LA-based artist Devon DeJardin is exploring the self and the global pandemic in a new series of tempestuous abstractions. In his upcoming exhibition Umgestalter at DENK gallery next month, he is presenting works that reflect the current era of pandemic-related strife, encapsulating the uncertainty faced by all of us, as we wrestle with questions about our future. Meaning “transformer” in German, the work in “Umgestalter” speaks to the way Devon’s past struggles with depression and anxiety have shifted his own shape, while also contemplating how the pandemic has altered the shape of society as a whole. We spoke to Devon about this new body of work, his own experience with the pandemic and the poetry which influenced his latest paintings.
You studied world religions in college, how does that inspire your painting?
Studying world religions in university allowed me to understand a variety of worldviews and lenses that humans anchor themselves in. It allowed me to have a better understanding of the human journey and the often innate desire we have for something more. Studying religion also taught me that so often, in our modern world of comfort and convenience, the very uncertainty and discomfort we seek to avoid is the thing we most need in order to move forward. How the journey is the destination, and how only once we recognize that fact can we reach the place we want to. It showed me that there are far more similarities between human beliefs than separations. This period of studying religion has inspired my painting by giving me a base to work from. It has acted as a foundation and a reference point to help share pain and hope.
Can you tell us about your upcoming exhibition Umgestalter?
My new body of abstracted work reflects the era of its provenance: one muddled in the storm and shadow of COVID-19, one rife with clash and questions. The title of the exhibition references a line in Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Man Watching, in which the poet alludes to the biblical story of Jacob grappling with the angel. In doing so, Rilke suggests that the struggle with that which outmatches us enables humanity to strive against greater and greater things. Rilke calls the coming storm of this showdown “Umgestalter”, which in German means the “shifter of shapes” or the “transformer”. This work implies a spiritual grapple and acquiescence to the forces beyond us that strengthen us through struggle. The abstraction in the new series reflects in part the accumulation of pain, of the storm-scars that shift our shapes.
You were inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching”, which is a poem about a storm, can you tell us what drew you to the text?
One would think that Rilke’s perspective in this poem would be devastating, with its observation that, through the simple act of living and growing, we face inconceivably immense forces arrayed against us. However the poem offers precarious insight, suggesting that our very strength and meaning are found in the particular way we encounter those great storms. I feel that Rilke’s poem beautifully represents the idea of wrestling with God or Source and how often these powerful experiences of wrestling with entities out of our control often strengthen us.
How has the pandemic impacted your approach to your work?
The pandemic has given me time to slow down. It has allowed much of my world to become still. My work has been shifted to a much deeper focus on narrative and has created a space for me to find ways through texture, form and color to explain much of my personal journey.
Your new body of work is also a comment on anxiety. As a lot of us have struggled with mental health issues in the past year, why do you think it’s important to comment on these experiences?
No one is immune to mental health issues. People at all levels of social, occupational or economic status can experience mental illness. The state of your mental health affects how you think, feel, and ultimately how you act. When we create a place to open up about these issues it allows room for light and freedom to enter in. Much of my human experience was tortured by anxiety and fear of never being able to escape my own thoughts. When I began to paint I felt that I finally found my voice again and ultimately, a way to communicate what it was that I needed and what it was that I was going through.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
I’m taking it day by day. I do not feel the desire to rush any of this process of slow growth. I plan on spending time after the April exhibition learning more about materiality, fabrication and the way I can use new processes to further my work. I am interested in diving into more large scale sculptural pieces and how to create immersive experiences with my artwork.
Umgestalter (Shifter of Shapes) runs April 17-May 9, 2021 by appointment at DENK in Los Angeles