LOS ANGELES — Jon Pylypchuk is haunted by ghosts. I’ve Got Love for You, the artist’s current show at the ArtCenter College of Design’s Peter and Merle Mullin Gallery, is anchored by a dime-store campfire set-up framed by furry trees and a chorus of pillowcase ghosts suspended from above. Tapestries made from carpet scraps hang on the walls, each depicting a wide-eyed, alien-like figure surrounded by apparitions fashioned from gym socks. Bronze casts of paper bags with eye holes cut-outs offer a simple, refined take on his scrappy DIY style, an attempt to immortalize the ephemeral and fleeting.

Mortality has long been a constant theme in Pylypchuk’s work, but this latest presentation deals with specific losses and loves in his life; namely, his relationship with his wife and the death of his close friend Tony Fernandez in 2020. In addition to the visual artworks, Pylypchuk composed a handful of achingly earnest lo-fi pop songs last year, which he performed with a small band seated around the campfire at the ArtCenter’s opening and will reprise at the closing in August. He has wrestled with his friend’s death for the last three years and channeled that grief in other recent shows, but the process of songwriting, something he hasn’t done for three decades, has provided a kind of catharsis, lightening the weight of that loss every so slightly.

“I figure I’m going to retire the ghosts after this,” he told Hyperallergic shortly before the show opened last month. “There’s been a lot of ghosts lately.” 

Exhibition view, I’ve Got Love for You (photo © Gene Ogami; courtesy ArtCenter)

Throughout his career, Pylypchuk’s work has revolved around mortality, abjection, losers, loners, the fragility and strangeness of life, portraying it all with a mix of humor and sadness, pathos and the pathetic, as ArtCenter’s writer-in-residence Chris Kraus notes in an essay accompanying the show. Using spray foam, lightbulbs, and an assortment of everyday items and detritus, his constructions radiate personality and character far exceeding their economy of means. “No matter the media, Pylypchuk’s people are us: lumbering bundles of feeling and flesh, making our way through the world on pencil-thin legs that still, somehow, support us,” Kraus writes.

As much as “Pylypchuk’s people are us,” they are also him, sad-sack slacker self-portraits that blend tender intimacy with cartoonish slapstick, material curiosity, and bodily revulsion. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, he didn’t intend to become an artist. He played in bands throughout the mid-1990s before realizing he “wasn’t very good at it.” He studied Economics, then English at the University of Manitoba, winding up on academic probation after nearly flunking out. His friend, the artist Paul Cherwick, suggested Pylypchuk join him in art school.

“’How hard can art be, right?’” Pylypchuk thought at the time. “I didn’t have any kind of a background in art, so I didn’t know that there was anything to it. There were no rules,” he recalls. “It was very liberating … to not know that I’m doing everything wrong.” With music, he had dreams of becoming a rock star, but with visual art, he simply “didn’t think anybody would care.”

At art school, he fell in with the Royal Art Lodge, a group of Canadian artists including Marcel Dzama and Neil Farber who prioritized camaraderie, collaboration, and an irreverent, darkly comic approach to artmaking. Far removed from the global artistic centers, they reveled in their provincial, underdog status. 

Jon Pylypchuk, “i’m covered in stones without you” (2023), found object rug with fake fur, 60 x 96 inches (photo © Gene Ogami; courtesy the artist and Nino Mier Gallery, Los Angeles

After graduating in 1997, he entered the MFA program at UCLA, where he found a group of kindred spirits in the emerging art scene based around a cluster of young galleries in LA’s Chinatown. He first met Tony Fernandez, who performed songs under the moniker Mr. Banjo at Joel Mesler’s Dianne Preuss Gallery, in 1999. “He’s a great songwriter and I loved his songs so much I would follow him around like a little puppy and eventually he decided he wanted to put a full band together,” Pylypchuk remembers. He joined on bass, and they would play several times a week at Hop Louie, a legendary now-defunct Chinatown watering hole that was an early-aughts Angeleno version of NY’s Cedar Tavern.

Around the same time, he had his first show with seminal Chinatown gallery China Art Objects, which he continued to show with until they decamped for Merida, Mexico in 2015, after which Pylypchuk was picked up in LA by Nino Mier. Three months before his graduate thesis show in 2001, the artist had his first solo show with Petzel Gallery in New York. While he has had museum shows in Detroit, Münster, and Montréal, I’ve Got Love for You is his first institutional solo show in LA, suggesting his status as a kind of insider/outsider. (He had a two-part solo museum show at the Blaffer Gallery in Houston and Ausstellungshalle zeitgenossische Kunst Münster in Germany in 2009.)

Alongside his visual art career, he continued to make music with Fernandez, most notably in KISK, a spot-on Kiss cover band supposedly from Russia that performed in full Kiss face paint. Fernandez passed away unexpectedly in July 2020 after suffering a heart attack at his home. He had texted Pylypchuk earlier in the day to tell him he was feeling sick and thought he might have COVID.

“He said ‘I love you’ and I said ‘I love you too,’” Pylypchuk recalled. “And that was the last communication we had … He went to lie down and then I got a call a little while later that he had died.”

Exhibition view, I’ve Got Love for You (photo © Gene Ogami; courtesy ArtCenter)

Pylypchuk is no stranger to death. His father fled Ukraine when he was 15 years old after witnessing his parents die in the Holodomor famine. “He never liked talking about it, but there was a constant theme of ‘I’m going to die any minute,’” the artist said. His parents were older when he was born, and since his mother was the youngest in her family, her siblings began dying when Pylypchuk was a child.

“The thing is, how do you deal with that heaviness? You can’t live your life constantly weighed down by it. So you have to find coping mechanisms, and for me, it was always humor,” Pylypchuk said.

His work may originate from his own experience of loss, but it has a greater resonance. “To me, this exhibition is timely,” Julie Joyce, the director of ArtCenter Galleries, told Hyperallergic. “We are all grieving. The wounds from the many losses we experienced during the pandemic are still fresh. They are also largely unsettled, and unrequited, due to the fact that even the way we mourn has changed. Right now we all need a little more understanding, a little more humor, a little more love.”

At the show’s opening, Pylypchuk and his bandmates sang plaintive songs sitting before a fake fire glowing red as ghosts swayed above, tinted blue in the blacklight. With the final number, the makeshift stage turned into a puppet show, as a ghost with long, floppy striped legs began an awkwardly ebullient dance of death, and trees wobbled goofily side-to-side.

“If this is my last day around you, I want to tell you how much I love you,” Pylypchuk sang, “And if the sun goes down the moon will glow, with all of my love for you.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.