The renouncer

Jim Mott at High Falls gallery

If anyone represents the ideal of what it should mean to be an artist right now, it’s Jim Mott.  It may, in fact, be an impossible ideal, but for the past twelve years, Mott has been living an itinerant life, driving around the country with almost no cash, and doing paintings for anyone who offers hospitality.  It’s a model of the painting life that takes money almost completely out of the picture. American Artist has written about him, and his last  journey, in 2007, from Seattle to Rochester, attracted attention from The Christian Science Monitor and The Today Show. On his trips, he uses cash to pay for nothing but gas. In fact, he convinced a judge in Missoula to take a painting as payment for a speeding ticket. Two prints got him a room in Yellowstone Park. Mostly, though, he arranges to stay at homes and spends enough time there—being fed and kept warm by his hosts—to do a set of small premier coup oil paintings, mostly of nondescript, but nonetheless beautiful, scenes in and around that home. They are done rapidly, intuitively, in the manner of the little sprigs of asparagus that Manet once painted as a gift for a collector who’d bought a larger painting.

Mott’s work reminds me of what Fairfield Porter’s body of work might look like, if he had relied on gray more than he did—in other words, if he’d settled here in the upstate corridor of Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, where gray skies are the default backdrop for life. He has the same generalized execution, the same feel for the most mundane moment of the day, the unspectacular and overlooked scene. Mott works small, mostly on little rectangles of conservation board, and he sometimes finishes two paintings a day, and when he succeeds, the image has the kind of life that Hockney celebrated in the book Hand, Eye and Heart, back when he was on his campaign against the use of cameras as a tool for painters. Mott’s work is about creating form through the juxtaposition of values and suggestion, not detail and definition, and it’s as much about the evidence of gesture, the energy embodied in the act of putting paint on a surface—“the scale of these paintings is perfect for the kind of marks I’m making”—as it is about the scene itself. He works in gray and then applies color sparingly—and often with wonderful subtlety—toward the end of the painting session.

“When things work out with a painting, I don’t know how,” he says, “and I never know if I’ll be able to do it again. I’m an anxious painter. I know what’s possible, and I’m never sure how to make it happen. I don’t really like to paint. I like it when the painting’s done. But it can feel worthwhile.”

I met Mott a couple of weeks ago, at lunch and then got together for a look at his current solo show at High Falls gallery, here in Rochester. In talking with him, I began to realize that his approach isn’t a novelty, though it has drawn impressive publicity, but rather it’s a way of working out an entire philosophy about life itself and about art’s role in society. Though he was flattered by the comparison to Porter, and he reveres work of Edwin Dickinson, if you ask him his major influences, he lists an entirely unpredictable set of predecessors. First is Lewis Hyde for his books on gift culture. Then Ani Difranco for her ahead-of-the-curve DIY approach to the economics of independent music with her tours and her Righteous Babe record label (she’s a distant cousin of his). Finally, the mythical Hindu figure of the “renouncer,” someone who rejects the caste system but is tolerated as a corrective influence and isn’t banished from society—an outlier with a valued perspective. When Mott took degrees from Dartmouth and the University of Michigan, he studied math and then religion—so his focus is a bit wider and more eclectic than those of us who are pondering the virtues of representation vs. abstraction, or painting vs. a conceptual performance. (“I get to have it both ways. I’m a painter but there’s a conceptual basis for what I’m doing and it is often a public performance.”)

Mott’s view is that visual art has become one of the primary expressions of how power functions in contemporary society. The way in which “important” visual art addresses itself to a small coterie of initiates—and an even smaller group of qualified buyers—reflects the kind of imbalance of the favored few vs. the common citizen in most social institutions. During our lunch, Mott talked about how his primary goal isn’t simply to produce a certain kind of image, but to connect with other people, through art, in a particular and personal way, which puts him into a position of service to those who accept his art, as far as possible from the position of an oracular artist pronouncing harsh new lessons to the unenlightened. It isn’t even a bartering engagement, which would give him a certain power to dictate terms. His art is free, a gift. His hosts give him what they wish, primarily food and shelter and company, and he takes whatever they offer and offers them a painting from a set that, he hopes, will reveal and record meaningful images of their world. Nothing in this process puts him into a position of importance or authority. They aren’t required to “understand” his art: it’s meant as a way for them to simply pay closer attention to their own lives. It’s a completely transparent process and relationship, as simple and untainted as it can get. It’s hard to imagine anyone more self-effacing than Mott. As he puts it: “Edwin Dickinson could make his signature as much a part of the painting as anything. I’m hesitant about signatures.”

Mott is tall and slender and quietly animated. When he talks, it’s almost a sort of rapid-fire whisper, as if he just wants to get his ideas out and be done with it, so as not to impose on you. The words tumble forth in clusters, broken up by thoughtful pauses—so that his voice carries all the uncertainties of a combustion engine sputtering to life after a long winter. Yet his entire manner has something of a young Wilfrid Hyde-White, the amused gleam in the eye, the look of someone just slightly distracted by other thoughts as he speaks and listens. I’m guessing that his mind jumps around on him quite a bit, because he sees the ascetic discipline of the road as a way to force himself to focus on his work—it’s an act of renunciation that almost seems to operate as an alternative to Ritalin.

What troubles him most is the way the world of visual art has become segregated from the lives of the vast majority of people.

“It’s intentionally elitist, intentionally obscure, requiring inside information so that people who get it can feel like insiders. At the same time that art has gotten over-specialized, the general public’s ability to care and connect with it has disintegrated.

If people spend time with work they can connect with it, it will make a difference. As it is, they’re torn between third-rate stuff and the stuff at a museum that they don’t understand. I thought it was important to get money out of the picture. Part of the perspective is, if you took away money people would understand art better. Joe Plumber sees something he might like but it costs two hundred thousand dollars, and he realizes it’s part of some power structure that has no place for him. Why do smart people assume they can’t understand art as well as the art establishment? I look at it as an institutionalized realm where there will be a misdirection of power, just as it is with banks or the government. Why do people assume the art establishment pure and free from that?”

Since starting the project in 2000 Mott has averaged one month per year on the road. His journeys can take anywhere from one week to 2 ½ months. For his pivotal 2007 tour, a six week trip, he bought a used Chevy Prizm online and a one-way ticket to pick it up in Seattle, “so I wouldn’t have any easy way to back out.”

“I was totally nervous about the trip, and I didn’t even know if the car would drive. It lasted the whole trip, though. When I started the project in 2000, there was only one place I wanted to see, and that was Yellowstone, which I actually didn’t make it to that trip. So in the six-week 2007 tour I had set aside just one day set for myself, and it was to visit Yellowstone. The day before, I had checked the weather, and there was going to be a blizzard. I was in Missoula, and I got the speeding ticket and I was frustrated because it delayed me. They wouldn’t let me pay right then and there. They said I could talk to the judge. That led up to this negotiation, where they let me submit a painting as payment. I ended up getting to Yellowstone late, and there was fog and rain, there was nothing you could see. It was just gray. So I checked into the Old Faithful Lodge. I asked if I could offer a painting for the room. We’ll let you talk to the manager in the morning. I was lonely, disappointed, anxious. I wondered what could I do most people wouldn’t have done. I’m a polar bear swimmer. I swim wherever I go. So I went out at midnight to the turquoise pool. There’s a boardwalk that goes through the pools, and it said don’t go off the boardwalk. I was testing with my finger, here and there as I went. One was too hot, one too cold, and I finally found one and went in. It was a bizarre thing for someone to do, so I felt good about it. I figured no one else had done it. I went back to my room, and I was reading the park newspaper, and it said don’t go off the boardwalk because people have fallen through the mineral crust and gotten scalded to death. That made me edgy. Then, it said, do not submerge your head because there’s an amoeba in these pools that will go into your ear and kill you in a week. So I had that on my mind for a week. The next morning, they took two prints for payment on the room and he said, Oh I love art! This is great! So I felt good, but two days later I had my interview with the Christian Science Monitor. At the time I thought I might die within a few days, so I was pretty nervous. I called my father, the doctor, and he said it’s pretty likely you are going to live. There’s nothing much you can do. You can do this drastic thing in the hospital that will cost a lot.”

Needless to say, he saved his gas money, and he survived. In a way, he’s following in his father’s footsteps. His parents were both social activists, on the far left of the political spectrum, and his father spent most of his career bringing his talents into the inner cities and treating underprivileged patients. Mott’s grandfather was one of the men who helped shape FDR’s New Deal and moved to Canada where he helped set up that country’s single-payer health care system.  So Mott, as an artist, has tried to bring this spirit of social justice into a realm where the traditional economics of selling art seems to make it impossible–with notable exceptions, like street art.

“I want this to be available to rich people and poor people,” Mott says.

Ultimately, though, his art has the most classic intent of all: to enable people to look at the familiar world with new eyes. “When the Today Show reporter did his segment on me, he said, ‘The only thing that terrifies Jim Mott is a string of ordinary days.’ He was right in a way. I sort of do need to do non-ordinary things. To make the ordinary non-ordinary. The road trip is the classic American story. But I hit the road not to escape the fetters of work and community but to find them.”


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