American Beauty: An Interview with Jon Eisenmann

You probably haven’t heard of artist Jon Eisenmann, at least not yet—his debut exhibit goes up in Minneapolis this January, and shit is it good. Titled “American Beauty,” his series of oil paintings depict some familiar faces, chiefly tragic female stars like Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan. But looking at these paintings isn’t like casually perusing US Weekly in the checkout aisle or shame-reading TMZ in an incognito window—in the translation from paparazzi to paintbrush, something else is revealed in these women, something meaningful and a little bit painful. Eisenmann’s A-listers have a self-conscious vulnerability about them, a fragile humanity that’s been lost (or ignored) in the tabloids. His work raises questions about voyeurism and beauty, media and objectification; challenging the viewer’s relationship to that foreign body we call “celebrity.” The immediacy of each painting gives it power, because how can you poke fun at someone else’s meltdown when all 36”x48” of it is in your face? In this series, Eisenmann traces the highs and lows of iconic young women in Hollywood with a sensitivity that narrows the distance between us and them, causing a collision of intrigue and uncomfortable familiarity that makes it too difficult to look away. At least that’s what it did for me. Fortunately, Jon was kind enough to give us his take as well:

Taylor Bowen: Can you talk a little about your upcoming “American Beauty” exhibit?

Jon Eisenmann: American Beauty is a collection of 16 oil paintings inspired by the highs and lows of Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and Britney Spears’ lives in public over the last 10 years. When I first started conceptualizing the idea behind the collection, my goal was to have each piece be sort of a snapshot of my adult life thus far, good and bad. It evolved into American Beauty when I fused that with these well-known women who have achieved a unique degree of fame in that their lives are our entertainment and they themselves are the artwork we are viewing. I have tended to identify with their public struggles over the years and painted scenes that I personally relate to. From there the collection developed a narrative of it’s own and the focus now is more on the women in the paintings and less specifically me, but my bones are in every piece.

TB: Describe your process of creating a piece. What inspires and influences you?

JE: I learned quickly that my best pieces come impulsively and on a whim. When the light bulb switches on above my head I’ll usually start right away and finish rather quickly in a sleepless marathon of painting. I use a reference photo on my laptop and proceed to chain smoke and talk to myself like a lunatic and have a blast until I’m about halfway done. Then a 24 hour break is necessary to keep things in perspective, and sleep is good. It’s extremely hard for me to know when enough is enough. I still look at some of the pieces in “American Beauty” and wanna touch them up a bit, but if I don’t draw a line somewhere, I’m guaranteed to ruin the painting.

TB: On your website, you describe your subjects as “beautiful, talented, and troubled women in the public eye whose well-documented struggles have been proliferated across the media worldwide.” By choosing these women as a subject, do you think you’re further propagating their objectification, or redeeming them by approaching them with a sensitive and even compassionate eye? Or something else altogether?

JE: I’ve asked myself this question hundreds of times while painting this collection, especially lately with Amanda Bynes back in the news. My general feeling is that I’m probably doing a little of both. My work will be perceived in different ways, and looked at differently when one of the subjects is committed to a psychiatric hospital. My goal is certainly not to contribute to what could very well be hurting them, or perpetuate a damaging image of who they are. I come from a more celebratory standpoint, and consider the paintings something of an ode to the mess that is your 20’s. I’m 28 years old and living it myself, so I am ok with romanticizing a drunk night out or smoking a joint in the sun. These aren’t bad things, they’re some of the best moments in life.


TB: Why women? Do you see yourself ever painting male celebrities in the future?

JE: Honestly, I’ve just not felt compelled to paint males figures, which is hilarious because I’m gay, but I’ve always found women more poetic and interesting to paint. That’s not to say I have a “women only” rule or even a “celebrities only” rule for that matter, it’s more about what happens to inspire me in that moment. I’ve wanted to do a Kanye West piece for a long time, but I haven’t been able to flesh out an idea that I’m happy with yet. I will probably always draw from pop culture for inspiration, but I do wanna experiment with different themes and painting styles, particularly abstract and pop surrealism.

TB: Has Lindsay seen any of your paintings of her?

JE: If she has, I am unaware! I don’t know if Lindsay would think some of the images of her are as beautiful as I do, but I hope she’d appreciate them. It’s actually hard to paint a celebrity without being concerned what the person would think if they were to see it, but I can’t weaken a piece’s visual impact by catering to anyone’s ego. I have tried on occasion to send out a tweet of a painting to a celeb, but it feels so awkward and embarrassing most of the time. I tweeted out a picture of my Amanda Bynes piece “Maniac” and she favorited that tweet, which was cool, but she was committed to a psychiatric hospital a week later so I wonder if that was even a good thing.

TB: Anything else you would like to add?

JE: When people ask me what statement I’m trying to make with this collection I always refer to a Lady Gaga lyric: “It’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion.” “American Beauty” is not intended to make you feel a certain way about the media or the girls in the paintings. It is simply a celebration of life as an American twenty-something as I see and live it, and of the women who are living it in front of all of us.

Visit Jon’s website to see the entire collection as well as the full range of his works, and be sure to check out “American Beauty” in Minneapolis in 2015.

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