In the Studio with Joseph Justus

American contemporary artist Joseph Justus draws inspiration from urban fabrics and the human body, experimenting on surfaces that act as lenses or x-rays steadily moving in and out of a plane. We met with Joseph to tell us a little bit more about his practice and journey to where he is now.

Firstly, When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

From as far back as I can remember, I have been making and creating.  Art gave me an identity, but I wouldn’t have considered myself an artist.  For the longest time, I called myself a painter and a designer.  I now see that to be an artist is a decision of intentionality, curiosity, and an ability to consistently produce, whether it is thoughts, objects, or experiences. 

I also have this art-architecture complex because of my background, so I avoided the labeling.  But I think it has been counterproductive because it’s like living in two worlds when you just want to move forward in one.  I see art like religion. It can have such a strong grip and can be very consuming but just like religion once you accept it, it’s wonderful.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which is geographically in the center of the US.   My parents used to take my sisters and I to the Walker Art Center at a young age.  I have distinct memories of the Spoonbridge and Cherry (Claes Oldenberg and Coosje vam Bruggen), Frank Gehry’s Standing Glass Fish and works by Jasper Johns.  It was also my first introduction to contemporary architecture.  As a kid, I loved the circular movement in that museum. I felt like I was climbing up a spiral into a mysterious interior.  It was really great.   

My mom grew up in Hawaii. To survive the monotone winters of Minnesota, she brought the best colors into the house. Vintage Hawaiian print, tropical indoor plants, and she was always silk screening these graphic images of Hawaii.  She was my first introduction to experimentation and process.  

My father is an architect. He was always making, fixing, or drawing.  He had this small office in the basement of our house where he would work at night.  He had one of those great clip-on black lights and I would always smell graphite as he drew on his mayline drafting table.  On Sundays, he would take my sisters and I to the architecture office he worked at and we got to run around the messy studio.  I remember the stacks of drawings and physical models everywhere.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience? 

Most of my studies have been in architecture.  I studied visual arts for two years at an undergraduate college in Santa Barbara, where I was introduced to painting.  I became obsessed, mostly because I could jump scale so easily.  Up to that point, I only drew.  One of the professors gave me a key to the building and I painted at night and surfed during the day.  But after a year and a half, I decided I wanted to study architecture.  I applied and was accepted into University of California’s Undergraduate Architecture program at Berkeley.  I honestly did not have an understanding of exactly what that would intel, but what I found was a different way of thinking and an experimental process.  I was exposed to the collective studio culture for the first time and conversations of modernity and the city.  I was looking at drawings for the first time by Yona Friedman, Etienne Louis Boulle and other visionary architects and studying artists working with everyday materials like Eva Hesse and Louis Nevelson.   It was so raw, but also calculated.   I started experimenting with fiberglass, foam, and resins and drawing more abstractly. It was a romantic time.  It really changed my perception of painting.  I had focused on composition and color through an intuitive process, but I saw how painting could also be more calculated.

'A Selection of the Most Representative Drawings by Yona Friedman' via Archdaily.com

Untitled (Tropics), 2020

Acrylic on canvas
122 x 183 cm

I later received my Master of Architecture at Columbia University in New York.  I considered applying for an MFA, but decided I wanted to continue having a multidisciplinary studio.  Marc Wigley was the dean of the program and I felt it was important to attend a graduate program that was progressive. 

While living in Los Angeles and New York I have been fortunate to work for architects and designers such as Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne and Vito Acconci. Recently, I started a studio in Los Angeles to recalibrate my career and put more emphasis on art production.

Untitled (Day Two), 2020

Acrylic on canvas
122 x 122 cm

Untitled (Day One), 2020

Acrylic on canvas
183 x 122 cm

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? 

In my current work, timing is so important. I am probably taking it out of context, but I think about what the Futurists said when they spoke of a new beauty of the world – the beauty of speed.  I can be an impatient artist and tend to be drawn to processes which have some calculation with instant results.  There needs to be some kind of adrenaline in the painting.  It’s not just a visual, but also a physical process for me. The constraint of speed and risk is critical. I measure the value of my work in this wager.

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Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I draw a lot of inspiration from the urban fabric and the human body.  We see one thing on the surface – skin, buildings – but I am interested in the complex currents right under the surface.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

This is always changing but recently Ed Moses, Michael Heizer, and science fiction books such as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

Some aspects are planned.  I definitely think about color before I begin, but this planning usually fails me quite quickly.

Even though beauty is subjective, I do believe in it, even more so now when there is so much chaos in the world.  I want people to be reminded of beauty.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work? 

When I was studying at Columbia University I went and stayed at Monastery off the Hudson River.  Observing the contemplative nature of the monks was very impactful for me.  The rituals and repetitive daily routines were beautiful.   

I started to realize that setting up frameworks or rules are important. I saw how the daily routines of a monks is a lot like the studio life. Forming disciplines gives you something to push up against. Within the frameworks there can be elements of experimentation.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

A dry Los Angeles night.

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

I would like to take on more ambitious projects and see the disciplines of art and architecture form a closer relationship in my studio.  I would also like to grow the studio and work alongside other designers and artists.   I often see my paintings as experiments or blueprints for something of larger scale.  They help to create a loop which feeds ideas.  One of my dreams is to design/construct a monastery in a rock quarry with a pipe organ at the center playing music throughout the day.     

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

This quarantine has been demanding in Los Angeles. It is a city with endless inspiration, but now completely out of reach.

Are you creating new work while social distancing?

I have been able to be productive though commissions, which I am really thankful for.

How are you staying creative?

The act of continually making has become a contemplative act. It has been a way to measure a sense of self and reality.  I am not sure what reality is right now, but art production has been able to ground me. Society needs artists to keep producing.

Untitled (Gravity), 2020

Acrylic on canvas
183 x 122 cm


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