As Karen Wilkin recounts in our September issue, the interruption of the coronavirus shutdown has affected artists and their studio practices in innumerable ways: obvious and obscure, good and bad. Jim Condron is a painter and sculptor based in Baltimore. Raised on Long Island and in Connecticut, he studied at the New York Studio School and earned his MFA at the Hoffberger School of Painting, Maryland Institute College of Art. In 2016 he won an individual support grant from the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, and in 2017 he received a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant. Solo exhibitions in recent years have been held at the Delaware Contemporary Museum, Wilson College, Loyola University, Harvard University’s Three Columns Gallery, and Yvette Torres Fine Art, in Rockland, Maine. Just weeks before it was put on hold along with the rest of New York City by state order this March, Condron began a residency at the New York Studio School’s DUMBO Sculpture Studio and Gallery. In this first installment of what I hope will become a series of transcribed interviews with various contemporary artists, Jim and I talk about such disruptions and recent work, but we also discuss longer-standing artistic concerns that transcend the strange circumstances of these past few months.
AS: Your background is in painting. I believe when we first met you were doing gestural paintings in a nebulous sort of space between observational representation, and total, non-objective abstraction. Since then, though you still make paintings in the traditional sense, a significant portion of your studio practice has expanded into three dimensions—what one might describe as abstract, even surrealist assemblages or “combine” reliefs in the tradition of a Robert Rauschenberg, say. Can you speak to some of the ways in which your experience and training as a painter has affected your sculpture?
JC: At that time, I was ending a long stint of landscape painting and looking to make a change back to abstraction. I have always alternated between representation and abstraction, but this had been a particularly long stretch of representational painting, and I was not comfortable just dropping a subject. I started making drawings from Proto- and Early Renaissance masters like Giotto, Piero, Zanobi Strozzi, Fra Angelico, and Sassetta, and then began making abstract paintings from memory based on the compositional structures of the masterworks. That went really well for a short time. I went on a residency in Maine where I was working toward a show right after the residency. Immediately after the residency, I hit a wall and no longer felt right about the direction of the work. And, then I no longer felt right about painting at all. I completely lost my way and quit working for about a month and was convinced I would never paint again, until one day I began pushing paint around on primed paper and found pieces of wood. I called it buttering. I had nothing to lose, so I did that. I buttered things with paint. I began not to care about whether the things were any good and felt a freedom I had never had. The pieces gradually got bigger and more sculptural and more complex and grew in size. My work now incorporates things like a General GG 1940s tractor, a canoe, nineteenth-century bed frames, and protest banners.
AS: So, despite the crisis of confidence, there’s a real continuation between the two modes of working?
JC: I have no technical training in sculpture, and sculptor friends of mine say that they are really still paintings and readily compress into two-dimensional images. Formally, I see the sculptures the same way I see painting. I am interested in the color, texture, space, form, composition, interaction, speed of the space, etc. But the collection of materials has given me a new way to deal with content. The pieces that I collect have their own history, but when added together, the histories combine to make a new history. Sometimes the piecing together makes something whose meaning is known to me, but most of the time, I do not consciously know what the work is about.
AS: One thing I find interesting about the relationship between your sculptures and your paintings is that the paintings are, I’ve always thought, quite beautiful in a very essential sense—they are attractive—whereas the sculptures retain a similar sense of color that is appealing, but the materials—sometimes goopy, “trashy,” dirty, etc.—introduce a certain repulsive quality as well. Is this dichotomy between attraction and repulsion something you’re interested in exploring?
JC: I don’t consider any of the pieces I find to be dirty or trashy, though I certainly recognize that others do. My recent show at the Delaware Contemporary Museum was called “Trash Talk.” My sculptures are built in part from fragments from the sort of ephemeral materials that make up everyday life. They function as a sort of vernacular language and when wear transforms them tremendously they look like garbage. Sometimes those “trashy” moments in a piece punctuate a sculpture like a curse word, and some viewers don’t get beyond that to recognize the beauty, which is absurd. When I am making a sculpture, and choose a particular thing, I try to remove the meaning, which sounds odd I’m sure, especially since I’ve mentioned that the history of the object is important. The history is important and the meaning is important when I am collecting the pieces, but when I am making, I work from a place where dichotomies and meanings fall away.
I am extremely lucky to have had wonderful teachers: Mercedes Matter, Graham Nickson, and Rohini Ralby. I moved to Baltimore from New York to work with Rohini back in the early 1990s. Over the past twenty-five years, she has transformed not only my technical understanding of line, color, space, tone, rhythm, and form; she has also taught me how, within a single work, each of those elements has to have its own compositional integrity that in turn builds the overall composition. On a more essential level, she has not only challenged me always to go deeper, regardless of the medium, but also taught me how to make each stroke, each gesture, come from a place within myself that gives my work its life. To take one example, in the last two years or so she has had me draw the same subject over and over again, working to expunge technical habits I acquired early in my career that tend to constrict my work. I render the same scene at three different frequencies: inert, active, and clear and calm. This practice has enabled me to control all three constituent qualities as vibratory presences in my compositions.
AS: Can you talk more about how you collect the pieces?
JC: Everything I use in my sculptures has a strong sensation for me. The parts that make up my sculptures have their own history and they mark particular memories or events for me personally. I get the objects from many sources, some are bought, some found, some are given to me by other people. I got the old tractor from a farm equipment salvage yard near Gettysburg. It was hard to select the tractor because there were so many stunning pieces of old farm machinery in a picturesque historic landscape. I visited countless times. When I was on a residency at the Edward Albee Foundation, I collected things from the beach in Montauk every morning, and the authors Mimi Lipson and Luc Sante gave me things that became works. Some of my most recent pieces were made from a collection of things the artist Denise Tassin sourced over years from Rutherford Beach, Cameron Parish, Louisiana, where the mouth of the Mermentau River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.
AS: These sculptures must be pretty well traveled. Or at least some of their metals and plastics.
JC: They are well travelled through time and space. It’s interesting to think that there was a time before plastic, tea bags, public trash cans, and the zipper had come into the world. The perception of the fragments I collect and assemble will evolve and be replaced, like the vinyl record or the brownie camera was, and in the future the materials I work with will look less like trash and more like bits of old relics, which is how I see them.
For the pieces I made last spring, at the MDA Wings Over Wall Street benefit at the IAC Building in Chelsea, I used my mother’s vintage clothing, shoes, and handbags to create sculptures. One might pick up on the content pretty quickly knowing the nature of the event and that my mother had recently died of ALS. But I didn’t want the pieces to “read” too easily or sentimentally, so, when making the pieces, I made sure not to limit the read to “my mother’s clothing,” which means I made them from a place of emotional quiet. It’s not that I wasn’t profoundly sad, but I took myself out of the making of it and took the particular meaning out of the work, so that others could relate to the loss in a more general way. At least I hope this is what happened.
AS: There’s a bit of T. S. Eliot’s idea about the impersonality of the poet in there. Taking fragments of personal experience and translating them into a more universal idea through form.
JC: On one level, yes, I am looking at the things that make up the sculptures formally in terms of their texture, opacity, visual weight, color etc., and at the same time, I am working to drain the elements of their particular meaning so that the content can become more universal or so that a meaning can at least be accessed by other people without my dictating or limiting the content.
AS: And it can often be difficult to discern precisely where your materials are coming from in the first place, because you often transform them beyond recognition.
JC: There’s a magic in painting when something fools the eye and mind into thinking it is something else. I want that effect in my painting and in my sculpture.
AS: You mentioned sourcing compositions for earlier paintings from the Italian Renaissance. How would you describe your relationship to art history? Any other artists whose examples you could point to as being particularly impactful?
JC: I have always loved art history. I majored in Art History as an undergraduate and have taught Survey Art History, Survey American History, Modernism and Contemporary art at the college level. I am always thinking about and studying the past and looking at people working now. Early Christian images of the saints were fascinating to me as a kid and they’re still influential today. I am a huge Cezanne fan, love Manet, Goya, Alice Neel, Guston, Giotto, Joan Mitchell, Bill Traylor, Albert York—so many. One of my teachers, Graham Nickson, once said to us that one doesn’t have favorite artists; rather one has favorite paintings. So, some seminal paintings: Cezanne’s Still Life with Milk Jug and Fruit at the National Gallery, Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-bergere at the Courtauld, Diebenkorn’s Girl with Three Coffee Cups at Yale, Alice Neel’s Nancy and the Rubber Plant at the Toledo Museum, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows.
AS: So many great paintings. And many of your recent works have titles pulled from canonical books and writers—of the recent pieces you’ve shown me, I’m seeing James Baldwin, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Don DeLillo’s Mao II.
JC: My partner Stacey works on titles with me. Most of my titles up until 2010 or so were descriptive, or things were left untitled. Both of us love literature and we read a variety of authors. The idea was that adding text from a piece of literature could hint at or add to the meaning of a particular piece. I keep a running list of possible titles that are usually added to the work at the end. On occasion I begin with the title. The process is very much in the spirit of William Burroughs’s Cut Ups. Not a new idea, as so many musicians and writers use it—David Bowie, Patti Smith, et al.—but I love the chance element and the potential for additional intended and unintended content to enter in—plots from the story lines, or personal meaning that the story has for me at the time. All of this enters into the work with the addition of the titles.
AS: You, like many if not most professional artists, have been forced into some unexpected—and maybe less than ideal—changes these past few months due to the coronavirus lockdown. You had just begun a sculpture residency at the New York Studio School when everything began shutting down? Is there a plan to finish it out once things open up a bit?
JC: I was so disappointed to have to leave the residency back in March when the coronavirus hit in New York. I was working in DUMBO at the New York Studio School Sculpture Space and had really just begun getting used to the space, when it was clear that we had to leave. My works in progress are still there. I also had several shows planned including one at The Fireplace Project in East Hampton and another in Maine at Yvette Torres Fine Art. This time has been extremely fruitful for me despite the constant anxiety and sadness. I am told that the residency will happen again when all is safe to reopen, but I don’t have a date yet. The shows are postponed. I have been reading Zadie Smith’s Intimations and am so impressed by how she can produce a powerful work with such immediacy during this pandemic. I hope my works made during this time also convey this level of immediacy.