Jason Stopa’s “Brooklyn Zoo” roars into Novella tonight, showcasing this young artist’s unique angle on abstraction–and a deft point of view that can turn a basketball hoop or the pink flesh of a watermelon into a properly complicated subject for a painting. I chatted with him about the work on view.
Can you talk a bit about some of the recognizable iconography in the paintings–like a diamond, a watermelon, or a record cover? What is it about these everyday things that appeals to you as subjects for a painting? Is it about form (composition, color, and so on), or do these things all have some more oblique, personal resonance?
I’m interested in images that dissolve into abstractions. I think icons or recognizable images can be a point of access to talk about bigger ideas. My paintings often come from everyday experiences. I grew up on the east coast – New Jersey and Massachusetts – and went to college in the Midwest. My parents met working in New York. I painted Loie’s Diamond, (2013) this winter. That painting is rather personal. But, it is also really open-ended. I’ll explain. At the time, I was looking at jewelry stores around Brooklyn. They often use this generic diamond logo for signage. It’s so old school, circa 1980. I remember stores like this in Jersey and NYC as a kid. I love those stores. At the same time, I was dating a girl who I was entirely in love with, and was dreaming big dreams with her. I was also reading St. Theresa of Avila’s book Interior Castle. She was a mystic saint in the 16th century; the one that Bernini made his famous sculpture of. Interior Castle describes the soul as a castle with 7 chambers or a perfect diamond with 7 sides. So that painting has a romantic element, a childhood anecdote and a mystical connotation. Other works like Watermelon with KB, 2013 are more pure fun. I like when a measure of play and humor enter the holy temple of abstraction. There’s a well-known joke about black people eating watermelon, which I find hilarious. I mean, it’s just a fruit, who cares? But that painting isn’t a fruit either. It’s really a pink wash with a neon green border and black patterning inside. Other works like Public Enemy, 2013 or Jahhh Love, 2013 takes music as a starting point. With Jahhh Love, 2013 I was thinking of the large Jamaican population in Crown Heights. And Public Enemy hails from Long Island. I like old school reggae like Prince Jazzbo, Dillinger, Big Youth and Desmond Dekker. I usually have a reference, but I want to go beyond mimicry. Both of those paintings owe a lot to someone like Kenneth Noland, who wanted to paint sound. These could be read as a rather literal interpretation of that idea.
Where does your own practice fit in that slippery middle ground between figuration and abstraction?
My sense is that abstraction comes from the landscape; and that all images are an abstraction from the original thing we were looking at. I like non-objective abstraction, but that was never my starting point. My interests are more of a European thing really – patterning and windows in Bonnard, Hodgkin. And then an interest in the iconography of Indian tapestries and American urban culture. I think we’re at a point where the categories of figuration and abstraction are too limiting – it’s 20th century thinking. In my work, I like to play with where that line is/was.
Do you feel that there’s a group (I hesitate to call it a movement or school, since those things don’t really exist anymore) of fellow painters that you feel an affinity with? What do you tend to respond to when viewing other peoples’ work?
I think we’re seeing something that could be loosely called a “group.” I hesitate to say where it’s coming from in here, but I think it’s exciting. From my peers, I have some favorites such as: Trudy Benson, Ted Gahl, Keltie Ferris, Amy Feldman, Michael Dotson, and Russell Tyler. There’s too many to list, but I think they’re doing some phenomenal work. I respond to surfaces. I think most painters do. I particularly enjoy when surfaces deny the viewer’s capacity to digest all of it at once. That’s when something interesting is going on. I think this is our generation’s response to the easy translation provided by technology. Most people see an image “get it” and move on. Like most things in the world, images have a lot of complexity if we let them.