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ARTS & CULTURE

Jono Pisano

TRANSFORMATION

Words by Katrina Swee| Photography by Cru Camara

The studio looks different—old paintings replaced with ones I’ve never seen before. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my old friend. He looks different too. He’s dressed in navy blue co-ords I will remember starkly because the usually quiet

Jono lights up telling me about how his sister made his outfit for him. A talented, introverted painter, Jono Pisano has established himself in the local art scene as a “young and emerging artist.” It’s a tired label he’s embraced as a sign of the longevity of an artist’s career. Jono is Filipino-Italian, born in the Philippines but raised abroad, only spending four years in Manila before moving to New York to take up a degree in Fine Arts at Parsons The New School for Art and Design. His time in the fast- moving city lasted till late 2015. He’s lived in Manila ever since.

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From his first solo show Breakpoint to his participation in exhibitions at Modeka Art, Gajah Gallery, Tarzeer Pictures, Leon Gallery, and Pinto Art Museum (to name a few), I still find it hard to describe his work. Artists can be chameleons, but Jono’s work is particularly dynamic—his pieces are vibrant yet understated, with an emphasis on his fine art techniques and intricate details. While others push ideas, Jono pushes the boundaries of materials.

In the studio, there is a horse on a canvas with vibrant hues of blue, yellow, and orange; another addition he’s made recently. Looking at the horse, I know Jono and I have a lot to discuss.

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I know you haven’t been working in the studio as often since the pandemic started. Have you been around here since the last time we talked?

Honestly, not really. I would come here to prepare a canvas because of the fumes and wait for the underpainting to dry out and all the turpentine to dissipate. Then I’d bring it home to work on the piece.

So your [workplace] is home for now.

Yeah, but I really want to get back into the flow of coming back to the studio. I think in preparation for this, I’ve set everything up where I’m ready. My paints, my brushes, my mediums—everything is organised and ready for me to start.

 

Has it been a tedious process for you to put work out there and the pressure to always create in the past year/year and a half? Is there still a rhythm? When I speak to other creatives, it seems like they either thrive in the environment we’re currently in or face struggle.

I think I’ve sort of been thrust into bad habits of artmaking where I start to overthink individual pieces. Before, when shows were coming in, I really didn’t have the time to think about whether or not this one piece was the piece that needed to be as great as it needed to be. I made a piece, got another show, and then I started a new one. I really want to keep pushing forward but there’s no external force pushing me to the next piece.

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So what has been inspiring you to keep working?

I’m sort of reverting back to my practice in college where... say I’m obsessed with this one image where I’m not quite getting it right and it’s not manifesting in the way that I want it to so I’m just going to focus on one image and then create multiple pieces in as many different mediums and scales as I can. I’m working on the drawing of the horse piece behind you and then I’m going to work on an impasto, like a thicker oil on a much larger scale piece. I think that’s how I’m trying to combat that, where I get obsessed with one thing but I’m going to drain it for all its got.

You now have the time to work longer on your pieces and be more particular with them. A blessing?

Mmmm, a bit of both.

*laughs*

There are definitely some positive things to it. I think the way I’m shifting that tendency is towards more of the positive but prior, towards the beginning of Covid-19, it was a paralysis where I was like, “Holy shit. I have all this time. I have to make something amazing.”

We’ve known each other for a while now. You decided to move home a couple years back. Was it 2016? I don’t even remember anymore! What was it about Manila that made your decision to journey back?

The space that I was in in New York really forced my hand. I had made things because of my space. The scale of my work was much smaller. It was a lot of drawings, miniature paintings and then, you know, I ran that space. I saw all these artists coming in making substantial pieces of art that were big and I was in awe of it. I wanted a place where I could try to make larger pieces and have the time. There’s a speed to New York that isn’t sort of...

Similar to Manila?

Yeah, it was out of sync with my speed. The environment was forcing my hand too much. I thought, being in Manila, I could isolate in a healthy way and work at the pace I wanted to.

And has being here shaped your work in a way?

Most definitely. I’m just constantly reacting to the artists around me and the work that they’re making. In terms of color and being in the city, there’s a bit of dreariness to everything that I just up the saturation to everything. Maybe I even upped the saturation of everything because of Covid-19 when everything felt so dull and sanitized. I don’t know...

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Could you just talk more about the exchange you felt with other artists?

Yeah! For the most part, it’s for the positive. I see an artist or I see an idea or the application of paint and I’m like, “Wow, I really want to take that on and learn from it.” But you do have moments where you get really pumped up for the pieces that you feel are inadequate. *laughs* Like, I can do better and we can do better collectively as artists. Right now, I’m more taken with the technique of Filipino artists.

How have you seen the local art scene progress since you’ve been back? It must have been very different to how it is now.

Hmmmm. I guess it’s hard to tell because I’ve only recently started assimilating into the art community here in the Philippines. For the first few years—no one’s fault but my own!—I would really isolate myself, make my own work, and go to art shows alone. But now, making friends and communicating with other artists... I don’t really know how it shaped my own individual practice but I’m having great conversations with art again and with people who are passionate about it.

Just being able to assimilate yourself is a change in itself so I think that’s something and reflects in your practice in some way. I’m curious... You’re known as a young, emerging artist in the Philippines but you have this lack of presence on social media. Is that done with intention?

It’s this weird thing where I’m wary of how other people’s comments [would] influence the type of work I’m making.

 

So it is done with intention.

Yeah. And when I post something that I’m really happy about and it doesn’t get the traction that I was hoping for... I know it shouldn't affect me and it doesn’t, but I still get worried that it’ll affect my subconscious in some way. Plus yeah, as soon as I post something, I’m obsessed with looking at it, looking at who is looking...

Don’t worry, I feel like we all feel this way at some point! And going back to being known as a young, emerging artist, how do you feel about that label?

It’s fine. It’s great that people are thinking of me in that way but it doesn’t really change how I make work or what my long term goals are. You know, only recently did I figure out what ages people consider...

Young?

*laughs* I’m really old. I’m in my thirties which is considered young and emerging. It’s great for the longevity of this career where I don’t imagine myself ever stopping. I already feel like... when I’m 50, I’m gonna pop! So when someone says I’m young and emerging at 30 years old, I’m like yeah, it makes sense. I’m gonna be a mid-career artist in my late 40’s/50’s.

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I still remember going to your earlier exhibitions, Breakpoint. It was your first, right?

Oh, that was my second. I had one in the Outerspace Gallery in B-side. The way that it happened was I was doing design work for a friend of mine. I have these moments where I have these random spurts of confidence. I have no idea when they come about but I had my sketchbook with me. There was a gallery and I went to see the work. I was inspired by how underwhelming the work was. I took that, walked up to their office, and said, “Here’s my sketchbook. I want to do a show with you guys.” I would never do that now! *laughs*

That’s pretty ballsy!

  

That’s so ballsy for me. They said yes and told me they had a black and white show in two weeks because my sketchbook contained only pencil pieces. I said, “Okay, sure.” The next day, they called me saying, “In five weeks, we have an empty space for a solo. Could you do it?” Honestly, thinking about it, I shouldn’t have said yes in terms of my abilities at the time. I just said, “Yeah, sure. I could do it.” I had no concept, no idea. I was still in college.

You were talking in the beginning about how you tend to overthink your past, individual pieces and with the past two exhibitions we mentioned, what now comes to mind since you’re more accomplished when you revisit them?

It’s the same with a lot of my pieces where I almost forget that I made them. Honestly, like how I made them. They sort of freak me out sometimes. A piece grows on me and it’s fantastic. Then it makes me nervous that I feel so separated from the individual who made it because of the state that I was in or the state I put myself in while painting where it feels so automatic, where the medium itself is guiding me through it. Say, if I’m working on a pencil piece but the medium itself and the materiality of the pencil or surface I’m working on really guides me. And then the way that I produce an image where I don’t really focus on rendering one section at a time—I bring the image out at once where I do an underpainting and then bring it out all together. So it tells me at what point it wants to stop. When I’m working, I’m really just following what the materials tell me to do. So when I reflect back on it, there’s this disconnect where it doesn’t feel like I did it sometimes. *laughs*

But you still look back at some of your pieces and think, “I love this” or “I can appreciate this in some way.”

I think so. There are a lot of pieces that I’m pretty proud of which is completely... like... That’s in hindsight. Whereas as soon as I finish a piece, it’s very rare that I like it. Even when I put it up for the show and I’m looking at it, it’s rare that I like it on the wall. It takes time to settle in and evolve. I think that’s why moving on to the next thing, taking on all the things you’ve learnt and particular insecurities you’ve had about the piece should be transferred on to the next and so on to continue the chain. Then, the pressure of that one individual piece dissipates.

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Do you still have a piece in particular you look back on with fondness?

The “Unified By Obscurity” piece. It’s my biggest painting to date.

I really love that piece too.

Because of the scale, I had worries about the harmony of it. Just an individual section contains as much information as one of my other smaller pieces and the idea of moving a meter or two to the left and getting it to harmonize and work together was daunting. But when I was done, I was pleased. Maybe even more instantaneously than usual where I was like, “Ok, this surprisingly panned out.” It was the conclusion to the show.

Everything that I learnt from the pieces prior was built up to this one piece. Everything I learnt from each individual piece, I’m going to try and resolve with this one final, big piece.

I never thought about that. I always thought about the exhibition as a whole and what you’d take away or learn from the experience but never with the individual pieces and how it could progress as you create the collection. That’s pretty cool. Everything is a learning process. As you already know, I also recently saw your work for the Empty Scholar x Leon Gallery Exhibition and the piece for Museo at Pinto Art Museum. Is your new process of creating over the pandemic demonstrated in these works?

Yeah, but they were such different shows and the imagery was different since each show called for different things. I think technically I was really learning by increasing the saturation and the dynamics of colour. It’s easy to make something feel harmonious when it’s of the same tone but then when you have such stark colours, I was really having a hard time balancing it out. I think it’s an ongoing process. Can I be bombastic with my colour choices? But then, as the individual elements within the piece make it feel harmonious... .I have no idea how to describe it yet because I’m still in the middle of it.

That’s fine! This over-saturation and bold choice in colours makes me think about your energy or magic in art. How do you define the energy or magic in art?

There’s a spirit that I see when I see a work. I like to think about it this way—if I’m making a piece and I feel energized, transfer that to my hand and the movements are swift and there’s intention in the strokes, I feel that when a viewer sees it, that energy can transfer. If I really put in my physicality, my passion, whatever it is, into this thing... Because I get it from other pieces when I look at something and I feel the presence of the artist. I look at a stroke and I put my body as if I was making it. I see the speed, I feel the force, and feel the artist’s passion. I guess that’s what I’m looking for. I want to put as much spirit or life into a piece.

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When you go to these exhibitions you participate in and see the audience interacting with your work, do you feel that they feel the energy or magic in your pieces?

I would like to think so. The thing I’m most concerned about with the viewer is time. Like, how much time do they sit in front of my piece? Because we’re bombarded with hundreds of images on the daily, the significance of the original image drops. You flick through Instagram and you scroll constantly, and the value of the image diminishes. When I see someone just stop and really look at the work, or maybe it reminds them of something and they’re just sitting there with their own thoughts. That’s what I pay attention to—how much time does someone spend and am I able to put a stop to their day in any way?

How are the conversations you’ve had with these viewers?

I’ve had a lot of meaningful conversations with the people who’ve seen my work but I really am always interested in what kids think about my work because they feel it immediately. There’s no filter in how they interpret a piece. Sometimes it is that obvious and immediate. If I have friends and I take them to museums and shows, they feel that there’s a pressure or something they don’t know and need to understand. No dude. You just need to be human and need to feel. Sometimes the most obvious answer is the answer.

And what are you currently working on?

I’m working on my solo show coming up next year. So much of my work prior to this was me asking myself, “What does it mean to paint? What does it mean to paint now? What does it mean for me to paint?” and these greater ideas about art and art history like, “Where do I fit in? Where do all my ideas fit into the grander scheme of art history?” I’m not done with it. I think these are questions I’ll constantly revisit, but I just want to focus on my friends, my family, and making work about that and my immediate surroundings. Maybe a little bit more personal. I felt like everything prior was more academic where it was just like, “What is it about me using photography? What does it mean to use someone else’s photos from a different time,” thinking about context and all that.

But now, it’s really more about you.

Yeah, I think so. It’s about revealing more about my history and the people around me. For me, it would be obvious that these are my family members. I don’t know how it would be for a stranger perceiving my work.

[I heard] you’re also working on a commissioned piece of a dragon for a client. How’s that going?

It’s difficult because there’s so much research to do on dragons and different forms. There’s also this pressure because he’s taken a lot of really significant Japanese artists and bought their work. They specialise in this figure. It’s just trying to balance out my ideas versus the traditional meanings behind Japanese dragons and what they symbolise. I’m struggling with it right now. I have this other commission for Solaire which was just approved. There’s a female on a rock and an individual behind them, reclined on a raft. I’ll show you. It’s in my sketchbook.

Do you like commissioned work?

I really enjoy it. I feel like it doesn’t take away from my creativity or whatever people’s fears are regarding commissioned work. I’ve gone to the point where they give me the freedom. They just give me a little bit of guidance in the beginning. It’s like a puzzle. It’s a new puzzle, something new to think about. I do understand that they hurt... There’s like this thing with the arts world and commissions and you know, you have to give them to the right people. There’s certain people you can or can’t give it to. I really don’t like to focus on that.

Are there any other significant changes you’ll be making along with the upcoming solo show? I heard you’re planning on having another studio outside of Manila.

Yeah, at the farm in Bataan. I want to build a studio myself. On my father’s side, there’s a long line of contractors and builders and I enjoy working with my hands. I felt like it would be a worthwhile project and I’d have no one else to blame but myself. There’s this James Turrell thing I’ve dreamt about building at the farm. It would be this observation,

bubble dome where I want to get a rubber balloon, as big as I can, paper mache it, the same technique but with concrete, and blow it up.

That’s sick.

Yeah, there are a lot of spot site specific works that I want to eventually make. I want to start working three-dimensionally again. Occasionally. I feel like I’m a sculptor at heart.

I didn’t even know this about you!

Working with my hands comes easy to me. Painting was always a mysterious thing to me. In Parson’s with sculpting, it felt so formulated—there was the material and the form. With painting, one day you would hate it and overnight, it evolves without even touching it. Even the aging process of paint changes over time—how it dries and interacts with the climate. It always felt mysterious and intrigued me more than sculpting, but I want to get back into it.

 

Has this been something you’ve been thinking about for a while?

It’s always been something at the back of my head. For the past few years, painting has taken the forefront of my curiosities about art. I’m constantly thinking three- dimensionally in my sketchbook—how things would look as a solid object, as opposed to a window. I’ve been thinking about objects which wear over time. I went hiking and you know how sometimes you take a misstep and automatically grab a branch or something nearby? Then you feel how smooth that branch is and think about all the people who made that same misstep and reached out for the same thing. I want to work with that idea—the wear and tear over time. I want to put a wooden sculpture at the entrance that I want people to rub before they come in. *laughs*