An interview with painter and photographer Jake Longstreth
Jake Longstreth’s hazy world of blighted landscapes and big box stores
Words— Ben Kriz
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
Jake Longstreth’s oil paintings of both arid California hillsides and homogenized corporate architecture makes fine use of California’s radiant light and laid-back atmosphere with touches of Jake’s wry sense of humour (be it a depiction of a red-roofed Pizza Hut or the parking lot of a strip mall).
Although he grew up in Connecticut, early trips to California as a child left an impression on him with the likes of David Hockney and Robert Bechtle influencing his work—a particularly relevant study of our modern world.
I spoke with Jake in his northeast L.A. studio about smokey countrysides, photo books, the possible end of the big box stores that blight our cities (one of his favourite subjects) and his love of the Grateful Dead.
There’s obviously a difference between the two sides to your work, the landscapes and the corporate architecture, but what is the connector between them?
They’re both concerned with nailing the light—the sense of daylight and sunlight. Both bodies of work have a graphic quality and a real sense of atmosphere -- that’s the style.
Some of your work will feature a beautiful landscape but there might be a parking lot in it or there will maybe be a corner of a big box store on the edge of the frame. What is it about this subject matter that is so appealing to you?
I mean it’s just so ubiquitous...and it’s kind of funny and maybe a little sad. It’s not super sad but it’s maybe a little melancholic. It's classic really, you put two things opposite of each other together in the same painting. A lot of artists have worked in that vein, but I like to show things that are not particularly extraordinary.
Let’s say the owner of a Subway franchise sees your painting of a Subway franchise and he loves it. He wants to hang it in his Subway franchise. Is he missing the point or is it up to him how he wants to see it?
That’s hilarious—that’d be cool. I think they’re fun and hopefully beautiful paintings first and foremost but, yeah, depending on your political or educational persuasion you might like to view it as a critique of corporate capitalism or maybe you’re just like, I like Subway. There’s no heavy-duty messaging.
But do you feel like your work is political? Is there an environmental message?
Taken in totality, yes. There is a subtext of “environmentalism”—as bastardized as that word is. I find, like most sane people, the plight of the planet very distressing and that informs the work. I don’t want the work to be despairing but that is definitely in there.
Has that always been there in the back of your mind?
More so now. I mean, right? This report last year that says we have like 20 years left? When I started doing this, I did a series called “Particulate Matter” which I started in 2012. Those were small landscape paintings. Very, very small; very low contrast. Kind of brutal landscapes choking under harsh atmospheric conditions. The phrase “particulate matter” refers to … air pollution basically. That was as forcibly environmental as I got.
You’re doing an exhibition this fall. What can you tell us about it?
I’m doing a show in September in L.A. at the Nino Mier Gallery which I’m psyched about. It's going to be a two-room show, which I've always wanted to do.
It’s where the two themes will culminate. One room will be architecture: big corporate architecture paintings. And the other room will be landscapes: very blown out, hazy, smoggy southern California motifs.
The architecture part of the show will be called “Brick & Mortar.” In my head, this is sort of like the end of the brick and mortar era. Like in 20 years is it all just going be Amazon drones? When I started this stuff in 2006 I started painting Home Depot and Walmart and it just seemed like it was just going to be here forever, right? And now 13 years later—maybe not! Blockbuster went out of business and I did a painting of that, and then Toys “R” Us when out of business so I did a painting of that. I have a painting of a Circuit City that went under during the 2008 collapse.
It’s not a nostalgic look back like, oh look a 1960s diner! No, it’s a very recent, kind of bleak history. It’s not lamenting anything like we’re going to miss Toys “R” Us. It’s just something that happened. I think that 2008 collapse defined so much of what happened in the following 10 years.
This could eventually be that 1960s diner.
I know, isn’t that weird? When you paint pictures of recognized things that are related to popular culture the meaning will change. There’s nothing you can do about it. And actually, they will inevitably become nostalgic.
The landscape paintings won’t change as much. The show I’m doing in the fall, one room will be very timely, and one will be very timeless.
You have a book out as well? What’s the idea behind it?
I lived in the Bay Area for a long time so I've done that drive a million times between here and there on the I-5 passing through the Central Valley (which is this super productive agricultural area). I've wanted to photograph that area and avoid photographing like...heavy farm equipment and subdivisions. I wanted to just photograph the land itself, as it still is.
I shot just a few days each summer from 2008 to 2012, but always in July or August because I wanted it to be hot as hell and have the grass at its peak crispiness.
None of the photos are like, that’s an amazing photograph! They’re very low-key, modest pictures of this place. It’s all about the consistency of the tone and atmosphere. And of course, the light which is like the through-line of the whole work. It’s kind of like a meditative, almost ambient photo book. That’s how I see it. I’m really thrilled with it.
Is taking photographs just scratching a different creative itch for you?
You just get different things from paintings. Photos have their own language. I love looking at groups of photographs together. It's kind of like one work. It's 59 photos, but it’s one work. That's one discrete piece of art.
If you really want to explore a specific place like the Central Valley, photos are the way to do it. And a lot of my favourite artists over the years have done one Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz.
You also have a Grateful Dead cover band [Richard Pictures]. I’d be remiss if I didn't ask you about your interest in the Grateful Dead. Does any of that music or music in general influence your art?
No [laughs]. They’re pretty separate. I love the Dead and I sometimes listen to them when I’m working but it’s such a different thing. Specifically with the Dead…maybe I share with them an interest in American history and culture. I don't share that trippy or psychedelic energy [laughs].