Finding Utopias with Jacob Feige


Interview by Rob Lehr

Jacob Feige is a painter whose work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the world, including Lombard Freid Projects, New York, Chambers Fine Art, Beijing, and most recently at Movement, Worcester, UK. His abstraction-in-landscape paintings have been written about in Artforum, Freize, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. The Phaidon Press anthology of contemporary abstract painting, Painting Abstraction, includes a section on his work. His most recent work relates to utopian communes and societies in the United States, combining painting and radio. When he’s not painting or teaching, Jacob is an editor for Title Magazine, an online publication dedicated to Philadelphia artists, curators, and arts-professionals. He was kind enough to sit down and share details about his recent projects.



RL: Your most recent projects, Settlement and Fleetingtime, both mix audio and visuals. Can you discuss the origin of these participatory projects and the ideas behind the mixed-media installations?

JF: A few years ago, I started teaching art at a college in rural, southern New Jersey. I didn’t have a relationship to the area, aside from a few trips to the surrounding woods called the Pine Barrens. The area is flat, wooded, and somewhat socially conservative. I thought it would be an interesting setting for a work of fiction. Narrative had already become a part of my work, so I developed a narrative about a community in the Pine Barrens, somewhere between commune and cult, whose members worship/obsess on the ephemeral nature of time. I wanted the experience of the work to have multiple paths and points of entry, so I made the paintings screens that sit on the floor, making something of a maze. The story of the community unfolds through the imagery of the paintings–meditation, parent-child freak out, orb worship–and an accompanying audio narrative that’s broadcasted by FM radio transmission. The project, Fleetingtime, is unfinished, because haven’t found a venue to support it.

I took a break from the project last summer to make a related painting installation, Settlement. I wanted to get away from my own ideas for narrative, which are limited. I’m not an expert storyteller. For this project, I interviewed my students about their personal ideas of utopia. I interpreted ten of their utopias in triangular paintings that fit into a geodesic framework–a tribute to the dome communes in the 1960s and 70s. Keith Freund, my frequent collaborator, processed audio of the interviews, which were then played on a small tape recorder that physically propped the installation up at Movement, the gallery in the UK where I installed the project.

RL: In Settlement, your students were interviewed about personal utopias. Can you give us a few examples of these utopian visions? What is your own personal utopia?

JF: There was a surfboard making and coffee growing utopia, a utopia with only one form of punishment: expulsion by giant catapult. There was one that focused on sustainable transportation and technology, in particular a monorail with gliders attached to it. A couple were nomadic and focused on the production and sale of crafts. Some hunting and fishing, survival of the fittest societies. I’m not sure I have a personal utopia. One of the reasons why I’m so curious about utopian societies is because the togetherness that they tend to espouse makes me anxious in practice. My aspiration to live a utopian life is really a desire to be a more giving, extroverted, cooperative person who doesn’t like to be by himself.

RL: My introduction to your artwork came from the incredible album covers for Trouble Books. Can you tell us a little about your collaboration with the husband-wife duo and your relationship to their sound?

JF: Keith and Linda have invited me to do covers for many of their albums, and as I mentioned, Keith has worked on the audio component of my exhibitions. We released the audio for my exhibitions From the Bellona Museum of Natural History and Settlement as a record and a download, respectively. On broad, metaphorical terms, our projects are analogous: we both flirt with conventional structures, often as a setup for something surprising, dissonant, abstract, off in deep space, or directly in the space of the listener or viewer. For Keith and Linda, that conventional structure is rhythm and pop; for me, it’s representational painting, especially landscape.


RL: Your use of geometric forms within landscapes have a great architectural quality. How do these design elements speak to the American landscape and what do they represent in your compositions?

JF: Architecture has great practical applications. But on some level, I see it as a way to impose the human fixation on order, symmetry, and regularity on the aspects of nature that threaten us. I feel a strong impulse to do this. And visually, nothing looks better than a bunch of straight lines poking out from the trees, like Falling Water. I haven’t made this work for a while, but when I did make it, painting seemed like a useful way to have it both ways: put the geometric construct of the human mind into nature without actually cutting down any trees. Less cynically, geometric forms in deep space were a cathartic way to feel a sense of open, deep space. I lived in New York when I made that work, and being all cooped up visually was bad mental hygiene for me.

RL: Many of your paintings discuss our desire for purity yet our inevitable corruption of the American landscape. What role does our society play in perpetuating this problem? What beginning steps should readers follow to reverse this process?

JF: Oh boy, if I had answers to the big questions, I’d be a politician and not a painter! Our society is fully responsible for degrading the landscape, but I struggle with the question of whether humans can really do anything but convert nature into their own ugly hive. If a breath of fresh air and a hike were the solution, hunter gatherers wouldn’t have eaten so many animals to extinction. Artists have a tendency to offer vague answers to these big questions. The abstract painter Kazimir Malevich thought that remaking the world as a utopia began with re-imagining it in a “pure, plastic form” of painting. Somehow both world wars weren’t averted. Still, they’re nice paintings.


Jacob has two upcoming exhibitions: “duplicate.until response” at Hooloon Art in Philadelphia, PA from February 7 – March 15, 2015 and “Ice Storm” at The Willows in Brooklyn, NY opening February 21, 2015. If you’d like to stay in touch with Jacob, you can visit his website at