Jeff Musser – Art and Cake

What does a day in your art practice look like?
After I have finished my morning routine of meditation, coffee, and emails, I turn off the Wi-Fi on my phone, put on some music or a lecture/podcast in the background, and I paint for a solid, uninterrupted two hours. Unless it’s an emergency, I don’t answer my phone or even answer the door. It’s my time to work. Once the two hours are up, I take a thirty-minute break and I completely step away from the studio. I will take a walk, watch something on Netflix, stretch, answer emails, etc. Once the thirty-minute alarm goes off, I go back for another two hours and repeat the process. A twelve-to-fourteen-hour studio day is much more manageable and productive if I break it up into smaller chunks.

What would life be like without art?
Boring and unlivable.

What is the hardest part of creating your art?
Before I create a painting, my “sketch” for the work is a collage made from original drawings and other source material around the subject matter. At this point in my practice, it’s a 50-50 ratio of what is original collage and what is on the spot, in the moment painting decisions. I will intentionally leave blank or unresolved spots in the collage so that I will figure it out when I’m painting, even though this often bites me in the ass because I won’t be able to solve the problem right away. Sometimes it will take months and this adversarial relationship will develop with a particular work. One of my painting/art idols Kerry James Marshal said in an interview “It’s supposed to get harder, and that’s not really a problem. You’re supposed to be more sophisticated and much more self-conscious. As you know more, you have to consider more. It gets harder to make the next thing, because you have to have a good reason to do it.“ I didn’t understand that concept when I was younger, I thought it would be the opposite, but now I get it.

Absorbed Into Neutral

What inspires you?
Anyone who sees my work will be aware of the heavy influence of painters like Caravaggio, Diego Velasquez and Kehinde Wiley. Of course painters like Jenny Saville, Kerry James Marshall, Odd Nerdrum, John Currin, Titus Kaphar, and Gerhard Richter have been influential. I saw a giant retrospective by Cai Guo Qian in Shanghai China years ago that BLEW MY MIND! The show planted the seed of “ Maybe I should try some sort of installation one day.” As far as non-art inspirations go, I pull a lot of material from American History and the natural world.

Exceptionalism Doesn’t Grow From Nothing

What is the best advice you’ve been given?
An artist I greatly respect and admire, Sharon Louden, gave me great advice about rejection. If you get rejected from a residency, or a fellowship, or a grant, don’t take it personally, which on the surface is very hard to do since artists put so much of themselves into their work. She told me a “NO” right now, doesn’t mean “NO Forever.” Apply to opportunities multiple times, because panels change. People taste change or the mission of whatever you’re applying to may change. I know someone who applied to Skohegan SEVEN times before they were accepted.

If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? and why?

I have daydreamed about what it would have been like to live in early 17th century Baroque Rome, running the streets with Caravaggio! It would have been dirty and grimy and smelled terrible, but to be able to witness his work fresh, placed inside a chapel for the first time, would have been beyond words.

I Present To You The World. Now Go Seize It

How has personal experience influenced your creativity?
In late 1993, when I was a teenager, my friend Nathaniel was stopped and harassed by a police officer for walking down a particular street wearing a hoodie. When Nathaniel told me about the incident, I dismissed him. “You must have done SOMETHING,” I said. I will never forget the look on his face when he replied “I can’t believe you just fucking said that to me! I didn’t do shit; I was just walking to Dave’s house. This shit happens weekly for me!” The pain and anger on his face was so intense, it frightened me. I had never seen him so enraged. But as he stood there shaking in his San Francisco 49’s hoodie, it wasn’t just pain I saw, it was what I now recognize as betrayal. All he wanted in that moment was for me to believe him, to listen to him, and perhaps acknowledge his pain. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how. I was a white teenager unequipped to see the world from a perspective other than my own. This, in my opinion, is a major roadblock to real racial progress in this country. It’s The Default: The belief that the white experience is a neutral and objective experience and white consciousness is the standard consciousness unless otherwise specified. In order to see a person, you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, like I was denying Nathaniel’s, you refuse to see them. This is what makes non-white people invisible to most white Americans. And although we may be friends, neighbors, coworkers, or lovers, we live our lives never REALLY seeing each other.

Life went on, we joked and laughed and did dumb teenage things, but our friendship was never the same. We never talked about the incident again, and I could feel a shift in our relationship, like he never fully trusted me after that. Had I known he would be dead just a few years later, I would have told him how sorry I was for not believing him. I would have told him how much I loved him. It took nearly two decades to fully form, but I made a painting during the height of the pandemic about the above experience.

Police Don’t Stop People For No Reason. Right?

What do you wish to accomplish with your art?
I have always known and felt that being white was a special kind of existence, but the notion that my racial identity was a construct with benefits and biases that I could examine through my art, took on a special kind of urgency when I moved to China in early 2013. My deep examination of my white racial identity intensified when I returned to America in 2016 right before the election of Donald Trump and only deepened in the summer of 2020.

My current work aims to examine whiteness from two vantage points. One aspect is an objective historical view: why did the term “…Freeborn English and other white woman” first appear in the Colony of Maryland in 1681, how was whiteness linked to being a real American, and how the label of white has morphed over time. The second aspect is a subjective micro view: how has whiteness affected my family, what was lost when my father’s side of the family morphed from being “Undesirable, Swarthy Swiss” in 1817 to “Proud White Southerners” who fought for Confederacy in 1860, who in my family was never allowed to be white, and how my white identity has negatively affected my personal outlook on the world.

One of my goals with these paintings is to introduce constructive discomfort both within myself and among my white-identified peers and social circles with the hope that a deeper conversation on whiteness and the traumatic history of white supremacy can be had.