“I make work for me”: Jonah Pontzer on his painterly depiction of sexuality, digital culture and pornography
The American painter, based in London, creates optical and colour-loaded works that come riddled with context – be it art history, adult media or contemporary issues.
- Ayla Angelos
- 24 March 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
“The only rule was that there were no colouring books,” recalls Jonah Pontzer of his past. “If we wanted to colour, we had to draw ourselves first.” When people enquire about this element of his upbringing, more often than not they respond thinking that it “sounds harsh”. In fact, this rule had much to do with the art that he creates today – because, over the course of his entire life, he’s now perfected his craft and accepted that it’s usually around 90% “failure and fuck up”, with 10% of his work making it through.
The American painter, currently living and working in London, graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2012 and has since developed his signature aesthetic – one that beckons with paint, digital culture and the representation of pornography in mainstream media. When discussing his influences, he recalls that it’s a “funny one” – “I have a real difficult time nailing down what really makes me tick. Sometimes it’s a moment – something subliminal, bubbling underneath a feeling as I jump on the tube or something – and other times it’s a real concerted effort of researching a topic to total extremes and getting into something I don’t fully understand. But finding my way back out of that hole usually ends in a body of work.”
Rest assured that when he finds his sweet spot of inspiration – whether it’s from visiting museums in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Kansas city and observing the late 19th Century works, or reading and listening to audiobooks on history, art history and biography – there’s a whole heap of context behind it. It can be anything from the quattrocento period of the renaissance, post-war and contemporary artists like Lisa Yuskavage – “I can’t even begin to describe the education looking at her work has given me, so I won’t. I’ll just tell you that I super-fanned her so hard that I may never be able to recover from it emotionally,” he tells It’s Nice That. Or even photographers like Sally Mann, Norman Parkinson, and then American painter Jamian Juliano-Villani who “is a fucking beast,” Jonah continues. Then recently, he's come across the paintings of Aaron Ford, a young British painter who’s “a total fucking sweetheart,” and American artist Aaron Skolnick, “who lives in the Hudson River Valley and described his work to me as ‘exploring mystical faggotry’ – honest to god, I died right then and there. I’m still in heaven if you need to reach me.”
From heaven to his studio, Jonah will succumb to a varying day that usually involves mixing colours by hand, as his pieces rely heavily on the individual “blobs” with minimal blending and glazing. “This contributes to the optical effects of the subject matter when viewed at a distance – up close, it’s a puzzle piece mess.” A typical palette, he explains, consists of as many colours as 50-120, and it can take him around two or more days to mix up the right amount for a single painting: “kills my hands.” Proceeding, he will zone out in his live-work space and you’ll often find him in his pants at 3am with 20 brushes in his hand, “probably a couple in my mouth, just doing my thing”. It’s also good to note that no painting starts the same, and all can begin in a different manner of execution – something he puts down to the fact that he’s terrified of boredom.
On the topic of his recent works, Jonah’s recently closed exhibition saw the artist explore the personal experiences of those affected by the AIDS crisis – with the angle that is “gleaned from historical pornography, adult media and personal photographs, mixed in with current climate issues around sexuality, health and stigma.” The series is an explicit and painterly depiction of sexuality and contemporary issues. Jonah’s process for this collection saw him source imagery from social media channels, historical films and media, plus his own physical interactions, and transfer them into painted form.
Although heavily loaded with historical and contemporary context, Jonah’s work is never intended to provoke. “I have zero expectations of my audience (if I even have one),” he adds. “My grandmother told me when I was little that what anyone else thinks of or about me is none of my business. I just live a lively life, make what I feel like making and hope that it resonates.” He concludes: “I made the work for me.”