Cheap, scary, exciting, beautiful, desolate

Jim Mott

Jim Mott, my friend the itinerant artist, is in the middle of his Great Lakes tour, which takes him through Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and a couple stops in Ontario. He stays with hosts who give him room and board in exchange for a painting of their surroundings. It’s probably the most radical way of being an artist I know. It takes money out of the equation entirely and puts him into a role somewhat like a mendicant monk, or the poet Basho, in his walk around Japan. This kind of itinerant art connects him with people in an extremely personal way—he’s invited to infiltrate their lives and reflect their world back to them through his quickly executed paintings. He becomes a humble servant rather than a seer, producing work that’s instantly recognizable and meaningful, rather than an image that requires deciphering and commentary by anyone other than the recipient. In other words, his project turns a lot of things upside down and the result is work (and a performance) that’s accessible and friendly and transparent. You know instantly what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and I, for one, love what comes out of it. I spoke with him for a couple hours before he left this past weekend—just before I drove to Cincinnati and back.

How can you get to a place where you can have an impact? That’s the question for an artist. Is success getting the painting done and being happy with it. It is enough, but you want it to be more than that.

When my goal has been to reach a bigger public, I don’t have time to do the painting. Even when I’m planning a tour . . . I have this hollow feeling because I’m not painting.

Hey, I probably spent two full weeks doing those maple floater frames for the Oxford show.

It’s working with your hands, at least. (laughter)

Yeah. You have to get into a certain number of hours every day to get the momentum. I actually did that with a lot of the work for the Oxford show. I was painting the day before the show. I brought it down the next day after I’d finished it, still a little wet. I remember reading that Francis Bacon would bring his paintings to a show still wet.

My younger brother has similar discipline. Not many people have a lot of free time and actually use it well.

Having the time is the first problem.

There are so many artist friends in Rochester who are really good, but in the same boat. Every city has those. The economic conditions aren’t good.

This is part of what interests me about old school hip-hop. It’s supposed to be local. Do it yourself. About your area code, expressing something about where you live, communicating with that core group of people. It’s about home. A core group in Cincinnati, or Brooklyn, or Philadelphia or New Orleans. That ought to be what makes painting vital. Artists gathering together and seeing a commonality in what they are doing, for an area. Local galleries sort of do that. But it’s more about: here’s what this individual is doing.

RoCo is about that. When I go to their group shows, there’s a lot of edgy contemporary work. I look around and think what’s going on? Why don’t I get it?

Isn’t that the problem right now? I sometimes think the people who “get it” are just following along. They have a paradigm in their head about what they should be looking at and this fulfills it. There’s little personal, emotional response to a lot of what they see.

People who like Southern rock don’t like hip-hop. It’s personal.

I don’t listen to Taylor Swift, but I can see why people like her. It isn’t that I don’t get it. That’s different.

We should interview some of those artists we don’t “get.” It might be good to talk to these artists and figure out where they’re coming from. I met an artist in Memphis at a dinner party, and she’s proudly an artist and she teaches and she assembles doll parts. Dolls heads and things and people think it’s cool. I don’t know.

I’ve had this experience. Some artists at Viridian I will glance at the work and feel as if I have no idea . . . but after a year I start to like it.

So we shouldn’t dismiss it.

Does it matter how many people it will reach? How do you do visual art in a way that has quality and isn’t just a cheap bid for popularity or status but can appeal to or reach anyone who has any feeling for visual art. Your work can be immediately appreciated. Art ought to be accessible to most people.

I like that idea. But I’m aware of not pursuing directions that might be less accessible and even more rewarding personally. I’m starting to think that what you don’t like right away . . . it’s a reflection of the fragmented enclaves of society itself.

The idea that society is fragmented gets promoted by the groups that form. Multiculturalism, identity politics, it’s all tied up on . . .  

. . . tribalism.

Exactly. As opposed to the idea of a universal education about core values that are present in most cultures. Find what’s common to all human beings. What makes life interesting is how people are different, but if everything is focused on what makes you unique instead of what’s in common . . . in the Sixties everybody listened to everything else and appreciated it. There was no sense that you were an idiot if you liked Tommy James and not Led Zeppelin. Well, maybe a little . . .

We shouldn’t assume that what we like represents a legitimate worldview to anybody . . . I like aboriginal art.

And that has nothing to do with our culture.

But it’s very easy to like and get into it. To sense some enchantment that’s welcoming in a way. It’s nourishing.

That’s interesting. You’re saying that at some level, subconsciously, you’re getting what’s nourishing in it without consciously understanding . . . the way of life.

The culture’s being destroyed basically. My sister lived with a family. There’s still some connection to the old ways and access to something we wish we had access to. But for them there’s also the husband who comes home drunk and beats people because they don’t have their lives anymore. Maybe in any form of art you can get to a level that breaks through to something other people can get. I don’t know.

I like to think there is. I’ve had people tell me that’s ridiculous.

It’s Romantic.

It is. Romanticism was built on that. That you can find this connection to nature or truth that isn’t just arbitrary and cultural. It’s built into what we are as natural creatures.

A few books I like to cite as being connected to what I’m doing, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. It’s full of quotes art students love. “Winning the trust of small things.”

Rilke’s very visual. His love for Cezanne. There were so many people who were enthralled by Cezanne. There is this power to his work. I think he was so immersed in nature, so reclusive, he had this relationship in his experience of the world that was so much deeper than the other Impressionists. I saw that show in Montclair on his influence over American artists. You wouldn’t believe how many artists he influenced before they went on to do what they did.

He was rooted in nature so he doesn’t have the same sense of alienation.

He was really expressing something that was there. He would go out and bring something back and it wasn’t the photographic look of anything; it was more than what you could see. I don’t think he was doing anything revolutionary, just painting . . .

. . . as best he could.

Right. These are the colors I want to use and this is how I want to put them down and when I’m done this is how it looks but there’s still more. Everything he did had this ancient feel. A sense of time.

I think of Dickinson. Edwin Dickinson. We were talking about fragmentation. He came after or during the time of the abstract expressionists so he was against that in a way . . .

Burchfield too. Porter. People who were against the grain.

He combined the abstract with representation, trying to pull it together on purpose. Most painters I know are trying that still.

It’s so difficult. I’m always seduced by trying to paint exactly what I see, and it’s hard to pull it back to that dual motivation, even though that’s precisely what I most want to do.  You’re taking a different approach.

No, I try to take your approach but I get impatient.

I can’t reproduce what I do every time I paint. There are so many variables. How fast you work. The thickness of the paint. The mixture of one color with another.

We should sketch together. Painting feels like time away from living, but sketching feels as if it enhances life. It amplifies the excitement of being there. Some days I force myself to go out with a pad rather than a camera.

I thought you worked mostly from direct observation.

But I take a camera to record things too. Sometimes when I take photographs I can’t remember what I saw. I remember the photograph. If I do a sketch it’s very different. (Jim is sitting at our kitchen table, sketching a nuthatch he sees in our cherry tree, while we talk.) The payoff is being there and doing it.

Like Tibetan sand painting.

Except you still have the sketch. (laughs)

The question is why is art not as relevant as it used to be. Price? But was art ever relevant? Was it really a popular art form? How many people saw Velasquez or Bruegel? You can fall back on Michelangelo as someone who reached a lot of people, but how do you duplicate that? Warhol?

The kinds of experience that art can put you in touch with are not given space in mainstream culture.

The quietness. 

Anyone has access to it but we’re conditioned not to make time for it.

Time and . . .it’s just the opposite of the Internet. You aren’t going from page to page, or changing channels or clicking ahead in the playlist, you’re just looking at that rock for a week or two weeks.

You look at a painting you like, your solitude connects with someone else’s and it feels full. How is that different from being on the computer connecting with other people’s thoughts, when I go away feeling empty. What’s going on there? Why don’t more people want that?

That’s very interesting. It’s one way in which visual art is antithetical of other forms of art or entertainment. It’s the opposite of this buzzing barrage of stimuli that we’ve got now with media. Painting is static. Go back to Edwin Dickinson. There’s so little to be found about him. With books, there’s almost nothing you can buy that doesn’t go for hundreds of dollars. They have a huge canvas of his in Buffalo.

Very different from his . . .

Premier coup stuff.  I found examples of both when I was looking.

And then there are the drawings that are the best of all. The book I wish I’d bought, which I tried to steal from my adviser but he remembered that it was gone (laugh), it reproduced about twenty or thirty drawings. They weren’t full size but reproduced well on that paper. I saw a couple in real life and they were not a disappointment. He did people, parts of houses, landscapes. A lot of negative space. Bits of precise . .

. . . and then it trails off. Yeah.

They feel very meditative. You’re in the presence of someone who caught it all even if he didn’t show it all.

Strong lines?

No, very atmospheric.

Yeah, he worked from areas of value rather than lines. But in this painting in Buffalo there’s an incredible sense of line so he must have slowly refined down to edges.

He could be precise. There was one of a window, and most was fuzzy but there were parts of the window that were so straight and sharp that it almost becomes something else, breaking away into abstraction.

I was reminded of Braque. So many things remind me of Braque. This one in Buffalo reminded me of . . . not surrealism, but unreal. You know that Gorky painting of the artist and his mother? She’s right behind him. It’s marvelous. It has that precise, a strong sense of line, very abstract. It reminds me of some of those paintings Chagall did in his cubist phase, where he’s floating over the town . . . it has that quality where it’s flat and about pattern as much as form. The faces are realistic, but the rest flattens out. Braque’s pedestal tables, he’ll flatten out the object but retain the coloring it would have it if were three-dimensional, and he’ll mix sand into the paint as if he were painting on stucco. To flatten it more.

I used to think in terms of a solution to the situation of visual art. Now it’s more wanting to reflect simply on the way it is for artists. I don’t think most painters in Rochester will sell what’s in their closets, and yet they persevere. Having more people appreciate that would help.

We’re thinking the same thing. I keep coming back and thinking what’s the solution? I don’t know. Everyone denigrates high quality inkjet prints partly because they get sold as if they were original art prints. If it was understood this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing, which you can afford. But even then, you know few people would spend more than a hundred dollars for a reproduction of a painting.

I stayed with a couple in Vermont, smart, engaged, not badly off, activists. They loved being hosts, watching me paint, very supportive in helping me find other hosts. Ten years later they came by and saw a painting on the wall, with a much higher level of finish. The ones I do on tour would go for $500 and this would be more than that. First of all I didn’t want to sell it, but I would because I . . . need to, and so on. (laughter) I told them the ones I do on tour would sell for at three to four hundred dollars. I literally saw their jaws drop.

How can they balk at that? I see people who are incredibly well off and will never buy a painting.

They’d been thinking more around a hundred dollars. And I said, well, I have some prints. It looks a lot like one and it’s only $35 because it’s an inkjet print. They were pretty happy with that. But it reinforced my going on tour because you take the exchange of money out of it that way.

You can buy a song for a dollar. You can go to a movie for twenty bucks. You can subscribe to Netflix for eight dollars a month and that’s the price range. Or a book for $20. Nothing costs what visual art costs.

Fifteen years ago, I felt free to ask more and things moved. That was the economy.

It will be a long time before it comes back.

The middle class is declining

So we’re all for the one percent!

To make a living you have to market to the one percent.

Hm. That’s where I do think the prints would fulfill a role. If you could do decently sized prints for $50 or even $100. But could you afford to print them for that? Poster-sized prints of a painting. Wouldn’t it cost more than that to produce?

I find selling in galleries distasteful: I like being able to trade paintings and then exhibit the best results in colleges, but it hasn’t paid off yet. It could. If I could get paid several hundred dollars to talk at a college.

What’s your tour route this time?

You know an obscure literary journal, Great Lakes Review? Someone on the board offered to pay my gas if I promised to write something about the trip. So it has to be the Great Lakes. Because it’s so late in the year now, I’m doing one part now and one in the spring. Great Lakes, rust belt and some Canada.


Not this trip. Maybe in the spring. Five or six stops this time. I’m going to go to Niagara Falls, Cleveland where the offices of the journal are, then Detroit, maybe Saginaw and a stop or two in Ontario. I think Detroit will be the most interesting because there’s so much going on there. Young artists moving into the bombed-out zone.

It must be incredibly cheap.

Cheap and scary and exciting and beautiful and desolate.

There’s this movie called Detroipia, a lot of visuals of the abandoned buildings and what it’s like for a few people staying in the area. That will be the big focus, to see what’s happening there.

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