A look, in earnest, at twelve pieces I made when I was a senior in HS.
It’s tricky holding an earlier body of work to high regard because I think you’re bound to make unnecessary comparisons. It’s probably trickier when you made that work at the age of 17 – though I suppose what’s really happening is a deep-seated fondness of this early work as opposed to being hung up on it being “the best stuff I’ve ever made.” I will say though, these twelve works I’ll be showing and telling are some of the most pure stuff I ever cobbled together. These works are amalgams of collage, writing, drawing and painting that don’t necessarily address themes (because I’m not sure I was consciously addressing anything at that age), but definitely present ideas. What’s more is over time I’ve been able to treat these works like a roadmap and use them to pinpoint the start of artistic obsessions I would continue to explore in college and presently in my artistic career.
A disclaimer is probably necessary – these twelve pieces were created with the intention of being my 12-piece concentration for AP. And in the end, the AP board didn’t much care for this body of work, and I nabbed a whopping score of 3 (I had other classmates who obtained scores of 5 and 6). I hope it had less to do with the quality of the work and more that the work didn’t fit the category perfectly. And although looking back at these works, I can see plenty of things that are not developed or masterful whatsoever, my art rearing up until that point was heavily focused on developing creativity and self-expression, not so much skillful execution or reproduction. I would go on to be taught those things, but at 17 I thought I’d just made my first opus. I was bouncing around, being an artist and making work with what was around me.
This ethos persists. Ever the mixed media aficionado, even as a beginner my propensity for never doing one thing from start to finish is present throughout all of these pieces. The writing was on the wall even back then: I will probably never make a single straightforward painting ever. But that’s not what this is about, this blog is about the way these twelve works are based on pages from my Senior Year Sketchbook, and it’s a closer look at the things beginner Juno was doing in 2011 and 2012. I’m going to go one by one in the order the artworks were made, and show images of the finished artworks and where the reference came from in my sketchbook.
Of note is the work process for all twelve pieces, because prior to the mark-making, it’s the same for all of them: I scanned several two-page spreads from my sketchbook, printed them and decided on which twelve were the most promising. I glued them with acrylic medium to canvas boards I then hacked and sawed to be closer to the dimensions of my print-outs. This had to have been around October/November 2011, and for the next several months I worked on them daily, sometimes on several simultaneously, but still making sure each one had a unique appearance and identity.
I. The first of them pulls heavily from a bottle motif which is not just found in this particular spread, but several throughout my entire sketchbook. This was because a lot of magazines I was pillaging for collage fodder had great ABSOLUT VODKA ads. These very stylized ads were based on the shape of ABSOLUT’s iconic vodka bottles, and part of what led me to the references I made in the work: water, bubbles, and the manipulated background text referencing alcoholism. The purples and grays I use in the piece are also taken from the ad.
II. I’ve been lovingly referring to this second work as “Cello Man” for forever – it’s the only one with a de facto title. I really wanted to lean into absurdity when I made it as well. The original sketch shows the image of a man carrying a cello next to a very quick watercolor of broken paintbrush handles in a bin. The relationship of this vertical motif next to a horizontal motif also inspired the final image. A “cello man” running with a cello in his arms. I wondered, based on the mythology of the work, if it meant that cello man was happy, as though he held a newborn son – or running desperate, as though he held an ill, limbless member of his kind.
III. I’ve written ad nauseam about my love for Björk and what her music means to me, and 2011 was around the time this love was really solidifying. Her album “Biophilia” came out not 3 months prior to me making this work. I was inspired most of all by her lyrics when I made this third piece, and I attempted to translate allusions to the natural world in a variety of material applications. I included images of animal and plant cells, a spine leading up into a ribcage, and a reference to one of her prior albums “Medúlla” by painting a lower spine and hip bone in black ink. Once again, playing with horizontal and vertical juxtapositions.
IV. I think at some point in any artist’s life they will stop to contemplate Marina Abramović, and I’ve apparently been doing this since I was 17. Being gay means viewing heterosexuality with as much structural otherness as homosexuality probably possesses to a straight person. I don’t make these rules – when you are not heterosexual, you are confronted with heterosexuality. When you are heterosexual, you are not confronted with heterosexuality, because it represents the overarching majority of couples; quote/unquote, the norm. It felt important for me to consider heterosexual relationships and address them in some way. I might’ve just been grasping at straws with the choices I made, but somehow, some way I wanted to create a map of the images I had been fed thus far about man/woman relationships: Adam & Eve, random magazine ads, and finally Marina and Ulay. I wanted to play up a religious aspect to this as well, to show that in my worldview, a man/woman relationship was also inextricably related to religion. This piece is also heavily about figure-ground relationships, and I was very intentional about the way I positioned the vertical figures against the horizontal one at the bottom.
V. The fifth piece is one of two, back-to-back, loosely themed around water. I wanted the colors and shapes I was creating to relate to works by Thomas Hirschhorn I had been sketching in my book. The piece is fully assembled using only collage elements. Fun fact: I am not the originator of that etching – and honestly, who was going to stop me taking this drawing from a scrap pile and using it in my work? Not a single soul. So I decided to push the underwater appearance of the piece making the face on the right look like it was embedded in some kind of coral life form. The shapes and bubbles on the left were cut by hand from imagination. I feel a strange serenity from this work.
VI. The sixth piece might overall be my least favorite of the bunch. It was more or less a synthesis of the pieces that came before it. It’s a bit much. I don’t think I treated the green very tactfully in the piece; I wanted to create an allusion to seawater but probably ended up just adding a compositional element that threw the piece off. Hirschhorn worship aside, I think I’m most proud of the red marks and criss-crosses I made throughout the piece as well as the ice-blue bottle coming up from the bottom left. The various black boot legs are call-backs to the exaggerated legs on “Cello Man,” though not entirely successful. This is not the only piece to feature images of animals but I’m not sure the penguins were strong enough protagonists on their own. Even albums you like have a song you skip.
VII. Thinking about the seventh piece I realize there is a host of small details I appreciate, but as a whole, this is an unbalanced work. Having another piece in the set (number four) that addresses the man/woman thing AND the figure/ground, horizontal/vertical thing better means that this one just exists adjacent to the theme without adding to it … or even saying it differently for that matter. The figures come from a perfume ad I ripped from a magazine at a dentist office in the Ironbound, there are fish stickers you can see underneath the paint and acrylic medium, and I wanted to accentuate the suds already on the models’ bodies to make them appear like growing crustaceans. Thinking back to the making of this piece I of course remember being attracted to this ad because I was attracted to the male model. But there is the gay thing again, and I probably felt the need to also include the female model so that it didn’t seem like I was giving too much focus to the male physique. It’s an interesting little nitpicky thing I think gay teenagers do when they aren’t out yet – needing to balance, or better yet, preemptively counterbalance anything that could be perceived as an outward expression of their sexual orientation. Grasping for any red herrings at your disposal so as not to accidentally out yourself without a failsafe or back up plan. For an art project to not stir anything up.
VIII. I think inside all of us, however little, lurks a hunger for trains. I’m not sure why, I’m not a scientist. In the eighth piece there was a heaviness I wanted to capture but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I copied the train motif in ink from another magazine ad and included it in a funny, sort of “what’s the point” kind of drawing featuring the likenesses of my friend Ajeé and her cat Midnight. I was trying to express this post-war, apocalyptic, nuclear fallout kind of feeling but probably ended up creating more of a mood piece than a work about anything reflected in the actual imagery. In a way it makes sense, seeing that a “mood piece” reflects the tumblr age it was created in: late 2011/early 2012 was my big foray into the areas of the internet where social media wanted to curate itself aesthetically first and foremost.
IX. There is something about war and the way “war heroes” are commemorated that I wanted to evoke with this ninth piece. I’m not sure adding color to the left and middle panes was the right choice overall, especially colors that are so prominently featured throughout the other pieces as well, but it being a work in color still works better than if this was a fully black, white, and gray composition. Red, blue and white is a very evocative color trio, calling immediately to America, or France, or Great Britain. All countries responsible for immense as well as despicable acts of war, colonialism, and revolution. I think the piece does not offer value judgment about any of these things, but ultimately alluding to knights and horses was my way of making sure viewers knew the “war vibe” was not accidental.
X. Work number ten might be my favorite overall piece of the whole group. I think there’s something dynamic and fresh about it even now as I look at it short of a decade since making it. Like with Marina Abramović before, I think we all go through a Frida Kahlo moment, and I think it’s vastly trickier to have your Frida Kahlo moment and cycle through it without being obvious and hipster canvas tote bag about it. I found this great magazine ad of two nail polish saleswomen and I’d made a pencil copy of a John Currin painting featuring two “regular women” in the nude, and I’m not sure how it all came together but somehow the idea of nail polish was what dictated the rest of the composition. I still love the balance of this piece immensely. Two friends’ hands served as my reference for the hands in the center of the composition, and I was happy to bring in orange as one of the main colors in the work to break up the red/blue monotony.
XI. At the time of completing the eleventh piece in my AP concentration I just wanted to get it out the door. Not too long after finishing it, however, did it become clear I had committed a single glaring flaw with this work: I should’ve just covered the male model’s face on the original magazine cover. I should’ve just done that, and instead I went and took a photo of a friend’s face who I thought looked like a younger version of the model on the cover. It was so weird too, and another one of those teenage gay boy compartmentalization things. I could’ve just gone ahead and taken a photo of my then boyfriend’s face, used it in the piece and justified it the same way “Oh I just used Jonny’s face here because I think he looks like a younger version of this model” instead I didn’t want to risk it and went and got Ronny’s face. Now almost a decade later it’s so glaringly NOT the face I wish I had collaged onto a piece so clearly about self-identity and about immersion into a personal queer universe. Aside from this, I believe it’s a strong composition and I’m happy to report that at 17 my jaw and cheekbones were indeed chiseled by the gods.
XII. I wanted the twelfth and final work I made for my AP concentration to feel like a finale of sorts. I thought “what better way to end an exploration of various unrelated themes than to just ponder about the universe.” Using a sketch of a Chakia Booker car tire sculpture and images of microscopic lifeforms, I wanted create a work evocative of both old and new. Then as I perused through old National Geographic magazines I found images of planets from our solar system as well as images of prehistoric sea life. I think adding these elements lend a slight sci-fi nod to the work. As I write this I find it odd that I just went and left a great deal of white showing right on the bottom right quadrant of the piece and I wonder why I didn’t just use black paint to cover the whole thing. I supposed part of the whole series’ aesthetic was to allow parts of my sketchbook to come through.
And so ends a very long and detailed exploration of a body of work I made when I was seventeen. Revisiting it during the quarantine actually feels invigorating, like I should set parameters for a new, revised twelve-piece work about my feelings on water, sexuality, trains, war, and trilobites. I have always enjoyed using the past as a point of reference more than the present because I feel the scope with which I can process current events into my art is limited. But by looking at my past interests and concerns, and how I’ve changed as a person and where I stand in those same interests and concerns over a decade later does make for an interesting prompt. In the end all I want is to create work seventeen year old Juno would be proud to have been known for making, work he would get excited to be able to create. ■
– Juno Zago