Los Angeles painter Tim Forcum speaks with John Mills regarding his work and influences, early modernism, abstraction, neuroscience, the Body without Organs and the idea of originality. Tim Forcum is a painter and teaches at Cal State Northridge. He currently is represented by d.e.n. contemporary.
TF Can you talk about the ideas you had when you were making the work that’s included in your show, “Selected Works?”
JM Basically the work starts with my drawing process. I have for sometime been using markers on paper with the Sennelier Maxi Pad which is 12.5 x12.5 inches. And I do these kind of loose abstract drawings on those and that’s where the paintings come from. I think that one of the things that has always interested me is basically how painting as a language is referential to actual written language in its purest sense. Packets of marks can be analogous to words or sentences and effectively you can go back to the root of how language was originally constructed with hieroglyphic symbols and signs which are basically pictures that become understood as words when they are deciphered by linguists. To me, that has been intriguing. It has always been very exciting to me, the idea that an image can also be a language reference and I really like that weird space where a symbol becomes something that can be disseminated or understood as sort of written text. More recently I’ve segregated off areas of my paintings with blocks of color, so they take on these shapes that start to become something but don’t ever really materialize into anything in particular, which is also part of it, too. It’s drawing attention to the ephemeral nature of representation of any kind and how you perceive it, like, “…is this a thing? What is this thing?” And on a deeper level for me it’s about how you perceive things in the world on a phenomenal level, how you respond to objects in space and things of that nature.
TF It’s interesting because this brings up a question I wanted to ask. And the question I was going to ask is, are you concerned about the idea of the vocabulary of abstract mark making? And it’s interesting because you just kind of answered that. As an abstract artist myself, I’m interested in the idea of creating your own vocabulary. And it’s also a form of communication that may be personal to you and you’re talking about this more universal idea of language. Do you feel like you are referring to specific language or that you’re recreating a kind of language or creating a new vocabulary?
JM Well, I think I’m trying to do a little bit of both because I think that a lot of marks that I make are definitely connected to an art historical context, oftentimes early modernist paintings like Picasso’s early works. The works have this free-form mark making. I think my goal is to create my own language within a structure that is referential to the history of painting and abstraction because I think in a lot of ways abstraction started with that early modernist work.
TF Is there a connection with this work to your past work? Is there a relationship to that as far as communicating? Is it a continuation?
JM I think so. Over the last ten years or so I’ve done a number of bodies of work that are very divergent from what I’m doing now, but also during that time I would always draw more free-form which in itself was indeed a direct lineage to what is happening now. There were some segues where I did realistic stuff because I wanted to explore different ways of trying these ideas.
TF You were talking about recreating the visual experience and early modernism. And with that being said, I would like to bring up Cezanne who was the grandfather of abstraction in some ways, and how Cezanne spoke about the importance of making a “new optic,” the term he used as a new description of nature. So to me there is a duality as far as this sense of language or signage, and also our relationship to how we view, as far as Cezanne’s “new optic.” How important to you is it that you are making something that is completely new or that is questioning the way we see things?
JM I think that for me it’s important that I attempt to make something that can create space in between. You can have a couple of references that are actually not very new at all, stick them together and throw in something of your own and you can eke out a little space that might be something new. As far as the “new optic” that Cezanne referred to, well as we all know, a lot of stuff has already been done. The big sweeping moves of modern painting, abstraction, all the big stuff, has been taken basically, all the big territories. So now it’s about nuance I think and finding ways to create a little fissure so you can say, “…I never thought about it that way,” or, “I can look at things differently now.” For instance, a lot of my other philosophical interests have to do with consciousness and I’m interested in neuroscience and how the brain works. I think that recent neuroscience has gone a long way to describe how the brain references or accesses imagery, how you perceive objects in space, the notion of metaphor. Some people posit that metaphor is actually a mild form of synesthesia, which is confusing, say, colors and shapes with numbers, smelling words, that sort of thing. The language and color parts of the brain are closely linked, and so through this cross-circuiting they think that the human capacity for metaphor may have come about. Our capability to tell a story, or make leaps of conceptual thinking to describe something as something else, I think is uniquely human. I find these discoveries fascinating. That’s the kind of stuff, in a contemporary sense, that I am interested in.
TF That’s interesting, I think along those same lines, maybe I’ll go into that in a second. But it’s not the fact that you’re trying to particularly illustrate an idea, or you know it’s like, “…okay, I’m dealing with this philosophy and my work is based on that.” It’s like this parallel with how we think about things and also how we relate to our work. One thing I like that you said earlier is you were talking about dealing with modern art and this fact that a lot of the big things have been taken and you used the word “nuance” and I really like that because I’ve always been interested in the kind of modern art movement and those particular people and for a long time it was taboo. They would say the past is nostalgic and you’re wasting your time. And one way that I like to think of it is this idea of modernism got debunked as being a failed attempt because it got attached to this idea of utopianism or this very ideal that art could change society or things like that. Obviously we no longer are attempting to forward that model, but I’m interested in the type of imagery that was used to depict that idea. That’s what I’m fascinated by. So yeah, I go back and am interested in certain artists like Arthur Dove, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Lee Mullican, this very mystical kind of thing dealing with the spirituality of abstraction. And it’s like you can’t go there because people instantly are suspect, but again, the imagery being used to depict that is something that I’m fascinated by. And then there’s post modernism, but then I think we’re past postmodernism, I think we’re post-post-modern. And I think a lot of artists are really investing in these ideas. I think it’s okay to go back and look at some of these things that were being dealt with.
JM For me I think it’s somewhat of a fallacy that 20th century art in particular is always defined in this linear trajectory, you know, Cubism happened, abstraction in the form of Kandinsky happened, etc. These things reverberated through the art world as it was back then and people kept pushing it and it became Abstract Expressionism and then basically people did white canvases, it goes to its nth degree. There’s the whole thing about the spiritual in art. I think it is a loaded topic to speak about spirituality in relation to art works and what you can do but on the other hand, say going back to Picasso or some of these people, what they were really trying to do was represent the ephemeral nature of consciousness and existence. In a way, that in itself is enough to make good art about…this investigation of what it means to be alive. You can see it in cubist works where planes are shifting. I think there was an intuitive dialogue going on with what was going on in science at the time, the theory of relativity and so on. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you can have a very philosophical focused approach about existence with your visual language and not have it be spiritual. I’m not saying you were saying that but I think the history of art created this trajectory, “…oh, its all about meeting god,” or something.
TF My connection to that work is my fascination with what they chose to represent. Not the fact that they’re trying to reach a spiritual ideal but the fact that this is the imagery they felt led to that. Well, where does that come from? Why do we have this kind of idea of the circle being this very holistic kind of thing or a succession of circles? Basically abstraction, most of those early practitioners, came out of theosophy. All these early abstraction artists came out of theosophy so it’s kind of this religious aspect of combining all religions so you have this very idealistic kind of thing. Again, I’m more going for the non-content as far as the type of imagery that you mentioned. And what’s interesting, skipping from that, going back to where you were talking about neuroscience, and that’s something that I’m very interested in as well, maybe not as direct, but I think with the abstract work I do I’m definitely making visual references to the landscape and the figure, to all the visual elements. And modernism definitely comes out of that with cubism and Picasso. But I’m also interested in this idea that while working on a painting, I see a relationship to how I organize the canvas to possibly how my thought process is. And I think there is a direct line to how I think and how I organize my thoughts and how things relate to each other to then how I interact with the canvas. And this is something I’ve always been fascinated with. I remember the first time I moved into my own space. At first it’s an empty space and slowly I began to organize that space and I came to the realization that my mental thinking process then expanded out into my living space and that the way I think and react is being also represented with the way that I’m organizing my space around me. So also definitely in front of the canvas as I am being confronted with the space I instantly am feeling that that process is going into the canvas and how I’m doing that is quite interesting. To me, then, talking about that aspect of the “new optic,” how can I go wrong? I’m the only one who thinks the way that I, personally, think and as I make this composition, if I’m being true to myself then I’m going to do something that’s different. And obviously you have to be careful that you’re not repeating somebody else, that you’re not just subconsciously copying somebody. But if you’re fully in tune with your process then it becomes interesting.
JM It takes a lot of time to be able to filter out all the extra stuff.
TF As a visual artist that’s the importance of seeing work and studying and understanding what’s being done out there and looking at past and current work. So you’re gauging yourself, you’re not living in a bubble, obviously, and you’re being influenced. So you’re understanding what your influences are and being aware of it and making sure you steer clear of that and then you’re determining your nuance and where your work stands. And with that, that leads into another question I have. It’s in relationship to a show that was at the Hammer, Oranges and Sardines. The basis of the show is that they took several different artists and had them pick work that they felt was important to them. A few abstract people were in there, Mark Grotjahn, Amy Sillman, Charline Von Heyl.
JM Yeah, I like her work.
TF Yeah, I like her work quite a bit. And so a part of that was about this conversation that artists have which I think is always interesting. On that idea, what was the earliest connection to art that you had that you can remember that you feel was important as far as the work you saw or responded to?
JM Well, you know, early early on, I remember seeing Warhol and Picasso’s work. I didn’t quite understand it or the ramifications of it but it was intriguing to me. In undergrad in the early 90’s, I was really influenced, probably like most people were at that time, by the early 80’s, late 70s people like Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Leon Golub, and Philip Guston. That’s what I was looking that. So it was an interesting time period to access art. Oh, and there was Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. I really liked those guys at that time, too.
TF What have you seen recently that you feel has a strong impact on your work?
JM I don’t know, it’s strange, I look at work today and there’s a lot of good work out there but I wouldn’t say to myself, “oh, this work affects me.” It’s good but I wouldn’t say that this is spurring me on to something else. I just feel that I’m in this place where I just kinda do what I do. I do like Thomas Houseago, Amy Sillman and as you mentioned before, Charline Von Heyl’s work though. The artists that have influenced me most are not so recent, artists like Richard Tuttle, Luc Tuymans, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, and Matthew Barney. When I went to grad school, one of the most influential people at that time for me was Matthew Barney. I was profoundly influenced by his formal language and how he applied it in sculpture, video and performance. To me that was the epitome of what was interesting visually and conceptually at the time.
TF What do you think got you into abstraction?
JM It started happening in graduate school I suppose. And that was the art historical, philosophical texts we had to read, Deleuze & Guatarri, all these poststructuralist people. It was this whole reference to this fissured multi-faceted perception of the world and you start to see how the most analogous thing for that in terms of an image is something that is generally abstract or just has tons of stuff crammed into it which is kind of what my work often looks like and I guess you can say that’s postmodern or whatever, so I think that definitely led me to abstraction, particularly the body without organs (BwO), from Deleuze & Guattari’s, A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze & Guattari came up with this term BwO for describing a way around the blockages of consciousness that we experience from cultural indoctrination and capitalist society. To Deleuze & Guattari, these encrustations of thought were analogous to organs because organs are organized things that have a set structure defined in the body, like the liver does this, the lungs do this, the heart does this. So their idea was that you wanted a BwO so information could flow in and there would be no blockages, there would be no indoctrinated thought processes that kept you from being free. Conceptually, and as a human being, I think that concept was important for my thinking of how I wanted to pursue my art.
TF So now with the work that you are doing, how much would you say is conceptual and how much is subjective or intuitive? And do you even like the word formalism?
JM I think there are definitely formal issues being addressed in the work. I can’t get around it. I think my process is intuitive. I draw pretty frenetically. I am looking for something, trying to find something, like I said, that “nuanced space” where you can create something that seems sort of different and I think that is my conceptual focus. Formal relationships are very important in this because it’s a balancing act making an art object or a piece. You’re trying to balance the history of representation, making connections to the past, while attempting something different. There was a time where I didn’t really want to create formal connections. I just wanted to make stuff that was not trying to be formal. What I mean by this is I was always suspicious of work that seemed overly formalized. It became just beautiful to look at. I have reticence about stuff that just looks nice because I’m like, “Well, do you like it because it’s actually doing something or do you like it because it has a really good paint texture?” You know what I mean? So I was always trying to, in my mind at least, trying to create something that was raw, and wouldn’t succumb to this idea of beauty in a typical sense. But then I started to think that, well, perhaps you want to bridge the gap to the viewer. I felt that just trying to be purely raw and rough visually creates a barrier between your work and the viewer. I mean, who wants to look at it? So, I think that in some ways you kind of need to give people a little bit of something interesting to look at that can make them start to think about things.
TF So you’d say it is an equal part of concept and formal qualities that are important to you.
JM Yeah, totally, I think so, form and content, I am trying to balance that.