Certainty in Uncertain Times and Building New Worlds, with Jean-Pierre Roy
While Jean-Pierre Roy has been hunkered down in his Brooklyn studio creating hyperrealistic, world-altering paintings for years, this practice feels different during the time of COVID-19. Without access to museums, galleries, or even the NYC subway, Jean-Pierre paints the connective tissue in his paintings from the world before to the unprecedented time today. As an artist who toys with the concept of uncertainty, Jean-Pierre’s work is more poignant than ever. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to hear how watching the Empire Strikes Back on VHS influenced Jean-Pierre’s world-building fantasies.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
What if one day you just decided to break all of the rules of the natural world? Well, that’s what today’s guest on the Cultured Podcast does in every one of his paintings. That’s right. We are talking to none other than Jean-Pierre Roy. I cannot wait for you to hear this one, y’all.
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hell-OH, my beh-behs! Oh, well, if this isn’t a super-duper example of what it means to record in quarantine, I don’t know what it is. This is just a really fun episode, but it is one in which you will hear my cat purring enthusiastically. That’s Luna, for those of you who don’t know. And also in my conversation with JP or Jean-Pierre Roy, you are going to love JP’s take on the world around him, because, if you know his paintings, you will know what I mean. They are physics-bending masterpieces of hyperrealism that are also quite surreal. Before we dive into that beautiful conversation with JP, I’m going to talk to you about what’s inspiring me this week. And this week, what’s inspiring me issssss – muh cat!
There is no better episode than this one to talk about Luna and companionship. You know, in this quarantine, I am pretty balanced between introversion and extraversion. So I get energy recharged by being around people but also by having plentiful solitude. So I’m someone who really enjoys my time alone and my space from others and that allows me to be introspective. I’m a highly analytical person. I think big thoughts all the time. And what I realized recently is that Luna and her companionship and her energy — just like the fact that she has mood swings and exists apart from me and the fact that she, you know, will come up to me and ask me for snuggles and then another day she’ll be super annoyed by me. That kind of, like, you know, never-know-where-you-land-with-someone interaction has kept things interesting and has kept me feeling well-accompanied. And I’m really grateful for that. It’s also the reason why I’m seeing a lot of people around me starting to adopt pets. I highly encourage you to adopt a rescue pet, of course — especially a kitty-cat! If you’re a busy person outside of these unusual circumstances, then I highly suggest you get a kitty-cat. Because remember our lives will be exiting quarantine and isolation at some point. Look at history! Things end, and then new things begin. And if your life isn’t set up for a dog, then you don’t want to get a dog right now. But anyway, shout out to Lu! I’m so grateful for you Lu-Bear and the Cultured Crew loves you. Anywho! It’s time to talk to JP, not Luna and get to know that brilliant, fun, creative, limitless mind of his. Leggo!
Hello, Jean-Pierre, how are you?
Jean-Pierre Roy 3:43
I’m good. Thank you for having me on.
Michelle Khouri 3:45
Welcome to the show. I’m so excited to talk to you — for so many reasons that we’re about to discover. But first, we’re going to level-set. Jean-Pierre Roy, tell us who you are and what your art form is.
Jean-Pierre Roy 3:59
My name is Jean-Pierre Roy. I’m a 45-year-old artist and painter, originally from Venice Beach in Santa Monica, California. And now I reside with my wife in Brooklyn and (have) been living here for about the last 20 years. I get asked a lot, “How do I describe myself as an artist? Or what is the work that I make?” And it’s kinda, like, been a rolling description. I was this “imaginary landscape painter,” kind of, “world builder,” and then I became this “conflict-world-builder / painter.” And then I became this “climate-change-landscape painter.” And then I was this “post-apocalyptic-landscape painter.” And then I was this sci-fi-narrative guy, making corona-apocalypse paintings the whole time! It’s like, “Whoa!” I’m not a pessimist. You know, I’m very much a, kind of, realistic optimist. And so for me, the work has always, first and foremost, been my own way of processing optimism. But also, I just try to think of myself as a contemporary artist first. To me, that means making work about issues that are contemporaneous to your life and the dialogue that you’re a part of. And so for me, that’s the one thing that stayed the same. It’s just that my obsessions, my interests, my kinks – so to speak – have kind of led me through these different territories that all happened to be really of-the-moment.
Michelle Khouri 5:20
I think I should take a moment to level-set also and just describe what it’s like to see some of your work — in case somebody here is discovering you for the first time on the Cultured Crew. It is hyperrealism, in terms of form and expression. So there’s landscapes in a lot of your paintings, and sometimes you take a more legit sci-fi approach.
Jean-Pierre Roy 5:45
Yeah, I probably have said this before. And I know it’s something that I talk about with my students and whenever I do have exhibitions and the work goes out there — like, everything I’m going to say today starts with my own view of the world. I’m always playing a game – or examining – “What is the appropriate level of superstructure versus artifice to bring to a piece?” I absolutely embrace my love of not just science but science-fiction. I grew up on escapist genre narratives. You know, they are so dear to my heart. They were a fundamental part of me evolving as a human being and as a man. But, at the same time, there’s a deep, deep emotional connection to the sense of discovery and the desire to want to get to know intimately the nature of reality on an intimate level that those genres often allude to that sometimes the kind of hard sciences don’t always get across that well or aren’t the appropriate vehicle to get to the emotional component of it. But I’m always struggling with, “How do I set aside something that I’m so passionate about?” The lasers and aliens component, they’re incredibly seductive. But really, for me, those things we’re all kind of, like, doorways into the day-to-day poetry of being a living, breathing, feeling human being. What level of lasers and aliens or what level of fantastical visionary landscape painting or what level of dystopia versus utopia do I kind of frame a core of the quotidian in the middle of it? That’s always a balance I’m trying to find.
Michelle Khouri 7:23
Well, the quotidian or the every-day. Right? What I see is that it all of a sudden becomes a strange parallel universe versus a totally, you know, “I can’t identify with this world at all” strange planet. When I think of aliens and lasers, I actually see aliens and lasers in your work, but it’s not so obvious. The way you play with, like, neon light and the way you mix paint, man, I just — let’s just stop and just like, “Okay, great, quantum physics, aliens, whatever, multi-dimensional, whatever. Like, the way you mix paint is the be-yoo-tiful.
Jean-Pierre Roy 8:01
Thank you. Marshall McLuhan said it best: “The medium is the message.” And I know I’m using it a little differently than he used it. But, for me, the concepts that we’re talking about — the vehicle through which they transfer from the universe to my head, to my hands, to you, is that thin skin of paint covers that surface. And so the material component is everything to me. And on top of that, that material component of paint and color, the physical mix of the subtractive qualities of paint. We talk a lot about the light in a painting. It’s a symbol for light. You know, there is light falling on the surface that’s carrying that information from that surface to your eye. But it’s not like the way it is in the real world. Now, the light that’s hitting your retina is no different coming off a painting than it is from the real world. I mean, it’s just colors. But what I do materially on a surface is a simulacrum of the way that the electromagnetic spectrum works. It’s a kind of a stand-in for it. It’s almost like a kind of compression of the real.
Michelle Khouri 8:59
Hmm, I like that description a lot. “A compression of the real…”
Jean-Pierre Roy 9:02
There are these two “reals” that, for me — they connect and they intermingle on that two-dimensional surface.
Michelle Khouri 9:09
You’re one of those people I wish I could just, like, John-Malkovich. You know? And just sit inside of your brain and just, like, look through your eyes, because I imagine that you walking around is not such a simple experience. You are creating worlds.
Jean-Pierre Roy 9:24
Michelle Khouri 9:25
And you are bending principles of physics in really interesting ways. So where do these surface? I’m particularly interested to know with someone like you.
Jean-Pierre Roy 9:36
I think part of it might be the fact that I grew up in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s. And, you know, there’s the Paramahansa Yogananda Temple down the street. And we would go to vegetarian free-night at the Hari Krishna temple. And we have neighbors who are Scientologists. And then we have — my family has kind of, like, a soft Catholic background. And all those different worldviews were kind of, like, different reality predictors.
Michelle Khouri 10:04
Hmm. I love that.
Jean-Pierre Roy 10:06
I mean, again, I’m a 45-year-old guy who’s been thinking about and assigning very specific vocabulary to this. As a 12-year-old kid, it’s just kind of like, “These are all my friends and their families, and they all these different ideas, and let’s go play with Legos, because it’s sunny out.” You know?
Michelle Khouri 10:21
Yaaas! But also instilled in you from such a young age that there is no one way.
Jean-Pierre Roy 10:27
Yeah. Because there was no one way between them, I guess I was looking for something that was more dependable. And I don’t mean dependable in a way that, again — like a control freak. I realized a long time ago that I had to make peace with the devil. You know, I’m working on a painting right here. And it’s early stages of this giant, unspecified device that is traversing its way across this landscape with impalas and palm trees and clouds of smoke. That’s a kind of a kinetic conflagration of technology and the natural world.
Michelle Khouri 11:02
… Can I see it?
Jean-Pierre Roy 11:04
Michelle Khouri 11:06
Oh my god.
Jean-Pierre Roy 11:08
You don’t present something like that to the world, thinking, “I know! I know exactly what this is about.” Like, there’s an incredible amount of doubt! Of like, “I feel a deep need to make this thing but I’m not sure I know what it’s about.” There’s no way I can predict whether anybody else is going to look at this and be like, “Huh, boy, did I need to see this today!”
Michelle Khouri 11:30
What’s funny is, you talk about this need for doubt. And what’s interesting is, you know, life is not a polarity. That’s why we establish rules is because there is no polarity. It’s not about dichotomous existence. There’s all these gray areas.
Jean-Pierre Roy 11:46
Oh god! The amount of grey…
Michelle Khouri 11:48
Holy crap! Right? So, even within your work, there are so many rules that you follow and so many rules that you break. And it’s almost like you follow rules — for instance, technique — that enables you to break a whole new set of rules, which is in my opinion, you know, things like physics or what we consider to be “logical.” That playfulness between breaking the rigidity of rules in order to allow freedom of breaking other rules is really freakin’ interesting.
Jean-Pierre Roy 12:19
You see a lot of creative movements kind of adopt that position. I mean, famously, Dogme 95. The idea that like, constraints, limitation of resources, limitation of creative avenues can lead to entirely new landscapes–
Michelle Khouri 12:37
Jean-Pierre Roy 12:37
Ha-ha-ha. You know! Wink, wink. To get back to this question of doubt then gets us back to this moment of childhood, where I saw so many people being absolutely certain about these positions. And to me, that certainty didn’t really jive with the sheer amount of uncertainty and grey that I saw in the world around us. And I chose early on to make uncertainty and doubt not an enemy. Because if you make it an enemy, then you need certainty. You know, and certainty can close off possibility. Certainty closes off curiosity. Certainty closes off that second look. Certainty also is a necessary part of life. Again, this isn’t a dualistic thing of like, “All doubt, no certainty.” But I didn’t want certainty to close me off from investigations and discoveries that doubt could bring. And so a lot of the inspiration behind the work comes from loving, embracing, and accepting uncertainty, and then finding processes. Like the constraints of world-building and the rules that I set up as a counterpoint to that doubt. Like the certainty of, “If I pick a sky that is this color, and I have a ground plane that is this color with a warm light on it, all I need is a global illumination color and a local color of the ground and a position of warm and cool of, you know, like sunlight.” And from those three constraints, I can grow an entire universe, because every position is dependent on the relationship to another position. And so out of that little bit of certainty comes an entire universe that then I get to populate with doubt again.
Michelle Khouri 13:13
Jean-Pierre Roy 13:35
So, that answers some of that. The other part — getting back to the kid thing, like — I grew up in Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s. Like, we had a couple of good museums. We didn’t have the Met. We didn’t have a Hermitage. We didn’t have the Louvre. It was a time when, as a 12-year-old kid, John Baldessari and Ed Rouget, for all of their kind of pictorial trappings, aren’t as seductive to you as, like, a French illustrator’s graphic novel or the concept art from (The) Empire Strikes Back. You know? So I gravitated towards the golden age of American genre illustration. I grew up watching films on my VCR and getting to rewind scenes over and over and over again and fixating on a matte painting from David Lynch’s Dune, an effect shot from the original Clash of the Titans. And it wasn’t until I was in my late teens and early 20s, when you begin to see that those images didn’t self generate. You know?
Michelle Khouri 15:32
Jean-Pierre Roy 15:33
You realize, “Oh, my god, there’s this dialogue of images and of world-building that’s been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years!”
Michelle Khouri 15:39
Jean-Pierre Roy 15:39
And it was my kind of genre / adolescent visual memory, and all the emotions wrapped up in that, and all the storytelling wrapped up in that, and all those kind of primordial, like, proto-adult sense of emotional heaviness that you get as a kid watching movies that are slightly above your emotional paygrade —
Michelle Khouri 15:58
Jean-Pierre Roy 15:58
— that make you feel like, “This is the nature of being a human being.” And there’s a desire — there was a desire for me — to want to elevate that early adolescent visual memory and have it kind of reconnect with this more adult, macro understanding of this cyclical dialogue that’s been going all the way back for 50,000 years, in terms of people trying to make sense of the world around us as being a living breathing human being through pictures on the wall.
Michelle Khouri 16:25
Absolutely. And that really is, like, prehistoric. That’s something we’ve been trying to reconcile what it is we’re doing on this effing planet for a really long time. And I think that what’s so compelling about your work is that it explores, like, “What if we were actually living on psychedelics 100% of the time?” Like, I would love to take psychedelics and exist in your paintings — for, like, a couple days!
Jean-Pierre Roy 16:53
If you can figure out how to do that, please keep detailed notes.
Michelle Khouri 16:57
I think it’s called ayahuasca. [laughs] And, like, seven days in a row!
Jean-Pierre Roy 17:02
What you said is really spot on — “What if everything you thought you knew about the world that you live in wasn’t true?” And, in a way, that is the thing for me that that label is most important in terms of what it carries. It’s that science fiction as a genre is the one genre that routinely, when it’s at its best, it fundamentally both reshapes the way you think about being human and reinvigorates what’s wonderful about being human.
Michelle Khouri 17:32
Which is limitlessness.
Jean-Pierre Roy 17:35
Michelle Khouri 17:35
There’s one last thing I wanted to explore with you, which is what we’re going through, as a global —
Jean-Pierre Roy 17:42
I’ve been trapped in my studio. What’s going on?
Michelle Khouri 17:44
So there’s a virus!
Jean-Pierre Roy 17:46
Oh, I knew this was gonna happen. I’ve been predicting it with my paintings the whole time!
Michelle Khouri 17:52
So we are each quarantined in our respective locations. You are in Brooklyn, which is the epicenter of the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m wondering how — because, you know, you’ve started painting self-portraits of you wearing a mask, and you’ve actually toyed with the idea of hidden faces and masked faces. So I’m wondering, how are you processing the Coronavirus pandemic, the quarantines? And as someone who has preached — I’ll call it preaching because I like that word — over the course of this conversation, “uncertainty versus certainty” and the benefits of uncertainty, how are you processing this period of time?
Jean-Pierre Roy 17:52
It’s funny because I had so many people reach out to me or, through the grapevine, you’d hear like, “Well, if anybody’s gonna be prepared for this, it’s JP! You know, or my wife will talk to friends about things, you know, like, “Oh, yeah. Oh my god. We got to rush out and we got to get a bunch of supplies for this!” “Well, my husband got all that stuff.”
Michelle Khouri 18:57
Are you a prepper?
Jean-Pierre Roy 18:58
I’m not a prepper! That’s the thing. I have a deep, deep faith in our ability, collectively as a species, to solve problems right before they totally wipe us out. Like I am an optimist in that sense.
Michelle Khouri 19:11
That is realistic optimism right there. And then by the way, that’s how I describe myself to! That’s optimism, but it’s very realistic.
Jean-Pierre Roy 19:19
But, on the same time, like, every single person that I have encountered in the last two months in Brooklyn, walking around — my wife owns a bakery, and she’s managed to keep her business going through doing curbside pickup and drop-off. You know, small order stuff.
Michelle Khouri 19:35
Wow! Good for her.
Jean-Pierre Roy 19:37
It’s amazing. She’s one of the hardest-working, most amazing people I’ve ever met. And I’ve helped her, you know, navigate some of the challenges of how to operate a business as one person becasue she isn’t able to have employees.
Michelle Khouri 19:49
Oh my god, and it’s just her. Holy-moly.
Jean-Pierre Roy 19:50
It’s just her! And so I’ve been helping with deliveries and interacting with customers, and people have been wonderful. Everybody’s been so compassionate and patient. And, if somebody realizes they’re doing something wrong, like, “Oh my god, I forgot to put my mask on!” You know, like, “Oh, I’m sorry I accidentally touched your hand! You know, whatever doubts, whatever uncertainty I have had about the future of the art world, or the future of the city that I love, or the future of all the politicization of the data that’s coming out — not just in this country, regionally, about who’s been affected, and how many people, and where the money goes, “how do we deal with this?” and “what do we sweep under the rug?” — not just locally, but also globally. You know? I am reminded on a day-to-day basis of when I interact with the people of my community that we’re not very good at being able to visualize what to do in the macro abstract. A global pandemic? “How the hell do we fix this?” Climate change over the next 50 to 200 years? “How the hell do we deal with this?” But when two people on the street are forced to have to interact and solve a problem together, we’re really good at that. We’re really good at solving problems locally.
Michelle Khouri 21:01
And that’s all the macro is, is a billion micro-interactions!
Jean-Pierre Roy 21:06
How do we gamify those micro-interactions so that they all build up into macro change and macro effects? Gamify is not the right word, because maybe it undermines the consequences of the whole thing. But — so, on one level, you know, I’ve been in my studio for the last three months making work. I’ve also been in my studio making work for the last 20 years. It’s the same thing.
Michelle Khouri 21:32
How has it affected your work? Because you certainly — look, the electric charge of just being in the world right now is a very different one, especially in Brooklyn, New York. I was in Brooklyn and ended up leaving in mid-March, back to Atlanta. And so I was just at the cusp of everything sort of hitting in New York. And even then it was a little unnerving, and now it’s devastating. Has any of that change in electric charge or psychological change seeped its way into your work?
Jean-Pierre Roy 22:04
You know, it’s certainly seeped its way into me. On paper, everything is the same for me. I’m still in the studio. I’m still making work. But all these other psycho-support mechanisms that have been in play for the last 20 years, you know — my immediate community in my building, the larger community of all the other artists I know around the city, the gallery relationships that I have, the deep emotional need to go out and see the results of other people’s work, the relationship to art institutions in the city, the physical inspiration of the city itself. I mean, I get a lot of inspiration just looking at how light works in the subway.
Michelle Khouri 22:38
Jean-Pierre Roy 22:39
All of that has been gone. All of that is completely removed. So now, for the first time — literally, for the first time as an adult — It is just me in the studio without any of those other support mechanisms. The challenge is that my work takes so long to make — and this is a big challenge — that I’m halfway through a lot of paintings. I’m more than halfway through a lot of paintings. And so, the kind of psycho-profile that I had beginning those pieces and making them halfway through is very different, now that I’ve got to kind of carry them over the finish line. And so, what they are is kind of what they are. And I’m going to let them be the painting that they are. And I’ll finish them on the terms that we’ve already established. It’s more about how it’s going to affect what’s going to happen six months from now. And I don’t know what that’s going to be because we could be in a totally different place in six months. You know, it could be a lot better with a startup vaccine that changes the world, or we could be in a much worse place where we have a second wave and the food system collapses. And now we’re in election season and who knows what’s, you know–
Michelle Khouri 23:41
It’s – how you say – “uncertain.”
Jean-Pierre Roy 23:44
Uncertain, everybody! And so my work is very elastic. Relevance has to be elastic in my work, because the kind of micro-level of my own inner conversation and the macro level of the global conversation or the normal conversation At the beginning of a painting is almost very different than at the end of a painting, especially one that takes six months to a year. You know? And I’ve kind of had to make peace with that, and just kind of trusting that the direction that I’ve set myself on is the one that’s going to maintain my own interest. It’s these other exterior support mechanisms that are very different. For better for worse, the art market — and, you know, it’s not all market-driven, but a lot of the dialogue is market-driven. The Art Fair has been a core, fundamental part of the art ecosystem since I’ve been a part of it for the last 20 years. So you have these quarterly gatherings of art-world caravans in Miami for Art Basel and Art Basel Switzerland and Armory in New York and Frieze London. And so you have these kind of, like, community check-ins. We all exchange ideas, and update our own internal operating systems with each other, and update vocabulary and learn about who’s doing what, new names that have come in, and old the names that have left. And so, all of that stuff, I didn’t really realize how integral that face-level pinging of the topography of the art ecosystem was a fundamental part of how I was able to view my own work. And without all that, I’m looking at my own work with an incredible kind of almost terrifying clarity. And not clarity like, “I understand what I’m seeing.” Clarity like, “I’m seeing things that I’ve never seen before, and I don’t have a vocabulary for it.” I am outside of my own comfort zone in my studio because of that. And it’s terrifying and it’s really exciting.
Michelle Khouri 25:44
It’s really exciting because — you know what I hope it does — I mean, we touched on this earlier — what I hope, and what I believe, is that you are experiencing, like so many other artists, a completely different set of doors opening through confinement.
Jean-Pierre Roy 26:00
Michelle Khouri 26:01
And we talked about that! We talked about the opportunities for different kinds of freedom and exploration given to artists, and all of us, through confinement and isolation.
Jean-Pierre Roy 26:13
Michelle Khouri 26:15
Because necessity comes into play and also clarity. You just said it. Clarity is a powerful thing. Jean-Pierre. This has been really spectacular. Thank you so much for your time. What a great conversation.
Jean-Pierre Roy 26:30
Being able to talk openly and inquisitively is more meaningful now than ever. So it’s been a real pleasure.
Michelle Khouri 26:37
Before we sign off, where can the Cultured Crew find you and your work, and stay up to date, and help support you?
Jean-Pierre Roy 26:45
Yeah, no, I appreciate that. Thank you. My primary vehicle for allowing people to dip into what I’m doing is just Instagram. @jeanpierreroy on Instagram. Also, I have two amazing galleries that I work with, that are very good at keeping up-to-date images and movies about my work and what I’m up to. That’s Davidson Gallery here in New York, and Gallery Poulsen in Copenhagen, in Denmark.
Michelle Khouri 27:11
Wonderful. Thank you so much again for spending some time with the Cultured Crew today. We appreciate you! And we love you.
Jean-Pierre Roy 27:17
Michelle and the whole Cultured Crew, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
Michelle Khouri 27:26
I am so grateful for this beautiful hour that I just spent with JP. And just lots of love to JP. Lots of love to his wife. And so much love to every artist and business owner just working hard and trying to make it work in a really hard time. I love you guys. I hope you are staying healthy and centered. And I will catch you for the next one, y’all. In! The! Mean! Time! You know what to do! Keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it cultuuuuured!