Interview: Joe Fig

In his second solo exhibition at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York City, Joe Fig offers a series of intimate-scale paintings depicting scenes pulled from Hollywood film adaptations of famous artists’ lives. The moments of inspiration he selects are kaleidoscopically represented through a linear breakdown of various media; an imagined tale from a real painter’s life scripted by a screenwriter, performed by an actor and filmed by a director, finally re-interpreted by another painter. With these small canvases, Fig continues his practice of exploring the lives and creative processes of artists in his own works.

Before the exhibition Cinematic Paintings ends on October 20, 2012, The Ministry of Artistic Affairs reached out to ask Joe Fig a few questions about inspiration, his newest work, and plans for a sequel to his highly successful book Inside The Painter’s Studio.

The Ministry of Artistic Affairs: How did your ongoing interest in artists and their inspiration lead to this latest body of work?

Joe Fig: Inspiration and the creative process have been integral to my work for years. My book (Inside the Painter’s Studio) evolved out of my desire to get a better understanding of artistic process. Inspiration is a very mysterious thing. Are there really artists today who torture themselves like Kirk Douglas when he portrayed Vincent van Gogh? Are there actually big moments of divine intervention as there are in Agony and Ecstasy? Not really. Great art honestly happens in the quiet, contemplative moments. In doing the book project I found –to quote Chuck Close– “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.”
 The idea of artists as portrayed in film had been floating in my head for a number of years, ever since a conversation I had with Eric Fischl. He noted that the creative process is so internal that it is very difficult to portray, especially in film. The only actor he could recall doing a good job of it was Nick Nolte in the film New York Stories.

That comment started me thinking about how artists and the creative process are dramatized in film and additionally how that dramatization has propagated the myth of the lone, crazed artist-genius. Eventually I began researching films about artists, and that led to this new body of work.

MAA: Tell me about how the works are painted. They are based, obviously, on select moments in these crazy films, but how does the process work for you once you put paintbrush to canvas?

JF: Once I have the composition figured out, I project the image on a wall to work out the scale of the figures and the size of the canvas. I then paint a violet ground because Monet said, “I’ve discovered the color of the universe and it is violet.”

Once I have the ground finished, I paint very quickly, filling in the shapes with the general colors. I use thin washes and a big brush. I do this usually until the painting is pretty dark. Then I go back in and re-draw the main scene with a brush. After that, it’s a matter of focusing on the smaller details, say a face or hands, and really trying to nail it down.

My painting has evolved over the years. In the past the paintings would be very detailed, but now I try to capture a moment using fewer strokes and allowing more of the underpainting and drawing to remain visible. I really enjoy those passages of pure color, the weave of the canvas, and how the paint grips that weave. It’s very beautiful.

MAA: Most of us in the art world think these movies are ridiculous clichés, but we love them anyway. Which ones were you most attracted to, and how did you choose the scenes you finally painted?

JF: I am most attracted to the films from the fifties and sixties–Lust for Life (1956), Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Moulin Rouge (1952) etc. The films back then were shot in stunning technicolor. Very rich, vibrant, saturated color, very beautiful. I appreciate the attention to the period details, costumes and scenery, they all look pretty accurate. And I love when the acting is over the top. Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn (spitting images of Van Gogh and Gauguin, respectively) bring such drama and spirit that it is very entertaining.

The scenes I look for when creating a painting are often those of artists at work, or in a moment of contemplation–the quiet moments. But I have also painted some of the cliches that shape the general public’s understanding of artists: the tortured soul, divine inspiration, moments of loneliness and despair. I really tried to create images that, although based in film, were universal moments in all artists’ lives. The artist creates, the artist doubts, the artist is critiqued, and the artist perseveres. And sometimes, the artist drinks too much.

MAA: Well, since you brought up the drinking, tell me about Sobbing Pollock. It’s such a pathetic image and yet so powerful. What does it say about the “myth” of the artist?

JF: The funny thing about these films is that they spend very little time showing the artist at work. They focus mainly on the drama in their personal lives. And if there is any artist who embodied the lone, crazed artist-genius it is Pollock. The painting, Sobbing Pollock, is one of my favorites in the show. It shows an older, bearded Pollock curled up in the fetal position, drunk and sobbing in despair–really at his lowest–while his young, hot mistress Ruth Kligman looks on unsympathetically.

When it comes to the question of how do you dramatize the artist’s demons, this is it. I actually think it is one of the funnier moments in the film, maybe because it is played so earnestly by Ed Harris. He really lived Pollock. The scene is such a clichéd and obvious choice on how to dramatize despair, yet Harris somehow makes it feel so real.

MAA: You have just agreed to publish another book, based on your first one, Inside the Painter’s Studio. How will these paintings inform that project?

JF: I really love these new paintings. I love the small scale, I love how they are painted, and I love the scenes they depict. I recently had an epiphany: I could do a new book and include paintings rather than sculptures. I looked back at earlier paintings of contemporary artists I had done, and found that the compositions or moments were similar to the Cinematic paintings. I had been thinking about a new book for a while, and it just seemed like all the pieces of the puzzle finally came together.

Joe Fig
Cinematic Paintings
September 6 – October 20, 2012
Cristin Tierney Gallery
546 West 29th Street, New York City
www.cristintierney.com

Image Credits, from top, all Courtesy of the Artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, NY.
Joe Fig
Despair: Sobbing Pollock (with Ruth Kligman), 2012
oil on canvas mounted on board and framed
8.5 x 12.5 inches

Joe Fig
Lovers: Frida and Diego, 2012
oil on canvas mounted on board and framed
5.5 x 8.5 inches

Joe Fig
Inside the Painter’s Studio (Contemplation):
Picasso, Matisse and Françoise Gilot, 2012
oil on canvas mounted on board and framed
11 x 17 inches

Joe Fig
Artist and Muse: Toulouse-Lautrec, 2012
oil on canvas mounted on board and framed
5 x 7.5 inches

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