Interview: Jayson Musson Talks His New Comic-Inspired Exhibition at Salon 94 and the End of Hennessy Youngman

On the occassion of his "Exhibit of Abstract Art," we talk to the artist about being inspired by the comic "Nancy."

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Jayson Musson is the sharp-tongued, exceptionally witty artist best known for his alter-ego Hennessy Youngman. Art Thoughtz, Hennessy’s YouTube series, went viral in 2010-2011, when hundreds of thousands tuned in to watch the “art pundit” with an impressive hat collection ad-lib on everything from the work of Damien Hirst—“a perfect storm of banality”—to How to Make an Art—“talent ain’t got naught to do wit artistic production.”

Musson’s work extends well beyond Art Thoughtz, however; he holds an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania, and his other works such as Too Black for BET and a cartoonish series of President Obama saving the world in various capacities, are just as biting as Youngman’s commentary. In 2012, Musson exhibited his first show with Salon 94 called Halcyon Days, in which he created painterly canvasses with appropriated Coogi sweaters.

Musson debuted his newest show, Exhibition of Abstract Art, last night at Salon 94 Bowery. The work in this show is inspired by Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy and its playful yet ultimately disdainful depictions of Modern architecture and abstract canvasses as useless, childlike, and utterly talentless. Nancy’s run, from 1933 – 1982, completely overlapped the rise and heyday of Modern abstraction, and, as Musson says in the Salon 94 text, Bushmiller’s criticisms reveal his “fear of someone witnessing the world change and not having a place in the new order of cultural value.”

We caught up with the artist to talk about his newest show, the man who inspired it, and why Hennessy Youngman is no more.

It’s actually funny to think about even having a personal formalism.

How did you first come across Nancy? When did you first begin to think that the Bushmiller's "abstract art" could become fodder for your own project?
I first really came across Nancy in 1997 while working at Pearl Arts & Crafts in Philadelphia. They carried several of Kitchen Sink Comics' Nancy anthologies that were printed in the early '90s. Although I read the funnies growing up, and Nancy did appear in them, Ernie Bushmiller had long since passed away and no longer drew them. The post-Bushmiller Nancy never stuck out to me. In terms of wanting to use elements of the comic strip for work, I’ve been wanting to do it for several years actually.

One of the things that immediately strikes me in seeing images of the paintings in this show is the lack of gesture, the way in which they preserve the deliberate markings of the comic strip. What were some of the formal considerations you were making in “translating" Bushmiller's representations into stand-alone works? 
The paintings depicted in the comics are extremely small black and white drawings. So there is a bit of prep and play in configuring them for canvas. In terms of gesture, I think there’s plenty of gesture, but it’s manifested on Ernie’s terms, how he sees gesture. He isolates gesture into individual strokes or figures, but these foreground elements never meet to build up into that “torrid gestural abstraction" that folks seem to love. They’re isolated islands of data on the surface.

Outside of that, though, I think there is plenty of “gesture” in the works; it just doesn’t readily translate in the photos, because there’s a particular flatness and cleanness to the work, but the presence of the hand is fairly apparent when viewing the paintings in person.  

In the statement for this show, you say that you want to prevent Bushmiller's depictions of abstraction from being simply a "reductionist punchline." But in some ways, haven't you just amplified the punchline?
Ah, I never said “prevent.” I said, “where one can see a reductionist punchline.” So despite whatever claims I make, the Bushmiller gag—the joke about painting—can still exist, but despite that, the compositions of the works still stand on their own formal merits. That’s what drew me into the project in the first place.  

'What would happen if I used these sweaters to make a paintings?' or 'What could an actual painting of these cartoon paintings look like?'

You have often criticized art and formalism through racial, social, and cultural critique. Yet, formal considerations seem essential in the production of work for both "Halcyon Days" and "Exhibit of Abstract Art." How is formalism still relevant to you, and does your formalism differ from the one you critique?
Well, my critiques are heavily couched in humor. And to a similar degree so is my formalism. It’s actually funny to think about even having a personal formalism. Hahaha. I’ve gotta laugh. But yeah, my writings Too Black for BET as well as Art Thoughtz, though “critical” works, are both very funny bodies of work. The critical aspects are worthless without the humor. And both "Halcyon Days" and "Exhibit of Abstract Art" begin with a simple, humorous premise: "What would happen if I used these sweaters to make a paintings?” or “What could an actual painting of these cartoon paintings look like?” Although the formal works start like this, they often leave the instantiating humor behind and enter into their own aesthetic life.

How strongly do you relate to Bushmiller's criticisms of abstract art?
I think Ernie was a secret genius, but for him, if a thing didn’t have a pragmatic use or its function wasn’t readily apparent, it wasn’t of value (or rather, it was up for Bushmillarian Intervention). And abstraction was such a thing. Since it is a type of art that relies heavily on language for validation (like most art today) versus objective qualities such as mimetic fidelity, Bushmiller found it suspect. And part of me identifies with that. When the ability to spew gibberish grants an artwork an elevated status, it sort of kills me, as if an angel died somewhere or something. But on the other hand, as an artist, and being subjected to the “That’s just scribbles. My kid (fuck your kid, btw) could do that,” argument is too lazy for me. I do believe that art takes time to unfold and offer meaning. So while I think some of Bushmiller’s cultural observations are spot on, some of it is too wholly dismissive for me. But it’s still funny.

Sorry for bringing Clement Greenberg into this, seriously, but I can’t help but think about the binary between "avant-garde" vs. “kitsch” when I think of your Salon 94 shows. Because it seems like in both Halcyon and in Exhibit of Abstract Art, your work toys with abstraction, but ultimately retains strong roots in pop culture. Perhaps that's something to do with Modernism having this white male genius legacy, while you're a black man who grew up listening to hip-hop...?
I’M ON MY HEROIC WHITE MAN SHIT RITE NOW. Ahem, pardon me. That’s a good question. For me, painting, or the way I access painting, will probably always exist along a larger "pop" or "mass" cultural route. I feel a certain amount of ambivalence (animosity?) towards object-making, so the only way for me to truly be invested in that process is through the avenues of my own history and tastes, which really doesn’t have a basis in art history proper. Not to say that art history isn’t of interest to me, because it is, along with history in general, but that’s not where my interests are entirely. And I think the binary between kitsch and the avant-garde is a long dead one. There are simply too many forces from the ‘normal’ world that are a part of art-making for Fish-Lip Clement Greenberg’s polemic to hold any weight.

If someone spends time engaging in a critical battle with a thing, they are tethered to that thing. What is Batman without Joker? What is Seinfeld without Newman?

You are, of course, best known for your work as Hennessy Youngman. Where does Hennessy end and Jayson begin? Is Hennessy simply another facet of a larger artistic project? Is there ever a time that you feel like Hennessy is creating the work or writing a statement? 
Nah, I never feel like Hennessy is writing anything. Hennessy is nothing more than a cartoon character created by PackofRats, the all-encompassing font of creative energy that fuels everything I make. PackofRats is the author of Too Black for BET, and Hennessy really is just a facet of that mind. PackofRats is like a sadder and meaner black version of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man.

You obviously take the practice of creating art seriously, and on one level, critique is really important to keep art relevant. But at the same time, your critiques, especially Art Thoughtz, touch upon exactly what seems silly or irrelevant about Modern and Contemporary art. How do you maintain this balance?
Making art/stuff is the only thing I know how to do. So even if I ridicule it, that ridicule comes from a place of deep love and engagement. I think people should understand that if someone spends time engaging in a critical battle with a thing, they are tethered to that thing. What is Batman without Joker? What is Seinfeld without Newman?

What is the role of language in your work, especially the relationship between slang and jargon?  
Language is a massive part of my work. Too Black for BET and Black Like Me are bodies of writing. Even my paintings Barack Obama Battles the Pink Robots and other visual works begin with phrases that dictate what the paintings will end up being. The works of Halcyon Days began as a joke I made in a Tumblr post about Coogis that I decided to carry over into the creation of my first fiber work. Everything begins with words for me. Words, phrases, and narratives come before picture and form for me.

What about slang vs. jargon in Hennessy Youngman videos specifically? One thing that strikes me about them is how part of the humor in the videos, unfortunately, is hearing someone decked out in chains and Coogi sweaters explaining Relational Aesthetics.
In terms of the vacillation between slang and jargon, I mean, this isn’t something new to blacks. Black people and other people of color exist within multiple worlds; they’re hybrid cultural citizens who develop methods of speech in order to traverse the white man’s world while still maintaining the voice of their own culture. It’s a survival tactic that precedes me by a vast amount of years. 

It would just be pure hell to me to be an art critic. Jerry, Roberta, how the fuck do you do guys do it?

I only recently realized that it's been about a year since the last Art Thoughtz was recorded. Was it a conscious choice to stop filming? Do you think Hennessy will be back?
Yes, it was a conscious choice to stop. I honestly get bored pretty quickly, so the Hennessy project became personally unfulfilling after doing it for 2 years. The joy in that project was not knowing what I was doing; once I figured it out I knew I’d stop. And besides, I enjoy making art, not being an art pundit. I’m not cut out for that shit. It would just be pure hell to me to be an art critic. Jerry, Roberta, how the fuck do you do guys do it? Not that one can’t be a critic and an artist, but that split lifestyle isn’t for me. I much prefer the sloppy, dumb, pig-headed, Wile E. Coyote-running-out-over-the-cliff’s-edge, path of being an artist. 

How would Hennessy review "Exhibit of Abstract Art?"

Exhibit of Abstract Art runs through June 21 at Salon 94 Bowery.

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