I’ve known Jesse McCloskey for years, but his work and words are always surprising me. They get to the heart of the matter quickly. In one of the early days after I had my first child, I wanted nothing more than to go out and see some shows in Chelsea. It still makes me laugh that this childless dude was the one who told me it was okay to bring the baby along, head into a café, and feed him when he got hungry. But that’s what McCloskey is about: keep working, no matter what it takes, or the devil’s gonna get you, and, whatever … birth, sex, and death are as natural as rock and roll.
McCloskey’s works are dense with layers of cut paper collage and oil and spray paint, leading us into a Gothic netherworld of witches and forests. They are clear and wiry, a deft combination of graphic illustration and multi-figure compositional organization.
McCloskey grew up in Plympton, Massachusetts and studied at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, with David Loeffler Smith, before getting his MFA from Parsons School of Design, where he studied with Paul Resika, Leland Bell, John Heliker, and Anne Tabachnick. He has been a Yaddo resident and recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant. His work is represented by Claire Oliver Gallery, where he had a solo exhibition in 2011, reviewed by Christopher Hart Chambers in Flash Art International.
We met recently at his studio in East Williamsburg, and talked over Blue Point Lagers at the beautiful local bar, Matt Torrey’s.
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Jennifer Samet: Your work has shifted a lot over the years I’ve known you. Can you talk about beginning to use collage and imagined imagery versus working from life?
Jesse McCloskey: I was working on a bunch of figurative paintings, and I was modulating light on skin, and I realized, “Does anybody really care about this anymore? Do I really want to make a form in space like Bonnard or Cézanne? Do I want to compete in terms of well-made figure painting anymore?” It’s great stuff, but it got tiresome. And this friend said to me, “Being an artist is about being free.” I never had seen art like that, as being free. To me it was more about having obligations to do it right all the time.
When I was released of that, it opened me up. I started drawing outlines of people. Then I started cutting out paper for drawings that weren’t going well. I’d glue a fresh paper on top. That’s how I started working in this style, just by being done with old school oil painting. I have nothing against it; I love it. It was just the weight of it, having grown up that way in painting, I needed to free myself of it, and do what I wanted, what I think I’m best at. That was around 2006-07.
JS: That feeling of freedom really comes across in your work now.
JM: Yes, also in terms of subject matter, I used to try to paint more classical things. Now I just paint New England stuff — devils and witches and Gothic landscapes, birds and clocks. I don’t worry about anything other than what I really want to do.
JS: It seems like you’re having more fun with your painting too.
JM: Absolutely. I mean, they cause me no end of heartache; I’m always freaking out about them, I really hate them, and I have to spank them to death to get them to give up anything, but painting is such a rollercoaster. You’re on the bottom, on the floor of the studio, you’re depressed, and then you look at this painting you’ve been working on for eight months and see some corner of it, and a bit of green and yellow looks cool, and you think, “No, don’t look, I can’t fall back in love, because I hate it!” And, little by little, you look again and find that little black line that leads from the yellow to the green and makes it alive, and think, “I know what I’m doing.” And you’re back in the painting, on top of the rollercoaster again.
I live for that. I live for that high and low, and I can’t understand why anyone would give it up. If you have that kind of energy, where you’re so excited about something, I don’t know how you could give it up. I can’t imagine.
JS: I know David Loeffler Smith was an influential teacher at the Swain School. You’ve indicated it was as much about work ethics, materials, and how to keep working as anything else. Can you talk about that?
JM: The first thing David Smith ever said to me was this: I was working on a drawing of a house in New Bedford. I rearranged it so it would fit in the space and he said, “Jesse, you’re a good liar.”
Obviously, David talked about painting, but he was also my real father. He was the only person who ever listened to me. One time he sat there for forty minutes and just let me talk. No one had done that with me before. It wasn’t a Catholic thing, wasn’t a priest, there was no judgment, he just sat there and listened. He was an older guy, not a friend, not a girlfriend, so it blew my mind.
He passed away in July, but he’s still my mentor. He’s what I think a painter really is. He would come into my studio and cut up a piece of paper, stick it on my canvas, and walk away without saying a word, and I wouldn’t know what to make of that. Sometimes he would cut you down into ribbons, and sometimes he would build you up. Maybe I get that high and low from him. One time he came into my studio, and said, “Jesse, do you have an Uncle Joe or an Aunt Betty? Because if you do, show them those paintings. They’re going to love them. They’re going to think you’re doing a good job in art school.” Crushing! Then, another day, he’d pull out a Picasso book and say, “Jesse, you had a much better day than Picasso today.”
It evened everything out and gave me a mission. I was Catholic, and once I stopped believing, I didn’t have that. When I went to Swain, it gave me a set of eyes. He was a moral compass for me. We kept on a correspondence. When I was really low or stressed out, I might get a letter from him, and the clarity of painting would come back. When I needed those letters, they would show up.
JS: Yes. Recently we talked and you were reflecting on how so many of your friends, artists of your generation, had stopping making work. I always think about that.
JM: I remember an older painter saying, “Don’t ever get good at anything besides painting, because you don’t want anything to fall back on.” It’s nice to be able to make tables; you can do B-quality work, but you don’t want to do A-quality work. Someone might say, “Oh you can make money doing that, make some tables for me.” No, no, that’s the problem. That’s the devil talking! No. You make the paintings, then you can make a table for someone. Growing up Catholic, I was always worried the devil was going to get me. The devil was ready to trip me up.
Later my parents left the Catholic faith, and became born again. When I came to New York, they said their friends were praying for me. I was like, “What’s wrong with me?” But that’s the thing that drew me to New York. I never felt comfortable around the regular people. I always wanted to be around the weirdos — the cool weirdos, who accept people.
JS: Can you discuss how the imagery in your painting develops?
JM: I like that New England perspective — that iconic witch character — that sort of half-funny, but not really funny character. I’m looking at a lot of New England gravestones, the weeping willow and funeral urns. I like that bleedy color they have. Early American folk art seems the most truly distilled American art there is. I gravitate to that, because I grew up looking at that, back in Plympton, Massachusetts.
There were primitive portrait paintings in the town halls. The graphic quality, and also the weirdness of them, appealed to me. That’s where my imagery comes from. It’s cool to draw that kind of stuff — big black crows and clocks, sometimes a skull. It is beautiful and dark. When you look at a folk painting, there’s always some strange landscape behind, with a garden, and for me, that’s what painting is all about — you go into that strange world.
I’m working on these paintings of snow globes with magic fountains in them now — spray-painting a little fountain with weird trees and a unicorn. They are about primeval New England, before we came in and tainted it. I was walking around Massachusetts one day and I smelled the carbon dioxide in the woods. You could smell the acid rain, and see how the forest had been poisoned. And I thought, we poison things for the betterment of ourselves. Here we all are, enjoying our fabulous lifestyles, and I’m not criticizing that, or saying we should go back to the Pre-Revolutionary days. But I sensed that there was a world before now. Perhaps seeing that world in a bubble is what I’m doing with the new paintings, showing that singular place, then having weird things happen around it.
JS: Your painting seems rooted in the Abstract Expressionist, existentialist idea of process, but the content is related to an illustration tradition. Do you see these two things in conflict?
JM: I know what you mean. I both want that highly visible graphic image of the wicked witch of the west, or the unicorn, but I want the painting to work as a whole. You look at Bonnard, Cézanne, Matisse, Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian — they all had that big form that worked as a whole. That’s how I was taught to paint. I can’t have a witch over there, a car over there, all these random elements; it can’t be broken up. It has to work like a muscle car, one big engine.
That’s why I use those stripes of color, to move the eye around the picture, to unify the whole thing. Nothing is more important, not the witch, not the devil, not the landscape. I want that tight big graphic image to grab you first. Then you see another layer, and each one is subservient to the whole. Nothing, to me, is more important than that. Like the great Excavation painting by de Kooning: the whole thing moves from the sides upward. It’s so disjointed but still moves in one direction. It takes months and months of rearranging, until everything clicks together. That’s the bliss moment.
JS: I think about how you grew up on a horse farm, and how birth and death were just part of your daily life. How does that affect your work?
JM: There were seven or eight horses buried in the backyard where I grew up. I always knew these giant skeletons were buried there. It was beautiful in its own horrific way. There is a painting I did of two lovers. There’s a naked guy, and a woman going up the stairs. But somewhere, in the floorboards, there’s a horse skeleton buried in the house.
It was beautiful but it kind of fucked me up too. Because, back on the farm, if a horse has a broken leg, you have to kill it, even if it is a beautiful thoroughbred. There’s no gray area. You give these injections, you’re holding the horse, and it falls over. It’s a hell of a lot bigger than you are. Some of the imagery I use comes from that.
JS: You love the Rolling Stones. Tell me why they are meaningful to you.
JM: The early 1970s Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith, is such an important driving factor in my life. Exile on Main Street, which I listen to almost every day, gets me into that zone of being an artist and having focus. I only have to listen to Rocks Off or Let it Loose to get into that beautiful, dark world.
Mick and Keith are so beautiful, and I have no interest in being a musician, but I apply it to my painting. I don’t have illusions about it; I’m sure they are totally different people in private, but I don’t care. I use that image, that hyper-drive, as gasoline for my studio: the black and white grainy photographs of them, skinny, with their veins popping out, in front of the microphone, black paint smeared down their faces. I realize it is a photograph, their public persona, and not their real life, but I use it as fuel. It helps me focus and drive.
JS: Those public photographs, those images, are maybe a metaphor for the kind of paring down you do, whiting out, like in photocopies or Andy Warhol’s portraits, until you get to the graphic image.
JM: Yes. I remember David Smith said, “A bit of abstraction can say more about a flower than a literal flower can.” That’s why the pictures have to work as a whole machine.