were free, and Matt said, “I’m not. But my friend who just moved here is a painter.”

The first thing I was working on for her was a painting that she was making for the [2004] Whitney Biennial, and then, subsequently, in the weeks that followed, I realized who she was. Everybody was like, “You got that job?” But I just got lucky and met this unbelievable genius of a person. The learning experience was next level. I retained as much valuable information from Laura as I had learned in grad school. She painted a variety of things, which was liberating for me to discover, along with her mastery of drawing and painting. And in the mid-2000s, my wife worked for Charley Ray for almost four years, who is an extraordinary sculptor, so we both had great jobs.

I was an assistant, too. My first job after UCLA was working for David LaChapelle. Working closely with someone like that makes you realize what it takes to be an artist. You said you and your wife decided to move to L.A. together. Do you bounce ideas off each other within your art practices?

I was focusing on making still-life paintings. Since Shio made all these vessels, it was natural that I was borrowing her objects and putting them in my pictures, just out of practice. When I had a solo show at the Black Dragon Society Gallery in 2006, and then one in 2007 at Anton Kern Gallery, people began asking me, “What are these vessels?” And I said, “Oh, these are my wife’s vessels.” She’s super supportive of me being a maniac painter, and we have been sharing a studio since 2005. We are not in the same room but working under the same roof. We have worked together for a long time, so we’ve been cross-pollinating and giving each other feedback and healthy criticism.

Regarding your drawing and being a draftsman, do you keep a sketchbook?

I don’t keep a sketchbook. I think of drawing as sketching with anything on paper, whether that be pen, watercolor, or colored pencils. I evolved to call it drawing, but only some call it that. For example, Laura Owens considers anything with paint on it a painting. I think about anything that is on paper as a drawing. I make a considerable amount of drawings to rigorously prepare my paintings or a detailed study that I use as a model to paint. When I paint, I paint a lot from sketches I’ve made. I read and try to interpret them in painting.