Jan Wurm is a lovely artist who creates captivating paintings on canvas www.janwurm.com. To me, her work is very expressive and free-form, yet hauntingly narrative. It’s also cool and hip like California where she lives. Check out our cool chat.
MICHAEL: Hello Jan, First of all, your work is cool. It seems very German Expressionist to me ... the figuration and heavy black lines remind me of Max Beckmann.
JAN: Hello Michael! It is always great to hear that the work resonates on some level, so thanks for giving it the time and reflection of your viewing! The Beckmann association has been made, especially since his work was shown in a major exhibition at the LA County Museum of Art a few years back. But I never actually saw his work until I was a mature painter. However, the art that I saw as a child, as an art student and as a young artist painting through to my imagery and perspective might point to common roots. I imagine much of what I saw he saw also, and those who were important to me as my chosen parentage included Matisse who was a huge influence on Beckmann. It probably would be relevant to also talk about visual imprinting. When I was 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, a true duckling, I was living in a little town in the Austrian Alps. The streets curved, the black onion domes on the white churches popped out of the skies, the street corners had altars with carved crucifixions painted with dripping blood, and the churches were filled with gothic figures. Everything was in high relief and very dramatic in contrast to the light-saturated L.A. expanses I had known before.
MICHAEL: Nice. What about the art?
JAN: The art I was looking at in those years, collecting in postcards from every museum I visited and copied - as kids are inclined to do - was Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Daumier, and Lautrec. I really did not see any German Expressionist art until I was out of graduate school. When I was 12, I moved back to L.A. so my high school years were filled with the same exhibitions that I think nourished everyone: Kienholz at L.A. County, a fabulous Matisse show at UCLA, Man Ray at the old Pasadena Art Museum. I really loved Ensor and Vuillard and was really moving in and out of drawing and painting. I also saw a striking Soutine exhibition in Tel Aviv. Aside from the fact that I actually am using a lot of colors coming together rather than black, the paint has passages of heavier paint relieved by flatter open fields. But by the time I was 17, all of the basic elements were in place: a symbolic use of color, a commitment to the figure, and a focus on social narrative as a way of reflecting the world … and a sprinkling of posturing and humor.
MICHAEL: I love what you just said ... "a social narrative as a way of reflecting the world." That sounds like the most fun part of your work.
JAN: Well, art is really a whole string of most fun parts, even applying a coat of gesso is fun, squeezing paint out of tubes sends a rush of excitement from head to toe, but yes, I admit, holding a mirror up to the grimace, the smirk, the smile, the shrug that carries a bit of playful mischief. Add an emphasizing line, a crumpled form, a thwarted grasp, and it becomes impossible to contain that cadmium red!
MICHAEL: Are you in Berkeley, California? That seems like such a dream place to me. What's it like there? What do you do there, teach? How does the area inspire you?
JAN: When I walk out the door of my Berkeley studio, I love the oddly shaped buildings and tanks and trestles drawing through low hanging skies. I can turn left or right, walk a couple of blocks and enjoy great coffee, food, music, dancing, library or view of the Bay and San Francisco. We have a great university which is a magnet for musicians, writers and scientists from all parts of the world. But when it comes to my own ruminations, I am at home in L.A. I have always felt more at ease down south; casual, unencumbered, unrestricted. There is a sense of freedom that I have always known there, a more playful approach to daily life. Walking out onto the beach everyday keeps everything in perspective, places the ephemeral nature of things on the drawing table along with the charcoal which blows away. I appreciate that growing up in L.A. kept a certain levity in my painting. The visual culture of L.A. is really deeply ingrained in my work. The palette, the open space, the sensibility of minimalism; these all come out of that expansive light. And a focus on body language, gesture, and presence is strongly determined by the social dialogue of L.A. Sometimes I feel like I live on the 101. I swing back and forth, one voice in Berkeley, another inflection in L.A. Time on the 101 driving up and down the state proves a fairly accurate indication of my own nature, at home on the road. Though there is a family home down south with a very different rhythm, different skin, my circles rarely intersect. I work on different projects, never even wear the same clothes in both places ... I love teaching drawing; it is the most intimate and honest activity. Teaching has been a great source of pleasure for me, a way of feeling connected to the past and future, a way of passing on part of that which I have received. Probably, had I not had fifteen years of teaching, I would never have developed attachment to Berkeley - my sole connection would have been to UCLA - but teaching has provided an opportunity to bridge that north/south divide. Also, in teaching for UC Berkeley's Extension program, one has the most extraordinary students, individuals of varied backgrounds, deep experience, and an abiding commitment to education. It really kept me engaged and open. Inspiration for work comes from everything, everywhere. The cup of coffee, conversation, observed encounter, travel, seasonal change, new piece of paper, sketchbook, paint sticks, walk through a museum; everything makes me itch to be in the studio. In a way, it is an urge to paint or draw everything.
MICHAEL: You're like me in that you see art everywhere you go. Do you ever wonder how you see it and others don't? It just doesn't seem feasible.
JAN: I am always struck by how different people are; some look at a mountain and want to paint it, some look at a mountain and want to climb it, others think of tunneling through, while the mind of another leaps to the thought of building a bridge to the next peak. It really only came to me when I began teaching that so many people simply did not take the time to look. Seeing really takes time. There is the assumption that seeing is somehow quicker than reading, but a glimpse does not reveal all to be seen. If we were all to spend more time listening, we might all be poets.... there is much to be discovered just by turning our attention to that which is before us.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Art is not for the faint of heart.
JAN: There is also a visual overload which tends to necessitate a quick dispatch. Our television programs for children are quickly edited, our films are filled with constant movement, and our print media layouts break down the page to columns wedged between sidebars and boxes. We are making very superficial judgments about what we believe we are seeing; however, there is rarely time to actually look at all that is presented. When this translates to the internet, we have banners and links and slideshows. I love all the information and relish the world at the tap of my finger. But it does not compare with the camera lingering on a scene which can be evocative, startling, powerful, even if there is no movement, no jump cut, no rush to the next image. Taking in all that is contained in an image takes time, even before reflecting on the meaning of an image. Naturally, I hold dear the notion that if one spent more time looking, one would be more charmed, intrigued, indeed, more certain of the art.
MICHAEL: The figures in your work seem quite contemplative. Is that something that you knowingly work to achieve?
JAN: The paintings are very abstract; there are deliberate decisions of position and posture that are orchestrated to convey mood or relationship or the passage of time. The contemplative quality is a reflection of interiority - the self-consciousness of the figures, memories and projections are rendered through body language. The isolation of the individual, the lack of physical contact, indeed even eye contact, silences the dialogue and raises questions of experience and perspective.
MICHAEL: Finally Jan, What do you want your work to say to the world and what should art in general say to the world?
JAN: Oh Michael! I cannot set myself as critic of what should be the role or function of art. I would not set general demands nor would I venture to dictate the path of another artist. If one believes art should be authentic, then one must be open to whatever an artist brings forth in that artist's time and experience. As for what I want my own work to say, there I may be as sweeping as I dare. I would want my work to reflect the society and the times through which I have lived. Yet, I would want the art to transcend the historical moment and carry the personal experience which speaks to individuals across borders and eras. What strikes me is the sense that we grapple with the same emotions and issues and conflicts regardless of geography, that there is this state which we call the human condition which seeks solace and compassion now as it did thousands of years ago. Whether we are viewing ancient Egyptian art or Persian miniatures or French painting, we are deeply moved because the work is able to speak to us. So I would hope that my work would give voice to an understanding of human nature and need and that would, in some way, communicate this recognition with humor and hope.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Thanks Jan.
Check out Jan’s work at her website … www.janwurm.com.