Cover Jonas Wood in his Los Angeles studio. (Photo: Laure Joliet for Tatler Hong Kong)

Leonardo DiCaprio, K-pop star G-Dragon and Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa all collect Jonas Wood's still-life paintings. Wood's latest exhibition opens in Hong Kong this month

Painter Jonas Wood has always loved plants. As a child, he would spend hours in his parents’ and grandparents’ gardens in Boston, taking clippings of his favourite flowers. At college, he filled his room with potted ferns. And when he moved to California in 2003, when he was in his mid-twenties, greenery began to creep into his work.

“In grad school, I was painting based on Bacon and Picasso,” he says on a video call from his studio in Los Angeles, referring to the moody, and sometimes violent, works of Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso. “But I found myself moving from darkness to light when I moved to California. Coming from the East Coast to the West Coast, the climate is so different. There are so many cacti and succulents here—they’re almost prehistoric. I was just leaning into the things I was into.”

It paid off. Wood abandoned his earlier melancholic aesthetic in favour of the work he is famous for today— bright, colourful paintings that play with scale and perspective, turning complex shapes into his signature flattened style. Woods’ distinctive still lifes have made him one of the most in-demand artists working today, popular among both intellectual collectors and curators, who have placed his paintings in institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim, as well as with luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Bamford Watch Department, which have tapped him for collaborations.

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Wood’s stratospheric rise can also be traced through auction results: advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi, a longtime fan, bought a piece by Wood in 2009 for US$45,000 that he went on to sell at Christie’s for more than US$600,000 in 2015. In May this year, another painting, Two Tables with Floral Pattern, sold for a record-breaking US$6.5 million at Christie’s in New York.

So there is enormous excitement among fans and collectors about Wood’s latest exhibition, which is running from November 23 to January 15 at Gagosian in Hong Kong. “I wish I could be there,” says Wood, who is unable to head to the city due to ongoing travel restrictions. “I tried my best for this show. It’s something that I really care about. I’ve been supported by amazing collectors in Asia.” Among his fans in the region are Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and K-pop star G-Dragon, both of whom own paintings by Wood, and Jennie from Blackpink, who visited his studio this summer.

The exhibition features a selection of new still-life paintings, mostly dominated by flowers, on matt black backgrounds, as well as a series of drawings of plants isolated on white paper. A set of five drawings traces the ripening of a banana from almost lime green to bright yellow and eventually to speckled with brown, inspired by a bunch that Wood grew at home and then hung in the studio. Part of the gallery is also plastered in wallpaper Wood has created especially for the show that features a kaleidoscopic selection of his colourful plant paintings.

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Wood’s most famous pieces feature lighter, brighter backgrounds, but he was encouraged to experiment with black after seeing one of his older works at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2019, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the US. “I was interested in black because of its strength as a unifying space,” he says. “And black is a great way to practise with colour—colours react to being on black. I know I’m painting figurative things, but most of the time I’m just trying to make it work with some balance of colours because the colours I’m using are not real colours, they’re fictional.”

The blurring of reality and fantasy is one of the defining features of Wood’s art. A single painting might feature a row of potted plants, each painted from a different perspective, turning a seemingly simple still life into an off-kilter world. Some works also feature strange combinations of objects. In a painting in the Hong Kong show, two pink basketballs float behind two black- spotted yellow flowers. They might be frozen in the air mid-bounce, or might be part of the plant itself—the brand name of the basketball, Spalding, extends off the ball and onto a leaf, an example of how Wood’s work can veer from the mundane to the surreal. The colours too, as Wood says, are not true to life—sometimes unnaturally bright, sometimes dark and dull.

Kevin Poon, the founder of streetwear brand Clot and Woaw Gallery in Hong Kong, has collected Wood’s art for years. “The bright colours make me super happy,” says Poon. “The first piece I bought by Jonas was in his last show at Gagosian Hong Kong in 2015. It is a beautiful small plant study on paper, which now hangs in my studio. The work feels so meaningful to me because I’m reminded that small plants become big plants. Looking at the piece makes me think of new beginnings and possibilities.”

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One element of Wood’s work that is anchored in reality is his obsession with pots. Many of the plants are presented in striking ceramic flowerpots—and sometimes he paints vessels by themselves, floating against the white canvas. These pots are based on vessels made by his wife, ceramicist Shio Kusaka, with whom Wood has shared a studio for the past 14 years.

“Being at the studio all the time together is great,” says Wood. “My wife is a brilliant artist and being able to live with her and see her work and see the shapes she makes and how she makes them is amazing. And then I borrow them and put them in my work. And that happens the other way, too—she’ll reference my work in hers. It’s kind of insane that we have each other, insanely good.”

Kusaka was born in Japan and moved to San Francisco in the early Nineties. She met Wood at the University of Washington in Seattle, where they were both studying. Although the couple have lived in the US since they met, they regularly visit Japan, and the country and its artists have deeply influenced Wood over the years. “Around 2000 [Takashi] Murakami had a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with big silver paintings filled with mushrooms. I was super into Murakami. Isamu Noguchi is incredible. And I always think about how Van Gogh’s paintings were influenced by Japanese art,” he says. “And I know Tadao Ando is an architect, but I consider his work art. And, of course, Japanese gardens.”

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Another place that has shaped Wood’s art is Los Angeles, where he and Kusaka have been based for nearly 20 years. They arrived as recent graduates with no gallery representation but a friend, fellow artist Matt Johnson, got Wood a job in the studio of painter Laura Owens and secured Kusaka work in the studio of sculptor Charles Ray while they found their feet. Now, they rent their own sprawling studio from legendary California-based artist Ed Ruscha. “I definitely feel like part of a community,” says Wood. “The community gives me inspiration, to see the work, to see people making incredible things, to feel the energy that people put out into the world. That’s awesome. It makes me try to put my best work out there.”

The couple are now, in turn, giving back to the community that nurtured them. “I employ artists and I have employed a lot of artists over the years, and I also collect a lot of art in the community,” says Wood. The couple’s collection includes pieces by Ruscha and fellow Los Angelenos Mark Grotjahn, Rubi Neri and Alex Israel, as well as works by Roy Lichtenstein and Picasso, among many others. They are also big supporters of married couple Michael Frimkess, now in his mid-eighties, and Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, now in her early nineties, who have been making ceramics together since 1963.

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Wood has always been surrounded by art. His grandfather was a collector and owned an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe and Bacon’s painting Portrait of George Dyer Talking, from 1966, which he sold in 1980 to help fund his grandchildren’s education. But being an enthusiastic collector himself and part of a collecting family did not prepare Wood for the shock of his own work becoming a high-value commodity. At his 2019 exhibition with Gagosian in New York, Bloomberg reported that some of the paintings sold for more than US$600,000 each—and collectors often resell his work for far more at auction. He has seen some buyers, including people he trusted, flip his paintings to make a quick buck. “When that started for me, it was super stressful,” he says. “When it’s people you know, people you’re friends with, at first it’s really shocking. Then I realised that the only thing I can control is making the work, and that’s it. Now I understand that it’s part of the deal. It’s a blessing for people to be interested in my work. And for me to be able to sell my work for how much money I sell it for is incredible.”

Wood mostly exudes confidence, but has flashes of self-doubt. He regularly refers to trying to become a better artist, not only when reflecting on his early years, but also now, when his art is selling for six figures at auction and is in the collection of MoMA. “I want to be like, real good,” he says. “When people told me in grad school, only one out of ten of you will have a job in the art world—and they meant like work in a gallery, not actually making and selling paintings ... When people tell you that you’re going to be a loser and present that as fact ...” he trails off, pauses. “I put pressure on myself because I want to hang my paintings next to some of the best art in the world.”

The company Wood dreams of being counted among includes some of the biggest names in history—David Hockney, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. “I want to try to achieve greatness; that’s what motivates me,” he says. “I feel like this is sort of the beginning. I’m only 44 years old; 15 years of work isn’t really a career. I want to have a long life, painting. I’m trying to be in it for the long haul. I’m trying to make masterpieces in my lifetime.”

Jonas Wood’s exhibition at Gagosian Hong Kong runs from November 23 to January 15, 2022

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