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Both/And: A Conversation with Joey Healey

Joey talks with the Brown Art Review about his work in advance of his upcoming solo show, “Always Arriving”.

On The Hill
On The Hill
Both/And: A Conversation with Joey Healey
Charlie Usadi

Charlie Usadi

Date
February 21, 2024
Read
6 Minutes

Joey Healey is a current senior in the Visual Arts department. His large-scale, vibrant work pulses with energy. Healey’s upcoming thesis exhibition, “Always Arriving”, uses his work’s energy to appreciate the constant change central to the world around us. I visited his studio to talk about the upcoming show, his practice, and what he’s thinking about now. The following conversation has been edited for clarity. For a fuller conversation, a recording of our interview is accessible through the art review podcast, I highly encourage you to give it a listen.

Charlie Usadi: Hi Joey! I’m so excited to talk with you today. I’ve taken a number of VISA courses with you, I just had a piece of yours in The Color Red show in List, and I’m always so drawn in by the dynamic nature of your work. I feel like your artmaking practice offers something unique in the department—you lean into abstraction in a way I think many people are scared to do.  

As hard as it can be for artists to separate their work from the rest of their lives, I like to start conversations with a bit of a get-to-know you. Could you share a little bit about yourself? What can we find you doing on campus when you’re not in the studio?

Joey Healey: I grew up in New York. I have three siblings, one older sister, a younger sister, and a younger brother. My Dad grew up in Rhode Island, my grandma lives here, so I’ve been visiting since I was a little kid. I have that dual existence a little bit. I was never interested in art until sophomore year of college. It was always political science, maybe econ, a very straight and narrow path. But then something came over me, and I just started making. I couldn’t really stop, and I was like “wow, you can pursue something that you really really enjoy”. Before it was always work, but now play has entered my dimension. Art-making feels like being a kid, and I think that feeling infuses into my process.

CU: Coming to Brown you didn’t plan on focusing on visual art? Had you been taking any studio classes prior to that sophomore year shift?

JH: No, I was fully taking political science and econ classes through those first two years. Honestly, what happened was I got pretty depressed in the fall of sophomore year. I was feeling really low, and I decided in Spring to branch out a bit, have a calmer semester, so I took a religious studies class and VISA 100. I ended up really liking it. There was something there beyond just liking it that was pulling me in, I didn’t really understand it.

There was this one day I remember where my girlfriend said, “maybe you’re an artist”. It just blew my whole mind, just to think “oh, this is available for me, this opportunity. This is something I can do.” Because up until then I was working and making decisions based on expectations of me, not what I really enjoy.

CU: I love that anecdote, your “maybe I’m an artist” moment. In so many ways you need someone else to say “wait a second, this is what you’re doing” before you can actually recognize it in yourself, and decide it’s something worth dedicating yourself to.

JH: Yeah, I will say that it wasn’t just art. Art came at a time where I really needed it but it was also the reflection of self, it was forging my own pathway, a more spiritual element entered my life at that point. All of those things I’d never been accustomed to before. Art sort of came along with that package of getting to know myself better.

CU: So how would you characterize your current practice? Has it developed really quickly because you started so relatively recently?

JH: Yeah, so I started off with VISA 100, and I took a class at the New School because I knew I needed to catch up. I had this professor there, named Glenn Goldberg, who's a practicing New York artist. He sort of picked me out in that class. Looking back, I don’t think any of the stuff I was doing was really impressive, but he saw something in me. He kept making note of my intuition, my instinct, and my excitement. Those were things I never thought were included in artistic practice. I always thought it was skill, and that skill was tied to practice and technique, all these things too complex for someone that’s not an Artist to really understand.

Glenn gave me this idea of art where you can apply any situation to how you go about art. I think I’m a hard worker, I’m really curious, and I really like joyful surprises. So I go about my practice in a way where I feel like I’m engaging in something I don’t really understand. I’m just sort of pulling in this rope, and when I get to the end of it—the painting—I’m not really sure what it’ll look like. What’s most important is that ride, the process.

CU: Where does that process typically start? When does inspiration strike for you?

JH: Inspiration strikes every day, in a bunch of little moments, and I feel like it would be impossible to always be translating them all into work. I’ll get excited looking at a tree, or the air feels really fresh, or someone has a great outfit on. Those are all moments of inspiration, of color, form, which spark a sort of inner surprise. Those moments of inspiration accumulate, and then I think they come out through my practice because I try to take a backseat role rationally and cognitively. I try to lead with my body, and something that feels deeper than that. I tend to find that making “rational” decisions about your art can be helpful, but it can also be cutting, it can be judgy. I think that the more open you can be at the beginning of a creation the better, that’s how I go about it.

CU: In terms of the mediums you use, painting is the medium which characterizes most of your work. Why is that? Is it the one you’re most familiar with, or do you think paint specifically supports the intuitive process you follow?

JH: I guess I acknowledge that I’m really early in artistic practice. I don’t know what’s next and I’d definitely like to explore more mediums. But I think for now, there’s so much to discover about paint and how it works. Different textures, types of colors. Really it’s all in an effort of learning how to see, learning how to feel, when you’re interacting with color, with paint. For now I’ve stuck with paint because there’s this feeling of open space, and I really want to run into it. There’s all this kinetic energy I feel, I want to capture.

I’ve tried sculpture, I’ve tried printmaking, but I think I keep returning to paint because I love applying color and applying it quickly. I like stacking colors on top of each other, seeing their relationships. People have studied this for their entire artistic careers, such as Josef Albers. There’s obviously a lot to learn there, and I haven’t been bored in that category whatsoever.

CU: I think it might be helpful if you could walk through the process of one of the pieces you’ve made recently.

JH: Absolutely. I guess I forgot to mention that alongside painting I draw a ton. That’s also something I picked up in sophomore year. I got a notebook and just started drawing. I always scored low in the reading comprehension parts of standardized testing in lower school. I love words and poetry, but what makes the most sense to my brain, especially emotionally, are lines and drawing. 

So take Backfire, for example. I start out with charcoal, so it starts as a big drawing. There’s all this white space to fill in, and I’m drawing these shapes, which have relationships with each other. I’m crossing them out, crossing them over, I’m rubbing them out, until it feels like I'm really getting an organism. First you add one shape, then another, and there’s a relationship there. Sort of like a family, as you build up these shapes you have to make sure that they’re cordial with each other and have relationships with each other. Like one big community. That’s the goal  when I'm drawing, and it makes the painting part a lot easier. It allows me to focus on the color much more, because I’ve already laid down shape relationships that agree with each other. The painting phase comes next, I’m applying color, usually stacking a bunch of colors over each other. It feels like a similar practice, allowing certain relationships to unfold. I can’t say that I know what color I’m going to use or what shades beforehand. 

I don’t really plan on it, but when I’m reflecting on my work I see how connected they are to what I’m going through in the moment. I’ve had multiple paintings that have been this sort of visceral red, that are tied to times of angst, anger, or just a lot of emotion in general. In the moment I’m not really thinking about that, I'm thinking about all of the relationships within the piece, and moving forward in that way.

CU: How do you know when a painting is resolved?

JH: Yeah, I get that a lot and I ask myself that a lot. I honestly don’t know if paintings are ever resolved. That sort of fits into the title of my show, “Always Arriving”, and to the ideas I have about change. All things are subject to change. All things are born, and will die. Everyone has a different perspective when they’re viewing a piece, everyone is taking something different from it. That includes me. One day I’ll feel tremendously anxious and the next day I’ll feel tremendously resolved and excited. On one day I might feel the painting is done, and the next I might want to change the entire thing. There’s this Lee Krasner quote that I like, she said “never leave me alone with one of my finished paintings”, it was something like that. I can’t agree more. I think they’re always subject to change. I guess once I’m out in the world, if people think they’re done and they like them a certain way then I can ship them off and stop working them.

CU: The only time I think I’ve seen text in your work it read “God is change”. Where did that come from?

From the God is Change series.

JH: I was reading this book over the summer, “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler. I won’t get into what it’s about, but in regard to religion in this book, there’s a short prose, I think it goes, “everything you touch you change, everything you change changes you, the only lasting truth is change, God is change.” I think when I’m going about painting, even when I’m just going about life, I’m looking for lasting truths amongst all this chaos. I don’t wanna grab onto anything that feels invalid, that could lead me astray. And it turns out that everything is changing [laughs]. And so if I can allow that change, allow it to influence my practice and my life in general, I’d be walking with life rather than against it. I’ve found that to be really helpful.

CU: Does that resistance to ever calling a work finished make it hard to title them? One of my favorite parts of your work are the titles, they’re so evocative. When do titles emerge? Do they change as well?

JH: Yeah, I mean, not to get all theoretical and annoying but we all have titles, as in we all have names. There’s been points where I really enjoy calling myself, or building a relationship with myself, by a different name. “Jo.y” has been one, and there was also a symbol I strongly associated with at a time, that O with a dot next to it. (O.) I feel like even my name always changes in relation to my environment, what I’m doing in the moment.

However, there’s a certain honor in tradition and being able to call something something. Some of these paintings ring words, words come with them, and it’ll pop up like a moment of inspiration. Other works are tied to specific things in my life. It really depends.

CU: You mentioned Icarus, which is such an evocative title.

JH: Yeah, so Icarus I was working on last semester, I continue to work on it. I wrote a paper on Anthony van Dyck’s Icarus, I saw it at the MFA Boston last semester, so I got into that story, of Icarus and Daedalus. I related to it a little bit, because when you’re a young artist there’s this notion of “you want to believe in yourself but not too much. You want to fly high but you don’t want to isolate yourself from others.” Last semester I realized I was putting a lot of myself into the validation of others. That was affecting my confidence, how I could exist in the world. To me, Icarus is a moment of reflecting on what it means to believe yourself versus constantly comparing yourself to others. Being nourished for yourself versus trying to prove yourself to other people constantly. There’s this ebb and flow between those two. I get insecure about being an artist and I feel empowered being an artist. Both can exist at the same time.

Icarus. 

This piece captures all of that: there’s wings, motions flying high, bird-like figures, and these same bird-like figures have their wings clipped. I think that both can exist at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m flapping my wings, sometimes I feel like I’m falling, and sometimes both. I’ve learned lately to include both, rather than making a decision on what is the “right” answer.

CU: What I really appreciate about your work is that it is so personal, tied to your feelings at a given time, but it also speaks to universally experienced emotions. The fact that they are abstract allows anyone to access them in that way. If it was a self-portrait as you, there’s more of a barrier to others approaching the work. Is that conscious?

JH: That’s definitely conscious. I think that I fell upon abstraction. I could get into figurative work, and I have, but the process doesn’t feel right, it feels different, like work. Not to say there aren’t moments in my paintings that feel like work, but there’s something about the open-endedness and constant opportunity of abstract painting that seems to consistently provide a sense of excitement and joy, and a deeper look into myself. There are many abstract pieces that seem impersonal. But at the end of the day, I think all art is sort of personal, even when it’s trying not to be. 

I also always come back to the idea that it’s really tender, what we’re doing as artists. We’re all just painting pictures, showing them to the world, hoping people like them. My way of doing that is painting abstract pictures––I can have my own meaning on any given day, and so can anybody else.

Elizabeth Murray is one of my big inspirations, and she was talking about what it’s like to be a painter, and to experience a painting. She said that when you enter the practice of painting, there’s a certain loss of self where you don’t really exist anymore, you’re just in this realm with the painting. I think that if anyone looking at my paintings can experience that, for even a second or two, that's the goal. Just to experience that sense of surprise, of wonder, loss of self. I think abstraction can be a portal for that inner sensation.

CU: So when you’re in an art museum is it abstract works that draw you in the most?

JH: Absolutely. The first times I saw de Koonings, space opened up in my chest. Space for inspiration, for wonder, just complete awe. When I visit museums, when I see paintings like the de Koonings, the Pollocks, the Krasners, the O’keeffe’s something within me heals. Art is a really subtle way of healing. A lot of people regard art as primarily aesthetic, but I think it’s so much greater than that. I think art has the propensity to do great healing in the world. It has for me, so I guess I’m partial to it, but that’s a part of the goal, for sure. Healing.

CU: So when you’re creating work, do you envision the relationship that viewers are going to have with it?

JH: I mean when I’m working I’m not really envisioning what the viewer might think, or what they might take away. I think because of the complexity and the multiplicity in terms of meaning and what people take away from pieces. I think people can feel when there’s a certain flow, a melody, or harmony. That’s what I go for, that’s also what feels the best when I’m working, so it works out pretty well. I can’t say aesthetically I’m thinking “will this work for a certain group of people”, that’s so subjective. I think abstraction has a certain capacity to be timeless, and timeless pieces don’t really heed to whatever’s going on at the time, they transcend all that. But they’re also being affected by what's going on at the time, and have the capacity to strike a cultural chord. There's this interplay between the ability for a piece to be timeless and to speak to the moment in which it's been created. That feels important.

CU: I would love to talk about your upcoming show. So much of your work visually speaks clearly to each other, you’ve been developing an identifiable visual language, but they all still feel so unique. As you’ve been resting works leading up to the show, do you think about them as a group, or as individuals?

JH: Both (laughs) both. Like a friend group, almost, where you have all of your individual relationships within it. Especially for Backfire, I can only see it in the fullest when it’s just me and the Backfire alone. You take different things from pieces individually than you do when they’re in a group. That being said, I’m really excited to have them all be in the same room, staring at each other. It feels like there’s a language at play, and I’m excited to see the whole alphabet, how they sort of map out next to each other in the same room. I’m interested to see how that will affect the viewing experience as well.

CU: Do you think that seeing them all in the context of each other will change the way you see them individually? Do you think you might put one up next to another and immediately think “oh my gosh, I have to change this”?

JH: Totally. I think back to the color theory, Josef Albers thing I mentioned earlier. Putting a painting next to another one will change the way you literally see the color, because of the contrast. Putting them next to each other will definitely yield unexpected results.

CU: What perspective would you like viewers to approach the show from? Is there any way they can be primed or do you want them coming as they are?

JH: I want people to come as they are, because however you’re feeling in any given moment is how you’re feeling, that can’t be changed. At the same time there’s a capacity for change through openness. I do this all the time, whenever walking into any art show, there’s a desire to label—the type of painting, the type of person—that can take away from the actual experience and sensation of the painting. I’d request that viewers come in without really considering me, who I am, or even the history of abstraction. I hope viewers just take in the paintings as they are, which is obviously really difficult. Then afterwards comparisons, factoring in the artist and all that, can come. I think in order to get the peak viewing experience you really have to be singular alongside and with the paintings.

CU: Does wanting the viewer’s experience to be unclouded or influenced make it hard to write text to accompany the show?

JH: It does, I’ve been thinking about it for months and I haven't done it yet. I know I want it to be informal, because there’s nothing formal that can really capture what I'm trying to say. I think I'm gonna want to change it every day [laughs]. I think writing something for people who don’t know me, or aren’t familiar with abstraction, is really a nice way to give them a better sense of what’s going on, so I think I will write something, but it might be the day before the show [laughs].

CU: I think so often shows are thought of as the ultimate goal, the endpoint, but recently someone described how they’re powerful moments to assess your work at a given time, to put a body of work in one space, to assess it, and to then say “what’s next”.

JH: Absolutely, I’ve been thinking about how it’s refreshing, that idea, to just be able to come to this major ebb, let it happen, and then enter into a flow. Wherever that takes me, I’ll go. I’m so excited because this tension’s been building up for so long. It’s my first show. It feels like the beginning of being an artist, exploring these really infantile ideas, forms, abstractions, and then I’m free to do whatever, to take art wherever I want to take it. It’s really exciting.

CU: Have you thought about what might be coming next?

JH: I have. I’ve been consolidating wood for awhile. One of the pieces that’s gonna hang in my show, I think it’s gonna be called JO.Y, which was one of the nicknames I gave myself. The piece is sort of sculptural, sort of painterly. It was made just piecing wood together, almost in a color composition, then gluing them together, this space started to emerge. It was fun, random. I think I want to follow that direction, I think that de Kooning’s painting, for instance, had a sculptural nature. Straddling those boundaries between sculpture and painting. I want to find my place in that spectrum too. Getting into sculptural mediums, but not relinquishing the importance of color could be cool.

JO.Y (working title).

CU: I love that you mention de Kooning. Backfire reminds me of this piece of his, Excavation.

JH: Yep—it’s funny because I gave that piece a good look before Backfire. I stared at it for a long time, like “how the fuck did he do this?”. 

CU: It’s painted but it’s so sculptural.

JH: There’s so much going on but it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s like a peaceful riot. He’s striking a yin-yang balance in that painting, that’s all I’ll ever try to do. That painting blows my mind.

CU: I’m excited to see what you do when you dive more into sculpture, because your work already speaks so sculpturally. I love how expressive this piece is. Even though so much of your work is abstract, when images do emerge so often they’re faces, which hold so much emotional weight. 

The only way Out is Through, the only way Red is Blue (working title).

JH: Yeah. This piece, I’ve been working on what the title might be. So far what I’ve gotten is The only way Out is Through, the only way Red is Blue. That title references what I feel is a process of accepting your inner polar landscape, allowing that “both/and”. You can be experiencing Red—anger, frustration, judgment—and at the same time experience Blue—fear and shame, guilt—not only can you experience them at the same time, I think that they directly work off of each other in a sort of feedback loop. This painting felt like a culmination of a long period dealing with these voices, feeling like I couldn’t separate myself from the fear, or the guilt, the frustration, or the judgment of myself that I was experiencing. The only way out of those emotions is through them, to really allow myself to experience them. That’s what this painting was about. The faces didn’t emerge on purpose but I had a sense that they would. Not only was I experiencing this internally, but I was projecting it onto others. But far greater than that, I also felt these emotions being constantly mimicked in the world around me. I mean the nature of politics in America is so polarized, it seems like when you go so far on one end of the spectrum you land on the other side, in this circular fashion. 

I guess I wanted to make a painting about how your inner world is so intrinsically connected to the outer, and how when you confront your inner world you’re taking a step in the direction of openness, not only for yourself, but for everyone around you. 

What I like most about this painting is that before using the red and blue it was black and white, and there was a moment where I just gave up. I think it’s important for everyone just to give up, you don’t always have to hold yourself to such a standard. So I threw the painting on the ground, emptied out a lot of white paint onto it, and started streaking the paint from the center outwards to the edges. It became one big star. I didn’t know what I was doing with it, I kind of just kept working on it. The next day I was ready to move forward again. The only way out is through, and behind the red and the blue is this pure white light, that I think that I didn’t know existed in the first 20 years of my life. I always felt subject to the polarities of life, being thrown in different directions, never feeling the sense that two could come together into one singular light. That light is probably the most important thing I’ve found, it’s never gonna go anywhere. It influences how I exist in the world and the type of art I create. The goal from here on is just to shine, and to create space so others can shine, too.

CU: That is so beautiful. You mentioned that this work was about encountering your inner world. I think it speaks to the fact that in your practice which is largely abstract, when something representational does emerge it is a face. Your work, in a way, is all self portraiture, but at the same time it’s portraiture of everyone else as well.

Joey and Icarus.

JH: Yeah I think “self portraiture” is my struggle, There’s the self I think I am, as in my ego. When I define myself as one singular person I’m the most isolated person in the world. But when I broaden my horizons and open up, that “one self” is everything, it’s god, it’s change, self is change. In that way, self portraiture is portraiture of anything, of everything, of change, of marking change in time. It’s weird to think that one little person can be tapping on something so humongous, but I think that every single person can do that and does it in their own way. It’s nice to know that life has more meaning, you know?

CU: I think that is a beautiful way to conclude this conversation. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m so so excited to see your show. On behalf of the Brown Art Review, I want to thank you for giving such rich insight into your work!

JH: Thank you.

For readers interested in seeing Joey’s work, his upcoming solo show “Always Arriving” will be on view in List from February 23-29. 

(All pictures courtesy of Charlie Usadi & Joey Healey)

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