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Jasper Pedyo in conversation with Jamie Huckbody

“No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicising narrative, valuable artefact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.” Robert Morris

Minimalist. Modernist. Pop artist. Aesthete. Craftsman. Jasper Pedyo is all of these things and more. Since graduating from Leeds Arts University’s Fine Art course in 2018, this Zimbabwe-born, Barnsley-based artist has quickly established himself as a One to Watch. The mercurial quality of his work (which seductively blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture) has captivated an international audience fluent in the visual language of desirability. Parlez-vous? Blame it on the taut curves and still planes of his painted canvases — stretched drum-tight over the complex three-dimensional plywood frames beneath — and the reflective pools of high-gloss steel that sit snugly within them. Like siren songs, Pedyo’s paintings beckon you to stop and ponder, offering a space for quiet contemplation. The overall effect is one of visual bliss.

But what is it exactly that makes Pedyo’s work so mesmerising and so relevant to the here and now? Is it the precision with which he crafts his work and the perfectly balanced proportions that make it so satisfying? (Pedyo is obsessed with balance, so much so that most of his paintings even have a ‘twin’.) Or is it the fact that his paintings brim with unapologetic confidence; the kind found only in the very young and those with an unbridled, singular vision? As Pedyo himself admits: “I’m compelled to make these paintings.”

The truth of the matter can probably be traced back to Alexander Baumgarten, the 18th-century German philosopher who coined the term ‘aesthetics’ in 1735 and who set out an objective framework for defining good and bad art through ideas of good and bad taste — discourse that has had a significant influence on Pedyo’s work. Aestheticism, as the subsequent artistic movement came to be called, is primarily concerned with beauty and Baumgarten defined beauty as that which is sensorially pleasurable — ‘art for art’s sake’ as opposed to, say, religious instruction.

Cue Pedyo’s constructions with their shapes and colours reduced to the bare, graphic essentials, their mirrored surfaces teasing a glimpse of our selfie selves. Indeed, there is something of the smartphone or games console in their bold, designed purity. In an age when we are reliant on our tech devices more than ever to get through our daily lives — when the phone camera has replaced the mirror and our ever-dwindling attention spans have reduced us to the infantile — could there be anything more pleasurable, more relevant, more beautiful than Pedyo’s paintings? All we have to do is bathe in their sublime glow and enjoy them: art for art’s sake.

Jackie Wullschläger, chief art critic at the Financial Times, describes Pedyo’s work as having “the charisma to command a room — and able to turn lineages of pop and minimalism into something fresh and exhilarating”. Personally, I think Pedyo’s work is also about beauty as a device with which to control. His paintings act as an almighty frontline against domestic tawdriness and sociopolitical ugliness. We need them now more than ever.

Why do you make what you make as an artist? 

My work is driven by a desire to make fucking brilliant paintings.

Are there any historical art movements which inspire your work? 

My work is in the tradition of Minimalism but I don’t have the same ideas about painting as those artists associated with the Minimalism art movement in 1960s New York. 

My work is also in the tradition of Pop Art and its influence on advertising — like the huge murals that they used to paint on walls for brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike. I love that kind of scale which commands a space or an entire room. I want the visual language of my own work to be noticed like those mega brand advertisements.

The Memphis Group has also been a big influence on my work, as has Bauhaus and the work of midcentury Scandinavian designers. They were making beautiful forms and fantastically sexy furniture. In fact, I get as much inspiration from designing furniture and chairs (my sketchbooks are full of them) as I do art.

You’ve said that you are a “true Modernist but a Modernist with a love of craftsmanship and making”, and there is obviously a lot of making within the plywood structures of your three-dimensional paintings.

Yes, I love craftsmanship. For example, I love the work of William Morris — not necessarily the aesthetics but the fact that he was obsessed with traditional crafts and making things by hand. In my own practice I use a mix of digital artwork, fabrication and my own hands.

How did the idea for your three-dimensional paintings come to you?

The lightbulb moment for me came when I realised that a painting doesn’t need to exist on just one plane.

Is there any significance/symbolism in the high-gloss steel inserts that you incorporate into your paintings?

The reason I include reflective surfaces in my work is because a strange thing happens when you look at your own reflection. It can make you question yourself. And if you see yourself in a black reflective surface it’s a different sensation.

But every single viewer will view my work differently: people from different cultures will view the shapes and colours in my work in different ways.

Which contemporary artists are you into? 

Takashi Murakami and Ellsworth Kelly. I came across Takashi Murakami’s work when he collaborated with Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton. His work spoke to me. But my favourite is Ellsworth Kelly.

Does contemporary culture influence your work in any way?

Yes. I find inspiration in tactile things such as devices that have very smooth, shiny surfaces. [He waves his mobile phone.] I love those kinds of surfaces. I also love street signs and the buttons on things like remote controls. 

I paint contemporary culture without necessarily having to obviously state what it is. I take what I think is aesthetically pleasing about an object and intensify it by simplifying it and reducing it to its bare elements. You might not necessarily recognise what my paintings were inspired by, but that’s not the point.

Do you think there is a connection between your generation in particular — one born into the Digital Age — and this idea of simplification?

Yes, I do. With so much information at our fingertips, I think we crave a simplified existence and are reducing things to what’s necessary. Within my own practice, it’s about finding something that is beautiful and simplifying it so the viewer can see something they might not have noticed before because we live in such a busy world.

As such, my paintings are very simple but the proportions of them are so important — the proportions have to make sense and the elements all work with each other.

Maybe your paintings are a response to a world that is out of control?

When I think about it, yes they are. My paintings are the one thing in my life where I am ‘God’. That’s an extreme thing to say but it is the one thing that I have control over and can manipulate.

There is space to make work which is thoughtful, thought-provoking, which can be challenging, but I want to make work which makes people smile because we live in such shitty times. I kind of miss that work that makes you fall in love with art.

When was the first time you fell in love with art?

It was when I went to Leeds Art Gallery and saw an Andy Warhol print of Chairman Mao. My first reaction was, Wow! The colours, the scale … everything. A few years later, I went to Tate Liverpool to see Roy Lichtenstein’s prints. I was blown away by the intense colours and the quality of execution. It was then that I realised I wanted to make work that made the viewer go, Wow! and to make paintings that create an emotional response — that make you sit back and look.

Do you think you have achieved that? 

I have seen people taken aback when they’ve seen my work in the right space. 

So where do you see your work’s place within the genres of Minimalism and Pop Art?

I cannot say yet — I am still experiencing and exploring. But as much as I try to avoid making my work about being a black man, the fact is I am a black man who is working within two white-male-dominated art movements. 

And so the dynamic I bring is a reflection of my upbringing and the black experience: I was born in Zimbabwe in Africa and so things such as Coca-Cola advertising graphics did a lot for my visual education, especially in terms of colour. Also kung fu and western movies — the bright colours and costumes — and cigarette adverts like the Marlboro Man, with the graphic red and white branding, had a major impact on me.

Do you associate the kind of bold primary colours used in advertising with desirability and Western ideals? 

Oh my days, yes! But the idea of the American — or the Western — dream is actually a nightmare.

You have said that you avoid making art that is overtly political. Why is that?

There are a lot of black artists who are doing very political figurative art or heavily conceptual work which I think is absolutely necessary. But I have always said let those who are far more eloquent than me speak — and paint — about those things. What I’m really interested in is beauty. That in itself is a political statement.

Most people associate beauty in art with landscapes and naked bodies. Why don’t you paint these things?

Because I want to see what I can do with a very limited palette of shapes and forms, and see where I can take them.

Is there a moment in your childhood that you now look back on and can see as a direct link to your work as an artist today?

When I was growing up, my mum had these curtains which I thought were absolutely foul. I always wanted to pull them down and put up something that was nice. That childhood experience relates to my work on display today: I want to impart what I think is good taste onto the world. I know how narcissistic that sounds but it’s important to me. I think some people have terrible taste and I want to show them something beautiful. That’s why I do what I do.

Written by Jamie Huckbody | January 2021

Jamie Huckbody is a creative consultant and an arts & design writer who has worked with some of the world’s leading creatives, luxury design brands and publishing houses. 

A graduate of Central Saint Martins, Jamie trained at Vogue (London) before becoming a writer at The Independent and an editor of i-D magazine, collaborating on editorial projects with the likes of Takashi Murakami, Wolfgang Tilmans and Helmut Newton. In 2005, he moved to Australia to be a director at Harper’s BAZAAR, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief in 2008.

After returning to the UK to cover the European arts scene as the magazine’s London-based European Editor (a position he held until April 2019), Jamie decided to turn his attention to the artists and designers closer to his South Yorkshire birthplace. And so, last year, he founded a creative consultancy — HUCKBODY — and an online gallery — ONE GOOD GIFT — with the aim of discovering, supporting and promoting the freshest northern English talent for an international audience. 

Jasper sat on a chair wearing a striking mustard jumper next to one of his works

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