Jon Bocksel is an artist and sign-painter, whose artistic and commercial practices inform each other and often overlap in style, technique and execution. In a recent series of work, Jon explores the illusory effects of hand-stained canvases as a backdrop to hard-edged enamel forms, resembling disjointed letters and layered symbols, that traverse the boundaries of any single language. While the compositions initially register as words or individual letters, the stratified line work of the new vernacular allows for an open interpretation, incorporating the viewer and their experience into the work. His artwork is influenced conceptually by the powers of language, perception, interpretation and translation; and aesthetically by collections of imagery and personal photography of both professional and amateur sign-painting as observed daily across New York City and in recent travels.
Picnic: I like to start each interview by asking what you’re working on now & what we’re surrounded by.
Jon: I’m working on this 3 x 5 foot painting, you can see the color shifts between the different parts are very subtle, just because I’ve really been trying to get it right, and I’m not quite there yet.
Is the canvas hand-stained?
Yeah, I dyed the canvas. I’m trying to make the canvas look like marble or some kind of stone. I want it to be an illusion, I don’t want it to be so perfect. I’m definitely into the idea of playing with illusion, maybe even in a kitschy way, especially with words. I think my work is a lot about how words might propose ideas, and how well they are really doing that. So having a background that is marble, but not really marble, plays with that idea.
And you’re painting with enamel?
Yeah, pretty much all I use is sign enamel. I like the way the paint holds the line, and I have so much of it from being a commercial artist, I might as well use it. A lot of it is straight out of the can, I think the ones that are least successful are the ones that I mixed. I’m still playing with a lot of warm and cold, the palette is affected by my mood. If it’s a cold winter day I’ll make some dark ass painting, it all makes sense. It’s definitely my favorite paint to use, not easy to use on canvas, it’s a challenge.
What is challenging about it?
I try to keep that sharp line, but it’s hard because you get these little bubbles in the canvas, but that’s also part of it, I don’t want it to be perfect. I want it to look good from ten feet away, but up close it’s still pretty human. It’s much harder because when I paint signs commercially it’s all non-porous surfaces. The canvas is porous, it takes the paint in weird ways. At this point I’ve made maybe 20 of these on canvas so I’m getting used to how to do it.
When I first met you you were working in gouache and watercolor a lot, did you find you were leaning towards enamel after you became a commercial sign painter?
That’s a good question. The funny thing is, sign painters use gouache for works on paper, it works a lot like sign enamel, it’s really opaque and thick, and you have to palette it out. I stopped using gouache really because if you make a good gouache painting you have to frame it and I don’t work at a frame shop anymore, that’s part of it. I’ve also been trying to simplify, gouache wouldn’t work on canvas, and I’ve been working on canvas so I can get that stained effect, that’s how I ended up here. I could use acrylic paint, but I feel sign enamel is still akin to the gouache. I still love gouache, but I can never find the time to use it.
Are you learning new things or figuring out tricks in your art that you can use in your professional work and vice versa?
Yeah definitely, I think I’ve also become a faster painter. Unfortunately, being that I’m a commercial artist I can’t spend more than a day or two a week working on my own work, but when I do get a chance to paint, it goes faster. I don’t think that I’ve gotten fast with the paint brush, I’ve more trained myself to use the procedures I’d use on a job. Which is to prep everything at the same time, get the line drawing ready, then transfer it. It’s very craft based, although I know that’s a dirty word in the art world. I’ve trained my mind to use these formulas to get everything ready, so when I’m painting I don’t have to worry about anything else. With my work a lot of it is planned before I actually do it, the only thing I’ll change or edit is color. I think I’ve also used more of the professional techniques, like having to meet a deadline, having everything signed off before I work on it. In my artwork I’ll finalize the idea before I paint it, but instead of presenting the idea to a client, I’m presenting the ideas to myself. All of my teachers in art school were really pressing Abstract Expressionism on us, I was influenced by the ‘be in the moment/change this/change that,’ which at this point in my life I’ve realized I’m really not into, it’s not really me.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yeah, a couple. I always keep a sketchbook, I have a sign sketchbook and an art sketchbook. A lot of these paintings come from my sketchbook, I’ll make them small scale then blow them up, and make a pattern. Just how I would make a sign, I’ll poke holes in it, then use transfer chalk. It’s an old technique for painting signs, this is the way my great-grandfather did all his paintings, he was a decorative painter.
What did he paint?
Mostly homes, he would paint decorative borders. I have some of his old patterns. You draw or print a pattern, perforate it, put it down, and then push chalk through it. It transfers onto the object, then you trace it and paint it. It’s great because you can remove the chalk fairly easily. I make the paintings, the same way. It helps me work through the process so the form can be the important part, all of the other stuff is just execution and prep, using pretty old craft based techniques.
Is this gunshot painting new?
No, it’s a few years old, I’m not working on the gunshot paintings so much, I was working on those for a while. I didn’t want people to think I’m a psychopath, I think I was trying to say something else.
I get the message.
It’s a little aggressive, it was fun though to make art that you could blow up. It was really awesome. I didn’t have to be so precious about it.
Would you say you are drifting away from more literal or readable works, and moving toward working more symbolically?
Yeah, I started a series of paintings last year that were words, but I got pretty bored of it that I didn’t finish them.
These new works are still a mode of speech, but it’s to be deciphered by the audience now, rather than you giving a direct message. You had always been using text and hand-typography in your work, when did you start sharpening your hand-lettering and think about turning it into a profession?
It happened by chance, more people were asking me to paint signs for them, really from seeing my artwork, and I realized I have to use the right materials. It was always something I was interested in on the side. At that point I was doing hand-lettering for five years before I started charging people. It was a lot of free jobs, trades and sandwiches. You know how it is in New York you have to find an avenue to fund what you want to do, and what I really want to do is be an artist and go surfing. I’ve been painting signs for ten years now. It was either having a job working for someone else or trying to paint signs. It goes back to when I was in high school and painting posters for school. I was always into lettering, whether it was under a bridge or for the high school fashion show.
And you taught yourself?
Yeah, pretty much, using books and old signs for reference.
Are there a lot of references out there?
There are, and more now because of the internet. Someone gave me this Speedball Single Stroke book in art school and my mind was blown. I had always seen consistency in old signs but I never understood that it was this scientific: holding the brush this way, and how the widths of the letters are very important to make a legible alphabet. A lot of these books are online now, which I think is why more people are getting into it because it’s more accessible. When I was getting into it, part of the excitement was that it was this obscure thing, you had to find books and old signs in antique stores. Now it’s just more accessible, which is good because I think people are learning the right way.
Are there any technique you’d like to master that you haven’t?
Painting S’s is pretty hard. I was working with Jon Downer last week, he says he’s still trying to figure it out, and he’s been doing it for fifty years. I don’t know if I want to be a master in anything. For me, painting signs is a great way to make a living, and study letter structure. Art is something I’m more interested in on an abstract level. These feelings that we can’t always express, but there is something there. It’s like listening to music in a different language. It is beautiful, even though I don’t know what they’re talking about. There is something to that, something very human.
While you’re using the same materials and somewhat same techniques, do you feel like you can come to the studio after a day at work and work on art because you’re not working for a client to create something legible, you’re not sick of it or burnt out?
For a job in which I have to paint someone’s logo, I have to design and then paint, it’s all something you read. These paintings are more something you have to read into. I do have an emotional need to make this work. If I’ve been working 12 hours a day out in the sun, then no I just want to drink some beer, so that varies.
Do you have assigned meanings to any of these?
Totally not. They’re all random. I love the comments people give. It’s not literal, I think that’s what confuses people. It’s a form of a letter, or a form of a form, it’s interpretive, it’s whatever you want it to be. They don’t have a meaning. They are more of an allegory. They’re not letters, they have shadows, it’s actually kind of decorative. I like that you’re having that conversation, that’s what it’s about for me, a conversation about language and words. It’s about how language is mutable often times, so easily changed. Look at our President and what he says, it means something else the next day. I like that idea lot. Also, I should state, it’s not that I don’t think language is important or a joke, that’s not the case, I’m not trying to stick my thumb up at the written language, not at all. It’s more poetic than that.
It’s challenging the power of the line, letters are just lines and curves, but they have so much meaning attached to them.
Yeah, that’s true, they are loaded. Even a letter is so loaded. I’m into it.
I wanted to talk about your influences and source material. Just from knowing you, I have a feeling that for you, driving or skating around the city itself can be a form of research. Seeing all of the hand-painted signs, both professional and amateur, feels more relevant to motivating your practice than going to a gallery or museum…
Yeah, often times. It’s totally true, I can’t explain where that comes from. I love going to galleries and museums, but there is definitely something to be said for people that are trying to make art, and trying to make important art, it can be really contrived. I’m not saying that all art is like that, or art galleries. I find that I have a lot more fun and take a lot more inspiration from things I see that are not supposed to be art or things in museums because they’ve gone through all these different layers. As much as I like the whole finish fetish and surfboards, there is something about unprofessional or folky lettering that is really genuine. You can tell the person really enjoyed making it. I think everyone is an artist, but at a certain point we’re told you can’t do it or you shouldn’t waste your time in capitalist society. It is generally a leisurely activity. I like when people do it for leisure even if they’re not a professional, I think it’s great, it gets me excited. Part of it is growing up with my parents, neither of them considered themselves artists, but they totally are. My mom would make paintings for fun when she was bored, my dad was gardening and things like that. When I see a sign on the street that somebody made, it can be more genuine because they’re not going for these big grandiose ideas, it just is what it is, and that’s great. Why did they paint the G backwards? That’s amazing.
Did you see a lot of hand-painted signs when you were in Cuba?
There were a lot of cool signs there, more than I thought. I’m trying to put together a zine or a book, which I feel is important at this point in time now that you can’t go down there anymore. There will be no travel for cultural exchange, which is how we went there. It’s interesting because they were not affected by computer generated signage, or making patterns off of a computer printer so they started developing some unique habits. Just like when you go to any place in the United States you’ll see there is a regional style, so there is a lot of that there.
Are you working towards any projects or exhibitions right now?
I’m really not, I should make a zine. I’ve always liked that idea of making a body of work and making a zine out of it. The way it is now, it’s more of a pleasure to paint. I’m not in this great rush to show it. Part of being a commercial artist is that you’re less reliant on that. I’m less reliant on showing or notoriety. It puts things in a different perspective for me. I would like to show it, but on my own time, when the timing is right.