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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Artist profile: Jonathan Raney

Bare bulbs glare across the room framed by unpainted drywall. No heat. No daylight. So it’s a surprise to see Jonathan Raney’s neon-rich paintings, which reinvent the ancient Greek sagas so elegantly. It is as I’ve always said, inspiration comes from within. And for Raney his mind blisters with the gods of myth.

Plastic crates of wood clamps, a small table crowded with tubes of acrylic paint, tools neatly hung from nails. On easels and hanging on the unfinished walls his collection of paintings, the ones he hasn’t sold, innovatively retell the old stories that once entertained a society gazing at the night sky, contemplating deities.

It’s a mural in the hall that’s gained his attention today.

“This is a scene from The Aeneid, Book VI, when Apollo tells the future of Rome to Aeneas,” he says of the painting that holds several figures still in pencil. Fascinated by the tales of Virgil, Ovid, and Homer, Raney’s work references the classic tales, modernizing them for a new generation.

His work combines an archetypal sense of beauty, singed with historic tragedy, offset with a graphic novel’s aesthetic. It’s compelling to consider the reinvention of these stories that sprang from poets over two thousand years ago. In these times of the new new thing, to see a dedication to these crusty old gods and their vicious machinations feels heartening.

Set up on the stair landing of the Cottonwood Club in Bozeman, a DIY studio space for artists, Raney opens a jar and spills a pool of neon pink on a small impromptu palette. Outlined on the wall is a depiction of Alecto, the fury who castigates moral crimes, who Juno called upon to cause strife and war.

Raney brushes a thin layer of glowing pink over most of the black-penned drawing.

“It’s a technique called, ‘velatura,’” he says. The method incorporates a series of thin layers of opaque paint to obscure the objects in the painting, as though viewed through a mist. “I chose acrylics because I make a mess when I paint and it’s easier to clean up. It’s also healthier for me. And I like using these neon colors because it jumps and startles people. In velatura you don’t paint the color you want, if you want orange, you paint a layer of yellow, then a layer of varnish, and then you lay down the red, so what you’re really getting is the illusion of depth and variations of orange.”

Raney’s detailed sketch slouches along the wall’s ledge. Before a single color hits the image, he’s got the entire process figured out. Typically, he’ll research a potential subject for three months before he even starts a painting.

“I use sacred geometry for measuring my compositions,” he says. “I draw a grid and place my subjects according to the ratio of height and width.”

Raney came to Bozeman via Memphis, or rather a small town in Mississippi near Memphis. His voice still carries the warm air of the South.

“My mom was a gospel singer and we moved around,” he says, concentrating on the cross-hatches of Alecto’s trumpet. “I’d help with the equipment.”

When Raney happened upon comic books, he immediately drew each of the pages, introducing himself to a more contemporary style, which lingers today in his depiction of the legends. In fact, Raney is working on his own graphic novel, Automata and The Peril of Flux, the details of which he keeps to himself.

“Sometimes I’ll just draw, and then I’ll write,” he says. “Stories seem to come out of the drawings.”

At 13, he came across a book of Michelangelo’s art. “That got me started reading about the masters. I was taken by their dedication to their art and their drive,” he says. “I went from there to the Renaissance and to Goya.”

Homeschooled in high school, he felt relieved not to have to be involved in the social cliques and de facto responsibilities of the publicly educated. It was while he was in college that he first read The Iliad and The Odyssey, and he felt an immediate need to paint the scenes. Mythology, it seems, remained an otherworldly attraction.

Every spare second he has, he spends painting and working on his graphic novel. While not prolific, he is certainly committed to his work.

He points to the small child-like figures at the bottom of the painting.

“These are agents of Juno,” he says, carefully applying another layer of pink. “I painted them as children because children don’t understand right from wrong, so they do exactly what they want.”

Not only are his paintings rich in interpretation, drilled with a philosophical auger, but Raney brings the faces of these gods and goddesses down to a personal level. His familiarity is intimate, and I imagine he can etch their quirks with his eyes closed.

“I want to be a witness for the centuries,” he says.

And somehow I believe that’s just what he’s doing.


Author's Note: Raney’s work will be hanging in Starky’s through June 1st. Because Starky’s doesn’t take a commission Raney will donate that percentage to the Big Sky Youth Empowerment Program.

Readers who've enjoyed this artist and the writing of Michele Corriel are likely to appreciate her profile on Rollin Beamish.

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