This month sees Toronto based artist Jacub Gagnon bring his surrealist still life paintings to Los Angeles for his solo exhibition entitled Elements & Oddities. The exhibition opens at Thinkspace on Saturday April 30th, and also features Yosuke Ueno. Lowbrow pop master David MacDowell (interviewed) returns the Culver City showspace also in the project room space with Lowbrow Love Letter. AM caught up with Jacub ahead of the exhibition to ask a few questions about his work.

Read on after the jump for our interview, as well as some pictures from the artist’s Toronto studio taken by Simon Cole of Show & Tell Gallery.

Arrested Motion (AM): Can you start by giving a brief introduction to yourself? (Your background and where you live etc).

Jacub Gagnon (JG): I grew up in a small country town in Ontario where there were more cows than people. I always had an affinity for drawing and remember many nights spent in my room after my bedtime drawing from the glow of my night light. I never expected to be an artist when I grew up and was in fact interested in a multitude of other things from sports, to science, and especially gardening/landscaping; which is what I originally planned to pursue after my post secondary education. On a whim, I decided to go to art school, moved to the city, and have been completely happy with all the decisions that have led me here.

AM: One of the most striking elements of your paintings are the black backgrounds you use. It’s like a completely negative space, a void or even a liminal environment in which the subject material exists. Can you describe what this visually arresting mechanism signifies?

JG: I had trouble developing a style when I first really started painting (in my upper years at OCAD). I had subject matter that I wished to paint but no background or foreground to place it in beyond a Dali-esque landscape that seemed to rule my work. I didn’t want the backgrounds of my paintings to define or limit my subject and so I gave birth to this vacuum of space; void of definition, but at the same time heightening the defining characteristics of its occupants. Used as a tool in place of a specific setting, my space became no place and every place at the same time, a stage in which my subject ruled and not the other way around.

AM: The subjects are usually bathed in muted light from what seems to be a single source of light. Again, can you describe the significance of the light source? Is it a natural or an artificial light?

JG: Again, like the background, the ‘spotlight’ is a tool in which I use to help define and give life to my subjects. Is the light artificial or natural? As my subject exists in no place and every place at the same time, I will say it is an artificial light. Though artificial, it breeds light and existence into my subject.

AM: It seems that there is a large element of metaphor within your work. Is the apparent allegory depicted in the paintings interlaced with both biological and also metaphysical questions you choose to ask yourself within the creative process?

JG: I feel as though there is more to life than we know and this will always be so. I think there are connections and streams of consciousness tying us together in unimaginable ways. In my paintings I try to make these ‘unlikely’ connections, the unimaginable, imaginable, bringing what might seem like unconnected or unlikely paths of life together under a new light.

AM: You actually rather proudly use the badge of ‘Pop-Surrealist’ on your website. What is your opinion on our need to classify and pigeonhole artists, schools and movements? Do you feel that having a label helps or hinders an artist’s career in terms of opportunities to exhibit, and also in terms of the artist’s own creativity?

JG: I’ve really only been a part of this movement of art for a short amount of time. When I discovered this new world I quickly and eagerly associated myself with the title and felt as though my work had a place. I like that there is some name or category that my work can find relevance within, it’s also helpful when trying to define or discuss my work with people unfamiliar to the art scene. I neither feel pigeonholed or hindered by the title or classification of ‘pop-surrealism’ when talking about my work, though I now think it would be more accurate if I dropped the word ‘pop’ from the title. To me, titles and classifications don’t change the art or how I perceive it; I think good work stands on its own apart from genre and titles.

AM: I’ve been trying to find a term or a sentence myself to describe your work to other people. I came up with Surrealist Still-Life. Does that work for you?

JG: I’ve never really thought of my work as a “still-life”, though I can see many elements of one in my work and with its presentation. Some of my work does embody a great sense of stillness and I think blackness of my backgrounds add to this. I feel a great sense of movement from many of my newer pieces for ‘Elements and Oddities’ and one of my main goals for these new pieces, apart from becoming more surreal, was to breathe into them a greater sense of motion.

AM: Your paintings are extremely well executed. It is said that a higher percentage of artists are left handed than non-artists. Conversely, the right side of the brain is said to be the ‘creative’ side, whilst the left side is apparently more ‘analytical’. I can see that both sides are equally important within your work, as it is both highly technical and creative at the same time. Have you determined if you are dominated by your left or right side?

JG: Maybe a large portion of left handed artists using the right side of their brain accounts for many of their unusual mannerisms and often backwards (unique) thinking? I would like to think I have a fairly equal function of both my left and right side, that being said, I have about enough coordination with my left hand to draw a stick person, shakily I might add.

AM: Are you a doodler? How do your compositions come together – do you plan the work out in a sketch book, or leap straight into the painting process?

JG: I’m not much of a doodler. I use to only draw, though it seems I rarely do much of that these days. My sketchbook is filled with scribbled animals assembled and arranged in different compositions and surrounded by written words and ideas. Before I begin painting I almost always have a set plan worked out. My work is fairly precise and the paint finicky to rework if I make a big mistake, so lots of thought and planning go into them before I begin. There are times though when I have half an idea and decide to just go with it and throw (quite delicately), paint on the canvas. Sometimes the process and getting your hands into working mode is the only way to evolve your thinking and ideas. Where I may plan my pieces before hand, the greatest surprises and ideas usually come forth during the process (because of the process) to really ‘make’ the piece.

AM: What tends to come first – the visual idea or the message you hope to convey?

JG: Both. I like to keep my mind open and free, I don’t have one sure way of working out an idea. Often my ideas come from wordplay followed my images. I quite frequently hear someone say something during a conversation or see something when out on the town and have one of those ‘BAZINGA!’ moments.

AM: Can you share what your daily routine for painting is? How long do you spend on the tools each day?

JG: I paint pretty much everyday and at the moment it’s been morning till night. I have a part time job at a coffee shop, but as soon as my shift is finished I’m back to my paintings. I spend much of my free time/weekends in front of my work, probably anywhere between 50-80 hours a week on painting apart from my part time job. A lot of time and care goes into my paintings, and if I’m not satisfied with them, I’m not finished.

AM: You completed your BFA in 2009. How did they prepare you for life as a professional artist? Can you share the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your formal art education background, and also from life post BFA out in the ‘real world’?

JG: I don’t feel as though I was prepared for life as a professional artist after graduating. There is a class everyone is suppose to take third year (I believe) called professional practice, though myself and about 20 other students were studying abroad in Florence, Italy and missed out. As for a most valuable lesson from my education, welcome constructive criticism. Sometimes you need a little help, a little advice, and a different perspective. Welcome this and take as much from it as you can, because once you are on your own and in the studio by yourself, you won’t get the same help. My ‘real’ world advice – nothing can come of your art unless you make the effort. It seems obvious, but you need to be dedicated, put in the time and hard work, refine your skill/execution/ideas, and immerse yourself in your art and art in general. Your hard work can and will pay off if you are persistent and give it your all. One more thing, no matter what you do, love it!

AM: In what way do you use reference materials? Is it purely photographs you use or have you utilized physical models / props as well?

JG: I use a variety of different reference materials from photographs to physical props; I have even made a few of my reference materials when possible. It helps to visualize my creations when I can set up props and my own lighting, so when I can, I seek out materials to aid me as detail is a very integral part of my work.

AM: Your 2009 exhibition String Theory is where I first came across your work. The paintings contained within had a common thread, if you’ll excuse the pun, connecting the subject material for the exhibit as well as literally connecting the subjects of the paintings. Is this how you tend to produce your paintings – as bodies of work rather than individual pieces put together over a period of time?

JG: String Theory was the beginning for me. It wasn’t an exhibition per say, rather an idea and a launching pad that helped me develop concepts and generate images. I don’t particularly associate my newer work with that so much anymore or the title ‘String Theory’ but have just not had the time to give my website the facelift it needs.

AM: The forthcoming exhibition is entitled Elements & Oddities. What can be expected thematically for this new collection of work?

JG: Honestly, theme is something I try not to commit myself to or worry about overly. Themes can be great and help to really bring work together, but for this show I have tried not to settle on a specific theme and rather let my style and subject, though varied, hold together on its own. Some themes and ideas that I’ve played with that will be present in my work are: the unnatural state of nature, togetherness/family, and the relationships between humans and animals.

AM: Looking at your schedule of recent exhibits, you seem to have a very LA-centric roster – certainly for the last year or so. Do you visit LA much? Do you have any special connections to the city?

JG: It will be my first time visiting LA for this upcoming show actually. I don’t have any particular connections to the city; I guess I have just fallen in love with its art scene over there in the past year or two. It wasn’t long ago that I didn’t even know about the LA art scene or where my work fit in, now I can’t seem to get enough. Toronto has a few places where my work seems to ‘fit’ and I would love to show here sometime and be a greater part of the artist community in the future. For the time being, I’ve been given lots of opportunities in LA and I feel my work is much at home there.

AM: Tell us a little about the creative scene in Toronto. There seems to be a healthy stable of emerging artists producing work up there currently.

JG: Toronto always has shows to hit up and a lot of interesting work/people to be sure. Though as of late I’ve been busy and not had as much time as I’d like to see all that’s going on. There is a mass of eager, fresh artists looking to break out onto the scene here and it’s always exciting to get out to openings.

AM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Jacub – we’ll let you get back to the task in hand now. Best wishes with your exhibition at Thinkspace.

JG: Thanks AM for taking the time to ask such thoughtful and thought provoking questions, I’ve really enjoyed this.

Discuss Jacub Gagnon here.
Discuss this show here.