Tim McFarlane is fantastic artist who lives in Philadelphia. We met on social media and when I saw his work http://www.timmcfarlane.com/, I knew I had to chat with him. I’m glad we did because he’s approachable and brilliant just like his work. Here’s our cool chat ...
MICHAEL: Hello Tim, I absolutely love your work. Your current paintings are really pushing abstraction forward. They're delicate and painterly, yet very strong and architectural. What's the inspiration behind them?
TIM: Hello, Michael, Thank you for your kind thoughts about my work. The inspiration for my work overall includes architecture, design (graphic design, interior design, fashion design, etc.), city grids and music, among other things. Architecture and my somewhat random linear doodles and sketches provided the jumping-off points for the formal aspects of my latest body of work. When I say architecture, I'm really talking about my experiences of viewing the underlying structures and volumes of buildings being constructed, as well as experiencing the completed project either through photos or being able to walk through a completed space. One of the things that I strive for in my work is trying to find various ways to introduce the idea of space without necessarily relying on traditional perspective. Various aspects of things like graphic design, fashion and music find their way into my work through looking at how designers make use of color and color combinations, text, texture or the appearance of it and the aural spaces created by different kinds of music.
MICHAEL: Fantastic. And so, how do you mentally capture these images and translate them on canvas? Are you presenting to us an aerial view or is it interior or even beneath a structure?
TIM: Before I begin working, I will try to get a feeling for the type of space that I'm attempting to work with and how I might want the viewer to perceive it in the end. I generally try to get a feeling for where I want to begin by starting with a base color or two and then I'll begin painting. During the process of painting, a lot of things change, like colors and compositional approaches, and ideas come and go, with some things staying and becoming part of the piece in some way or another. At some point, I will begin to see a more concrete way forward and toward a resolution. I generally think of most of the views that I create as being straight on, as if the viewer were to be able to enter the space by walking or reaching into it while facing it. However, there are some works that can be seen as aerial or straight-on views. I almost never think of any of the spaces as being seen from underneath, but if someone experiences one of my paintings in that way, then that's good, too.
MICHAEL: There's nothing that I love more than large abstract paintings. Yours seem to be fairly large. What role does the actual size of the painting play in your efforts to convey meaning and message?
TIM: Well, I work in a range of sizes and enjoy making large and small paintings for different reasons. The smaller works (say, 16 x 20 inches) tend to be really intimate, but I will play with the scale of the images so that they sometimes come across as feeling larger than they are. With the larger works, I attempt to create a more equal or even confrontational relationship between the viewer and painting where the viewer begins to lose some of the control they might have felt with the more intimate paintings. The larger works begin to demand more from the viewer in terms of how the work is experienced spatially. They have to step back to view the work and then have to deal with how the painting is formally constructed and how they can enter into the work, or not, as the case may be. This sort of mirrors my own relationships with my work, where I have much more control over what happens with the smaller pieces and less, or a different kind of control with the larger paintings. The larger paintings require more from me physically, mentally and emotionally. There is much more at stake with the larger pieces in terms of getting them to be resolved in a way that pleases me. The largest painting that I have done to date is the site-specific painting installation on view now at the Bridgette Mayer Gallery. It measures approximately 9 x 13 feet and it really made me stretch, literally and figuratively, in order to make it happen.
MICHAEL: Do you make sketches first and recreate them on canvas? Also, what's the actual painting process like? Is the process emotional, intellectual or spiritual? Is your mind clear? Do you listen to music? What kind? Or do you have the TV on?
TIM: I sketch mainly to get ideas out of my head, but rarely does any one sketch wind up being worked up into a painting directly. I may use an idea from part of one sketch and combine that with something from another sketch or painting, but that's about as far as it goes. I tend to work fairly intuitively, so things change a lot from initial idea to final painting. Emotional, intellectual, spiritual … the painting process is all of those things to me. There is no one focus of those things for me when I'm working. There are all sorts of things going through my mind when I'm working, but mainly my head is trying to get into the space of the painting; I'm trying to figure out how this color is reacting with the other, where this or that line is going, is this or that area better closed off or open, does this composition work better vertically or horizontally, how does this painting relate to the one next to it and so on. So, there is a kind of clarity of focus, but my mind is anything but 'clear' when I'm working. I try to be open to as much as possible and still focus that energy into the work. I listen to music all of the time when I'm in the studio. I don't have a TV, nor computer in my studio (well, besides my iPhone, which, as we know, is something of a computer in its own right). I listen to a variety of things and what I listen to depends on my mood, but I do tend to listen to a lot of electronic music. Much of that tends to be deep house, minimal or dub techno, or more experimental things, at times. There's a wonderfully uplifting energy to deep house that I love, and I'm also drawn to the excitement that some experimental music has. There's something about how people find different ways of using sound that inspires me. I'm always on the hunt for new music to listen to. I have also begun listening to art-related podcasts, mainly Tyler Green's "Modern Art Notes.”
MICHAEL: I think so many people who don't know much about art equate abstract expressionism with slop and chaos and so they think, "their kids can do it." What do you think about this?
TIM: I find that statement to be very disrespectful and condescending. That attitude is born out of ignorance, misinformation and even fear about abstraction because abstract art doesn't reflect a literal (realist) viewpoint. I'm not denigrating realist art, I love any art that is done well, I just reject the notion that many people seem to have that realist artwork is somehow better than abstraction because it reflects a world that's highly recognizable. Regardless of whether a realist artist's work is good or not, more often than not, people will gravitate toward it because it's comfortable and doesn't readily challenge them in any way; they see something that they recognize and feel good about themselves. Most abstract art and particularly good abstraction requires a bit more thought and willingness to venture into unknown sensory, psychological, emotional and mental territory.
I don't really blame people for liking something that reminds them of themselves or their world or if they just happen to like realism more than abstraction. That's fine. However, there is a difference between admiring one thing and denigrating another without really understanding what might have gone into the making of a piece or to simply make fun of something because it makes them feel better.
My theory is that the, "my kid could do that" attitude begins early in people's lives, as far back as elementary school or even before. If you think back, the kids who were seen as having creative talents were usually given more attention and allowed to do various things that the other students weren't. That's where the separation between the "artistic" kids and the rest begins and that separation only gets bigger as the student progresses through schooling, on up to graduate school. Art-making has been made a specialized and commodified skill, so the masses no longer really have it at the center of their lives any more and have mostly lost touch with that part of life for a variety of reasons. Most people have the creative side of them dampened or destroyed altogether by the demands of parents who insist that their children's education leads to "marketable" skills, by peers who think the "artsy" kid is weird, and by a society at large that actively discourages activity that doesn't lead to some monetary gain. It also hasn't helped that over the years, fine art has been made to be seen as an elite thing that only certain people have the knowledge to understand by the gallery, museum, auction house, and art fair circuit.
None of that, however, excuses the blatant disrespect of "my kid could do that.” No, their kid probably couldn't do that, and neither could they. The art might not be to their liking and that's perfectly fine, but to casually throw a phrase like that out and to not be able to back up their assertion says more about the person speaking than the artwork or artist.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I just heard someone say that human beings are inherently creative and that if we don't exercise that creativity, we basically live in darkness and dysfunction. That certainly seems to offer one explanation about the world today. What do you think?
TIM: I agree with that. I probably wouldn't put in such dramatic terms as living in darkness and dysfunction, but yes, we are all inherently creative in some way or another. I believe that if more people were able to exercise the creative sides of their lives, the world might be in a better state than it's in. Creativity comes in many forms and we need a free flow of ideas to help solve some of the world's problems like hunger, homelessness, better living conditions, and on and on. Art alone won't save the world or rid it of the problems we face, but encouraging more people to tap into their creative selves can do a lot to make some things better.
MICHAEL: Do you come from an artistic family? When did you first become aware of art as an option for you?
TIM: No, I don't come from an artistic family. My father was in the Navy during WWII and later made a living as a truck driver and my mother spent a lot of time working as an office cleaner when I was small. Neither of them went to college, so my graduating from college was a first for our small family. I'm an only child.
I really began seeing art as an option for me during high school. I kind of gravitated toward it for some reason. I think some of it had to do with growing up as an only child and having to entertain myself a lot. As a kid, I read a lot and loved comics, in particular. I still read them, but mostly in graphic novel form where several issues are collected into one volume. Less expensive that way. For as long as I can remember, I have been tuned into the world on a visual level.
In high school, I began trying to figure out where I belonged and what I was most excited about and that turned out to be art. I did well in my other subjects, except higher forms of math (trigonometry, upper levels of algebra, etc., which required me to study tremendously hard to achieve an average grade of 'C'). I excelled in English, Biology, and Art courses.
My real introduction to formal art training occurred during my junior year in high school when I entered the upper level art class. My teacher, Richard Segal, was fond of Impressionism and that's where I began my love of color, studying the works of Manet, Renoir, Monet, and Cezanne, with a good dose of Old Masters (Caravaggio and Rembrandt are also favorites of mine) thrown into the mix. There was no turning back at that point because I found that I excelled really well with my art studies and nothing else excited me nearly as much. By the time I graduated high school, I felt that I was already an artist. I went to college for a couple of years and tried a few majors, having been convinced that I had to learn some skills in order to survive monetarily, but nothing stuck. I dropped out for about five years due to financial issues and during that time, I continued making work on my own and experimenting a lot. I then found a way to get back into university part time and wound up becoming an art major. It was the only thing I really wanted to work at.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today? Dead, famous artists are thriving while gifted, living artists are struggling to make ends meet.
TIM: Well, ever since there has been an “art market,” as we know it, say since the 1980s, dead artists have always come out on top and that hierarchy will probably remain the same into the future. The auctions don't usually mean a whole lot for the majority of living artists, unless they happen to be considered "blue chip" where a good auction price may mean that those artists may have more opportunities for their works being included in museum collections and the prices of their work rising.
There's nothing wrong with that, but it has created a situation over time that favors the gallery-art fair-museum-auction house circuit as the only goal to shoot for as an artist and that's not the case. Everyone's idea of success is different, but I feel that the idea that's held up for most artists creates a false impression about what success is. The deduction on the part of the public is that if you aren't a part of this continuum, then you are not a successful artist and maybe not a "real" artist at all and many students and artists fall into the trap of believing this. Now, I'm a part of that system as I do have gallery representation that I'm very happy with because I’m having someone like Bridgette Mayer going to bat for me and my career has been great. However, if that weren’t in place, I would still be making work and doing whatever's necessary to keep going creatively. There's way too much stuff that goes on in the art world that isn't about art and it's important for artists to be as honest as possible with themselves about what is more important to them and keep the art market and art world in proper perspective.
MICHAEL: Philly is so close to New York, but does it have its own defined art scene? Keep in mind I'm hesitant to ask this because your work so easily transcends locality or even cultural definition. It's really global. I love that. It could have been inspired and created anywhere.
TIM: First, thank you for your very kind and generous view of my work. It's really gratifying to have my work thought of in terms of being able to transcend its place of origin. I don't think that Philly has a defined art scene, so to speak, but it has become a very dynamic one over the past 15 years or so and seems to be changing more rapidly than in the past. Originally, Philadelphia's art scene was very traditional and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, with its focus on turning out artists steeped in realism, really dominated the art tastes of the region for well over a century. PAFA is still one of the best art schools in the country, but over time, the art scene in the city has grown well beyond its more regionalist history.
I think part of that has to do with Philadelphia having relatively inexpensive real estate that includes a lot of abandoned warehouse spaces. Of course, the inevitable result has been that artists have had to move farther out from old city and other previously artist-centered areas. You know the routine: artists settle in underutilized and edgy areas, followed by cafés, artist-run galleries, commercial galleries, restaurants, clubs and finally, condos. Developers smell opportunity, artists are priced out and have to move on to the next frontier. However, the latest incarnation of that cycle that began in the mid-late 90's has helped Philadelphia become something of a destination for artists looking for a place to settle and to be able to afford a space to make work. It's been pretty interesting and a breath of fresh air, to see the variety of good, serious contemporary work being made here. It seems that Philadelphia has become a good place for experimentation with installation, multi-media works, conceptual art and the abstract painting scene is more prominent than ever. Philly still has a strong realist art base, but that's not the ONLY style of art that it is known for any more.
MICHAEL: Finally Tim, Where do you think contemporary art is headed and where do you want to go with your work in the future?
TIM: I think that much of contemporary art has been heading toward blurring the lines between disciplines for a while and that trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Much of this has to do with the wide reach of web-based technologies, which has opened up a whole batch of new tools and ways of communicating. Because of the ‘net,’ we have the ability to discover and interact with artists from across the globe and across disciplines like never before. I think that one of the richest areas for artistic exploration has been interdisciplinary practices where artists are taking painting, installation, video, music and performance and making work that opens doors for a wider exploration of the function of art in society.
Collaborations between visual artists and practitioners of other disciplines has been greatly enhance by the internet. Artists like Theaster Gates have taken the social functions of art to a whole new level by using grant money to rehab abandoned buildings and making them incubators for art and change in communities in the U.S. and abroad. Gates incorporates teams of people from the worlds of architecture, music, performance, video and other visual arts to realize projects that can have a wide effect artistically and socially.
I know that in my own meanderings around the web, I have been exposed to a great many more practices, established and evolving, that have affected how I think about my own work. While my practice is still rooted in a fairly traditional form of painting, I often use inspiration from areas such as photography, music and aspects of graphic design to solve issues within my work. I love printmaking and while I haven't had time to pursue it as much as my painting, I'm moving to incorporate screen printing and other techniques into the painting to expand possibilities. In my current exhibition at the Bridgette Mayer Gallery in Philadelphia, I have a large painting installation that takes up the entire back wall of the gallery, approximately 9 x 13 feet. This is only the second time that I've produced a mural-sized painting directly on a wall and loved the experience, so I'm looking to do more things like that in the future, along with my works on panel and canvas. Coming up, I will have work in two university group exhibitions, one at Bucknell University and Rowan University. I'm also preparing for projects that will happen next year, so I'm keeping busy. For the longer term, I'm working on having my paintings exhibited on a wider basis and hopefully continuing to become a better painter.
MICHAEL: Thanks Tim. You and your work are extraordinary
TIM: You’re welcome Michael
Check out Tim McFarlane at http://www.timmcfarlane.com/