Artist in Conversation: Jake Grewal

Jake Grewal’s drawings bring together the language of Romanticism and his South Asian heritage to express autobiographical experiences. Themes of identity, love, loss, violence and adolescence are explored through a queer gaze, creating a dream-like reality based in nature. For Grewal’s debut solo show “When I First Met You, I Was Younger” at VERV LAB, curator William Lee spoke to the artist about his work and inspirations.

W: I find the notion of narrative particularly compelling with your work. Many of your pieces seem so cinematic, almost like stills from a movie – perhaps Lord of the Flies, Les Roseaux Sauvages or Pink Narcissus. Does the world of Cinema inspire you? 

J: I think so. It’s strange, because I guess moving image is probably the first art form most come in contact with. I was watching films from as young as I can remember. Film is extraordinary in that it utterly transports you and asks you to emotionally invest in storytelling. A good film stays with you your whole life. Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who I often reference, not in her subject matter, but in her building of atmosphere and tension. Her worlds feel completely alive. There’s a constant bubble of something under the surface.

W: Again, the title of the show ‘When I first met you, I was younger’, is extremely evocative, could you explain further the meaning of the titles?

J: I find titles interesting. I think they have to have an important role, or else why have them at all? I like to encrypt them with a lyrical truth telling. It’s like showing your hand but all the cards are jokers. Only you know what they mean. Others can interpret them how they like.

W: Which artists influence your practice? For me, I see aspects of Henri Rousseau and Otto Mueller, in terms of composition. 

J: Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in the National Gallery, it’s funny, I keep returning to the artists who influenced me when I was a teenager. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, John Martin, Blake. Those Romantics who were nostalgic and put a lot of emphasis on nature and individualism. It’s like I’m having a rediscovery of my adolescence. A re-acquaintance with my core initial influences. I guess conceptually it’s a process that goes hand in hand with my work.

W: Some of the figures bare a strong resemblance to you. To what extent does your own identity play a role in your work? 

J: It’s a major part to be honest, and something I’ve had trouble legitimising. A lot of the work is a vocalisation of some kind of inner landscape. Something I don’t quite want to admit or can’t directly vocalise. To see these truths visually can sometimes be difficult. This presents the issue of how close to the ‘truth’ do you want to get? I find the use of allegory and symbol a useful solace in this kind of truth telling.

W: Nude figures feature extensively in your work, and this show, I’m interested in your opinion on clothing and the role clothing can have in forming and create identity? 

J: I think we all use clothing as some kind of extension of our personality. It’s like that scene in Devil Wears Prada, even if you think your exterior isn’t pointing to anything in particular it has a rich history behind it. It all means something. Personally, I love clothes and I love being able to choose what I want wear in tandem with my mood and my interests. I enjoy the physical visual history of personal development. This is probably why I rarely throw any of my clothes away.

W: As well as clothing, your work in absent of man-made objects, with nature being the overwhelming dominate factor, particularly in your early work. Is this a conscious decision? Could you explain further how your compositions are formed and what research/element go into forming a work? 

J: It is conscious. I like to think that my works are quite dreamlike, clothing tends to tether a work to a more specific time and place. I like the idea that the works don’t have to answer to that kind of societal context. The dominant forces are the natural world and the relationships between the figures, with maybe a little mysticism. I like using nature as a metaphor or allegory, showing another side to a narrative, or being the whole narrative within itself. To me, a landscape can say as much as a scene with figures, it allows for one’s own self-discovery. This is something I really enjoy when researching. I tend to draw in nature and these sketches become potential compositions. This gives me quality time to reflect and helps ground my technical ability.

W: Would you say that absence of man-made objects is a way of inviting the viewer to create their own narrative? Especially in today’s consumerist culture, when ‘status symbols’ (clothes and objects) are so loaded with connotations? 

J: I think so. I guess my work is a kind of rejection of consumerist culture. A reflection on a natural idyll and playing with this idea. Using it to satirize, or to address real dangers. I’d say because of the absence of man-made objects it allows me a freedom to roam creatively. I don’t feel accountable to any law or reality.

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