James B. Janknegt 

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The following interview was in volume one, issue two, spring of 2004 of The New Pantagruel magazine.

The Way Is Through, Not Around


Several articles in this issue of The New Pantagruel feature paintings by Jim Janknegt, a Texas-based artist whose body of work struck us as coming as close as one can get to our ideal of “joyfully engag[ing] in earthly reality, insisting on seeing both the divine reflection and the demonic shadow.” Art and Design Editor John Paul Davis conversed with Jim over email during the last few weeks of April.



 Looking at your entire body of work, one thing I noticed that struck me was that your early paintings, the stuff done in the 80s, is almost entirely urban-themed, with darker, cooler colors, and morose or stoic subjects. Almost all the scenes are night scenes; all the light is artificial. Then a period begins in the early 90s in which your subject matter becomes more explicitly religious: scenes from biblical stories, or domestic scenes that remind me of Chagall’s domestic scenes–the subject matter is mundane, but the painting itself is more ecstatic. Your most recent work seems to move into the suburbs altogether and sometimes into the country. The colors get brighter, the subjects are happier, and the style becomes somewhat geometric and cubist. But not cubist in the sense of trying to get all three dimensions on the canvas so much as perhaps an attempt to get at a fourth (spiritual) dimension on the canvas. Can you talk about this development?




 What you have observed in the stylistic progression of my work is the biography of my life. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa I was challenged by Mauricio Lasansky, the head of the printmaking department, to no longer work from my head but to work from my gut. I began working from memory drawing scenes from my adolescence. My marriage of 5 years had disintegrated, and upon moving back to Austin in 1982, I began to use the night-time cityscapes as a metaphor for my emotional and spiritual state, as well as, from my perception, the state of the world. I felt, as Walker Percy stated, that I was being a diagnostician of the modern condition. I would take my camp stool, wander around town at night, sit on street corners, sketch, then return to my studio and work up the paintings. The drawing was very naturalistic, but the colors were lurid and vibrant as I focused on the neon and street lights.



In 1985 I was asked to participate in an invitational show called “Contemporary Altarpieces.” I painted the painting Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall for this exhibit. (Editor’s note: the painting is featuredhere.) It is a traditional crucifixion, except the setting is in the parking lot of a new mall in Austin with the city skyline in the background. The people who are acting out the responses of the crowds as described in the gospels are all wearing contemporary clothes. There are several neon signs on the lamp post on which Jesus is hanging: open 24 hours, no vacancy, and eat here. (As an aside: The exhibit was to be in the lobby of a big bank in downtown Austin, but when the president of the bank saw my painting he immediately called the curator of the show and demanded that my painting be removed because he, being a Baptist, found the work to be sacreligious. Rather than take my painting down, the curator removed the entire show before it even opened. The event made the front page of the Austin paper, including a photo of my painting. Folks who had never seen the painting were calling the local Christian radio station decrying this blasphemous painting.) This painting was very much like the cityscapes I had been doing but included an overt religious subject. I decided that if I had something of a spiritual nature to say, why not just say it? So I started doing more overt Christian subject matter but in the same style and set in contemporary Austin.




 Are the signs intended to be referential to the modern church? When I first saw that painting, the “eat here” bit seemed a reference to the Eucharist, and “no vacancy” recalled the nativity story in Matthew, but it also was suggestive to me of “mall churches,” as was “open 24 hours.” There’s an irony there: these huge churches that have taken the architecture and attitude of the shopping mall, but which have no vacancy. And the people in the painting sort of reinforced that notion for me, people hurrying past the disturbing spectacle of the crucifixion to their shopping.




 The signs in Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall are supposed to have double meanings. One is the literal meaning of these signs as you would see them driving through any urban American city or along American highways but the other meaning refers to theological ideas surrounding Jesus life as you have surmised. I didn’t have in mind the references to the modern church you mention, but if the shoe fits… which is what is so engaging about art. The three way dialogue that takes place between the subject matter, the artist’s intentions, and the viewers knowledge of the subject and personal response create a resonance; the greater the overlap, the greater the resonance and depth of meaning a piece of art has. 


Speaking of irony, I had one exhibit of my suburban paintings reviewed in the Austin paper, and the entire show was reviewed through the lenses of twentieth-century irony. The reviewer totally misinterpreted the style and the content of the paintings. Does a favorable review count if the work is totally misunderstood? But it brings up the point: work that speaks with an authentic voice, finding joy in the creation, even the creation of humankind and celebrating life, even life in the suburbs is highly likely to be misunderstood because of the expectation of an ironic point of view. I remember reading an essay by Umberto Eco about irony. He claimed it was impossible for the twentieth-century writer to speak with an authentic voice because all true emotion and feelings have been used up. So we must distance ourselves by speaking through another voice, and often, as in his book The Name of the Rose, that is not even enough. He tells his story through a narrator who has discovered a manuscript, so the author is really twice removed from the story he is telling: once by the manuscript and once by the narrator.




 Funny. I read an essay by Jonathan Franzen that suggested the opposite: that we’ve ruined irony and the only decent antidote is some good healthy sincerity. Every so often somebody comes along and declares that we can’t do things a certain way anymore. Sincerity, irony, rock and roll, punk, and art are all dead. The response for people who don’t believe in ressurection to abandon what’s died. But our response can be different, as your work suggests. Speaking of that: What happened when you moved back to Austin?




 I began attending an Episcopal Church where some of my friends had started a Sunday evening contemporary service. I sat in the back and nursed the wounds from my divorce and slowly started getting involved. I married my wife Melissa, whom I had known before I left for Iowa and who was now attending St. David’s, (1989) and I moved into her home in the suburbs of Austin about 12 blocks from the house in which I had grown up. 


During this time I moved from being a diagnostician to being a celebrant. I decided to try and figure out how to paint the suburbs, the place I and 80% of America called home. I realized that I had a fondness for the suburbs I had grown up in, and they became a metaphor for the joy and hope in my new marriage. But putting rows and rows of houses on a canvas was pictorially difficult. Late in my exploration of the urban landscape I had gone beyond the naturalism of my early work and had begun looking at things from various points of view,a la cubism, in an attempt to be more expressive. I found that applying the lessons I had learned from the cubists, as well as gaining an understanding of the pictorial space of traditional icons and religious paintings from the medieval period, gave me a path to painting the suburbs. Slowly religious imagery began to creep back into these paintings until I had enough work to display in an exhibit in 1998 entitled, “Suburban Interiors and Other Apocalyptic Paintings,” in which I played around with the whole idea of the millennium change and the apocalyptic expectations of the culture but set in the suburbs. 


My slow shift away from naturalism was indeed an attempt to express, through the use of images of contemporary life mingled with religious imagery, more than the materialistic notions of the physical world being all there is. And an attempt to avoid the trap of modern art which believes that art should only be about ART drowning in self-referentialism. (That’s not a real word is it?) I suppose I have a sacramental view of the cosmos in which the grand overarching story mingles with my personal stories, beliefs and ideas and ends up as colors and shapes on a canvas. My painting is autobiographical but infused with the larger narrative of God interrupting time and space.




 That’s easily visible in works like Suburban Still Life: Flower Rise or Bugs, Tool and Beyond (Editor’s note: the painting is featured here), where the objects of daily life and the tools of your art are sort of taken up into, but it also comes out in the suburban scenes, paintings like Taking Out the Trash(speaking of which, my wife saw the painting as I was writing and said “taking out the trash… have you done that yet?”) These are interesting to me because I feel like my poetry has taken a similar turn. I began writing as a slam poet, and dwelt on a lot of Big Issues and political themes, but of late, I’ve also moved more to the celebratory. Much of what inspired that change for me was the birth of my son and moving to small town in the Midwest. I’ve found that expressing joy is much more difficult than anger. People respond easily to anger, but it’s much harder to get them to open up to and respond to joy without all their skepticism and irony sensors going off. So many artists and writers have treated joy so badly that it’s hard to overcome that history.




 I agree that having a family and children changes ones perspective on life. I did a painting called Birth shortly after my daughter was born. She is wrapped in a blanket covered with stars, floating down from the top of the painting above a huge vase of flowers that her godmother had given us to celebrate her birth. A naked man and woman stand on either side of the the flowers looking up. The man is holding a house (reminiscent of some icons where the saint is holding a church), and the women is holding a red heart. The hopes and aspirations you feel on the birth of a child are joined with fear and nakedness that all you really have to offer is yourself–and perhaps that won’t be enough. Some people look at this painting and see a Nativity story. I didn’t intend that but can see it as well. 


If by treating joy badly you mean so much art that is sentimental and inauthentic in that it does not find joy growing out of suffering or at least alongside it, I agree. One cannot ignore sorrow and suffering and hope to find joy and beauty but must pass through the sorrow to find it. My painting 2 Gardens (above) shows Adam and Eve on the left side of the painting in the garden of Eden being tempted by the serpent. On the right side of the painting is Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane to let the cup pass from him. From both sides of the painting there is a gate leading into the central section of the painting, which is a sprawling cityscape that is still growing with building cranes sticking up. There is no living thing in the city, even the trees encroaching from the two gardens have withered and died. This is our attempt to return to the garden of Eden, to “immanentize the eschaton,” to create a utopia, but it has gone wrong. (I got this from the Eric Voeglin discussion in the New Pantagruel forums. I haven’t read Eric Voeglin but I love that phrase.) The true way is through suffering to embrace the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane as Jesus did. The way is through, not around. The return to the first garden is through the second. To invoke joy and beauty without acknowledging the world’s heart of suffering is to invoke sentimentality.




 You moved from being a diagnostician, and yet, the celebration has its own diagnostic effect. One of the challenging and interesting aspects of the suburban work is that it celebrates the suburban life, which often stands as a symbol of what’s dysfunctional in the American economy and in race relations. Sometimes, like in “Four Soils,” the work reflects a little of that dysfunction, but for the most part, there’s this redemption happening in the paintings exemplified best, I think, by the Treasurefield series, but present everywhere.




 One of my favorite artists is Ben Shahn. He said (and I am paraphrasing) there are two things an artist should paint: the things he loves and the things he hates. In our age it seems more honest to paint the things you hate, that make you angry. I went to part of a conference quite a few years ago at the University of Texas art department called “What Ever Happened to Beauty?” The premise I gleaned from the part I attended was that because of the horrors mankind has perpetrated on itself in this century, the ONLY honest response an artist can make is ugliness, beauty being a dishonest response. I understand this, and I think it is important to look evil right in the eye and not blink. But to deny that redemption is a very real possibility is in itself evil with art often being the means of telling the story of that redemption. (One of my favorite scriptures is the end of Genesis where Joseph says that “the evil that men intended for me God has turned to good.”)




 Do people sometimes classify you as a “Christian artist?” Your faith is obviously present in your art, and your art sometimes seems like a part of your faith practice, like Thomas Merton’s poetry, or Johnny Cash’s songs. But “Christian painter” makes me think of Thomas Kincade, which is regrettable, because I should be thinking of Giotto or Cimabue, or the Dutch Masters, or William Blake, not Thomas Kincade.




 I don’t think I have ever been referred to as a “Christian artist” in any of the reviews that have been published about my work. Several folks have mentioned that my Christian faith informs my work, which I think is a clearer way of trying to say the same thing. When there was more of a consensus about Christian symbols and how they were used in art, it made sense to talk about Christian Art. Not necessarily that the artist doing the work was a Christian but that he was working with ideas, images and within a cultural context that was largely Christian. Although something like 85% of Americans claim to believe in God, we do not have a common language to speak about God symbolically using visual images. If there is one thing I would love to see, it is a rediscovery of a visual language to speak about Christian spirituality. And maybe not just a visual language but a language that could be cross-disciplinary, encompassing music, writing, poetry and the visual arts. I have tried to use images in my work that have one foot in the tradition of the Christian faith and the other in contemporary life. I am intrigued by the root meaning of the word “symbol” (sumbolon, which literally means “thrown together.”) I read an explanation once about the token that the Greek word sumbolon originally referred to. When two people were making a business deal, they would break the sumbolon in half, and each person would get a piece. Upon completion of the deal, before the final money traded hands, the two pieces were brought back together to confirm that the original parties were in fact whom they said they were or were their representatives. So this broken token became the word for symbol: two pieces of reality, the invisible and the visible, brought together to gain deeper understanding about the cosmos. Initially there was no need to display the reality of the horrors of crucifixion, most Christians having a good chance of knowing someone personally who had been killed this way. It is surprising to learn that the earliest extant visual image of the crucifixion is around 420, a good 100 years after the practice was discontinued. When the early Christians first began using it as a symbol, it was not the literal, brutally crucified Christ upon the cross but the victorious Christ as King. After 100 years had passed, they got most of the details wrong (nails through hands instead of wrists, etc., but the symbol was correct.) It no longer symbolized the shame and utter annihilation the Romans intended. For them it was Christ’s victory over sin and death that was the important thing to symbolize, not how horribly he suffered, Jesus having passed through suffering and into resurrected life. We, being two millennia removed, are mostly unaware of the horrors of crucifixion (until Mel Gibson’s film shook us up), and the symbol has become ubiquitous and innocuous, not representing suffering and shame or victorious life either. But when I combined the image of Christ crucified with a modern light pole set in the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall, the image once again becomes scandalous, the symbol re-energized.


I do not know much about Thomas Kinkade, but my impression is that he is mostly about making money. Much of the appeal of someone like Kinkade is the accessibility; people do not feel stupid when they look at one of his paintings. Due to the elitist nature of much of the art produced in the twentieth century, most ordinary folks feel pretty stupid walking around most ART museums and galleries. Again, here I feel that loss of the common language of art. Art is too individualistic, too concerned with self-expression to allow much real resonance to take place much of the time. Mostly you just feel left out, laughed at and ridiculed like you’re missing the in-joke. The artist’s intentions and subject are often inscrutable unless one has taken graduate level art history classes. I am not trying to justify Kinkade, but his work is in part a reaction to the attitudes of the high art world.



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