CJ Nye is a truly independent-minded artist. She doesn't believe in putting herself in "genres," but for the time being, goes with, "Post Abstract Expressionist with other influences" www.cjnye.com. Her work is cool and inventive which is why I wanted to chat with her.
MICHAEL: Hi CJ, Your work is very intriguing. First off, what do you like about abstract expressionism?
CJ: Hi Michael, thank you, “intriguing” is, I think, as satisfying a description as any painter could want to hear. So- what do I like about Abstract Expressionism? Simply put- I like what Abstract Expressionism and/or “Action Painting” has freed me to do.
Elaborating, I feel that Abstract Expressionism is where paint came into its own as “stuff.” The medium, and the body’s interaction with it, could now be the message. Painting after Abstract Expressionism, I am free to indicate, say, solidness or one of its attitudinal counterparts, stillness, as they, perhaps slowly applying a dense swath of paint, or I may employ a more rational, symbolic approach. In sum, I believe it is the legacy of the AbEx artists that we may now enjoy the full vocabulary what is arguably the most versatile medium ever invented- oil paint.
But this draws in an academic issue: I think the people that think painting is dead subscribe to the idea that to move forward, each art movement must annihilate its predecessors. This is an inherently juvenile stance. I think that painting is not dead, but has only now reached maturity, breaking into the great wide-open of all things possible, and I think that may be a scary place for those who like to neatly connect the dots, better to hold the belief and take new technologies as surrogates for new ideas. But I like the great wide open and that I am freed from the need to push academic boundaries and return, in a sense, to exploring the larger issues.
- And to anticipate your follow-up question, “What are the larger issues?” - Whatever I want.
MICHAEL: Wouldn't this be a different world if every generation and movement respected its ancestors as opposed to trying to trump them or destroy them? I've also come to realize that striving is somewhat juvenile and uninformed. When you focus on 'being," that's when dreams actually come into "being." Applying this to your work must be a daily revelation.
CJ: Yes and no. I tend more to analyze my thoughts and then decide the manner to best express them: less catharsis than log entry. That said, things sneak in. I remember working on Free Associate, something of an invitation for the viewer on how to approach: a Rorschach test, a giant poppy…. At some point when I was working on it the BP oil spill happened and I, with everyone else, was inundated with heartbreaking imagery and a sense of helplessness; but the work wasn’t “about that” and I told myself, “I’m not going to paint the oil spill, I’m not going to paint the oil spill….” But I did. Well, the work is about life, and life can be messy, overwhelming, complex, and even contradictory. So it goes. The painting remained Free Associate, only now there are dark purple swirling fingers invading the canvas to free associate about!
MICHAEL: Do you ever dream about painting or have dreams that inspire your work?
MICHAEL: Well, that answers my next question. Still, I'll ask. I think a lot of people think that artists just "get inspired," leap out of bed in the morning and create masterpieces. But how much of what you do is carefully considered, hard work?
CJ: Great question. All of it. It’s hard work formally, it’s hard work physically, and it’s hard work running your own business, no matter how small.
I think as soon as I said it, people understood the “business” part, even if they hadn’t made the association before, so I won’t expand on that.
On physical work: Given: 1) that I am the kind of artist that thinks bodily and materially as well as intellectually, (and that gets back to the AbEx lineage), and given 2) that I believe that art does not live in a vacuum, that if it is to have meaning, it must survive the author and strike a more than an arbitrary chord with the viewer (or else it would be of nature or decorative), and given 3) that I think it must do so “as a stand-alone” without explanatory text—then: it stands that 1) I must make intentional marks designed and executed to convey... whatever it is I happen to want each to convey, and 2) that my body, being the mechanism by which that mark gets made, must be exactly controlled—the kind of control that can only be got by intense physical conditioning. Like a dancer. Practice, practice, practice.
Formal. Mmm… this part is going to make the if/then dancer analogy look tidy. There are so many factors that go into formal choices, far, far too many to encapsulate in a single statement, which, with demystifying the “life” as it were, is the reason I started a page on facebook—perhaps you’ll allow me to take a bit of a shortcut? I distilled the formal aspects of one work from my page into a blog entry, Making Stone Soup, [http://cjnye.blogspot.com/2011/04/making-stone-soup_23.html] but they’ll have to go to my page to get a real sense of how thoughts develop out of and over the course of the everyday.
All that said, I think there is room to acknowledge inspiration, provided you keep it in context and proportion. Life is amazing. Everything I make comes from my experience of something… else. And isn’t that inspiration? And only an hour ago I walked past the dumpsters in my building to see a half-dozen or so little white leather ring cases spilled out of a box, they had great, what I call, “thingness.” I scooped them up and brought them back to the studio. Maybe I’ll make something out of them. I’m not sure. At the moment I have nothing to say that suits that type of object. But I know I might because they as things held for me some, as yet unanalyzed, appeal. I now need to think about what it was about these pat little boxes that drew me; and knowing many people like wee little boxies, try to tap into that “greater” draw, and find a way to show it. Find a way to make a connection… reveal a common fetish… question its worth… to us. Quite a responsibility—I’m getting tired just thinking about it! And kinda jazzed.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and the business surrounding contemporary art today? Blue chip art is super hot with the super wealthy but most emerging artists are struggling.
CJ: That question supposes that the struggle of the emerging artist has increased, which may or may not be true- can’t say. If it has, I would suppose it had more to do with the erosion of both the middle class and the public education system.
And I’ll throw a P.S. on that- I’m a woman nonrepresentational painter, my “chances” are probably better today than they would have been even a generation ago, and still not equal, so- perspective matters.
MICHAEL: Whenever I look at art, especially non-representational work, all I see is the work unless it's gender or culturally specific and even then, so what? So, what's the deal with the sexism, racism or whatever in the art world?
CJ: That is something I have never understood.
MICHAEL: Most art people I chat with were exposed to art early in life. What's your first memory of art? Do you come from an artistic family? How did art capture you?
CJ: Haha! And in thinking on the last, and prior and frequent facebook conversations, I had just posted one of my little quips with this photo: Artist's statement: "Why would I be a feminist artist? I've been painting since before I knew boys and girls were 'different.'" http://www.flickr.com/photos/cjn212/2987291144/
So, my first memory of art is... before I can remember any particular incident, it was always there; my family tree is crawling with creatives of one stamp or another, though I'm the only painter. So… art didn’t really capture me… that would be a bit like saying water captured a fish.
CJ: Michael, may I ask you a question? As complete strangers, we barely exchanged two non-art-related words on facebook before you said you would look at my and another artist’s site and shortly thereafter initiated this interview—as the author of the work, I know what goes into it, what I have less access to is what people get from my work—what did you see that prompted the request?
MICHAEL: Years ago I wrote an essay called "The Absolute Yes." In a nutshell, I say my attraction to some art is more like an instant connection or an "absolute yes" which doesn't involve decision making of any sort. I just know instantly ... literally within two seconds. What I saw in those two seconds in your work was assertive, elegant, yet inventive expression and intelligent color strokes. That's it. Speaking of which, I LOVE your huge, hanging canvas installations. So cool. What was the inspiration behind those?
CJ: That’s it? That’s huge- you “get” me. And it’s lovely to hear- thank you. And I’ve had my share of those instant connections, in many ways, I think they’re what it’s all about—knowledge without explanation.
The huge installations—tsk-tsk, “inspiration”…. You are referring to Progression and Banner Triptych from undergrad? Those evolved, slowly, out of my interest in getting painting conceptually still further out of the picture window and into the territory of the object.
And what a witches’ brew of incidents, intents, and anecdotes went into that alchemy, in thinking back: Start the chain with my use of square and double square rectangles, shapes that really push the viewer up to the surface. Then pull in my love of fashion, fabric. And one quirky class exercise, I forget what the assignment was, that prompted me to install first, similarly, yards and yards of spectacular, and cheap, fabric, all solid, all shimmering, sheer, deep, bright, in a hallway in one of the classroom buildings; very theatrical. It was up for an hour, may be two. And somewhere in there I had started painting on pre-primed canvas stapled straight to the wall—for expedience more than anything, I was prolific, I would take them down and drape them over garment racks to cure as I started the next; they were like sketches—big, oil-paint sketches. And cascading the paint, and manipulating the canvas as it cascaded… and then I think I realized I had some that worked particularly well together… and sort of hatched a plan to hang them all, and made a few more to go with. That was Progression.
Banner Triptych came just during/after. Jack Whitten, one of my professors, approached me in my little studio-cubby and asked me to be in the show he was curating for the then only SVA gallery, in SoHo: Plural Dimensions. Yes! I went down to look at the space; eighteen-foot ceilings! I wanted that space! I asked Jack if he would trust me to make a new work for the show, which was just about two weeks away, a big one. I had a little study of an installation of “banners” hung in a triangle into which the viewer would walk in order to see the painting; part panorama, part sculpture, part environment. When that study came to be I’m not sure—before I had seen the space or talked to Jack that first time I think. I almost never do studies. I think I had made it because I thought I would never be able to make the piece, so I wanted to make it exist… somehow. He said yes.
MICHAEL: You've just mentioned two things - among many - that have struck me. "Knowledge without explanation" and the fact that you wanted to make a piece "exist" somehow. Wouldn't it be SO much easier for people to understand art if they could just accept its existence without worrying about what they do not know? While they may lack the formal education of a curator, they DO have knowledge by mere virtue of being human.
CJ: Yes! And…. First the “yes.” The simple fact that artists are people seems to get lost in the artspeak and the ivory towers. So- to the novice and academic alike—take that fact, it may be the only indisputable fact in the entire history of art, and run with it; stand in front of a work and imagine you are the person making it: What mood are you in? Where are you? What is happening in the world at that moment in time that may be affecting you? Did you just break up with your lover? Stub your toe? What’s going on?—And here’s the real beauty of it: even if you’re wrong, you’re not. Interpretation is part of art. Also—if you still think it sucks, that’s ok; I don’t think there have ever been two people on Earth who have agreed point for point on what “good” art is or is not—interpretation is part of art.
Second. Understand…. I think “understanding” is a notion too easily tripped over, it smacks of the rational, the definitive. We have words for that, and math. Art has a language that can overlap with, but cannot be duplicated by these other modes of expression. To use a simple example: you’ve seen a photo of the encompassingly large Banner Triptych so you understand it rationally, we can even describe it fairly well in words alone, technically—but you have never truly experienced that work, because you have never stood inside it. Because you don’t understand scale—you feel it.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. You know, so many artists around the world dream of living, working and showing in NYC. How does reality match up to the fantasy?
CJ: Hard to say. I’m a born-and-raised Manhattanite, so I don’t really know what the fantasy is. I will say the old saw, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is probably about right. And given that NYC is pretty much the top of heap, that’s probably more true for emerging artists. And NYC is more expensive and society in general more litigious than ever, which I think has inhibited the scrappier efforts of yore—and I have seen some of this effect since getting my BFA back in 2000—but I think a farther reaching perspective can be had in the words of Patti Smith. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/03/patti-smith-to-artists-do_n_560794.html]
MICHAEL: Does it matter to you whether people "get" your message or can they have their own interpretation of your work?
CJ: On one hand, I don’t expect anyone is ever going to “get” it; even I forget the particulars after a little time. On the other, I think people “get” my general meaning- mood, complexity, harmony or discord…. That’s the job isn’t it? Art is not private; it’s a way of putting something into the world. Which is why I find it funny/frustrating when people say, “…you should…” because then I know they’re not seeing what they want to see. Those are the people I hope look longer. I made it that way for a reason. Probe the reason.
Contradictory? No. One wants answers; the other, questions.
MICHAEL: Isn't it frustrating being an artist today when everyone wants to talk about Picasso or Warhol? No disrespect to them, but they're safe bets.
CJ: Yes. Let’s not talk about them.
MICHAEL: Well, what do you think it'll take to get more people focused on living artists? After all, I'm chatting with one right now.
CJ: I think what you are doing is a fantastic start, and I thank you heartily. I have often mused, moaned, groused, lamented, and otherwise fussed about “emerging” (for lack of a better term) arts writers covering the same big shows as career critics. It doesn’t make sense from a career standpoint because if everyone is writing about the same art-star show, if I read anything (and I read criticism very selectively—I try to keep at least one foot in reality—and more than that, who needs to read another word on people we’ve all read reams about?), then I’ll read one that I others are reading in order to be conversant. Differentiation, niche, the long-tail… call it what you like, writers with a smaller circulation don’t get my attention unless they are talking about 1) something I can’t get elsewhere that serves my needs better 2) something that is relevant or interesting to me. I hate to be harsh, but pretty writing style doesn’t cut it—when I want prose, I read fiction; I read arts writing to a purpose—these are the trade papers; tell me what I don’t know.
What else? Debunk the hype. Art is not always frighteningly expensive. It is usually not an “impulse” item, you may even need to save up like you would for that pair of shoes, but good art can be got by emerging artists very reasonably. You just have to look a little harder; emerging artists don’t get a lot of media attention—look to social media, we’re everywhere.
What else? Public education! We have stripped our public schools of every vestige of culture there was. Gone are the abstract, fuzzy, liberal arts that hone critical thinking skills and enable people to navigate muddy conceptual waters in order to make their own decisions, to trust their own taste. Gone is that introduction to culture, that that key to that first sage of “accessibility,” of ownership; and gone with it, the “layman’s” embrace of culture for pure enjoyment and that rather old-fashioned notion of “self-improvement.”
MICHAEL: Finally CJ, What are your hopes for yourself, where do you think contemporary art is headed and where would you like to be within it?
CJ: I want to end in diapers the way I started in diapers—painting. And I don’t think contemporary art is “headed,” I think it “is.” And where I want to be within it is smack in the middle of the glorious mess.