My voice is as authentic as I think
Interview with J. T. Kirkland
Edgar Cherubini Lecuna
Q: What is your inner need to express through art?
While growing up in Kentucky, I had very little exposure to art. In fact, I hated art and artists. I truly felt that being an artist was a waste of time. But during my junior year of college I studied abroad in France, and while in Paris one weekend my group stumbled into the Musée d’Orsay. It was there that art suddenly made sense to me. Standing in front of masterpieces, I felt joy and excitement build inside me. I wondered what these paintings were: Where did they come from? How do they function? I decided then and there that I wanted to become an artist.
I’m not the type who feels like I must make art due to some burning desire within my soul. I’m much more pragmatic. Art fascinates me in that after thousands of years—from the earliest cave drawings to my own work—it can continue to resonate with a viewer. An artist can create an object that feels fresh and thrilling, that can stimulate both our eyes and our brains. That’s the space that interests me. What can I create that might connect with a viewer? And how can I continue to push my work forward to discover new methods of visual communication? It’s a daunting, but exciting, pursuit.
Q: Geometric abstraction starts various currents. In which trend are you located?
When I’m working in the studio, I don’t think about trends; I think there’s too much baggage associated with the idea of trends to allow an artist to work freely. One day, a particular genre or style of art is popular. It can be seen in commercial galleries and museums and sells for huge sums of money at auction. Then, a moment later, it’s faded to obscurity. Maybe one day it’ll be popular again, but maybe not.
Instead of focusing on a trend, an artist’s primary responsibility is to make the best work they can. They should be saying something that is true to them. If an artist can do that, they are successful. The next step is to find an audience—but not everyone will like your work. Instead, an artist should find the audience that has an authentic response to the work and strive to engage them. I think pursuing more than that is a massively inefficient use of time and focus.
I’m aware of what’s going on around me, and I do think that’s hugely important. An artist can operate in a vacuum if they wish, but I want to know who is making what. If I see work that is close to my own, I want to evaluate if my voice is as authentic as I think. So while I can’t say that my work is part of a trend, per se, I can identify some of the characteristics of it that are present in the larger world: geometric abstraction, as you mentioned; minimalism; use of industrial materials; the intersection of fine art and craft; the pursuit of less didactic communication in non-representational art. If there’s a trend for what I’ve described here, that’s where I’m operating.
Q: The works of an artist are his responses to uncertainty, that is, moments of clarity that transform into matter, volumes, textures, shapes, light, color. What are your reflections?
Outside of a couple of very brief art classes, I’m a self-taught artist. My dad was an avid woodworker, but that didn’t interest me as a child. Once I became serious about art, I began experimenting with materials, as do most budding artists. Eventually, I was struck by the possibilities associated with wood, a material that had always been around me but that I never appreciated. I thought about all of the paintings in the world executed on wood panels, and I wondered if artists were improving upon their material by covering it up.
I began to work in such a way that my efforts collaborated with the natural beauty and complex visual patterns found in wood. Since 2003, I’ve explored dozens of methods of working with wood: I’ve drilled holes into the wood. I’ve painted parts of the wood white so that it visually disappears into the wall. I’ve cut the wood into unusual shapes so that the original painting is fractured. I’ve executed multi-layered paintings on wood and then sanded them so that the wood grain shows through.
Wood cannot be totally controlled. Instead, I can only collaborate with the wood and hope that the wood and I can work together in mutually beneficial ways. I like to think of it as a metaphor for human existence on Earth.
Q: You utilize forms found in wood, breaching the boundaries of painting and sculpture. On one occasion you have said: “By altering the context of the material however slightly, I am able to draw attention to its inherent beauty. In effect, my gesture only serves to bring forward that which is already there.” How do you define your proposal in the contemporary art context?
I think beauty is still a taboo subject in the contemporary art world, but for me, it’s critically important. We’re simply inundated with ugliness in this world: war, pollution, bigotry… the list goes on and on. So I want my work to be a visually and conceptually stimulating respite from the day-to-day negativity. But also, contemporary art today seems to be about “bigger is better, expensive is better, shiny is better.” My work has its roots in the Minimalism of the 1960s but makes use of more-accessible materials and a hands-on approach to the making of the art. Oftentimes, when I see a show at a major gallery or museum, I ask myself: How much did all this cost to produce? My materials and tools come from home-improvement stores and lumber yards. They are affordable and accessible to anyone. I’m interested in transforming these utilitarian things into rigorous, formal works of art. Can I take that which is around us and prompt viewers to see it in new ways? Can I be responsible and efficient? Can I make something substantial from so little? From a contemporary art viewpoint, I think my work touches upon materiality, craftsmanship, recycling, beauty, and collaboration.
Q: Because of the confusion of recent years in the art market, some critics have begun to wonder about what is or is not art. I think that your personal definition of art can bring light to the subject.
Several years ago the question of what is or is not art interested me, and I devoted a lot of time and energy trying to figure it out. Ultimately, though, I reached the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. Simply put, if an “artist” says something they created is “art,” who am I to say otherwise? It’s merely a label; it doesn’t come with an embedded qualitative value. Much more important: Does the object (art or not) bring me enjoyment or interest? If so, my interaction with it has been valuable and worthwhile. If not, that’s fine too. I simply move forward until the next interaction presents itself. I do believe what I make is art, and therefore I think about it in an art historical context. But for the viewer, I’m not concerned with their determination about it being art or not. I hope they find their interaction with it to be beneficial, but if not, I don’t want to use my energy worrying about it.
Q: What have you learned from other artists? Who?
Without a doubt, the two most influential artists for me are Anne Truitt and Robert Irwin. Anne Truitt’s diary, Daybook, gave me an understanding of how an artist can navigate through the real world and also a validation that the approach I take is acceptable. Specifically, Truitt lived a busy life: She was a wife, mother, teacher, and artist. She didn’t study art until after college, where she got a degree in psychology. She discovered a passion for art later in life and she was enormously successful in her career. But how did she find time for the studio with so many obligations? Well, after a long day of attending to those other responsibilities, she would go out to her studio and paint a single coat of color on her remarkable sculptures. If that’s all the time she had, it would have to suffice. Similarly, my college degree was in economics, not art, and today I have a full-time day job, a wife, and two rambunctious little boys. I pursue my work whenever I can, and Truitt taught me that was good enough.
Robert Irwin, on the other hand, taught me to be mindful of the environment in which my work is shown and the craftsmanship that goes into its creation. While the vast majority of people might not be conscious of the details present in the work or the environment, they may feel it on a subconscious level. If an artist puts such great thought and care into a work, it’s possible that it lives within the work for others to experience. Irwin’s greatest lessons for me are to study each situation that presents itself and to enjoy the experience of being an artist. As he puts it, it’s the best game in town.
Q: What exhibitions have made an impact on you?
In 2006, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum mounted a career survey of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs. The installation approach was incredibly dramatic: huge rooms were painted black; the only lighting was focused spotlights that illuminated the photographs and nothing more. I’ll never forget stepping into the installation of Sugimoto’s minimal seascapes, where water and sky meet at the middle of the composition. I was struck by the visceral drama of the room itself—dark and foreboding, a metaphor for nights at sea. The illuminated photographs acted as a window through which one could look out onto the sea. It felt as if you could reach your arm through the picture plane to feel the wind, smell the saltwater, and hear the rolling waves. In reality, what I saw was pieces of paper hung on a wall with theatrical lighting and nothing more. But the effect was a transformative experience that revealed to me not only the power of art, but also the environment in which it’s shown. I didn’t know much about Robert Irwin at the time, but it turns out that Sugimoto opened the door, and Irwin pushed me through to the place I work today.