Artist Spotlight: An Interview with Josh George

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A work by painter Josh George illustrates this issue’s story from Jonathan Nixon, “Anywhere We’ve Ever Wanted.” Smokelong art director Alexander C. Kafka asked George about his experiences and inspirations, then invited him to play word association.

First off, thanks so much for contributing to SmokeLong Quarterly. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? What kind of family do you come from? Where do you live? Where are you from? When did you figure out you wanted to be an artist?

I keep thinking I’m 35 but my blotchy skin, bald spot, and creaky joints remind me that I’m 45. I come from a totally normal middle-class suburban family. We were all creative. My mom painted, my dad plays guitar and sings, my brother makes a living as a musician, and my sister is a great dresser, has nice hair, and plays a mean tambourine. I was always supported in my creative pursuits and always encouraged to make a professional go at them. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. I went to art school there, got tired of seeing the same sights every day and was craving a more urban adventure, so I set off for New York City 18 years ago to wander the streets and paint city dwellers like my Ash Can heroes did. I knew I needed to make pictures at a young age when I drew demons and devils for my religious grandmother. She told me god gave me talent to draw fucked up stuff.

Much of your work is focused on the city and its dwellers. How did that come about?

I was never really interested in big, conceptual subject matter in my work. I am more interested in process, the narrative is not so important, though the city has so many stories and situations happening on every street corner and apartment. I like the textures and the never-ending nature of my surrounding city and I try to record the patterns and surfaces with an aggressive mixed-media approach. I like a sense of mystery in my mark making. I want to viewers to wonder, “How the hell did he do that?”

There’s such a feeling of bustle and busyness in your cityscapes. Is your mind like that? Always churning and zipping around? Or do you feel removed from your surroundings, more an observer, fascinated and distanced from the mayhem?

My mind is always jumping around and it gets frustrated because I can’t participate the way I used to in searching for an ideal life. Lately I have been doing urban aerial views that disappear into the horizon. I want to fly away from the city to the south of France and paint Hallmark Card landscapes of precious villages. So I guess I want both urban hustle and bustle and idealistic rural socialist living at the same time, including a two-hour nap each day.

You describe yourself as an urban realist. But you also have this whimsical side that comes out, especially, in your figure work. I’m thinking of paintings like Buddy Patrol, Giddyup Up Buttercup!, and The Wind Carried It in Its Belly, the City Nursed It. Those images still incorporate the city, but in a more mythical, ethereal vein. Can you explain to me the dichotomy between those two modes of work?

I say my work is not concept driven and is just a way to record my surroundings, but I do like storytelling even if there is no specific story. Holdovers for wanting to do comic books when I was younger maybe? But more likely I never get tired of painting my beautiful wife naked.

You paint in layers and include collage elements. For instance, in Giddy Up Buttercup!, it looks like we’re seeing some wallpaper or wrapping paper or some such integrated into the figure of the woman on the horse. What’s in there? How many layers? Do you make sketches, or under-paint, starting a work envisioning that kind of mix, or do you just kind of go with the creative flow of it as you work? Can you describe your process in a little more detail?

I plan out every image with some rough prototypes. I carry a sketchbook and draw for inspiration in planning works, I take a lot of photos and I invent a lot of imagery, since buildings are just shapes in perspective with a little bit of a light source. I do an under painting on wood panel then I collage over the entire surface with labels, wallpaper, ticket stubs, fabric, building up general forms in a controlled mess. I then paint over the collage elements with knifes, dragging and scrapping. Then I finish it all off with delicate brush work before a protective layer of varnish.

You’ve had a lot of gallery shows. Have you been able to make a living as an artist or have you worked simultaneous jobs?

So far so good. I’m in five different galleries around the country. I do a few solo shows a year and am involved in several group shows and a handful of art fairs. I have been teaching art now for 12 years.

What are your greatest inspirations?

Wine, death metal.

Who are your favorite artists?

Different each day but I always come back to Degas. I’m on a Ferenc Pinter and Henri Jean Guillaume Martin kick right now.

What’s your greatest fear?

Cancer, house burning down, alligators (or crocodiles).

What’s the dumbest thing you ever tried to do?

Become an artist and not a rock star.

Quick word association exercise. Don’t think—just write!

cable

Shitty Marvel comics character

nostril

Nostradamus was full of shit and the people who believe him are idiots.

backward

This country

garden

Basil is my favorite scent perhaps of all time. Thyme is too.