Arts / Galleries

Much More Than Ricky Martin’s Husband — Jwan Yosef is a True Heartthrob Artist: Whether He’s Focusing on Rock Hudson, Politics or “Unholy” Materials, This Creative Difference Maker is the Complete Package

BY // 09.25.18

In addition to the multitude of world-renowned art museums in our region, we are fortunate to have the Goss-Michael Foundation — known for presenting work from household-name contemporary artists, but also those on the radar as rising stars.

Jwan Yosef is not-yet a household name, but perhaps to some he is — given he is the husband of Ricky Martin. Yes, that Ricky Martin: former Menudo boy-bander-cum-actor-cum-author.

I am actually a huge Martin fan and was impressed by his thespian talents in the recent The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story for which he garnered glowing reviews. More on all of that in a moment.

First off, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Yosef and learn about his work for his upcoming exhibition, “Come September,” at the Goss-Michael Foundation.

Given my personal background working at museums, I know a thing or two about the institutional art world. That rarefied eco-system is filled with a great deal of snobbery when it comes to what is “acceptable” pedigree.

Yosef has that given his MFA from the hallowed Central Saint Martins, London in 2011, and a list of exhibitions to his credit before even meeting his pop star husband. His fame and credibility are not just warranted via his famous beau.

Born in Syria, his Kurdish/Armenian family moved to Sweden when Yosef was only two. He doesn’t remember much from before they immigrated to Stockholm, but does have memories when his family would return to Syria to visit relatives. He was fortunate to have incredibly open-minded and liberal parents who nurtured his early artistic yearnings.

Yosef remembers the earliest moments when he could grasp things in his hands: he often reached for pencils or pens, with which to draw and sketch.

Come September

Before chatting with the charming, soft-spoken artist, I perused the sampling of images from the exhibition. The title “Come September” threw me for a loop and my mind immediately went to the Green Day song. I started thinking of September as the beginning of fall and end of summer — and with that the wonderful change in seasons and temperatures, from frivolity to hearths ablaze, and filled with moments of introspection. That last word instantly came to mind when viewing Yosef’s work.

For the upcoming Goss-Michael Foundation exhibition, Yosef has wide-ranging inspiration.

“I’ve chosen to focus on three separate figures,” he says, “the legendary actor Rock Hudson, the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and my own father, Ahmad Yosef. “Throughout my upbringing, each has brought a deeper understanding of my own personal heritage and search for identity.”

Yosef feels fortunate to have four separate solo exhibitions opening this fall. Given that similar themes — through subject matter and choice of materials — flow through all of them, he wanted to add another layer to tie the suite together. Yosef gave each exhibition a title appropriated from movies featuring Rock Hudson.

“I wanted to weave these separate shows with a common thread and chose to do so by almost naively picking out movie titles that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with either the theme of the shows or the work in general,” says Yosef. “I needed a form of playfulness, really.

“Starting with “Come September,” then followed by my show, “Gathering Of Eagles” at Praz-Delavallade in LA. My third show, “Send Me No Flowers,” will be at Guerrero Projects in Houston and my final show, “Strange Bedfellows,” will be at Stene Projects in Stockholm in December.”

I started Googling images of Rock Hudson, while I had Yosef’s Instagram feed open. I was instantly aware of the similarities between the two men — heroically tall, a thick mane of hair upswept a la Mad Men, chiseled jaws and phenomenal physiques. Yosef’s handsome face, almost mid-century in style, harkens back to publicity shots of early-era Rock Hudson.

Is this a sly reference to identity, a concept he frequently mines as subject matter?

Materials play a leading role in Yosef’s artistic thought process. “I’ve always focused on material, or at least my relationship to art material and somehow what it does to me,” he says. “It becomes this form of multi-layered portraiture, where the object painted isn’t necessarily in focus but rather the material itself.

“I enjoy working on several layers of the form of painting rather than simply painting portraiture.”

Yosef categorizes materials as “holy” and “unholy,” meaning “traditional” and “non-traditional,” through his choice of matte canvas and glossy acrylic. The artist creates a sexual tension with the alluring and slightly sexualized choice of his materials.

The “wetness” to his paint, the high-gloss surfaces that he paints on seem to beg the viewer to touch the work, says Yosef. (This, he utters in a slightly comical, flasher in a Burberry trench-coat way.)

So many contemporary artists seem to favor sprawling, room encompassing pieces whereas the smaller scale that Yosef works in beckons the viewer to come in so close to an experience, which might seem intimately private.

I was interested in hearing, given Yosef’s global upbringing and the fact that he and Martin have homes in a few cities, where they spend the most time.

“My base and focus is more LA than London,” he says. Many artists who I have spoken to have shared that their work, given the current political climate in the U.S., has been influenced by our current highly charged environment. When posed with that, Yosef responded: “Politics, in general, will undoubtedly affect my work, whether it’s here in the U.S. or the UK or Europe for that matter.

“I find myself too engulfed in the moment to know properly how it affects my work. Maybe in the near future, however, I don’t tend to follow politics too much — that kind of theatre play is not really something that gets my attention.”

Family Artists

As he and Martin’s two children have grown older, Yosef’s work sometimes becomes a family affair. His studio is built adjacent to their home and he often brings them in to assist in his process. We discussed that this must be an incredible teaching tool to discuss weighty subject matter, such as the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad and gay history through fallen icons like Rock Hudson, who died from an AIDS-related illness.

So back to the snobbery of the institutionalized art world and its snobbery regarding popular culture. What are Yosef’s thoughts on the pros and cons of being married to such a well-known prey of hordes of paparazzi?

As Ricky Martin is also an artist, Yosef shared that they support each other through their various projects and creative struggles. Yosef doesn’t discount the access he has received due to the couple’s international network of friends and colleagues. I was reminded of another couple that is in similar circumstances, the incredible artist, Sam Taylor-Wood and actor, Aaron Johnson. After marrying, they decided to change both of their last names to Taylor-Johnson and both continued to have flourishing careers.

The mythologized artist is supposed to be starving. Correct? Who’s to say you can’t be talented, good looking, and still continue to evolve artistically as you find more and more fame.

I’m going to circle back around to the concept of matinee idols, pop stars, and beauty in general. Rock Hudson falls squarely in the first category, Ricky Martin in the pop star slot, and I would say that Yosef’s incredibly good looks place him in the realm of heartthrob.

For those aforementioned art world snobs, this is a true oxymoron: heartthrob artist. Akin to someone suggesting a heartthrob Nobel Prize laureate. But why not?

Social media has become an accepted tool for self-promotion. Yosef’s Instagram feeds his large following (close to 500,000) equal parts his personal artwork, things he finds inspiring, and sometimes his wonderful physique. Most of us would have more shots of ourselves in bathing suits at the beach if we were as genetically fortunate.

Some of Yosef’s most recent Instagram posts were in celebration of his husband’s Emmy nomination for The Assassination of Gianni Versace (Martin’s first nomination; I’m so sad he didn’t win). In their dapper Tom Ford tuxedos, they won my vote for the best looking couple of the evening. Why not celebrate via social media.

Why have I been so conflicted writing this piece? Am I struggling with the millennial mindset that all is free to share through social media: thoughts, art, our bodies? Juxtaposed with the high-minded art world that disparages anything but the purity of art — without any distractions.

Is it that I have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as the complete package? Maybe there is and he goes by the name Jwan Yosef. I’ll leave it to you to make your own decision when you see his show at Goss-Michael Foundation.

I’ve made mine — he is the complete package.

“Come September” a solo show from Jwan Yosef is on view September 27 through November 16, 2018. Goss-Michael Foundation is open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 am to 4 pm. 1305 Wycliff Avenue, Ste. 120, Dallas, 214.696-0555

“Send Me No Flowers” a solo show from Jwan Yosef is on view November 16, 2018 through January 4, 2019. Guerrero Projects is open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. 4411 Montrose Blvd., Suite 3, Houston, 713-522-0686

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