Friday, February 27, 2009

nathan spoor

nathan spoor, the actuarium, acrylic on canvas, 25"x32"

nathan spoor is at the top of his game. finding success in a myriad of ventures, nathan has been sharing beautiful art with the world for years. as an artist, writer and curator nathan is a busy, busy man, but he took the time to answer some of my most pressing questions this week. 

CG: You're from Texas, home of the bluebonnet, where you also attended art school. How did you enjoy life in the Lone Star State?

NS: That’s a pretty broad question, since there’s so much to enjoy about being in Texas. I suppose the best way to answer that is to say that I was brought up in a very loving home and had the opportunity to appreciate quite a bit of my surroundings. We moved around a bit, due to Dad being a youth and family minister (Church of Christ). So I got to meet a lot of people and be around a broad range of individuals. It was quite an experience. Dad’s also a master craftsman, so I also had a healthy understanding of work outside of “work”. Mom is a third grade teacher, so I got the psychology and good parenting all around. Life in Texas is pretty groovy, especially since hindsight is 20/20. Summers are seriously hot, and winters are generally cold, super windy and wet. I have allergies, so the Texas weather is pretty miserable for me. Southern California is much better for me in that, and many other respects.

Since I got to grow up in a loving and creatively nurturing environment, I’d have to say I had it pretty good growing up in TX. Skateboarding and drawing were my main pastimes. Through Jr. High and High School we lived in Houston on the outskirts of a great community around Sugar Land called the Meadows. On the other side of our back yard fence was a mall that was closed for years, so I grew up during that time on a skateboard, hitting the mall up daily. I explored as far as I could get on a board or a bike and my friends had similarly cool parents, so we all had fun.

I've heard that in its own sparse way, the topography of Texas is very beautiful. Was there a great deal of artistic inspiration there?

I might say no at first, but if you get a chance to spend time in Texas you’ll see the most amazing skies. The sunsets are amazing and the clouds are a great show. The good thing about Texas is that, being mostly flat you can get a great view of incoming storms or open skies from many vantage points. The downside can also be that it’s so open that there’s not much hope for shade in the heat of summer or the storm season, when hail can get up to baseball size (actually happened a couple years back).

But yes, there is a large community of artists that draw vast inspiration from the Texas landscapes and natural beauty found there. I’d go so far as to say there’s no shortage of Texas art to be found.

As a native NWer I admit to some ingrown biases about the culture down in Texas. How misinformed am I? I hear Austin is hip, but that can't be the only lovely part of your home state!

I don’t know really. No, we don’t all have horses or ranches or herd cattle or drill for oil. That does exist, but usually with the more prominent families that have been doing that for generations. I think these days it might be a more die hard lifestyle - that “True Texan” thing. But when you get to more populated areas it’s pretty much the picture of civilization. My parents moved to a smaller town during my senior year of high school, so I got a dose of small town vs. big town. Houston is a much larger and more multicultural experience than Snyder. To let you know the ratio, I was going to a high school of about 9000 with a graduating class of 900+, and we moved to a town where the entire high school might have been around 900, with a graduating class of maybe 100. So every extreme exists, but you have to know where to look for it perhaps.

nathan spoor, the arrival, acrylic on canvas, 18"x34" 

For the most part though, if you think of Texas as being predominantly Christian, Bible Belters with a moral standard and low tolerance for change, you might be right. But that’s just one aspect of it, though a large one, and if you asked another Texan what it’s like they might give you a different picture.

Austin is pretty amazing. The music scene there is so rich and vibrant. The landscape is pretty great too, making it a kind of oasis of the flat Texas surroundings. Growing up in Houston, where it’s super humid and has its own mosquito population, places like Austin or San Antonio were places that were great to escape to. I didn’t really do that too much until college though. That’s too far to get to on a skateboard when you’re a kid.

I understand that you now live and work in Los Angeles. What drew you to LA?

Art. I got to a point in my life where I was experienced enough as an Art Director in Dallas that I was ready to move forward. It was just a few years, but after spending time designing all day and weekends, and coming home to paint a few hours before resting up for the next day of the same thing, I was ready for a change. I had built up my first body of paintings and had just done a show in Venice at some friends’ furniture store on Abbot Kinney during the Venice Art Walk. I got a great response and knew I was going to choose LA, or it had chosen me. It was that or New York. And no offense, but NY is just too cold.

Plus, I had this dream of standing out in a crowd and a fellow Art Director had given me a couple issues of Juxtapoz. It wasn’t long (a month or so later) after that that the company I was working for closed its doors, and the next week I was moving to LA. Through my first couple issues of Jux I found out that people were doing their own thing around LA, and had been for years. It was fortuitous I guess. At that time, in 2001, the magazine was still gaining momentum and there were very few places to show work. But I got lucky and met some cool people and did freelance work until I started showing and selling regularly. I still do, actually. That need to constantly grow and move forward isn’t going to stop.

Do you find that the proximity to such a large, progressive art scene stimulates your creativity and keeps you on the ball?

I’d have to say yes. But the reality is this, I’ve already been confronted with the fact that I’d be painting and pursuing my work in this epic narrative even if I couldn’t show or support myself in galleries. You only find that out when confronted with it. If you don’t stay on the ball you fall from grace in a way. I think I would be denying my gifts and insulting things far beyond my understanding if I was to try to navigate away from this “destiny” of sorts.

And yes, it’s essential to live in or with direct access to a place like LA. If you want to be involved or relevant you have to be close to where it’s happening. That’s not the case for every artist of course. But for me, it’s been true. Proximity and access make all the difference. If I couldn’t just pop in and bother a gallery for a check or drop off / pick up my work I’d be in a disadvantage.

And then there’s the personality aspect. Maybe some people are just built for certain things. I believe that. That acceptance of one’s self and true nature is directly related to your success or failure. That gets us into another topic that I’m no expert in though.

nathan spoor, citizens of the war, acrylic on canvas, 26"x20"

Your work seems deeply rooted in a world of fantasy. Much of your work depicts chimerical, otherworldly landscapes, do these pieces represent views of one particular imaginary world that you visit in your mind, or is your imagination constantly taking you new places?

I wish I had a great response for that one. I can tell you what I think it is, even though that is an evolving answer in itself. I call the body of work I’ve been painting through since I moved to LA in 2001, The Intimate Parade. I feel that the work represents a physical manifestation of a combination of my personal and spiritual particles, as well as experiences and insights into various realms.

There’s a certain aspect of sight involved as well. I do have strange visions or see things that I can’t explain and wouldn’t know how to access normally. There’s an “in between” that appears in some form of meditative communication. I wish I could go into it further but I’d go on and on and on and wouldn’t make much sense. So yes, let’s just say my imagination and universally conscious selves are very active and productive.

nathan spoor, the emissary, acrylic on canvas, 36"x36"

One of my most precious thrift store finds of all time was an old denim trapper keeper that feel open to reveal that it was a twenty year old Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual (with HUNDREDS of mint condition monster illustrations with their moves, and powers, etc.), disguised as a seventh grader's math folder. Did you play any role playing games, or have exposure to that old school fantasy style illustration when you were growing up?

I always wondered where that went!

No, I never played role-playing games or anything, they weren’t allowed. And fantasy art was too graphic or suggestive for us kids (I have one younger brother). I guess my influences as a kid were Star Wars, comic books, and things like that. Super heroes were a big thing. I liked Spider Man, Captain America, things like that.

I appreciate that your work varies, from pieces that are somewhat haunting in their emptiness and simplicity, to pieces that are fecund with imagery, characters and action. Does the finished result reflect your state of mind when you were working on the piece?

I like the word “fecund”. It’s like you’re going to talk about poo and then it’s very intellectual. Like high-class poo. And that brings us back to art. I’m not sure if it overtly reflects my state of mind, but I do think that it always has that imprint. I try to let the piece grow as it needs and not over think or overdo it. 

Were you a fantasy reader/watcher when you were young, or, for that matter, are you still?

Yes and yes.

I find your work incredibly romantic, in that rich, literary sense... a la King Arthur or Beowulf. Are you a reader as well as a writer?

Thank you, and still the answer is yes. We read those books or stories in high school and I enjoyed them. I thought the whole translation bit for Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales pretty crazy. Everything was written in a highly intelligent code or foreign unused language in today’s means. I always enjoyed English and Lit classes, and had a good time with the course work. Science was different story. That was challenging and exciting and so foreign. I’m no scientist but I took away as much as I could and try to listen to science podcasts and things.

Do your literary or cinematic choices contribute to the formation of your fantasy landscapes?

I’m sure they do. I watch movies to relax and read to keep sharp.

What is your workspace like?

It’s small, in what would be the tiny dining area corner of the apartment here. It’s in the corner between the kitchen and living room. I keep only paintings in progress on the walls, so I can switch things up when I need to switch gears and get into different works.

What kind of inspiration do you surround yourself with?

Music, ufo and science podcasts, paranormal news, mystery and thriller books, and all the paintings in progress on the walls and floors.

nathan spoor, the pleasant plunder, acrylic on canvas

Are you a prolific artist, or do your pieces take time?

That’s two questions, yes and yes. I work on about a dozen pieces at any time. They take months to finish, and are very detailed and time consuming. I’ve very fortunate to be able to paint as much as I do.

Are you the type to work a piece through several stages and mediums, with sketches and under drawings, or do you find that the piece is already waiting on the canvas simply waiting to be revealed?

I generally get solid ideas for entire pieces or sections of works. Then I sketch out the ideas and order stretcher frames. Then I stretch them, prep them, sand it up and get started painting. I don’t sketch onto the canvas. I like the challenge of only painting, loosely, then tightening it up as I go along. I’ll leave plenty of room for things to switch up if the idea needs to go a different direction. It’s an organic process, and needs to grow at its own rate to become a really successful piece.

I see a relation between your work and the works of other visionary artists, like Hieronymus Bosch and Max Ernst. I also read your interview with visionary art Mack daddy Alex Grey. Do you consider yourself a visionary artist?

I’d say so. Those artists are far more advanced than I am, but I’m going to go the distance and see what happens.

Fenario Gallery, the art space that I direct/curate, started out as a visionary art gallery and we've been lucky to put on shows with artists like Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffman, and Bill Kruetzmann. When I got started visionary art wasn't my expertise so I made the time to visit the American Museum of Visionary Art when I was out East. Though they did have pieces by contemporaries like Alex Grey, a lot of their curatorial choices seemed to highlight an altered mental state, most often "confirmed", diagnosed mental illness, as the source of "visionary art." Though multiple definitions can certainly exist, my limited knowledge of visionary art had, up to that point, been defined by a notion that visionary art is that which depicts freely and without censorship a deep and natural connection to fantasy and myth. How do you define visionary art?

Well, I feel that most any forum of thought remains open to a wide variety of opinions and expectations. The defining of anything so open almost limits its potential. I don’t think we can help but have a limited view of what “visionary art” is. I think if it’s a poignant and rich visual, coming from somewhere beyond our understanding and created in the spirit of education or love, it’s relevant. See, I can’t even pinpoint an answer really. Fantasy art is fantasy in my opinion. Visionary art is such a rich and stigmatized term that I think I could only use it as a partial explanation for what I do. But all in all, I don’t try to define visionary art.

It's funny, when I first started at Fenario and I was told that it was a "Visionary Art" gallery, I had a real syntactical problem with the term visionary art. To me, all art is visionary, so the title seemed overly broad and prone to misunderstanding. I often find myself asking artists to define things for me, only to realize my syntactical error in using the word "define," because I too think that art terms should be plastic. 

Have you had a chance to visit the AMVA?

Not yet.

How do you feel about their curatorial practice?

I don’t know. I did find this online:
If that’s the place you’re talking about then I’m not really feeling it. The site was cluttered, on the cheesy side, and I couldn’t really take it seriously. Visionary art deserves a much more respectable forum to tell you the truth. The artists you mentioned, plus so many others, deserve far better than to be associated with a sideshow representation of their immensely talented and undying efforts. I could go on, and hopefully there’s another place you were thinking about. But that one is insulting (no reflection on you of course, always thankful of new things to see!).

I couldn't agree more. I went to the AVMA hoping to see works by artists like A Andrew Gonzalez, Alex Grey, H.R. Giger, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, and Oleg Korolov, and instead found predominantly historical work where the didactics seemed to extort the artists mental illness and outsider status. There were a couple Alex Greys hung in sort of half-hearted spots in the front hall, but the majority of the work was set up almost like a circus freak show! The beauty of the art seemed undermined by the fact that descriptions of the immensely talented artists focused primarily on "reports of hearing voices" or "erratic" behavior, as if their greatest triumph was managing to create despite their "disabilities" rather than the execution of profound, unique art. Though I enjoyed viewing the art I was really disheartened by the fashion in which it was presented. Particularly because the AMVA is, at the moment, the only large scale exhibition space for so-called "Visionary Art" and those who visit the museum without previous knowledge of the genre risk leaving forever thinking that it is an unimportant, trivial artistic sidebar!

nathan spoor, the age of innocence, acrylic on canvas, 20"x26"

Aside from your successful fine art career you've also had your hands in other pots, such as curating art shows at several great national galleries, like your recent curatorial effort at Bold Hype "Say When." How do you enjoy working with other artists in a more organizational, administrative capacity?

I like it, in the respect of working with fellow artists and trying to find better ways and situations to showcase talent. I don’t think I’m especially talented at it, if one can be as such. But I do enjoy the possibilities of working with new potential spotlights for the individuals that I find visually captivating and personally gifted.

What got you into curating?

Same as above. I guess I fell into it in some ways. As it’s not my prime intention, I see it as an opportunity to be of service, or as an intermediary of fine talent or artist placement in a specific spotlight. If I think about it, I had opportunities to curate shows when a space would make itself available. Generally it would be a nontraditional location that I could figure out how to work a group show out for. Sometimes I would get offered a solo show and turn that into a group show, just to test out the space or feel out the market there. Now I occasionally get the chance to work with places I know or trust and curate with, or the new gallery that just seems to have a really nice vibe or cool owner. Having had some sketchy experiences I tend to not jump at most opportunities. You just get a feel for it or can tell what will be positive and what might not work out.

You've been in the game awhile, do you find yourself calling on artists who you know and admire and already have an established following, or do you try to push younger, less exposed talent that you believe in and want to see do well?

Both. That’s the beauty of having the opportunity to curate from that position. Putting together a balanced show, whether new or established talent is something I aspire to be better at.

What do you put a premium on when organizing a show: a good theme? An aesthetic resonance between artists' styles?

The opportunity and audience are premium, mostly. It makes a big difference to work with someone that will put in as much energy or offer a good platform to showcase individuals. I look for, or enjoy working with opportunities, rather, that will really get behind the idea. The artists really need to work with someone respectable that will not let them down or drop the ball. It also really helps to work with folks that will follow through on their word, especially since handshakes are the most common deals around. I work with people on their word, so when they lay down on the deal, it only hurts the growth of what we might have been able to do with them. The premiums are on trust, opportunity, audience, possibility, forward momentum, etc.

nathan spoor, the night visit, acrylic on canvas, 18"x34"

You've also been lucky enough to work with Hi-Fructose and BL!SSS and other great art publications as a writer/interviewer. Have you always been a writer?

Yes and no. I’ve always enjoyed writing for my own enjoyment. It wasn’t until Greg Escalante asked me to help out on interviews he had the opportunity to do with Juxtapoz that I really got into art writing. I’m no pro by any means but I do enjoy it and have a genuinely good time and somewhat of a knack for some aspects of it. We write for whoever comes our way and puts it in print that he gets along with, art rags, books, online. I’m now assisting Hi Fructose with fun things and content as a Contributing Editor and Writer for their online and occasionally in print. Without the happy accident of assisting Greg in our Juxtapoz articles and stories I wouldn’t have really thought about doing this sort of thing. But I love it and would like to continue pursuing it and see where it goes.

Is the interviewing something that you pursued, or did it sort of come with the territory as you became more and more active in the scene?

I didn’t pursue it at first. I would go about my business and Greg would / will call up and see if I’m free to do an interview and we get on a three way call with the artists and I type as fast as I can and create my own shorthand version of the conversation. It’s gotten me more proficient in typing for sure! As time went on, I started to see opportunities to be more active in the interviews, and Greg always encourages me to jump in. Being as active as I’ve been definitely helps. And now I’ve been coming up with new ideas that we’ll talk over and see how they go.

What do you get from the practice of hearing about other people's processes and inspirations?

It’s really interesting to hear artists that I respect and admire talk about their craft and their approach to bringing their work to life. We all seem to have some visionary aspect to our work, and each individual has his or her own unique brand of seeing it into reality. It definitely helps to hear people talk about their work and process though. It helps me formulate my own responses to the same questions we all get asked and have a more appropriate answer. It also helps me understand what not to ask or how to go about being more creative in asking questions so that an artist can have more freedom to express themselves when responding.

nathan spoor, a wink for safe passages, acrylic on canvas, 26"x20"

What is your best advice for young people entering the gallery world, as either artists or administrators?

Well, I always say that you have to really love what you do if you want to keep doing it. It’s also going to be clear as to whether or not you should be pursuing something or not. Be sensitive and listen more than you talk, and when you answer, be clear and direct. I guess the most important thing is to just do what you feel is your thing; don’t be upset when or if people don’t respond instantly to your genius ideas. Patience is key, timing is imminent, and at the right moment it will all click into place. But if I was getting into this again I would make sure I was really ready for it. Everyone has an opinion about your work. Some are right on and some are jealous and mask themselves in friendship to keep you at a mediocre level. Don’t accept mediocrity, but understand when the right person is giving you advice that’s gold. Things might take a while to make sense, and if you’re really lucky, it might happen really fast. If that’s the case, just trust yourself to do the right thing, keep a level head, and know whom you can trust around you.

Administrators? Well, I guess, the approach would be the key. If you’re working with artists, always follow through. Be open and explain things when they’re murky or difficult. Be very patient, be available when you can be, and try to understand that everyone is learning and everyone is going to forget things. Be on top of your records and keep a good calendar!

If you were a fantasy creature what would you be?

A time traveler.

Favorite Saturday morning cartoon of old?

I didn’t know cartoons came on on Sundays. We were always at church, so cartoons were on Saturday for me. I think the best was Bugs Bunny / Looney Toons. There are tons more, but those are the classics for me. The ones with Friz Freleng and Mel Blanc are the best.

If you could loose Paul McCarthy's ill-fated inflatable dogshit piece on anyone's picnic who would it be? 

I think the irony would be if Paul McCarthy was having a picnic with Jeff Koons and it landed on top of them and they ended up smooshed on top of each other, and came out with chocolate pudding on their faces (we think it was pudding). The chocolate Santa buttplug is brilliant.

That would be truly spectacular. I remember reading about the transformation of the Maccarone gallery into McCarthy's chocolate butt-plug factory and thought to myself, Michele Maccarone has got it made. I'll know that I've made it in the gallery world when I have the resources and the cajones to turn my entire gallery into a chocolate butt-plug factory. To be able to delve so deeply into artistic fantasy and to stand so assuredly in the face of potentially REALLY shocking people for the sake of artistic liberty seems like a great state to be in. 

nathan spoor, the immaculate correspondence, acrylic on canvas, 32"x25"

nathan spoor has several upcoming exhibits of his work, including march's group show old skool vs. new skool at PULSE new york, march 5-8.