Brent: If a big slab of red, blue, even yellow or orange came out of nowhere and found home on top of one of your paintings, we’d be set aghast. But I guess you, the maker, get that all the time and cover it up so our experience is different? Add the scale, a work is no larger than 14 inches on the high side, and the fact that the internal dynamics don’t really push beyond the borders, urges us to focus on what is there, with our eyes and our shoulders: it’s here we do most of the work.
It’s an intimate world that we enter, a cave full of reserve and refrain. The paintings are close to white, are anything but white, are minus dilemma, loss, void, end, or struggle-in-sight with purity. We enter simply, plainly, and form a bond – between the thing and ‘we’ the observer. The way we enter is ‘slow’ until slow catches up, and then it’s fast… to find a world of things that could have flitted by if we hadn’t stopped and noticed.
Jeff: It’s a slow process of viewing and processing, but not necessarily in the making. There is a responsibility to reward the viewer for spending time with the work and to those who look past ‘white’. I want the viewer to notice shifts: from warm to cool; from the mostly matte surface to the little tinge of gloss that hangs out at the edge.
My 5-year-old daughter recently said “Dad, your paintings are not really beautiful because all you paint is white.”
I’m usually pegged as a ‘white’ painter, and usually peg myself as a ‘white’ painter too. And it happens when people who don’t know my work ask me what I do the reply typically is that I paint white blocks on top of white blocks. The truth is I don’t make white paintings and never have. The viewer has to have an intimate and singularly experience – one that is more akin to reading a worn paperback of poetry than the deafening and overwhelmingly shared experience of the cinema.
Brent: I mentioned that the information in your paintings stay within the borders. You seem to agree with that, describing, well, in your words, the preference for an ‘intimate and singularly experience’. Your studio suggests this with one painting sided up to the next. So in a sense you are a what’s there is there kind of painter, but what is there is hard to see, I mean physically see. But that’s not actually true. In front of a painting you see a lot, and the experience is a solid one, adding a feather to the pragmatist’s hat.
I’m thinking about the analogy between the worn paperback book of poetry and cinema…
Jeff: I make a lot of stuff and work in less than 100sqf so they can’t help but be together. The paintings also need to influence one another in their production so I can see how they vary. The slightest change in something can drastically affect the whole lot. Albers said “Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions” and I’m interested in that.
As for the book verses the movie, it is about scale, intimacy, distance, and speed. For a while in undergraduate school I was working large and ‘heroic’: fast, with big brushes, sometimes with a broom, in tar and latex house paint on whatever surface I could get my hands on. Like most undergraduate students, bigger was better. That was until I saw my first Anselm Kiefer in the flesh. I loved it and hated it at the same time. I wanted to see it, understand it, but felt a little ripped off. I loved its physicality, surface, coloration, and the scrawled text across the top, but he was only allowing me to ‘see’ less than the bottom third because it was so damn big. He made me get close and I missed out on so much. That was a defining moment.
The book is personal – you hold it and control how fast you flip the pages being able to skip ahead or revisit. You can read aloud to others or keep it internal. It’s a physical object that has weight and a particular scent. It is about that close relationship between the author, the object, and the reader. The movie (going to see a film in a theater) is like that Kiefer: so large that you can’t ‘see’ everything. You move your head to the right to see something and as you do something important happens to the left and you miss it… you can’t rewind. It’s loud – too loud sometimes. People talk behind you and you miss. Painting is that close relationship between maker and viewer. Very few really look at art during an opening; it’s about spectacle and the shared experience.
Brent: Certainly, an opening is seldom about intently looking at one thing, and is about community. And I like that! It’s the residue of the often silent and singular practice, bringing people together as group in a gallery… social sculpture. We go back and have that communion at another time. Like you say, the art has to come into contact with life, with all its varying intentions, degrees, and intensities. I don’t think you necessarily have to make the art do that – be so literal – but it happens, and there’s a response.
We are going to start with the studio, that pocket book of poetry (written/ unwritten) place where you head to when it’s time. But before we get there I’d like you to talk about the images of the walls, billboards and ephemera that you sent me, which I also see you post onto the various social networks where we both participate.
Jeff: There is a scene/song late in the musical Sunday in the Park with George in which the character of George (Seurat) is questioning his painting and purpose. Worried that he is unimportant, not meaningful, idle, and feeling that he has no voice or vision, he says, “I’ve nothing to say, well nothing that’s not been said…I want to make things that count, things that will be new… What am I to do?” In response, the character of Dot comforts George and says, “Look at what you want, not at where you are, not at what you’ll be… Look at all the things you’ve done for me, Opened up my eyes, taught me how to see, notice every tree, understand the light, concentrate on now…” I played George in college and the part about ‘seeing’ and ‘noticing’ really hit home hard and became paramount. Almost daily, I tell my students that it’s their job as visual communicators to see things others take for granted. To really see those things, internalize them, recontextualize and reinterpret them, and then teach others to see them.
I came to art through skateboarding, punk rock, and graffiti, and there is this mentality in those three cultures that understand the world a little more creatively than the masses. Skateboarders are always looking at the ordinary and mundane saying “I can do this on that…” or “what would happen if…” They know how a brick sidewalk feels as they roll across it, how it will affect their speed, what it sounds like. Skateboarding is about having endless possibility. I see things. I get excited when I see the way tags are buffed out, and then tagged again, only to be overpainted. I used to intentionally put up a tag where I knew it would get buffed so I could see what color was used to cover it up. The way the sun has bleached the wall except for where a sign once was. The back of that sign and how it gets randomly paired with another. The rubber from a cars tire as it rubs up to the curb. It’s the most beautiful artwork out there, the type of honest and unpretentious work I wish I could make.
Brent: So when you go in to that studio how does it work for you? I mean, are you competing with what is already out there, the world of car tire rubs, and other mundane things? Or are you going into the studio surrendering as a painter, with that history of painting? And, are there artists who excite you how they deal with things inside and outside – make good with the ordinary and mundane of painting?
Jeff: Those things happen in a very naïve or accidental way, by people who are trying to control ‘blight’ or simply by entropy. It informs the way I approach painting but I don’t compete, how can I? I consider how fast or loose; how many layers; should I sand, buff, or scrape. Should it hug the wall or float. Should color and light bounce onto the wall or come through the physical piece itself. More importantly, it forces me to be decisive. To put something randomly on, normally a taped off block of color, and then quickly react to that by covering or obscuring it in someway, usually another taped off block of color, and so on. It’s automatic and instinctual. Studio sessions are short bursts of not more than an hour at most. I don’t give myself the luxury of being able to sit and look. That comes later, after they’re on the wall.
Folks that are on heavy rotation…Fergus Feehily, Ian Kiaer, Andrew Bick, Zebedee Jones, Gordon Moore, Ron Buffington. They are my go too’s: my standard bearers. They make me smile. But recently I’ve been looking at a lot of quilts. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have haunted me for years. They are unrestricted and unexpected, worn out and faded while possessing a tremendous feeling of presence and unbearable absence. Talk about an ordinary and mundane use of materials and purposes with transformative results. But the quilts of Denyse Schmidt get me going the most. They resonate: sparse, delicate, wobbly, full of refinement, and restraint.
Brent: I think underneath what we have been talking about is not how a good painting gets made, but how a surprising painting gets looked at. We have been so surprised by painting – by art – for, well… let’s not raise the dividers. But in that looking, when it’s done, can you describe what you see… in 1963, which, for me, shifts and glides around in the quiet and presents itself in full visual byte.
Jeff: Relationships – an excited whisper that’s about to erupt; a stable stack on the verge of collapse; something that has very little physical weight yet visually starts to pull downward; slightly off-kilter striations that converge and coalesce. I think it’s quite happy. It’s improvisational and impromptu while at the same time feels planned. It’s very simple at first glance. That’s 1963.