john ros — Interview

01 June 2014

Interview with john ros by Kornelia Pawlukowska: May 2014
London, UK

The interview is in a simple question and answer format. The interview was conducted via an exchange of emails. The artist was sent 9 questions, some of which were sent later. The questions were written following an exchange of thoughts with the artist. This was a very easy and efficient way of communicating with this artist as he was in the US during the interview process. The text comprises a print-out of the original correspondence with the artist without any corrections. The artist uses lowercase letters all the time (notes below), its distinguish him from the interviewee. This is the artist’s style of writing. There has been no editing.

The interview is supplemented by a short information text about the artist.

Kornelia Pawlukoska: Why did you become an artist?

john ros: even as a child i questioned everything. not to say i was a bad kid, just that there always appeared to be new and exciting questions behind every corner. i grew up surrounded by classical music and art. my parents, both classically-trained musicians had me playing piano at a fairly early age. we also had a few of my father’s landscape paintings hanging in our home along with this large (roughly 4 x 3.5 ft.), abstract oil painting by kirby, a wedding present to my mother from my father. i would stare at it for hours — totally engrossed. it was blue-green (actually titled “greenness”) with a soft green to white wash throughout the top and bottom horizons and some action gestures in black, ultramarine blue and phthalo green, forming a sort-of horizontal band that converged into the shape of parenthesis just to the left of center about two-thirds toward the bottom of the canvas. i never tried to imagine was it was… rather it represented possibility beyond what it might be. i studied every brush stroke and deciphered its language.

as i grew up, just outside new york city, i was always confronted as “the-other” — a first-generation american, a gay kid and just an outsider. i never seemed to fit into a group, even among the groups i was a part of (music, art, sports, etc.). i would find solace in music and art. it was nutritional. it gave me the ability to question, explore, discover and imagine — but most importantly it allowed me to be who i was — who i wanted to be.

in college i was faced with the decision to continue my studies in science (i was on a pre-veterinary track) or to delve deeper into the studio art program. i was registered in a painting 1 class my first semester, inspired by “greenness” and my father’s paintings. after many failed attempts at good grades in science (i am also terribly dyslexic and am a horrible test-taker when it comes to standardized tests), i turned to the painting and printmaking studio. there i developed my practice, never leaving behind my love of science.

KP: Can you describe the essence of your art?

jr: i am mostly concerned with “the politics of awareness” — a phase meaning self awareness and consciousness as political action. to be fully aware of our surroundings and the policies affecting us is the most powerful action we can take as citizens. everything we do is political: from every dollar or pound we spend, to every product we buy.

in turn, i create minimal environments in which the space is activated with an emphasis on the existing elements as well as the addition of new accumulated found objects, wall drawings and/or paintings and light. tensions are created in the perceptual shifts made between space, object and viewer. the environments i create often shift and change, evolving into more of a duration or time-piece. the performance is never part of a viewer spectacle, rather, the viewer becomes aware through the greater tensions and implied movements throughout the space.

john ros. untitled: chamberlain, 2014.
john ros. untitled: chamberlain, 2014.

placement and space has always been at the forefront of my exploration in the studio. i attribute it to my own sense of place. whether i am working two or three-dimensionally, i am always thinking about the atmosphere one occupies and how each movement creates an amazing chain of events within that given time and space relationship.

KP: Who has been the greatest influence on your style?

jr: i don’t know that i would say i have a style. i do function within an aesthetic conducive to a minimal and fluxus tradition, with a little zen thrown in — however, my actions are more reliant on the interactions within spaces and the culmination of the subtle — often wondering what existed in the space before and how that space can be transformed in the future at present. this awareness is the most important part of my work — it is where the politics of awareness is born for each and every viewer.

that said, i have also always been in love with the nyc school abex generation of the 40’s and 50’s. motherwell, kline, thomas, lewis, krasner, sterne, newman, i love them all… from the action painters to the minimalists. i am also quite fond of classical music… mozart and bach in particular, but john cage, philip glass and steve reich too… and then there are the jazz performers… holiday, simone, monk, coltrane, davis… i love them all.

KP: What is a piece of work that has given you the most satisfaction?

jr: i tend to be rather contradictory… so i would have to say the most recent piece… but also, my first installation. the newest pieces enable a new appreciation in growth and communication — something new always being asked, answered and shifted into another angle and into another question.

my first large-scale installation was in johnson city, ny in 2001. though my 2d work was becoming more and more spacial, i had not worked with the environment of the room as a whole yet — taking on the whole space as art experience (other than a few installed 2-d exhibits). this installation was the largest piece i have done to date and moved me in the direction i am in today.

it was an incredible undertaking and i still refer to it today in my practice.

john ros. sumus solum quot mentes credant, 2001.
john ros. sumus solum quot mentes credant, 2001.

KP: What is your greatest ambition in art?

jr: to make people more aware of their surroundings. to start a movement of thought from the self to the community. to start a movement of people thinking about their abilities and uniqueness and becoming more beneficial and purposeful to the community. to shift conversations of consumerism and consumption to sustainability and humanity. to bring about important conversations about the environment, sustainability and waste. to teach studio art — to be able to encourage others to have the courage to move in their own direction and shift the ideas of what success is.

my practice and work is as much a political movement as it is an art movement. i believe in change that starts within the community. from there we can all participate. we must always be challenged — as well, we must always challenge — ourselves, our practices and our communities.

i hope to continue to be able to sustain my practice while researching as much as possible. there is always something new to read, something new to see, something new to hear — it is almost overwhelming at times. a rigorous practice is as much about balance in life as it is a continuation in research. i have been lucky and i hope i can keep it up.

KP: Do you enjoy curating?

jr: definitely. curating is a way for artists to expand their conversations and invite other artists to do the same. being able to form a larger discussion around artwork is a gift and is key to nurturing artist relationships. on the flip-side, it is truly wonderful to work with a curator that can translate your work for the public. artists face the difficult task of having to explain everything to everyone and though i appreciate the need for that sometimes, it is amazing when a curator can take to your work and just “get it” … or at the very least be able to put what it is you are doing into words. this relationship is often underestimated and substituted for the ordinary art-speak we have all grown too accustomed to. a curator-artist relationship can be truly magical for the curator, the artist and the public!

"element-progress" @ spool MFG., curated by john ros.
“element-progress” @ spool MFG., curated by john ros.

likewise, when artists can get together and discuss their work (in a curatorial sense) through the lens of an artist, different types of magic happen. this is when the artist as curator is most rewarding. we have to get out of our studios and discuss our work with others. other artists may sometimes be the easiest to “get it” only because they are struggling in similar ways (in life as an artist — balancing finance, relationships, etc)…

all curator-artist relationships are symbiotic — but perhaps the artist-as-curator is just one-half of a degree less-distant? maybe not, but the activity and energy two or more artists can generate is often unparalleled with any other relationship. i suppose a really good curator can initiate this same energy.

i have curated many shows, some of which are on — an artist collaborative/group i started back in 2008 for this very reason.

KP: Has curating had a meaningful impact on the art that you produce today?

jr: without a doubt. working with others, especially artists, is so important for growth in the studio. you challenge and encourage in slightly different ways (than just working on your individual practice). again, i think it is because of the connection we (artists) have with each other — similar causes, similar obstacles. plus, curating other artists allows you to really tackle something you are dealing with in your own practice. for instance, as an installation artist, i take material and move it throughout space. depending on the conversations, i often take certain artists and use them as medium (their art) and place them throughout the space to create a new installation (an exhibit). it has worked quite well for me and has allowed me to answer some questions in the studio — which inevitably always begets more questions — which is a really good thing.

KP: I am reading an interesting book “Ways of curating” Hans Urlich Obrist, there is a quote:

” (…) the process always starts with conversation, in which I ask the artists what their unrealized projects are, and then the task is to find the means to realize them.  (…) curating could be about making impossible things possible.”

I found it very interesting. I think that it is a better approach than giving the artists a certain room and suggesting that they fill it.
What do you think? What would you prefer to do as an artist?

jr: i definitely agree with the possibilities within the curatorial realm.  curators need vision too — so to be able to offer something that grandiose is exciting.  we do have to be careful too though, for it may not always be responsible to realize our “dream projects” — the conversation IS the most important thing here.  two creative minds working together to come up with the ideal situation.  action and activity does not necessarily need to be big, it just has to be effective.  though i would love a room to “fill” i agree that the conversation to filling that room may be more important than the act of filling it.  again, the relationship between artist and curator can be a magical one if both parties are willing to have the discussion and talk about objectives.  the conversation must be taken to the audience too, for without them we are all just inflating our illusive bubbles with in-the-know discussions ad nauseam.  if we cannot reach the audience, we have failed in our jobs as artists and curators.  that is not to say we cannot challenge the audience, for there is nothing worse than dumbed-down art, it is just to say we have to be careful when imagining projects that are too rooted in art-speak and references that require a specific degree to decipher.

KP: Where is your favourite place for a holiday?

jr: somewhere in the country… probably northern vermont is my favorite place. there is space to think, relation to nature — the air is crisp and clean. you can smell the earth, the water — all of it. it just grabs you and takes you away to another place. it is mediative and restorative. the city asks so much of you. it takes and takes… it is good to have a place to relax and rejuvenate. that said, (and being the contradiction that i am) i also love paris… even though it is a city… there is something about the age and charm of it all… it has an energy similar to nyc that i really relate to. all the art and great design — it is a place to feel comfort in the chaos as well as maintain a firm grip on a certain reality. and another contradiction, one of the most amazing places i have ever been is kaui’i, hawai’i! it is probably the most beautiful place i have ever seen. the sea the sky the sand, the pacific… it is all so magical.

notes on lowercase
by john ros

many years ago i started utilizing all lowercase grammar in my creative and artistic writing. it all started in my youth. i am a first generation american born of québécoise and cuban parents — both non-native english speakers. as i learned the days and months in french and spanish, neither capitalized, i began to question why we capitalized them in english. later in life, my obsession with the writers, e. e. cummings and aram saroyan, allowed me the permission i was looking for to take on my own grammar rule of keeping all words lowercase.

initially, it was a way of being more democratic. i didn’t see why some words (proper nouns) deserved more recognition than other words — they all carried the same weight to me. especially the use of the word “i” when referring to myself. “i” just seemed more appropriate than “I”. after some time, i also began to appreciate the disorientation that the use of all lowercase words caused the reader. yes, the writing was a little more difficult to read, but that engagement was something i was interested in. in order to keep sentences more separated, i always added two spaces after each period, another remnant of my youth, learning to type on a vintage royal typewriter.

many of us can appreciate that art isn’t just an oil painting hung at eye-level in a white cube. art is all around us, we are surrounded by the curious works of artisans and crafts people. the problem being, we have to open our eyes and minds in order to see these (often invisible) works. the adjustment one must make to shift their own perception of what they are looking at is precisely the point of my work. the more we step out of the notion that we know what we are looking at, the more open to possibility we become. my art practice doesn’t stop in the studio, it is a part of me and is reflected in everything i do. this is quite political, i suppose. 

John Ros currently lives and maintains a studio in New York City & London, UK. They attained an MFA from Brooklyn College in May 2013 and a BFA from SUNY Binghamton in May 2000.

John has taught at Brooklyn College, SUNY Binghamton and the National Academy of Art and has lectured as a visiting artist at George Mason University, North Florida Community College and Jefferson Technical and Community College among others.

Community is always at the forefront of John’s practice. They have started two gallery ventures, pocket, (2002-2005, Binghamton, NY) and galleryELL, (2008-present, Brooklyn, NY), and has been involved in many artist and non-profit initiatives including, Board Member of Spool MFG. (Johnson City, NY), Art Director of Perspectives International (New York, NY) and Museum Educator at The Hillwood Art Museum (Brookville, NY).

John has been in over 100 exhibitions since 1996 and has curated over 20 exhibits. Their work can be found in public and private collections throughout the world.