Graphic, Biomorphic, Abstract Painter
Jim D’Amato was in the inaugural exhibition for Equity Gallery, 2015:1947, and created a painting in response to Artist Equity Member David Smith's work. His work concerns the graphic, abstract, and biomorphic.
After looking at the selection of your works online, the first question I have to ask is why you decide to include red after a period of painting in just black and white?
When I started to paint, I created a very large, seminal painting that took a year and a half to complete. It had all the attributes of what you would consider abstract painting: a thick impasto surface, filled with color and space. In making that painting, I truly felt I became a painter. After I completed that piece I took a step back and wanted to deconstruct what I had done. From then on, my paintings got more and more reductive; I started to take color and surface out. I got to a point, in 2010, where the paintings became just black and white, while still evolving graphically. After a while, the red just worked its way back into my work. More color has since arrived and it has been working it’s way back in slowly but surely ever since.
It may not be en vogue to say this, but when I use color in my work, I have a personal connection to it. Ray Charles once said: “If I feel the music, then I know it’s real.” I believe in that, and feel similarly about painting. The red was boiling in me for a while. When I first showed those red paintings, a collector of mine mentioned to me that the first color man could see was red. He noted that there was a fury in the the color, and something primal about it which I agree with. When I studied with Jack Whitten years ago, during a critique of someone else’s work, he stated that you have to look out when someone starts to use red; it’s a revelatory color. The red is here and it seems to be staying. I identify with it.
What was revelatory to you?
Red was a way to express certain things happening to me at that time. Not in a literal or pictorial sense, but embedded within the space [of the painting] as a whole. In recent paintings for example, red blankets the entire space; it’s the foreground and background at the same time. Color, for my work, sets the stage for everything else. In a conceptual sense, the essence of the painting is established by that ground color. The way I see it, my paintings are both minimal and maximal at the same time. The tone of the painting is set by that color, before any of the foreground lines manifest. Those elements come to be in a sort of automatic, surrealist kind of way.
From a room full of different works, I could definitely pick out these paintings as yours. How did your unique, identifiable style come to be?
It’s something I developed over time. It was not a conscious effort, it happened organically, which I think is important for any artist: just make work, and let it happen and develop by itself. The roots of my style are really founded on drawing. I’ve been drawing my entire life. Growing up, I was always doing it. I also grew up absorbing the applied arts: comics, animation, movies, etc. As I got older, I started to appreciate the complexity of fine art and great painting all throughout history. I think the collision of those influences, informed by particular genres like abstraction, surrealism, and science fiction lead me to my esthetic. At a certain point I was able to smash through pictorial or illusionary concepts in painting, and get to a place of pure abstraction. But then later I allowed some pictorial elements to come back into the work. Those abstract and pictorial concepts eventually coalesced together, and that's how my style came to be.
What do you feel people understand the least about your work?
Content. I think that some people are listening to a certain frequency in life and are able to receive certain transmissions that don't need to necessarily come to them literally, and I think for those people, it is much easier for them to pick up on the embedded or suggested elements in my work. These are all symbols. They’re ideas and spaces that are all constructed by symbols that are completely nonobjective. It is ultimately on the viewer to determine their meaning. That’s a lot to swallow for anyone. They have to be willing to enter that space and take that trip. I think that in today’s superficial times, there should be a space where people can contemplate something more complex.
Which artist inspires you the most?
There’s nothing I won't turn to if it's speaking to me. In terms of art history, I really do think the buck stops with Pollock. He really cut the cord from everything that came before him. He created an entire new space, and painting has never recovered from what he did. Warhol also has changed painting in his unique way, by industrializing the process. Obviously I admire those titans, but then there are also contemporary artists who I admire a lot. Ryan McGinness for example, is an interesting painter who has a lot of layered, graphic elements in his paintings. I think Alexander Ross is a really great painter. He makes a lot of biomorphic, strange, cellular works. Yayoi Kusama is also a visionary who has in essence created her own reality. These are the people that I look to. However I do try to keep a certain distance, and to not let anyone’s work inform mine too overtly. But they’re all artists that I certainly respect.
What is your process like?
I spend a lot of time mixing color, mixing the red or the purple, at times mixing the white. Many days, I will spend a lot of time drawing. I’ll know just how my hand feels and whether my hand is ready to attack the painting. You have to develop that connection between your mind, your hand, and the painting, which takes place through repetition and feel. By the time I'm ready to paint, it’s almost muscle memory. When I start to make the work, at times it’s as though I’m working from reference that's in my head. You have to be able to work intuitively and listen to the painting; the painting is going to tell you what it wants to be.
I work on different paintings at different times, because otherwise it is very easy to become submerged into one and suffocate. I have to give my mind room to move in and out of these spaces; they tend to be very dense and they can collapse on themselves.
What type of music do you like listening to when you work?
It depends on the process. Sometimes I’ll work in silence to just step away from noise and enjoy the sound of quiet. Sometimes I use music because the rhythm will help me in the process. If I’m up until 4 in the morning, music does help. For example, music played a role in making two personal favorite works of mine: Destroyer’s Song and Destroyer’s Song 2. I had worked on other paintings from that series for a long time and I ended up destroying them because they did collapse under their own weight. I wound up painting over them, and in a very short, intense period of time, I somehow brought them back to life. So they’re called Destroyer’s Song 1 and 2 because they were created through an act of destruction, and because the word song alludes to music that was keeping me up all night while I was making them. I was up until 5 or 6 every morning, working on that series.
Music can be helpful because when you’re in that kind of space, your subconscious starts to take over. That’s what brings the painting to life, and helps create something in a more organic way. In the studio I listen to a lot of rock music. I really admire Tool. Their music has a lot of surrealist overtones. It’s complex, heavy, and beautiful. I also love Pink Floyd, and listen to them a lot, along with other classic rock. The Destroyer’s Song paintings were made primarily to the sounds of those bands. They’ve always been big influences on me.
I really can feel their music seeping through your work. Do you think about playing them with your paintings at shows?
No, I think the fact that you can feel it without hearing it is proof to me that I don’t need to do that. I was at a show, once years ago, of an artist who worked with a band. There was an undeniable synergy between his work and their sound. Someone decided to play their music at his show and I felt that it was too much. It was redundant. I learned from that experience to not necessarily do that at an opening setting; it’s okay for the after party though.
Why have you decided to expand your mediums across prints, paintings and drawings?
I was a little late to the game in printmaking. As far back as high school, I had teachers tell me that I should make prints. Mainly because I could draw well but also because I wasn’t afraid of labor, two qualities that can make for a pretty good print maker. But I was just busy drawing, painting, and moving in other directions. When I was in school, for undergrad, I was actually a sculpture major, and I think it really taught me a lot about space and thinking in 3-dimensions. I think printmaking is a really interesting space in between sculpture and painting, because it contains elements of both of those disciplines.
When I started making prints, it was when my work had gotten to a place where it was graphic enough that I could make a sensible transition to that medium. I’ve since met and worked with many printmakers who could absolutely get across that painterly feeling, in an edition. For me, personally, the work just arrived in a place that it could lend itself to printmaking. I still should do more printmaking.
I’ve done mostly silk screen prints and archival inkjet monotype prints, which allows me to use technology. I’ve also used photocopy machines in a crazy process I guess I can take credit for inventing, which lead to the making of a lot of my printed works. I see it [printmaking] taking on a larger place in my work in the future.
You recently sold a piece through Instagram. Do you have any advice on using social media as an outlet for other artists?
I think it is important for artists to spread their message, if they want it to be heard. I think that unfortunately we’re living in a time where artwork seems like it was made specifically for Instagram. In those cases artists are definitely putting the cart in front of the horse. Those works might look interesting for two seconds on an iphone, but if you look at them in person, they will fall apart. That’s not what I recommend doing. I recommend developing it [your work] over time, trusting it and yourself. When you take that step and feel like you’re comfortable enough to put out there, then absolutely use social media as a tool.
Do you have any advice on networking for artists? How artists can help other artists?
The art community is important, which is why something like Artists Equity is important. It’s a resource and a hub where artists can get together and exchange ideas. I think creating those kind of spaces and collaborating with people who are like minded and can share a vision with you is fantastic. There’s a lot people who don’t get what you do and won’t get it, but it doesn’t matter because it’s about you getting it. You just have to find people whom you’re comfortable with and believe in you.
Interviewed by Sarah Cho