“On TV it was shit like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, solid drone reinforcement–become the same as everybody else. I seemed to stay inside my head, and found it not so much hard, but BORING, to follow the crowd. I never quite fit in with all that.”
Great art always provokes more questions than answers. His art is a surrealist stab at the how and why beyond the psychic space that develops around an image, by jolting linear thought processes, and pushing the outer limits of creative evolution. Jeff Jordan‘s hybrids and irrational relationships are birthed by his relentless attempt to broaden mental pliability, and expand our desire to inquire. His acrylic originals are inspired by his appreciation of surrealism pre-dating the Breton-led French Surrealist movement, and its subsequent challenger, Salvador Dali. His ability to depict a contorted realism is defined by the scope of the components, which bend back on any attempt to synthesize objective meaning, and yield a beautifully surreal circumstance.
Jeff hasn’t lost his head about his newfound attention, he’s a humble guy, living in Humboldt Co., dedicating himself to the permutations his mind reflects when his brush meets his canvas. Recognition can lead to some crazy shit, but all in all, this surrealist veteran continues to be inspired by a world that obviously still needs to be poked in the eye. After meeting him through the grapevine, I can say it was truly an honor to get such an in-depth view of an artist so resolved in his indictments of the norm.
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IPMM: I usually see three things in your art – humanity relating to our physical bodies, a spiritual or mythological component, and some surreal scope. Do you feel there is a specific aspect of your personality that informs the conceptual background for your work?
JJ: I think it’s not so much an aspect of my personality as much as what was going on when I was coming up. I was a kid in the 50s, which was a fairly drab, if not bleak, time to grow up. In art the big thing was Jackson Pollock and the AbEx artists. I remember seeing Van Eyck in an encyclopedia and it blew me away. Jewels and pearls that looked real, just a total minute rendering of that early 16th Century world, every detail clear and perfectly finished. Pollock and those other guys were just scribbling on huge canvases. Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, and those guys really caught my attention. A little bit later I got into Norman Rockwell–still a hero in the way he made details stand out and told stories. I didn’t get to Bosch for many years, but I was always attracted to people painting the Real World. So for me it was the Flemish, then the Dutch guys, a LOT of them. I loved the little details that made it seem real, or at least closer to a reality I could relate to.
Also, it was the time of post-atomic bomb fears. Duck and cover. Fallout shelters. Like we were gonna survive a nuclear apocalypse. And then Godzilla! Natural offshoot of the Atomic Age. It was a natural progression. Also, it was the time of the American Dream. Everybody was gonna own a flying car! Kinda like The Jetsons, but that was a ways away. Anyway, there was a strong science fiction aspect to life in the 50s, even more so in the 60s. In the 60s, the whole exploration of space was going on. I grew up with a LOT of Sci Fi, and I was very comfortable in the world of the future. Daily life was endlessly boring. On TV it was shit like Leave it to Beaver, solid drone reinforcement–become the same as everybody else. I seemed to stay inside my head, and found it not so much hard, but BORING, to follow the crowd. I never quite fit in with all that. My few friends and I were into Famous Monsters of Filmland, my friend had a subscription to that magazine. There were alternative thought processes if you searched for them…..I graduated High School in 1966, so I was perfectly placed for the Hippie thing, although I didn’t consider myself to be a hippie, when the word came out. I considered myself a Beatnik, by then. Kerouac was influencing teenagers of the 60s. I read On the Road the first time when I was 15. As Bob Dylan said much later–“like thousands of other kids back then.” Also by then I was listening to a lot of Free Jazz, like Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk (pre Rahsaan), Coltrane,,.the guys who took Jazz to the next level. I wasn’t interested in the Pop music of the time–Pat Boone, the Four Seasons, all that east coast doo-wop based crap. I was always looking for the edges. Then along came the Beatles and everything really changed. In the fullness of time, once the British Invasion came along, I became a huge Rolling Stones fan. The Beatles gave the impression of being squeaky clean, but the Stones just came out saying “Fuckall!” I guess you could say my personality led me in the anti-Establishment direction, which has served me very well in the intervening years.
IPMM: In your bio you mention surrealism specifically as the “second -ism.” For me, surrealism’s value is its tendency to vastly broaden creative possibilities. The implausibility of the circumstances in your paintings seem to reveal your reverence for the same. Is your approach spontaneous, or are you more calculated about the elements in your work? Does it have to make sense for you, or are you more concerned with the aesthetics than the implication?
JJ: To my way of thinking, surrealism tends to vastly broaden CONCEPTUAL possibilities. For me it’s juxtaposition and scale. Like a 100 foot tall baby chick in an otherwise normal landscape (ie “Curiosity“). Juxtaposition and scale. Once those basic concepts entered my thinking process, it was like “How fast can I come up with a body of work?” I did some collage in High School, but more like Pop Art, which I could relate to, as opposed to AbEx. James Rosenquist really spoke to me, back then. Even more than the Pop artists were the folks in Chicago, specifically the Hairy Who, a mixed group who really fucked with notions of art. Also Ed Paschke, who was lumped in with the HW. I can see the progression they started that is one of the foundations of what’s now known as Lowbrow. Really, I just reflect the times I’ve lived in……..
At any rate, once I came up with a few images, I felt like I was solid with my own direction. The Big Mutant (Amputechture album cover) was one of the very first of those images, and look where it’s taken me. I don’t think you can be all that calculating, doing what I do. Certainly some images proliferate and I can deal with a fair amount of redundancy, getting variations on a theme. What came to the front when this stuff started coming out of me was always the nuts and bolts of whatever situation I’d suggested. If there were these mythological-based creatures, what would it mean to them to be alive in this time? How does that beautiful mermaid pay the rent? Why are those two women riding a giant remote control chicken? What does that giant truffle pig eat, once she cleans out that garbage truck? What’s it gonna smell like in a few days, in the little Midwest town where all the giant fishes just rained? The questions beyond the “why” of it. More like “what then?” So to me it’s more conceptual, you know?
Big Mutant (Amputechture album cover)
Most of these images are collage based. I have a dedicated collage area with thousands of pieces of paper sorta heaped up. Often I’ll notice a few fragments lying in close proximity to each other, and something goes off in my brain. It’s not like I could’ve planned a lot of this stuff. I like the element of surprise, and the most interesting images just send me off to somewhere else. Like when I was doing the collage that later became Revelation, I had the woman in the landscape. The figure I call “the Boss” (to me he’s also Dick Cheney) came to me really easily. But I was having a problem with the “Dancer”, to whom the Boss has just imparted the revelation that makes him dance. I think of that figure as George Bush. When I was putting it together, there were two sets of arms that worked, but which one to use? I kept trying it This way, That way. One or the other. Back and forth for an hour, maybe. Then the lightbulb went off–I’ll use BOTH sets of arms. I wouldn’t have been able to calculate that, but it’s the thing that really put it over the top. SURPRISE ME!
IPMM: We’re particularly enamored with “Harvest.” Always have been…..there’s something disarming about it. As if the act of harvesting massive strawberries breaks down the psychological barrier that the mans khimar (Muslim headscarf as related in the Q’uran) imbues. How do you view this piece?
JJ: I was in Minnesota visiting my Sweetheart, Nancy, when I did the Harvest collage. It’s a perfect example of disparate images in close proximity to each other. Actually, that’s a woman pushing the wheelbarrow, some archeological dig in Iran, I think it was. My perception of this piece is like the others. How did the giant strawberries grow to be that size? In the desert? WTF? To me that one is very straightforward. I painted it as soon as I got back to Cali.
IPMM: You’ve done album art for The Mars Volta a few times, who else have you done album art for, and do you have any projects along those lines coming up?
JJ: I’m just about finished with an album cover for Graham Czach, a guy in your town, Chicago. More in the Classic Rock/Pop, arena. Late last year I did a cover for an Irish Metal outfit–Gama Bomb, on Earache Records. I’m not really a metal person, but it was hard to resist working for Earache records. Beyond that, the reason I took that job on was the awesome idea the guys had–the Grave in Space. I’ve been wanting to get further into straight-up Sci-Fi illustration, and the Grave was a PERFECT vehicle.
Other than that, I get approached on a fairly regular basis by bands wanting a cover. It helps to be “the TMV guy” in that regard. Unfortunately most of these bands are at the bottom of the pile. I didn’t know it when I started working for TMV, but I started on the top of the pile. I got used to making a fair amount of $$, working for TMV, and I admit I’m sorta spoiled. I get interested bands, but mostly they freak when we talk money. so I’m not doing as many album covers as I’d like, but I entertain all possibilities. Working for TMV has been really GREAT. Omar, Cedric, and I all seem to think very much alike — the thing a lot of people don’t get is that TMV is a totally surrealist band! Cedric’s lyrics are like totally Automatic Writing. They don’t necessarily MEAN anything, you know? They sound good together, the words, and in the right brain they’ll set off unforeseen thoughts, and isn’t that pretty much the goal of Surrealism? So it’s a real blast to work with O & C…
Firefly for Dinner
IPMM: Was painting always your preferred medium? If not, in what else did you dabble?
JJ: I started out doing pen and ink, that was my first medium. I was really into comic books and newspaper comic strips, and that’s where I wanted to go when I was a kid. I was seeing Rick Griffin in Surfer magazine, Frazetta’s women in L’il Abner, and above all MAD Magazine. Then, in the later 60s, there was the psychedelic poster thing, which led to Underground comix, and the Graffiti movement a lot later. I remember trying to figure out Griffin’s crazy-ass lettering style, and eventually I did figure it out. I joined the Air Force in ’66……..thinking I could keep myself outta Viet Nam. As it turned out, I became a Security Cop, guarding a radar site in Thule, Greenland, the first year I went in. The radar buildings in Thule looked a lot like the spaceship in Alien, the inside of the spaceship, I mean. Then I came back to the States, got stationed at Vandenberg AFB, where I was a missile site guard. I’d be working in a gantry where they were assembling a Tiros weather satellite, 70 feet above the ground. And other times I’d be in these very isolated sites where my time was more or less my own. That was when I pushed myself to the next level in drawing and began to think about Underground comix, and eventually it led me to painting…I never had a real plan. I just kept at it, and eventually I got to where I am. Just being ‘The Fool’, jumped in and I ended up where I am…but painting was the medium that spoke the loudest to me.
IPMM: I’m often interested in how creativity in other mediums informs the way we look at our own craft. For example, a way of playing guitar that informs painting, or an architectural idea that informs someone who works with water colors….do you see any examples of this cross-pollination of creative philosophy in your own work?
JJ: I play around with music, myself. I don’t have the interest to be in a band, but I love to dink around on my 6-string bass. It’s more of a Zen exercise for me. As much as I love music, my true calling is painting. I can hear the music and love to blow Coltrane leads over any number of favorite musicians–on CD. I play in the instant, and don’t really play bass–more like I play WITH the bass. Don’t necessarily follow the changes. My influences are more the saxophone players I mentioned above, although my bass influences are guys like Jack Bruce and Phil Lesh, more the melodic side of things. I often compare art to music. Like when I switched back to oils after 25 years of acrylics, I came up with the analogy, in answer to friend’s questions about why I switched–Acrylics are like having a cheap Sears guitar with no effects and a 10 watt amp. But oils are like having a toppa the line Les Paul Special with a full array of pedals and a big stack of Marshall speakers and a huge amp. Oils are LIMITLESS! Acrylics SUCK! MY opinion…….
IPMM: What of your art are you most fond of? Do you derive joy from the finished product based on the effort it took to execute it, or is “success” only based on aesthetics? Perhaps a bit of both? Conversely, how does that equation figure out when you are taking in other peoples’ art?
JJ: People ask what’s my favorite painting. I always say, like everybody else I respect, the one I’m working on is my current favorite. Each painting is usually a struggle, cuz I’m not content to repeat myself. If I know what I’m doing, it’s probably cuz I already did it, ya know? I spend at least half the time in any painting mostly trying to figure out what happens next. I find that if I get to the edge of madness, going crazy trying to figure out how to make an image conform to what I want it to be, as much as I can even know that, as soon as it starts to drive me crazy, once I truly get to that horrible place, then some little thing almost invariably comes along, one little stroke of the right color, say, and THEN I get it. I’ll wonder “What was so hard about THAT? But it only comes when I feel my mind slipping away. Just that willingness to lose my mind makes the answer appear…EVERY time, dammit!
Other people’s art that I find interesting generally addresses the concerns I deal with, myself.
Ship of Fools
IPMM: Does your art contain a political component, or do you try to stay away from the sphere that is government? “Ship of Fools” seems political to me, but that could be entirely what I bring to the table as the viewer…..
JJ: The politics I find myself addressing are world concepts. There’s a strong environmental aspect to a lot of what I do. Like, where do these giant critters come from? It’s not the human condition as much as what affects the world, that pushes me along. The snake people in Revelation, for example, aren’t necessarily Cheney and Bush, but greedy assholes that stop at nothing to get bigger piles of money, and even more important, CONTROL. But like William Burroughs pointed out, control freaks are addicted to CONTROL. So that’s where I’m coming from, politically.
IPMM: What’s the one thing you hope to take away from communicating through your artwork?
JJ: The one thing i hope to take away from doing what I do is that I COMMUNICATED whatever off-the-wall thought to whoever saw the image. And it seems like people, some of them, anyway, GET it. I couldn’t ask for more, other than that people like specific images enough to buy a print, or even an original. That way I can keep putting out my thoughts. That’s as good as it gets, I think…….
IPMM: What happens when we die? Not that you’ve cornered the market on this answer, but I have a feeling you can shed some light….
JJ: Tom Waits already addressed this question. Everybody gonna be just dirt in the ground.
IPMM: Name one artist my readers should check out.
JJ: I could name 50 artists that should be checked out. But one person who I’d like to see get more recognition, a guy who has inspired me greatly, is Richard Kirk. He’s Canadian, and he contacted me to trade links right after Amputechture came out. I checked him out and he blew my mind! There’s NOBODY like Rick! And currently I’m also a huge fan of Sonny Kay. We’ve been lumped together cuz he does all the TMV graphics, but he also does some of my favorite collage work beyond my own, and a LOT of great album covers!. We’ve become co-conspirators, in a way, or at least hoping to become. We’ve been talking about getting together to do some collaborative collage work. We both got into Hold Up Art, the new gallery that’s opening VERY soon in LA. In the fullness of time we’d like to come up with stuff together, and hopefully anything that looks good could become prints the gallery could sell. I’m VERY interested in seeing what happens with Hold Up. Time will tell……………..
100 ft tall baby chicks, massive strawberries, and flying fish will be part of your trip with Jeff Jordan ……
“How does that beautiful mermaid pay the rent? Why are those two women riding a giant remote control chicken? What does that giant truffle pig eat?”
– Jeff Jordan