Jagel Challenges with Cartoonish Complexity

Photo: Worth a thousand words. Jason Jagel's minutely detailed art draws from comics and video games for its distinctive aesthetic.
Jason Jagel/Courtesy
Worth a thousand words. Jason Jagel's minutely detailed art draws from comics and video games for its distinctive aesthetic.

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In a cramped Mission-based studio, speaking over a backdrop of rare groove funk spinning on his turntables, visual artist Jason Jagel momentarily paused his speech as if he were lost deep in thought. Known for his dense compositions, fueled by a cartoon-like plasticity and splattered with bleeding colors and narrative twists, Jagel was contemplating his reasoning behind a non-descript piece of paper with the words "a la cornbread" written in plain pencil featured in his exhibit "(I'll Fly) Into Your Heart."

The music had stopped and Jagel arose from his chair to flip the record. He returned to his seat with a refreshed expression of vivacity, a fluency he had lost in that static moment. Jagel began to explain that the words were a decade-old conversational derivative from the nonsense words "buttery biscuits," yelled out by DJ Cucumber Slice at the end of (the artist formerly known as) MF DOOM's "Rhymes Like Dimes," off the album Operation: Doomsday. "It's a phrase that is meaningless and therefore open to interpretation. I'm always on the lookout for forms, colors, images and phrases that can have slippery meaning and open-endedness to their sign."

Ambiguous linguistic forms only touch the surface of Jagel's heady conceptual techniques. Such an investigative quality to his work should not come as a surprise though. After all, he taught drawing at UC Berkeley as an adjunct professor in 2007. As an artist, Jagel finds boundless meaning in the periphery, a space of white noise that forces us to reconsider the idea of stable visual meaning. Distance and perception play a large role in understanding his work, as minute drawings, which can only be identified up close, are swallowed whole by larger images and assumed into a new conglomerate shape. Images are intricately entangled with other images, and decoding their relationship is all a matter of the observer's proximity to the canvas, of taking steps forward or backward.

Jagel comes from a rich lineage of artists: His father John was a painter, studying under the tutelage of famed color theorist Josef Albers at Yale University; his stepmother Beatrice Hawley was a renowned poet; and his great-great-grandfather Dhan Gopal Mukerji was considered the first South Asian Indian writer of significance in the United States. Although a descendant of this artistic nobility, Jagel grew up as more of a rapscallion than a serious scholar, a latchkey kid immersed in the '70s and '80s culture of video games and comic books. But talent often manifests itself in unpredictable ways.

Heavily influenced by what Jagel calls "the syntax of comic books," he refined his imitation within the margins of grade school notebooks. Here sprung his penchant for non-linear uses of space, allowing for the stories within his work to develop through constant motion and branching out. In this chaos Jagel found a multiplicity of directions to forge new paths, ones unfounded, mutable and dynamic. His use of multiple perspectives, attitudes and scales within layers of color, image and text creates a sense of duration, something to be understood gradually over time - never was the point to fetishize these imaginary creatures, but rather to use them as narrative components. As in many cases, he relates his artwork to his relationship with music. "Becoming a record collector is an intense level of scholarship. I will always be an amateur within the knowledge of music history. I will always be urgent in my interest for exploration, always wanting to know more."

Rather than allowing a prefigured idea to guide his brushstrokes or color coordination, Jagel takes his hands off the steering wheel to encourage spontaneous reaction, something that can be activated, for instance, by a certain chord progression heard on a record. "I strive for places where I don't know the answer, to keep engendering the ability to be naive, to take risks," says Jagel. "Painting is a series of decisions that may seem arbitrary, but the quality in making each decision is the content of the painting. I want these decisions to have the quality of being born."

His latest book, "73 Funshine," is fittingly co-distributed through the independent label Stones Throw Records. This collection of personal photographs, paintings, stencils, record sleeves and drawings presents Jagel's work as a cataract of flowing meaning that slips between new modes of visualization right as you think it has settled. The book also features an EP from beat-maker Madlib, for whom Jason often creates fictional album covers.

Back in the studio, as the music resumed, Jagel found himself balancing the focus of our conversation with the sounds of the record, wedged between foreground and background, floating freely in a sea of mixed meaning - just how he likes it.

Ride the cataract of flowing meaning with Justin at [email protected]

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