-Interview by Amanda Erlanson
Sarah Joncas hit the pop surrealism scene a little more than two years ago, and immediately turned heads with the boldness, atmosphere and symbolic complexity of her paintings despite the fact that she was only 19 at the time. Now 22, Sarah has just graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. Despite her youth, her work displays a remarkable sophistication, both technically and philosophically.
Though animé, illustration and pop surrealism inform Sarah’s aesthetic, her subject matter and thematic focus are more directly influenced by earlier painters, especially Frida Kahlo. Kahlo’s surreal self-portraits, which focused on her own physical pain and personal passions, frequently involved a recurring set of symbolic animals, including monkeys and parrots. Her work often questioned power dynamics – both the personal conflict between a proto-feminist and sexual adventurer and the patriarchal society in which she lived, and her global concerns about race, religion and totalitarianism. Sarah has a similar tendency to use her own face as the template upon which to build allegories about cultural issues and psychological insights.
Sarah is preparing for her first solo show, entitled Beneath the Seams, which runs from June 12th to July 3rd at Thinkspace, but fortunately she found some time in her busy schedule to consider a few questions and shine some light onto her work.
Amanda Erlanson: Tell me what it was like growing up in Ontario – a little girl obsessed with dinosaurs and bones who loved to draw. Did you know someone who recognized your artistic tendencies and nurtured them, or was your art just an unstoppable force? Was there something in particular that you saw or experienced which made you believe you could pursue a career in fine art?
Sarah Joncas: I don’t think my life growing up was anything out of the ordinary. I do look back on my childhood with a lot of nostalgia though – even when I was 7, I remember making wishes on my birthday cake to be 2 again – always wanted to stay a kid! But yes, both of those interests developed right from the get-go – my mom would buy me dino toys, puzzles and picture books when I was only 3, and then I’d sit and try to draw them all day.
When I got a little older, I was in a bit of a tug-o-war between wanting animation as a career or paleontology – I used to organize bone hunts in the backwoods – but I think it was the outside encouragement I got towards my creative talent that led me to where I am now. Last summer, I was looking at some old report cards from kindergarten, and one teacher commented, “I think Sarah is destined towards some sort of creative path. I think being shy and unconfident – even now it really means the world to have people who believe in you.
My swayed choice from animation and illustration into fine art didn’t occur till my last year of high school, though, when I had to make a decision about post-secondary. Ultimately, I’m not the type who enjoys working under art direction, so I thought I’d take a gamble with the less financially-stable root and I’m glad I did!
AE: When you were younger, you were fascinated by Japanese animation and video games. For a while, you imagined that you would become an animator, and much of your early work had an animé sensibility. Even now, you attribute the elongated proportions and large eyes of your figures to those influences. What elements of animé most inspired you, and what did it teach you?
Diner and a Movie
SJ: You know, I started getting into animé when I was about 9, with Sailor Moon, and my fascination was immediate – can’t even say why it clicked so well, maybe just because it was different from cartoons I’d seen before? I was teased about liking animé for years, too, and then suddenly Pokémon hit like Mickey Mouse and it was ubiquitous.
I can’t say I watch it much anymore – haven’t played video games in over four years, either – but the aesthetics always linger. I think animé taught me that cartoons could be taken seriously – that they could be emotional and involving. And though there were a lot of enjoyable, humorous animé shows out there that I loved, it was really the dark, moody ones that captivated and inspired me – like Akira, Lain, Ghost In the Shell, and Evangelion (though that one gets a little too depressing). I think I embrace the animé influence now, because I see it as cultural – gives my work a time and place, but it also makes suggestions about identity and consumption, becoming what you eat, in a way.
AE: Much of your work involves personal symbols that you’ve developed to represent different aspects of culture and society. You’ve said that you’re influenced by philosophical movements such as existentialism, which situates the individual in an indifferent universe with the liberty and burden of free will, and the Frankfurt School, an offshoot of Marxism which critiqued society by comparing its purported ideals to the existing social reality. You seem particularly intellectually engaged with the interface between mankind and technology and its political and spiritual ramifications. Ideas of this complexity are something of a rarity in pop surrealism. What inspired you to take such a cerebral approach to concept?
SJ: I’m not sure if they are such rarity – maybe just more subtle. Even in my own paintings, those ideas are kept somewhat vague. But then again, I always see political and humanistic issues underlining pop-inspired art – not so much in illustration, but looking at images from guys like Ryden, English or Schorr, totally packed.
I think my four years of art school have really been what’s drilled those perspectives and issues into my head though… I had drawn cartoons and animé as a teenager because I loved those aesthetics – it was a part of my youth culture – but once I started learning about media studies and 20th century ideas, I felt a lot of curiosity between identity and society. The girl I painted was no longer just an alter ego or an invented character. I started to see her as a hybrid or an avatar, as a CG model or possibly an actress, all the while still representing something sincerely human to me, in identification, which led me into relating her with the Mechanical Bride.
AE: The idea of the Mechanical Bride – Marshall McLuhan’s personification of how sex, death and technology in advertising are a powerful cocktail that addicts us to consumer goods – recurs throughout your work. You represent this theme in several ways, including line drawings of merchandise and numerals drifting behind your figures, as well as electrical plugs and data jacks embedded in their skin. Sometimes you try to depict the Bride sympathetically, as if she is more victim than tool, as in “Stockholm Syndrome.” Tell me why you find this idea so compelling.
SJ: Keeping in mind what I mentioned previously, I think my moving to the city for art school and being saturated in an urban culture of advertising made the Mechanical Bride metaphor all the more entrancing to me. There’s ambivalence within people that bitterly understands the media, knows about the persuasive power of desire, yet can’t help but be engaged with it. Kind of like how I see the whole 1950s pop art movement – balancing between criticism and embrace, flashy sex, fashion and boredom.
From a narrative perspective, the Mechanical Bride was a very lucrative character to me because I started to imagine her as female archetypes, like the damsel in distress or the femme fatale. I thought of her as being born into an arranged marriage with the city and capitalism, or being a Frankenstein creation. Sometimes she was the victim, wanting desperately to get out, while the next she had become the antagonist, trying to lure the viewer in through some sort of vampirical hypnosis. I wanted to suggest both an identifying empathy and objectification of her character, which I believe is inevitably a part of the pleasure in looking – or scopophilia.
AE: Goldfish are your most frequently revisited symbol, which you use in varied ways – to represent relationships, evolution, and the natural world, among other things. In the same vein, the fishbowl is used to symbolize various confinements – including those of the urban world – and sometimes the paintings themselves might be seen to be taking place inside a fishbowl. How did goldfish come to take such a prominent role in your world?
Beatuty in the Breakdown
SJ: Ah, my sweet little goldfish, I do love them. They actually started with a painting and angsty poem I wrote when I was 16, called Tea Party Love, which you can read on my website.
Then I was listening to the song Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd a year after, and these lyrics just struck me: Two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year, running over the same old ground – what have we found? The same old fears. I started painting fish and fishbowls incessantly after that, even inspired my parents to buy a tank full of them!
Sometimes the fish were a more cynical projection on how I saw the world, but after some time growing up, I see the positive in them as well – they sometimes feel like comforting characters, acting as guardians to my girls, reminding them of what’s important, or to not get caught up in cycles of the petty and meaningless. They’ll always be a little ambiguous, though, even to me. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a precise, logical explanation all the time.
AE: Twinning and mirroring is a recurring theme in your work – and you have a twin brother. Do the two of you closely resemble each other? I wonder if part of your impulse toward self-portraiture might come from growing up face-to-face with another version of yourself.
SJ: The whole family looks like peas in a pod – brother, mom, dad. My twin brother and I looked very similar as kids, but now it’s more my older sister – my grandmother hasn’t been able to tell us apart in at least 5 years. Whenever we visit for the big X-mas reunion, she’ll be staring and squinting at me for hours, then suddenly ask, “Are you Sarah or Jennifer?” It’s great, haha. But ya, I’ve thought about family resemblance in connection with my painted girls – there’s a whole slew of possibilities why they look like me – I learned to draw from my own face, I spend a lot of time alone, etc. But ultimately I don’t think of them as self-portraits, closer to being alter egos or my quiet way of acting. You know, I used to be really bothered by it, too, but now I’m just intrigued – and curious if she’ll turn into a senile old lady with me, ha.
AE: I know you’ve been inspired by contemporary artists like Jonathan Viner, Joe Sorren, Lori Earley, Michael Hussar, John Currin, Ralph Steadman and Yoshitaka Amano. Are there other painters or illustrators from the past who move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
SJ: Oh, I love a lot of older artists. Van Eyck, Lautrec, Hopper, Varo, Mucha, etc. I think the big one for me, while learning about art history as a teenager, was Frida Kahlo’s work, though – not just because they were beautifully bizarre pictures, but because she also represented an ambitious and powerful force. Nothing seemed to stop her from painting what she wanted to paint. I think her working from personal life and using a lot of symbolism was inspiring, as well. I can’t help but be captivated by imagery that concerns identity, whether it’s cultural, sexual, social, or all of the above. Makes you ask questions about yourself, and I’ve always felt that if you could become more self-aware, then it would also allow you to be more open-minded and understanding about others.
AE: One of your greatest inspirations is the music you listen to – you’re a big fan of Pink Floyd, Portishead, Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Radiohead. Could you give me an example of a piece which was strongly inspired by a particular song, and describe to me what aspect of the song you evoked in your painting?
SJ: Well, I already mentioned Wish You Were Here, which was a big one at the time. Lately, while painting towards my solo body of work, I’ve been listening to a lot of film scores, though – Donnie Darko, Fight Club, Virgin Suicides, Requiem for a Dream, etc. There’s one particular song in Requiem called Ghosts, by Clint Mansell, that’s been hugely inspiring for me. The mood of it, switching abruptly from comfort to anxiety, the way the violins cut, and then how it sways peacefully back to calming… The title Ghosts, as well – a lot of my themes for this upcoming show are dealing with haunted spaces, not in the spirit-horror sense, but as a swelling prescience – like anxious thoughts. I also named an older painting of mine – the girl in the bathtub – after that song.
AE: Films such as Blade Runner, Vanilla Sky and Fight Club have influenced your aesthetic, both in your development of a sense of narrative and movement, and in your decisions about composing and cropping your images. Some of your best paintings are reminiscent of film stills. “Lullaby,” for instance, evokes the underwater scene in The Night of the Hunter for me, and “Beauty in the Breakdown” – to be unveiled at your upcoming show – has a very cinematic feel, as well. That show, entitled “Beneath the Seams,” will have a film noir sensibility, capturing “pregnant moments and ambiguous narratives.” What else can you tell me about the work you will be presenting?
Hide and Seek
SJ: Most of the paintings for the show are dealing with a relationship between the mundane and the cinematic, taking the world of the private/interior into a space of the public. I’ve been dealing with my usual atmospheres of melancholy and anxiety, as well, trying to allude to a feeling of alienation. Though there are some works where my girls address the viewer through eye contact, many of them are left avoidant or distracted, suggesting the act of voyeurism. It also blurs whether she’s seen as an actress, aware of our attention (exhibitionism), or a character ignorantly caught up in her own environment (introversion).
I think choosing to use a noir sensibility, with exaggerated light and shadow, was a good way of emphasizing those ideas, since it became a way of dictating gaze and illuminating suspense. Overall, my paintings for this show are a lot larger, too – I was given a real studio space for my thesis year at school, so I took advantage of the opportunity. Now that I’m back painting in my bedroom again, it’s a little sad having to shrink down my canvas. One day I’ll have my own studio, though!
AE: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
SJ: I think this is the first time in my life that I’m not entirely certain what I want. Maybe it’s because I’m almost out of school? I think I’m actually just looking forward to the summer, as a chance to ponder and paint about those precise things. I want to learn more about photography, as well, maybe play around with some sculpture stuff – not necessarily for my art career, but just to have fun and be crafty.
-By Amanda Erlanson