Liquitex liked my use of their new paint so much, a paint which allows me to build 3-d sculptures out of wire and paint, and unlike most sculptural materials preserves the direct gestural mark of an abstract painting, that they asked me to appear in a 50th anniversary ad as the subject of an interview, plus a bunch of free paint. I'm sharing the bill with 4 other artists, including Jamie Wyeth, which makes for a 2/5 Jamie to others ratio.. It's a back door route to get my work in Art in America or something like it, but lecturers can't be choosers.
It is one of the very few times I've been called an intergalactic bucking bronco in public.
Jamie’s studio is near the old Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. The creative juices in the room are highly charged and concentrated. During our visit, the conversation looped and zoomed from cerebral to funky to raunchy to pithy and even to a few orbits around some possible universal truths. Talking with Jamie that afternoon was like trying to rein in an intergalactic bucking bronco.
After completing an MFA (2002) at the University of Washington in Seattle, he has taught drawing and painting at the same university. His paintings are figurative abstracts that are highly charged and atmospheric. His imagery comes primarily from an observed model or purely from the imagination, and describes his ideal painting as "the edge of a Dekooning figure in a Turner seascape.”
We first met Jamie at a College Art Association convention when he convinced us to give him a pile of Liquitex Super Heavy Body paints. The range was a few weeks away from formal launch, and this slightly scruffy, highly likable character told us, “With this stuff, I can do things that exist, right now, only in dreams.” How do you say ‘no’ to that?
Jamie followed up with us a few months later, and we found out that he was, indeed, for real. And he was doing things with Super Heavy Body colors that we hadn’t dreamed of.
“It’s amazing how a little tweak, a little change to the nuance of the materials, can open up completely new opportunities,” he said on the phone. “I’m really interested in the way movement and gesture can translate across space. So, I was intrigued by how this paint can hold shape. I then found that, not only does it hold shape, but it’s light enough to stand on top of itself in a way that oils can’t. So, I started playing with how I could actually build objects that are derived from forms that I’ve developed in my paintings.”
That’s sculpture, right?
“No, I don’t really think of these as sculpture. They’re more like ‘painting objects.’ I can actually get the paint to hold a painterly mark or a gesture in space.”
We had to see what he was doing. We went to Seattle, drank coffee, felt the rain on our faces, talked a lot, told jokes about Republicans and conceptual artists (not suitable for re-print here) and, after seeing how he was pushing the materials in some unique and compelling directions, it was obvious that he absolutely, positively had to be included in the 50th anniversary interviews.
The studio was dominated by a large, central easel that held a painting of an in-progress, highly ethereal, arctic landscape…
Liquitex: So, talk with us about this painting. Where did the imagery come from?
Jamie Bollenbach: It just sort of turned up. Many of my paintings aren’t really drawn. They just kind of evolve. They start as abstracts and then just kind of turn into something more specific.
Liquitex: After seeing your work in photographs, I’m surprised by how painterly these are. You have got some really juicy, fun stuff happening here.
JB: I like the juicy.
Liquitex: Your work is fundamentally about the basic elements of design: line shape, color, value, and texture. But there is a very strong sensual and expressive quality to the work. How do you get that strong sensual and expressive content out of those strict and tight elements of design?
JB: One of the things that absolutely fascinates me is this kind of infinity that comes from limitations. For example, a painting usually has only four sides and it’s usually rectangular and you have eight or nine pots of paint. Those are like rules of a game of football. The limitations actually create a new and infinite range of possibilities that you never would have anticipated.
Liquitex: How does that translate into working with paint?
JB: One of the reasons you go to all the trouble to make images in this extremely difficult and annoyingly messy way – as opposed to all the other ways that we can make pictures in the modern world – is that painting lets us experience the process directly. You can take responsibility for everything that happens.
So, the sensual quality comes up not so much from pleasure of painting – which, of course, is a lot of fun -- but from a more intellectual process. I think. While I’m painting and building the surface, I’m thinking. I’m trying to figure out how this goo and this colored mud relates to the idea. And the more carefully I think about the goo, the more accurately the idea comes into being.
That’s why I get very frustrated by conceptual art -- it’s very often just a literary idea that has no body. And it bothers me that there’s an assumption that the use of materials and paint is not a serious intellectual process. In fact, there’s forty thousand years of physical evidence of painting to contradict that notion. Paint is pretty interesting stuff.
Liquitex: One of the pleasures when looking at paintings comes in finding the brush strokes that are just right. The gesture that you absolutely, positively know the painter stepped back afterwards and said, “Damn, that felt good!” And there are a number of those strokes on this painting – there’s one right there. (Pointing to a juicy stroke of color on the panel)
JB: Right. That one felt really great.
Liquitex: And this one, too. (Pointing to another stroke)
JB: Yep. That one felt particularly direct.
Liquitex: So, for you there’s an intellectual process as well as emotional and sensual?
JB: Yes, but they’re not separate.
Liquitex: So, they come from the same place?
JB: I’ve been reading essays on intelligence. It’s fascinating to read about people who have physical injuries to the brain. Often, people that have had injuries to areas of the brain that control emotions and emotional intelligence are unable to perform other functions, too. Some can’t do math, for example. So, yes, those things all seem to be connected.
Liquitex: You’ve been reading Howard Gardner. (Educational Psychologist at Harvard, author of the seminal work on multiple intelligences, Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences along with another work that directly addresses Jamie’s point entitled, Art, Mind, and Brain: A cognitive approach to creativity). And there’s a school of thought that’s being resurrected in our 21st century world that, in short, says art and science are two sides of the same coin. That you can’t have one without the other.
JB: That’s exactly right. It doesn’t mean that the artistic process is a touchie-feely, new-age kind a thing. It means that art is a way to respond and pull together all the kinds of abilities that humans naturally have.
Liquitex: If I’m hearing you correctly, in respect to painting, you’re saying that the physical and the tactile are important -- not just for itself -- but also because it’s a route into the intellectual, as well. So the intellectual and the physical reflect and, ultimately, enhance each other.
JB: Absolutely. That is exactly right. In fact, the intellectual is, I think, hobbled when the physical part – the working with the materials part -- is cut out of the equation. To remove the materials and the process from visual art seems to me to be the height of kind of arrogance and laziness.
More and more, we’re seeing lots of artists getting frustrated with clever conceptual stuff and going back to a materials-based process.
Liquitex: As evidenced by this year’s (2004) Whitney Biennial, which was loaded with lots of paintings.
JB: Denzil Hurley (UW Professor) said maybe one of the best things I’ve ever heard: We don’t even know everything there is to know about blue yet. You can spend your whole life trying to learn blue in oil paint or in acrylic paint. And the materials will get you to an understanding of “blue” in a very particular way.
Liquitex: So, talk about the process by which you have now started to translate that into these. (Points to wire armature hanging from the ceiling, laden with Super Heavy Body acrylic paint) You’re calling these “painting objects.” Is that right?
JB: I’m calling these painting objects because I’m approaching them differently than how I’d approach sculpture. I don’t have a lot of experience with sculpture, and, even though it’s three dimensional, the work really is about painting. It’s a 3-D way of working out painting issues. Basically, I’m just thinking that I can get a painting parked in space.
Liquitex: You’re very articulate about how you manage your process. So, let’s go on to something even more basic -- what led you to become an artist?
JB: That’s a tricky one. I grew up around two things: politics, for one. And my father was a meteorologist who painted and did all right with it. He learned to paint really well and then he quit and started ceramics. He went to Alaska in 1950 and that’s where I was born. Which meant a lot of time on beaches and always drawing and fishing. In high school, I got into cartooning and politics. So, in college I did a little bit of art and a lot of political science. After school, I worked for the American Civil Union for five years. It was fascinating and interesting and I contributed to the cause of truth and freedom (laughs).
But, basically the art stuff was gnawing at me. It just kept gnawing at me. I had a little money saved up, so I decided I wanted to take a plunge and get a motorcycle and go to San Francisco and be a starving artist. It worked, but it was an excruciatingly slow process.
So, I’m not making any money. But I’m doing exactly what I want to do. Very few people can say that.
Liquitex: Making money is not a determining factor in the quality of someone’s art.
JB: I sure hope not.
Liquitex: No it is not. So, how does teaching fit into the process?
JB: Teaching is a way to articulate some issues that are interesting to me. I never meet anybody from whom I can’t learn something. I think that applies to working with students, too. It’s a nice counterbalance, to be out there working with the students.
We have fun, and then I come back here and work in the studio. It balances out.
Liquitex: Is there one thing in particular that you hope your students get from you?
JB: One thing? Or two?
Liquitex: Okay, you can say two.
JB: One, is to feel confident in making art. I don’t really believe in talent as much as I believe in discipline. Persistence. I don’t think that art is something that is only the result of some super special case of magical ability. It’s something that you can train for and learn from other people. In fact, the idea of the artist as some sort of shaman is far too strong, it actually hampers people’s ability to be creative because they think only specially favored people get to do it. To whatever extent I can bring a democratic value into the class, I want them to understand that this is something that they can do.
The other thing is that this is a peculiar path to spirituality. I’m not a religious man, but I very much believe that things that aren’t in touch with the sacred (are) unimportant. And there are things that art touches that are full of the sacred.
I’m frustrated, in this day and age -- with technology breathing down our neck – that, of all people, artists should be holding the (humanist) line. I guess I still believe in revolutionary liberation.
Liquitex: If artists aren’t shamans, then what’s the most important thing that artists bring to the community?
JB: I believe that if you neglect the artistic process, you do so at the cost of a balanced ability to think. Without artistic thinking you are going to miss a lot of truth with a big capital T. Without artistic thinking as part of the community, there will be lots of bad social decisions. In fact, cultures that include the production of art have almost always been the most successful.
Liquitex: That’s a terrific statement.
JB: Just wait for the propaganda that follows.
Liquitex: So, what’s the most fun for you in your work?
JB: Looking at naked girls is (of course) good.
Liquitex: What else?
JB: I think what is the most fun is getting into this position where it’s like constantly stumbling up this staircase, wondering and learning. I had a model here in the studio a few days ago…
Liquitex: Ah, the naked girl bit.
JB: Uh, yeah. And there was this little stumbling bit of knowledge where I realized that just standing in a room is an amazingly complex system. And making art is a way to comprehend and express the mystery and wonder of a person just standing in a room probably better than any other process.
Liquitex: So what’s is your biggest challenge?
JB: This stuff. (Indicating the wire armature on which he’s making a human-size ‘painting object’) The mechanics. How can I get this damn thing to stand up? What kind of foam do I use? All these problems are fun. But the biggest problem is in keeping the expressive goal of the art from fading away, to keep from getting lost in the mechanics of things that might not be relevant.
Liquitex: During the discussion, there’s a theme that’s come through and that is really powerful. Forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted, but I want to distill this down into something more easily digestible. You’ve said that painting is important because it’s a fabulous way integrate the physical, the sensual, the intellectual, the spiritual, the political, and the social. And if you leave out any of these elements, everything else suffers.
JB: I think that says it. And there is no short cut. The more I study this, the more I realize that you’ve got to do it the hardest way possible. I wish I had known that when I was a little kid. But those books, like “How to Draw Trees” are exactly the wrong way to go. Trees don’t have a formula.
I teach drawing the figure more or less the way I teach drawing a tree or drawing the things around the tree. You can use a few (visual) tools to measure and to clarify things, but the goal is to train yourself to process, recognize, and record the fundamental relationships within what you’re seeing.
Liquitex: Kind of like life.
JB: Yep. Kind of like life.