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Artist of The Week: Jesse Draxler

Jesse Draxler is the LA-based, Wisconsin-bred multidimensional artist of the moment. Driven by momentum and innovation, his work takes on several forms, from figurative drawing and collaging, to photography, video, and painting. His pieces are predominantly greyscale, a choice he didn’t think would be monumental, but a choice that makes his work very recognizable. This past June, he released his debut book, Misophonia, via Sacred Bones. We caught up with the artist to discuss how the book came together, how its release has affected his own opinion of his work, and his newfound love of Picasso.

What do you want people to know about this book release? Is there anything really important that you want to get across?

Honestly, no, there isn’t. I don’t try too hard to force the viewer to feel any particular thing; it’s really open to the interpretation of the audience. To me it’s all very intuitive work and therefore there isn’t really language even behind it or what it is, and that’s why it’s created in the first place. Because the things that I try to portray are things that I haven’t found words for, I haven’t managed to express with language and therefore I try to express through a visual medium. So there really isn’t anything to be said, as far as I’m concerned, about the emotional content of it. It’s meant to be felt, not explained.

And so then in terms of your creative process, does it just come out of you? Is it an instance that all of a sudden you’ll think, “I need to grab a paintbrush, I need to grab my camera”? In what way is that emotion translated into action?

That’s actually a really good question. I work in a lot of different modes, and obviously, if you have my book, you can see that it’s all different mediums and processes, so that kind of specific thing differs from medium to medium. Whereas a lot of the collage work that I do isn’t where I have an idea in my head that I’m looking to express, or like a vision in my head of what I want something to look like; that’s all very reactionary, I take what’s in front of me and I react to it, for the most part. With painting and drawing, that is something where I feel an impulse, and even then I don’t really have a visual in my mind. It’s kind of, put the tool in my hand or just see what starts to come out, it’s still reactionary because I’m reacting to the mark making that I’m doing and that sparks new ideas. So I guess at the end of the day, it’s mostly what you would call “following the process”, more than it is starting out with something in mind and trying to make that happen. It’s more allowing things to happen as they will and following them as they go. That’s most successful.

“Misophonia” includes figurative painting, typography, photography, and collage; would you say that you have a default medium? Or are you still just following the process, as you said?

Yeah, I mean even with the mediums that I work through, in a larger macro view of it; the cycling of the mediums is a process in itself. I’ll have a commission to do collage work for something and I’ll get super into that, but then I’ll get burned out on it and then from there I have to do something very expressive. You know, like some really sloppy painting, finger painting, or drawing or something like that. But then I’ll do that for a while and then I’ll get burnt out on that. And then onto another medium, where I’ll just do a lot of photos of my environment or I’ll take video.

I’m really interested in innovating. So every time I come back to a process, I’m hopefully changing it from what I did the last time. By taking that break between each process, when I come back to it, I see it with fresher eyes or with a new vision.

How did you select the pieces that you wanted to include in these 200 pages?

So the book is a collection of work. It’s selections from 2013 until now. I scan everything I make, and I photograph everything. I’ve been digitally saving my work since the beginning, and basically, I just took all those hard drives that were literally full of images, and I just dug through them, which was quite a chore. It was a very daunting process. As organized as I am and as much OCD I have when it comes to saving files on a computer, I make a lot of shit and I document it all. So it was a process of distillation. First I went through and chose the images that even interested me a little bit, and then I had a folder of all that. And then I tried to whittle that down and have a more discerning eye with it, and it was that process like three, four, five times. It just seemed like forever until I was down to a certain amount that I thought would be good. And then from there I just gave everything to the designer and let him kind of curate it in a way.

How does it feel when you look back at your older work?

I change fast. I have to change. It’s like what I was saying earlier about how innovation is really important. I can’t just keep doing the same things over and over, and I have to change at a very rapid pace. So it’s hard to look back sometimes. The further I look back, the more the work has changed. It looks like it’s made by somebody else, you know? I’m trying now to not be so hard on it and see it for what it is; it was all learning. It was all just experimenting. And even the work I do now I consider experiments so I try not to be too hard on it, but a lot of the times it’s really hard to look back at old work when you’re still trying to figure out what it is you’re even doing. It’s been a really good experience with the book coming out, of accepting it for what it is, and seeing it for what it is and letting other people enjoy it for what it is, rather than try to control any sort of narrative about what it was.

Since the book launch in June, has your attitude towards your work has changed at all?

Well, for me it was really good to see it in a book. For the longest time, I’ve always thought of my work like little fractals of a bigger picture, you know, a larger theme, like a whole world or something. So the book was the perfect format and to put that together. Where I could make the relations between the seemingly disparate differences between mediums where I could put a photo next to a painting, and that painting next to a collage, and then a drawing next to the painting and you see how they all relate to one another. Finally seeing it in a book, I did see like, okay, all this does make sense together, I’m not just crazy trying to do all these different things. There is a beam through it.

Moving forward, with my studio practice now, I would say that it has not changed since releasing the book. It’s just the same thing that I’ve been continuing to do. Once the book came out, I kind of got a lot of commissions from different entities, commercial and otherwise, to do more work that looks like the stuff I’ve already done. My whole plan was that once the book came out, I was going to enter into a phase of innovation again where I was going to experiment and see what happens with no real direction. Now I’m just finishing up doing a whole lot of illustration commissions and a lot of stuff for band album covers and merch designs. So I’m finishing that up, and I’m about to enter into this period of innovation and introspection. Releasing the book has made me want to re-enter that real playful stage again.

Because you’re focused on greyscale and the absence of color, you’ve said that it feels as though your other senses have heightened – can you speak a bit more about that?

I’m colorblind, red-green color deficient is what it’s technically called. I see color, it’s just, you know, they’re all wrong apparently, they’re not what everybody else sees. I just decided to drop color altogether. I was going into a monochromatic color palette, and then finally it was like, fuck it, I’m just gonna go full black and white. It didn’t seem like a monumental decision at the time. I didn’t think it was going to be something that defined me.

As soon as I got rid of it, that’s when the more conceptual nature and the more emotive resonance started to come through; once I lost the color it seemed like I was able to see what I was trying to do. I don’t mean that in a physical sense, in that the work looked better. It did that too. But I mean internally, I could see what I wanted to do. My vision became clear in my mind of what I was trying to do.

You’ve noted that music and sound are inspiring to you, and you collaborate with a lot of different bands. Your debut book is called Misophonia, which literally means “the hatred of sound”, referring to the sound sensitivity that comes with certain noises. Why did you go with that title?

Well, the word “Misophonia” was introduced to me by a friend quite a while back, and as soon as I heard what it was, it resonated me, because you know, everybody kind of has those moments where somebody is tapping their fingers, or somebody is chewing with their mouth open, or something like that and you overreact to it; you even know that you’re overreacting to it, like why do I want to strangle this person for chewing with their mouth open next to me?

It resonated with me, and it seemed like a funny thing, and also a really dark thing for some reason. I always joked like, “Oh, I want to use that as a metal band name or a death metal album name,” or something like that. I really don’t like titling things because I don’t like putting language onto things and I don’t like naming things because it makes it limited in some kind of way. But “Misophonia” is a word that’s been with me for a while. I had internalized it to the point where it was my own word almost, you know like I had my own thing with it. So that was part of it. I was running a couple book names by a friend and they said, “the book’s coming out on a record label. When’s the next time this is going to make as much sense”? After that, I continued to contextualize it to myself in a whole lot of different ways. I’m going to stop there because I could go on about it forever.

What’s one example?

I was listening to a podcast with Duncan Trussell and this guy who could channel interdimensional beings or spirits or whatever you wanna call it. I don’t necessarily fully subscribe to these things, but I’m interested and inspired by that kind of thing. The interviewer was using the word “dimension”, to describe where the spirits were coming from, and the channeler, who was now speaking as the spirit entity, was saying that the word “dimension” is improper because all of the world and everything that exists is made up of vibrations. Everything’s vibrating, the atoms in your body and all that shit, right? The spirit was saying that instead of referring to different dimensions, the word octave actually works better for the different planes of reality or the different planes of existence. I liked playing with that concept. Under this idea, or this concept or structure, whatever you want to call that, the word, “Misophonia” means disharmony. So within the context of that thinking, “Misophonia” can translate to depression or universal disharmony, in general.

In what environment do you like to create work? Do you listen to anything specific?

It depends on my mood. Sometimes when I’m in a really low mood or whatever, then I try to listen to binaural beats. I will listen to them when I’m working, but for the most part, when I’m working I try to listen to actual music because that’s more inspiring. When I meditate I listen to binaural beats a lot. I like to just lay there, or just sit there and close my eyes and listen.

If you’re working on a commission for an artist, do you listen to their music when you’re creating the piece?

100 percent. I really try to get the artists to send me the music that I’m going to be making the work for so that I can listen to it while I’m creating the piece. It doesn’t always work because sometimes people don’t want to give away their music or they’re scared it is going to get leaked. But recently it hasn’t been as much of an issue. Every band has given me all of their work beforehand. It’s in the band’s best interest too because it will inspire the work quite a bit.

In terms of design and typography are there any rules that you stick to you?

I don’t think that there are any sort of overarching rules that apply in all cases. I believe that to be true on a large scale for the world in general; there’s no rule that needs to be stuck to 100 percent of the time because everything, every case is different. Everything should be examined on a case by case basis to make the best decision for what is needed for the project. If you’re coming into a project and you have strict rules already in mind, then you’re trying to fit the project into your mold instead of looking at the project and then building a mold around it.

But the one thing I will say is that you gotta understand the rules and understand how to properly do something before you can properly not do it or before you can properly break the rules.

How did you learn the fundamentals or those “rules”?

I did go to art school, but it just was the most useless thing. The school even closed years after I graduated. So for all intents and purposes, that school doesn’t exist anymore. I would say I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve always been drawing as a kid and doing and trying new things with visuals. I learned most things, everything that I know now or everything that I apply now, after college. Even history, in college I just slept through art history. I didn’t give a shit and it was partially because the teachers and I just wasn’t into the whole structure.

Do you learn through visiting museums and going to exhibitions?

Oh absolutely. I grew up in Wisconsin in the middle of nowhere, and I didn’t even step foot into an actual art museum until I was basically an adult, so going to museums definitely helped me. Looking at the books I was disinterested, and seeing pieces in person, you can feel it in person, especially older works, they need to be seen in person. I was never that big of a fan of Picasso. I mean, I’ve always appreciated him, respected him, knew the masterworks, I knew the story for the most part, but I never really felt anything towards his work. And just the other week, I was at the LACMA and I’m looking at the Picassos, and it really resonated with me. When I got back home, I looked up a bunch of shit online, ordered a book, and it’s like I’m being inspired by Picasso for the first time, but that seems ridiculous, right?

Switching gears, back to your process, in 2013 in an interview with Dazed, you said that you never want to create something digitally if you could have done it by hand. Does this still ring true?

Yeah. But to clarify, I do a lot of stuff digitally. I do a lot more work digitally than I used to, but all the processes I do digitally, couldn’t have been done by hand. It’s important to me to use my hands. I will never use a photoshop brush that looks like an actual brush, you know what I’m saying? I will always put brush marks on a piece of paper and scan it in if I need that look. That’s what I mean by that. Same as collaging. I don’t cut up images digitally. I don’t do that. I print them off. I cut them by hand every time.

What art is fun for you to look at now?

Really sloppy work, like Willem de Kooning. I’m also looking at more surrealism. I never really liked Salvador Dalí, but just recently I’m starting to look at his work and dive into it a little bit more. I’m getting more inspired by surrealism and fantasy.

Is there anything that you’re super excited about in the art world?

Nothing I can really talk about or put into words or anything right now. It’s just play, just messing around. I’m really excited to be inspired again; I’m excited to be inspired by things that I wasn’t inspired by before.

Images courtesy of Jesse Draxler

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love. 

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