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JAMES NARES: THE MUSIC OF PAINTING

“… I've found that inspiration has more to do with the root of its meaning as being "in the spirit of something.” It’s more a meditation than something that strikes one out of the blue. It’s related more closely to taking an action than waiting to be taken by one ...”

While attending Art Basel Miami Beach 2011, I was spellbound by a video installation piece called, “STREET” by New York artist James Nares.  It depicts people walking on the streets of New York as if they’re these picture board cut outs moving in slow motion.  It’s really cool.  Anyway, as I was watching, a Paul Kasmin Gallery dealer came up to me and introduced me to Nares www.jamesnares.com himself.  I was so stunned that I asked James to do an interview with me.  What you see below is our great chat.  Enjoy!

MICHAEL: Hello James, Great meeting you at Art Basel Miami Beach. First of all, why did you decide to attend? You could've just let your gallery do all of the representation. Isn't that what most artists do?

JAMES: I attended the fair because I felt good about this film and I wanted to take the temperature of the response to it. I had to attend because I was the only one with a copy of it. I managed to complete it about two hours before I caught my flight and hadn't seen the finished film myself until it was installed in Miami. It was my first time coming to Miami Basel. I'm not a regular at art fairs, not by a long stretch, but I enjoyed seeing lots of friends and acquaintances gathered under the sun. It was easy to spot the New Yorkers. They were the ones wearing their shoes on the beach.

MICHAEL: Funny. I find that there are three basic crowds at Art Basel: the business crowd, the general public and the true art crowd. Of course, these groups can overlap. Many artists hate art fairs and consider them too retail. What do you think?

JAMES: Well, of course they're too retail, but that's no reason to hate them. They would hate it more if there were no market. I think it's great to see the dealers removed from the comfort of their galleries and getting down to (relatively) open business, in the bizarre bazaar that we call an art fair. Where else can you see Larry Gagosian or Paul Kasmin sitting in their little booths, hawking their wares like so many pots and pans. They work hard and it's pretty grueling for them. There are few more exhausted that an dealer returning from an art fair.

MICHAEL: Wow, that's a refreshing response. I think a lot of art people think it's hip and edgy to say they "hate" things. Whatever. I figured you would have a fresh take on things given your work. I'll get to your film, which I love, in a moment, but first, I must say, your brushstroke paintings are so cool. I saw them long before I met you. What's the inspiration behind them?

JAMES: The paintings are not unlike my film, “STREET,” in that I am stretching time in order to reveal the many shades of nuance within any given moment. The film is one long, continuous tracking shot. The paintings are made in one movement of the brush. They reference photography, in that they are made (at least the brush stroke itself is made) in a very short time frame. A matter of seconds. A similar time frame as that in which a photograph is taken - shooting - capturing something. They are instantaneous. "Photographs of the mind" as Malevich wrote. The paintings also reference film in that I go through many "takes" before getting the one I keep. What you see is a single movement of the brush. What you don't see is the number of "takes" that are rejected in the process. I have a system in the studio that enables me to lay down a stroke and erase it, with equal speed, over and over again, as many times as I want, without discoloring the ground or leaving any trace of its existence. I might do this hundreds of times before I get a "keeper". Then again, I might hit it on the first attempt. I love it (although it has taken me years to fully trust it) when this happens. There is almost no cleaning up to do.

MICHAEL: The paintings actually look very elegant and poetic.

JAMES: The paintings are a dance. They reveal themselves through movement. The paintings are musical. They reveal themselves through rhythm, touch, timing and timbre. They are written paintings too. Each one is a haiku of sorts. It reveals itself through the simplicity of its elements. I never erase any part of a painting unless I erase the whole thing. And then I start over again. My method is both circular and repetitive.

MICHAEL: How do you get inspired to create?

JAMES: There’s a common misunderstanding that inspiration is a sudden, intense, quickening of the blood kind of thing. That it is demonstrative, even violent and rare; that it is something artists sit around waiting for, tearing their hair out and drinking too much when they don't get it. I've found that inspiration has more to do with the root of its meaning as being "in the spirit of something.” It’s more a meditation than something that strikes one out of the blue. It’s related more closely to taking an action than waiting to be taken by one.

MICHAEL: Absolutely. As a writer, I'm often inspired to write, but I don't wait for inspiration. You mentioned music. Your work appears very symphonic and orchestral to me. There may be some jazz there, but when I see the flourishes, it makes me think ... Vivaldi.  You know, his whole “mix and stir” thing with musical notes.

JAMES: Well, I once joked that I'm always "Going for Baroque" so Vivaldi would certainly fit the bill on that one. Actually there's an old relation of mine, also called James Nares, who was the organist and composer to "Mad" King George III. He was also a friend of Handel's and all those guys. There's a wonderful new recording of his harpsichord works by Julian Perkins.  But yes, there is a strong "musical" element in my work. The paintings are all about touch and timing and rhythm and timbre. I've also played with a couple of bands in my time ... guitar in THE CONTORTIONS (which was the hottest band in NYC during the summer of 1977, if I say so myself) and in DEL BYZANTEENS with Jim Jarmusch, Phil Kline and Phillipe Van Hagen, in the early 80s. I still play guitar and I'll do my best to get something out of anything that makes a sound. My pleasure in improvisation would be the connection to Jazz. My favorite music is the old time blues from the Mississippi Delta and other places, of which I have a large collection. My #1, desert-island-must-have, all time favorite, can't live without it, would be the music of Jimi Hendrix. Nobody else comes close.

MICHAEL: Wow. You do come from a strong musical tradition. New York obviously plays a crucial role in your photography, but what about your paintings? Does the city inspire your canvas works?

JAMES: New York forms the predominant backdrop to my life and is present in the paintings as a kind of undercurrent or parallel narrative. I would never be making the paintings I make if I hadn't lived here - indeed the City, in many ways, has made me who I am.

MICHAEL: What was your life like growing up in London? I guess London wasn’t really the big art city that it is today.

JAMES: I was born in London, but moved to the country in Sussex when I was two. My father died when I was three and I was sent to boarding school when I was 7. That pretty much sums up my early life. I came of age in institutions of the British boarding school variety which, looking back, seem very Dickensian - full of cold, damp dormitories and lousy food and hundreds-of-years-old buildings, with Latin, cricket and the inevitable canings. Oh how we laughed! The good thing was that in a couple of these schools, I had really good art teachers who were great supporters of mine. I remain indebted to them. When I was 15, I was unceremoniously removed from the last of these bastions of an antediluvian lifestyle and deposited by my step father in Florence, with a fistful of lire (but without a word of Italian, or any agenda) and told to "get on with it". It was the teach-them-to-swim-by-throwing-them-in-the-deep-end theory of preparation for life. I of course, immediately fell in with the doubtful crowd and hung out on the Ponte Vecchio, getting high and sleeping on the street. Quite the fall from grace but oh how we laughed! Upon returning (several pounds thinner) to the UK, I was sent to a wonderful "free school" where you could pretty much do anything you wanted, which I did. Another great art department though. They gave me my own studio and told me to "get on with it". Next, I moved to London where I attended Chelsea School of Art for about five minutes. It seemed like no one in London was interested in, or had even heard of the artists whose work excited me so (I was devouring American art magazines like Avalanche and ArtRite and anything else I could get my hands on) so I packed my bag and headed for New York where I mostly remain.

MICHAEL: Dude, I feel like crying right now. It sounds like you were basically an orphan running wild. It sounds like you had the freedom that artists crave yet not the structure needed to truly build a successful life which you clearly have at this point. Has New York lived up to your childhood expectations?

JAMES: Please don't shed too many tears on my behalf, Michael. I painted my picture on the dark side to add a little dramatic spice. But you are right.

MICHAEL: I figured as much.  I’m talking with a guy who does paintings of flourishes.

JAMES: It took me many years to learn that "freedom" and "structure" were mutually inclusive. I don't think I had many expectations when I arrived in New York. I do remember looking out of the window of the plane when we had landed at JFK, seeing one of the baggage handlers doing Kung Fu moves on the tarmac and thinking "Wow! That is so cool!" It was the summer of "Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting."

MICHAEL: You’re definitely showing your age now.

JAMES: I also remember everything seeming so familiar. It was like walking into a movie. I think millions of people have had that same experience. I felt at home in New York immediately. I don't think it's quite the same now, but at that time it seemed like the city of the dispossessed. If you didn't fit in where you came from, you came here. I also remember once feeling like I had stepped into a Robert Rauschenberg painting and suddenly understanding where much of the art I loved came from. The one thing I didn't expect when I arrived was that I wouldn't be going back.

MICHAEL: I understand completely. Over the years, how would you say your art has changed? What has experience done to your process and your work?

JAMES: My work has changed in the way a river's course changes over time. I've meandered this way and that, but I'm still the same. In fact I'm astonished when looking back at my really old work, as I have been lately, at how strong is the thread that runs through it. Any artist's work begins with imitation really, attached to one's unique self. As you get older, the imitation keeps falling away and you move closer and closer to your unique self. Experience has taught me everything I know. It has been the key to refining of both the making and the message (not to be confused with "agenda"). You make something, you learn something. Next time you make it a little differently or not.

MICHAEL: You know, a lot of younger artists stress over finding their own style, but it sounds like you're saying this comes inevitably through simply living one's life and working.

JAMES: Yes. Even the most calculated "style" arrives, to some degree, in the same way. I think if an artist is stressing about how to carve out a piece of territory for themselves, it may just be impatience. Or fear of looking inward. There's a simple formula for "inventing" your own style. Be true to thyself (which can comfortably accommodate re-inventing thyself too). If the search for a style is simply undertaken in order to differentiate yourself from the pack, you risk making really crappy art. Take your time, I say. Every artist inevitably realizes that they are already different, and that if they celebrate their uniqueness, they'll be doing their own thing. You can't make good art out of something you really don't care about.

MICHAEL: Where are you headed with your film work? Are you going to do more work like I saw at Art Basel Miami?

JAMES: You know, I think I've done that movie. A number of people were suggesting I film other cities in the same way, but I don't have any desire to do so. “STREET” is my film for New York. That said, Calcutta might be interesting.  Hmm ... or Rio de Janeiro ... or Timbuktu. Oh, I don't know. I don't always trust myself when I say I'm not going to do something. Nor when I say I am, come to think of it.

MICHAEL: Thanks James.  This has been great.  I love your work and rock on!

Check out James’ cool work at www.jamesnares.com



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