Jim, you are not only making art, you are making the material you make art from. So please explain the process of creating this ink/raw pigment material you are working with: what do you call this stuff? How did you end up making it?
OK, here goes: The material I use is an acrylic gloss medium into which I mix ink and/or raw pigment, and with this mix I can basically do anything–create any color, any surface texture, and I can make colors opaque or transparent to any degree. This might not sound like much, but to an abstract painter like me it’s incredible, especially the ability to make strong, transparent colors which can be poured—magic! Normal acrylic paints are all opaque. Same with oils, plus if you pour out thick layers of oil paint, they may never dry: some of the best ab-ex paintings from the 50’s are still wet just below the surface!
Anyway, I first discovered the properties of A.G.M back in 1989 while varnishing a mixed-media portrait of the French poet Paul Eluard–I had used this deep blue ink for his jacket, and the A.G.M. accidentally picked up some of the ink and made a beautiful transparent light blue wash, and that was it–my Eureka moment! Right away I started experimenting with A.G.M. mixtures. But A.G.M. is expensive and I was poor, so it was a long time before I could use it for large scale paintings.
Over the years I’ve experimented with everything including Polyurethane (highly toxic), poster paint (cheap but chalky), Elmer’s Glue (inexpensive & organic but mostly opaque and dries brittle) and various artificial resins (all toxic and nasty). But for me A.G.M. was (and is) the answer, and now it’s all I use. I hand mix every color, and can make things look exactly the way I envision them in my mind.
Wow, Eluard provided that! I love this poem of his:
She Looks Into Me
She looks into me
The unknowing heart
To see if I love
She has confidence she forgets
Under the clouds of her eyelids
Her head falls asleep in my hands
Where are we
He alive she alive
And my head rolls through her dreams.
So you have found your building block! I Now I have to ask you about the pour. You can’t mention the pour without talking about the drip. So please tell me where you stand on the pour, how it’s related (or not) to the drip, and your view on the action of pouring–is your work a recording of the pour? Does the act of pouring have other meanings for you?
To me pouring is just another technique for applying paint to a surface and the act of pouring doesn’t have any significance in itself. The act of making a painting, though, has every significance for me–mostly it reminds me that existence is miraculous, even when it’s difficult, nerve-wracking, shitty. The act of making a painting does that for me. It connects me to the larger system, which is everything.
That said, pouring works very well for me partly because of its imprecision–I don’t throw skeins of paint like Pollock did–my pouring is usually done a few inches above the canvas. Even so, when you pour a fluid mixture onto a surface, all kinds of things can happen, and that’s what I’m looking for: I create certain parameters, pour out my material, and see what happens. I’m looking for a balance between my intentions and the accidental, the random, the uncontrolled experience.
I could also say that pouring is like the base of a soup in that I often pour my material out onto tables stretched with plastic, let it dry, peel it up and then apply it in various ways to various surfaces, including canvases. What I end up with then is sort of a collage-painting-sculpture. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately and with interesting results.
Let’s talk about your current work. In 2009 you did a series of large totems incorporating foundry molds and found objects, then you did two new series of paintings. Are you back to paintings? How did that foray into 3D change how you approach 2D?
I am back to painting, if you can call it that! Working on the Totems did change things for me in that it allowed me to paint in three dimensions, to take painting off the canvas. I love the interface between painting and sculpture, between sculpture and architecture, between architecture and drawing, between drawing and painting…
The cool thing about being an artist in the 21st century, for me anyway, is that all bets are off, and everything has already been done, so artists are free to do what they please and forget about the linear sequence of art history. That’s the way I see it. And I trained as an art historian, not as a painter. I’m getting a bit off topic here, but operating in the margins as I do sometimes requires guerrilla tactics.
Where do you see your work headed? And where can we see the new work on display?
Also, we need to mention your work as a historian/consultant with your partner Sara Blumberg in Glasspast, where your expertise is in Italian glass from 1870-1970. How do you think your glass scholarship has influenced your work?
Recently I’ve been doing these heavily textured, dimensional paintings and there’s still a lot of ground to explore here. Also, many of the techniques that I’m working out in the paintings I’ll use as surfaces on a new group of sculptural objects/furniture which I’ll start working on in the fall.
At the moment I have work in several places: I’ve been showing with Mondo Cane Gallery in New York for the last 10 years and they represent my Totem sculptures along with paintings and some of my sculptural furniture. There’s also a new gallery in Hudson, NY called Finch, for whom I’ve just completed a special series of paintings, and they’re showing some of my furniture, too. Last year the designer Jonathan Adler commissioned me to do a series of paintings for his stores in New York, Dallas, Austin and Los Angeles, and those are on display now. But to see the newest stuff you have to visit my studio in Milan, New York. I also try to document what’s happening in my studio on my website, jimoliveirastudio.com. In fact I’m getting ready to put up a whole new group of images before the end of the summer.
As far as my involvement with Italian glass goes, it has definitely influenced every aspect of my work. I’ve been collecting, studying and dealing in antique and vintage glass since I was a 9 or 10 years old, and I’m still obsessed with it. In fact, I’ve always been obsessed with historical objects in general, but there’s something special about the glass, something about seeing into and through a solid object.