2022, acrylic on canvas, 12"x 15"
One of Japeth Mennes’ many artistic gifts is the insight of the pragmatic optimist, a vantage point from which nothing is too ordinary to be seen and celebrated. His creative process starts by photographing common yet easily overlooked signs - such as laundromat icons and surveillance advisories - from the streets of New York. These regionally familiar symbols are nothing special on their own, but in the hands of Mennes they are transformed into moving studies of both color and shape. Scouring the city for examples of the ordinary is the work of the artist, and Mennes seems to enjoy the undertaking. His visual lexicon keeps expanding and now includes shutters, pull shades, and stationary (the design of that last item looks like it was transported directly through time and space from my middle school in the eighties). As the viewer, however, we are invited to join him at a moment post-transformation, a point at which the sign has become a motif. A completed Mennes painting is no longer a mere secular icon inviting us in or warning us off; it is instead an armature for a highly personalized and abstracted world that sings with color. In effect, Mennes turns the perfunctory visual utterances of an often cold, unfeeling city inside out and finds something new and beautiful in the inversion. The Big Brother undertones of constant supervision implied in a work like “Security Camera” (2022) become an opportunity to share a study in nuanced hues. And instead of glorifying an object due to its rarity or ephemeral nature, Mennes’ “Laundromat” paintings argue that even the consistently un-special can be elevated and act as brick and mortar to house an idiosyncratic rendering of the world.
This month I’m very happy to share my Semi-Finalist interview with Queens, New York based artist Japeth Mennes.
- David Schell
Japeth Mennes in his studio, June 2023
The Semi-Finalist: I'm always interested in what an artist's early path looks like, and your formative years had a few twists and turns. Can you talk about where you went to school and how you got started as a painter?
Japeth Mennes: I studied painting (Cranbrook Academy of Art, Kansas City Art Institute, and for a brief moment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), but never really made straightforward paintings until fairly recently. I was very interested in media and the nuts and bolts of how images were created so I made drawing machines, sculptures, videos, and invented my own printmaking techniques. After a musical art-hiatus that lasted five years, I had the ideas for the paintings that I’m making now. Painting feels like the perfect vehicle for these ideas, so that’s where I am.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 27" x 23 1/2"
S-F: When I visited your studio, I was really taken with the process that you’ve established for yourself. Can you describe your method of painting and how it developed?
JM: It’s pretty simple on my end! I look for objects and imagery that I think I can work with, I like things that can slip into abstractions and that have some sort of reflection of my landscape here. Most often it starts with photography, walking around the neighborhood.
Nine Laundromat paintings.
Installation at 65 Grand, Chicago, IL
(photo by Holly Murkerson)
S-F: I’m very interested in how your paintings balance structure and improvisation. They always seem to be hinting at how subtle variations inevitably arise, even in a world dominated by mass production. Can you talk about that?
JM: I’ll talk about the Laundromat paintings. In my neighborhood in Queens there is a laundromat on practically every corner, they each have their own way of illustrating a washing machine on the signs. There are 800 languages spoken in Queens, so it makes sense that everyone would use this as a way to bypass text based advertising. When I first noticed them I thought that they were really amazing, how everyone does it a little differently; sometimes it’s just lame clip art, but sometimes it’s a really weird handmade design that comes close to abstraction. At first I painted them because I just wanted to have one for myself, to hang it in my home. But the first one led to the next, and then another, and another, and so on. I find that there are endless ways to shift the color and the design (just like the different signs), and that when the paintings hang together on the wall they come full circle back to the actual washing machines in a row inside the laundromat. It’s a strange thing to paint a machine by hand, and to do it over and over again like a machine. Although I’m not painting a machine, I’m painting an image of an image of a machine. And I think the small shifts are inevitable and mean a lot to me.
2023, acrylic on canvas, 26" x 11"
S-F: So much of your work is about understated but repetitive signs that act as warnings or wayposts (security cameras and laundromats). You also have a developing interest in depicting the barriers that we use to help us separate interior and exterior spaces (shades and shutters). How did these themes develop and where did your initial interest in them come from?
JM: I also started painting the window paintings from signs I noticed above glazier shops in NYC. The same with the security cameras, sometimes you’ll see a sign for a security camera right next to an actual security camera, which is very funny. I went from there to painting some actual windows and then to the shutter paintings (which came from Brooklyn, not Queens). I’ve always liked art that can reflect upon itself, and the window is an old trope in art history that is nice to think about.
In the studio.
S-F: Do you see yourself connected to a tradition of landscape painting, or is your engagement with the contemporary urban environment fundamentally different from other representational movements?
JM: We talked about that a little before, and I think that’s a very nice way to think about the work. I sometimes think about how art can conflate different ideas or create paradoxes. If you think about landscape painting in terms of coping with or processing an environment, then for sure. On the other hand I sometimes think about the paintings as somewhat figurative, especially the laundromat paintings. Then there’s also an easy jump to still life.
2023, acrylic on canvas, 32" x 27"
S-F: There’s an element of Pop Art in your paintings, but it’s infused with a quiet, elegant, sometimes-eerie-sometimes-bittersweet sensibility that I don’t see in the work of, say, Roy Lichtenstein. Where is that coming from?
JM: I hope that a psychological or emotional experience is what stays with the viewer, even though it may not be apparent at first. I think that I’m working in a roundabout way of getting there, but it’s important to me to do so. I think that forms and color can hold a lot of elusive feelings.
A corner of the studio.
S-F: Who are you looking at (living or dead)?
JM: I find doing studio visits with my community here very enriching, I wish I could do it more. I just went to Elise Ferguson’s studio and was really blown away by how adventurous her way of working feels. Stacy Fisher (who you also recently visited!) too, she’s one of my favorite artists right now. There was a great Tony Feher show at Gordon Robichaux this summer. The Ed Ruscha retrospective at MoMA is incredible.
The artist in his studio.
S-F: What’s next for you?
JM: I’m working towards a two person show at Left Field Gallery in California. When I went back to Chicago earlier this year for my show at 65 Grand I met Mie Kongo and was really impressed with her work. She is the other artist in the show and I think it will be a nice pairing.
You can see more Japeth Mennes:
- on his instagram: @japeth_mennes
- on his website: https://www.japethmennes.com/
- from his show at 65GRAND in April/May of 2023
Above: rabbit's eye view of Mennes's work.
Below: visitor's eye view of Mennes's work.
More materials and techniques.
Not far from Japeth Mennes's studio in Queens, New York.