We catch up with Australian artist Jordy Kerwick in advance of his Frieze Week presentation, staged in collaboration with Vigo Gallery, of a new suite of works especially conceived for Modern Forms. Designed to hang in the ornate surroundings of the Ballroom & the Music Room at Floreat House in Mayfair, where highlights of Modern Forms’ collection are on display, the works are portals that draw the viewer into his distinctive, playful and compelling, visual universe, populated by monsters and mythic characters.
Modern Forms’ Director Nick Hackworth visited Kerwick at his studio on the outskirts of Albi, the picturesque, medieval French city where he lives with his family, to talk about his work and the remarkable story of his rise to global recognition within the art world.
Nick Hackworth (NH): How’s it going with the works you’re making at the moment? How’s the flow?
Jordy Kerwick (JK): [Laughs] The flow’s pretty good! At least when I’m in the studio, it’s good. It’s getting into the studio that’s the problem. When I’m here I love it, but summer in Europe is a challenging time to get work done.
NH: I last saw your works in the flesh at your exhibition staged by Vigo Gallery at Wellington Arch. Your visual universe now feels really powerfully familiar to me, with its really distinctive characters, tropes and style. How long has this universe existed?
JK: Well, the universe started taking shape and the characters started emerging, I guess, around the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020. I started drawing things, which I didn’t, at that time, make into large works back in, maybe 2017, but then I was just in the rut of making still life paintings. I mean, I loved it, but when I was planning for a show, at that time, the gallery would have an expectation of what the show would look like, and I knew I could paint the still life works pretty well, so I just kept painting them, and I didn’t have the balls to execute some of the more interesting stuff! Which is what the paintings now are.
NH: You began by painting still lives?
JK: Yes. The first twenty paintings I made were all still lifes. The first still life I ever made was really good, and then the next nineteen were shit! [Laughs] It was such a weird thing to make something, and go ‘Oh man I’ve got this covered,’ and then to go dramatically backwards with the next paintings.
NH: What’s the story of how you got into painting in the first place? What kicked it all off?
JK: Well, I was at a point in my life where I just started wanting to create things. So, the first thing I did was I imported a whole load of tiles from Mexico, and started making these tiled pots. I’ve always been into pots and then I taught myself how to stick these tiles onto pots, using cement and then I thought it would be cool to paint some of the pots, so my wife bought me paints, and I painted a few. It was fine. And then I figured it would be cool just to try painting itself. So my wife bought me more paints and started teaching me the fundamentals. At that point I didn’t even know the difference between acrylic and oil, but somehow the first painting I made was a good one, by my standards I mean.
NH: And why start with still lifes? Is it because they are such a familiar subject matter for paintings?
JK: I think because we, my wife and I, are largely introverts. Or at least I’m a homebody, a bit more than my wife, and I guess subconsciously it’s a way to bring colour and life into these imagined interior spaces. Anyway, after that first painting I just, y’know, got completely obsessed with trying to get better. It was really difficult because it was something that I loved, a hobby that I wanted to do all the time.
NH: Where did you go after the twenty still lives? Did you carry on painting them, but got back to doing good ones in your own estimation?
JK: They were OK. I just think I probably nullified all expectation. I wasn’t looking at them like ‘Oh, this is better.’ I think I just sort of let it go, like ‘whatever, just make the work.’ all the value was in the process, not in the result. It was relatively organic in the beginning. I just really loved making art. After a while, I started experimenting with making abstract works, mostly monochromatic, black and white works, and then really got into texture, and then I got into creating pictorial depth [Laughs]. In fact, I really loved making abstract art. I found it more challenging than the still lifes, and there was a time it was going to go either way, and I’ve just gone down the figurative path.
NH: Was that a pretty organic development, to go down that path of figuration or did you make a conscious decision?
JK: It was an organic, subconscious kind of thing, I think. I just noticed I wasn’t making many abstracts at one point then ended up just focussing on the figurative work – which I’m happy about! I think figuration is more generally accessible of course. People have a better chance to connect with the work.
NH: What do you like about making abstract paintings?
JK: I think placement, working with negative space and trying to understand space in painting. It’s really challenging. And als, for me, the abstract works were about the interpretation and representation of feelings… responses to things I was listening to, or lines for passages from books I was reading. Those translations are quite challenging. I feel abstraction takes an enormous amount of skill, and often it’s what you don’t do that counts. You can easily overload a painting. It’s all the things you choose not to do that ultimately makes the painting. [Showing images] I was actually showing both figurative and abstract paintings at the same time at this point [In 2019]. I’d love to find a way to merge the abstract and figurative again, in some way, but there’s no rush.
NH: Returning to the visual universe you are currently inhabiting, can you tell me about the recurring double head motif in your work?
JK: Yes! The double heads all started when I was playing around with my sons, drawing stuff. A lot of my work comes out of trying to draw cool stuff for my sons, and trying to stay young in the process [Laughs]. Three and four-year olds aren’t that interested in flowers, but if you draw a snake, a cobra or a tiger, then, whoa! Now we’re talking! So I’d be drawing one scary creature for one of my sons and then the other one would want one too. That kept on going for a while, which was fine, and then at one point I just couldn’t be bothered so I just put two heads on this drawing of a cobra and said to them, that’s you, and that’s your brother. [Laughs] Sunny’s always on the right, and Milo’s the left.
NH: Do they have favorite characters? Tigers, snakes or unicorns?
JK: They’re so nonchalant about it! I would say Milo prefers the more pretty things, like unicorns and stuff like that, whereas Sunny has more of a darker side. But really, to be completely honest, they don’t really give a shit about what I make! They’re so used to being surrounded by art, being dragged into galleries and museums, and having paintings all over the place at home, I wouldn’t be surprised if they become scientists or something and choose to have nothing to do with art [Laughs].
NH: And how are your kids’ art careers shaping up? Do they paint and draw a lot?
JK: Milo does. Milo’s creative, and likes making stuff in general and it’s just unbelievable watching the stuff he does, completely on his own volition. He’s not big into TV or hugely into video-games, but he’ll go and get his clothes and stuff them with cushions and make installations. With Sunny, he is like me, he has natural abilities, but he’s lazy! But when he makes something, it’s amazing. In my books they’re geniuses, but I’m acutely aware that I’m their father, so [Laughs]! I’ve got this Francis Picabia work on paper, and this Man Ray work on paper, and I’m going to take great delight in hanging my sons’ work next to my them soom.
NH: A spontaneous, childlike spirit of making seems to run through your work, which of course was the kind-of mythical, ultimate source of creativity that the CoBrA artists like Karel Apel, Constant and Asger Jorn were trying to tap into and harness. Have you been inspired by the CoBrA and Art Brut and artists who chase the idea of play in their work?
JK: Well for starters I love Karrel Appel. I reckon my favorite art video is the one of him in his Paris studio, fighting the canvas. Have you seen it? The video sets him up as a warrior, a knight, battling the canvas. He gets these huge tubes of oil, and it’s a massive canvas, and he’s slashing at it with a big thing of wood. His violent movements towards the canvas are so expressive. It’s such a good video. The expression he’s able to achieve through making his work is just the best. But Appel’s work changed over time, of course, and became a lot more refined…
NH: Is the process of making art still ‘play’ or playful for you?
JK: It is still very much playful. My process starts with a scribble, then moves onto a more structured drawing, then some turn into paintings. The process of making the paintings have periods of play within them, but also some aspects of focused construction and considered application.
NH: So how expansive does this universe you’re in at the moment feel? It’s been around for a few years now? Are you reaching the limits of this world, or is there a lot more to come in this universe?
JK: There’s a lot more evolution to come in this world.
NH: And what’s the future for the main characters in it?
JK: Yeah, they’ll change up eventually. But… [Pause] I just try not to think about this stuff too much, because if I think about it too much, it makes me nervous in the creative process…,
NH: [Laughs] Oh shit, sorry!
JK: [Laughs] It’s fine. No,I try not to think about these things too much because I think they will just happen. It’s like when I finished making still lifes, it was just time. It wasn’t like I was going, ‘Oh, in three months time I’m going to stop doing still lifes!’ I just knew it was time.
At the moment I’m still really enjoying what I’m painting. Very much so. I think there’s going to be a reasonable evolution. But also I don’t plan on showing work forever. I really like the idea of doing a bit of a Philip Guston and just disappearing for a few years. There’s something really appealing about that, but I think our motivations would probably be quite different,—and, just to be I’m not, for one second comparing myself to fucking Phil Guston, he’s an absolute master. But it’s really interesting to read about these people and look at the moves they make, both artistic and in life. You can learn a lot, trying to see what works for you and what doesn’t.
NH: You had a pretty unusual experience in terms of getting so much success really, really early on in a creative career. How does that feel? Is that one of the reasons you are thinking about taking a break? I guess it’s been a pretty intense few years…
JK: It’s been really intense and it’s been amazing. You wade into uncharted waters, so you don’t really know what to expect. I have had a really good time, I think, and I don’t expect to be in this position forever, because there are so many good young artists coming through, that it’s not possible for anyone to command the spotlight for an extended period of time. Plus, I think people’s palette evolves or changes all the time.
NH: Well your work is attracting a lot of love at the moment and suspect the attention will be enduring. But dragging you back again into your visual universe, I’d like to hear a bit more about some of the characters. We’ve got the cobras, and we’ve got these [pointing at figures in a painting] animated Mexican wrestling mask-like forms… Who or what are they in your head? Are they evil?
JK: No, I don’t think so. I feel like they’re ‘monster-y’ but happy. It’s weird because my eldest son is obsessed with the role of the anti-hero, and I kind of feel like they’re the cool anti-heroes in the paintings. It’s like in Star Wars I’ve always liked the stormtroopers the most. The masks don’t have malicious intent, but there’s something like a slightly threatening grimace about them… I think there’s a lot of darkness hidden behind the colourful surfaces of some of these paintings.
NH: Do you ever construct, for yourself at least, narratives in the compositions?
JK: Yeah, sometimes. It’s clearer in some of the drawings. In the ones I am making at the moment there are always several characters and there’s a level of imagined interaction and discussion, responses, at times, to things that have happened to me.
NH: What do you enjoy most in the painting process?
JK: That’s a really good question. Getting the patina out is kind of important, and getting the right amount of marks…
NH: Colour and pattern play such powerful roles in your paintings..
JK: Yes, in some of the paintings it’s almost like the subject matter is void. That form for example [pointing at a form in a painting in his studio] could be anything but the painting is really about nailing the blues and oranges and reds.
NH: Have you been drawing inspiration from any particular artists or art historical moments?
JK: Recently, I’ve been looking at lots of Édouard Vuillard and Félix Vallotton, part of the Les Nabis group, around the turn-of-the-Century, yeah. They were all in Pont-Aven… and Gauguin sort of had one foot in that group, he was mates with all those guys. I find the patterns and colours in their works incredible. You see the beginning of Fauvism. Paul Sérusier, who I love, was a leading figure and Pierre Bonnard made amazing, important works. They’re not in vogue at the moment, which I find incredible.
NH: Are there personal encounters with artworks that stand out for you?
JK: I remember going to the Tate and seeing Matisse’s Snail for the first time, which is essentially, what? twelve pieces of paper, and just going ‘Fucking hell, oh my god, this is insane.’ It’s just this big cut-out, and then you go up close to it, and there’s rips and tears and marks of glue, and it’s so imperfect. And yet, the palette, the composition, the history of how and why he made the work are incredible. I think it was one of the last two or three things he made before he died. He only got into cutting out things because he was on his way out. Matisse is on his own level. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out Gauguin. Gauguin’s funny for me, because I think his best is insane, insanely good,and his worst is fucking bad. Matisse I feel was constantly great, in every period of his life. His Fauvist paintings are just so good. Most of them are tiny, and the amount of colour and expression he could fit into each one—and his lack of focus on perfection—was astounding,—really blew my mind.
NH: You also have a healthy approach to formal experimentation. You’ve just started making sculptures, for example. That’s new for you isn’t it?
JK: Yes. It’s newish, but to be clear for me to say that I make them would be an absolute lie! I’m responsible for the process and for the design of the sculptures but when it comes to the actual skill-set of sculpting and executing these bigger works, I rely on working with partners for that.
NH: That’s refreshingly open and direct of you about the process. It’s true of most of the sculptures you see on the market. I guess most artists try not to talk about how they’re made. Anyway, how are you feeling about the sculptures?
JK: Good! Really good. I will feel better though once I have developed a skill-set, and can contribute more meaningfully in the execution. But it’s really cool seeing my character in three dimensions and actually the bigger they are, the more I like them. We’ve made small editions before and they’ve been really great. There’s a guy I work with in Germany, Marian, who is super-diligent. I respect the guy enormously because he’s spent so much time looking at my visual language and then helping me realize those forms in 3D. It’s been really lovely. I’d never say I’m a sculptor though! I play a role.
NH: I saw, and actually wrote about what I believe was the first sculpture you’ve exhibited – the sphinx-like creature you showed in the Wellington Arch show. What’s your relation to the sphinx story? I understand the same figure on a monumental scale will be in the Frieze sculpture display?
JK: Well, I was recently reading about The Great Sphinx of Giza in one of the books by Graham Hancock, which shows evidence that the Sphinx temple would originally have sat on the banks of the river Nile. It’s now about 10km from the river, but Hancock thinks that the geography has changed and that the river moved over the years. If that is true just imagine the curation that would have gone into that landscape of monuments. You would have had the sphinx, the pyramids and the river Nile all in one view. And Hancock shows that the Nile valley would have been lush and green back then. [Laughs] Imagine how stunning it was when it was conceived!
NH: I think that’s the perfect image to end on.