Abandoned 78329440, 2022 Acrylic on canvas 152.4 x 152.4 cm Photo: Jeanette May
Miscellaneous Design 2014698, 2022 Acrylic on canvas 152.4 x 152.4 cm Photo: Jeanette May
Fanciful Flower 1257011, 2022 Acrylic on canvas 152.4 x 152.4 cm Photo: Jeanette May

Jason File

with Wells Fray-Smith

‘Performance and video can be ways to convey something to an art audience, but they can also be pieces of evidence in a trial or in a courtroom. I explore where they converge and diverge in these different settings. Looking at one which is geared towards an objective truth and one that is geared towards subjectivity sums up both my legal career and my art career.’

Listen to the full interview here:

My name is Jason File and I am an artist, as well as a practising lawyer. My art practice often investigates the overlaps between art and law, both as a medium, as well as a concept. I think I’m really interested in areas where both disciplines share mediums. Performance and video can be ways to convey something to an art audience, but they can also be pieces of evidence in a trial or in a courtroom. Photography, drawing, even just the use of words, all of those things I find very interesting. I explore where they converge and diverge in these different settings. One which is geared towards an objective truth and one that is geared towards subjectivity and a specific perspective. That’s the oscillation between those two poles, it sums up both my legal career and my art career.

This pole between the objective and the subjective comes into play in the work that you’ll be showing in The London Open. How did these pieces gestate and come to exist?

I am showing three paintings of toilet paper trademarks, which emerged from the pandemic in various ways. Not only did I suffer from a shortage of toilet paper at times, but also, coincidentally, was looking at trademark patterns for the embossed patterns that you might find on toilet paper at work. You would be surprised to hear that companies do care very much about these forms of intellectual property, even on something as simple and day-to-day as a piece of toilet paper.

When I was looking at these trademark applications and filings, I was struck by how these graphic designs looked so much like paintings. It was just something that I could not pass up. There’s this dichotomy between the lowest of the low textile that we can make, in the form of toilet paper, and this rarefied textile-type artwork that we make with paintings on canvas. And so, I started making large paintings based on these designs that you find in these trademark filings.

One of the things you shared with us is that the trademark protection only extends to the goods’ declared use. Can you tell me about that?

That’s right. One of the principles of trademark is the potential or likelihood for confusion. The reason that it exists is to allow brands to carve out a specific identity in a particular space. But it doesn’t extend to every possible use. It’s really about what the purpose of the mark is and how is it used in the world. It would be an issue for companies if other companies decided to try to use or copy the same designs for the same article. But if you make a painting that is based on this design, it wouldn’t really trigger trademark protection, unless it could be confused as something else that you could wipe your bum with.

You’ve touched upon the aesthetic and the painterly quality itself of the design, but also the humour that’s in it. We’re dealing with something that is the law, that feels so absolute and quite deadpan. But it’s also very funny. Your work in the past has been serious, in part because you’re dealing with the subject matter of real life in your job. You’ve worked as a war crimes prosecutor and have dealt with very heavy issues. I wonder how this shift to humour plays in your mind and if that was an important thing for you over the last two years, especially when things felt heavy on a collective level?

Yes, it did feel like the world was collectively experiencing this event almost simultaneously, with the pandemic and the lockdown and all of the logistical complications that went with it and the health implications for so many people and so many families. It did feel like it was so wide-ranging. There is a natural reaction to turn to humour sometimes, to deal with the weight of some of these things. It’s especially an element of absurdity as well. To me that also comes up quite often when I look at the art world or the celebration of rare, precious, expensive objects in the art world. When that is compared with worldwide suffering, for example, there is an element of the absurd that emerges from that. Having an opportunity to tease out that difference and poke fun (at the art world) in one way or another. For me, it felt like the right response. It was actually really refreshing for me to make work that was more playful in that respect.

Works in the exhibition:
Abandoned 78329440, 2022
Acrylic on canvas
152.4 x 152.4 cm

Fanciful Flower 1257011, 2022
Acrylic on canvas
152.4 x 152.4 cm

Miscellaneous Design 2014698, 2022
Acrylic on canvas
152.4 x 152.4 cm

Jason File (b. 1976, Marquette, MI, USA)
2013 BA Fine Art, Royal Academy of Art (KABK), The Hague
2013 BA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art, University of the Arts, London
2004 Doctor of Law, Yale Law School, New Haven
2000 MPhil International Relations, University of Oxford 1998 BA Humanities and EP&E, Yale University, New Haven

Selected exhibitions: From a Common Past, B#Side Gallery, Treviso (2021); Freedom is an Act, Elizabeth Foundation For The Arts, New York (2020); Sick Monday, The Horse Hospital, London (2019); Reconciliations 2, Historical Museum of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sarajevo (2018); Lockers v2, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2017); Onderstussen, Stroom, The Hague (duo) (2016); An Ornament and a Safeguard, The Ryder, London (duo) (2015); A Crushed Image, Stroom, The Hague (solo) (2015); Instructions for a Theatrical Audience, Ovalhouse, London (solo) (2014)

What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?

This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.

Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.

The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.

The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.

The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.

Gallery 1, Downstairs

The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko‘s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge‘s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.

Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara‘s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.

Gallery 9, Upstairs

This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free  2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.

Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner 2049, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?

Gallery 8, Upstairs

The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.

Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.

On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja‘s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.

The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.

Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard‘s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.

See the full list of works here.

An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.

Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.