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Focus on Faculty: Jason Karolak

The associate teaching professor of art on color, inspiration, and teaching

January 2023 –  Drew University’s Jason Karolak, associate teaching professor of art, joined us for our Focus on Faculty series, where we highlight the many accomplishments, research, and scholarship of Drew’s incredible faculty members.

A gifted artist, Karolak’s work has been featured in several recent solo exhibitions, including the Morgan Lehman Gallery in New York City this past spring. His work has been reviewed in Hyperallergic, Art in America, ARTnews, and The New York Times

We sat down with Karolak to discuss the importance of color, his inspiration, teaching, and advice for aspiring artists.

The use of color in your paintings appears to be a significant concern. How is color situated inside and outside your own studio practice?
The vocabulary in my paintings is primarily abstract which allows the color to be one of the central elements, along with geometry and line. I build pictorial structures that organize the color into backlit, illuminated spaces. I am interested in how the viewer may project into these constructed spaces in an intuitive way, while also bringing their own associations to the forms. For me, the color helps to generate illusionistic depth, while remaining mysterious and evocative. I want the paintings to be transportive to an alternate space, both as a process in the studio and for the observer in the gallery.

Using color as an artist can be intentional and rational. For example, manipulating temperature from cool to warm, or value from light to dark. But, color is also this endless, complex world that has so many avenues of inquiry. Over the years, I have followed various threads which lead me outside of art-proper into areas that look at color through scientific and cultural lenses as well.

Your students have the opportunity to delve into the breadth of color through your multidisciplinary course on color. How do the unique techniques and perspectives introduced in the class benefit your students’ work?
One of the many positive aspects of teaching studio art within the context of a liberal arts college is that students are geared to work and think in interdisciplinary ways. Art students can push outside of the technical into bigger ideas and other kinds of information. Non art majors can bring their academic interests into the studio and experiment with making things with their hands. This environment has allowed me to develop a Color course that is grounded in traditional color theory with its practical applications of how to “use” color in, say, a painting, photograph, or digital work, while also investigating the physics of how color “works” or the neurological aspects of how color is “perceived” by humans and other animals. In addition, students in the course delve into culturally constructed notions of color, including racial coding and the seductive palettes of advertisement design. Along with being effective makers, I want my students to be critical observers of the world around them. 

What advice can you give your students aspiring to be future artists?
Although the production of creative work is the primary endeavor of a visual artist, there are many other aspects that are important to maintaining a practice and a professional career in the art world. Learning to write and speak about one’s own work and interests is now paramount. Artists need to understand what their connection is to the material and ideas at play and then how to convey this to others through explanation and story-telling. Be open and curious about things that you are not very familiar with yet. Strike a balance between personal research and what you create in the studio.

In the past, you mentioned Stuart Davis as a formative influence on your work. How has his work inspired your own?
Yes, Stuart Davis (among other artists) remains an important touchstone for me and my work. Davis was a twentieth century American modernist painter who made major contributions to abstract painting while also being a kind of progenitor of Pop Art and the aesthetics of appropriation. His work explored the fundamental structures of compositional space while also responding to various aspects of American life, including vernacular architecture, advertising, jazz, and the complexity of urban spaces. His “impure” approach to formalism always resonated with me—the way he was open to different impulses that may be useful in the studio, and his ability to synthesize multiple interests into a cohesive language.

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