Interview: Writer Justin Polera and Esteban Schimpf
Interview: Writer Justin Polera and Esteban Schimpf
1.) What is your process?
My process is simple. I always start with a question about the fundamental meaning of an idea or object, “what is Art?” Typically these seemingly naive questions are beyond my ability to answer even though they almost always pertain to the field of art. However, instead of cowering away from them my approach is to answer them in the most basic way that I can. The answer I give is the attempt to discover something axiomatic. The answers to my questions appear overly simplistic but it is a conscious choice to answer them this way. I seek a populist answer, not necessarily one informed by expertise.
“What is Art?” Art is painting and sculpture. “What are paintings and sculptures?” They are objects made by artists that depict nudes, fruits, or landscapes. (I feel comfortable suggesting that abstraction is really just a coded extension of the landscape genre despite the reservations modernist aesthetic philosophy might have about this). “What is color?” Color is red, yellow, and blue because those are the primary colors. These sort of questions and reductive responses set the coordinates of my work. This is why you see that most of my pieces are populated by nude figures and arrangements of fruits; why they are often painted in primary colors, and why they are organized by the principles and influences of modernist (landscape) painting like that of Ellsworth Kelly, Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Albers, etc. etc.
Those simple answers help quell the buzzing of my hyperactive beehive mind. Once my coordinates are set I get to work. I’m at peace and that’s why can spend 12-15 hours a day in the studio shooting and working. The more time I spend in the studio the more I work and the more I work, the more I learn. My motivation for working it to surprise myself; to make something that I’ve never seen before…
My materials are modest, they are domestic. I paint the models in children’s tempera paint. It’s inexpensive and nontoxic. I use flour and food. Things one would have in the kitchen whether they were an artist or not. The same flour that I bake bread with every morning also goes on my subjects. Again, I only use humble everyday materials when making the work. I strive for the opposite effect once the work is made however.
2.) Why do you have a studio practice?
I think that if I asked myself, “what is an artist?” The answer would be, “An artist is someone that makes art in a studio.” I’m trying to stick to the job description here.
3.) Why do use models and not found images / appropriated images?
The quality isn’t good enough.
4.) How do you select your models?
They either approach me, are recommended by friends, or I see them on the Internet and approach them. Almost all of them are complete strangers but for some reason I am drawn to them and this makes them feel familiar. We always become good friends afterward. There are a lot of talented people to choose from in Los Angeles and they are willing and curious to become a part of an artist’s work; I feel very fortunate. It takes a lot of courage to pose for someone you’ve never met so I owe all the success of my work to the people I collaborate with. If you can hear me, thank you.
5.) Do you think of the work as sexy? Should it be provocative?
I work with beauty and beauty is sexy even when it is grotesque so I would say yes. Often my work traffics in the appealing dimensions of beauty. I gravitate toward it. My subjects are traditional in nature and the colors I choose are harmonious by design.
Provocative? The female nude has been imaged so profusely throughout history that I think it’s almost impossible to make it provocative. I think the male body still has potential. In this way the male form is more interesting to me. Being provocative is sexy, although I’m not terribly concerned with being risqué for its own sake. I find the thought of courting a specific reaction from the viewer boring. Of course, like any artist, I do want to provoke something in the viewer.
In terms of the erotic, Sir Kenneth Clark once said, “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”
6.) What do you think of the art historical practice of "the grotesque", (i.e.: gargoyles, Christ with blood, John Currin, many more examples)
I prefer it in literature. For me it is more interesting to imagine than to see. Especially since I am an artist and most of my day consists of seeing. Some of the most horrifying things I have ever “seen” have been in books like Naked Lunch and The Painted Bird.
7.) What does it mean to you to make a "picture", this is a term that was embraced by the pictures generation and also Robert Mapplethorpe?
I think that a picture should start out perfect by which I mean of the highest and most rigorous technical standards possible. When I’m photographing someone I’m aiming for the level of excellence typified by the great portraitists of the 20th century like Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Dorthea Lange, and Robert Mapplethorpe. But do I think technical skill in of itself is interesting? No, no I don’t. Like in a chess game you have to have a strong opening because your first 5 moves determine the outcome of your next 100 moves. But the opening isn’t the most interesting thing in a chess game, the interesting thing is how you checkmate your opponent and in this case, the opponent is myself.
8.) Does it resonate more to talk about "images" a term used by the relational aesthetic artists of the 90’s? The saying "the image is reality" or specifically "No ghost just the shell" was used referring to situations that are so-called "post-critical" and “post-representational," where the viewer co-creates the work of art. In a psychoanalytic reading of this work, the viewer is "on the couch" and the artwork itself is the doctor.
I don’t really associate my work to the relational aesthetic artists. They were engaged in a social practice. My work is more akin to 20th century painting. I do however talk about my pieces as images because they’re not photographs. Yes, I take photographs to make them but they don’t function purely as photographs. Either they are paintings and drawings that have photographic elements or they are simple documentary photographs of sculptures made through performance. When I say documentary photographs I am talking about the melting wax figures or those covered in flour etc. etc…those are straight photos and they function as documents, stand-ins for the sculptures that existed for that brief moment. When people look at them they don’t engage with them in terms of photography but rather as material objects. They want to know what the figures are made of, how they came to be that way, etc etc. I see this as evidence that the camera is functioning as a transparency; all it does is render the moment I photographed visible. The power of the image is in the physical and philosophical materiality of the subject, not the printed photograph in of itself. Like painting, it’s a “window” into something else.
9.) Mythologies take a big part of your work
Not just in my work but in my life. Had I not studied art at the university I would have studied the classics. I love Aeschylus’s The Oresteia. I like to gossip about Diogenes of Sinope.