Self Contained, Franklin Sirmans
This interview took place at Mixville located in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles in early May 2004.
FS: First off, how do you work out here in sunny California? I think a lot of people think of art from L.A. in one of two ways. Either you make big colorful paintings reminiscent equally of sun-drenched landscapes and Hollywood neon. Hockney, Diebenkorn and Francis come to mind. Or, you're a smart conceptualist in a long line of people like John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Charles Gaines, Mike Kelley and Daniel J. Martinez.
JME: It would be easy for me to say I lean toward the cool conceptualist. But there are a lot of great artists here that I respect whose work falls somewhere in between or outside those parameters. Having lived in the Los Angeles area as a kid and for the last 15 years my ideas and work patterns often tend to be ultimately influenced by the car culture and the physicality of the environment.
FS: Let's go back. What was your impetus to actually try and make art, from childhood, and to further pursue that idea?
JME: Actually, I received an award in kindergarten...
FS: Kindergarten (laughing)?
JME: Yes, really. And they put the piece in a public library and my family came and ever since it was my thing. That's really the one strand of my life that continues on to this day. I might have toyed with the idea of being a graphic designer or comic-book artist, but I knew I wanted to communicate and challenge people visually. Also, my mom was really into crafts and collectibles, she was filling up the house with souvenir spoons, ceramics, figurines... You can see in the exhibition a couple (literally) of mummified apple-head dolls in the show with hand-made clothing. They're part of the installation in one of the storage boxes underneath some Matchbox trucks bulldozing and hauling off my baby teeth.
FS: How did you come to the point where you decided that you were going to concentrate on letterforms and words as images?
JME: Well, ever since I was little I've always used words and letters and names to create other pictures. I studied typography and calligraphy in school so I have always had a clear desire to write artistically. In the early eighties, seeking "the Zen experience," I traveled to Japan. Suddenly I was immersed and overwhelmed by all of this "exotic information." The "Character" as ideogram, universal sign system, and the sophisticated variety of signage—think of your mind as a blank slate in the middle of an illegible Times Square or Vegas Strip, that was a powerful visceral reaction that hit me in Japan. I wanted to bring that sensation back home.
So, by 1988, while I was living in New York in a sublet on 14th street, my work began to evolve from the big painted letters to compressing every style, choice and influence I had at that time into compact legible spaces. This became the Initial Series, which structured personal/generic observations and commentary within the JME contour.
FS: So the letterforms were a way of taking the painting into a different realm, where you don't necessarily look at the work as just a painting, because you have to first decipher the given information or text?
JME: Yes, though it's not there to be read like a newspaper. It's perhaps more like a scan and similar in experience to a film that you've seen over and over. You already know how it's going to end so now you notice how the body language informs the camera angles. You notice the background scenery has hidden imagery to reinforce the psychological make-up of the characters and so on. I was trying to layer those sorts of ideas into the language of painting. But I was already impatient and anticipating my next move, clarifying my intent to paint. A small drawing I did in 1988, Goes w/ u'r House, revealed the simplicity of the letterforms, but it wasn't until I moved to L.A. that I really appreciated that piece. In moving to L.A. in 1990 it was important for me to justify the "act of painting". It seemed absurd to paint in a studio. I felt that painting had to give back, demand attention and resonate with the viewer. During my first few months in L.A., I actually had one of those "epiphanal fainting moments." I woke up on the floor of my Pico studio and transcribed what I perceived as a visual breakthrough; from painting images as text (sign) to painting text as image, simple.
FS: Yet, the image is so obviously important... sometimes I lose the words within the pieces. I really appreciate that experience of being able to return to the work over time and see things I hadn't seen the last time.
JME: Yeah, It's the multidimensional aspect that intrigues me... Sometimes I want the work to read like a poem, with clearly delineated words. Other times I want it to be about the act of painting, and the reading becomes harder and harder to get to within the composition. The elasticity of language is intriguing and I want the paintings to convey that sense of wonder.
FS: So, on one hand you're a writer...
JME: That's true. My sketchbooks often look like notebooks. Observations, poems, songs, didactic syllogisms, etc... (Laugh) but I'm not trying to express myself with words per se. The words can be the launching pad for my work, not the destination.
FS: Yet, at a certain point, regardless of the word you choose or the way you hope for people to perceive the work, it's about the painting. How does the painting play or read as a visual sign?
JME: Are you asking me why in the world are you still spending your time painting in a studio in the year 2004? (Laughter) Rather than go semiotic I would respond by saying that to paint is to create and resolve conflict in the world. For me, painting's power and distinction can be attributed to its lack of technical restraint, its immediate connection to the material and a fundamental repose to the world at large.
FS: With this new show, you've brought a lot of sculptural ideas to the fore and made them prominent to the presentation in a way that you haven't in quite some time. It seems that you are trying to break out of something old, into something new. People know when they've seen your work. It's a JME, and it is not a forgettable style. Are you trying to lose some of us here with your new work?
JME: Well, regarding the three-dimensional aspect, I have a history of adding attachments and objects that come off the surface of the painting. They become the concrete and discrete signposts to the content of the work. I think of painting as a tool as opposed to a technique. If you notice there are some animated text pieces that demonstrate the idea of textual compression. Here the words are this far apart (hand gesture) and then they're this far apart (smaller) and then they merge into a Character. I think revealing some of that process helps new viewers get invested in my paintings, they can begin to see how the work generates images and ideas. So, I don't think I'm losing anyone, rather, I'm enhancing the experience.
FS: That reminds me of your billboard pieces, which are designed to reach lots of new viewers. They not only utilize a language that is hard to decipher, but also literally place the work into another context, a situation that is normally dominated by commercial media. How do you play within the context of the gallery though? For you, are certain pieces created to work in one specific way?
JME: The billboards are big, bold and graphic, whereas the gallery offers two attributes that you don't get with billboard art. First, there is "slow down time," a time and place to ponder the details. And secondly, there is the context of expectation and a concern for the viewer. I feel that the work I have made for gallery situations is much more rigorous and demanding than my outdoor pieces. Photographic Memory needed to be isolated in the white cube to some extent to place the desired emphasis on scale that in turn generates a field of focus. You can't force a viewer to always go deep with a work of art but you can direct the conditions to make important connections possible.
FS: You mentioned wanting your work to be viewed a certain way. How do you feel about the categorization of your work at this point? At one point we were talking about Xu Bing and the image of language in his work. His use of English words in a way that makes us think of Asian calligraphy is interesting in relation to your work. While he's clearly playing with his own Asian background, the play between image and word works in a similar way. You're both compressing language and lettering into tightly packed images—often also evoking graffiti. So there is this valid comparison, but how do you want people to see the work?
JME: That's a good question. I feel my work exemplifies the need to communicate in a world culture. My work is essentially a simple algorithmic recipe, five principles that can compress, compose and convey content into most languages on the planet. However, this recipe is only a key to more layers of information, observations or anomalies. How far do you want to go? The act of re-thinking our words into images or patterns of information expands the mind's eye to see the big picture... peace, love, freedom and revelation.
FS: So, let's talk about the new works in the exhibition, "Self Contained," that go along with Photographic Memory.
JME: The idea of "Self Contained" first came about after my parents retired and relocated. They asked me if I was interested in my childhood and teenage stuff. I made the mistake of saying yes (laughs) and was overwhelmed when the Mayflower truck drove up to my studio and delivered 34 boxes full of toys, games, clothes, artworks, etc. Unexpectedly, I was forced to "measure out my life with coffee spoons", baby teeth, third-grade spelling tests, artwork from grade school, love letters, trophies... It was a bit overwhelming seeing my studio half filled with accumulative memories. I remember for example (picking up a Cub Scout manual) leaving the Cub Scouts for the Indian Guides... I'm 1/32 Choctaw, (laughs) so it could be construed as a very political act. So, the storage box became a poignant and potent object for me. Then, there's the Photographic Memory painting, it's a counter balance to the personal. I derived the composition from my admiration of Tantric painting and a touch of old video games, Centipedes and Space Invaders. Textually it's the four base elements: fire, water, air and earth in an overall repetitive pattern. Whereas the boxes reveal personal possessions, trigger memories and become a catalyst for presenting a personal worldview, Photographic Memory carefully layers content into what I'm suddenly calling the "concrete unconscious" -- meaningful things we don't think about that influence our lives. Most of the paintings in the exhibition function that way, concrete and collective. The dimension of the Photographic Memory painting mirrors the base of the floor installation, which is comprised of 45 transparent boxes. So I have presented this dialogue between the horizontal installation of personal "support" material and the up-right painting of emotional residue.
FS: Did you know that it was for this show in particular?
JME: No, I didn't. Not until two months before the show. I knew I was going to do the boxes, but I wasn't sure how I wanted to introduce the painting with the installation. I had started Photographic Memory in my old studio in the Valley and then finished it in Silverlake. There's a weird disconnect in the painting that I like. For me it really describes a particular time in my life; transitions, concrete slabs built on the ends of feathers, "now you see it now you don't" experiences. The corners or tabs became the piece de resistance, they represent the need to hold onto something that is passing or has already passed. It's a strong quiet painting. And when it was finished I didn't really have to think about it.
FS: That's when you know it's right.
FS: So, you knew you had the concept for the show before the painting, but what is the relationship between the objects in the utility boxes and the paintings that most people know you for?
JME: The short answer would be compulsion, compression and integration. The empty formalistic boxes represent the subjective artist's impulse: color, form and structure. They function as propositions. Are they empty or full of ideas, random arrangements or specific light capturing entities? There is a direct correspondence to the paintings such as Epiphany and To Zen. But I (like my parents) have this propensity for keeping scraps and things and holding on to material for a long time. I already had boxes of clip art from newspapers, stickers and choice pieces of junk mail. It borders on obsessive. I realize now that it's in the genes. The show, like my paintings, became a form of compressing and integrating the accumulation of childhood memories and adulthood tastes and habits. But unlike other exhibitions or projects where I am out in the world generating ideas, experiences... this body of content was boxed up, labeled and delivered to my studio.
FS: Of course, I have known you for the last few years but I must say that you don't really give away too much of yourself in your work...
JME: (laughs) That is true. And, now I'm like coming out! These discreet pieces of my life edited into transparent boxes. I could add, fill and tweak those boxes repeatedly, but I see the installation as one frame of a 3-D film where the audience moves and the image is in constant pause, ready to be made again.
FS: Well, we began talking about Los Angeles from an art historical place but let's end in the present. How do you deal with LA on a practical business level? And how's Hollywood treating you?
JME: You mean the industry? I see "Hollywood" as the biggest per capita concentration of creative writers in the world. I've received a lot of support from writers, producers, agents who share or have an appreciation for the written word. But the nice thing about being an artist in Hollywood is that the entertainment industry makes the art world seem down-to-earth.
Los Angeles, May 2004
Franklin Sirmans is an independent curator, freelance writer, editor and lecturer based in New York City. A former U.S. editor of Flash Art and Editor-in-Chief of Art AsiaPacific magazines, Sirmans has written for several journals and newspapers on art and culture, including The New York Times, Newsweek International, Essence Magazine, Grand Street, Art in America, Artnews and Time Out New York, where he is a regular contributor.