After decades of sharing his art with only a select few, NJ artist Justin Hock will uncover his work to the public

“The idea of selling my art was never really [the intent]. … It makes me uncomfortable. Same thing with music; the intent was never to make money off of it.”

It was some time shortly after Justin Hock cut up a first edition of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and gave away most of his art for free that I had a conversation with him. I’d never seen his art—mostly mixed landscapes on canvases of pages from French literature books (I’m told)—and still haven’t. 

In fact, most people haven’t seen his work. They can on Nov. 5 at a rare public exhibition of Hock’s work at Relic Music Shop in Red Bank, but heretofore, you had to know the artist to know his art. 

That said, you might know Hock from his involvement in NJ hardcore (et al.) bands You and I, Hundreds of AU, NY in 64 and more over the past few decades, but even then Hock admits he was a bit of a wallflower—loading into shows, ghosting everyone, playing the show, loading out, and heading home immediately. The idea of putting his artwork on display, and all the social interaction that comes with it, makes Hock understandably anxious.

“The idea that I can’t hide this time is terrifying because I so want it just to be about the art, and I know that that is impossible, and I think that that is the source of a lot of discomfort,” he says.

The thing is, Hock is about the work. About creating. The things that come with it—the shows, the sales—he could do without, which makes the show at Relic, which is, in its own right, a veritable gallery of musical instruments and accoutrements, special, and why he had few qualms about freely giving his work away to friends recently.

“I’m the kind of person that if something that sits in the corner or sits in a closet or under papers or guitars or pedals I don’t use, and somebody else could enjoy those things, I think they should have it,” Hock says. “The idea of selling my art was never really [the intent], even though the paintings are very expensive to paint, which sucks when you give ’em away cause some of them can cost $800 or $1000 in materials. But it makes me uncomfortable. Same thing with music; the intent was never to make money off of it.”

Certainly when one creates and shares work in a silo, effectively, they are also shielded from not only criticism, but the effect of that criticism (and praise) on the work itself. What I mean is, if someone tells me I use too many, let’s say, food metaphors in my writing, or that I write “let’s say” too often, I can’t help but have that thought in my head when I write things in the future.

For an artist who doesn’t typically show his work publicly and who has been told his work can be “difficult,” the hope is that however people interpret his work, they at least engage with it.

“To me, some of the joy of having people look at your art is they’re drawn to different things than what I created, and that to me is the same [reason] why I gravitated toward instrumental music, because you’re not controlling the narrative. The listener or viewer needs to participate with it in some kind of way to get anything out of it,” Hock says.

For what it’s worth, Hock isn’t too concerned about how the public reaction to his work will change his process. Like many artists, Hock tends to create things that crop up in his mind but that haven’t been done before, and that metric is unlikely to change.

“Without sounding arrogant or pretentious, when I paint, I paint things I want to see that don’t exist in the world yet. For me, I’m lucky enough I get to look at ’em. Same thing with music. You want to create something, a sound in your head that you haven’t heard, that doesn’t exist, and that’s always been the motivating factor,” Hock says. 

Hock’s been creating all his life; ever since he was five or six, he says, he’s been making art—and keeping it to himself. He shied away from doing art shows in his 20s, even though the opportunity presented itself, because, he says, “I didn’t believe I really knew what I was doing.”

But getting involved with music in his adolescence not only helped him grow his artistic understanding, but connect with other artists—today, he has a collection of art from years spent at art and music shows. He may not be a prolific sharer of art, but he is a continual consumer of it.

“I got into hardcore music when I was 12 going on 13, so I’ve basically been going to shows since I was 13 years old,” he says. “I grew up around a lot of artists or people who had this desire to create and every so often you found somebody who was just on another level. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to acquire things that people have given me.”

Like a pencil sketch he stumbled upon at an art market that gobsmacked him. He bought it and now it greets him everyday when he walks in the door. Some pieces that have overwhelmed him he can’t buy, of course, like a Frank Kline piece hanging in the Smithsonian.

“It’s just stumbling upon things and it’s the same thing that I hope somebody who looks at my art [experiences], that moment where you can’t help but surrender to what you’re viewing,” Hock says. “That’s what happened to me [when I saw] the art of Franz Kline. Seeing one of his paintings for the first time in D.C. at The Smithsonian, I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ I literally sat there for the better part of two hours and looked at every square inch of that fucking painting.”

His appreciation for art extends to his work itself. His landscapes, often painted on large canvasses up to 3-by-6-feet, are cast on pages of French literature torn out of old media, specifically those from the book publisher Éditions Gallimard, and typically from books from the 1930s-’50s, a time period in French literature with which he fell in love studying philosophy in his early teens. 

“The simplicity of the lines, and just the imperfections. The older they get, the more they weather. Everything aesthetically about it I love,” he says.

One wonders if there’s any meaning to be gleaned in the piece as a whole from the content of the text itself. Not really, Hock says. 

“That’s one of the things everybody keeps asking me, like, why did you use this book for this painting? The answer is incredibly disappointing, because there really isn’t symbolism to the context of the pages outside of the aesthetic,” Hock says. 

Sometimes, though, the text or the book is so beautiful or meaningful that he’ll be lighter with his artistic touch.

“Literally for this show I cut up one of my original editions of The Stranger and I couldn’t fucking believe I did it,” Hock says. “Luckily my wife bought me another copy. That painting, it’s just The Stranger and I actually didn’t go too far with layering it because I wanted it to be the entirety of the book on canvas.” 

Of course, an art viewer might take meaning from the text whether Hock meant for them to do that or not. And from the layers he puts atop the text, which come in a variety of media from wood stain to paint, epoxy, gold and silver leaf and more. 

Or maybe they’ll just be moved by his work without a logical reason. Hasn’t that happened to you in a gallery or art space before, like Hock with Kline, or you with the piece you don’t fully understand that is moving you in a way you also don’t understand? 

“It’s the most Sysyphean task in the world,” Hock says. “Every time you get the rock to the top there’s another idea or another one and the reality is you’re not the artist, so unless the artist is distinctly telling us, there are a lot of intangibles and that’s what I find to be the most exciting things.” 

In short, there are a lot of layers to art that move you. And there’s, certainly, a lot of layers to Hock and his work, literally and figuratively. Now, with his work in public on Nov. 5, we’ll get to peel some of those back.

Justin Hock, ‘The Rest is Construction.’ 7:30 p.m., Nov. 5. Relic Music Shop. 13 Monmouth St., Red Bank.