Rising Art: Secrets of Jason Derouin's studio
When I admired the UNO thesis exhibition Functional For Your Purposes last month, my nomenclatural assumption was that the artist, Jason Derouin, was a Louisiana son.
Curious about the artist’s highly sensitive and accomplished prints and collages, and love of mid-century Modernism, I contacted Derouin, and discovered I had good instincts, but mistook two facts. One, he’s a Canadian who had never lived in the U.S. before coming to UNO’s MFA program. And two, there’s more to his prints than what the eye sees.
Derouin found in the South, in his words, “the greatest opportunity”-- a chance to fortify his love of Modernist architecture of the 1950s and ‘60s. “New Orleans has really great pockets of mid-century architecture, especially in Lakeview,” he said. The neighborhoods near UNO cemented a love for the craft of New Orleans’ mid-century homes, characterized by slightly organic forms, clean simplicity, integration with nature, and beauty in materials.
Derouin immersed himself in cultural production of the Modernist era, reading books and magazines, and watching movies, such as Pillow Talk (1959), which encapsulates an especially idealized version of the period.
Pillow Talk starred Doris Day and Rock Hudson, and was named to the National Film Registry for “cultural, historical, and aesthetic” significance in 2009. In the film, Rock Hudson’s character wanted his apartment to look like less of a bachelor pad, and Doris Day’s interior decorator character asked, “Why would you? It’s so functional for your purposes.”
Day’s character adapted the apartment with an over-the-top aesthetic of ornamentation, but in the end, the two characters united and the apartment was brought back to its original state.
Borrowing Day’s phrase, Derouin began responding to the film in series. One featured incised images, with collaged skirts coming out of the edges of Modernist furniture.
The result, he discovered, was “humorous and seductive.” Derouin said the pared down versions of slipcovers brought “feminine influence to masculine modernity,” like Day's and Hudson's union.
If the collages remain “architectural proposals,“ or his humbly phrased “primitive executions,” in his next series, Derouin championed function for his purposes in “the act of staging,” like the interior decorator, only... smaller.
When I first saw his prints in the UNO Gallery, I thought they were photographed compositions of real-scale building materials (cement blocks, plywood, metal gates).
Look closely... Seems plausible, right?
But when I got to his studio, the secret was revealed: Derouin makes tiny models by hand of building materials reduced to exactly 1:12 scale.
He photographs residential properties and actual panels of plywood to get enough variation and proportionate sizing in the wood grain. He makes vector drawings, and uses a laser cutter to make miniature forms in three dimensions. He then prints out the wood grains and textures onto masking tape which he applies to the little laser-cut forms.
Are you with me?
Derouin then photographs the scenes. He requires exactness of light and shadow to make the forms look like they are in real space, as he does not digitally alter the photos.
The resulting inkjet prints have an exquisite, hyper-real feel to them.
Derouin never exhibits his models (which were a privilege to see), and I won’t reproduce them here, because to him, the photographs are the final products. Though, he said, “People seem always naturally very curious to see what the models look like.”
Like the Modernist items he photographs, Derouin’s images are devoid of human touch, unclaimable by historical conventions or vernacular. Pristine. He has more control over his viewers this way, though physically, remnants of himself are less “present,” like the more mechanized building processes of Modernist homes.
Basically, these images were born out of the perfection of Modernism as cultural producers of the era wanted it to be remembered. The tidied up version in the movies (reiterated in Derouin's prints) contributes to the mythology of the time. His professors who lived through the era he idealizes have said, “Jason, it wasn’t really like that.”
His Destroyed Space series, for him the culmination of this whole body of work, shows irregularities, failures, collapse, mayhem.
But he also hadn’t thought of the idea of decay, which I brought up when I arrived at his studio. I hadn’t been out Elysian Fields in a while, and living downtown where creaky doors on shotgun houses built in 1919 are just part of the landscape, I forgot the jarring sight of abandoned post-Katrina houses built in the 1950s. There is something weirder, to me, about a dilapidated 1950s house than a 1910s one.
When those simple-lined, cubic-structure houses were constructed, often without ornament, Americans did not expect to see them flapping, rotting.
Many times, the New Orleans response in art is... salvage, repurposing. But Derouin’s vision, his reaction to his love of Modernism, is to keep around the idea of “unbridled optimism about what we’ll have 20, 30, 50 years from now.”
He knows “it wasn’t really like that,” that cultural productions like Pillow Talk are fabricated time capsules from a society that wanted us to think it was "like that."
But, he says, “I’m sort of creating a world that I would love to live with. And I can see purposes in everything here.”
Perhaps we could all use a little enthusiasm for the future.