Artist Joseph Stashkevetch Sees the Big Picture

Doug Meyer

Joseph Stashkevetch in front of his All You Can Eat.

New York artist Joseph Stashkevetch discusses his process in creating his latest groundbreaking show in Los Angeles at the Von Lintel Gallery.

You have always been known for large-scale, realistic and highly textural drawings that are flat and two-dimensional. How did this new work become three-dimensional? I was originally planning on doing a show juxtaposing organic form—specifically flowers—and industrial detritus. Going forward I found myself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the work. It was frustrating—I was reaching for something more substantial that just wasn’t happening. I’ve always maintained a strict discipline regarding surface integrity. Rupturing that, reaching beyond for something more sculptural by damaging the paper itself, was a very seductive idea.

Working on the third composition, I tentatively started distressing the edges of the paper trying to tease something to life with both material and subject, but not at all sure how to get there. I kept sanding the paper until it was so weak it broke through, and then, shifting around the drawing, I accidentally tore it. It wasn’t intentional, but then there it was—an answer.

What was the first work that you made more sculptural? I had done this work I called Sanctuary, an old New York theater that I had managed to photograph during demolition. It was a finished drawing—I loved the image—but it was flat, lifeless. It just kind of sat there. So I left it hanging in the studio and moved on to something else. Week after week I was forced to—unhappily—look at it. Ultimately it made sense that it should be disintegrating like the theater. But then you think, Okay, what’s on the other side? What’s there once you start peeling it away? I honestly didn’t know where this was going to go. The fact that you might only see an inch exposed—or 10—forced me to think about using repeating patterns that would carry through regardless of where the drawing broke open.

So using wallpaper on one level was kind of an arbitrary decision? Absolutely. I thought, let’s just start with something—don’t overthink this. On the other hand I had been documenting wallpapers for some time knowing I wanted to do something with them at some point, so it was an idea that had been parked on the side for a while. It ended up looking like that bad baroque flocked wallpaper you can still find in steakhouses—which I loved! For visual continuity, it made sense to see the same pattern echoed on the backside of Sanctuary once it was peeling away, so you have this butterfly effect when it’s torn—but you don’t know where the tearing is going to take you. It required drawing out the pattern over the entire surface, front and back. There’s a great deal of work that will never be seen folded between the layers, a slightly masochistic effort. It was a challenge, but for me a deeply satisfying journey.

The wallpaper seems to play a very important role in many of the works. Can you talk about that? There are a few things going on. It started with a cheeky idea of doing meticulous renderings of 2D patterns, which is so contrary to what this work has been about. For 20-plus years I’ve been composing drawings from my own photographs. There has been something of a call and response with the different series, alternately exploring the natural world through elemental subjects like flowers, water, cloud formations and rocks and the built environment, like aging urban infrastructure, mid-century motel rooms or abandoned amusement parks. They all deal with the cyclical nature of things, obsolescence and rebirth. Looked at from different angles, the ruins of the Khmer Empire and the Palisades cliffs of New Jersey are not so different. The vocabulary may change, but the underlying story of age, loss and the flux of change remains the same. They all invite rich challenges regarding texture, space and qualities of light, which are nevertheless frustrating because you can only take it so far on a two-dimensional plane.

The introduction of the wallpaper patterns took the conversation to a different level for me. The drawings are based on photographs, and a lot of people are drawn to them because of that quality, but for me, first and foremost, it has been about content. Bringing in 2D imagery and breaking open the surface of 3D compositions forces you to acknowledge it’s just a piece of paper.

Does that relate back to the flowers? Ultimately, yes. Once I started playing with the wallpaper patterns, something meshed between the natural and industrial subjects I’ve been working with. Studying these repeating patterns of flowers and birds and butterflies, thoughts of our increasing dislocation from the natural world came to the fore. I mean, you have people in Florida screaming about fetid algae blooms in their canals, but they insist on maintaining emerald-green lawns that run right down to the water’s edge with no awareness they are part of the problem. All this industrial production of quaint bucolic settings—milkmaids churning butter and pretty foliage and lattice patterns—which are produced to glue onto our walls as a substitute for the genuine article.

A great many people are experiencing nature vicariously surrounded by pretty patterns of ink. Some would disagree, but I’m blessed to be living in Manhattan, right across the street from the only unaltered old-growth forest on the island. Nature for most people is a groomed patch of grass or a potted plant. When the scent of a skunk wafts in from the street, it may not be pleasant, but I find it reassuring!

What are the various techniques you use to tear the work? They all reference surfaces that are decaying or unraveling in some way, whether it’s peeling paper, paint or cracked plaster. They’re some of the most beautiful textures. I have photographs of peeling paint I took when I was 16 that were some of the inspiration for these surfaces. And Pompeii is my idea of heaven. Whether it’s paint on weathered wood or paper rotting on a damp wall, different materials and conditions will give you different effects. I used those as starting-off points. But it was important to me that I take different approaches. I wanted them each to pose their own challenge and not allow it to become formulaic.

There is a monumental work in the show titled All You Can Eat. Can you elaborate more on that? So much of the work over the years has referenced our impact as a consumer society and how we continue to burn through our resources with negligible concern for the future. I started All You Can Eat six or seven years ago as a very different drawing, aborted it, and then had something of an epiphany in finishing it. The top layer is a pastiche referencing Western culture and exhausted resources that is cracking and peeling away to reveal this 19th-century French wallpaper I copied illustrating a romantic notion of China and a great celebratory parade of drums and banners and grandees marching by. It was a nice fit.