Jordan Sullivan is the kind of artist you can’t pin down to a single medium or style. Since 2010, he’s exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Spain, Japan, China, and beyond; published more than 20 art books or zines; been featured in numerous publications, including The Paris Review and The New Yorker; and, somehow, found the time to write a novel. Sullivan is best known for his photography, but he’s revealing his paintings to the world for the first time.
“The photographs became my livelihood, but I’ve always been making these paintings that were rougher around the edges. I just thought, ‘fuck it,’ after you and I did that show in July (“Return of Polite Society”). This is the work I want to do. This is what gets me up in the morning,” Sullivan told me over the phone from his home in New York.
Sullivan’s paintings are visceral, like devotional art or cave paintings. They imbue a little hope into humanity, celebrating the multicultural makeup of America vis-à-vis empathetic explorations in the historical consciousness of the working and immigrant classes, particularly in Detroit and Los Angeles. Let’s begin with where you’re coming from, both as in your backstory and your artistic practice.
I was born in Houston, Texas, raised in a small town in Ohio and in Detroit. Since I was 21, I’ve lived in London, Los Angeles, Texas, and New York City, where I’m currently based. I worked lots of odd jobs before being able to make art full-time. I’ve been a construction worker, waiter, dishwasher, graphic designer, and artist assistant over the years.
Place features predominantly throughout your work, but your new paintings show a pivot from the natural environment—desertscapes, birds in flight, abstract sunsets—toward urban environments and the people who inhabit them.
On a basic level, my work has always been an exploration of my surroundings, some sort of attempt to try and find a little meaning. Richard Ford used the phrase “poetic reality,” and I think I’ve always strived for my art to exist in a space like that. Most of the new work is about LA or Detroit.
I really miss LA all the time. It’s a huge inspiration for me still, particularly downtown LA. I had a studio on 3rd and Broadway for over two years, and I lived in it for most of the time I was there. I found downtown LA similar in certain aspects to Detroit. My family still lives in the Detroit area. I was there all of September at the Popps Packing artist residency. There was a brief moment of almost coexistence in Detroit before the riots when people of different races and cultures were thriving together in one city, in close proximity. Something painting can do is bring people from different backgrounds into this space of coexistence, which doesn’t really exist at all in cities today, but I feel like maybe somehow it could, so this is my attempt to put some hope into these pictures. That was the starting point that got me interested in painting this kind of figurative work: wanting to make images of people coexisting.
Would you say that comes from a place of optimism, or just wishing society would get better?
Yeah, wishing things were better. I don’t think I’m very optimistic, but I’m hopeful. I think there’s a difference.
There’s a distinct symbolism throughout your paintings – like in one painting which is, interestingly, structured in panels almost like how a comic book structures a narrative. There’s the card suit on a checkerboard, the bowl of fruit, the sign: “Elvira’s Wedding Chapel, Bridal & Quinceaneras.”
That’s the front of my studio in Downtown LA. The man with the bird on his hat, he used to hang out outside the studio; the woman selling bags in the foreground has been working on the block for 14 years, she’s someone I said hi to every day. That’s a real place, Elvira’s Wedding Chapel. This dude Willy runs it. I’d say a lot of the work is some combination of autobiography, history, and fiction.
I’ve never been interested in comic books, but the panels go all the way back to the old religious art I got into as a kid, 11th century stuff—I grew up Catholic, so a lot of the first art I saw was, like, the Stations of the Cross, or stained-glass windows, and devotional paintings. The bowl of fruit in the Elvira’s Wedding Chapel painting is an example of how one thing can take on multiple meanings, and become a sign or a symbol. I try and look at all these elements in the paintings and consider their connotations, consequence, and context. There’s a certain artistic responsibility in that sense. Nothing is just one thing.Take this question knowing that I don’t mean it as a negative criticism…As a white man yourself, do you feel any hesitation or self-consciousness about portraying people of color in your paintings?
No, I’m pretty enthusiastic about it. I’ve lived in the places I’ve lived and I saw the people I saw, and I paint what I see and what’s around me. I paint from my life, but I don’t consider myself representing or speaking for the people I paint. I’m definitely not equipped to do that. It goes back to this dream of mine that we can have some relatively peaceful coexistence somehow. I’m interested in the whole world, and I want to explore it. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the past couple of years in Trinidad with my girlfriend and her family. That country has obviously had a massive impact on me. But it has crossed my mind that there could be criticism. I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that question. You’re the first person who’s asked me that question actually.
The paintings are certainly more apparently personal and vulnerable than your photographs.
All of my work has been pretty personal, though. I’ve said before that my landscapes are self-portraits, but I don’t think anyone really cared. When I had just gotten to California, I was not in a good place, so I went out to Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, and made those pictures. The distant and lonely mountains, the faded colors, that was me then. There was a garden series I did shortly after that, right after my grandmother’s funeral, in a field behind her house. Those were printed on translucent silk. They were landscape images that became ghost portraits of her. Very rarely has anyone shown interest in the autobiographical aspects of my photography, and that’s totally fine. But when you start painting – painting people, specifically – there starts to be a question of who the painter is. Could you tell me about the meaning behind some of the symbolism in the paintings? Let’s go back to the “Elvira’s Wedding Chapel” work.
I wanted to present what that corner in Downtown LA felt like. Grand Central Market is across the street, so during the day, the block is flooded with all walks of life. At night it empties out and the sidewalks become beds for the homeless who can’t or don’t want to find space over on Skid Row. It’s a poem of a street, and in the paintings, I wanted to show the sort of joy and desperation of that block. The people looking out of the painting, they look concerned—uncertain. They are looking at you as if they’re asking something of you. I think Downtown is asking a lot of questions. The whole place is gentrified. People are being displaced, discarded, thrown away really. It’s unbelievably tragic on Skid Row. But Downtown is such an incredible part of LA, historically. It’s the beginning of LA. Today, it embodies everything that is awful and beautiful about the city – all the hope, the broken promises, and desperation. So maybe the people in that painting embody the concerns of the neighborhood.
On the checkerboard in the lower-right corner are playing card symbols: diamonds, spades, aces. Playing cards show up in a couple of these paintings. That just comes from my life, and how it is, this endless gamble. For many people in LA and Detroit, life is lived on a tightrope. It’s a constant roll-of-the-dice. Personally, I feel like even if I didn’t have artistic inclinations, I’d still like living on the edge. I kind of like the struggle of it. If I didn’t make art, I feel like I probably would’ve become some shitty criminal—I don’t know, something that would keep my life a gamble.
Precarity really is a reality of daily life in America now, particularly in these major cities, where the cost of living has skyrocketed and so many people have faced evictions. It’s been happening so fast, but we’re almost desensitized to it now.
I don’t think I’m making any big statement about it. The work is ultimately this more emotional and personal thing. However, my presence in certain neighborhoods is indicative of a certain kind of change coming. That’s a real thing.
In “The Exiles,” another painting I made on salvaged wood in Detroit, there’s a bar scene on the second panel with a group of people looking out of the picture – almost like the viewer is taking a photo of them. I imagined that scene as the last night at a neighborhood bar before everything changed and went wrong. The panel underneath it, that’s just a sign from a boarded-up liquor store I drove past growing up.
What about the clown, smoking and listening to a radio, at on the bottom piece of wood?
I’d seen a photograph of that clown and cut it out of a magazine when I was 16, and when I was back in Detroit at my parents’ house, I found it again. That same day, I found the radio that the clown is listening to in a junk pile outside the artist residency in Detroit. The sad clown with part of his makeup off, smoking, listening to the radio, just needed to be there. I don’t know why. I felt like it existed in the time period I was imagining this painting to exist in. It worked for me on an emotional level. I like elements like that in painting that can throw it off or defy meaning. Other times I see that clown as a picture of an American city – this place that hides all its sadness and darkness underneath all this makeup. I’m not completely sure the exact meaning, though, and that’s ok. Life is complicated, senseless and meaningless at times, and painting should be, too. How’d you get the wood from abandoned houses to paint on?
I would drive around Detroit and take wood out of houses that were on the demolition list. Discarded and found materials they hold a certain power for me. They’re already works of art, and I’m just adding another chapter to their story by painting on them. Families lived in the houses where this wood comes from. The wood was part of a wall where pictures hung, where people loved each other, and built lives. Salvaging the wood is sort of like salvaging these families and these people in some sort of ghostly sense. I started painting on these pieces of wood, from these old houses, because I wanted to embed the history of the city and its people into my work, sort of mix it in with my own autobiography. Finding the wood made me drive around Detroit again and rediscover this place where I grew up. One of the first paintings I did on wood panels, “Unemployment Line,” is about me after I got fired from my job in LA. I felt discarded at that time, just used up, burnt out. I’ve lost jobs and been in that line a few times in my life. There are cards and a royal flush on that painting, too. More gambling. There are people drinking on one of the panels, and they’re sort of partying, and that was me as well. You cash your unemployment check and you go get drunk, and you think, “This is all I deserve.” Then there’s the “Cheers, Bill,” on the bottom panel. I was imagining a fragment of a line you’d hear in that bar. Also, the text turns the painting into a sort of letter, almost like someone’s signing off at the bottom of it. All of the places in these paintings, be it a busted old porn theater or a bus stop, these are all places where people come together or even just pass each other from different walks of life. The unemployment line, especially in a city like LA, at a time like now when, shit, it’s so hard to get a job and keep a job—it’s pretty common to go through that. Maybe in our parents’ day, it was a more of a shameful thing, being on unemployment, but now, it’s an almost inevitable part of life.
Photography by Romek Rasenas.