A Life Lived in Art
♦Jeremy Mann is an acclaimed American fine artist who has built up a reputation for a style that is both classical yet contemporary. His paintings of US cityscapes and female portraits have gained him a huge following worldwide. For our 2000th post on the site, Tripwire caught up with him recently to talk about his career, his approach to painting and much more. Interview: JOEL MEADOWS
TRIPWIRE: What was it that triggered your interest in fine art as a child?
JEREMY MANN: I have no idea where it all began. Probably somewhere between collecting roadkill for their skulls and wanting to draw better than my sister.
TW: Your work feels nostalgic and timeless yet contemporary. How much of a fair comment do you feel this is?
JM: Quite fair indeed! Living in a contemporary world, one is always influenced by the surroundings that beat down their door. Yet being an old soul, a lover of romantically antiquated ways, old European streets and slow days wandering outdoors, the heart in my work feels like a memory from the vintage cameras which I carry with me.
TW: Your work also feels very American, and I can also see the influence of illustrators like NC Wyeth and to a lesser extent, Norman Rockwell, in your work too. Do you see yourself as an artist in the American tradition?
JM: I suppose that would be best left for scholars who know how to categorize. My inspirations are vastly different and innumerable, some of whom are the illustrators from the 20th century, like Mc Ginnis, Cornwell and the others. I find valuable inspiration in even the minute details of brushwork or patterns and the hard to perceive balance and grace of an overall composition such as in Mucha’s work, borrow these little things I love, learn from them and re-invent them in my own way.
TW: You paint cityscapes and you also paint portraits, two very different sort of subjects. Is it the variety that appeals to you as an artist?
JM: Not so much the variety for varieties sake, but more to keep myself sane. My mind tends to float from one creative realm to another while tying them all together. The enjoyment of my photography is tied to my tinkering with antique cameras, fixing them and even making my own, which is part of the mathematical and material enjoyment I have constructing or building new things. The relaxation and peace I find in plein air painting accompanies my need to be out on long adventures whether camping or staying in small Italian villages. So in the creation of my art, it’s about being able to tie the fundamentals with my own style throughout all types of paintings, no matter what the subject. What I learn in the aggressive and exhaustive attacks upon the cityscapes I carry with me emotionally into to the figure work, and the composition, silence and beauty I find painting woman I allow to influence parts of the cityscapes. The way to paint a car in the dark has much to do with how you paint the form of a female body. The methods with which you create your ideas should come from the same voice speaking many languages.
TW: There are also a few landscapes in your recent art book. How important is it for an artist to push what he or she portrays and paint a subject that they are less familiar with?
JM: There are artists trying to make great statements, artists creating paintings which evoke strange or wonderful feelings, and artists who which to duplicate what they see. But the underlying hand of the artist can hold together many things if the soul of the artist is strong. The challenge of attempting something unfamiliar brings to light hindrances and skills an artist wouldn’t mindfully realize when monotonously recreating the same thing. Perhaps an artist enjoys the atmosphere and depth found in landscape painting but hates the color and seemingly complex shape of trees. Perhaps one finds excitement in the rush of the cars between masses of people on city streets but thinks there’s just too many damn windows to make a good painting. Everyone says that escargot or fish brains are a delicacy but I can barely stomach them. How do you know a wall is hard unless you punch it, that there’s a skull within a head unless you’ve seen it, that flowers take a lot of care to grow, and people can be mostly a nuisance but there are so many beautiful souls hidden among them? Yes. Try everything. Trust in what sings to your own soul, not the popular songs of others. But be fully aware of its purpose for you as an artist.
TW: How long does it take you to create one of your paintings?
JM: A shockingly small amount of time. I recently gave a few demos (a rare thing for me, don’t expect it) of my four-foot square monotone cityscapes painted with ink brayers and other mostly printmaking tools. I found it possible to finish one to a mildly satisfactory point within the 50 minutes I was given. This is the result of creating these cityscapes in this style, with these unique tools, over 160 times in the last several years. The first one took 12 hours straight and couldn’t be allowed to dry during the process until finished. It was a horrendous undertaking. But the goal for myself was to be able to figure out these new tools I was trying to use, to create marks that I enjoyed, and to elicit the emotion and feeling of these cityscapes based solely on the main abstract fundamentals of art. The best way to do all of that at once is to paint the same thing as many times as you can. By the end of that exercise, the growth garnered by an artist will be exponential. Lately, I’ve been hunting for new experiences by adding more layers to my working process, new and larger non-traditional instruments with which to conduct this symphony of painting, repeating, failing, experimenting and learning from all of it. With those things driving me onward, I know myself well enough to realize I will get bored of a painting if it takes more than 3 or 4 days, and loose the love of the initial idea, which saddens me. So in an attempt to alleviate that internal struggle for myself, I’ve found ways to paint as precise, purposeful and fast as I can.
TW: How much photo reference is used for your portraits? I assume that the subjects sit for you?
JM: When I work in the studio, I work from photos on a monitor. When I learn, I learn from life, with plein air painting and live model sketching and painting. What I learn from life is integral when working from the stale reference point of a photograph. Most of the photos I use come from antique film cameras which I develop in my basement. The beauty in the accidents which pervade those images need no doctoring to be considered pieces of art themselves, and therefor make some of the best reference materials when painting the figure. I loathe digital. From the effect it has upon our social lives, the frustrating inability to install a program that works fluidly with other programs, all the way to the overpowering and unnatural amount of detail in a digital photograph. I do, of course, appreciate the quickness of a digital camera, but the results are always depressingly un-lifelike. I’ve begun to make my own shitty lenses in order to compensate for that dependency. But mostly, should I use a digital photo as a reference it is doctored and manipulated to the point in which it resembles the films anyway, one step closer to the memory of a lifelike moment which is my desire when painting. The better the reference, the better the painting. I do believe life is the best reference most of the time, especially for learning how to paint, but when I want to elicit moments of memory, vague thoughts or melancholy emotions, these are things best left for photography to capture. Drawing and painting from life involves a strenuous amount of focus and knowledge, and trying to capture a sort of memory from a life drawing session is rather an ethereal hurtle to add to the stew of confusion. So I prefer my world of photography, and focus upon the lighting, the composition the balance, the outfits, the moments, the memory when having a shoot with a model in order for those more visceral aspects of life to take first seat when painting. As for my cityscape references, hell those are just a thousand snapshots looking for good compositions in order to relieve me of the subject and focus on the act of making a painting. I barely even look at my cityscape reference on the monitor half way through the painting process. Before I start I even flip streets around, jumble up the cars and the people, cut buildings in half, in a desperate search for some beauty in that world of walls and windows. Balance and harmony exist naturally, it’s a shame people came with their cement and covered it up.
TW: It seems that traditional portraits have had a little bit of a renaissance recently with a number of competitions on TV in the UK. Why do you think it fell out of favor and why do you think it is coming back in vogue?
JM: Really? There’s portrait painting TV shows in the UK? That’s kind of good! But kind of not. Like most great things worth holding onto in cultures, they have resurgences, brief times of newfound popularity, or breath anew within the lives of a small pocket of peoples somewhere before they fade out again and are replaced by quick, cheap, and easier ways. Photo filters on phones are just vain attempts to replicate the effect of the slowly dying off art of polaroids and films. These veins of wonderment and beauty underlie the culture of man and flow beneath us. They simply get covered up by popular new inventions. People say that someday a computer program will be able to create a painting as exactly and well executed as a master artist. People “ooo” and “ahhhh” at that. But we all know that without the soul of and artist behind the creation, it’s still just pigments and medium. So when these things come back in vogue, it’s just a testament to their importance. Turn off the TV, and go find a damn museum.
TW: The world has changed a lot since the golden age of portrait painters. Why is it do you think that painting can still say something about the world in the 21st century?
JM: Art, whatever that term has been chiseled down to, will always persist as long as we live. It’s a part of our nature as humans, to understand the life we were thrown into living. We need to express our confusion, wonderment, anger, depression, and joy in this miasma somehow, and anything people reduce to define as simply “art” is the result. There will always be something to say, and no matter what happens, there will always be artists crawling out from the cracks to say it. These days, thought, it’s harder to hear the poetry amidst all the unfounded shouting.
TW: On a related subject, what do you think that painting can do that something else like photography cannot as an artform?
JM: It has unique existential quantification. That’s the only way to put it, I think. It’s a mathematical term which basically means there is one and only one. Do not get me wrong, here, I would never put one form of art above another. I love photography and all of its qualities, there are things that can be done with the science of photography that cannot be done in paintings but the ideas of their creations are the same. I get so frustrated when I see the incredible and mind blowing pieces of art created by my friends who work digitally, when the work exists only in some intangible digital realm and lives so fragile in that space. One click and its gone forever, another click and there are thousands of it around the world. Yet these forms of art have their own strengths too, creating living fantasies in time and space, and therein is only one of the properties unique to that medium. Some things can only be evoked by music and certain feelings for a person can only be expressed with poetry. But when it comes to painting, to stand before a physical piece of art, created at one point in time, by one artist, who stood just about where you now stand, with the knowledge that in no other spot in the world does this exist but right here before you, is a powerful thing to behold. That is the strength of a painting. That is why they need to be seen in person, and that is why they will move you.
TW: Your work seems influenced by the likes of Whistler and Singer Sargeant, especially the portraits. How much of an influence have these two artists had on your work and yourself as an artist?
JM: When I was learning how to paint, and even to this day because I’m still learning, they were huge influences in my process. Certain things about them struck chords in tune within me and carried me along whilst I bumbled through my own paintings. I was moved greatly not only by their paintings but also their lives. Whistler was a flagrant character full of savage wit and strength while most of the establishment thought his works were weak, worthless and lacked information. Sargent came to despise his well-earned skills in portrait painting because of the people who demanded them of him, and yearned to wander forest, mountain and field with a select few friends and paint about *his* life. There is more to being influenced by an artist than simply enjoying the two dimensions of their craft. These days their books may rest slightly dusty on my shelves as I’ve wandered off finding new influences and ideas. Yet their paintings will always slap the stupid on my face at the museums, mesmerized for long moments. What they have taught me will always burn somewhere within my art. The roots of long gone trees remain to become the soil for new shrubs.
TW: Who would you say are your greatest influences as an artist and has this changed over the years?
JM: Curiosity and awareness. And yes, the nature of those influences is that they are constantly changing, a very good thing for creative growth as well as for the soul.
TW: You seem fascinated by American urban landscapes. What is it about places like Chicago and San Francisco that fascinate you as an artist?
JM: I hate them enough to try and understand them. I can get claustrophobic around too many people, a natural syndrome for many studio artists, and cities are the epicenter of “too many people.” At what point people decided to stop making beautiful buildings and erect hard edge rectangular tombs confuses me. So, in an effort to confront my demons in the safety of my own studio, I paint cityscapes, pretending to the public that they are studies of artistic fundamentals like perspective, balance, shapes and values.
TW: Are there any plans for you to come and depict any European cities?
JM: No, I love them too much.
TW: San Francisco has been your home city for a number of years. What is it about this place that you find inspirational as an artist?
JM: Variety. From the obvious nature of its multifaceted landscape all the way to the plethora of beautiful weirdos and things they do with their lives here. SF has been known for the longest time to be a location of refuge for the peculiar, and it’s probably because SF itself is weird and different from anywhere else. Much the same as New York or Venice, the only difference is you know what people mean when they say someone is “a New Yorker” but when someone says a person is from San Francisco, what does that mean?! Fucking anything. And that’s what I love about it, its varietal magnet brings home the beauty of such strange souls and the proximity of city and nature is pure perfection.
TW: You are still quite a young artist and you have already built up an amazing body of work. Do you continue to strive to improve and enhance your work as your career progresses?
JM: I feel old as shit. But I think that’s mostly from exhaustion. Even though the big picture doesn’t show much change in my work to many, I see bounds and steps from each painting to the next. The result of, yes, a constant strive to better myself. It’s a terrible thing to say, but from the moment I start a painting to the end of its creation, my whole being loves it with all its struggles and successes. But once I start the next one, I think the previous one is basically garbage. I mean this in its purpose for me as an artist, I wouldn’t dare say that they are worthless. But in order to progress in this, my lifelong search for myself, I cannot put them on pedestals, you have to kill kittens sometimes in order to understand why you can love them so much.
TW: You work with oils which is a very unforgiving medium for a fine artist. Do you enjoy the challenge of working in this medium?
JM: Good lord, no. If there was a time-lapse recording of the words yelled in my studio over the course of any month, it would play back like the mad banter of a crack addict with Tourette’s. But, like anything in life, it can be figured out with perseverance, understanding, and a bit of purposefully brave mistakes, where anything goes as long as the depth of its purpose is paramount. For shit’s sake, a few men figured out how to make the world’s first atomic bomb on paper without any testing, and I can’t figure out how to stop my painting from being too slippy? Grow up, Jeremy.
TW: How critical are you of your own work?
JM: It is the one thing I am most critical of in my life, because it is me. You must be the only thing you can stand behind honestly and defend to your death.
Jeremy Mann’s book Mann Volume 1 is available to order online from here