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Laying the First Brick

Museum Link:

Source Link:

Date Minted:  December 19, 2019

Artist Description:  “ABOUT: Laying the First Brick. Over. And over. And over. A brick. A block. A foundation for you to start. ‍MAGIC: Courage to start something new, over and over again.”

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

I can think of perhaps no more instantly-recognizable artist than Mr. John Orion Young, or JOY as he’s known artistically. It’s the color palette: the Fisher Price-esque blend of artificial yellows and reds and blues. It’s the imagery, the series of individual JOYs, of which Laying the First Brick is one, all of them truly bizarre 3D sculptures of faces, animals, monsters, anthropomorphized cars, people, personified rainbows, but here’s the catch, all have been twisted and disfigured terribly, arms are lengthened, bodies are made concave, eyes are turned huge and buggy, but always always always, these characters are smiling huge, toothy smiles. JOY has created over 130 of these creations, and though some of them are little more than abstract shapes while others are easily identifiable creatures (with some more-or-less objective monstrosities), they all share the same fat red lips curled into an enormous smile, the same blue noses, the same opened mouths revealing a row (or rows) of molar-like teeth, and the same enormous black eyes. In the grand scheme of JOY’s creations, Laying the First Brick is actually pretty benign. Unlike some of the more grandiose or gonzo iterations within the collection, Laying the First Brick shies away from ultra-zany colors and attributes, opting instead to center JOY’s inimitable detail on a relatively commonplace canvas. But looking at JOY’s work is reductive if we’re only going to focus on the merits of a single piece. What Laying the First Brick gives us is an avenue into the deeper aspects of JOY’s collection itself. Because it’s in the interplay that the artist reveals himself. And it’s that interplay we’re going to try digging down into.

Each JOY in JOY’s collection (let’s try to keep this from being too confusing) is a 3D object that appears to mimic clay or a simple plastic in its rendering. They’re almost more notable for what they lack than what they contain. No background, just a white void. No clear lighting source. Yet despite this, each JOY takes what can conceivably be called “center stage,” the sole focus of the piece and positioned exactly in its center. Laying the First Brick itself appears very much like if Spongebob Squarepants had taken acid. Lightly rippling yellow skin covers an otherwise flat rectangle shape. Affixed to the shape’s front section is the trademark JOY smile, bright red lipped and wide, so that we can not only see the row of teeth within, but the rows and rows behind it, as if a shark’s mouth was full of only molars. A bulbous blue clown’s nose has been stuck to the face just above the mouth, and above that, two eye sockets. Lacking the usual empty black eyes, this JOY’s eye matter is explosive: a mass of globular stalks emerges from the eye sockets. Spooky! And they’re semi transparent. A black smiley face tattoo (or maybe it’s a brand) has been added to the JOY’s forehead. The face itself is angled diagonally, looking down into the bottom-left corner of the screen. Unlike other JOYs, this one isn’t animated. It never moves, never blinks, never looks away.

The JOY collection has always seemed to me about exploring the aesthetics of one’s true self, no matter how threatening or insane that true self initially appears. But there’s always a childlike sweetness in JOY’s pieces, and even a childlike wonder. JOY has another collection overtly called “JOY Toys,” but even in this early collection here, his creations are arranged like playthings. One can almost feel a pull to reach through the screen and take them out, assemble them on your desk like some creepy Funko-Pop. But it’s the sweetness that I find so interesting, and also the way these wild creations can overcome their oft-frightening appearances to communicate earnestness and, well, joy! That’s partly due to the intertextual nature of the collection, like how in each piece’s Artist Description, there’s a bit of information about what the piece represents and then a “unique magical power” that the piece “bestows” on the holder. For example, Laying the First Brick is flanked by the words:

“ABOUT: Laying the First Brick. Over. And over. And over. A brick. A block. A foundation for you to start.
‍MAGIC: Courage to start something new, over and over again.”

The rub of this collection is that all of these creations are weird and somewhat off-putting. At the same time, they are a cohesive and revealing collection of works thought up by an artist’s unique mind and then executed according to their unique vision. Inherent in these works is the way we perceive others around us, perhaps recognizing their outlines as normal but being unsettled away by the oddities in their personality, their idiosyncrasies and such. But in JOY’s work, which I assume mirrors his own experience, all of this weirdness belies a compassion, a supportiveness, and a momentous belief in expression; all beautiful and attractive qualities. These qualities exist as the subtextual underpinnings of each JOY character, softnesses which become present once you spend some time getting to know each piece. In this way, JOY is not only exploring the nature of human interaction, he’s mining his own history, attempting to see himself from both an inside and outside perspective, and, very sweetly, offering himself up for connection.

Return to the idea of toys and children. Look now at the one weird kid in the Kindergarten class playing by himself in a corner. Maybe he smells. Maybe his hair is styled poorly. Maybe he’s dressed like a slob (all his single-mother can afford). Plenty of kids might avoid him with a wide berth. He might be ridiculed, to his face or behind his back. But to be scared away by such appearances is to ignore the wonder and the smile and the love that’s there, always there, in such a life. It’s there despite the threatening smile and the black eyes. It practically radiates off the child’s body, if —just as with JOYs themselves— we only give ourselves a chance to see as much.

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