Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Pull the up down, 2020, watercolor, marker, pen, glitter, acrylic paint on paper, 18 × 24 inches. Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
It has always been a dream of Jonathan Lyndon Chase to have a solo show at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Dream fulfilled. In their exhibition Big Wash, Jonathan funnels personal narratives using an abstracted figurative language that combines fluid gestural linear elements with blocked-in color. The often unclothed and partially clothed figures interact intimately in ambiguous, compressed domestic spaces. Steeped in place, Jonathan was born and raised—and currently lives—in Philadelphia, and their work makes reference to early 2000s-era fashion, drawing from experiences shopping at Forman Mills, a pivotal site of memory and emotion.
Scott Turri I noticed that one of your paintings in Big Wash rests on black soap boxes, and it reminded me of Chris Ofili’s paintings propped up on elephant dung. Can you talk about your art historical influences?
Jonathan Lyndon Chase Yeah. I’m really in love with Ofili and their sense of spirituality, their approach to figures, and also their approach to the idea of how to present a painting. For me there are objects in a painting that signify its reality, such as black bars of soap; but then there is the actual physical bar of soap that’s bridging the link between the two. I think about figurative painting like genealogy in a lot of ways with figures such as Barkley Hendricks, Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, and people like Max Beckmann and Alice Neel.
ST To me, your figures have more of a connection to Neel in terms of combining realistic and abstracted, less-developed elements than, say, Wiley who renders the figure so realistically. What brought you to this expressive approach where you’re combining these kinds of linear elements with blocks of color and breaking down the figure-ground relationship? At times the figure is kind of transparent, and you can see through to some other parts of the painting. What got you interested in that kind of look or that process?
JLC For a few years, around 2011 to 2013, I had been working more with embroidery. I was literally trying to figure out how to paint and develop a vocabulary. So, I consider this process in a way as containing multiple coming outs. I was dealing with the mundane experiences of being Black and gay and thinking about interiors and exteriors. In 2011, I was diagnosed with bipolar, and it opened up a lot to me in trying to figure out myself and the things that were at stake in my work, such as being the center of your own narrative, talking about bodies that are like mine, having a desire to enter into them, as well as the canon of painting. For a long time we were not getting enough airtime or a platform which makes it kind of great to now be working and living with so many contemporaries. I try to paint very honestly with a delicacy to the body. I’m a big softie, and I’ve been described as being vulnerable and transparent. I like to feel a connectiveness to people. In my work I’m thinking about how queer bodies, Black bodies are very complex. So that goes into the use of muslin material and thinking about the space and layering and surfacing things together. I really love the power of line and developing different kinds of mark-making.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Helping Hands, 2020, fabric, acrylic, watercolor, pen, marker on paper, 21 × 19 inches. Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
ST Your work is very personal, obviously, and it feels like it might be cathartic. Is it about getting the narrative about yourself out to the public to show the world this is who I am, this is my identity? You frame your exhibition around this idea of public and private bodies. Can you elaborate a bit more on that?
JLC Some of the faces in my work seem to look similar in such a way that for me they’re like masks connected to the way that we take on multiple identities and roles depending on the situation. So a lot of it is autobiographical for me. But at the same time the sort of things that are at stake are my friends that I am talking about, my family that I’m talking about. Being seen by someone who lives a very similar walk of life that you do is hella important. One of the reasons I went to grad school was because Jennifer Packer and Abigail Deville were teaching there, and up until that point I had been in school since 2007 and I had not encountered a Black living artist in the flesh. All of my classes were taught by white, cisgendered males. In my art survey classes there would be Pablo Picasso thrown in there with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, who are my faves, right? But these classes don’t tell the full span of history.
ST So you are funneling ideas about these private and public spaces through your personal experiences. Do you see the work functioning on a broader social level? Do you feel like you want to use it to educate? Do you think of yourself as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community?
JLC I definitely accept and embrace having a platform. I get hundreds of messages a day from people telling me how my art has affected them, whether it’s relationships with their parents or because I’m a big mental health advocate. A part of me being transparent is my way of existing as a person, which is my personal story; but we all have a lot in common, and there are multiple ways to literally exist as a human, including saying fuck you to the binary and to these constructs that leave us no options. Humans have to be able to change; we’re not inanimate objects.
JLC (laughter) I really do feel that love and support from everybody, and it empowers me more to keep doing what I’m doing because it definitely affects people on these intimate levels.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase, them in the black dress and purse, 2020, watercolor, acrylic, fabric marker, pen, fabric jewelry, plastic phone, cotton on muslin, 39 × 19 × 10 inches. Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
ST That’s fantastic. While we’re on this topic, I’m curious why you choose painting? In some ways it sounds like some of the social media practices that you are involved with could reach large audiences and create a sense of community. With painting you are going to reach a limited audience, an art-related audience. Obviously not everybody goes to see fine art or painting. Do you see that as a detriment, or do you feel like your social media presence and the fact that you are a painter expands the realm of your audience and your ability to connect with people?
JLC Yeah, absolutely. It’s weird that I am older than Google and have seen a transition from sites like Xanga or Myspace while thinking about existing as a queer person and connecting to other queer people. Having virtual spaces is really vital for everybody, and a lot of the contemporaries I work with now—like Devan Shimoyama, John Edmonds, Troy Michie—all found ourselves through Tumblr.
ST Ha … really?
JLC Yeah, just like developing these relationships over time.
ST Wow, that’s great.
JLC In order for the painting community to see ourselves reflected back into the bigger community, we have to do that ourselves. I was talking to my friend Abdu Ali who’s based out of Baltimore. They are a sound performance artist—really, really amazing, sweet, talented person. Ali was talking about a reemergence or another Renaissance coming. You can see it in the art world and popular culture where trans voices and LGBTQ+ people are getting a lot more screen time. Also, I think in ways it helps people not feel as alone and isolated and again shows that there are different ways to go about navigating life. It’s really important to nurture your community, and social media definitely helps with that.
Installation view of Jonathan Lyndon Chase: Big Wash, 2020, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Photo by Carlos Avendaño. Courtesy of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
ST Have you felt an embrace from the art world, and does the art world differ from the other world or the real world outside of that?
JLC I definitely feel really loved and protected by the people who are close to me as well as strangers, admirers, and fans. I think it really helps me. We often perform our identities based on our safety, and the art world helps me explore things in a more liberated way, in a different way. The lines are kind of blurred for me.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase: Big Wash is on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia until June 6.