Interview: Jerry McLaughlin

    Amid the cultural hub of San Miguel de Allende, Jerry McLaughlin’s abstract paintings, rooted in natural materials, offer a glimpse of his journey as an artist. Beyond traditional creation, McLaughlin embraces destruction, burning his canvases to create ash for new works, creating a cycle of renewal.

    McLaughlin’s art intimately explores personal loss, human touch, and intertextual inspirations like Federico García Lorca’s poetry. Throughout this interview, we explore the layers of McLaughlin’s work, a blend of personal narrative and broader reflections on humanity and the environment.

    Hi, how are you, and how did your journey into art start?

    Hi! I’m doing really well, thank you. This is an exciting time for me. I have two big projects I’m working on, I’m feeling more connected to the art world of Mexico, and I have two residencies there next year. I’m also excited about this interview.

    I started into the art world as a photographer. After I finished my medical training, I realized I had a deep creative desire I had been ignoring. Since childhood I had taken pictures, so I dove into photography. I ended up having exhibitions and teaching classes, but I never really felt the connection I was looking for, so I abandoned it. 

    What I really wanted was to be a painter, but I had been scared to admit it, let alone pursue it. After leaving photography, I knew I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I always loved process and materiality, even with photography, so I started with encaustics. The wax and the heating and the scraping initially appealed to me, but after a while they started to feel limiting. I tried some cold wax, just as an experiment, and fell in love. From there my journey really started to grow and led me to where I am now.

    The physicality of your paintings, with their layers of beeswax, pigment, and ash, is a defining characteristic. Can you describe the process of building these layers and how you achieve such a balance on the canvas?

    I have two main ways of working.

    When I’m painting with oil paint, wax, and ash, it is a slow layering process building up anywhere from 20-60 layers of material. I press in textures as well as manipulate and develop textures using my tools. Because of the physicality of the process, the surface has to firm up between layers. Paintings can take a couple of weeks to a couple of months to complete. In these works, the medium creates the textures and covers the whole surface. 

    When I’m working without paint, with just wax and ash, the process is quicker, more gestural. I allow the physicality of the ash and cinder to do more of the work of creating textures. There are fewer layers, no more than six or seven. In these works I allow areas of bare substrate to show through.

    I think of texture the way many artists think of color. They work with hue, value, and saturation. They choose complementary or analogous colors. They think about color relationships and color contrast. In texture, I think of character, scale, and intensity. I also think about complementary and analogous textures, texture relationships, and texture contrast. When I’m working with paint and the surface is covered, I create those relationships and the range of contrasts. When I’m working with just ash and wax, I allow the texture of the substrate to play a strong role in the relationships and contrast. In the end, the balance comes from those relationships and those contrasts. 

    Viewers are attracted to the tactile nature of your works, feeling drawn to touch them. How do you view this interaction between the viewer and your art? Is it something you intentionally cultivate?

    I love this interaction between the viewer and my work, and it is very deliberate. Texture is different from the other elements of painting. Color, shape, value, and line require our eyes, but texture is about touch. We don’t even need our eyes. We can perceive it with our hands, our mouths, every square inch of our bodies, and that is special. Connecting to the world through touch is an intimacy very different from merely seeing something. Textures create desire. We want to feel the bark of a tree, feel our lover’s body against ours. When you make a painting that people don’t just want to look at but want to touch, you have formed a deeper connection with them, an intimacy. You’ve elicited their desire. 

    Some artists identify themselves as ‘colorists’ and rely strongly on color to elicit the emotional responses to their work. I don’t make colorful paintings. Using texture is a powerful way for me to make my work evocative. Perhaps I am a ‘texturist’. 

    How do you decide when a piece has achieved this delicate balance between beauty and darkness? Are there specific moments or feelings you are trying to convey?

    It’s an interesting question. For me, shapes and surfaces, lines and edges—they all have moods and personalities. Those moods and personalities can vary depending on their circumstances, on the conversations they have with each other. Those circumstances and conversations are essentially the compositions of my paintings. Of course the colors, my palette, contribute to this as well. As I paint, I am constantly watching the moods and conversations happening on the surface. I’m asking myself, ‘Is the conversation about melancholy, about longing, about loneliness or loss, about want or desire?’ If not, then I have to change things. If so, then I keep those circumstances, that conversation going until it’s there, captured all at once in a lasting moment that has taken days or weeks or months to arrive at.

    Poetry, especially from poets like Federico Garcia Lorca, Edna St Vincent Millay, and Constantine Cavafy, plays a significant role in your work. How do you translate the emotions and themes from their poetry into the visual language of your paintings? When did your relationship with poetry begin?

    I love this question, but it’s a tough one. I don’t know if translation is the right word, but I also don’t know if there is a better one. When I read the poetry that is important to my work, the feelings and moods I want in my paintings become focused. I can feel them very specifically. And it changes how I see. Poetry helps reframe my mind, and I suppose my heart, so that I understand how my colors, shapes, and surfaces work together. The way a song might make your body want to move a certain way, reading poetry helps me paint in a certain way. It creates a space inside me where I can see and feel how to paint what I paint. 

    My relationship with poetry began about 15 years ago. A friend gifted me a book of Millay’s sonnets. I was hooked. I then read her biography and her collected works. I found Cavafy through my favorite photographer, Duane Michals. He did a small photo book dedicated to Cavafy. I had two exhibitions inspired by Millay and Cavafy, and after seeing those exhibitions, an artist friend gifted me a book of Lorca’s work. It’s been a beautiful and synchronistic journey. Next on my list is Octavio Paz. I love his work, and now that I live in Mexico, it’s a perfect match.

    Could you share a poem or line that has deeply influenced a recent piece of yours and how it guided your creative process?

    It’s not quite so direct as that. Specific poems or lines don’t usually influence individual pieces but rather a series or group of work, and multiple poems might influence the same pieces over time. But here’s a stanza from Lorca’s soneto ‘El poeta dice la verdad’ [‘The poet tells the truth’] that I’ve been thinking about lately:

    Quiero matar al único testigo / I want to kill the only witness
    para el asesinato de mis flores / to the murder of my flowers
    y convertir mi llanto y mis sudores / and turn my weeping and my sweat
    en eterno montón de duro trigo. /  into an eternal pile of hard wheat.

    I’ve been thinking about what humans do with deep hurt and loss. In this poem the poet simply cannot bear the pain. It is so great he wants ‘to kill the only witness’ to it, a profound denial that it ever happened. No one will be able to testify to it. And the ‘weeping and sweat’ are too much. They cannot go on. Instead, he wants to transform them into something pragmatic, useful, enduring (and endurable), something that will always be there but that he can live with and work with, an ‘eternal pile of hard wheat’.

    So, a stanza like this helps me live in and explore human interaction with suffering and loss, and that, in turn, allows me to see how I want my paintings to feel. 

    Being represented by galleries in London and New York, major art centers, how do you navigate the differences in the art scenes of these cities, and how do they influence your work and its reception?

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be part of an art ‘scene’, as I try to deepen my connection to the art world of Mexico, particularly Mexico City. It’s interesting, challenging, and not always pleasant. The truth is I don’t really feel a part of either London’s or New York’s art scene. I have only visited New York and London, never lived there. So when I do go, I always feel more of an observer rather than belonging to those worlds. I think I’ve always felt an outsider in the art world, like maybe I don’t really belong there, don’t really fit in, and that’s tough to say out loud. 

    As for how they influence my work, I would say they don’t influence what or how I paint. That comes from inside me. But there has definitely been better reception of my work in larger, more urban centers. I think pure abstraction, my neutral palette, my minimalist aesthetic, my focus on darker themes have a larger audience in big cities. Perhaps there is more experience, more familiarity with that style of work. Perhaps it’s simply that there are more people. I’m not sure.

    Arts in one place.

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