Portrait in Plastic

Artist James Griffith – Images by John Nelson

I have an ongoing project photographing creatives: painters, writers, sculptors, directors, actors and even fellow photographers. True artists fascinate me. Everything about them — how their minds work, how they create, their relationships with others and with other artists, their influences, and even their work spaces.

This is California artist James Griffith.

I spent a few hours in James’ studio, watching him, photographing him, and talking. At the time of this portrait James was coming to the end of a series of landscape paintings. I have to say that, normally, I am not enthralled by landscape paintings or, for that matter, landscape photography. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the beauty of the works but I almost always feel as if I’m not getting any message from the artist. Yes, it’s beautiful, but isn’t the landscape itself the real work of art? Maybe my philistine tastes will eventually evolve enough for me to appreciate these types of work. But James had made all of his  paintings as if looking through a sheet of plastic. I was mesmerized. (You can see some of the works at this archive on his website.) What inspired him to make these paintings?

He told me that one day he had been out hiking in the forest for a couple of hours when he suddenly came upon a wall of plastic sheeting. I know that many people, myself included, would have a more typical reaction.  Instead of dismissing what seemed to be trash, he took what he saw to make a painting with layers of meaning. For James it would not be the simple and obvious good (nature) vs evil (man). James figured that the plastic had been put there for some reason but now was, perhaps, no longer needed. It led to his producing several works of depth. James says it best in his artist statement about this series: “It was at once stunningly beautiful and appalling…. I knew I was looking at a form that could express the problems I wanted to explore in paint.”

As I was wrapping up my visit and portrait session — and I love this — James was already excited about what would become his next series. He showed me what looked like dirty brown goop and it had a strong smell of petrol. It was tar. He showed me a couple of “paintings” that he had created with the tar. He wasn’t satisfied with how the tar worked as paint. But he was excited about figuring how how to use it and all the meanings that would be layered into the paintings. He collects this tar from pit #91 from the well known La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, just 20 miles from his home. He eventually figured out how to use the tar and started painting plants, birds and other animals using this primordial goo which of course, coming from plants and animals millions of years ago, adds obvious meaning. But James takes it further, using pollen, volcanic glass, copper sulfate and even human ashes to add layers and layers in almost an archeological study of meaning.

You can get an idea of the tar painting from his website but you need to see the paintings in person to really appreciate the texture and to see the other materials like the pollen: http://jamesgriffithpainting.com

see more photos of James Griffith in his studio and at a gallery
see a portrait of James’s wife Sue Dadd, an artist and landscape artist.

if you are or know a creative who would be good for my project, get in touch.

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