The steep walls of the pyramid

Denver artist Jonathan Saiz asks, ‘What is utopia?’

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A close up of Jonathan Saiz' installation #WhatisUtopia, showing at Denver Art Museum through Nov. 17, 2019.
Photo by Wes Magyar

Success, acclaim and wealth can be a dream come true for many artists. But when Jonathan Saiz’s artistic career began to take off, he quickly became disenchanted with the high-art world. 

Saiz has been a full-time painter for more than 15 years. His work is shown in galleries all over the world, and he’s garnered sizable commissions. But a few years ago, during a stint in Paris, Saiz started to realize he was surrounded by bored, wealthy people collecting art as trinkets of status. Worse still, Saiz realized he was starting to lose his voice and create work that catered to this audience. Having a lower-to-middle-class upbringing in suburban Thornton, Saiz realized he was far from his roots. 

“Not only are the wealthy and the culturally privileged consuming all this art, they’re reprogramming artists to feed them more of what they think they need instead of artists taking spiritual control of their practice and saying, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to be the weird one. I’m supposed to be the innovator. I’m supposed to have a voice of what it means to be human,’” Saiz says, asking himself, “Why am I acting like another hedge fund investor? Why am I [participating in] this corrosive cycle?” 

He realized that the more expensive and international his work became, the less the average person could see it or connect with it. Saiz likens the idea to a pyramid.

“The top of the pyramid is the monied, the elite, the educated, when it comes to art, and then the rest of the base of the pyramid is everyone else,” he says. “And that pyramid is getting steeper and steeper as things get more expensive and more competitive, and it just squeezes everyone away from the reality that art is for them. It’s made for them; it’s made to inspire them.” 

Rage and frustration began to build in Saiz. He wanted to keep creating, but he wanted to find a new approach, far from what he calls the “meat market” for collectors. After another night disheartened by the system, Saiz went to his studio and thought about change. 

“If I don’t like how the world looks right now, well, what do I even want the world to look like?” Saiz asked himself. “If I don’t like how art is being shown or why art is being shown, how would I want art to be shown?”

The answer to Saiz’s question is now on display at the Denver Museum of Art through Nov. 17. Saiz’s installation “#WhatIsUtopia” is a large-scale column comprised of 10,000 miniature paintings all contributing to his view of an idyllic society. The painting topics are wide and varied from nature to animals to portraits to expressionistic bursts. Saiz drew from various cultures and trends, like eco futurism and solarpunk, which strives to counteract dystopian imagery with the possibility of utopia. Saiz also used a diversity of materials including valuables like gemstones, pearls and even the gold engagement ring Saiz gave his husband. 

Courtesy of Denver Art Museum Eyes On: Jonathan Saiz – #WhatisUtopia; May 14,2019 – November 17,2019 (Courtesy of Denver Art Museum)

In an effort to achieve his vision for a new world, one that’s less concerned with the monetization of contemporary art, at the end of the exhibit’s run, Saiz will distribute the 10,000 pieces for free. He sees a spirit of revolution in “#WhatisUtopia.” 

“Fuck the system. Fuck the man. I don’t want some rich guy to come in and see this beautiful piece in the museum and say, ‘I want to own that. I want that to be an expression of my ego. I want to put that in my insurance vault,” Saiz says. “So by making it free and by making it dissipate at the end of the exhibition, it allows the piece to exist as a concept and idea. And it doesn’t feed the system of rich people buying more ego jewelry.” 

Purpose is a driving force for Saiz. He sees people tethered to rules and ways of living that don’t serve a greater purpose. He sees the prioritization of self-preservation, degradation of the environment and loss of human rights both here in America and all over the world as proof that the old ways of being aren’t working. We can start moving toward a better world if we question the motivations behind our actions. 

“A utopia is a state of being that’s in harmony with nature, and also in harmony with a real liberated way of living and a liberated reason behind the things you choose to do,” he says. “If you choose to be a songwriter or a singer, it’s not because you want to have a more secure life with people loving you. It’s so that you can make and share something beautiful, whether in a small way or a big way. Utopia is about reevaluating why we’re doing everything that we’re doing and finding more balance.” 

Saiz sees so much energy put into maintaining the status quo, but he thinks that same energy would be better spent creating a different system, which will in turn be a more rewarding way to spend time. 

“Our engines shut down when we overwork for the wrong reasons. I’m exhausted sitting at a desk doing a job I hate, and so I need to zone out and escape and drink a beer and watch movies,” he says. “Or I can be exhausted to the bone but I’m doing something I really believe in, and then [I find] I have all these spiritual reservoirs of energy.”

It was these reserves that Saiz had to tap into to create #WhatisUtopia. Saiz had only five months, about 150 days, to make 10,000 miniature paintings — roughly 66 a day. He had no support staff, so it was him working 12–14-hour days, seven days a week. He says it was an almost inhuman task, but that he wanted it to be a grandiose feat to show how much people are capable of and how utopia is possible to create with the right manpower. 

Photo by Wes Magyar

“If one man, one human, can put their focus, and their talent and their energy and their magic toward this intention, what would have been possible if it was 10 humans? Let alone a million humans,” he says. 

Another element of the exhibit is social engagement. A social media feed displayed on the wall asks museumgoers what utopia looks like to them using the hashtag prompts: #WhatisUtopia and #JonathanSaizatDAM. While Saiz is clear that his piece is his vision of utopia, he believes that for a utopian society to be sustainable, there must be multiple viewpoints. Saiz sees the campaign as a way to crowdsource the multifaceted concept of a modern-day utopia.

“I want to give people the opportunity to contribute their voice. I have to admit far and wide I don’t have the answers,” he says. “I’m not an economist or an architect or an anthropologist.

“I need people who are scientists and other artists to contribute their versions of what utopia is so maybe there’s a database of ideas or values.” 

And by giving it all away, people can take home utopia, and a piece of art for themselves. For Saiz, giving away the art is a way to activate people who normally walk into an art museum but never have the experience of owning something on the wall. 

“Contemporary art isn’t reserved for the rich and powerful. It should be for the society the art is in,” he says. 

One thousand of the pieces will go to museum staff and volunteers, including the janitorial staff and those who work at Starbucks within the museum. Giveaways will also take place in November and December at the Denver Art Museum, the Children’s Museum, Saiz’s gallery, K Contemporary, and more. 

Saiz sees the gesture as an attempt to activate the bottom part of the pyramid. As the elite tip of the pyramid becomes smaller, the base of the pyramid suffers and things like innovation and passion get sacrificed. 

“At the core of it, what gets lost is art. … What gets lost is art’s ability to actually mean something,” Saiz says. “It looks good and it feels good and it’s worth something, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It doesn’t inspire change or cultural evolution. I think the literal soul of art gets lost as we continue to feed that cycle.”

#WhatisUtopia emerged from dissatisfaction and an urge to buck the modern-day systemic structures. Saiz wants to remind the world it’s possible to create a better future.

“It comes from this deep frustrated, yet optimistic desire to actually do something that means something,” he says. “It’s like an exuberant last gasp. It’s the most I have right now and I’m going to keep trying to do it. It’s an all or nothing approach that I hope adds up to something in some way.”    

ON THE BILL: Eyes on Jonathan Saiz. Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway, Denver, denverartmuseum.org. On view through Nov. 17.