The Event of Painting/ an Interview with James Lavadour by Eva Lake/ April 2005
You are someone who is always working on some large ideas, even if you donít know where you might show.
Yes, I work a lot and I work everyday. Iíve got paintings going on that date back for ten years and itís sort of a constant library of work Iím working on. Sometimes I work on eight to sixteen pieces a day.
So youíre never just focused on just one piece?
Nor one idea or one genre. Itís an expanding and evolving kind of thing.
Is it to due to the process of laying down paint which needs to dry before you move on orÖ?
Thatís part of it and also part of it is very intentional. A few years ago I was the sort of person who worked on a painting from beginning to end. That took a lot of energy. During productive times I was manically working from sun up to sundown and then I would have these huge emotional and energy crashes where I wouldnít work at all. I had to find a way to keep working on a constant level.
I got introduced to printmaking. Iím a spontaneous painter Ė I didnít really know how I painted. Iím self taught, but printmaking really forced me to analyze my work, to separate it, to see the stages of what I do to arrive at a thing. Looking at that separation made me ten times more productive because I could put more energy into pulmonary stages, to the under-paintings Ė and not sweat them, or obsess about them or worry about finishing them and leave things unresolved. I could initiate paintings and not have to worry about resolving them until the cycle came back around and I had discovered some new key and I could take that back and apply it to the first paintings.
So it took the pressure off. When you have one piece, you were like: ĎHow do I deal with this one image today?í
It was crucial. It was absolutely devastating to put that kind of energy into something and have it fail. At the same time, I had missed opportunities in paint along the way. Maybe taking a risk in a painting and destroying an under-painting or other kinds of things where youíre not going to get back to that place again. Being able to separate the various stages opened up a whole new understanding of what Iím doing as a painter, as each stage in itself is a complete and interesting realm to study and explore.
You couldnít see that as easily when you worked start to finish with one painting.
Right, you pass right over it.
The Ďgoalí is always there.
The goal is always there. So it really broadened out: I broadened my palette, my composition and even my thinking. I had worked in at abstract and landscape at the same time. I called them interiors and landscapes but with being able to analyze, to spread it out a little bit over time, those two things begin to intersect. They used to go parallel, but now they integrate and intersect. That was a major technical and psychological breakthrough for me.
And that happened how long ago?
Well, Iíve worked very seriously at both and it was kind of like a pendulum, swinging emotionally and psychologically back and forth between the two for years and years. It wasnít until about five years ago that they actually crossed paths, intersected or short-circuited or whatever you want to call it.
How did your audience receive it? Was it a surprise?
Yes, surprised, and some were disappointed. But you have to educate your audience and bring them along. You canít take a left turn somewhere and leave them standing out where you used to be. You know, my whole perspective as to what Iím doing changed. My perception of painting changed and my understanding of it. And so you have to help whoever is following your work read the signs.
And how are you able to do that? Not every artist is able to communicate about their work but it is an important part.
Itís essential. Why else are you making paintings? Youíre looking into a phenomenon. Youíre investigating. Youíre doing exploration and tests. Youíre arguing and talking with yourself. Youíre accumulating knowledge. Things are compounding on layer upon layer of what you know. So over a course of time youíve accumulated a body of understanding and knowledge and data thatís kind of raw. When you start articulating it, composing it into finished pieces, it requires a certain level of acclimation for both yourself and your audience.
As a painter, you have an affinity towards certain people. For every action, thereís a reaction. I think that with every action Ė being a painting Ė thereís a reaction in a receptor out there in terms of a certain portion of the public that follows painting and responds to what you do. Itís a universal energy or phenomena, so youíre going to hook up with people who have a similar aptitude and sensibilities.
Do you write about it?
I make notes. I talk about it but not as much as I used to. I used to think I understood what Iím doing but now I donít. I donít talk about it with the certitude that I used to.
Things are not as certain.
No, they get more uncertain as time goes on.
Is that due to aging or the art itself?
Both. In aging, you get less certain about your place in the universe. Youíre getting closer to the finish line and drawing conclusions about your life, your work and the value if it.
But itís also due to the art itself, which is more open-ended.
Yes. I really think thereís a universal force. Painting is like science. You initiate a process and then you study it and its system of operating. There is a physics involved of pigments and sedimentation and color combination. Colors vibrate, they overlap and all that stuff is just one aspect, but itís a very complex aspect. And then there are some of the conclusions that you draw, like picking out from all of the immensity melodies or images.
Iíve been called a photo-realist, but it couldnít be further from the truth. I donít depict anything. I throw paint out and I see stuff in it. And I think what you see is the organic aspect of the paint itself stimulates your memory. That introspective experience is what is at the heart of engaging with a painting, when you begin to bring your own memories to bear. Because we all have the same thing, this accumulation of all of our senses over a lifetime and those things are not really well defined. They are bits and pieces and theyíre not really articulated. A lot of times a painting can trigger a cascade of memories.
The show is called Walk. Can you tell us about that?
Well, I think that paint is not a picture and itís not a representation. Itís a process. Paint is informative from the micro-level to the macro-level. Most painters go into a show like this and they get their nose stuck up to the painting first. Theyíre not so interested in the image; theyíre interested in the paint. But thatís the universal aspect of paint Ė like music and sound, paint does something. People want to know what it does, why it does it, how it does it. So I am always encouraging people to get up close to a painting. Hopefully the title encourages people to get up and walk the length of the paintings.
Is it also about the experience of the landscape too?
How could it not? The landscape is a structure and very simple: itís an undulating mass that is in constant flow. You know, flow in the movement of our own body and the way we move through the world. Itís not something which is contained in a picture like a snapshot. Itís got a horizon, a middle ground and a foreground, period. After awhile, landscape becomes a part of just the way you move. The land has informed my body. Walking on the land over years and years will inform your muscles and your bones and the way you breathe and the way you think. It informs your dreams. It becomes the matrix for this experience of your life.
But thereís other things going on also that are very personal and internal and human Ė decisions that you make, colors, slashes and grids, layers and structures intersect with that flow.
Youíre compartmentalizing all of the time.
Also, I met a physicist a Rutgers University, Zibowsky, Norman J. Zibowsky. He was trying to encourage artists to get involved in the physics program. His main study was Flow. We were talking and I showed him some of my slides and he said: ďWell, you know what that is,Ē and itís paint dripping down the canvas and I said: ďWell, itís dripsĒ ďNo,Ē he says, ďItís fingering instability.Ē It just hadnít dawned on me that all of these things I had been looking at had already been identified by other disciplines and non-aesthetic disciplines. And the whole concept behind flow struck me. It wasnít some psychological or philosophical thing. It was an actual physical process that happens -- that substance moves forward and it encounters an object and it spreads apart and creates vortexes and the vortexes break down into turbulence. So we have these terms like cosmic vortex or fingerling instability. I found that extremely exciting. I began to look at my painting in a different way, at the continual flow of energy of moving, scraping, putting paint on, taking it off and continuing on.
Plus I had read a book: Symbols of eternity. Itís a brief history of Chinese landscape painting. One of the key concepts was to go out and climb and engage with nature and come back with Sumi brushes and ink and doing this sort of kinetic painting as a result of their physical experience. They were not depicting so much as being a conduit. There was even a class of artist who made paintings blindfolded. They would make landscapes just based on physical motion. They call these Symbols of eternity and this is pre-scientific, being able to bring down erosion and the heavens because painting is almost like a telescope. Itís a way to look at the stars in a sense. Itís a way to examine our physical reality. In ancient times it could be called Symbols of Eternity but in modern times it could be called a Model for Infinity -- that again, a painting is not a picture. Itís a process thatís happening and in every micro-space of the painting, something is happening. You can go over the entire surface of the painting and discover new compositions and worlds that you had not considered. Itís generating information all the time, even though it is static in the particles for the time being.
There are some people who are image oriented as opposed to process oriented but thatís not where youíre at?
Not at all. I think the image is more of a cultural thing. Itís not a painting thing. A painting is connected to rivers and wind and mountains and dirt and earth and upheavals and energy Ė and so are we. We have blood pumping through our veins and weíre growing, going through life and changing all of the time. A Ďpictureí is a static thing, based on a cultural value. We communicate whatever Ė
Like Life magazine.
Like Life magazine. A painting is not a photograph. And Iíve made a very conscious effort to eliminate those aspects of painting that settle into a picture.
Thatís a longtime goal for you -- to move away from that, or be conscious of it.
Yes. I want to see, I want to perceive, I want to look into the heart of things. Painting is a very fascinating thing and it gets more so as I go along. Itís a constant perceptual discovery. I work on one painting, I turn it upside down and I do another painting on it. I discovered that if I took a subtle landscape, an under-painting and then turn it upside down and use totally different type of tools for a totally separate painting which is architectural, using grids lines and visions, and then I turn it back up and itís a startling discovery to see it placed on the landscape that I remember. Itís startling.
You want that.
I want that. I want to see new stuff all of the time. Because painting is a natural, organic process, it is always revealing new stuff Ė and that stuff is not of my imagination, itís not of my creation. All weíre doing really doing is looking into it, like a river or a mountain or a landscape. Weíre looking into it and weíre seeing stuff.
Youíre allowing yourself to have to some surprises and not be so locked in.
At the same time you have a methodology thatís just like a scientific experiment. You have to have certain control factors within that, just so you can measure your progress and identify new things -- because they happen in contrast to other things.
And you have to have other things going on too besides just painting. I do a lot of sketching. These sketches take maybe 15 or 20 seconds and I do thousands and fill hundreds and hundreds of sketchbooks. We all have this kind of core of what it is we are; itís a simple thing. We write this gyroscope of who we are and how we move in the world and this is a sort of series of those movements. Itís a thing that is uniquely who we are. I think thatís what drawing does for me Ė it helps me identify that very core kind of movement that I do -- and how to take that movement, how to do new things, how to knit it together with other things, how to create a bridge from one space to another.
Some of these works are monochromes. Tell us a bit about them.
My paintings are in various layers. Traditionally I used a lot of mineral colors and make a lot of rust and grey and greenÖ I was interested more in the quality of the pigment itself; how it breaks apart, how it erodes, how it slides and smoothes over with a brush. And itís a part of a bigger process. And some of those events Ė and I call them events that happen in paint -- are extraordinary. Out of the thousands of times that you do that, a couple of times will be extraordinary. You stumble upon a place youíve never been before. The simplicity is what makes it very precious. So I set some of those aside and maybe hide them from myself, because the compulsion is to keeping work or adding to it.
But youíre looking at it and saying Ďthis is enoughí and putting it away.
Yes. Plus I want a very wide spectrum of things going on in paint. In the end Ė itís miles.
Eva Lake/ Artstar Radio
April 21 2005
ďWalkĒ at PDX Contemporary Art
No part of this interview can be reproduced without permission.