A conversation with the L.A.-based mixed media artist behind our Nocturne Issue cover
Sitting amongst mixed media artist Jon Pylypchuk’s incarnations of his famed character sculptures made of stacked tires, as well as his automatic “face paintings” depicting large, slightly crestfallen eyes in his studio near downtown Los Angeles, I am struck by how the artist’s oversized black-rimmed glasses seem to mirror the open, playful nature of his creations. Born to a Ukrainian family in Winnipeg, Canada, Pylypchuk made a name for himself with his whimsical, storybook-like characters composed of fake fur and wood but displaying occasional sexual and violent tendencies—yet always portrayed with a touch of levity.
Having exhibited at the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Royal Academy in London, and represented by Friedrich Petzel in New York, Pylypchuk’s trajectory in the art world is impressive, yet growing up he never saw himself pursuing a career in art. Rather he dreamed of being a musician, but after learning that he was failing many of his undergraduate classes at the University of Manitoba, the school pushed him into an art class with the promise of clearing his record: “I never had any interest in art.” He explains, “I had a friend who was taking an Introduction to Art class—I had failed pretty much every class in college—they said that if I could get a ‘B’ in the class, I could go into the art school. I realized that all of the things I was trying to do in music, the emotions I was trying to convey, just didn’t translate. But with art, it was a whole different thing.” Finally finding a means of expression that worked for him, Pylypchuk began making sculptures with his friends, and upon graduation became a member of “Winnipeg institution” artist collective The Royal Art Lodge (1996–2008) founded by Adrian Williams, Neil Farber, Michael Dumontier, Marcel Dzama, and Drue Langlois.
He only stayed with the group for a few years as his individual work began to take a more independent shape, and he soon found himself dealing with the anxiety surrounding the aging and death of his family. Pylypchuk remembers, “My mother was 44 when I was born. My father was 48. She was the youngest of her family, so all of her siblings and family started dying when I was a kid. They constantly reminded me that they were going to die. As a kid, it was just normal because everyone around me was dying. It just seemed totally normal that my parents would, too. I worried about it all the time. A lot of that translated into things that I was making.” He started to create sculptural characters inspired by his family situation as well as his parents’ arguments, finding the dichotomy of the situational darkness and the cuteness of the characters intriguing. He recalls that his parents “fought all of the time. They were like dirt farmers from Ukraine who got some free land in Canada. They moved to Canada and realized that the land was shit. So, they drank. They fought. Whatever was happening in my life like that, obviously it didn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis, but it was in there all the time. I realized that when I started making these characters, I could make them interact in the way I saw people around me interact. I just thought that the juxtaposition of the cute with this evil was sort of nice.”
Faces (and especially eyes) are often one of the first means of connection between people. We are one of the only species who value eye contact as a relationship-builder, and not a threat. When I ask Pylypchuk the reason behind centering his oil paintings around colossal eyes, he responds, “I think it had something to do with when my father died. When the funeral director showed him to us, it almost looked like they had overfilled him with embalming fluid. It was really weird. So, my wife and I decided that we wanted to have a closed casket because he wasn’t a vain man, but he definitely wanted to look good. He asked us to have a ceremony with a priest from the church he had gone to. We got into it with the priest over the closed casket. He’s like, “There’s no way to bless the body if the water doesn’t touch him.” I’m like,” Are you kidding me? God’s water can’t go through wood?” I was under a fair amount of stress and didn’t want to continue fighting the priest. I wanted to support my dad’s wishes to have that type of funeral. At some point, I kind of gave up. All the while, I kept thinking to myself, I should have stood up for him more. I think rebuilding these faces and trying to make them beautiful is me trying to rebuild his face.”
While certainly a storyteller in his work, Pylypchuk is also a builder, often tapping into his subconscious mind to construct many of his sculptures, including his most recent tire creations. “I’m not thinking about anything,” he says, “I’ll take a second and look at it and I’ll go, ‘No, that’s not how it goes.’ I’ll take it apart, stack it again, and again, and realize that this is the order that makes the most sense visually and compositionally. I think that the sculptures work in a similar way to the way a hand works in an automatic painting. The less you think about it, the more successful you’ll end up being.”
In 2004, Tom Morton, writing for Frieze said, “Chuckling at Pylypchuk’s sorry, hilarious creatures (which are, of course, avatars of our own sorry, hilarious selves) embroils us in a connectedness that, far from being abstract, we feel in the creasing of our lips or in the wobbling throb of a belly laugh.” This assessment feels particularly apt when, amidst the tottering tires, and wide, abstract eyes, Pylypchuk tells me about the founding of Grice Bench two years ago—a gallery in downtown Los Angeles—and the networks that have developed around it: “It’s like a family.” Pylypchuk tells me, “It is the community I was looking for.”
Written by Emily Nimptsch