Jake Grewal In Conversation with Jordan Cook and Johann Rohl

I met Jordan Cook and Johann Rohl in 2018 during the postgraduate program at The Royal Drawing School. Our friendship has evolved over time much like our practices and although I feel we’ve known each other longer, it’s recently we’ve started to confide in one another.  Sharing an intensely unique experience like The Drawing Year creates invisible ties between us and we feel comfortable talking about drawing, identity, trauma and inspirations. Here are some topics we talked about as the sun set on board a boat in Vauxhall.


It's actually here where I left it - Jake Grewal


Jake Grewal: Prior to coming out at 16 I was labeled gay by my peers in school. There weren’t any out people in my year group so I found myself becoming my own teacher. It felt like I was exploring what it means to be queer in solitude. I tried to create common ground between my girlfriends’ experiences and my own however their experiences were, and still are, inherently different. I know I am still working through this experience, a kind of othering and shame associated with my identity. I often think that I’m trying to come to terms with myself as a complete person who is not perpetually different or on the outside of things looking in.How have your early experiences affected your interaction with your queer identity?


$5 Rose - Jordan Cook


Jordan Cook: I guess I've always had quite a complicated relationship with my own identity. I grew up in a post-war New Town called Harlow in Essex. I don't remember having much of a sense of life outside the town apart from when we'd go to visit my nan in London. As Jake said, my understanding of my own identity was only ever based off of the people who were around me. I didn't know any queer people growing up, and I definitely didn't have the tools to confront any of it on my own. The only outlet for me to learn about being gay was through the Internet, which, as you can imagine, offered quite a distorted view into queer culture.


Gemini - Johann Rohl


Johann Rohl: Being on the outside looking in is a really apt way of putting it, that’s how I’ve often felt as a queer kid growing up as I could identify my sexuality from as early as I can remember. I had an experience when playing out with the boys where I was asked why I was wearing a bright rainbow striped jumper and that made me start to become very aware of my decisions. My flamboyant qualities weren’t accepted very much growing up and I think its made me become quite self reflective as I feel like I’ve had to constantly check myself and censor certain parts of myself that weren't accepted. It often feels like I’m living with multiple people in one body: there's always been a lot of conflict between these different parts of myself which I'm working hard to bring peace to. Drawing has always really helped with this, it's a safe space that I can inhabit, be myself and explore ideas without having to censor myself.


Untitled - Jake Grewal


JG: I’ve often felt a sense of isolation in regards to finding a tribe or like-minded people. I’m not sure whether it is something to do with growing up in London, a city so big as there is a sense of anonymity, the idea ones notion of difference is hand in hand with the queer experience or that is inherently human to feel other. I find it interesting that in spaces, for me, like gay bars, often make me feel a sense of unease or disconnect. How important are queer spaces to you and how did do you operate within such a vast city like London?

JC: It's weird, I remember going to my first gay bar when I started my BA in Norwich and feeling like I wasn't really a part of it. I loved how the space allowed everyone to fully embrace who they were, yet, I wasn't really sure where I fitted into all of it, which also felt fairly isolating. It's only recently when studying in London and meeting new people in art circles that I feel like I've found queer spaces that I genuinely align with, and that feels really valuable to me.

JH: I grew up in a small town called Keighley that’s in West Yorkshire (imagine God´s Own Country) so I didn’t have many queer spaces available to me growing up. My friendship groups were spaces where I could feel safe and accepted and the internet: chatting to random guys on instant messenger and obscure emo sites like gave me a virtual space to figure out where I stood behind the safety of a screen.


Ball Games - Jordan Cook

JG: When thinking of the commonalities between the works, the inclusion of and retreat into a physical or abstract space seemed poignant and relevant. I frequently look to natural spaces in my work often observationally drawing from the landscapes around where I live, searching for solace. I return to certain places more than others and this practice often feels like a kind of mediation or pilgrimage.  The inclusion of nature in the work is often used metaphorically or allegorically alluding to semi-autobiographic experiences.  I try to look at figurative elements of the work abstractly allowing room for speculation behind inclusion of visual clues. When working with the landscape I try to treat it as if it were a portrait, I see no difference. One can say with a landscape what one can say with bodies. Both are living and tell a story. What spaces do you include in your work and how does that talk to your internal space?

JC: Most of the spaces in my work are based on places I've grown up in. I'm quite overly-sentimental about a lot of things, and I think that the spaces that I create for myself in my drawings offer me somewhere to offload all of that onto. They're very banal places, but they carry a lot of baggage which I quite enjoy unpicking. There's something about the process of piecing together fragments of themes that emerge that feels really cathartic to me. It becomes less about the actual drawing and more about the meditative space, and if people enjoy looking at the drawings after too then that's pretty cool.

JH: I see the spaces in my drawings as landscapes of the inner world and so they don’t tend to make much sense to me at the time of conception. I tend to think about the spaces in my drawings the least in the process but they seem to be important to me in trying to convey a feeling or an idea. I like having the space reveal itself to me when working on a piece and seeing how it encapsulates both the feeling channelled and something completely new.


Untitled III - Johann Rohl


JG: A documentation of personal history is an important part of my work. It’s crucial for me to document, scrawling in sketchbooks and diaries so I can understand what exactly I was feeling. I go over these confessions and I keep them in my heart as I paint. These have a direct link to what the paintings are about. As time goes on perceptions of events can change and offers a different visual outcome. I use nature in allegorical terms and this lends itself well to transformation. I often find myself toeing the line between fiction and reality and enjoying creating my own mythologies within the microcosm of the paintings. How do you handle narrative in your work and is it planned? Do you come to the work with an intent or let the work drive the outcome?

JC: I’ll usually come to the work with quite a strong idea about how it's going to go, get halfway through and have to destroy the whole thing because it’s completely dead. And most likely something will come out of doing that. But I can’t plan for that to happen either because that also doesn’t work. The most exciting part is when I stop thinking so much and abandon all expectations. It feels more honest that way. And by this point, it's anyone's guess where it's all going to go.

JH: I have a feeling or set of themes in mind and try to channel all of these things that resonate collectively into a drawing or a series of drawings. What happens on the page is usually something I have to leave to intuition, there's only so much I can control otherwise I can risk killing the thing. What I'm left with can often tell me something completely different to what I had intended. My drawings usually work out when I allow myself to take turns being a passenger and then the driver, and I like that constant back and forth.


Early Bird - Jordan Cook


JG: In my work there is a dialect between the figures and the landscape. I enjoy playing with the ambiguity of form and the merging of shapes. A tree can be a figure but also an arm, two figures can be read as one. Figures are woven into the landscape and emerge in a kind of metamorphosis. I attempt to capture this fluidity in the handling of paint. The marks are abstract but construct figurative elements as parts of the work are built up while others remain thin veils of pigment. I see this liquidity and fluidity in nature, identity, time and memory. Even paint itself is a fluid medium, enabling change as time progresses. I remember reading somewhere that oil paint actually doesn’t dry for maybe 30 years? It’s alive in that way. In your works how do the materials you use reflect the subject of the work, and why do you choose the materials you use?

JC: I seem to take a lot of trips to Wilkinsons lately. I've always liked the idea of using cheap materials. It's more rewarding taking whatever is around me and trying to stretch it so that it can say something bigger than it initially did. There's something quite raw about that I think, and I hope that translates into the subject matter.

JH: I tend to use cheap materials and office supplies at the moment because of their immediacy and accessability. There's something about the speed at which a biro can be moved which matches the speed at which I feel my hand needs to travel and the transparency and tacky quality to the marks it makes speaks to me in a way that nothing else does right now. I also like the constraints of using a biro, you have to be direct and deliberate and I find the thin quality of line gets me to consider how I can use it to create different textures and rhythms and tone and also challenge those limits too. I suppose there's quite an intensity to the spaces i create using a biro because the ratio of marks to space is dense and worked up and layered.


Untitled I - Johann Rohl


JG: I try to visually share stories in the work I make and although it comes from a specific place the aim is for the work to be open to interpretation.  I want the work to have a similar reading to music or poetry.  They share the capacity to hold a mirror to recipient and allow them to place their experience upon the work. I often listen to. Tavener, Glass, Part ,Debussy when words are too distracting.  Bjork, serpentwithfeet, Patti Smith, Anthony and the Johnsons if I need something more raw or narrative heavy. It’s funny how it can be encouraging of an honesty that is hard when you are alone. I wonder is music significant in your work or is a source of inspiration for you when you’re working ?

JC: I used to have a particular playlist I'd go to when working in the studio, but recently I've become more interested in switching between different genres or trying the radio and seeing how it impacts the way that I'm working. It's about the thereness of it more than anything, a rhythm in the background that reminds of the outside world. Or maybe my music taste is just really stale now, I'm not sure.

JH: Music is a big part of my life and work and I very rarely make drawings without it as it’s the easiest way for me to tap into a mood or atmosphere. I get really taken in by catchy hooks and riffs that get lodged in my brain so I have to draw sometimes in order to get them loose. I grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music but what really got me was pop music, especially the songs produced by Max Martin who worked with Britney spears and The Backstreet Boys. He contributed to a lot of the soundtracks to my life growing up so that love for simple, catchy melody has stuck with me and I think it's shaped a lot of what my interests are in art and the way that I make images.


As Stars Danced They Grew Like Trees - Jake Grewal


JG: In my work there are references to Romanticism. I often find myself down a rabbit hole listening to lectures of artists I particularly or associate with. It can be very empowering having an idols spirit with you in the studio as you make the work. Recently I listened to an interview with Michael Armitage on ‘A Brush With’, a podcast that interviews painters. I also look to works by queer modernists like Pavel Tchelitchew and Neo-Romantics like Keith Vaughan. Do you carry any particular spirit with you in the studio when you make work? Are there any voices that have shaped the work you make?

JC: I try not to complicate going into the studio too much, there'd be too much pressure otherwise. Though I'm always thinking about artists. Recently it's been a wrestle between Leon Golub, David Park, Sam Doyle, Alice Neel, and Anselm Kiefer. Egon Schiele is always there too. Oh and Bruegel is a new one for me.

JH: I've made a lot of work to Kate Bush - The Hounds of Love and Aerial so I've carried a lot of the different energies from those albums into my earlier drawings. Again, it's mostly songs or albums that i like to let consume me in order to work because it's the quickest route to feeling and I like how much that can affect the creative decisions I make on the plane.


Forgetting to Remember - Jake Grewal