Happiness is often cited as the primary means for human decision-making. In fact, it’s the elusive characteristic and lens that the majority of the public claims to desire and work for in their professional and personal pursuits. Whether happiness is understood through beauty, finances, sex, or intelligence, artist Jonathan Paul aka Desire Obtain Cherish is fascinated with this pursuit and the human decisions involved in such a journey.
DOC explains: “I believe people don't really want to be happy — I should say people don't want to be unconditionally happy. We're ready to be happy provided we have this and that and the other thing. But this is really to say to our friend, or to our idea of success, or to our dreams, ‘You are my happiness. If I don’t get you, I refuse to be happy.’”
The moniker Desire Obtain Cherish represents the three stages of consumerism and has served as an unofficial manifesto for the artist: “I was out wheat pasting on Melrose Boulevard one night and I looked up to this huge well-lit billboard. The streets were dark, it was about 3 a.m. and not another soul around. I don't really remember what it was selling, but it clearly hit me at that moment. The message was screaming down from the sky, ‘You should want this, you should buy this — you're gonna love this. Desire. Obtain. Cherish.’”
A former design professional and theory graduate, he’s leveraged this background to establish himself as an artist who turns the table on our understanding of visual culture. Expecting happiness around every corner, these plans and desires, while well intentioned, often lead to frustration and discontent.
DOC entered the art scene in Los Angeles utilizing the platform of street art, yet he appears to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While his guerrilla-style art installations are a mantra and symbol of success in street art, these highly visible and sometimes dangerous stunts appear to be a means to an end. In fact, the artist is self-deprecating when describing his work, often undercutting the very accomplishments that have brought him attention.
“I like to think of myself as a conceptual artist. The streets were one avenue to pursue ideas that were relatively easy. In the early days, it was the context of the street corners or walls or billboards that initiated my ideas, yet the craft was naturally crude and quick since the work had an expiration date on it as soon as it went up. As I transitioned to galleries, my ideas began to drive the work and dictate the materials to a higher level of craft. That has created tremendous room for new narratives and styles.”
Comparing the time-honored genre of still life with DOC’s representations of happiness highlights this humor and deprecation. Studying inanimate objects like flowers, food, and assorted treasures has rich implications. The specific arrangement of these items allows the artist to use symbolism, religious themes, and different levels of abstraction to bring attention to ideas outside the actual still life itself. Essentially a lens to the world, these depictions are used to emphasize a wide variety of topics that may include the afterlife through food items, displays of wealth with a combination of rare objects, or even the pursuit of knowledge by means of books and instruments.
DOC references the history of still life with pieces like “Flora and Fauna” and “PharmaSee,” which are a departure for the object-oriented artist known for his sculptures of lollipops, designer drugs, and fun appropriations of pop culture. Beginning with flowers, a staple in still life paintings, he then inserts pills, the contours of archetypical anime figures, and globs of paint that dwarf the proportions of the objects they obscure.
The multi-panel piece entitled “Servant to Infinite Distraction” pits this anime landscape against rich and expressionistic brush strokes. A battle of signifiers, the luminous and purposefully abstract marks dominate earthly desires much like a network censor. Ironically, the luxurious surface of the paint is a more attractive element than the two-dimensional figures it obscures, creating an odd tension of elements. DOC sees this as “An endless supply of choices that creates endless distractions. The distraction itself became my focus rather than the choices. The real freedom wasn't in making choices. The real freedom was in accepting that the choices made, truly didn't matter.” A war between surface level aspirations and carnal craving, the configuration of the human-sized panels frame the multi-panel piece, as though it is something to worship.
DOC utilizes this cacophony of themes to elevate the heightened emotions of the viewer that impair good judgment. Essentially, a collection of external characteristics, we know they collectively and individually rarely bring happiness, especially when we consider the long-term impact, but that does not stop the piece from being a mirror for these decisions.
The idea of perfection seems realistic in this world but it is an egotistic worldview that’s required to purport such an image. The painting “Any Significance Has Been Lost,” references the conundrum of being important and desirable in a culture that does not value the other. A whirlwind of pills is caught up in a twister of colorful paint gestures against a monotone background. Confusion reigns supreme in this composition, as the direction is null and only swirls around in circular motion, a path that leads right back to the beginning.
A massive piece, “The Feast of 1,000 Likes,” is made-up of over 12,000 pills that collectively feature a harmony of colors and shapes which burst toward the viewer. The flowers, shards of vases, bits of paint, and atmospheric color blast outward like confetti as they are suspended in time. Composed with all the elements of an early Dutch still life painting, the sum of these parts are catastrophically demoralized through an excessive explosion. The foundation of pills that make up the composition magnify our obsessive ostentatiousness and need to flaunt success to an audience that is only paying attention to themselves. It also hints at the emptiness of such activities: Chasing fleeting desires and short attention spans is hardly a good choice, this simple distraction is an attractive mirage that forever leaves one’s cup unfulfilled.
While life is full of distractions that steer us away and sometimes in the opposite direction of happiness, DOC explains that “We are on a never-ending quest to attain happiness, yet every lesson we’ve learned since birth has epically distracted us to a cathartic apathy.”
Happiness is an internal condition, something between the ears and it requires the person to interpret and analyze their circumstances. In actuality things like humor, self-esteem, and the ability to provide love, joy, time, and finances to others can be much more helpful in attaining this elusive quality. Much like a cultural critic with the best of intentions, DOC brazenly analyzes empty approaches and allows the viewer to be part of a conversation to rethink this important life issue.