Speakeast with - Jonathan Terranova masters the art of war

Queens-born artist tackles themes of militarism and its global fallout

Jonathan Terranova is a Queens-born painter, photographer and installation artist currently pursuing his MFA in painting at SCAD. He's been drawing and painting most of his young life, but his most recent tools have been the keyboard and mouse, the camera and the commercial printing press. Terranova's not only unorthodox in what he thinks of as a painting – he considers many of his digital works "paintings" – he's also sophisticated beyond his 25 years. Terranova tackles themes of militarism and its global fallout in his work. Whether it's putting money printed with blood into circulation or manufacturing barley seed packets that question agricultural policies in Iraq, Terranova shows how easily military life becomes daily life.

How do you approach imagery when making work related to the idea of the military-industrial complex?

The reason I got interested in it was because of a friend of mine who I grew up with. ... Right after 9/11, he signed up to the U.S. Army for five years, a friend of mine that I've known since I was a little kid. He joined the military and that kinda blew my mind. Just that initial notion of him going and putting his life at risk for the safety of everybody else. I got interested in politics through that. That's when I started reading more about the military, about the military-industrial complex – Halliburton, all these different companies that were profiting immensely off of going to war.

Originally, I started getting into printing on currency. I had images from a friend of mine, staff sergeant Michael Sullivan, who is in the army. He was sending photographs of VBIEDs, which are Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices – car bombs. They were beautiful, contorted. They looked like abstracted sculptures and there was a beauty to them. But it was also horrific because of the consequences of it. I was interested in that aesthetic of that image and started printing out these images that I created based off of those car bombs onto currency. Then, I was distributing those around Atlanta and in New York.

From there I started noticing that there's a lot of aspects of the military that have become part of popular culture, that have infiltrated subtly to where we don't recognize it to be militaristic anymore. The Hummer is an example. It was a military vehicle but now it was part of pop culture.

I created this artist’s book and in there it starts to question how military interventionism has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s almost unrecognizable, it becomes its own brand. This is a way to comment on that idea by me creating these 11 patterns and each of the patterns have different icons that are indicative of the military — whether it’s weapons or digital camouflage — and motifs that are found on currency. If you ever look at a bill you’ll notice little floral patterns on there that are really interesting. I created these 11 patterns that mimic those two ideas, of currency and military, and then I put those into various environments. They’ll be completely covering a Hummer, or there’ll be an interior space of a bedroom, somewhere that’s comfortable, or they’ll be on the outfit of General Petraeus.

That’s an artist’s book: It’s self-referential. It’s an exhibition catalogue as well. Each one of the works is meant to exist as its own piece, but in there is my art statement, CV, image list, and then all of the reviews that I got as well. I sent out proposals to all kinds of people. Jerry Cullum wrote a review in there, people from New York, a write-up from Connecticut, somebody who writes for White Fungus, which is an experimental art magazine based in Taiwan. It was pretty well-received. It’s now in the San Jose Museum of Art library, which is pretty cool. I’m kind of excited about that.

There’s another strand going through your work: fashion/appearance. And classical beauty/aesthetics, with which contemporary art has a troubled relationship. What does fashion mean to you, and how are you thinking about beauty?

For fashion, I would say that I really got interested in it before any of these works. I was creating really confrontational images that people where almost scared of, to a degree, because it was too confrontational and it was too much in their face. It wasn’t very subversive. It put them a step back. It didn’t really engage them. So, when I’m creating works that are aesthetically pleasing or can be seen as fashionable, it becomes an entry point for me to speak to the viewer. That’s the way that I see it.

In terms of just purely aesthetics, I’ve always been interested in creating works that I would like to look at. But at the same time, it ranges. When somebody asks me what’s your favorite work off the top of your head, I say Marcel Duchamp’s urinal where he signed “R. Mutt,” which most people would say is not a beautiful work of art at all. But it’s one of those things that always stuck with me, and I happen to think it is a beautiful work, in an odd way … in an intellectual way.

What kind of schooling did you have before SCAD?

I went to School of Visual Arts in Manhattan for a year. And then I transferred out. I went down to Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla. I went there for three years. I was going there for painting and stained glass, which is really interesting, something completely new to me. And it was kind of a really cool experience.

What did that school give you that you didn’t get at SVA?

I went down to Flagler College for a girl, actually, who is now my wife. The one thing I felt was lacking from any of the places that I’d been to until I really got here was the thought process behind the work. A lot of it was based on aesthetic qualities or formalist principles.

When I got to SCAD — specifically the professors I worked with the most were ... Larry Anderson, and when Avantika Bawa was here I worked with her, and when Michael David was here I worked with him. And then I worked with Stuart Keeler ...

Prior to that, I was painting and drawing, and I haven’t been doing that in over a year now. I’m more stimulated by the thought process, by the ideas of the work than I am by the physicality of making a painting. Although it’s fun, and it’s not something that I would say that I’m not going to do anymore. It’s just a matter of whether the idea calls for it. If it makes sense to me to make a painting, I have no problem doing that.

You're planning to move back to New York after graduation. Do you think there's any chance you'd stay in Atlanta?

At this point, we've kind of decided already. There are reasons for me to stay here, but at the same time, ultimately I see myself going back to New York. Atlanta is a really interesting city. It just seems that – it's almost a shame – it just seems like, in order for artists to get to a certain success point they need validation from New York, or some other major city.

Do you think that's true of artists in general, or true of artists coming from, say, the South?

I'm just speaking in terms of the way I understand Atlanta. You have artists like Kara Walker who was here. She's famous. You have Fahamu Pecou here, but he has his gallery representation in New York, which is a big validating force. Then you have artists like Scott Ingram, who have been in Atlanta, who've been here for a while, have been showing successfully for a while. It seems like the big collecting base needs that validation. It's disappointing. 'Cause it's like a lack of faith in the artists that are here, to a degree. I'm hoping things will change with the High, with the new curator Michael Rooks.

His whole philosophy is different. It shows every sign of being different. The question is how much the High will support him. It remains to be seen.

I would love to see him start going out to the community, going out on studio visits, getting in touch with artists. But he just got here. So it takes a bit of time. But, when Jeffrey Grove was here, I didn't see much of that. ...

And I think that only made it more difficult for young artists to stay here and to think, "You know, this is a really valid option." It's nowhere near as expensive as New York. So you can get studio spaces and people are a lot more accessible. I mean, I've met a lot of people since I've been here, and I've been here for about a year and a half and I'm still a graduate student. I have friends in New York who are graduate students and they're like: Every time you talk to someone once they find out you're a graduate student they're like, "I'm done talking to you."

There are people who've been working for 20 years in New York and can't get anybody to listen to them.

Having that kind of accessibility here is a great thing. It just needs the financial backing.

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