As an added bonus to getting to work at Gallery 360, I’ve recently been able to interview artists with work on display for promotional purposes. Below is an interview with Chicago-based minimalist Ezra Siegel, who was kind enough to give me an hour of his time.
360: Both of your parents were artists, how did growing up in a creative household shape your experience and aesthetic sensibilities?
ES: When I was young, I did not make art. My Mother was a prominent painter in the sixties & seventies, in Chicago and at large. My Father was a photographer; today is considered a master photographer. So, even though they were both in the arts, I did not do art, but the fact that both my parents were artists had a profound influence on me.
Two things were very influential – one, I was able to live with works of art. Without knowing art but living with it, I really had magical moments with art. Where art is no longer just filling up decorative wall space, but has the potential to make you happy or trying to figure out a problem and you get sucked in and then something happens and you come up with the answer.
And then also, my Mom and Dad were very involved with the art world, and so very famous people would be in the home, and as a kid I didn’t think much of it, but as I attempt to make art, I have a real sense that people who make art, even the really famous ones, are real people. Art is made by real people; Michelangelo was a real person.
360: How long have you considered yourself an artist? Did you receive formal training or are you self-taught?
ES: I always question that – I came from a standpoint where I couldn’t make art, so that when I could start making art, it was very exciting. Not even judging whether it was good or bad – that was kind of a stage that I had to get through – and I still battle it. I think what makes me an artist and what makes many people an artist is duality.
I am not naïve, but I am self-trained. In my case, I majored in art history; I look at art all the time, everything from kid art all the way to art museums, but I am self-trained, and it makes a difference. Usually when you get an MFA, you’re being taught by people who are primarily teachers, not artists. It’s usually a much more theoretical education. I trained myself, but I did read over 300 books on how-to, not only how-to in terms of the medium, but also in terms of design, and what’s the difference between a good works of art and a bad work of art.
360: What led you to painting? Why minimalism?
ES: First of all, we live in a world that is visually oversaturated – we’re bombarded with imagery left and right, and we’re really quite illiterate when it comes to being able to read imagery. I would venture to say that many people have very little exposure to minimal art. If you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock in a museum, most of the comments are the same – ‘my kid could do that, I could do that, it’s not art’. But the things that he’s controlling and developing in the painting are incredibly skilled. A child could not do that.
Very often, minimal artists did not start minimally. In my case, I started off very traditionally. It was all new to me, so I thought I’d start classically. I studied the body, I studied the bones, I studied the muscles and facial expressions. I moved to Italy for a year to copy drawings from the Uffizi in Florence. I painted in oil, and I painted in some basic Renaissance techniques of oil painting, in layers, which is still how I work now. So, it’s really been a very long road, and an evolution.
To some degree, you want to be trendy, in the sense that you want your art to speak to people of your day. You’re constantly looking for universals, universal truths. My work is very much about this human condition. Everyone has this balance between order and improvisation. We all experience that, and we have to, we have no control not to experience that, and we all have different levels of capability towards those balances.
In terms of painting – I love things that have a monumental feeling, but I also love empty space. And if you put a large object in empty space, it kind of negates the empty space. I love conceptual art, I love the ideas behind art as well as the final product, but I also love very emotional, very spontaneous, very loose, very painterly art.
Abstract art is much more about realism than realistic art. Let’s say you see a pencil rendition of a landscape or person – well, what you’re looking at is an illusion, that person is not in front of you, the only thing in front of you is the medium, there are tones in front of you, there are size relationships in front of you, there are vertical dominances, horizontal dominances, maybe color – these things are what affects us.
360: How did you develop your signature style? How would you describe your process?
ES: From trial and error; from painting over and over again. My technique is primarily one-directional. If you work in clay, you can put clay on, you can take clay off, where if you are working in watercolor, it’s considered a very skilled medium because it’s primarily one-directional, you can kind of muck with it a little bit, but not much. Primarily, I can only add.
There is manipulation, but it’s very architectural. I work in many layers, and there’s an integrity of the surface that I like to maintain because of the quality of the way it remains. I’m not just taking paint out of a tube and putting it on. I use very thin washes because once it gets too dark or colorful, I can’t go back, the painting is ruined. Same thing with Jackson Pollock, primarily one directional, he talks about that. You really have to be in the moment.
I show traces of past layers, you’ll see sketch lines in a lot of the work. It’s a real balance between conscious thought and spontaneity – or being in the moment painting it. There are ways I handle paint that can’t be controlled 100%. Generally, those things you can’t control 100%, you can counter much better by altering other aspects of the painting. So that if something ended up being a certain textural quality – some drips – I have a choice to make other areas smoother than I anticipated. I can manipulate the environment around it to make a whole.
It’s not always all the things I’m putting in my paintings, but also all the things I’m not putting in my paintings. I work very hard to make things look like they were accidents. I really try to make it a work of art that does not look labored. Even if I do labor at something, I don’t want someone living with something that looks labored. Whether I’m successful or not, I can’t answer that. Anyone patient enough and willing to take the time can usually learn certain skills, but to go beyond those skills is something very special, and you can feel it.
Everyone asks ‘how do you know when a painting is done’, well, it’s very simple – it’s when the painting is in balance. There isn’t usually just one ending point – but once you decide to end it, it needs to be in balance. It’s a matter of taste – some people like it better and some people might like it worse. This idea of absolutes, it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist in art. No work of art can be a perfect thing because it’s never free of influence or context.
360: Which artists have most influenced you? What inspires you most to create?
ES: I really like just getting into the story of Art, I’ve been really influenced by a lot of artists. Probably the most influential has been an outsider artist named Bill Traylor. I love early pottery and early sculpture, really pared down and very abstract, very design oriented – the pattern in the body, the clothing, very simple, suggesting a connection to the real world, but really about expression controlled through design.
And the more classical minimalist artists, like Ellsworth Kelley, for example, but the aspect that I don’t like is that he puts a lot of effort into removing the maker. Everything is very perfect about it, and my work very much tries to celebrate and illuminate the imperfection of being human.
360: What is the most important idea or feeling you would like to communicate to your audience through this body of work?
ES: If you look at all my art, in different ways, there are degrees of structure in there, of pattern, of more obvious control – and then there are elements like the drips, the splatters and random sketch marks, there’s a looseness to the line, very infrequent is something pure in my work. You will rarely see a pure white or a pure black. Philosophically, it’s the idea that as we get older, we lose things, but we also gain things and it’s really important to see that aspect of our beings. We gain patina, we gain more depth, and the more time you spend, the more you get to know something. My works are not meant to be understood in a moment, they’re meant to be lived with, spent time with, and through different moods and even lighting conditions throughout periods of time, there are different interpretations, different experiences within each painting.
360: What advice would you give to an emerging artist?
ES: I really enjoy being knowledgeable, and I find it much more infrequent that someone actually does something worthwhile from a vantage point of ignorance than from understanding and knowledge. So, I would encourage budding artists to see what’s out there, find something that speaks to you, and copy borrow and steal profusely from them until you begin to develop your own voice.