Nonstop: Jonas Wood Speaks with Jacob Samuel

Jonas Wood signing the screenprint, Landscape Pot with Plant (2017) in his studio, Culver City, CA. Image courtesy of Wood Kusaka Studios.

Jonas Wood is a Los Angeles-based painter and printmaker working across a variety of techniques and publishing formats. With the intaglio master printer Jacob
Samuel, who has collaborated with Wood since 2013, the artist reflects on his learning curves, ambitions and inspirations drawn from Picasso, Piranesi and the Boston Red Sox.

Jacob Samuel In 2013, when we started working on our first collaboration, 8 Etchings [2014], you brought in a very large book from 1970 of Picasso’s 347 etching series [1968] to the studio that your grandfather had given you.1

Jonas Wood Yes. He was a collector and he had a lot of books. When he started getting older, he asked us to think about what art or books we might want. He had this giant box that said “Picasso” and I knew I wanted it, but I don’t think I even knew what was inside. Years later I inherited it and it had all of these etchings. Interestingly, I bought a Picasso etching about a year ago, only to realize later that it is in that catalog.

JS You grew up around Boston. Did you go to museums when you were young? Which ones did you like?

JW Well, certainly the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I was interested in figuration and I tried to paint or draw the figure, but I was never really accurate. The modern masters were interesting because they had created their own language in figuration. I remember seeing a lot of Alexander Calder and a lot of art from Asia, like Japanese scrolls.

My father was an architect and my mother was a drama teacher. We went to a lot of interesting buildings, like Walter Gropius’s house. We went to the [Isabella Stewart] Gardner Museum and the deCordova [Sculpture Park and] Museum, and my parents would take us to New York, where we would visit MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney.

And because my grandfather collected, I grew up with art. That was kind of a big deal for me. He had a giant Francis Bacon painting, Picasso prints and Calder drawings. My parents had Andy Warhol’s pink and green cow prints, which felt important, but really it was an open-edition wallpaper that came in a couple of different colors. We had this downstairs all 18 years that I lived in my parents’ house. And we had Matisse prints, editions from the 1940s and ’50s.

Jonas Wood, 8 Etchings (2014), series of eight etchings on Japanese paper, 16 x 14 inches each. Edition of 10. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica, CA. Courtesy of the artist and Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Brian Forrest.

JS My next question was going to be about your first encounter with printed artwork. But if you’re living in a house with Warhol and Matisse prints…

JW And there was a Rauschenberg print that we grew up with too. I have that in my studio, inherited from my grandfather, and one Calder drawing from 1962.

JS In one of the prints in the 8 Etchings portfolio, there’s a poster of the Cure on the wall. That was also something you grew up with—in your sister’s room?

JW Yes, she’s about six years older than me and she had this giant the Cure poster up in her room forever. I made a painting of it later and found the same poster at a yard sale in Mar Vista, California. Now it hangs in a closet in my studio.

JS Did you get a BFA?

JW No, I got a BA in psychology, but my minor was studio art. I wanted to be a doctor, then I took a year off and it became clear that I really didn’t want to be a doctor. So in my senior year I started taking art seriously, really learning how to paint. After college, I had a studio and then decided to get an MFA at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Jonas Wood and Matt Johnson, Wicked Curse Reversed (2004), screenprint, 24 x 19 inches. Edition of 86. Printed and published by the artists, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Brian Forrest.

JS Did you make prints there?

JW I made some etchings, but I was just messing around. I had made things in silkscreen—psychedelic stuff—right out of college in 1999. Then I made Red Sox T-shirts with my friends that we would sell outside of games. They were based on our favorite player, whose nickname was El Guapo; he was the closer for the Red Sox.2 At one playoff game we had these big black plastic trash bags full of T-shirts that we were selling for like ten bucks each, but then my friend almost got arrested. He got a ticket instead, but they took the shirts. Later, he fought the ticket and they gave him the shirts back.

JS Glad to hear that. Do you still have one of those shirts?

JW I might have one and my dad might have one. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, everybody would say the Red Sox were cursed because we traded Babe Ruth for a bag of prunes or something. In 2004, when the Red Sox won the World Series, I made a Wicked Curse Reversed poster with my friend, the artist Matt Johnson.3 We made an edition of 86 because that’s how many years it had been since they’d won a World Series.

JS So that’s your first limited-edition print.

JW A couple of years later I screenprinted Larry Bird T-shirts, and printed a couple on paper.4 I never really editioned them though. Anything I made in grad school was only scratching the surface of the materials.

Jonas Wood, Hammer Interior (2016), 18-color letterpress print, 11 1/4 x 20 3/4 inches. Edition of 20. Printed and published by Leslie Ross-Robertson, Wavelength Press, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the artist and Wavelength Press, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Maybe I was a late bloomer. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 I learned a lot because I had exposure to other artists—seeing other artists’ studios, working for artists…

JS In my experience as a teacher, I can see it’s really difficult for students to retain the technical information about etching. Often when they do something great, they are not really sure how they’ve done it, because they’ve only done it once. It takes prolonged exposure and experience to really figure things out.

JW But to start making stuff that transcends learning about the materials and to have it be personal, your own sort of story—that’s what’s been really interesting to me about making prints for the last five or six years.

When we started the 8 Etchings, you wanted me to make a bunch of my old work into etchings, and my first question was, how are we going to make all these flat areas of color work? And you were like, “Well, we’re going to make those with line.” I was dumbfounded. But then you said something really interesting. You said that I have a very particular line.

JS I would say idiosyncratic. In the best possible sense. Your line is so personal.

JW Being limited to only using line was a real challenge. But it was way better to start with the line and the accumulation of the lines. Like Piranesi—how everything he made was drawn out of a line. There are no flat shapes.

JS Well, that’s one of the beautiful things about studying your precedents, old masters like Albrecht Dürer. I think of Dürer as being very formal and stylized, like Piranesi. They created amazing volume and beautiful shape only using line.

JW Also just black and white.

JS I imagine that was a huge challenge for you. You’re known for your color, so to start out with a monochromatic palette must have been hard.

JW It was good though.

Monoprints produced with Cirrus Gallery & Cirrus Editions Ltd., Los Angeles, CA, 2010. Image courtesy of Wood Kusaka Studios.

JS At this point do you look at print media as ways to explore aspects of your paintings? In other words, can you hone in on certain things, like, “Oh, I think this might be interesting as a litho, or maybe this would be good as an etching, or I could explore this as a screenprint”?

JW Well, I’ve been thinking about that more and more. When we first started in 2014 it felt like a tutorial, and it was great to have you pushing me into certain things because I didn’t really see my work through this lens of printmaking. A couple of years into it, I started realizing that etching and mark-making came into my paintings. After that I started to realize that the way I painted was almost an accumulation of different printing methods.

Recently you mentioned that we should try a 25-color screenprint because it relates so well to how I paint. That prompted me to want to explore printmaking based on how I layer things, how I incorporate underpaint and then overpaint details on top. And in the last few years I’ve made a couple prints with
Cirrus that delve into the collage aspect of my practice, using a lithograph of a photograph and screenprint on top of that, which really synced up with my
sensibility and how I see things.

I’ve also started to collect prints and look at prints, and see how other people have made prints—I just got this Lichtenstein print, a brushstroke one. And when I started examining it, I discovered how amazing it was that he could translate his work so directly into printmaking. So yes, it really opens up—a few years after we started I realized that drawing had always informed my painting; then I saw how collage had informed it. But once printmaking entered the equation, that also started informing my painting and vice versa. Even when thinking about the process of making a painting, I started taking cues from printmaking and putting them back into paintings.

JS In the last five years you’ve worked with quite a few printers and publishers. Every master printer has evolved their own way of working and their own technique. So you must be picking up quite a lot of information.

Jonas Wood, Landscape Pot with Plant (2017), 16-color screenprint, 39 x 29 1/2 inches. Edition of 100. Printed by Coriander Studio, London. Published by Counter Editions, London. Courtesy of the artist and Counter Editions, London. Photo: Mariell Lind Hansen.

JW Yes, definitely. Collaborating with Jean Milant at Cirrus in 2009 was my
real first experience making a set of editions with a print house. I had been in a three-person show at his gallery in 2006. I didn’t know much about him then, but
I went to his gallery and realized that he had made all of this amazing stuff with artists I love, like Ed Ruscha and Baldessari and…

JS Joe Goode…

JW Chris Burden…

JS To me, Jean Milant is the great unsung hero of Los Angeles printmaking. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.

JW So in 2009 we made three prints based on still lifes with plants, and I experimented with the combination of lithography and silkscreen. Jean showed me the ropes and taught me about the history of printmaking at the same time. I still remember a couple of things he said that were really poignant, like how you can’t just make one print and stop, that printmaking is something you have to continue to do.

In 2010 we made a series of monoprints on a lithograph, which I had never even thought about doing. You paint a plate, print it once and then it would pull a bunch of color off, so you’d paint it again. (I haven’t done monoprints again, so it would be interesting to revisit.) The next big project with him were a series of birdcage prints [see Art in Print Jan–Feb 2012].

JS Oh, those are really nice.

JW We printed all the birds and the birdcages and then I hand-drew all of the details of the birds on each one. That was 2011, and then in 2014 I merged a collage concept with lithography to make cutout photos of landscape pots with silkscreen plants “growing” out of them. I had never used photolithography, I’d always used lithography for drawing (though in my first set with Jean, we used the impression of wood grain to make a floor plane). We have made other things since then. It’s like he said, “You can’t stop.”

JS You’ve also done a lot of work with Ed Hamilton, another great lithographer who doesn’t get the attention that he deserves; he’s a very quiet person.

Jonas Wood, Untitled (2014), lithograph and 11-color screenprint, 48 x 37 inches. Edition of 50. Printed and published by Cirrus Gallery & Cirrus Editions Ltd., Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the artist and Cirrus Gallery & Cirrus Editions Ltd., Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio.

JW I love Ed and Pat Hamilton at Hamilton Press. I started working with them in 2011. The first big studio that I rented in 2007 in Culver City [California] was owned by Ed Ruscha, so he was my landlord for ten years. It was Ed Ruscha who introduced me to them.

JS Their history goes all the way back to the Tamarind workshop, when Tamarind Institute was in LA.

JW Yes, exactly. Ed Ruscha had actually bought some of the monoprints I had made at Cirrus. He asked me if I was interested in meeting Ed Hamilton, so I went to the studio, and it’s smoky and amazing and there is all this history—he’s made some of the most amazing Ruscha prints in the last 25 years.

JS Yes, the definitive Ed Ruscha lithos are via Hamilton.

JW The first thing I wanted to do was to re-create a drawing of white pencil on black paper. But Ed [Hamilton], who has a vast knowledge of different papers and how the paper functions as part of the print, said, “Well, I think we should print on blue paper.” And it really looked the way I wanted it to.

The way they do business was a shift for me: they would take care of everything and just give me half of the edition to keep. Around this time Ed Ruscha had told me that he kept a lot of his prints. That was eye-opening. There’s a lot of power in keeping things because you’re able to amass a whole archive of your own work.

Then, in 2014, we made a second print of an interior.

JS I remember this one.

JW Ed Hamilton came to my studio and saw a black-and-white drawing of my parents’ Martha’s Vineyard house and he loved it. He suggested using three different colors of paper but the exact same ink colors, to create three different times of day in the same room.

Jonas Wood, Double Basketball Orchid (State I) (2017),10-color lithograph, 34 1/2 x 27 inches. Edition of 26. Printed and published by Hamilton Press, Venice, CA. Courtesy of the artist and Hamilton Press, Venice, CA. Photo: Alan Shaffer.

JS That’s really smart.

JW It’s just the way his mind works. He realizes a gray piece of paper is going to feel like dusk, a reddish piece of paper is going to feel like dawn, and a brighter white piece of paper is going to feel like noon.

The next project, in 2015, was based on making a couple of my wife’s [Shio Kusaka] Greek dinosaur pots as prints. He picked this really interesting green paper and suggested a gradient of color in the pot that gave the print a whole new depth even though we’re dealing with a lot of flatness.

In 2017, we made double basketball orchids; I wanted a cream-colored paper and thought to print on a black background as well.

JW The more recent prints with Hamilton were a couple sets of notepad doodles.

I sketch painting ideas on notepads in my studio and I wanted to make oversize notepad prints with the painting ideas on them. This was the first time I was making a print of a casual drawing as opposed to a super sharp, specific image.

JS You know, the fact that these are 14-color lithographs takes them out of the realm of casual drawing. It really becomes a substantial piece of art. You’ve given it so much richness and depth by applying so many different colors and layers.

JW I agree, but at the same time it still has the casual vibe to it. It’s a very specific and beautiful print, but ultimately, it’s a print of a painting idea.

JS You’ve also made full-color prints with a letterpress, which is unusual.

JW My friend Leslie Ross-Robertson owns a letterpress company, Wavelength Press, that makes artists’ prints, but she also makes stationery and other things like that.

Jonas Wood, Double Basketball Orchid (State II) (2017), 11-color lithograph, 30 1/4 x 27 inches. Edition of 15. Printed and published by Hamilton Press, Venice, CA. Courtesy of the artist and Hamilton Press, Venice, CA. Photo: Alan Shaffer.

I was fascinated by the technique because the paper actually takes the embossed form of the plate at the same time it takes the color. The first thing we made in 2012 was a tennis court print. The result was spectacular—wish we’d made more in the edition. It was only 8 by 11 inches because her press is small, and it’s printed in four colors with four passes. A couple of years later, we made an 18-color, 19-pass letterpress print, which she said was unheard of.

JS It’s a beauty.

JW This one is around 11 by 20 inches and based on a painting show I had in 2010 at the Hammer Museum of my Calder plant paintings. I definitely want to make more prints with her. Her ability to match the colors is amazing and I love working with somebody who doesn’t work with artists all the time. She’s a one-woman team with a little shop at the back of her house.

JS Maybe we could talk about your relationship with Karma in New York?

JW Yes, Brendan Dugan is a good friend who runs Karma [bookseller/art gallery] and An Art Service [graphic design/art direction firm], and I’ve made four—soon to be five—books with him. In the last couple of years, he has started to publish prints, including Four Majors, which are four tennis court prints we are making together. It’s fun because we’re using a company in New York that works with artists but also silkscreens posters and clothing, which is different from working with Hamilton Press, Cirrus or other master printers.

JS Speaking of books, you and Shio have self-published a series of books on other artists.

JW Yes, my grandfather owned these mini-books, published by a French
company, ABC Tudor Publishing Co., on Van Gogh, Monet, etc. They weren’t deep,
historical books—more like something you’d buy on the street in front of a museum for five bucks.

Screenprinting in the studio, Culver City, CA, 2009. Image courtesy of Wood Kusaka Studios.

JS I know the ones you’re talking about.

JW I inherited them. Later I had an idea about appropriating them. There’s so much appropriation in my work already, it felt natural to appropriate these mini-books, but pick artists working today. We copied the format, the scale and used black-and-white pictures in the essays. We made books on Shio, Matt Johnson, Ry Rocklen, Amanda Ross-Ho, Tony Ma-telli, Mark Grotjahn, Anne Collier, Brian Sharp, William J. O’Brien. The project’s been on a hiatus for three or four years but I’m ready to pick it back up. They were fun and I liked the idea that we were publishing historical art books with younger artists. We sold them for $14 or less, so it was affordable

JS You also did a screenprint with Counter Editions in London.

JW Yes, and we’re going to make another one pretty soon. I was approached by Carl Freedman, who has a gallery and also has a print house. They’ve made some really nice things. I made a mash-up of a landscape pot painting from 2014—this is probably the print that’s most connected to a painting. I think it’s a 16-color silkscreen. I made all the vellums in LA and sent them to London. And Carl does something really cool where he—he’s actually going to start printing in-house now—but he used to have all these different silkscreeners in London he worked with to make the prints. The printers we worked with were great. A couple of vellums got messed up in shipping and they fixed them perfectly. We did everything through the mail, email and pictures. And the finished product was spectacular. It is the most detailed print, and has the most color, and it’s among the biggest I’ve made—around 40 by 30 inches.

It got closer to what you and I had been discussing for a while, which is complicated, multi-screened silkscreen prints, because that’s really connected with my practice.

JS Exactly. Most people interested in screenprinting know the name Jeff

JW We worked together right at the end, when he was closing down. He did an amazing project—I made basketball wallpaper for Miami Art Basel in 2013 and my original idea was to have it all silkscreened and handmade. He made it but used a kind of paint that, when we tried to attach it to the wall, the color started leaking out of it. Later we took the silkscreens and scanned them to make digital wallpaper. So while my first idea was to have silkscreened wallpaper, I love this trompe l’oeil wallpaper. It’s digitally printed, but it looks exactly like a silkscreen.

Jonas Wood, Matisse Pot 1 (2017), 29-color screenprint from a set of three prints, 27 1/2 x 28 inches. Edition of 50. Printed and published by WKS Editions, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Later I made tennis ball wallpaper myself from drawings of tennis balls that we scanned. So it’s all digitally printed but the tennis balls looked like drawings and the basketballs looked like silkscreen.

We haven’t really talked about it, but in the last couple of years, you helped me start my own print house, WKS Editions. We were thinking about setting up a whole silkscreen studio, and then realized that it’s probably best to find people who are excellent at this, who we could—not collaborate with—but outsource the work to. So now we are working with Kevin Giffen and Daniel Wlazlak. Kevin was Jeff Wasserman’s apprentice. In the last year we’ve been making very detailed prints, around 30 colors, of red Matisse pots. We’re recreating works of mine that already exist, but making hybrid versions with more immediate drawing on top.

JS Well, one of the great things about printmaking is that you can edit. You can add and subtract.

JW Exactly. So it’s perfect because now we’ve started to work with them, and we can use their studio to make my prints. The only thing that I had to set up was the etching studio, and I started working with your apprentice Sam Gessow. That was when you and I decided to work together and you became my spiritual and professional printmaking guru.

JS Exactly.

JW You became my print studio advisor and we started printing just my work, not other artists. We had Sam working on this 8 Pots [2017] set for a year.

JS Also, one cutting print and a notepad print.

JW Yes we made an orchid and a little doodle etching that was more in line with the prints I made with Hamilton. Sam finished off the year with the Jungle Kitchen [2017] etching, based on the painting in my last show at David Kordansky Gallery. That was everything I’ve learned with you in one print. When we first started, my inclination was to try to figure out how to make flat planes, and then we ended up doing this last print with a series of eight to ten aquatint planes, all gray tonalities on top of the hard-ground etching.

Jonas Wood, 8 Pots (2017), series of eight etchings with chine collé, 16 × 14 inches each. Edition of 15. Printed and published by WKS Editions, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brian Forrest.

JS There’s also soft-ground etching there as well, so it’s hard ground, soft ground and aquatint.

JW That’s right. Before 2017, I had never done soft ground, I had never done aquatinting. And there’s so many other things that I haven’t learned about yet. It just seems like there’s a big world ahead of me in printmaking.

There’s not a lot of young people making prints. And I like the idea of establishing that for myself, but also hopefully for other people in the future as time goes on, so I can do the same thing for a young artist that Ruscha did for me.

JS We’ve got to start some new stuff up.

JW Well, that takes us to where we’re at right now. We’ve been talking about making a couple more interiors with this kind of density and then maybe even some landscapes. And we’ve just started dabbling with color in the small orchid and the doodle, which is new.

JS We need to do some color aquatint as well.

JW Yes. That’s the plan. We can’t stop.

  1. Picasso 347: 347 Engravings That Picasso Executed At Mougins from March 16th to October 5th, 1968. Two volumes (New York: Random House/Maecenas Press, 1970. []
  2. Rich Garcés, who played for the Red Sox from 1996 to 2002. []
  3. The Boston Red Sox did not win a World Series between 1918 and 2004. It is the third-longest dry spell in baseball history, superseded only by those of the Chicago White Sox (87 seasons) and the Chicago Cubs (107 seasons). []
  4. Larry Bird played for the Boston Celtics from 1979 to 1992. []