Jay Paavonpera is buttoned up. When we first meet on a Sunday afternoon at his studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, the room is set up as a gallery; neatly wrapped canvas frames hang on the wall, and several works of sculpture are arranged carefully on the floor. A lanky 32-year old with a strong jaw and light stubble, Paavonpera is handsome but unassuming. He’s dressed down in a T-shirt and work pants, but still color-coordinated. As he closes the door to the studio, I notice his work materials neatly stacked and stored, out of the way on a shelf lofted above the door. Everything about him seems carefully deliberate, and it translates directly to the art he makes.
Paavonpera’s work takes on a consistent, subdued color palette, incorporating materials commonly used in life, if not art. The sculptures and canvas works he constructs are aesthetically beautiful, but much of his expression is conceptual. Paavonpera considers the materials he works with, ponders their everyday purposes, and then creates visual metaphors in reaction. His works are wrought with intellectual curiosity, expressive experiments derived from an investigation of his own human condition. He is hyper-aware of how his work is being viewed, and strives to provide the proper context. It’s not coincidental that at his day job as a public relations representative for a French fashion house, image is no small factor.
“I think I would make different work if I didn’t have a full-time job, I really do,” Paavonpera says. “It requires me to think in a certain way. I don’t know if it would be better or worse, but I do know that it wouldn’t be the same work. I see elements of the work here, as a result of the work of my corporate job. It feels in a way, corporate. It’s so buttoned up.”
But the nature of his work can’t solely be traced to his corporate connections—his more obsessive-compulsive tendencies are ingrained into his personality, and manifest themselves in the work, though often in subtle ways. Even the elements out of view are considered; he takes extra care to wrap each canvas around its frame, neatly folding and stapling parts of the work that will never be seen when hung on a gallery wall.
“No one is ever going to see the back of the painting,” Paavonpera admits. “But for me, I want to make sure that people understand that it was considered. I really take care with the works. I really take care to make sure that things are neat.”
Speaking with him about art and its history, it’s clear he has studied various forms, and is still trying to figure out where he fits in. Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning,” in which the artist erased an original work by the modern master referred to in its title, is of particular importance to him. The more subversive elements of Paavonpera’s art lie mostly in its presentation rather than any particular skill for mark-making. In an older work titled “Under Construction,” he uses building materials found on construction sites to play on the idea of contemporary art appearing unfinished. “People often look at contemporary art and they’re like ‘Oh, is that it?” Well, yes, OK, that is it, physically, but there’s a lot of thought that goes into [it].”
“It's so important to be confident in the theory of your work. I really think that a lot of people make work and they don't really understand why they're making it."
— JAY PAAVONPERA
With such an approach, the discourse between artist and the viewer is crucial to Paavonpera. In a way his work is very literal; he doesn’t try to hide what raw materials are, but will often try to blur the line between what he found and what he made. “The very idea that it’s being presented as a piece of art is a detached form of reality,” he explains. “Because [it doesn’t naturally] exist in that way. So it’s literal, and it’s completely irrational.”
Even when he produces work that’s ostensibly chaotic, like what he calls his “mistake canvas,” it seems ordered. He often does test sprays to make sure the spray paint cans aren’t clogged, or he’ll wipe excess spackle from a tool he was using on the various canvasses laid out in his studio. Later, he carefully selects his favorite “mistakes,” wrapping and stretching them on a frame to present on the wall.
“I think that there’s a value in that,” he says. “I’m editing a record of time.”
The record of the process holds significant meaning to Paavonpera’s exhibition and personal interpretation of his work. While the objects he hangs on walls or arranges on the floor are undoubtedly alluring, it’s not enough for them to exist in the abstract void of a gallery; he seems compelled to provide context. In one series, he began to detail all of the materials used in its construction, describing the spackling paste, household paint and duct tape he used. He loved the perspective it provided so much that he began incorporating it into most of his future works.
“These objects, they surround us, these are objects that we physically live with,” he explains. “They occupy our space and we occupy theirs. So I decided to start listing the objects, and naming them. To offer them a personality, an identity.”
While Paavonpera doesn’t necessarily work with traditional brushes, he still considers himself a painter. From his perspective, that distinction relates more to how the work is consumed, rather than how it’s made. In reference to one piece, made of window-shade vinyl (acting as the canvas), with two layers of screens marked by zip ties, he says, “I still consider it to be a painting, in the sense that the way that the objects are applied create a gradient of color."
Much of his raw material comes from home-improvement stores, or sometimes he uses refuse and other found objects. By their nature, the works are not permanent—the twisted window screen on exhibition at his studio does not appear to be easily transported—but he appears unconcerned by the work’s more fleeting temporal qualities. “What constitutes archival?” he asks. “Nothing really lasts forever, anyway. You’re actually just talking about a period of time. Nothing will last.”
It’s no bluff; when he judged sheetrock—a material that played heavily in an older series of work—to be passé, he destroyed all of his old work that featured it. He found the experience to be fun. “I just needed to get rid of it,” he says. “It was clouding my thoughts for better work.”
Like any artist with a day job, finding the time to make work can be challenging, or at least challenging to productivity. But Paavonpera is grateful that he doesn’t have to sustain himself through sales of his work, and content with the way that his corporate job informs the work he does make and sell. It still doesn’t stop him from wondering what might have been accomplished without the distraction, however.
“If I had given my work the same attention I’ve given a career, nine or ten hours a day, five days a week,” he asks, “what would this work be then? I don’t know if it would be better or worse, but I do know that it wouldn’t be the same work. And I’m really happy with this.”
Nonetheless, the work is steadily building an audience, and curators and gallerists are taking notice. Paavonpera exhibited in 2013 at the Bronx Museum of Arts and also participated in a group show curated by Peter Makebish, and then another in 2014 at the Fifi Projects in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2014, he signed with Todd Mauritz at m23 in New York City. But like any ambitious artist, Paavonpera still measures himself against the outliers—overachieving precocious New York art stars like Lucien Smith and Daniel Turner—and strives for the same levels of success.
“We measure ourselves against people that are the exception, and not the rule,” he says. “And you think like ‘Here I am, I’m gonna be 32. Where was my chance?’ It’s a fallacy, you can’t even think like that.”
But it’s that competitive atmosphere that often drives artists to make better work, to strive to meet the challenge set by the success of others in your peer group. For his part, Paavonpera often takes a literal bent to motivating himself, playing speeches from motivational speakers Eric Thomas and Tony Robbins on his stereo while he works. Al Pacino’s “Inches” speech from Oliver Stone’s football melodrama Any Given Sundayis among his favorites: “We are in hell right now, gentlemen. Believe me. And we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back into the light.”
Ultimately, it is the command of his message—the understanding of what he’s making and why he’s making it—that makes Paavonpera’s work so strong.