Painter Jay Silverstein: ‘A Great Existential Crisis’ Looms on the Horizon [Interview]
Jay Silverstein kicks off his artist statement with a staggering statistic: “The average weekly screen time for an American adult—brace yourself; this is not a typo—is 74 hours, and still increasing.” Spurred by this troubling increase, the artist-turned-writer creates large-scale paintings that contemplate tech culture, bizarre social media etiquette, and the impact technology will have on the future.
Calling the information shared through social media a “subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction,” Jay notes that “cynicism, irreverence, moral relativism, and irony” are the norm among many users. Both his paintings and debut novel, Neon Orange Assisted Suicide, explore themes of violence, power, and apathy in a futuristic, digitized setting. In all his works, Jay points to the overuse of irony in contemporary culture: “My work seeks to explore the notion that irony has no redemptive qualities. It is excellent at its exclusively negative function. It can point out problems but can offer no solutions. Just look at a sitcom like Seinfeld. Everyone in it has issues and those issues can be comical, but they are portrayed as inherently unsolvable.”
Packed with symbolism, Jay’s figurative paintings are labyrinthine, encouraging viewers to snake their way through colorful corridors, gun advertisements, and classical statues. “The paintings act as a pseudo-religious canonical exploration of the myriad institutions which established seemingly unchangeable, harmful norms,” he says, referencing the advertisements and entertainment figures that populate his work. His novel, by contrast, assigns a tangible narrative to his dystopian ideas: the transition from hand-to-hand combat to digital warfare. “Neon Orange Assisted Suicide is more clearly and concretely about things, whereas my paintings simply suggest what they are about,” he says, describing the symbiotic relationship between his two main mediums.
Poignant and boundless, Jay’s work reverberates with the whole of human history. His work meditates on the past, present, and future of humans as a creative species: “A great existential crisis remains ever on the horizon,” he says. “As my art practice relies ever more heavily on digital intervention, I have come to realize that my ability to make work may someday come to an end. Not by death, not by disfigurement or by dissolution of will, but by lack of technological sophistication.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Jay Silverstein discusses the popularity of AI-generated portraits, the value of being a “fool for a moment,” and the one skill required of all successful artists.
You recently released your debut novel, Neon Orange Assisted Suicide. How does your writing practice differ from your painting practice? What sparked the idea for the novel?
Jay Silverstein: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is through an example. Let’s take the piece Ab Ovo. This work—the most visually complex of the lot—depicts the advent of my interest in art. However, without me or my writing there to provide the viewer some context, it is entirely possible that the piece would lead the viewer down some other, wholly valid interpretive path. This is where the greatest difference between my visual art and writing practice arises. With painting, viewers are welcomed and encouraged to make of the work what they will. With writing, I am crafting an experience for the reader that is curated and guided from beginning to end.
Neon Orange Assisted Suicide began from a necessity. I needed to create some sort of artwork, but I was without studio space. Since I was without the space I had grown accustomed to, I decided to branch out and try working in another creative avenue. Additionally, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by exceptionally creative people daily. I was working at an advertising agency called Havas Health & You as a summer intern. While there, the interns were encouraged to participate in the various internal art competitions to supplement our day-to-day responsibilities. These competitions put me in touch with people from all over the company, exposing me to a litany of methods to express thoughts and ideas. Their careers, devoted to translating complex medical material into digestible ad campaigns, allowed them to develop unique ways of achieving the ultimate in storytelling, showing without telling. Armed with their knowledge, I decided to route out all of the paths laid out in my artist statement.
Your work is laden with symbolism and cultural allegories. Do you want the viewer to understand your intended meaning behind the paintings or invent their own narrative?
JS: The primary purpose of my artworks is to provide people with something beautiful to look at. So long as viewers are able to walk away from my work happier for having seen it, I’m thrilled. If a viewer chooses to engage with the fictional world presented within the paintings, my hope is that they will understand the intended meaning behind them. I do not expect them to do so without context, however. I believe, at least in my own practice, that the manifesto is equally as important as the visuals. I am working to find ways in which to link grounding text to the visuals without bombarding people with uninteresting dicta.
How do you think technological advancement will impact the role of an artist? How does technology impact your artistic practice?
JS: As with all technological advancement, I am excited and scared. There is nothing as powerful as the human urge to create artworks. I think that the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence will drive a creative arms race and force artists to innovate beyond what is achievable by computers. The recent trend of people posting their AI-generated portraits shows that the general public is primarily interested in two things: one, artworks themselves and not the people who make them; two, work that is self-reverential. I am disappointed that those AI portraits took off. I think that human artists will ultimately beat back the encroachment of digital art theft.
That being said, I fully avail myself of the productivity benefits built into things like the Adobe Suite. I draft my paintings in Adobe Illustrator and use a digital camera and editing software to make reference photos.
What fascinates you about figure studies?
JS: Capturing the human form is difficult to do convincingly. This is why trying to figure it out is so rewarding. I confess, my figures are not formally correct. I was never able to internalize how to get every detail anatomically accurate. To combat this, I try to incorporate exaggerated foreshortening as well as techniques pioneered in cartooning such as “squash and squeeze” to hide my figures’ imperfections in movement.
Do you think artistic talent can be learned/cultivated or is it an inherent trait?
JS: Artistic talent can absolutely be learned and cultivated. Simply put, if you are interested in learning the formal techniques of art-making, you can absolutely produce legible work. The only element of artistry that is innate in my mind is curiosity. An artist must be inherently curious in order to pursue their craft thoroughly enough to create valuable work that contributes to the canon.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
JS: I received a formal education in visual art from my liberal arts college. Although I never attended an art school per se, I remain ever grateful to Middlebury and its art department for providing me with such a robust education in the arts. Each professor is also a working artist who has real skin in the game and never held back in critique. If you’d like to take a look at what they’re up to, here are their names: Sanford Mirling; Michelle Leftheris; Hedya Klein; Colin Boyd (special thanks to Colin for always going above and beyond with technological, mechanical, and manufacturing assistance); James Butler; Pieter Broucke (Pieter is the director of the art history program at Middlebury and remains heavily involved in the studio art program).
Each of these people has had an indelible, constructive impact on my art-making practice and have positively impacted hundreds of young artists over the years. I strongly encourage everyone reading to take a look at what they’re up to.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
JS: Back in high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Lemole. He deployed varied and uncommonly dense diction. Although he was a gifted orator, I had trouble following his lectures in the beginning because of his use of obscure vocabulary. Every time he’d use a word I was unfamiliar with, I’d ask what it meant. On the way out of class one day, another student asked me loudly, “Why do you always ask Lemole for definitions?” Lemole answered, “He who asks a question is a fool for a moment. He who never asks is a fool for a lifetime.” That was the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. Always, always ask questions.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
JS: To me, success amounts to recognition that my artwork belongs in the historical canon. I would feel fully satisfied if my work contributes to the overall progress of painting. Additionally, if I were able to get to the point where I could work on paintings and creative writing full time, that would be the ultimate form of success. Beyond even that, plus ultra, would have me working to adapt my written works into film or creating entirely new IP for the screen.
What books, music, or films have impacted you and/or your work?
JS: I enjoy wearing my influences on my sleeve and I revel in every opportunity to share the works that I think are worthwhile. Additionally, I consume an enormous amount of media. On the literary front, I’m an avid Audible listener and have used it to direct my artistic focus. Here are some of my absolute favorites: Neuromancer by William Gibson; The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukkiko Motoya; Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson; Yukio Mishima’s entire catalog with special focus on The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea; Miss Loneyhearts by Nathaniel West; Deluxe by Dana Thomas; Room to Dream by David Lynch and Krisrine McKenna.
I want to specifically recommend [Room to Dream] because it is perhaps the single best exploration of art-making ever put to paper. It is a masterpiece, especially on Audible. The authors read the whole thing together, going back and forth between the chapters they wrote.
I also read a fair bit of manga. Berserk, Chainsaw Man, and Dorohedoro are a few that provide extreme inspiration. No other medium taught me more about figurative drawing.
As far as music goes, here are a few of the most played albums in my studio: Bronco by Orville Peck; LP! By JPEGMAFIA; Cherry by Daphni; South of Heaven by Slayer; Year of the Snitch by Death Grips; RENAISSANCE by Beyonce; and Miki Matsubara Best Collection by Miki Matsubara.
On the filmic front, I have an obsession with them. Here are a few that have a significant nexus with my own artwork: Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick; There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson; My Dinner with Andre by Louis Malle; The Elephant Man by David Lynch; Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust by Yoshiaki Kawajiri; Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon; Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049, the first by Ridley Scott and the sequel by Denis Villeneuve.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
JS: I’m working on a new book that I’m eager to complete. It is in no way related to the first.
I am also putting together a large-scale mural for a local bike shop that I’ve frequented for the past year. I’m excited to make a piece about cycling because I haven’t yet seen one that I think is good. Mine could turn out bad, but I desperately want to make it good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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