Of all the possible things I could paint, the thing that interests me is something that I can get close enough to in order to paint it honestly. The painters whose work means the most to me – that’s what they were painting. It was their loved ones or the stuff that was in their house. It was always this hyperpersonal thing to me.
Boldly riveting yet tender and poignant, exuding a distinctive aura of arresting vigor, Jonas Wood’s Shio With Two Dogs from 2014 is a rare portrait featuring his wife, the celebrated ceramicist Shio Kusaka. The alluring portrait exemplifies the artist’s idiosyncratic graphic style: a masterful fusion of Modernist aesthetics and intensely personal subject matter. Rendered in Wood’s iconic skewed and flattened perspective, Shio meets viewers’ gaze with a relaxed expression of playfulness and joy – a gentle, casual, even off-guard moment privy only between lovers. With ebony locks streaming from a glowing face, Shio dons a sweater with a striking pattern of black and luminous turquoise – undeniably the main protagonist of the painting despite her position on the far left. She embraces the immense unruly shagginess of the larger dog at the center, while the smaller dog, darker in shade and almost camouflaging into the composition, completes the richly textured tableaux. With its Cubist-like spatial distortion and lively planes of unmodulated color, Shio With Two Dogs luxuriates in its admixture of figuration and abstraction, testifying to Wood’s status as the heir to the great artistic masters of the past century.
Growing up in Boston and graduating with a BA in Psychology in upstate New York with a minor in studio art, Wood subsequently moved to Seattle to pursue his MFA in painting and drawing. It was there that he met his wife Shio, who was studying ceramics, and the two moved to Los Angeles in 2003. The two have shared the same studio space since that year: Shio creates idiosyncratic pots influenced by Japanese earthenware, which are collected by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman and graced the Whitney Biennial in 2014, while Wood’s vibrant portraits and still lifes are inspired by his daily life and immediate surroundings. The 2017-2018 exhibition “Shio Kusaka & Jonas Wood” at the Museum Voorlinden in the Netherlands paid tribute to the two fast-rising stars, whose careers are “increasingly […] intertwining, with their home and studio each functioning as incubator and catalyst” (Margaret Wappler, “Inside the Home of Two of L.A.’s Fastest Rising Artists”, Elle, November 2014).
Over the past decade and a half Wood has carved out a distinctive and critically lauded aesthetic embedded in a rich network of art-historical reference. His painterly style is a playful yet rigorous interrogation of the traditional representational challenge of capturing three-dimensional forms on the flat picture plane; by flattening shapes and exaggerating forms, he achieves gently unsettling yet highly stimulating canvases. The influence of Cubism is palpable in his work’s conflation of multiple perspectives, while his focus on the quotidian as well as the cheerful gaiety of his palette invokes the language of Pop Art, recalling in particular David Hockney’s domesticated landscapes and gardens. Wood has said: “Hockney was a big, big influence on me. He has that Renaissance ability to paint from life but he’s also an inventor,” says Wood. “But I love Picasso and Braque and Matisse and Vuillard. . . . And the thing about Hockney or Alex Katz or Lucian Freud or any of those people that I’m super into, they were into those modern painters, too. So I get to look at Matisse or Picasso through their work” (the artist cited in Meredith Mendelsohn, “Jonas Wood – Mural”, Gagosian, 22 May 2017, n.p.).
Expressing deeply personal subject matter, Shio With Two Dogs hails from a series of new large portraits from the mid-2010s onwards that diverged from his main modus operandi of still lifes and plants. In these portraits, Wood memorializes his subjects, loved ones, and idols via his wholly unique stylistic vernacular – one that dramatizes and exaggerates facial features that are commonly regarded as flaws. Dogs and cats featured heavily in the series, their fur crafted by Wood in jagged brushstrokes. His efforts of exaggeration fall far from satire; instead, an awkward yet ultimately humane beauty emerges, suffused with singular atmospheric aura and finely honed emotional tone. As Carey Dunne writes: “Instead of making his subjects look grotesque, Wood’s emphasis on physical imperfections just makes them look human. It also adds rich texture and pattern to his canvases” (Carrey Dunne, “The Staged Beauty of the Awkward Family Photo”, Hyperallergic, 12 October 2016, online).
In addition to his signature flattening of pictorial space, the hovering leaf-like shapes in the background of Shio With Two Dogs resembles the whimsical floating spatial reconfiguration of Henri Matisse’s 1911 Intérieur aux aubergines (Interior with Aubergines). Likening Wood’s artistic project to Matisse’s, art historian Ken D. Allan stated: “In 1908 Henri Matisse explained, ‘The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive...Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s disposal to express his feelings.’ Wood’s return to such questions allows us to see that painting’s delivery of visual pleasure has a history—a history that Wood’s work surely continues” (Exh. Cat., Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art, Jonas Wood, 2019, p. 22-23). Evincing a unique figurative lexicon that balances at the nuanced threshold at which representation disintegrates into patterns of abstract form and colour, Wood’s venture into portraiture pays homage to art legends while simultaneously asserting his rightful status as a contemporary master within the deep historical lineage of painting.