I was introduced to Jayson Musson’s work by Marilyn Minter who played me the online Hennessy Youngman videos at her studio. She invited him to present his first solo project in New York, Itsa Small, Small World, at Family Business, a now-defunct space that was run by Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni. It’s perhaps still one of the most interesting shows about the Internet and its place between artists and audiences . . . you still might be able to see images online. Soon after, Jeanne and I visited Jayson’s studio in Brooklyn and I have texted with him since–four years of it. We don’t really meet IRL. This interview was conducted 100% on the Internet.
– Kyoto, January 2016
Can you talk about your first art encounter that wasn’t in the form of a comic book drawing?
I grew up with a lot of Jamaican folk paintings in my childhood home—market scenes, country scenes. My parents bought them on their trips back to Jamaica, I believe, before I was born. They were the background imagery of my childhood; I always just remember them being there. I think for both of them, as the generation that emigrated to the United States from Jamaica, it was a way of tethering themselves to their home country.
Oh, my parents also had a Joan Miró print as well a few small L’Utrecht reproductions. However, I think my first real encounter with art within a context of art history and institutions was with Van Gogh at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while I was in undergrad. The PMA had like a “Van Gogh’s Flowers” exhibition and as corny as it sounds, I think it was the first time the physical presence of a painting really hit me. Also I was high, pretty stoned, like out of my mind, and the impasto flowers were fucking vibrating. [Laughs]
What is your favorite artwork or artist?
I’m not really sure, to be honest. I would have to say Michael Smith is probably my favorite living visual artist. His humor and disposition toward life really resonate with me and how his work exists across various media has always appealed to me as well. But favorite artwork . . . hmmm . . . I don’t think I have a favorite artwork, I’m wracking my brain and I can’t think of one. Wait, maybe Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best is my favorite artwork; it’s at once political, visually alluring, and cinematically sound. Oh, also Martin Kippenberger’s painting of this Bob Ross looking guy in lederhosen with the caption “The person who can’t dance says the band can’t play,” an excellent analogy for many things.
The Outsider. You always seem to take that role, even an outsider to NY where you grew up. (I remember the Plastic Little “ode” to Brooklyn . . . )
[Laughs] The Plastic Little song Brooklyn was written at a verifiable low point in my young life. I was living in Philly, PGW (the gas company) had turned my heat off (AGAIN) because I was too poor to pay the insane gas bill, I was showering at an ex’s apartment only because her roommate was still friends with me and allowed me to shower there to piss her off. Fucking low, dawg. When you have a few strikes against you like that, you begin to think that maybe things aren’t working out for you in Philly. Maybe I should move to that magic city on a hill: Brooklyn.
In terms of being an outsider; I don’t think anyone sets out to be an “outsider.” As an artist you do what you do, and if certain people dig it, you’re possibly embraced, if not, you keep doing what you do because it’s what you do. It’s intrinsic to your being. For me at least, I make work because I have an interest in seeing whatever the work may be manifesting in the world.
I know your mom used to be a back-up singer for reggae bands in Jamaica. Did you grow up listening to reggae?
My mom briefly sung with Boris Gardiner when they were both in their teens, way before he was a known name. They grew up together and my mom’s nickname was “Millie the Model,” named for a comic book character from her childhood. Anyway, the singing was a short-lived excursion for her. My father is super into music and had a massive vinyl collection when I was growing up, which naturally included a lot of reggae from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he was into all types of music so long as it banged. So I didn’t grow up exclusively on reggae, I honestly heard more American pop of the time—Michael Jackson, Ashford & Simpson, Tina Turner. He really loved the soundtrack to Endless Love. New Edition was my favorite artist as a kid.
I can’t remember my first encounter with hip hop, and I am hoping it was not MC Solaar. What was yours?
I’m not really sure . . . rap music was kind of like the background music of my life. Much like those Jamaican folk paintings, rap music has always been there and it was probably because of my older brother. He’d be bumping either Big Daddy Kane or Biz Markie, and I tried to absorb his interests because to me he was pretty cool and I, unfortunately, was not.
Do you listen to current pop music? It’s almost only ladies now, no? Except for Justin Bieber. No one cares about men anymore?
I think the ladies very much care about men. When Zayn, formerly of 1D, drops his album it will be Armageddon. Ragnarök. End times. The rapture. But pop music, I just got Anti by Rihanna, the track “Consideration” is so good, “Needed Me” is excellent.
Do you ever think about designing an app? What would it be?
lol, yes. But I can’t tell you, or some enterprising programmer will steal my idea.
Was there ever a black superhero? I know I asked you this before, but I am trying to subtly bring in your new show, The Adventures of Jamel here. Is he a superhero?
[Laughs] Of course there was: Luke Cage aka Power Man, T’Challa the Black Panther, Cyborg, Storm, Bishop, Falcon, Shadowhawk, Spawn, Steel, Martha Washington, the old Western Lobo, there was a whole black comic imprint in the ‘90s called Milestone Comics which was a sub-imprint of DC. Shit, Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman is iconic. There are a lot more I didn’t name here.
I think I see Jamel as a kind of accidental Bruce Wayne or Tony . . . what is his name . . . the superhero played by Robert Downey Jr? . . . the superpower is the time traveling machine paired with his dancing. Am I wrong?
In terms of Jamel, I don’t consider him a superhero per se, I’d say he’s more of a regular guy pulled into extraordinary circumstances who reacts with the small toolset he has: dancing. If he was a superhero, he’d be one definitely akin to Batman, no real extraordinary and/or miraculous power but is motivated by trauma from the past and interacts with the world based on that pain. I guess dealing with and/or trying to shape the world into a better place despite trauma makes someone a truer hero than any superpower.
You have just finalized a production deal for The Adventures of Jamel. How will this change the way you work?
Well, as of this interview, not everything is 100% in place, but me and my collaborators on The Adventures of Jamel are close to something. But working in film/video production is innately collaborative, which is quite the opposite of being a studio artist. For instance, I have to take into account various production issues when I’m writing the episodes alone in my cave, in terms of the feasibility of pulling off some of the crazier script elements. I can’t really just write anything and assume it can be filmed. I think that’s the hardest part really. I’m a bit of a fantasist and have to adjust to my director Scott Ross and producer Ted Passon being like “Um, Jayson . . .” when they receive the scripts. But that input is invaluable and has taught me a lot about creating narrative projects when you’re a bit of a loon.
Was Hennessy always filmed in a tiny room?
ART THOUGHTZ could be filmed anywhere as long I had a desk for my laptop and two light sources. It was a pretty portable project, whereas Jamel goes from one iconic setting to the next!
Will Hennessy make a cameo in The Adventures of Jamel?
[Laughs] Nah, Hennessy will not be making a cameo in Jamel. The Hennessy canon states that he died in 2012 after a freak accident at a Civil War reenactment.
What is the relationship between these two characters?
There is none between them other than that I authored them both. I’m the baby daddy.
The Coogi paintings came out of your work on the Hennessy series. I can’t remember how it happened. Can you remind me and our readers?
The Coogi paintings came out of a joke I made in my first Tumblr post in 2010. I used to bartend and I’d come home around 4am and shop online for outfits for the Hennessy project, and one night I came across this Coogi hoodie. Even though I grew up aware of Coogi sweaters thanks to rap, I was for the first time really struck by how painterly the garments were. So I decided to make a post about it to kick off the Hennessy Tumblr. At that time I was making various social media accounts for the character to kind of seed him in the world, a kind of digital “fleshing out” of the character. Eventually, after making serious strides with the material, the work separated itself from its instantiating joke to become a real formal object (said in a Pinocchio voice).
Will paintings come out of The Adventures of Jamel?
I’m not going to make separate art objects as a corollary to The Adventures of Jamel. That project is already a creative endeavor that doesn’t need ancillary objects to lend it weight to be considered in a fine art context. It’s a massive creative undertaking which contains all if not most of the themes in my previous works, just executed in a manner absent of identifiable art signifiers.
Do you really type everything on your phone? No pen and paper anymore? Do you draw on your phone using a doodle app ever?
Yeah, I do a lot of writing on the phone. My hand cramps up rather quickly when writing by hand, and my phone is always with me, so it functions more as a notebook than a phone. However, I don’t draw on my phone, all the drawing apps are shit and my hands are a bit too big to use them properly. It’s a bit too unwieldy for me—as a giant creature—and the sketches end up looking like a trash fire.
I have been reading about Gordon Parks, and how he never cared about anything else than reaching an audience as wide as possible. He didn’t care to show in art galleries. Who is your audience?
My audience is anyone who fucks with my shit.
Are you ever going to show in a gallery again? Or, do you prefer the larger public of the Internet?
[Laughs] I don’t have any plans to not work in galleries again, even if my current focus is a detour from formal art making. To me it’s all art; some of it can be hung on a wall; some of it can be watched online. I actually like both avenues of production, but ideally I enjoy making work that can have dual lives as both a public work and a work of art. Both audiences have boons and drawbacks—the mythical “Internet,” that spooky disembodied mob, is a voracious consumer of content, perpetually wanting more, and for more often than not, for free. But sharing directly with people without the co-sign from various gatekeepers is, well, great. The art audience, in comparison to ‘general culture,’ consumes slowly, is mostly conservative, and is a highly mannered and considered beast. Those aren’t necessarily compliments, by the way.
Is it important for you to see the posts and likes and online comments of people about your online projects versus having an exhibition with real life visitors?
Comments online are, in general, garbage. Likes are stamps of approval in the most superficial sense. I think when I first started the Hennessy project, I’d reply to comments, but it’s pointless in the end. A good friend of mine once said: “Any monkey with a keyboard can type up an opinion.” I’d rather not lose energy to perpetual engagement with chimpanzee trolls. The comments will always come and that’s cool; it’s the Internet bro. You have your instantaneous sharing, but you just can’t have your lollipop with none of the drama.
What is coming up for you?
I have an exhibition in Philadelphia: The Truth in the Song at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. Possibly showing a short animation with Salon 94 this summer as well. I’m currently working on the character models for it right now.
You mentioned the qualities you enjoy in Omer Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best. Are these something you strive for in your work? What does it mean for a work of art to be political today, for you?
A successful work of political art has to engage people who are not artists. If you can’t have a conversation with a person outside of the art world bubble, then the work will probably fail in its political efficacy. Now, this is a broad statement, as I’m not advocating for shit like Banksy stencils, which are awful in my opinion. But who knows, maybe that shitty Banksy stencil could set a young mind off on a journey of discovery that will transcend that shitty stencil? [Laughs] I think people need to realize that when they encounter things they don’t like or understand, that a work can kick start a trajectory of experiences for someone. Just because it doesn’t resonate with you doesn’t mean it is bereft of value.
Your Instagram post with the batik painting from your mom reminded me that you do have a little art collection. I think all artists collect . When I first moved to New York I was lucky to be invited to Ellsworth Kelly’s studio out in the country. Upon entrance, before getting to his work, he would make one look at a few small works in his personal collection. It was almost an initiation test . . . if I didn’t know what was in front of me, next level denied. What if you did that? What would you show your visitors?
I guess I have somewhat of a small collection, but it’s primarily work by people I know, Andrew Jeffrey Wright, Ben Woodward, Crystal Stokowski, James Ulmer, Emily Manolo Ruiz, Chris Lawrence—all Philadelphia connected artists. But if I was to pull an Ellsworth Kelly, I’d see if people are drawn to an odd piece from my childhood that my mother gave me. I wouldn’t want to spoil it here or folks would know what it is and cheat on my initiation test!