April 24, 2024

Artist to Watch


Portrait of Josh Petker in his studio. Image courtesy of the artist. 

NB: When did you first pick up a brush and what drew you to becoming an artist?   

JP: The short answer is I first picked up a brush and fell in love with art making in my early 20’s, by happenstance. I didn’t grow up around fine art or admiring museum artists. It was the making of a painting that awoke me to the realization that I’d be making paintings the rest of my life.

Growing up, most of my creativity was spent writing and playing music. My father is a musician so I grew up studying music and learning instruments which eventually led to playing in bands with friends. So, the discipline of studying a creative practice was imbued into me at an early age. Eventually, when I left home for college, I wasn’t in a musical band anymore, I was just a guy trying to figure things out. So in college I signed up for a foundational art course and I remember feeling a little guilty, like it was a waste of my education. I was thinking ‘why am I doing this? I’m not an artist’. However, I took the course and I absolutely fell in love with art making. It reminded me of making music because I experienced it as a meditative process where my brain was clear and I followed an inspiration to fruition. Making art has fewer rules than making music and you don’t have to perform for people which is a part of music making I don’t enjoy. I discovered that I enjoyed making art so much more than making music. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a career artist at this point, but that evolved over time. 

Josh Petker, The Bard, oil and acrylic on linen, 61 x 138 in, 2023.

NB: Your work is characterized by drawing inspiration from historical works. What are some of the artists or art history periods you draw inspiration from the most? Why these?   

JP: The first thing to say is that many of the historic artists that inspire my work are historical inspiration as opposed to technical artistic inspiration. When I look at Frans Hals or Johannes Vermeer, for example, it’s the fact that they painted scenes of leisure and everyday life, where people relate to each other, that inspires me far more than their impeccable detail or technical virtuosity. Looking at art history allows one to time travel.

Visually, I feel that the way I employ layers of figuration atop the historical references creates an effect that appears similar to cubism at times, although I am not making cubist paintings. It’s the layering of references that naturally creates the result. Then there’s influence from the psychedelic rock n’ roll poster art from the 1960s, which combined Art Nouveau with clashing neon colors to make their look, and of course the musical references of the day. 

When I was studying art history a lot of movements were introduced as if they’re in opposition to the movement before them, but I don’t feel like I’m on a timeline. I like it all: I love abstraction, I love surrealism, I love historical, academic, painting and all for different reasons. Why not use them all? In one sense, my work is about time, but it’s about how it all blends together and not so much about a chronological order.

Josh Petker, Blue Beach, oil and acrylic on linen, 69 x 61 in, 2023.

NB: OK so then how do you approach the canvas? Do you do sketches at all first?   

JP: No, I don’t plan out the compositions. In my studio I have numerous folders of inspiration, categorized by many things I’m interested in, including time periods, ideas, and moods. I use the folders like a DJ would use albums and turn to them over and over again. Once I land on an idea that I think is compositionally interesting, I start painting a version of it on canvas. I anchor the painting with a historical reference and then once that’s ready, the real painting, layering, and expression happens.

Josh Petker, Red Pinscher, oil and acrylic on linen, 60 x 50 in, 2023.

NB: So can you tell us about the characters and subjects in your paintings that are often drinking, celebrating, and performing? What is interesting to you about these scenarios?

JP: What’s interesting to me, and what’s the most fun about these scenes of taverns, is that they’re scenes of basic human nature. I feel like despite all the changes that happen through time with science and technology, human relations is still a universal theme. I recently marked out something that curator and writer Kathy Battista wrote that I loved: “Despite changes in technology, politics, fashion or health standards, humanity remains the same across epochs. We eat, we work, and we long for meaningful connection with our friends, lovers and community.” I feel that’s the gist of it.

In my paintings, I often include a Bard. It’s not a rule, but there is often a musician or someone playing music. I have an affinity for the multifaceted agency of the Bard: they are the fool, the story-teller, the brave traveler, and inebriated comedian. Though I prefer the solitude of my studio, I relate to the trope of the Bard. 

NB: Yes, I remember your most recent show at Rachel Uffner was called ‘Serenade’.   

JP: That’s right. And my last show at Anat Egbi was called ‘Tambourine’. That’s because they are about music and I think paintings can be heard like a ‘moment of still music’ somehow. I suppose I view myself as an ‘art Bard’ in some way. Shakespeare was a Bard. Bob Dylan is a Bard. A Bard is all about sharing stories about the human condition and then people hear the stories and retell those stories and so on. The literal embodiment of passing time through song and story. The Bard is akin to the fool in terms of historical work. It’s a character that can reveal universal truths while also making fun of the king and the absurdity of the system. I like Bards.

Josh Petker, Courting in Red, oil and acrylic on linen 20 x 16 in, 2021.

NB: As you were talking I thought that I see that the larger scale works are more of these group scenes and the smaller paintings appear to be more detailed shots. Could you just talk a little bit about that?

JP: I think of the smaller detail works as suggestive fragments or crops. It could be about the touch of one hand on a shoulder, or the dangling of a shoe that really exemplifies another layer of what’s going on at any moment. In the original painting that I’m pulling the crop from, let’s say there’s a wash maiden who’s just dangling a shoe – yet cropped on its own it suddenly becomes so much more, you know? It’s suggestive of domesticity, intimacy, leisure, flirtation, exhaustion, etc

Josh Petker, The Card Game, oil and acrylic on linen, 69 x 61 in, 2021.

NB:So let’s talk about color palette, and how this relates to the themes you explore.   

JP: I’m very affected by the 1960s explosion of psychedelic art and the psychedelic music that the art corresponded with. I think of the psychedelic light shows taking place behind live music groups and how the colors and forms change and go with the music. These early pioneers of popular music were sort of like the Troubadours of new sounds and new ideas. In my work, like in those rock posters, I’m interested in colors that move and clash against each other. Glaring orange and green fonts outlined in neon pink make the eyes move all around the image and suddenly you’re in that dreamy, trippy place. That’s where I like to be. 

The fragments or cropped paintings rely on color play a lot of the time. They’re mostly blue with just a hint of red that accentuates what I was describing as a ‘moment’.I’m painting historic images, but then by giving them these contemporary colors it makes them live somewhere in between past and present. The colors sing out to me, ‘life is but a dream’.

NB: So last question, what are some projects you’re currently working on? Any upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share with us?   

JP: Right now I’m working towards a solo show that will take place in early 2025 with Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York City. I also work with Anat Ebgi Gallery in Los Angeles and things are coming up there soon as well.