Monday, May 4, 2009

joshua witten: allegorical alchemist

joshua witten, the tea party (detail), ink, oil and pencil on canvas, 30"x24"

joshua witten is an artist and illustrator living in the great state of indiana. he is a participant in this months' "menace to propriety" show and agreed to answer some of my questions about his art. witten's images were a hit at friday's opening, and his "the magic show" painting was used for the promotional material for the show. his clean, eloquent illustration style is what caught my eye first, but his clever themes and concepts are what made me a super fan. 

CG: tell me a little about where you live and work.

I live in the great state of Indiana and am currently a framing manager at Michaels, the arts and crafts store.

CG: what kind of media do you prefer?

I can’t really say that I prefer one media over another. I suppose if I had to pick one it would be graphite as it was my first love. There is something about the simplicity of pencil and paper that is very appealing to me however I love painting, printmaking and sculpture as well.

CG:  you have a really unique technique when it comes to painting. the two canvases that you sent me for the "menace to propriety" show both include oil paint as well as ink, which it appears is used to define the more graphic elements of the composition. how did you come to this style?

How did I come to this style? That is a very good question. I think it began with hieroglyphs. Seemingly all cultures used a hieroglyphic method at some point in their artistic history regardless of who they were or where they were. To me hieroglyphs are like a universal human language that transmits information across time and space. With this in mind I had been making various drawings and prints that combined these ancient elements with ideas of modernism and postmodernism in order to create something new that was also rooted in the past. The two canvases that I sent to you for the “Menace to Propriety“ show are part of a larger series of ten entitled, “Occam’s Razor and Other Short Stories.” The series was an opportunity to take everything that I had done on paper and apply it to canvas with the idea of making paintings that looked like my drawings and prints. I tried a lot of different techniques before finally settling on ink, oil and pencil. The final result was an amalgamation of media, like a hybrid of graphic minimalism with heavy emphasis on black. I suppose in the end I would say that I came to this style through constraint. Charles Eames once said that design depends largely on constraints and I think he was right on the money.

CG: what is your working process? can you tell us a little about how you go about transforming your ideas from thoughts to material objects?

I always have ideas floating around in my head. Some get written down, some don’t. Some come to the forefront while others stay back. Typically, I start thinking of certain ones more than others for varying reasons. Sometimes I don’t know the reasons until much later if I ever know them at all. In any case, those ideas that I think about most are usually the ones that I start doing research and preparatory sketches for. These become the foundation that I use to make the final artwork, be it a painting or a drawing or a print.

CG: what do you draw inspiration from?

Anything and everything.

joshua witten, the executive, ink, oil and pencil on canvas, 20"x16"

CG: fellow artists that you admire? alive? dead?

There are a lot of them so this could be a long list. Let’s start with the dead ones...they are in no particular order…Picasso, Warhol, Degas, Klimt, Frida and Diego, Hockney, Schiele, Balthus, Basquiat, Franz Kline, Pollock, Tamara de Lempicka, Mary Cassatt, Vincent Van Gogh, Gauguin, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Harunobu, Osamu Tezuka, and Rockwell. Now moving onto the living…also in no particular order…Audrey Kawasaki, Amy Sol, Sylvia Ji, Murakami, Walton Ford, Frank Miller, and Julian Schnabel.

CG: you have a fantastic piece called the antigravity machine that depicts a boombox and a break dancer. are you a dancer yourself? a music lover? what kind of tunes get you in a creative space?

I wouldn’t call myself a dancer per say but I can shake it if I need to because I truly am a lover of music. “The anti-gravity machine” represents my great fondness of the hip hop culture and aesthetic. At the time I was listening to a lot of Common and At The Drive-In and if you look closely enough you can see those influences in the work for sure.

CG: where have you shown your work? where will you be showing in the near future?

I have shown my work in a number of places. I have shown locally in Indiana at Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery and at The Spurious Fugitive Gallery which I am sorry to say closed its doors in March. I have also shown at Eclectix Gallery and Gallery Nucleus which are both in the great state of California. In the near future I will be showing at Artlink Gallery and the Fenario Gallery for your show, “Menace to Propriety.”

CG: how do you feel being asked to participate in the "menace to propriety" show? is your work intentionally provocative? 

I feel honored to be asked to participate in this show. I really haven’t ever considered my work to be intentionally provocative until thinking about the literal meaning of the words, “menace to propriety.” I might say now that some are definitely more provocative than others because they contain a subtle message that sometimes asks viewers to question authority.

CG: occam's razor is the theory by which i live my life. simplify, simplify, simplify. you have a series calles "occam's razor and other short stories." can you tell me a bit about this series and about your relationship to the theorem of occam's razor?

As I said before, “Occam’s Razor and Other Short Stories” technically speaking was an opportunity to take everything that I had done on paper and apply it to canvas with the idea of making paintings that looked like my drawings and prints. At the time I was thinking about globalism, world trade, and the environment. So, thematically the series began to develop with these ideas in mind. “The Tea Party” for example is as much about China and the United States as it is about as it is about Alice and the March Hare…which leads me to the overall title of the series, “Occam’s Razor and other Short Stories.” Originally, I planned to have the entire cast in my interpretation of the tea party however constraint led me to cut out the Mad Hatter and Door Mouse and focus solely on the relationship between Alice and the March Hare. Following suit, I simplified the content and imagery in all of the other paintings in the series. As this simplification process continued, and technique and theme began to merge together, I remembered the idea of Occam’s Razor and felt it would be a good fit for the series.

CG: "the golden age" is a complex series that seems to be dealing with the commoditization of icons, and our societies lust for logos and branding. can you tell me more about this series? is it ongoing?

“The Golden Age” is an ongoing series that was originally going to be about mythology of various sorts and while it still kind of is, it has also become a commentary on the “commoditization of icons, and our societies lust for logos and branding” as you so eloquently put it. While attending art school there was a visit from the artist Robert Stackhouse. He told one of the students to paint something from this day and age like a Nike Swoosh and the idea of art and logos and branding has stuck with me. So, of course my golden apple of the hesperides is represented by an Apple Computer Logo.

CG: what do you do when you get stuck on an image?

I start another one.

CG: how do you reward yourself when you finish a piece?

I don’t reward myself when I finish artwork, but it sounds like a good idea. Maybe I will buy the new Prince album when I finish with the next one.

CG: anyone ever get any of your images tattooed on them? seems like they'd make for great ink!

A couple of people have actually tattooed themselves with my art. I recently drew one for my good friend who is a union man in Indianapolis. It is a bit daunting to think of my art permanently etched onto another person, but when it is I can’t help but feel the love.

CG: favorite children's book growing up?

“The Little Engine That Could”

joshua witten, the magic show, ink, oil and pencil on canvas, 16"x20"

CG: favorite board game?

Trivial Pursuit

CG: if you had a super power what would it be?


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