It had been a while since we have invited ourselves over to sneak around one of our artist’s studios, so when Jeff gave us the green light for a visit, we were more than ready. As he prepared for his March show at Duplex, he shared with us a little bit more about his process and inspiration for Psychic Heaves.
Jeff Sheridan: I went to school at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I went there from 2005 to 2010, did the five-year art program thing. I just explored different realms of art until something stuck. I was an editorial cartoonist for my college paper, and in a way that was more of an influence on my art than those beginning years in the fine art program. By junior year, the two mixed, and I started doing more whimsical drawings in my fine art classes and more abstract cartoons for my school paper. Originally, I went to school for aerospace engineering. I went to orientation and was, like “you know, I don’t want to do that at all. I’m a much better draftsman than engineer, so maybe I could draw for science textbooks or something.” That was the original thought. Then I just went into fine art and began the systematic process of exploding my mind.
Duplex: Couldn’t go back.
JS: Yeah. And through that, led to what I’m doing right now. I have always been fascinated by this pervasive idea of what’s inside- cyclicality, and what really makes everything work. I have this book right here that I’ve had since I was eight years old and it has these types of things I’m super interested in, sedimentary layers, the earth, space, and when it all comes together. And what that means. It’s just this huge spinning reality that we’re in and trying to make sense of that is so difficult. And obviously everyone is trying to do it. I like depicting a little microcosm of this, a little space station of it, of sorts. This living petri dish and everything that’s on either side of it, and then these huge spheres that you can’t quite see.
Negative space plays into what I’m doing, too. I build up around a form so it’s presented but not entirely, it still holds its shape. And I draw that concept from astronomy, when you search for exoplanets in space. They look at a star and they wait for it to wobble. The planet they can’t see is orbiting around it, and the mass pushes and pulls the star from its position. A gravitational wobble. . They also wait for it to either pass over the brightness of the star, the planet, or they watch the whole thing wobble. It’s just what I’m influenced by. The forms in my pieces are informed by the natural world but are overlaid with metaphors of consciousness, urban planning, and the environment.
D: How do you land on a color palette? The palette is neon but pastel.
JS: I’ve always been drawn to very bright oranges, yellows, and ochre and earth tones. The sun/mandala type thing here, is inspired from the colors left from when you look at the sun too long, honestly. Then you look away and it leaves this light trail on your retinas of purple and blue and a shimmering iridescence. I was actually planning on having everything totally black and white, but I do enjoy a certain amount of color.
D: Your palette really resembles a lot of that, these sorts of earth tones, but they’re these bright neon oranges.
JS: Yeah. I originally I wanted to make it as accurate as possible. I just wanted to take a step back and really boil it down to what makes it work. When we think of sedimentary layers, we think of clay. Of terracotta, of red crumbling stone. Of mesas, or the badlands. But magma comes to mind, the liquid molten blood of the earth. So making these things rich and almost fluorescent, especially if I’m being sparse with color, allows for the feeling I’m trying to convey come across.
Also, in Florida growing up, my Dad owns and continues to own a SCUBA diving business. I grew up diving and seeing corals seem to have this bright neon, while simultaneously muted colors.
D: How do you balance between the real geometric, clean form and getting that organic, painterly quality? You have a nice balance between the two where one’s not dominating the other.
JS: I’ve adopted this zoomed-out perspective in order to explore that life and the entirety of existence could look like a thin layer of mold clinging to these cosmic colossi moving through space. In order to make sense of everything, we as a species categorize and depict objects in the world as basic shapes on specific trajectories. And when you open up a science textbook, you know, they depict everything with very clean, hard edges. The core of the earth looks like the cleanest possible thing. Cut like a birthday cake. The evolutionary time scale depicts these clear distinctions between the shape of the earth and time periods. But it’s not like that. Taking something so clean and crisp and apparent and just tearing it apart, showing it eroding, having some life forms affecting its shape is appealing to me. After all, it’s what’s happening. We are affecting the shape and natural trajectory of not only life on this planet, but its own erosion. What would happen if this clean, crisp, perfect science-book depiction of our chaotic, fiery reality was depicted in the moment that it’s being destroyed?
So, with that said, I first start off with the geometric shapes—I take a while to lay it out. And then once it’s all set up and I draw it out, all the lines are exact—which takes forever because I’m a perfectionist. Then I allow the perfect forms to naturally erode with the ink and paint. The edges soften, I might add some texture. Laying it out is akin to walking up the mountain, and filling it in is skiing down it. Ink and paint are the perfect allies for this, as they bleed and allow striations to naturally occur when the paint dries. In these very controlled worlds, wet ink is a wild card and naturally does what it wants to do. I have an appreciation of that and let it do what it wants to do.
D: It’s always interesting; especially with this media, that the ink and washes have such an organic feel and when placing it into such confinements to see how those play off of each other.
JS: Also in this age of digital printing, I can easily do this on AutoCAD and print it out, but I’m doing all of this by hand with rulers and stuff. I feel that is the perfect analogy to what we’re talking about with life – where you have this controlled thing, or we think we do. We can break it down, but it’s just eroding constantly and it smears. Kind of like a controlled level of chaos. That’s what I always aim for. Like I said, I let it go, I do these things freehand—I don’t mean to make the final version totally perfect, and it’s not going to be. Especially because I’m depicting eroding, sedimentary layers.
D: These seem like they’re inspired by sections of Earth, but also feel like such bio-domed, floating entities. It seems like a sci-fi where we’ve colonized into these floating worlds so they’re self-sustaining.
JS: Definitely, it’s so apparent that the Earth is this fickle thing that we can affect. At this point, there’s no question that we are affecting the earth on a massive scale. It kind of presents this mental heave of, “Oh my god, we’re on this little sliver of land and floating in space with this little bit of atmosphere”—and then there’s these huge cosmic fireballs that we’re on and with molten rock below us and there’s this fireball in the sky and—what the hell, it’s so ridiculous.
Simplifying and changing our depiction of the reality of our story really allows for a larger perspective of who we are, and that can be terrifying. It can shatter worldviews. It can shatter who we think we are as individuals and as a species. So I like playing around with that notion.
Trying to zoom out way beyond where we even represent humans anymore, and any aspect of life whatsoever. We could be described just as these little bumps, the texture I made up. We really are on a space station already, some don’t realize it. Buckminster Fuller spoke of thinking of our world as a “Spaceship Earth.” But also, we are looking to do that, we’re trying to go to Mars now, developing deep-space-whatever, looking to do long-term space transport. What does that say about our own home? I had spent a long time, before I did this, looking at Apollo diagrams on NASA. They released all of those, by the way, if you ever want to check those out. Super intense, they have these exploded-view diagrams of what each component was. Mind-numbing, but it’s fascinating.
D: You mentioned before this might be a connection to your show You Only Live Twice at the Vestibule, do you still feel that way?
JS: Yes, it originally started off as that and I still believe it does. In the show at the Vestibule, there was a procession of human suits with these primal creatures operating and crawling out of them. The suits were mingling and socializing, they had beers and cell phones. The creatures were crawling out of the suits and all marching towards the center. Around the center there were suits in meditational positions, praying positions, and at laptop computer stations. At the center there was a large human suit just kind of opening up, splitting down the middle with this orb coming out. The show explored the dual nature of human existence, one that lives in conjunction with what we all think we should be doing, and one that wants to get out and explore what it means to be alive (or even dead.) That orb, that ethereal energy, that became the result of the shedding of layers in the show. It was what all the creatures were aspiring to be. Higher consciousness.
As I began working on this show, I looked back and wanted to explore more about that orb, that energy, and it became synonymous with a few representations- death, life, the sun, energy, etc.
D: It seems like a balance between the cartoon work where it is illustrated and there is a text explanation or punch line and then this—that geometric and organic the battle that you have going on.
JS: Yeah, you kind of hit it on the head there. That’s pretty much what’s going on. Not only am I trying to represent that balance, but also I’m balancing it myself by making these pieces. Balancing between styles, ideas, and mediums. There’s always something chaotic going on, but when I establish that that is the natural order of things, I further demonstrate my innate tendencies to produce order out of that chaos. At this point, though, I’ve compartmentalized my cartoon influences; I don’t feel those are really at play here at all, except maybe my technical skill with ink. While there’s always a punch line of some sort, I try to stray away from making any direct statements beyond what I’m clearly influenced by. I by no means am attempting to answer any questions with my work. That’s a big faux pas. I merely want to open a visual dialogue with the viewer about where you are, what you are, and perhaps how all of these images have more to do with your consciousness than the natural world. After all, what perceives it?
So, it’s good. I’m really happy with the stuff that I’m doing for this show.
D: Do you carry a narrative with you, do you feel like each body of work is attached in a narrative way or is it just an organic progression from one body to another?
JS: Kind of a mix of both. I think, especially in the art world, you have to kind of create a narrative for yourself and for your art and explain where it’s coming from. I write, too, so it keeps me interested in the pieces as I work on them. But the narrative, it’s not a direct thing; it’s kind of like a process. A puzzle, if you want to look at it that way. I’m working my way through what’s happening here. But I also want it to be a stand-alone thing. You don’t need to read a 10 page thesis about why I drew three cascading boxes. But the narrative is there. And I might even have that 10 page thesis. Its as involved as the viewer wants it to be. That’s intentional. That’s not to say it’s easy. But at the same time, it does absolutely represent those kinds of hidden depths. It’s the negative space that is inside of me, and all stories, kind of what grows around them. Especially with, how do I say this—there are a lot of things that we can’t directly say because it’s difficult, it’s so hard to say this direct thing. So, moving around it is the best thing you can do to depict it without depicting it. You know, create everything around it and then the shape of whatever you’re trying to say comes through, that’s kind of where I’m coming from that—the spheres and circles and so forth.
And the thing is, at the Vestibule show, I didn’t even think about it this way. I just went back to my old work; I was just looking at stuff. When I can’t figure out what to do, I just look back. What does that mean to me now? The meaning could be different to me now than when I was making it. Hindsight’s 20-20, you know. When I spot what really continues to resonate within me from a past show, all of a sudden that thing removes all of the stuff I don’t care about—revealing that one tiny thing that was forgotten. Hidden in plain sight. That, I want that. I take that tiny thing, which honestly was the crux of the show and I didn’t even fully realize.
And for that matter, it makes me wonder about myself and my own process, because as I continue to look back at what I say and did in the past, I feel perhaps that some higher self is leaving breadcrumbs for me to find in my own work. A trail to some unknown destination.