Meet Jonathan Franklin
Patch art critic Ken Reif introduces you to another local artist with an international background.
This week, I've turned the column over to Jonathan Franklin.
My name is Jonathan Franklin. I was born in Michigan but spent most of my youth growing up in Asia (Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia) where my father worked as a civil engineer. As a child I would copy my brother’s drawings, mainly battleships with guns blazing, dogfighting airplanes, Cowboys and Indians, and imaginary monsters. But soon as he began to read MAD magazine my tastes evolved as well. Shortly thereafter I was attempting to emulate the stylings of many of the artistic geniuses that were featured in that august journal. And that more or less became my art education. When I finished high school in Jakarta (Indonesia) we were living down the street from a very respected Indonesian artist named Mr. Hadi. Although I never formerly studied with him, he was very kind and provided me with some basic art materials. With ambitious intentions but not much success I would try to create versions of what he was doing. This marked the beginning of what would become my artistic journey that has endured almost without interruption to this day.
Despite my fairly thin background I was accepted into the School of Art at the University of Michigan. I found the program very intimidating not only because of my lack of experience but because the instruction was fairly loose. Where I was looking for technical applications and facility I found conceptualism, which in my case left me feeling as though I was stuck in a basement without a light.
During the summer of my sophomore year I traveled out to visit my parents who were by then living in Khartoum, Sudan. It was an absolutely fascinating experience being amidst so much ancient art and history where the Blue and White Niles converge. A short time later I traveled to Israel where I worked on a kibbutz for another couple months. This experience made such an indelible impression on me that I was determined to return and within a month after I graduated with my BFA (Bona Fide Art degree) I found myself back on the kibbutz. There I worked in the fields doing irrigation and at night embarked on my first forays as an ‘artist’ making drawings documenting the life around me. Within six months, I made the leap into the unknown. I decided I might try to paint. Scavenging scraps of discarded lumber, I cut the planks into strips, nailed them into stretcher frames, bought some fabric and stretched my first canvases. With the floor as my seat I propped the paintings up against a wall in my room and began to paint. After all these years, not much has changed. I still do not have an easel. But I do I have stool.
In college I used a sketch book incessantly. In fact many of my early works came not from life and nature but directly from these sketch books. But over the years, I began to rely less on my sketch books and more on revisiting and revising my older works on paper and elsewhere.
The past it seems is very much part of my work. I work in a nonlinear fashion, usually on more than one piece at a time over the course of days, weeks, months, years, even decades. My work remains in many cases in a constant state of flux. It is not unusual for me to return over and over to the same piece and what it ultimately evolves into may bare little or no resemblance to the original inspiration. It is all about layers and transformation.
Who are my inspirations? Pablo Picasso, Saul Steinberg, Marcel Duchamp, among many. All have passed except for one, David Hockney whose work encapsulates the works of all the three that preceded him.
A brief digression: Well over 30 years ago I was a soldier in the Israeli army. During maneuvers we would frequently encounter piles of discarded equipment and debris in the desert. As an admirer of Marcel Duchamp, the father of found art, I was fascinated with the old rusted K-ration cans that littered the fields, probably dating back to generations of soldiers eating on the move. To the ordinary observer these cans were nothing more than bits of disintegrating tin. But to me they were absolutely beautiful. I could not help but think of the familiar truism: ‘Cubism is a crushed tin can.’ I would collect them whenever I could, stuffing them into my ammunition belts, packs, and every open pocket I could find. Much to the dismay and concern of my companions, the rattling cans hardly made for stealth or surprise. I still have these cans where you can see the sands of the Negev and Sinai still evident in the creased metal crevices .
The figure has been central to my work from the very beginning, not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. It is not its literal representation but the sense of dissonance, of creating tension by exaggerating proportions and seeing different perspectives from the same point of view that inspires me.
Facial expressions are the thoughts, hands become voices, costumes establish the atmosphere and patterns and shapes create the environments. Sometimes subtle, other times overstated, the figures become the actors in aperformance, and we, the observers, become intimate voyeurs, their audience in the tableau.
I work from inside out as opposed to from outside in. My subjects are intuitive and imaginary, and are as much about contrasting, shapes, and colors as they are about the inherent conflicts that exist between abstraction and realism, about what is revealed on the surface and concealed in ambiguity.
Whether on paper or on canvas I usually work on several pieces concurrently; the work typically evolves by trial and error, editing and revising it in a non-linear process over a period of days, weeks, months, years, even decades before being finished it although even then I have a tendency to keep scrutinizing and reevaluating it. It is an ongoing conversation.
Just as one must recognize the past to appreciate the present, so too, is my approach to creating art. Recycling, regenerating, and reinventing: All three elements play a significant role not only in my life but in my art as well. It directly affects how I work and what I choose to create. It is one of the reasons why I am constantly returning to older drawings, paintings, and sketchbooks for inspiration. It is a way for me to reclaim the past and transform it into something entirely new and different in the present and future.
Ultimately, my work is the sum of many parts. It is about layers of images, color and paper that build on top of each other and about what is not only visible to the eye and but also what is not.
Although I always have a painting or two on the burner I also usually have another project cooking elsewhere. I am currently trying to figure out how to use photoshop. Until recently I had found it extremely frustrating. But with the discovery of some youtube tutorials and the acquisition of a book things have begun to change. I have been experimenting with some old black and white photographs that were taken nearly 40 years ago where a number of my art school friends and I decided to channel Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime. Using photoshop I have been able to completely transform the images and the results are not only humbling but exhilarating as well. Once again I am referring to the past to create work in the present.
Making art is not a career for me. It is a natural extension of my identity. I do it because it is how I realign and balance myself. I use it as a connection to my own presence and place in the world. I wish I could say that art has been a great way to do business and make money but sadly, that has never been the case. I do sell work on occasion but it is a very rare occasion at best. And yet I keep coming back.
The reason I keep coming back and painting and drawing or doing whatever it is that I do is because I am attempting to hit the target, a target that has eluded me from the very beginning. And if the day should ever come when I feel that I actually somehow do manage to hit it, I will know then that I have finally finished the picture. But if and when that should happen, then the journey that I have been on will be over, and I’m not sure if that is such a good thing. So it is probably for the best to let the journey pull me forward, to keep the target elusive, and the picture unfinished. And meanwhile I will let the mystery and the magic that reveals itself along the way sustain me.
So far it has been a pretty good ride.
Here are some links to my sites: