Interview by J.L. Schnabel
Photos by Adam Wallacavage
John John Jesse was one of the first artists in this movement whose work I fell madly in love with when I first saw a piece of his at a fateful group show at Fuse gallery in NYC in 2005. I clearly remember being taken by his brazen subject matter and delicate, detailed, colorful technique. The skin and expressions of his female figures have a glow and tough fragility about them rarely seen in others work. Even the antique convex frame it was in was beautiful. Since then John John's work has been in galleries across the country, published in countless art books, screaming the songs of youth and its glorious turmoil. Adam Wallacavage and I had a chance to catch up and visit with him at his new home in New Hope P.A. while his new work is up this month at Opera Gallery in NYC through the 29th.
Yeah, the Lower East Side isn't like it used to be like in the 70's and 80's when I grew up. It was chaos all the time. Crime, gangs, there was a heroin shooting gallery right across the street from our apartment and next to the shooting gallery was a huge catholic church. There were abandoned buildings for blocks on end. It was in a weird way the coolest, always an element of danger in the air. I believe that's why all the best music and art came out of the neighborhood back then. Now the Lower East Side is gentrified, full of hipsters and yuppies paying 2500 dollars for a studio apartment. It's so sterile now.
I don't know if I ever had an artistic calling. I was always a good artist. I was born with it. When I was young it was only about playing in punk bands for me. Touring, recording and anarchy. It wasn't until I got clean off heroin and alcohol, that I committed to sitting down and being prolific. It was more of a survival strategy actually to keep me sane in between NA meetings to keep me distracted and out of trouble. It was the truest blessing that it manifested into this career by accident.
You heard the saying, "you can take the boy outta the city but you can't take the city outta the boy", so no difference in the paintings I've done while I've been here... New Hope is like paradise for a life long NYC native. I miss my good friends, family and I miss food delivery. But I don't miss the over crowded subways and rude people.
Yeah it was suggested that I try it by Eric at Opera Gallery. he said the great masters painted on wood panel, so I gave it a try. Fortunately my mediums transferred over quite lovely with little adjustments to technique and I love the heavy gloss varnishing now.
I guess it's just what I wanted my house to look like, which is still a never- ending project. I don't even think the way I look all punk rock matches my house to tell you the truth. The paintings look all "sugar colored" basically cuz i feel that a painting, no matter what the theme or tension in it, should still be beautiful and alive and stand the test of time. You can always look closer and the story reveals itself.
I'm also fascinated by all the amazing collections of taxidermy, Virgin Mary statues and Batman toys you have in your home. Can you talk about what attracts you to the things you collect? Does your proclivity for collecting influence your work?
I love anything antique or super vintage. Nothing is made with the same love and craftsmanship anymore. Everything is made so half-ass now. A lot of the items I have, I have had for so many years and some since I was little like the batman collection. The Catholic antiques I have I guess are an extension of the heavy religious upbringing I had and the 8 years of Catholic school I did time in. I am not religious nor do i believe in that god but you gotta admit that the Catholics were the most "bling" of all the religions. I just have some weird attraction to old Catholic iconography.
Well If you are working at home and you're there almost 24/7, your home must be full of inspiration. For me being an artist is a lifestyle and everything reflects my work.
I definitely don't know any techniques they teach in art schools since I dropped out of high school at 15 years old to play and tour with Nausea. I just "winged" it. Some trial and error, some magnificent accidents. It was years of tooling around with different mediums till I found what would be seamless and fit my skill levels at the time.
My only advice is to do what you love and commit 100%. You may get hurtful critique along the way so try and not let that bring you down. I know, it's hard because any real artist is hyper sensitive, like myself!
Wake up, coffee and straight to work. I look forward to it. I love it. Only one love at a time.
It's my entire life up until now. Focusing heavy sometimes on the teen til' now punk rock lifestyle and my life in the Lower East Side. The people in my paintings are all real people and models. I use them to represent my story because they're much prettier than me!!!
It's just the make up of a life story. So much love, heartbreak and sex. It's just real and honest and everyone can relate to it.
No I retired a few years ago. Like I said before I had to give 100% to being a painter. I needed to eat drink and sleep art. And i couldn't have done that touring for months in a van. But I miss it sometimes, playing in front of a thousand or more kids going nuts every night on tour. There's nothing like it.
It was so different. The neighborhood, the punk scene. All the skins and punks were like a tight family back then. You couldn't just start "hanging out" with everyone. You had to pay your dues. We were a gang and we ran those streets in the 80s.
It's an honor and I'm extremely privileged. I came from nothing. A gutter punk living in squats, panhandling, stealing, shooting drugs. Definitely a true rise from the bottom story. When I first visited Opera after they had a couple of my new works hanging up, it was across Basquiat, and Picasso. I can't describe the feeling I had inside. Unbelievable. So cool.
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