Q+Art: Artist John Casey Reimagines the Outcast as a Symbol of Emanicpation
Oakland-based artist John Casey began life on the unluckiest day of the year, in an unlucky place. Born on Friday 13 in Salem, Massachusetts, the multidisciplinary artist now gleefully channels his unusual origins into awkward portraits of peculiar creatures.
Growing up, Casey spent his time building monster models and watching horror films. His early drawings reveal a preoccupation with the physical aberrations commonly found in offbeat midnight movies. “The figures in [my] drawings show not only the distorted perceptions of a child, but my fascination with skulls, teeth, spirographic eyes, and invented body parts,” Casey writes in his bio.
Despite their lighthearted appearance, Casey’s drawings hide a deep vulnerability. His creatures, who look more human than animal, exude an aching loneliness within their empty, white environments. Though first impressions encourage us to see his characters as damaged and vulnerable, Casey imagines an alternate interpretation, one where his subjects’ outsider status allows them agency and a free-spirited dissent. “A second look reveals complex and sensitive spirits, more like enthusiastic upstarts, rather than rejects or troublemakers,” he writes in his artist statement.
It’s no accident Casey chooses animal outcasts—rodents, raccoons, and possums—as his subjects. Even his oft-illustrated goat conjures an image of the ultimate mischief-maker: The cloven-hoofed Satan. These animals are viewed as pests, often poisoned, trapped, or shrugged off as roadkill, which gives them a unique vulnerability in the animal kingdom. Casey’s drawings invite us to reconsider the socially alienated characters and communities who suffer within our rigid social structures. Their perspective, he suggests, is a vital part of human creativity, rebellion, and emancipation.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
John Casey discusses the uncomfortable narratives of Phillip Guston, the role of dystopian fiction in a post-pandemic world, and the false lure of artistic exposure.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
John Casey: I just finished Jerry Saltz's How to Be an Artist. It's both a practical and inspirational guide for creative people. Jerry Saltz has been an artist and a critic for years, and I really appreciate his perspective.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
JC: Dinner with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera would be fun. I'd hope I'd be up to the challenge of engaging and entertaining them.
What are you trying to express with your art?
JC: The human condition in the complicated and interesting time we live in. I used to depict mostly people in awkward and somewhat distressing situations or moments. Lately I have been drawing and sculpting, mostly animals and plants in similar absurd conditions. There is something about the vulnerability of animals that intrigues me these days.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
JC: Ideally, no. But when an artist is starting out, any opportunity to show seems important. Eventually, you learn that working for free does little to further your career. Plus it hurts the profession overall with clients expecting to easily find cheap or free artists.
What person has most influenced your work?
JC: In art school, Philip Guston was probably the artist that gave me permission to make messy, expressive, cartoonish, not-so-skilled paintings. Of course, he had all the skills, but he could make dirty pink emotional and expressive while constructing compelling and uncomfortable narratives. He allowed me to establish a "play space" that I could freely explore in.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
JC: See as much art as possible. Museums, galleries, street art, installations, really anywhere and way you can experience art, new, old, ancient, do it. The more you see, and study, the more you understand the context of your own art and how it relates to the art world past and present.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
JC: That's a tough one. I graduated with a BFA in 1988 from Massachusetts College of Art, one of the most affordable art schools in the U.S. At that time, I would have advocated for the cost of a formal art education for any aspiring artist. But the current cost of education and the culture of debt that has evolved over the last several decades makes arts education, and the resulting student loan debt, questionable at best. My hope is to see all education become either free, or heavily subsidized by the government. I hope to see it in my lifetime because there is nothing like the art school experience.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
JC: I'd like to see fewer art fairs and more upstart galleries. More focus on art and less on the money aspect of the art world.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
JC: Historical. Money is helpful but I believe the ultimate sense of purpose comes from the act of creating, the exploration, and sharing that process and the result. The community, the dialogue among artists, critics, gallerists, curators, teachers, and historians is more important than any financial gain.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
JC: I’ve been terrified yet inspired by the recent events and the coronavirus pandemic. My work has always featured dark elements, and using plague imagery, literally and metaphorically, is my way of coping with the stress and fear in myself and others around me.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
JC: There has been a lot written about how the art world will ultimately be changed by the pandemic. I would just be speculating, because it is still fairly new to all of us. As a fan of dystopian fiction, I imagined global pandemics were always a possibility in my lifetime. Through all of it, I am trying to maintain my sense of humor, and you can see it popping out in my recent drawings. But ultimately, it’s the disquieting undertone of a locked-down world that really informs my drawings, and I see it in other artists' work. Introspection themes in art will become even more prevalent. I don’t envy future generations grappling with cyclical global pandemics but artists born into this environment will adapt to the new world order.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
JC: I just finished a sculpture titled "Safety Cage" for the Svane Family Foundation Grant and Ark Exhibition and Auction. “Safety Cage” is a kind of pandemic self-portrait. I envisioned humanity traversing the dark land in dark times, each individual isolated in their own safety cage. This cage is a personal ark, mobile but contained. And contained inside is human hope, in the form of an awkward and fragile golden flower, waiting to be released once the dark times have passed, to grow and thrive again. Through this isolation comes self discovery, contemplation, and the desire to be delivered and to emerge stronger and more golden. I'm feeling pretty good about this particular work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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