Engaging with the natural world to solidify our disjointed relationship with it.
British artist Jake Grewal interrogates contemporary societies fractured relationship with nature, queer identity and ultimately the ‘self’ via his drawing and painting practices. Seemingly ‘idyllic’ pastoral scenes act as a gateway to understand the brutal and macabre mechanisms of nature and in turn become a metaphor for one’s own detached and disenfranchised relationship with it. Young men, often nude, are depicted interacting, frequently concealed by or miraculously merging with Mother Nature and in doing so, suggest an ardent longing for connection with one another and with the greater outside world. The figures in Jake’s pieces tend to mirror his likeness and thereby, a personal history is embedded within his narratives, but he maintains that for himself: intimate experiences are best expressed through allegory and metaphor. I was taken by how reflective the artist was when talking about his work, it felt as if the pursuit of artistic creation was a means of self-analysis, a grounding point for exploring where he fits within the world. He cautiously and gently navigates the ‘woke’ sphere we’ve found ourselves in, perhaps undervaluing the wisdom that comes from his perspective as a queer and POC artist. Producing at home during lockdown and separated from his regular studio routine has pushed his palette into darker realms, resulting in sunset and nocturne scenes. Instinctively gravitating towards the aptitude of Old Masters who like him were fascinated with light effects and the sublime forces of the earth; Constable, Corot, Degas, Gaugin, Turner; drawing is at the heart of his approach. Having spent a year studying with The Royal Drawing School gave him a sense of purpose and consecrated the importance of sketching from life and en plein air. By prompting the viewer to assess their relationship with the outside world and those closest to them, Jake’s work performs as an antidote to the technological and social media-driven era we exist within and lovingly encourages the viewer to reconnect with the ecosphere.
At the University of Brighton, you were part of a peer group with artists such as Michaela Yearwood-Dan and Somaya Critchlow. Did this time surrounded by community, sea and winds influence your painting?
Michaela and I shared a studio together when we were studying, and later a house. I think we all share an interrogation of the self within our practice. Maybe this has come from feeling like we didn’t fit in or possibly not seeing ourselves within the canon of western art history.
The Royal Drawing School’s Drawing Year saw your work develop in palette. In what ways did your time there alter your practice and themes?
The Royal Drawing School gave me an extended period of time to look inwardly at the purpose of my practice. A year’s observational drawing provided structures that remain a routine within my process. Working from observation is an anchor for me and I suppose this is why my palette developed. I enjoy time where the only priority is to look, and to articulate/respond to what’s in front of you. Having this distance from the studio, for me, gives the space often needed for the studio work to mature.
With numerous people being forced into introspection during lockdown, have your paintings been altered by the change in environment? Do these shifts in your internal landscape affect the external habitats in which your characters are rooted?
Like most I worked from home. To begin with, I was painting from observation in my mother’s garden. It felt quite pointless to make work rooted in the interrogation of the self when you could see people gasping for air in hospital. When I had the courage to think about my practice, I noticed my paintings became quite dark in palette. There is an ongoing dialogue between the bodies and the landscapes in my work that often alludes to an internal feeling. These environments influence the bodies and vice versa. I think there were subtle changes, but nothing that specifically and directly illustrates the period of lockdown.
As you perceive the male nude through a queer gaze, do your personal experiences inform the representation of these figures?
Yes, personal histories are woven into the paintings. I can see where each painting has come from however, I don’t tend to share these starting points. The paintings become their own objects and I try to keep them as open as possible.
Considering many of the figures you depict share your resemblance, are the situations they find themselves in based on dreams or reality? Are they idealised, impartial or intuitive identities?
The environments are often a fabricated space in order to talk about real subjects. I can find the courage to talk about situations honestly under the shroud of metaphor or allegory. I at the paintings as paintings, not as a documentation of reality.
Whether a figure is bathing in sunlight, hiding in shade or hovering in between, what role does the climate embody in your compositions?
I suppose light is something I refer to a lot, often referencing the sublime and tropes of western landscape painting. Corot’s “Four Times of Day” is one of my favourite paintings in The National Gallery. A time of day can be so evocative of emotion. I think the atmosphere of a work is rather crucial to the reading, or deconstruction of the narrative.
Abundant with scented flowers, sparkling pollen and textured dandelions, how does the sensuality of the natural world reflect tenderness?
I’m not sure I ever see the natural world as tender. It’s survival of the fittest. There is mysticism to the difference in how the “natural world” runs in comparison to humanity. I cannot help but notice the macabre undertones in both, although they are viewed as so separate.
Combining dappled light, wondrous trees and transient winds, in what ways do your plein-air sketches inform your paintings?
They create an anchor from which I make paintings. They’re useful to find the shapes of things and the colour of tone. Something that is harder to do in the studio from a photograph.
Not only does the romanticism of poetry permeate your paintings, it is also another avenue, which you explore. Is your writing approach different from your painting process? Do they shape one another?
I would say I like to arrange words on a page. I do like to write although I rarely sit down to do it. It’s mostly when I feel overwhelmed with emotion it flows out of me. I look for the imagery in what I’m trying to say and afterwards I enjoy arranging the structure, playing with breath and rhythm. There is an inevitable connection and some overlap.
With many of your titles being split by strokes (/, // and ///), do these extend from the dualistic, relational scenes in your images? At what point in the creation of a work do you compose these words?
It really depends on the work. The words allude to autobiographical elements in the work. I often have a feeling I hold with me during the work and as it develops, so do the words. My sketchbook is filled with half formed sentences and scrawls of confessions. The strokes are often reflected in the works, used symbolically or as a break for breath in the title.
Differing from the mainstream hierarchy of art where figurative work is deemed to be paramount, why are landscapes a primary concern for you? We spoke about how your perception of nature is ultimately idealised and mysticised, it is imbued with childhood memories and yet at the same time seems to hold answers for you and your work. Why do you feel it is such a fertile ground for exploration of existential questions?
Figurative painting doesn’t just reference the figure but includes other genres like still life and landscape. Landscape speaks to me as a subject matter as there is so much left open to interpretation. There is space for ambiguity and projection. When I work, I try not to differentiate from portrait to landscape. I try to see things abstractly and enjoy how a landscape could be a portrait and a portrait a landscape. I see no difference between the two.
Larger works are often displayed beside smaller paintings in your studio. How does the relationship between the two play out? Is the dialogue between physicality and intimacy an important factor?
The way the work is read is crucial to any artwork. Scale is something that purposefully and consciously, I enjoy playing with. It can have a push and pull factor within a room.
Among others, you reference Masters such as Turner, Degas, Constable and Corot in your Instagram posts. Can you identify their fingerprint in any particular aspects of your work?
If you’re a painter I think it would be peculiar if you were working in isolation. I have multiple threads from multiple artists I admire working with me at all times. If I told you where the fingerprints were it would ruin it. I can tell you, however, I found out Degas used an apple green ground that I will be trying tomorrow.
Earlier this year, you took part in the Drawing Marathon at Rhode Island School of Design. While you are usually based in London, did this change in environment alter your perception of the arts in Britain?
It changed my perception of art education in Britain. The teaching I received at RISD was some of the best I’ve ever experienced and used similar terminology to the teaching style at The Royal Drawing School. It also blew my mind a little when I realized how many master works were within American institutions, I think Europeans tend to think we have a monopoly on such pieces.
I’m looking forward to engaging with other practitioners in this opportunity. A solid community of artists is something quite rare, and should be cherished.
Some viewers may consider your work to be traditional with your use of oil paints, supporting easels and life drawings. As technology continues to evolve, do you envision it contributing to your processes in any way?
I think one is drawn to whatever they need in order to vocalize visually the point they are trying to make. An inclusion of progressive technologies isn’t a priority within my practice at the moment. There may be a time where I require it within my practice, but right now I’m focusing on drawing and painting
Words by Charlie Siddick