Growing up in a household of artists, Jon-Phillip doesn’t know a world without art as an integral component. . .and it just so happens that he’s pretty good at it too. He’s had several solo exhibitions, including one at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and recently was named by Oxford American as an emerging “Superstar” Southern Artist. He shares his knack for photography with his students as the Adminstrative Director and Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Photography and Film. We got to chance to talk to him about the thoughts behind much of his work and the power of a family art book library.
What problems are you currently trying to solve with your work?
Chiefly, how to make a truly flat two dimensional graphic image that shifts into a dimensional, sculptural or architectural pictorial space the longer you look at it, then back and forth again. I was/am interested very much in the problems of reproduction and mimesis, both contemporary and historical. Historically, mimesis has been this loaded strange thing…we take that for granted, but currently the work has been more in response to our current condition. I have been interested in constructing these trompe l’oeil virtual realities, if you will, fake virtual images that are really real. Relatedly, I was trying to rope in various things I was thinking about the Renaissance Greco-Roman influenced humanism/capitalism, 19th century Romanticism and 20th century early Modernism…these were all violent times of upheaval that obviously led to our current situation, but I also think share a lot of characteristics with the “now”. Admittedly, there is also a lot of nostalgia here–these images and topics were the art books that filled my family’s library when I was a kid.
Were your family's art books what got you interested in creating yourself? What led you to art?
My father was a self taught painter and generally knew how to make or fix everything. Everything from horses to bulldozers…I remember once he decided to learn taxidermy…for a year or two our house was covered in dead animals in various stages of construction. My brother graduated from VCU Arts when I was 5 or 6 and immediately came home to start an art colony with a couple of his friends. My sister graduated from RISD when I was 12. My oldest sister was a really good writer and now does a lot of ceramics when she’s not a vet. So, art was just art; it’s what you did in my family.
How do you use art to learn about yourself?
I think I learn more about myself from my relationships with other people than making art. I mean I discover new things to get excited about while making art or researching, but that’s not self-discovery, these are the topics I have always been interested in…I’m also in my 30s; I think you make a lot of intuitive discoveries in your early 20s–then you spend the rest of your time backfilling–filling in the details about the territory you moved over. That being said my practice is very intuitive, so it will lead me to areas I have never thought about…like suddenly I have been making things that look like all the faded and moldy art history books and exhibition catalogs that my grandfather and dad collected, so maybe there is a component of self discovery happening.
You teach at VCU. How does working with budding artists help you with your work?
Yes, in many ways. First, I am the type of person who really thrives off of the constant dialog that happens when you are in a diverse community of creative types—in that way working in art school is a ridiculously charmed life. Secondly, you learn so much from reverse engineering artwork: the make, evaluate, re-make, evaluate again, and because of teaching I am constantly involved in the mechanics of this stuff. And third, when you teach you are forced to continually re-animate and communicate basic and advanced concepts that you would otherwise leave in the background. You have to always figure out how to make them comprehensible to many different types of people. Maybe, this is where the self-discovery you asked about happens the most?
Much of your more recent work seems to be centered around the idea of deconstruction, fragments. How did this come about? What have you discovered through this line of work?
I think I have always been interested in infrastructure, in armatures, in the systems and skeletons below the surfaces and what you discover when you cut through those or break open those surfaces. An artist like Gordon Matta-Clark is a huge influence. Related to this, I have also been interested in a sensation of looking into, either into these fractures, under the skin or into windows: a sensation of being outside, almost like in another dimension, another sense of time, and looking into another reality, or some interior filled with presence.
What and who inspires you?
Almost everything…I read a lot…it’s actually a problem. Obviously contemporary art topics, and I am always interested in the many topics involved with climate change (it is pretty amazing stuff if you put the terror aside), and relatedly I am currently in a big science fiction phase; I’m reading lots of Kim Stanley Robinson.
Do you have a favorite project that you've done in the past?
Not right now—though, I think I like individual parts of previous projects.
Can you talk about a part of a past work that you've really liked from your work?
When you land on a formal arrangement that somehow has this unity and structure like a well-made building, but at the same time has something strange and ineffable. . .but not completely; there has to be something at the periphery of awareness that makes you think you can figure it out, that’s what keeps you hooked, what keeps you looking.
If you could do a group show with anyone, who would it be, where would it be, and why?
That’s a difficult question . . . I was really intrigued by Frank Heath’s September exhibit at Simone Subal. I would love the challenge of making work that could enter into a conversation with his practice–more conceptual, dealing with communication (both human and systems), science and engineering, but in a very poetic way that reminds of Italo Calvino’s writing, who I have always loved.
Describe a memory that has stuck with you.
The house I grew up in was three stories tall and stood on top of a hill over looking a valley sounded by mountains. For a while there was an explosion of lighting bugs: I would sit out on the roof until really late and there were so many lighting bugs that it looked like the starts were reflected in the land.
Do you think creating art has required you to see the world in a different way?
I don’t know. It’s always been part of my life, so I don’t have an alternative experience.
I have sketchbooks of ideas, but usually I just go into the studio and start working without referencing those ideas … I like to keep my practice loose. I would love to start working on some paintings–I haven’t done that in years — but, I actually hope to start working on my landscape series again, you know, get out of the studio and into the world.
Check out more of Sheridan’s work on his website.