Jesse Morsberger on His Paintings, Gaming, Life & More

by Rubén Palma
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Jesse Morsberger, (B.1994 Brooklyn, NY), is an American artist who explores the intersection of digital and physical worlds in his paintings. Having graduated with a BFA in Drawing and Painting from SUNY Purchase in 2016, recent solo exhibitions include: “Rare Candy”, Août Gallery (Beirut) and “Limit Break”, Taymour Grahne Projects (London). He has exhibited his work internationally, including group exhibitions at Andrea Festa Fine Art (Rome), Sow & Tailor (LA),  Taymour Grahne Projects (London) Nicodim Gallery (NY), and Kravets Wehby Gallery (NY).  Morsberger has attended artist residencies at Memeraki (2023) and Vermont Studio Center (2020).

Hi Jesse, thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in Los Angeles?

Thanks for reaching out!  I’ve been keeping up with your interviews for a while now, so it’s exciting to have the opportunity to contribute.  I’ve found that consistency in routine is really important for my creative output, so I tend to keep a pretty strict schedule.  I wake up around 7, hit the gym and try to be in the studio by 9.  I’ll paint for 4 hours, take a break for lunch and keep working until 5 or so.  If I do the same thing every day, there’s less randomness popping up that could potentially divert my attention from the painting.  I try to lose myself completely in the painting session and minimize distractions.  If it goes really well, I’ll achieve a flow state and the work just happens. 

What kind of kid were you growing up. What did you enjoy doing and how did you spend your time?

I think I was a pretty quiet and introverted kid.  I spent a lot of time reading epic fantasy novels and playing video games when allowed.  I used to go to the library and pick out whatever had the most badass cover- usually something with a massive sword on it.  I remember being particularly obsessed with “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” by Stephen R. Donaldson.  It’s about a divorced man with leprosy who gets transported to another world and finds that the metal his wedding band is made of gives him incredible powers. 

Ok, so I know that you weren’t allowed to watch tv, during the week, so you spent your time drawing comics instead.. But when did you start to paint? And when did you start taking it seriously?

My dad was really strict about television and computer use- he’d turn off the internet at around 6pm each night.  He was a huge Jack Kirby fan and we used to draw comics together at the kitchen table, making up our own characters and stories.  I didn’t start oil painting until college really, although I always knew it was what I wanted to do. My grandfather was a painter and so it always seemed like a viable path in life. I was lucky to have found it early.  I was able to turn painting into a full time practice over the Covid-19 lockdowns.  Prior to that I was working part time at galleries and as an E-Sports referee.

How long has it taken you to develop your current style, with thick expressive oil paint. And can you also talk about your approach to color?

I haven’t consciously tried to develop any kind of style- they’ve just kind of ended up this way.  I enjoy seeing human touch persisting in the final image.  When I’m looking at paintings, I’ve always resonated more with painterly expressive works, so I think it’s natural that my own paintings have ended up that way. I think that trying to develop a unique style is kind of a trap- you paint the way you paint. Time is better spent thinking about how you can bring a sense of authenticity and vulnerability to the work. My approach to color is to use it! I mix my colors intuitively as I’m working on a painting, I don’t plan it out ahead of time. I try not to get too attached to anything until the painting is done because I make so many compositional and color revisions over the process of working on something. 

I read that you used to play Gameboy Advance, in the back of your moms car for hours, driving from New York to New Jersey. Can you talk to me about what drew you to gaming to begin with?

When I was younger, it was a way for me to hang out with my older brother.  I have a lot of really good memories of sitting next to him and watching him play games like Starcraft and Devil May Cry after school on Fridays.  I think the first game I really got into on my own was Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast.  I loved the world, the colors and music.  Sonic seemed so edgy and cool.  From there, I got into Zelda and then JRPGS.  Final Fantasy 9 was so life changing for me.  Playing that game made me feel like I was a character in the fantasy books I loved reading.

I gotta ask. What’s your favorite game and gaming console. And why?

I loved the Playstation 2 and Gamecube era of gaming where you were working in 3 dimensions but before graphics became really advanced.  You see a lot of stylized art direction from that time because of the limitations of the hardware- a lot of those games still look great today.  Most of my favorite rpgs are from that console generation.  These days I have less time to dedicate to gaming so I’m mostly playing handheld- I love the Steam Deck for that.

So what is it about nostalgic videogames, that makes you want to document the digital worlds and iconic characters through your paintings?

Part of it is documenting these games and canonizing them within the world of fine art, but another aspect of the work is how meditating on my experience with these games allows me to access deep parts of my memory and subconscious.  I have a lot of memories playing these games, so I never have trouble coming up with ideas for paintings.  This helps me to stay automatic in the process of working and get into a flow state, which is where the really special moments can happen.  I don’t work from sketches or drawings and I don’t often use reference images, so I’m relying on my memory and on the feeling of playing these games.  I also think that it’s good to paint what you love and stay true to yourself.  I fought against it for a while, but deep down I’m a giant nerd!  I think there’s vulnerability in accepting who you really are- people can tell if you’re being honest in your paintings.

With that in mind. Are you a nostalgic person in general? Or is it solely for gaming? 

I definitely tend to be nostalgic, but who doesn’t give in to that on occasion?  It’s easy to romanticize aspects of the past.  

What are some of the most essential things you have to have with you in the studio? It could be anything, music, objects etc..

I get attached to my tools. I try to hang onto them for as long as I can and let them become part of my studio ritual.  I’ve been using the same hammer and staple gun since college.  Some of my old brushes have gotten so worn out that they’ve transcended being useful and kind of just exist as art objects.  They’ve got unworkable bristles and handles caked in paint.  I can’t work with them anymore but I like keeping them around, they feel charged.

Your 2022 solo show, at Taymour Grahne Projects, in London, was called “Limit Break”. What’s the story behind that title? 

“Limit Break” refers to a status in the Final Fantasy games in which the character can surpass their limits and unleash an ultimate attack.  They can only be performed when the Limit Break bar is filled completely- this is usually achieved by taking damage from enemy attacks.  In the context of my show, I was thinking of how achieving a flow state while painting is kind of like the IRL version of the Limit Break status.

With that in mind. Any projects coming up in the future?

I’ve got a solo show opening in June with Taymour Grahne Projects.  It’s called “Paradigm Shift”.

How would you describe a perfect day?

Add in some handheld gaming time at the end of the day, and my usual routine is looking pretty good 🙂

Alright Jesse. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

Impossible question! At the moment:

In Bruges

Spirited Away

Blue Velvet

Memories of Murder

Before Sunrise

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

The second is: What song do you listen to the most right now? 

I’ve been listening to a lot of music from the Persona games lately. There’s one track off the Persona 3 OST called “Time”. It kind of sounds like if Cocteau Twins wrote the intro song to an anime. I’ve always got Elliott Smith playing in the studio.  “Alameda” is a favorite of mine.

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