Q: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?
A: In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?
The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.
Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended. “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings. I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.
Comments are welcome!
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
A: My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive.
First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice.
My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work. As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too.
One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next. Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material.
In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows. Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.
In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera. In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.
Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper. They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York. Now I go to Duggal. Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.
Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper. The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead.
Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting.
Comments are welcome!
A: I always have the stereo on when I work in my studio, either tuned in to WBGO (the Newark-based jazz station), WNYC (for news and talk radio; Leonard Lopate, Fresh Air, etc.), WFMU (Fordham University’s radio station, to learn what college kids are listening to) and other local radio stations. I still listen to cd’s, I read the lyrics and the liner notes, and I prefer to listen to music the way artists intended it, meaning that I listen to entire albums from start to finish instead of jumping around between single tracks by different artists. When it comes to music, I’m interested in everything: jazz (especially classic jazz artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakely, etc.), blues, classical, pop, rock, world music (especially artists from Brazil, Cuba, and any country in Africa), electronic, indy, experimental, ancient music, etc. You name it, I probably listen to it, and if I don’t, I’m eager to learn all about it. When I’m working, certain artists are better to listen to at particular points in a painting. For example, one of my favorite artists to start a new painting with is Lady Gaga. The beat, her energy, and sheer exuberance are perfect when I’m standing in front of my easel with a blank piece of sandpaper in front of me. Gaga’s music gets me moving and working fast, putting down colors instinctively without thinking about them, just feeling everything.
It’s a different story when I am at my apartment and am shooting a photo setup. Then I might or might not listen to music. Lately it’s more about working fast (I shoot 24 images in about 15 minutes), choosing a variety of interesting vantage points, getting surprising effects, etc.
Comments are welcome!