A Q&A with artist Jamie Newton
By Suzi Steffen
Portland artist Jamie Newton, whose show is up through April 15 at White Lotus, just wanted to make sure he had enough coffee before he spoke with me on March 14.
Watch me get every single influence wrong. Maybe I needed some coffee before I called him! Still, he was a gracious interviewee who made me want to go to Ashland right now. (Luckily, I’m going Easter weekend to see some plays for review. Stay tuned to the Weekly for more on that.)
|Wind-aided Solar-powered Drawing Machine II|
Let’s talk a bit about your background and your experience as an artist.
I’ve kind of bounced around a bit. I’m newly back into the Portland area after being down in the Ashland area for about 5 years.
Does the landscape influence you a lot?
The landscape does influence me. The thing about Southern Oregon is that you see the weather so much more; you see the bare bones of the landscape and you can watch the storms coming in over the Siskyous. In the afternoons, you could watch the clouds building up over Klamath Lake. The sky would be blue in Ashland, but you could see those great anvil-shaped clouds develop off to the east, which were always dramatic.
So that landscape entered your work?
It entered into some, especially the sumi paintings based on the Siskyou ridgeline and Wagner Butte. It restimulated [my] thinking about the Japanese/Chinese traditional landscape painting. In terms of how that actually affects the painting, I go in and out of color phases and black and white phases, but I’m always drawn back to more of an Eastern aesthetic.
Some paintings I made a couple of years ago read to me as landscapes, particularly storms coming over the top of the ridgeline. But people who have done a lot of abstract painting in particular were shocked when I would say that. They didn’t see landscape at all. The paintings at White Lotus look almost realistic, a bit of a shift from what I usually do.
Since a lot of your work ties into the natural world, how has moving from a smaller town to the big city affected your work?
Well, we live on the outskirts, toward Hillsboro, but we’re always out somewhere. When I lived in Portland before, I was always somewhere, like up in the Gorge hiking every other weekend. But I don’t feel like there’s a direct tie [of my work] to [the natural world].
The biggest difference up here is that everything’s green and verdant, and when the fronts come in they tend to be drizzly warm fronts instead of dramatic fronts clashing over your head.
Talk to me about the ideas for the solar powered and wind powered drawing machines.
They were kind of an outgrowth of the frost catchers. I’ve always played with the idea of having the environment involved in some way. Clear back when I was in school studying photography, I was painting emulsions onto bricks and laying them out in the sun. When those frosts started showing up [in Ashland, late 2006], it was just extraordinary; I wandered around taking photographs. But I’d been participating with these folks online [at the fluxlist blog], and this other guy was really jazzed about the idea. and so we had an online back and forth about what [the frost catchers] were doing — he’s in Michigan, so he gets a lot of frost too.
I started thinking about doing found object sculptures again. I go in and out of that, thinking about how I can do something to participate with the environment. It was a Fluxus group I was participating with, so that kind of intermedia was forefront in my mind — making little videos incorporating sound, action, that kind of aesthetic, having the sculpture do multiple things.
At first I thought strictly wind, then I found these little solar panels. I’d start off building a framework and see what I could hang on it — not only to make it compositionally interesting but how to make it do something, make wires bang against other wires, make a sound.
The video [ofWind-aided Solar-powered Drawing Machine, which is running at White Lotus] has helped a lot because folks always want to see them work. They’re cheap little solar panels, and I’m sure they’re not the most efficient — they need to be outside to work.
To me, a lot of this felt like the same sort of accident as in painting. I really like surprising myself as I’m working. I’ll just start off making marks, reacting to the marks, see where it goes. For some people, that turns into figuration; for me, that turns to landscape. So even sculpturally, you see a lot of the shapes repeat between the 3-D things and what’s going on in the paintings.
In the second drawing machine back toward the back of the gallery, there’s a 90-degree tubular piece I used as a structural element and as a piece of something visually heavier against the lighter wirework. It creates a little echoing whop-whop noise that came as a surprise; it adds to the percussion that the machine makes.
The drawings the machines make record ephemeral phenomena in this fascinating way. What interests you about them? How do you describe them to people?
I was really taken with [the drawings]. The first one I had a 2B (pencil) and an H just to see what different things would do. By happy accident, one of the first pencils is on a wire that moves, but it doesn’t get dragged along. It acts as an anchor so the drawing has a static point. Drawings from first machine have an arcing pattern. I was taken with the whimsical; they seemed so delicate. I also think they’re really funny. The machine is clicking away, banging pieces of wire together, and it’s creating this delicate little drawing.
I imagine people often compare some of your work, like that I saw on your website concretewheels.com, to that of Andy Goldsworthy. What are your thoughts on that?
Some of the stuff on the site does take off from Goldsworthy – the lines of stones, etc. I also have a piece that references Tom Phillips, and I mention that. So every time I do something like that, it’s like I’m not … it’s Tom Phillips’ idea. Like the Andy Goldsworthy thing, I’d also seen Richard Long 15 years previously. Long was initially walking lines, creating patterns and graphs, and everyone went, “you gotta be kidding; this is art?” While I really appreciate what Goldsworthy’s done in terms of people coming to it. I appreciate even more what Long has done because it’s more transient in the landscape. One of the things he made a point of is that he would go out by himself hiking in the wilderness and camp and create works along the way, and he would be the only one out there, documenting as he went. When he left, he’d lay the stones back down. He was creating work that would slide away after and not be intrusive. I have a greater appreciation for that and I think that approach has more of an influence on me.
OK, I think that many of the “untitled” sumi brush works remind me very much of Franz Kline. In your artist’s statement, you quote Jeffrey Wechsler saying that the tenets of Abstract Expressionism were present for centuries in Asian art. What are your thoughts on that connection?
I was really pleased when I ran across that little quote because I’d been looking at a lot of the Asian artwork, trying to find more contemporary people doing these abstract landscapes and scenes that related to the tradition (but didn’t necessarily incorporate the little house and the man on the bottom). Those look very much like abstract Western art.
On the one hand, there’s some of the Abstract Expressionists I still love looking at, it’s incredible stuff, and yet I think the whole approach of the Eastern has always held more appeal for me. Way back when I studied philosophy and I was really drawn to Eastern thought. Once you start looking into that aesthetic and the whole approach, it all has a real appeal. There’s more that idea of going along with the environment and landscape and with your own action of painting, so you naturally incorporate what’s happening with the end of the brush. You go oh, let’s see what happens. There was a real sense of the ephemeral and the transitory and the sense that we’re all just here, passing through.
Particularly in the 1950s but even further back, a lot of [Western art] is very testosterone driven, like Picasso. When looking at Picasso and Matisse side-by-side I’m much more taken by Matisse. He’s got a subtlety and a charm to him that seems to be lacking in that in-your-face bravura stuff.
A few years ago, I did more work that was recognizable as similar to Franz Kline, but for me, I’m coming to that imagery from a different direction. I know you can get to those places from a different direction and still get something that looks similar. [J.M.W.] Turner for example — you could put some of his watercolors or sketches side by side with Chinese paintings, the ones on that large flowing, absorbent paper where they hit it with a brush and it just goes. You’re looking at something that looks very similar, but how they got there was by a totally different path.
I like how it mixes. I’ve traveled a bit in Japan, and I’ve traveled a bit in Europe, and I’m blown away no matter where I go by the art that I see, the cultural differences, the landscape and the geology. I start to think, you know, “What does this mean to me? How do I do something with it?” — but I also try not to think about it too much when I am working because it can start being too much … you can start seeing the effort.
So am I insulting you to ask about Kline?
No, not at all. I think precedents and references are inescapable for anybody who’s paying attention. If it becomes too obvious, I’m gonna say yeah, I realize this but it’s an interesting idea and I’m still going to explore it.
And , I love this, it makes me sound old, but the Internet is so cool. I start following links, just like I’d go to the university library to research a paper and get lost for hours in the stacks, fascinated by things I was coming across. The other day, I can’t even remember the connections, but somebody had posted this Constable sketch of weather. I was so taken with it because I had been looking at photos I had taken of a storm obliterating a hillside in Southern Oregon. You realize we’ve all been working with the same things over and over.
What’s your art plan? Do you have any exhibits coming up in Portland?
I’m not very good at that side of it, the planning.
I’d like to see something like the drawing machines at a larger scale. They probably wouldn’t work exactly as they’re doing now, but some aspect of the them interacting with the larger environment would be interesting. I was talking to someone earlier who was planning on making something to take to Burning Man, something similar to Theo Jansen’s PVC pipe thing. It’s really cool when you start seeing things at scale like that. So I don’t know.
Sometimes all I want to do is paint, and sometimes it becomes much more three-dimensional, and they kind of feed each other.