Frame 61

Jonathan Michael Ray

Frame 61
Jonathan Michael Ray

"Surfaces often form the focus of my images and installations, as well as looking at what lies directly behind, beyond or beneath them."


Interview by writer Brooke Hailey Hoffert

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you study?

I grew up in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in a family of six: a happy and uneventful middle-England upbringing, with an emphasis on play and the outdoors.

I wasn't great in school—failing in a lot of traditional academic subjects except Art. I knew early on I wanted to be an artist, but I don’t think this was really thought of as a valid career choice at the time.

I studied Fine Art BA at Nottingham Trent University after which I had a short career in the world of high-end fashion, training and working as a menswear print designer and pattern cutter.

In 2012, I moved to Montreal where I met the artist Michel de Broin and worked for him as a studio assistant and helped build his home studio. I happily credit him for a major part of my “art education,” and during these few years I began to develop my own practise before eventually returning to the UK to attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London for my MFA in Fine Art Media.

In 2016 I travelled to Japan and Hong Kong for a three month residency at the Hong Kong Baptist University, and this year I have been awarded a one-year studio at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, Cornwall, moving here from London last month with my wife, Hannah, and our Bedlington terrier, Fossil.

Up Against the Rocks, 2018

Up Against the Rocks, 2018

You state that you are interested in “looking beyond what we look for when we look.” In what ways does your practice do that?

In Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception”, he becomes fixated on the creases in his trousers, “those folds in the trousers - what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity!”

And in Borges’s “The Aleph” when the protagonist carefully focuses on a single point in space he can see all things, in all time, from every angle, all at once.

I like to think if I take the time to look at everything equally, and indeed more so at the things that don’t seem to deserve our attention, then I will discover the connections between all things, and more.

Botanical illustrations are always of the perfect specimen, but I’m more interested in the imperfect. The imperfect better represents the world around us, a world of the “unbeautiful,” which (when you begin to focus) is, in fact, more beautiful and fascinating than anything else.

Surfaces often form the focus of my images and installations, as well as looking at what lies directly behind, beyond or beneath them. Whether bringing attention to the process in which the images are created, or representations of specific places, objects and images in time, or an analogy of what images look like in time, or even just highlighting the difficulty to see and understand things clearly at all.

There seems to be a focus on materiality in your work. What draws you to a certain type of landscape or environment?

I see all objects, environments and places as imbued with memory and time, but I’m especially drawn to those which seem to have lost their exact meaning because they are no longer able to communicate it or we are simply no longer able to read it.

I’m drawn towards landscapes and spaces of loss or a vacuum, and through my work I create and piece together my own narrative or understanding of them.

Sometimes it is important to point towards the vacuum itself, or the process to which the vacuums are formed; bricks washed up along the banks of the Thames, an overgrown garden, names scratched into a cliff face, a wall in disrepair, a smashed phone screen, the inability to remember everything I have ever seen.

Murakami describes this well in the second volume of 1Q84: “When a vacuum forms something has to come along to fill it. Because that’s what everybody does.”

I’m filling a sort of vacuum, with the knowledge that I’m always in the process of forming another vacuum.

No memory of ... luton, 2018

No memory of ... luton, 2018

Underdeveloped reconstruction (made in china), 2017

Underdeveloped reconstruction (made in china), 2017

Underdeveloped reconstruction (made in china), (detail) 2017

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine? What is your studio like?

My new studio is part of Porthmeor Studios in St Ives. These famous studios are old fishermen workshops, located just up the road from the Tate St Ives along Porthmeor beach. They are simply beautiful, amazingly well lit and steeped in history, with the sound of the sea for constant company.

Every morning, I drive the coastal road on the West Penwith peninsula from St Just to St Ives. At least once a week I stop along this road or venture in land, and take a walk on the moors or down to a beach to draw and take photographs. I am always looking for ways to to get out of the studio as much as into it.

Once in the studio, however, I get straight to work: I can spend a whole day casting concrete, making cyanotypes, or recently engraving weathered slate tiles from a farm in the Lake District. Or I’m just as happy creating digital collages of possible installations using Photoshop and sketchup, and researching new materials and methods. I will have already decided what to work on before I arrive at the studio, possibly the day before, and everyday takes a different shape. I usually have three or four works at various stages of development on the go at any one time, so what I work on can depend on how i’m feeling, or how my relationship with each work is standing.

When I feel I have been working on something for too long, or it’s causing me problems I can’t resolve, I put it away and ignore it for a while. I feel no pressure or urgency to make and finish work in a single phase, even if I forget about it for a year or more I know that if it is important it will resolve itself in the end and tell me what I have to do.

Looking back is important to me. I can spend several hours looking through my growing archive of image, video and object, and I also put aside a lot of time to developing and scanning rolls of film — I work in digital too, but love the magic of film photography, it always feels like I’m practising some sort of alchemy.

I’ve just learnt to surf, so if the surf is up on Porthmeor beach I will suit up and spend an hour on the waves or if I have Fossil with me she is always a welcome break from hours absorbed in a process.

At the end of the day, Itidy and prepare anything for the following morning.

Now we live in Cornwall, I feel no need to work late into the night, so I make sure I’m home before 7pm so that i can spend the evening with my wife, Hannah, and playing with Fossil.

An Acquisition of an Accumulation, 2017

An Acquisition of an Accumulation, 2017

An Acquisition of an Accumulation, (detail) 2017

Untitled Gathering, 2018

How do you go about naming your work?

Very slowly.

Titles occasionally jump out from the page of a book, but most of the time they are just as timely to form as the work itself.

I read a lot of fiction, often 2 or 3 books and audiobooks on the go at once, mostly Sci-Fi or Magic Realism, some nature writing too. Of course this informs the language I use to write about and title my work. Sometimes the titles are written as though they are poems or short prose.

Titles are vital for me: I try to make them as clear as possible as they become integral and in some cases instrumental to the reading of the work. So it is important that they clarify rather than mystify — whether or not they always succeed in this is up to the reader.

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

Two of the best shows I saw in the last year were Benedict Drew’s “Trickle Down Syndrome” at Whitechapel Gallery and Lilah Fowler’s “nth nature” at Assembly Point, in Peckham.

Cheyenne Julien’s charcoal and ink drawings are beautiful and I recently watched Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint 9,” which basically blew my mind.

Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

My last show was with Mauro Bonacino and Liam Tickner in Shoreditch earlier this year, and before this I had an exhibition with Richard Müller at The White Crypt Gallery beneath St Mark’s Church in Oval.

Apart from moving from South East London to West Cornwall, which is both new and exciting—the new location, space and surroundings have given rise to an acceleration of productivity— I am also working on a joint exhibition with Berlin-based artist Amélie Grözinger who was until recently an Artist-in-Residence at Porthmeor Studios. This show will likely be in Cornwall and Berlin in the coming year.

Published: 10/07/2018
All images courtesy of the artist