Justin Lyons is a mixed media artist living in the Florida panhandle. We spoke with him on the eve of his solo exhibition at the Bruce Lurie Gallery in Los Angeles.
CHRISTOPHER HASSETT: Before addressing your most recent work, I wanted to briefly touch on a few signature elements in what is considered to be pivotal career pieces, elements which not only define but help flesh out your global visual language. This language, by the way, initially and superficially registers as being quite primitive, even crude, but upon spending time with these pieces it becomes apparent that something more thoughtful and sophisticated is taking place.
In Heart First, for instance, we see a diver forever plunging into an oily black sea, toward the more interesting drama of an awaiting shark, its fin slicing through the surface-breaks, a set of devourous teeth made visible through the watery black as if pressed unannounced against an aquarium glass. Within a shazam-like sun is the all-capitaled PLUNGE, with its broken-away E creating rough symmetry within the canvas – two distinctly falling figures, not counting the setting sun as it falls to the horizon. Further defining the space and creating a virtual chute straight down into circling distance of the shark, are three words, also falling:
Can you speak more to this now distinctive visual-linguistic composition, which moves across much of your work? In other words, how defined and deliberate are your ideas and compositions going in, or is each canvas in a continual state of whimsy, unfolding instinctually as the piece itself takes shape?
JUSTIN LYONS: Actually both, sometimes I begin with premeditated ideas that morph and change as I am working on the piece. The idea becomes refined throughout the process, in which new meanings and ideas present themselves, if I’m paying attention. Other times I just let the idea present itself by being in the moment and shaping that idea as I go along.
HASSETT: In looking at Registered Thinker, we again see a deceptively simplistic composition — there is the frame of the canvas and then a frame within the frame, the symbolic box which either holds or locks things in, suggests some kind of restriction or limitation. In this particular work, what interestingly breaks through this restriction is not the bird atop the box, nor the outside R, but the turquoise I within the word outside, which itself is within the confining box. This tonally lilting i suggests, or at the very least hints toward an elevating self, for it is light and lifting against the blast of unyielding, unforgiving yellows, and sits almost poetically enlightened amid the letters on either side — the sibilant s and the hard, ever-grounded d. The larger idea, however, is outsider, so the word within the box is physically severed by the thin vertical skin that cuts it off from itself. The R outside the box is in the same space as the raven, walled off from the elevating i. Yet the R also lifts, for it links to word in our head, Raven, and thereby creates a kind of conceptual triangle which breaks through any idea of a box and in so doing unites the canvas, fulfilling the potential of the isolated i. The Raven, literally the highest figure in the painting, is a bird symbolic of higher intelligence, with navigating pathways to consciousness and higher self. In looking at this symbolism, prominent throughout much of your work, one cannot help but wonder how much of it is personal, representative of inner divisions or an ongoing desire to lift.
LYONS: The “i” in my work is almost always lower case, and if highlighted it is a self-representative piece. This represents an ongoing personal struggle, in which I am constantly striving for that “lift.” The majority of my work is personal. Whether having happened in the past or the present, and sometimes it is an interpretation of the search for something. I use my paintings to interpret a story in my own way.
RIOT MATERIAL: Moving on to your newer work, Free Bird, for instance, we see the ongoing reliance on wordplay, or word erasure in the form of strikethroughs, or word inversion. Talk more to the power you are giving to the written word, your use of it to further illustrate and empower your visual language. And how might you use wordplay to both support and confound the viewer’s interpretation of your work.
LYONS: Wordplay is the most essential part of my work because I recognize the immense power of word. I feel that I have always gravitated more towards the conceptual meaning of art over the surface visual aspect. I like words and the way you can find hidden meanings, as well as words within words. It is almost like a code to me, one that I am formulating yet trying to understand simultaneously. My work is a visual representation of word, and the painting usually comes out of this searching.
HASSETT: Parallel Wavelengths feels to be in a different register than much of anything else you’ve done. Is there a story behind this one?
LYONS: In the case of this painting, the verbiage came after the visual. I simply felt the desire to paint this woman, but as I finished, for whatever reason, the story seemed to represent something in my own life. When I begin by painting an image first, the emotion will develop from there.
HASSETT: Sinners and Saints I & II are two portraits, a clear paring, which share in several motifs: messenger-like birds on the shoulders of the two protagonists, each of whom are given three words to articulate their characters; a halo of golden circles around their heads; and the Roman numerals VII and IX. Who are the inspirations for these individuals, and to what complimentary or perhaps satirical purpose are they sharing such equative symmetry?
LYONS: This is a conceptual self-portrait portrayed through a diptych of two characters. 1979 is the year I was born — it pops up in my work from time to time. The painting is about being caught in a purgatory mindset. It visually represents my feelings of not feeling so guilty or sinner-like, yet not so holy as a saint. An interpersonal struggle of good and evil.
HASSETT: I’m particularly attracted to your palette, especially in this new series as you fall awash in greens and mints, turquoises and blues, with the spare splash of yellows in, for instance, such pieces as The Crown and Social Hour. The palettes themselves become a critical third element in this triangular engagement of image and word, very much aiding and adding to the narrative of any one piece. Is there a conscious approach to color when creating a piece, or are the colors you gravitate to more of an emotional/instinctual response to a painting as it develops before you?
LYONS: Sometimes I just choose a color to start. Usually it is emotionally or instinctually driven. The mood of the painting — driven by the text, wording or visual — is an element of the colors chosen. My work contains several layers for the reason that I paint over colors that energetically do not seem to be right for the mood of the piece. The end color palette is the one that seems most natural to the story. Often, a story develops through an array of colors coming together.
HASSETT: The Dawn highlights another recurring element in your visual presentation, that of the dividing lower quarter of so many of your canvases. Bringing it momentarily back to color, this recurrent composition rarely feels repetitive in large part due to your exceptionally welcoming palette, which nearly always feel fresh. Here, however, I am interested in the spacial aspects of your work which, broadly speaking, is rather simplified, though rarely without effect. That lower quarter, by the way, reminds me of an industrial wall space situated at the horizon line of a sprawling cityscape, while your art on the whole inhabits the very spirit of street art, of the graffiti artist. Might that lower quarter, then, act as a tangible surface or springboard for your ideas, a kind of subliminal wall-like surface that allows for larger concepts to take shape?
LYONS: I simply like the feeling of well-balanced negative space. I do not consciously approach it as graffiti, but maybe you are on to something now that it is presented to me. It just might be a springboard for ideas. Maybe, I use this lower quadrant to separate chaos and order. One may overtake the other at different times.
HASSETT: I look at the colorful, edible stick figures in Togetherness and the image of the approaching eagle, which reads symbolically as America, Land of the Free, Home of the (Bigoted and) Brave, and it is fast clear that the descending raptor is in predator mode, ready to snatch one of those juicy little candies from the ground.
LYONS: The idea of “safety in numbers” was the inspiration for this painting. The word and bananas elude to “bunching together.” Hence, the title, “Togetherness.” The eagle seemed to just work with the idea but, funny enough, was the last bird in this State Birds coloring book I collaged into a few recent paintings.
RIOT MATERIAL: You seem to have found a medium where you don’t really need to explain yourself. How would you like to be understood?
LYONS: I would like to be understood as the painter of “the elephant in the room.” When a person looks at my work and can relate enough to tell their own story, I feel successful. I like my work to be approachable enough to the visually-captive average person, yet meaningful enough to deeply resonate with them. Almost like a “bait and switch,” in which the bright colors and lighthearted image drawn you in, yet the deeper message is still impactful.
at Bruce Lurie Gallery
2736 South La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034 .