Interview with James Jankowiak

Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

James Jankowiak: My mom is a pianist and my dad worked as a correctional officer at Cook County jail. Both were extremely supportive of my decision to be an artist… my grandfather on my mom’s side was a self-taught artist, he made a living fixing typewriters…he was really into type and handwriting. I spent the majority of my life with him, he was a huge influence to me. I grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where I began my graffiti vocation at age 15, around 1985. I was a pretty wild kid, did lots of drugs and found myself surrounded by some pretty sordid folks at a young age, all the while though, kept a high GPA in HS. I feel like graffiti saved my life, it led me to the right path. Went to art school (SAIC one year, Columbia 1 year) a short time but mainly self taught. Spent most of my time spray painting walls… I was one of a handful of Chicago graffiti writers who attempted to make a transition to canvas at the time (late 80s,early 90s). Made a boatload of mediocre paintings that emulated my street work for many years… there was a strong sense of trying to stay connected with the graffiti community, yet at the same time break free of it. I knew that my work was going nowhere.I noticed from the get that I was getting attention for being a “novelty” act, and I resented it, so I did whatever I could to learn to paint. Over the last 10 years, I feel I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’ve started making honest work…that’s not to say the years beforehand weren’t key to me getting there. Shit, I’m still trying to get there, but these days I feel I’m in a much better place. Things have been going well for a bit now, but I’m still not exactly where I want to be. Not content by any stretch of the imagination.

NA: Discuss your work/thought process when starting a new painting.

JJ: Basically I’ve been working on the same painting for the last 3.5 years… each painting seems connected to the other on a whole. I do feel like this particular phase in my painting will come to a natural end. By natural I mean it’s time to change things up a bit… but it’s going to take a period of transition, which might mean I’m about to make either some of my best or worst work. To me, my line paintings have been an incredible source of comfort, not the kind of comfort you get from being content, but the kind that centers your being. My process is extremely tedious, it takes a certain frame of mind to actually go through with it. I treat each piece as a piece of matrix and go about the business of turning it into an object with some kind of inherent value. I like to compare my process to what a paleontologist does, and so far the paleontologists I know agree. I’ve been lucky enough to hang out with a few, and they agree we do something very similar. Only difference is, they see stone, we see a canvas…they see the hint of life and spend hours clawing away to expose it, I spend hours clawing “on” with my brush to get to it. I like using vague form, it’s a visual reference to what the guys in the lab are usually working with. The forms they identify are very ambiguous at first, those are the forms I’m the most fascinated by, the kind that don’t give you any answers, but suggest something other than they appear to be. They’re all clues to unraveling a mystery of some sort, and that’s the exciting part of making and looking at art to me. By the way, I’m looking forward to going on an actual dinosaur dig in the not so distant future… it’s a boyhood dream of mine, a lifelong passion.

NA: You also create installations. Please elaborate.

JJ: My installations give me the opportunity to use space in a whole new way…The majority of my installations don’t use paint in any way but a superficial way…when i do installations, its a different frame of mind, and I prefer other mediums, like masking tape and mirrors… I don’t bring a painters sensibility to installation, I feel more like a scenic director…I don’t mind if people think they’re theateric…I actually heard a dude at one of my shows say under his breath in a really disgusted manner “it looks like a stage set”…I couldn’t of been happier. Because you know what? It’s not. But it could be. And it could be someplace else. And that’s the point, to make that “someplace else”.

NA: What is your overall art philosophy?

JJ: I guess it’s a live and let live philosophy. I’m pretty open. We strive to be a unique voice, to be someone who can add something that matters in art history,to not be redundant, to really contribute to the lexicon. This is a tough job… don’t let it swallow you whole, find your voice and try to take control of it, that’s all you can do. Try to make honest work.

NA: What is your take on the Chicago art scene?

JJ: I love Chicago and I love the Chicago scene. We have great artists, art and spaces to show here. There’s a genuine DIY spirit here as well, where artists make things happen in super creative and cool ways. On the flip side, unfortunately, if you don’t get your work out of Chicago, you won’t make a living here. Every single artist I know who has achieved the ability to make it solely off their artwork has made their name in other cities and other countries. It’s pretty unfortunate, but the collector support here seems pretty weak. People don’t seem to see the value of buying original art here, unless they’re buying from a NY or LA gallery. Sad but true. It also seems like there’s a fight going on among some Chicago artists to be the torch carrier for what appears to them to be to be the authentic “Chicago” school. Maybe it has something to do with Paschke dying… It’s kind of silly when artists feel the need to fight with each other, but I see it happening. It’s particularly lame when artists call each other out in public. Criticism is one thing, demeaning each other is another. We all gotta do what we gotta do to survive… nobody has the same story, and nobody should be expected to follow the same path, to achieve the same means. When Chicago artists pop off, it just makes us look bitter, which repels the rest of the world, so the bitching and whining, in my opinion, is a minus, and those that do it are only shooting themselves (and our city’s artists in general) in the foot.

NA: You were recently a participant in the Chicago Art Loop Open. How was that overall experience?

JJ: I shouldn’t of gotten involved with it… I’m glad it’s over and I’m looking forward to better opportunities in the future. I allowed my lesser self to get sucked into it and I regret it. I’ve been chastised by several of my peers, rightly so. The one positive thing I’ll say is, overall, I felt the quality of the work shown was pretty good, and I had several friends that I deeply respect who participated…but even they feel the same as I do, we all feel it was a mistake to get involved. Should of been a gut check moment, an opportunity lost to learn by staying away.

NA: Who has been your biggest influence?

JJ: I always go back to my grandfather, Phil Mehegan. He was my first mentor and had me feeling electric about my abilities from the time I was a larvae. I wish he was still alive so he could give me a swift kick in the ass once in awhile.