One day, I got a very nice email from Canadian artist Jonathan Edward Raddatz. He asked me to take a look at his website http://www.jeraddatz.com/ which I did and the result is the fantastic interview below. Jonathan is a great artist, but more importantly a Christian on a great mission. Here’s our cool chat …
“...I hope that my art is a sincere testament to my humble service to Christ. It is a testament to God's infinite complexity that each and every one of us is called to accomplish something specific in a specific way...”
MICHAEL: Hello Jonathan, First off, whenever I chat with an abstract expressionist artist, I always feel I should start by asking ... why do so many people who are not artists feel they can "do" abstract painting? It's a compliment and an insult at the same time, No?
JONATHAN: Hmm. That's a good question. The old, "my three year old kid could do that" thing. This is always meant as an insult. But don't slam it until you try it, right? And anyways, art generated by three-year-olds is free, emotive, extremely intuitive and opportunistic - anything on hand will do to get the feeling out on paper, canvas, wall, shirt or table. So that aspect of it is, to me, somewhat of a compliment. My eldest son is three. Sometimes he sneaks into my studio and sets himself up in a corner with his kid safe gouaches. We learn from each other. Not long ago, I was working and I noticed him standing off to the side watching me intently. He then picks up a tube of deep azo yellow and hands it to me. "What's this?" I ask. "Yellow" he replies. "You think I need to add some yellow?" He nods yes. "And why do you think this picture needs more yellow?" I ask. "Because it will make it MOVE like FIRE!" And of course, he was right. The lesson here is that children are incredibly visceral in their perception of things. They are totally primal in their emotional response, for instance, to color. Probably most people who respond or are drawn to abstract art have preserved this primal response that is raw and unmediated in children. But not every kid is an artistic genius just because they are enthusiastic about color and applying it to anything they can get their hands on.
The same goes for abstract art. I think a lot of would be artists gravitate to abstract expressionism to avoid dealing with the challenges of figurative or otherwise representational art (the same issues that make a lot of non- artistic people say that abstract art is easy and that anybody can do it). If you can't draw and you take a stab at any kind of realism, it will show and the results will be painful to your ego. With abstract art, there's this false idea that you don't have to master line or form. That it's just about pushing paint around on the canvas and that "anything goes." I think that is a profound misconception. Anyway, "you shall know them by their fruits." There is good art and there is bad art. Okay, granted, all of this is in the eye of the beholder, totally subjective.
While I think that it is quite possible to be an amazing abstract artist without being a particularly brilliant drawer of realistic subject matter, I think it never hurts to get that aspect of the craft down, at least to a degree. But at the end of the day, I think that the best art - abstract or otherwise - combines vision, risk, emotion and a focused attention to mastering whatever technical skills are required to bringing all of that into material existence. Not everybody has that kind of vision and desire to take that kind of risk, nor has the will power to deal with the trial and error to get it done. Of course, the same could be said about striving to be a first class chartered accountant, except no one is looking at their work saying, "Man I could totally do that, it's just arithmetic, right?" Because everyone knows that if you don't have at least one biological parent from Krypton, you just cannot be a chartered accountant. It takes nerves of steel to do that job.
MICHAEL: Given that, what's your first memory of art? When did you become an artist?
JONATHAN: LOL. Well, I was no child prodigy, I'll tell you that. Okay, my earliest memory of making "art" involved me taking two very fat permanent markers - a purple one and a green one and drawing two neat parallel lines on the pine panel job on the back wall of our dining room. My dad liked to display the Zulu tribal art he picked up when he was in South Africa before he got married to my mom. I was fascinated by his collection. But I was more into classical literature and music and history. My parents raised me and my sisters to appreciate the arts. Both my parents are musically inclined. My mom plays the piano and my dad is proficient on the trumpet.
In my twenties, I had a pointless career directing and editing music videos and other bad television content. Idiot that I had become, I would say really stupid things like, painting was a dead art form in the same way that Latin was a dead language. I obviously didn't know what I was talking about.
Ironically enough, I quit my useless career in television and became a painter while returning to university to study theology and ancient languages (Greek, Coptic and you guessed it, Latin!). So I started to paint rather late, seven years ago, I was 30. One day, ather late, seven years ago... I picked up a brush and painted an Iris "plein air" from my garden. It was an electrifying moment. My mind became flooded with powerful images and possibilities so I quickly moved on to other, less conventional subject matter and techniques. I realized that I had been pissing my life away in television. It was a time of great transition in my life. Today, I don't even own a television. We gave it away three years ago. Best decision ever.
MICHAEL: Your Neo-symbolism works seem to be a cross between high-minded concepts and down home folk art. Very interesting. How do you see them?
JONATHAN: Ah! The Neo-Symbolism. That's where it's really at for me. The bulk of my concerns - my work program, the driving force behind my art; all this is to be found under that strange little label.
I'm interested in "reverse engineering," the way we view and define reality. Today, we like to think of ourselves as a rational species. We pat ourselves on the back for being reasonable, progressive and civilized. We thrive on expertise, which we are convinced is based on solid, totally objective empirical data. But all that is an illusion. That is not the way we really work at all. If you keep scratching away at this bright, shiny delusion, you will see something altogether different. To your horror or elation, you will discover that human reality is generated by our emotions, which, in turn, are a slave to our most primal instincts. The notion of human "progress" (dare I say, self-proclaimed Godhood) is really just a thin veneer to mask that fact.
We are creatures of instinct and some of those instincts are really base. This has never really changed. If you look at this as dispassionately and humanely possible (that is to say, not very dispassionately), our morality has not evolved at all. It is the mechanism of self deception - the stories we tell ourselves about how awesome we are - that has evolved (or devolved, depending on one's perspective).
The trajectory of art history, I think, reflects how this powerful illusion actually works. It goes hand-in-hand with the history of the rise and fall of civilizations and records both our instinctual drives and the lies we tell ourselves to make them more palatable. Take Renaissance art and observe how human brutality, death and suffering are enshrined in deceptively beautiful lines and form. Now draw a neat line from the contours of Renaissance art to the height of Greco-Roman Classical art and you will see that they share this exact same very convincingly real illusion. But if you look at art generated in times of social collapse (post WWI, WWII or the post Byzantine so called "Dark Ages" or the prehistoric art that dominates human enclaves just prior to the monumental art of the earliest civilizations that mysteriously appear, as if by magic, from the sands of the Middle East), this type of art tells us who we really are and it is this art that I want to recuperate in my own mind. This is a very tense internal paradox because I'm trying to understand something that totally defies reason because it is what underlies reason and reveals it for what it truly is - an illusion that makes instinctual drives function more freely by denying that they even exist.
So my artistic work program is "high minded" in that this is my reference point in human history. I'm having to consciously strip away that thin veneer of rational thought to get down to the essential qualities of myth. These qualities are symbolic; the raw kind, not the kind mediated by deceptive representations of reality.
Myths are the real stories with absolute meaning to us. They are the vehicles of raw emotion and they define us and our memories more than anything and that's why art goes hand in hand with myth. Art and myth are absolutely real, absolutely a part of us regardless of where we live and what age we live in. They tell us what we try hard to otherwise ignore - what has happened before happens again and it always happens when we forget what we really are - tribal, savage, destined to tragic ends and governed by cosmic forces beyond our control. The second we convince ourselves otherwise, we run into serious trouble. That observation worries me because we are currently living in a memory black hole. It doesn't bode well for the future.
But to return to the question, the farther down the rabbit hole I go, the more forcefully my own instinct kicks in and I gotta say, it is a little vicious. These paintings want to affirm themselves by obliterating the fragile notion of human progress. That is why they have manifested themselves in a most uncivilized manner.
It is, of course, ironic that these paintings are executed with luxurious items commonplace in a civilized world: canvas, Winston Newton oil paints, brushes, solvents - the trimmings of a cultivated mind. But if you took all this away from me, I'd use a carbonated stick dipped in animal fat, ground insects and dirt on a rock in a cave. Pretty brutal, I know, but I'm a really nice and (mostly) happy guy, I swear!
MICHAEL: You use some Biblical references in the titles of some of your work. In your abstract works, I even get a sense of the universe in creation or destruction. What's your inspiration?
JONATHAN: Well you know Michael, my art is intimately linked to my Christian faith. I mentioned earlier that I went back to university to study theology. That endeavor was a direct offshoot of my artistic program. I did really well and for a while there, I was contemplating relegating my art to the dustbins of my personal history, but in the end, I just couldn't let it go even for a nice comfortable career in academia. What can I say? I can't stop painting in the same way Jeremiah couldn't stop uttering his prophecies. I'm compelled to do it. I couldn't stop even if I wanted to. Faith transcends reason and for me, painting is the visceral departure point for exploring the numinous corridor of what animates my faith and spirituality.
Having read some of your posts, I know that you love to ponder (as I also do) that moment when God wills the material universe into being in that singular instant when he utters the words: "Let there be LIGHT!" Light is good, but it does have that tendency to expose things that do not wish to be exposed. The harsh light of day is not always flattering. But it will always show you the way you need to go. So, yeah, I am inspired by what faith can do to elevate the human condition above its own hubris.
The parable of the prodigal son resonates strongly with me. I was raised in a deeply Christian home. My dad was a pastor until I was 15. By that time, I had already pitched my tent in a different direction, bucking hard against my upbringing. I went out of my parents’ house and into the world as fast as I could and lived fast and hard. I loved trouble and trouble loved me. And then one day, late into my twenties, I began the painful process of looking at the full scope of my own fallibility. It was humbling.
That being said, I am also inspired and in total awe of how God interacts with creation on a universal scale. It isn't all bubbles and squeaks, if you know what I mean. There are elemental forces at work that deal with creation in absolute terms. "My ways are not your ways..."
I'm also deeply interested in the philosophy of religions generally, but I would have to point out emphatically that my interest is not exactly altruistic. While it is true that I share many topical concerns with artists who dabbled in theosophy (Pollock comes quickly to mind), I serve a different master. Art of this nature is akin to tribalism and where there is tribalism, there are tribal disputes. For those of us venturing into this terrain, it is important to clearly define what is friend and what is foe and where you situate yourself on a spiritual plane. You can only serve one master. So choose wisely. I realize that this is a pretty loaded assertion. Maybe I should have stuck with painting flowers.
MICHAEL: In what ways would you say your art is serving God in Christ? How does art serve God in general? Is that the point of art for you?
JONATHAN: Well, in all sincerity, that's my answer to the first question. I hope that my art is a sincere testament to my humble service to Christ. It is a testament to God's infinite complexity that each and every one of us is called to accomplish something specific in a specific way. God is interested in everybody's potential and how that potential is actually used. You know, I was reading your interview with Glenn Harrington (great interview - I really liked what Glenn had to say) and I was struck by this plurality of purpose in humans on the one hand, but the inherent harmony of this plurality in Christ. Our purposes complement each other despite the very different tasks assigned to us. Glenn is dedicated to the beauty of God's creation and relaying that to humanity. I appreciate that because we really need the kind of art that promises a moment of respite in the here and now and Glenn's art accomplishes that task beautifully. But we also need to navigate through the valley of the shadow of death fearlessly with the certainty that God is with us. We also need to understand that on a spiritual plane, we are governed by an absolute reality, not a relative one. The bad things that run rampant in the world are not born of flesh and blood. Some of us are assigned the task of bringing attention to the fact that our life on this planet is a spiritual battlefield and the prize being fought for is our soul. It's an important message. In this age of relativism, many here in the West have given up on the idea that we even have a soul.
How does art serve God generally? Well, like I said earlier, there is good art and bad art. While that comment was delivered in the context of aesthetics, I was not only referring to aesthetics. I was also thinking about the inherent morality of art. This comment is not an invitation to embrace dull art with prudish sensibilities. What I'm driving at here is entirely different. Okay, when we read in Genesis that God created us in his image, I don't think that this means that God is anthropomorphic - you know, contained in a human body with arms, legs, torso and sexual organs. God has no use for such a body. Rather, it seems to me that this statement means that God has given us two things from his own nature: the ability to create and destroy - to do good or to do evil and the ability to consciously choose the direction of this powerful, executive privilege. Now we don't have the ability to accomplish these things on the same scale as God, but we certainly have that ability on every strata of human existence from within the dynamics of our immediate environment to - on a collective level - a planetary scale. So the question becomes how are you using these divine qualities that God has given you? For good? For ill? Probably a little bit of both, but as you plod along in life, the consistency of your choices will end up defining you.
But let's not fool ourselves in terms of our limitations. Really, we are only rearranging pre-existent matter. Unlike God, we cannot create something out of nothing. We can only re-arrange. Some paint pictures celebrating (note the adjective celebrating not denouncing or rejecting or exposing - no, no, celebrating) their darkened fantasies rising up from the oily depths of chaos. Others play dangerous games with genetic engineering altering the food supply and ignoring the species barrier. Others still celebrate a culture of entitlement that makes everyone else's existence peripheral to their own narcissistic desires. On the flip side, some people dedicate themselves to a life of serving others or being responsible stewards of God's creation or reminding their fellow human beings through art about the ultimate source of everything good and beautiful like Glenn does, or reminding them - through art - about what lies behind the veil of pseudo-reason and relativism like me. And yes, that is the point of art to me. Art brings us into our own presence in the shadow of eternity.
MICHAEL: When you're actually involved in the process of painting, what's going through your mind? Is the process more physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual?
JONATHAN: The actual process of painting is physical, emotional and spiritual. The intellect takes a back seat. In point of fact, my goal is to do away with that “upper strata of thought” as much as possible. When I'm not painting, my mind is a flurry of rational activity. I'm constantly reading, researching, translating ancient texts, going to the museum or again learning as much as I can about art history, color theory or practicing figurative realism to hone my craft. I do all these things because the human mind craves stimulus and on an instinctual level craves power. And we all know that knowledge is power. It empowers you. So I feed the beast, so to speak. But I find that if I don't strip away that intellectual baggage in the studio, it impedes the work. Before putting in my studio time, I might go for a good run along the river and pray, breaking down physical and spiritual resistance, turning down the volume on the little psycho dramas that clutter one's spirit.
Once I'm in the studio, I empty my already quieted mind and contemplate the pieces I'm working on. It is not uncommon for me to work on two or three paintings at the same time. I'll gravitate to the one that calls out to me and focus on it, meditate on the feelings that it evokes as I mix my colors for the day. Everything that happens in the studio is highly ritualized. Rituals, as you probably already know, focus one's will and spirit. We must be ever so careful about the rituals we adopt to do this. Certain doors, once open are not easily shut and who knows what you might encounter on the other side of that threshold?
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I don’t want to go down that road.
JONATHAN: As I'm mixing the colors, I ask God to open my eyes and guide my hand and protect my spirit. And then I go to battle, so to speak. I put everything into it: body, soul, spirit. Every action on the painting takes on a profound numinous meaning that is difficult to put into words. Language is so restrictive sometimes! The intellect, as I said, can't keep up here. It's kicking back in Kansas. The left hemisphere of the brain does not cope well with things that are bigger than what it can wrap itself around.
MICHAEL: Jonathan, I could go on and on with you, but I'll make this the last question. So far, contemporary art hasn't cured cancer or ended homelessness. So what's the point? Why talk about art? Most people don't talk about art, let alone care about it.
JONATHAN: That's true, Michael. Art doesn't cure cancer, homelessness, poverty or hunger. Nor does it stop war, murder, slavery or any other horrible thing that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Some art actually revels in these things. But an entirely different art can accomplish a few important things in the face of these evils; some art can ease the soul. Respite from evil is necessary as is hope in the ability to do good and appreciate beauty. Another type of art can function as a witness to the inherent deficiency of human nature on this plane of existence, forcing us to take evil into account with regard to our own nature. To effectively combat the disease, you gotta recognize the symptoms. Yet another form of art can prepare us for what comes after this life - direct cognition of the absolute causes and effects of how we live our lives.
Art is relevant because it is created by humans and thus reflects the human condition. How low we can go and how high we can soar? Because it outlasts a life time art, music, literature, painting, sculpture allows us to partake in something bigger than ourselves.
I think that it’s really sad that people aren't talking about art in a meaningful way (that is to say, beyond its marketability as a consumer commodity). What that tells me is that people at large aren't thinking about themselves in a meaningful way. They are not showing up for their life. They are too busy documenting what has become a trite existence on any given social network, like narcissus gazing dumbly at his own reflection instead of actually going out there and living and experiencing life by participating in it and contributing to the lives of others. So instead of entering into communion with art - the spirit of the thing - the bottom line is whether this would look good as a luxury prop in a life purchased, but not lived.
Now, it's true, one can get by in life without having been stirred by Beethoven's 5th or Milton's Paradise Lost or the totally engrossing visceral quality of Caravaggio's doubting Thomas probing Christ's open wound with his finger – yes, one can get by without any of these things. One can substitute them with bland fast food for the mind blobs of nothingness in the form of 140-character tweets. One can even call this progress. I call it slavery, but that's okay. By the standards of the day, it's all relative, isn't it?
MICHAEL: Jonathan, I am so glad that you contacted me and that we’ve had this chat. You and your work are enlightening and inspiring. You are a blessing.
JONATHAN: Let me just add that I'm really grateful for this interview and wholeheartedly inspired by what you are doing here Michael. This has been a cathartic moment for me. I am so thrilled and honored to be able to talk about my art in this way. I wish you well and I am so very pleased to have met you.
Check out Jonathan Raddatz at http://www.jeraddatz.com/.