By Taylor Sartin
Birdboy by Jason John is an oil painting on linen that depicts a man with a hat adjacent to flowers and two dead birds in a dimensionless space of color and light. The image is confusing in part because certain elements of this work are appropriated from other paintings. The central focus of this piece is the man with a perplexed look on his face. His quizzical expression and pregnant gestures—he points meaningfully to himself and to the flowers. On the man’s head is an improvised hat that is made from an Amazon shipping box, recognizable by its smile logo. To the man’s left, at the center of the painting are the pair of evidently dead birds floating on their sides against a field of pale pink. The flowers, on the right side of the painting, are sunflowers with red centers and deep green leaves. Each of these elements of John’s painting must be analyzed and put into context by the relationship these elements have with their surroundings.
Jason John’s Birdboy is a realistic portrait appropriating objects from both Anthony Van Dyck’s Self Portrait with Sunflowers and Willem Van Aelst and giving them new meaning. With stylistic similarities to magic realism, Birdboy is not exclusive to John’s works as being a strange rendition of other artist’s objects. His paintings in the Get Real Exhibition, like Bliss Point shows this similar kind of composition that appropriates strange imagery into his paintings. Though confusing and at sometimes disorienting, one can try to understand Jason John’s work by first recognizing familiar shapes or objects in the composition; second, by looking for similar images that the artist might have been drawing upon, and thirdly, by trying to understand the context of those objects in this new composition.
John’s Birdboy draws on diverse movements, traditions, and artists from painting’s history from twentieth century to the Renaissance. Appropriation is the key to this approach. Simply put, appropriation is the practice by artists of “borrowing” elements from other artist’s work and incorporating them into their own works. In particular, John quotes motifs from both the Flemish and Dutch Old Master painters Anthony van Dyck and Willem van Aelst. John appropriates two objects from these artist’s paintings; the sunflower from Van Dyck’s self portrait and the dead birds from Van Aelst’s Hunting Still Life.
Jason John’s Birdboy borrows from Anthony Van Dyck’s Self Portrait with a Sunflower(1632). (Fig. 1) The pose and gestures of the man in John’s painting, in addition to the sunflower, are adapted directly from Van Dyck’s famous self-portrait, which the artist painted to commemorate and celebrate the professional relationship Van Dyck had with his patron, Charles I. The sunflower in Van Dyck’s self portrait comes from the tradition of religious depictions of sunflowers. This tradition being, the depiction of sunflowers is to represent a person or group of people adhering to a higher being or person of higher status. Much like a sunflower follows the sun, Van Dyck represents himself as a sunflower following and revering his patron which is represented by the sun. In Birdboy, the sunflower takes on a new meaning. In combination with his gestures and the sunflower, the man poses a question to be answered by the viewer.
The dead birds in John’s composition are taken from yet another painting, from Willem Van Aelst’s Hunting Still Life.(Fig. 2) Van Aelst’s still life painting features the spoils and tools used during a bird hunt, including dead birds, trophies of the hunt, and trappings and accessories of the hunter. The birds appropriated by John appear, hanging by their necks, in uppermost portion of Van Aelst’s still life. In John’s painting, they are rotated clockwise on their sides appearing to float in formless space. In John’s work, the birds lose their meaning and purpose as a prize of the hunt. In their new setting, the birds become simply, a symbol of death. This appropriation of the birds could suggest that John is reflecting on death in the form of these birds in the way that a memento mori is used as a reflection upon mortality.
The disorienting effect of these appropriations is in tension with John’s highly realistic style. The result, a confusing sort of realism, recalls twentieth century movements such as Magic realism, which Jeffrey Wechsler describes as “an art of the implausible, not the impossible; it is imaginative, not imaginary.” This description applies to John’s method of appropriating and arranging objects in many of his compositions, as in Birdboy and Bliss Point, for example. (Fig. 3) Bliss Point being another portrait by John that appropriates many similar elements that Birdboy incorporates in its composition. Elements such as the cardboard hat and plant life can be seen in both of these paintings. Magic realists also took normal everyday life scenes and transformed them in ways that made them appear alien to ordinary viewers but that also inflused them with metaphoric meaning, as in Peter Blume’s painting The Eternal City, in which Blume creates a composite image of Italy made up from the most memorable images from his time in Italy.(Fig. 4) Blume appropriates various objects into his painting. Much like Jason John, Blume takes objects from his memory or from a model like, a painted jack-in-the-box with a Mussolini face and the painted ruins of the Roman Coliseum. In a similar fashion, the ordinary and familiar become strange and suggestive in John’s work, through the artist’s appropriation and juxtaposition of objects that make rational sense in other artist’s paintings but that take on new enigmatic meaning in BirdBoy.
 For more information on Anthony Van Dyck’s Self Portrait with Sunflowers read John Peacock’s book, the Look of Van Dyck: The Self-Portrait with a Sunflower and the Vision of the Painter.
 For more information on Magic Realism refer to Jeffery Wechsler’s article: Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.