Smart Objects: Jan Gatewood 'Alas! Mocktails to Infinity'

Art being shown at the moment tends to lean towards the austere or purposefully otherworldly or fantastical. As has been reiterated, and felt, countless times, we are experiencing a truly unprecedented moment, therefore there is no prescriptive way that we should, or indeed can, enjoy the things we are used to. With this in mind, when our consumption of art is predominantly scrolling through Art World Instagram or listing sites, it is always refreshing when something defiantly stands out; that's why I am excited to talk about a recent solo exhibition of works by artist Jan Gatewood at Los Angeles gallery Smart Objects.

Jan Gatewood, Oscarcopter Stonejam-Pi, 2020. Oil pastel, oil stick, fabric dye, industrial salt, fabric spray paint on paper, 55.9cm x 77.1cm. Smart Objects, Los Angeles. 


It is fairly rare to come across a self-taught artist in a gallery show, partly because the formulaic method of sourcing new, emerging talent is usually scouting from degree shows. This was made very difficult for the class of 2020 given the little to no exhibitions in person, so this is where the independent artist has a chance to shine. Having said that, Gatewood's paintings are hardly 'Outsider' art; the soft brushstroke techniques are not dissimilar to those that are increasingly popular at the moment. They are very well executed on paper, but it is the humorous factor that draws the eye to the works, such as that in 'Oscarcopter Stonejam-Pi', which re-appropriates a fish as a helicopter, being mounted by a tiny devil. This level of fantasy and lovingly puerile subject matter seems silly initially, but of course we have to delve a little deeper.

Installation view: Jan Eastwood, Alas! Mocktails to Infinity, Smart Objects, Los Angeles. 

The exhibition's press release does not take a traditional form, and instead we are given a statement and told that drawing should "generate form [and] register personal emotion", which is certainly true. I don't want to labour the point, nor fetishise the fact, that Gatewood is self-taught, but when we see how contemporary artists are trained, conditioned and work so closely with the institution, it is genuinely exciting to see an artist outside this bubble being exhibited formally. Perhaps this is naive but it allows a further level of playfulness and experimentation that would be controlled somewhat by the art school. There is a quality to the works which flip-flops between trippy and childlike, and similarly it is good to see a non-traditional press release or exhibition description, which reads more like a textual artwork than a document that exists separately to the work, to appease the critical audience and collectors. The line "walk around cruelty and find the funny in it" may seem a little awkward given the current circumstances, but maybe it is what we need to hear on occasion.

Jan Gatewood, (Journalistic Title) Sam Morril / Sydney Poitier, 2020. Oil pastel, oil stick, fabric dye, industrial salt, lemon juice, fabric spray paint on paper, 55.9cm x 77.1cm. Smart Objects, Los Angeles. 


It is clear from the work that the artist has a strong affinity with nature; the tense relationship between mankind and the natural environment is presented both comically and tragically. Tiny devils on flying fish, the reflection of a car in the skin of a frog, these surreal scenes are made additionally bizarre by the artist's palettes of acid-wash aesthetics in oranges, pinks and yellows. Gatewood has also produced some works that are simply the artist's name seemingly spray painted on paper. Some bear a great resemblance to graffiti art, while others look like they have been carved into a hard surface, showing a clear influence from many mediums, dipping between what is considered 'high' or 'low' culture. This realistic bringing together of external influences is refreshing and personal, allowing the viewer real insight into Gatewood's practice and inspiration. 'Alas! Mocktails to Infinity' is a show of paradoxes and binaries, yet the artist flows through them with seamless ease. Works materially comprised of oil pastel, dye and lemon juice highlight the coexistence of the natural and synthetic worlds with zero tension. Backgrounds are formed so brightly and fully that they almost sit alongside the subject matter, both a separate piece and integrated with figures such as cows, frogs and birds. Gatewood's world is one of wonder, chaos and vivaciousness; for a few moments, we're just living in it.

Jan Gatewood, Carl-Pi at the Zen Arcade, 2020. Oil pastel, oil stick, fabric dye, industrial salt, fabric spray paint on paper, 55.9cm x 77.1cm. Smart Objects, Los Angeles.


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