Jayson Musson, Not a “Heroic White Man Painter’s Painting Painter”

(L-R): Jayson Musson's "Sculptural Allegory for a Specific Cultural Sphere" (2014) and "Pedestrian" (2014)
(Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94)

Jayson Musson first hit the art world radar with an online series, “Art Thoughtz,” in which he dropped deep knowledge behind the satirical guise of “Hennessey Youngman.” He went on to make a name for himself, sans persona, with a debut show at Salon 94 that featured enormous paintings composed of collaged Coogi sweaters. His latest exhibition at the gallery, “Exhibit of Abstract Art,” on view through June 21, recreates actual paintings and sculptures seen in the comic strip “Nancy.” We emailed with Musson about irony, conceptual painting, and why HBO GO is better than contemporary art. 

Would you consider the pieces in “Exhibit of Abstract Art” to be appropriation works, since they’re taken directly from the “Nancy” cartoon? Or is that too simplistic of a way to think of them?

I guess in some respects they are, but there was never a conscious point while making this body of work where I was like, “I wish to make Appropriation Art.” I guess that appropriation as a strategy for making work is like a non-thought; there’s so much data and noise floating around that culling from the pre-existing materials and reorganizing them into something else — whether it’s appropriation, assemblage, collage, or a photo on Twitter that’s re-captioned for a transient joke — is a natural (for this time at least) way of making things.

Are they conceptual paintings? Is it possible to stand back and admire them without knowing the source material? I guess what I mean is: Can they be beautiful objects without a history?

Yes, they’re more along the lines of conceptual paintings. As I don’t consider myself a heroic white man Painter’s Painting Painter, I have a certain amount of ambivalence when it comes to object-making, so most visual art I make comes to be via some conceptual framing device that functions as the starting point for the work. In terms of someone being able to admire them without prior knowledge of the source material, that’s determined by the individual viewer’s taste and how much data they personally need. However, I am interested in making the works formally autonomous in regards to the source material, that they may have the chance of being formally appealing without knowledge of their instantiating reference, but the success of that aim varies based upon perception. And ultimately my intentions are meaningless.

You’ve noted that what drew you to “Nancy” is the artist’s sense that Modernism has a certain “uselessness” and a “‘sham’ quality.” Is there any contemporary art being made now that inspires a similarly reactionary response from you, personally?

I don’t look at contemporary art. I much prefer to watch TV using my mother’s HBO GO account, so I can’t really speak on this.

A certain exhausted, generic quality is explored in your show, from the barebones title (“Exhibit of Abstract Art”) to some of the reproduced signage advertising things like “Modern Paintings For Sale.” Rather than imbuing the concept of “art” with a sort of mystical quality, this emphasizes a certain reality (that these are objects, in a room, that someone made, and they’re for sale). What sort of excitement did you manage to find while working within this sort of space, utilizing verbiage that treats art like so many products at a suburban garage sale?

I think my use of such deadpan language for this show stems from my previously mentioned ambivalence toward objects. I don’t know, art objects to me are like children: I’m kind of creeped out by both and I prefer to keep my distance, therefore some of the language I use is clinical or matter-of-fact. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m all for the manifold possibilities art offers — art as a site of free exploration — which is as close to mystical as I can get.

What excitement did you manage to generate while working with the borrowed imagery from “Nancy” — paintings that, in many ways, are readymade archetypes of “generic” abstract painting, with a range of gestures, and a range of pleasing colors?

There was a lot of pleasure in making the show. Despite my ambivalence, there is an undeniable pleasure from working directly with materials such as paint, but I feel that my personal pleasure is only important to me, so it doesn’t need to be conveyed in the titling.

Speaking of abstract painting in general — the general form has seen a resurgence of interest among younger artists (and the collectors flipping their work at auction). Do you think that straightforward abstraction still offers interesting avenues that have yet to be explored? Or is it played out in the sense that the only way to properly talk about it in 2014 is in a more layered, referential, and possibly ironic manner, as you’ve done in “Exhibit of Abstract Art”?

The show is somewhat about the conceived exhaustion of ideas, approaches, and manifestations of abstract painting — that abstraction has extended itself so far that it’s consuming own tail like an Ouroboros. The field has expanded so far that even these caricatures of abstraction can be considered valid paintings. But that same expansion and exhaustion is what creates new possibilities for the field. I do believe “straightforward” abstraction, whatever that is, still offers interesting avenues to be explored — I think it’s dangerous to dismiss a whole field of art making because it has a long history. Things that are dismissed in art have a strange way of returning and being hailed as new anyway. This is an amnesiatic field.

Even though I enjoy taking the piss out of art, I wouldn’t want to live in a state of constant reference or irony. Oy vey. You need balance in this life, my friend. So I don’t believe someone can shit on painters while hailing, like, “post-Internet whatever” as the Holy Grail of Now. Today’s contemporary is tomorrow’s bell-bottoms. And so it goes. In the end, all forms of art have equal capacity to grow tired and inevitably become cliché. The contemporary is a fleeting circus of trends, concerns, and taste. You can’t have contemporary without “temporary.”