Josh Sperling On Painting Off the Wall & Cutting His Teeth with KAWS

“I’ve always wanted to be a painter. I thought it was the most romantic version of being an artist,” Josh Sperling reflects. “But my interest was never in traditional methods.” The Ithaca-based non-traditionalist has risen to notoriety for his paintings that defy the typical four-sided pictorial plane we’ve taken for granted. In squiggles, swirls, arcs, and interlocking blocks, his shaped canvases jut from the wall bringing 2D imagery into 3D space.

For his latest exhibition, DAYDREAM, opening at the Lower East Side outpost of Galerie Perrotin, Sperling divided three floors into separate formal focuses. The first floor presents the monochromatic swirls and spirals that have defined Sperling’s practice for some time. The second floor features a “squiggle room”—similar arching forms laid out using the wall as negative space—as well as a new, harder-edged series he’s calling Concentric Squares. The third floor is dedicated to his composites, which assemble different visual motifs into frenzied compositions. “This show is big and ambitious, the kind of thing that started off as just a daydream,” he says of the title’s origins. “And,” he adds, “I feel like as an artist you spend a lot of time inside your own head. The most fun part of being an artist is daydreaming.”

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

The artist’s life was hardly unfamiliar territory to Sperling. His grandfather was a sculptor with a studio in New York City and his father an art instructor upstate where Sperling grew up. “I always thought I’d be an artist. I never really thought about any other professions,” he tells me. Though he had brief forays into other fields like graphic design, none stuck. His induction into the contemporary art world truly came in 2012 when he moved to Brooklyn and began working with KAWS.

There, he began with carpentry, color-mixing, and painting, moving into design and other production elements over the course of five years. As KAWS’ stardom continued to rise and his practice expanded, Sperling says he got to try his hands at nearly every role in the studio. “I never knew what a studio looked like with employees, and KAWS was super helpful in showing me how to navigate that,” he recalls.

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Not only did his time with the Companion artist shape how he runs his studio and interactions with the art world, it also helped him develop the more conceptual aspects of his practice. “My love of color is definitely a lot from him, because he’s an extremely good colorist,” Sperling says. “He is super important for me.”

Sperling’s approach to color underlines the precision he brings to his practice. In his Ithaca studio, he’s got a cache of around 1,200 custom paint mixtures, each exact ratios of pigments with white or black or gray, kept in two-ounce jars with a canvas swatched with the shade glued on top. “I wanted to really make sure that I developed a system, because I basically now have infinite possibilities,” he explains. “I’m not depending on a company to do it for me, I’m just doing it myself.”

Though he’s recently moved to a new, larger studio to accommodate his expanding practice, he still often begins his thoughts in his previous workspace, a 19th-century barn on his property. “It’s kind of like my sanctuary, where I can do the creative process away from the sound of sanders and staple guns and all that.”

Sperling begins planning out his designs by hand on paper or a computer tablet. “Once the form looks good in black and white, it’s locked in place and it’s not changing.” From there, he makes a scale maquette of the design and uses his proprietary tints to fill in the model, “basically like a coloring book.” Sperling and his studio assistants then extrapolate the amount of paint needed on a digital scale to get to full-size, side-by-side testing with the maquette along the way to ensure a perfect match. This rigorous exploration was part of the inspiration behind the Concentric Squares Sperling will be unveiling at Perrotin: a series of interlocking, vibratory bands set within custom-made square frames that serve as “scientific experiments” by setting different shades side-by-side in a repeated composition. “It’s a vehicle to see how colors interact with each other,” he says.

Farzad Owrang /

Farzad Owrang /

Farzad Owrang /

Other compositions in DAYDREAM are more free-form, gestural, or textural. After all, much of what distinguishes Sperling’s output is the non-traditional shapes his canvases take. After getting the colors and design squared away, realizing a painting begins by cutting the plywood bases and stretcher-bars for the custom canvases that will match those planned out, building on experiences in woodshops and the like that Sperling had early on. “A lot of my art is just dealing with these skills I had gained through my younger life and using those to my advantage to dictate which way my art was going to go,” he notes, reflecting on the trajectory that got him to his current practice. “It’s a recurring part of our practice. We cut everything here, we glue everything, we stretch everything, we paint everything, we make all the crates. We do 100% of the production here.”

Sperling happened upon the basis of his practice—using custom-shaped canvases painted in monochrome acrylic—in 2013 when he began playing with unusual plywood cuts. “I knew at that point in time like, ‘Oh, this is super fun and it’s not too specific of an idea,’” meaning that he wouldn’t be faced with the “shorter road” of, well, painting himself into a serialist corner. “[The approach] was general enough that it would allow me to go in many directions, but also specific enough that it could be recognized as my style.”

That hardly means things aren’t changing. In addition to the new monochromes and squiggles, as well as the Concentric Squares color experiments, Sperling is also presenting a series that’s “less geometric, more handbuilt, and has a more gestural, hand-drawn quality than previous ones.” These “composites” or “collaged” pieces layer many of his usual forms with more textured and less rigid edges and finishes—in compositions stretching nearly 22 feet long. “I always like working at a big scale, but then scaling up the show just inevitably scaled up the pieces,” he explains of working with Perrotin’s Orchard Street space, adding that technical necessities of stretching canvases around tight arcs also limit not how large, but how small, he can go.

Though at their heart minimalist, the zig-zagging and whirling shapes Sperling prefers are hardly restrained. That said, they’re not free-wheeling either. His paintings retain an almost mechanistic precision of line, and the finishes on each surface don’t display any obvious touch, creating sculptural paintings that are almost iconographic in character. “I’m pretty influenced by design and architecture and just craftsmanship in general,” Sperling says of the tension between the custom-made and the reproducible in his work. “I feel like part of ‘craftsmanship’ with air quotes around, like woodworking, is removing the hand from it.”

While Sperling certainly has his economy-of-means-style historical references—Frank Stella, perhaps most obviously, or Ellsworth Kelly, along with Josef Albers, especially in his most recent pieces—he explains that most of his inspiration comes from outside contemporary art. “I find I’m influenced more by not art. I see something in architecture, in graphic design, and I feel like it’s more okay for me to use that and borrow it.”

This also helps him since he spends most of his time away from the big centers of contemporary art many artists live in. “When I’m in New York, I’m inspired by going to shows and walking down the street and looking at the architecture, and when I’m here [in Ithaca], I’m more inspired by walking in the woods or just driving on back roads, getting that space to think.” Plus, he buys three or four books a week: “There’s definitely a lot more space to think in the country. Or at least the environment makes it easier, quicker to get into that zone”—that zone of daydreaming.

Sperling’s DAYDREAM is on view at Galerie Perrotin New York from April 28 through June 11.

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