Interview by Rob Lehr
A few years ago, I met Josh Vandegrift while buying an espresso at Angel Falls coffee shop. We talked for awhile about various movies by filmmaker John Waters. I noticed he had a sketchbook and he shared a few small ink drawings that he had been doodling that day. He casually mentioned that he was just getting back into making art from a temporary hiatus. Time has passed and his modest drawings have now evolved into small paintings. After several months of working in his studio, he finished a brand new body of work which is currently on display at Square Records‘ gallery in Highland Square. This seemed like a great opportunity to learn more about Josh’s new portraits and his attraction to this quirky yet rad series of paintings.
RL: I know you are a big fan of underground cinema. These portraits are not titled but they are obviously captured from very specific moments in our culture. Can you tell me about the subjects chosen and why you chose to paint them?
JV: This project came about from a collection of images, captured six or seven years ago, from various films. About nine months ago, I went through all of these photos and set aside some that I felt worked well together. I wanted images which had a sense of stillness, ecstasy and absurdity—the thought of someone giggling in a monastery, if you will. I did have about five other images set aside that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another.
As far as leaving them untitled—actually, I originally intended to title the paintings with the name of the subject. I quickly abandoned that, because for some of them I didn’t have a name to go with the piece. Also, for a couple of paintings, I wasn’t as interested in simply making a straight portrait and I wanted the freedom to alter things when necessary. I really wanted the paintings to coexist together. Providing a reminder that they all once came from different environments would be unnecessary and distracting. That said, for those that are curious, I ended up using images of John Cale, Koko Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Little Richard, Sophia Loren and Marlene Dietrich from concert performances, interviews and feature films. The rest of the paintings came from people featured in Unsolved Mysteries and the documentary, Satanis: The Devil’s Mass.
JV: I knew that a lot of people may not be familiar with the original context of these images, so it was important to me that the paintings not rely on the films they came from or the viewer’s ability to recognize the subject. The focus for me was the nature of the facial expressions and that magical place. These paintings shouldn’t require any kind of back-story or explanation for the audience to take away something from them. In fact, in the case of one painting I didn’t even finish the film. Context is irrelevant, though it might make good trivia. These frozen images resonated with me in different ways and I’m curious to see how others respond to them.
RL: I remember going through your sketchbook in the past and you have really refined your technique with this body of work. Can you tell me a little about your current process? What made you decide to paint on cardboard compared to panel or canvas?
JV: Yeah, for the past fifteen years I had been working off and on with ballpoint pen drawings and fell into a rut. I really missed working with acrylics and decided to start this series of paintings. I began to stockpile pieces of cardboard last year and soon amassed a ridiculous amount. While new art supplies can sometimes be useful, I always try to utilize found or discarded items whenever possible. I prefer to work on a surface that’s not pristine or particularly ideal. The more banged up, the better. It opens things up for me and offers unexpected possibilities early on and throughout the entire process.
RL: Outside of cinema, what other interests inspire your artwork? Are there other artists who have influenced you?
JV: I get inspiration through a variety of other things like books and music. For the most part I listened to The Gun Club and The Staple Singers on repeat while I worked on these paintings. As far as visual arts, there are photographers like Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Tammy Mercure, Pieter Hugo and Mikhael Subotzky, whose work always blows me away and pushes me to create. I’m influenced by a ton of different painters, past and present. I’m particularly obsessed with Byzantine Art, the Northern Renaissance, German Expressionism and Dada. Aside from that, some of the artists who’ve influenced me throughout the years are Robert Crumb, Otto Dix, James Ensor, Howard Finster, Cynthia Pell, Jenny Saville, Egon Schiele and Aleksandra Waliszewska.
JV: I wanted a nice, intimate size and something reminiscent of a religious icon. It felt appropriate for what I was doing this time. I like that you have to get close to them. Hopefully people aren’t afraid to get close to some of them. Yeah, I’ll work on this scale again if it suits whatever it is that I’m doing. I would love to paint something larger though and already have a few new things in mind.
Josh Vandegrift has artwork on display at Square Records’ gallery through the end of September 2014. His paintings are shown with photography by Emily Germann. Square Records is open Mon: 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm, Tue – Sat: 11:00 am – 9:00 pm, and Sun: 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm. The gallery is located in the back of the record store at 824 W Market St, Akron, Ohio 44303. You can reach Josh via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.