- Tell us a bit about yourself – who are you, both as an artist and as a person?
As both a person and an artist, I might be defined as a slow learner, going up the hill one step at a time. For better and for worse, I define myself by the art I create, channeling past, present and maybe future experiences. As an artist, I am not comfortable with closed conceptual interpretations – if I understand what one of my artworks is about, I will change it, so that I’m challenged by its meaning. For any of my art to succeed for me, I must become devotional to it.
I have often jokingly called my life as an artist “a glorious folly,” but maybe I am not joking. I also describe my creative and learning process in all things – from painting and sculpting to learning a language – as “failing upwards.” For me “failing upwards” is not failure, but great success. In my art as in my life, I spend my days, correcting my corrected corrections, until I enjoy looking at what I have created.
2. Do you remember what sparked the idea for “Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin”? You have been working with some of the themes in the show for years, while some are new. What caused you to take this direction?
The “Temple Bunkers” began two years ago when I had composed a painting, knew the answer, and decided to not paint it. Without the search and mystery, the painting was DOA for me. At the same time I took out a model cast of a WWII bunker that I had bought a couple of decades before. Not wanting to start a new painting, I decided to build a small diorama for this bunker and copper and aluminum leafed it with camouflage. I then sculpted and added a blue Goddess warrior. Rather than looking like a model, it became art for me. More than that, it looked like my paintings as sculpture. From there I started to create my own fantasy bunkers, landscapes, and figures. Like all my art, these sculptures looked back to my childhood, while still addressing the visions I have in the present.
I also began to write what I thought was poetry. Instead my words became “art lyrics” for the Temple Bunkers, which I painted around the sides of the sculptures. “Temple Tomb Fortress Ruin” is one of these art lyrics.
A few years ago we found a sketchbook of mine from when I was eight or nine years old. On one page was the drawing of a soldier, on the other, a woman in a bikini. I think I’ve been haunted by the same images since my childhood, and they come out in different ways as I’m exposed to new experiences in the present.
So much of my art is obsessed with ruins, martial themes, fallen empires, religious icons, and pop and erotic content. As an artist, I look backward, forward, inward and outward. These contradictions and different directions keep my art mysterious for me, allowing me not only to be the artist but also the voyeur.
3. You have been working as an artist for decades. How do you feel the art world has changed during this time?
The “Art World” (there are many art worlds but there is only one “Art World”) has become a place where “collectors” buy to diversify their portfolios and look for art that has positive trading records like they would for bonds and stocks. Because of this, many “collectors” either want to buy very young artists at very low prices to speculate, or buy artists at very high prices that can easily be liquidated. Think of safe deposit boxes that hang over the couch or crated and guarded in Freeports.
While this is good for both high end and low end artists right out of grad school, the market for artists selling above $10,000 and below $100,000 has suffered. This is especially true if their collectors do not put their works up for auction, or if their auction track record does not demonstrate that the work can easily be liquidated.
The other change – one that makes perfect sense when a collector wants to buy art as a way of protecting their financial assets, is to buy “manufactured” art. Here, the artist transfers his or her skills into that of art director and hires “artisans” to execute his or her conceptual ideas. “Manufacturism” is perfect for the art investor because the art is often a well executed product, with a clear conceptual idea, that is made in multiples. These objects possess so much of what art in our time needs, to be art.
However, “Manufacturism” lacks two qualities that much of great art throughout history possesses; devotion and struggle. But the “sameness” and lack of devotion or struggle of the objects allows for easy trading. It is difficult to part with a work of art that has unique qualities, and those works are often sold only if there has been a death, divorce, or bankruptcy.
Taste, like pendulums, do swing. “Manufacturist” artists are popular today, but they might not be tomorrow. If they’re popularity does fade, well, that is the story of art. And another story will rise.
4. What are some of the highlights of your artistic career? What are some of the low points? Were there any times you had lost hope?
There are so many moments when I have lost hope in my decades of being and artist. I wrote “The Five Stages of Painting” making fun of my creative moments of despair and reproduce them here:
The Five Stages of Painting:
(If you are a painter, the below might be a handy guide in the often turbulent, creative and exciting world of being an artist. I suggest printing it out and taping it to your easel.)
1: Stress about what you’re going to paint. Especially: Will it mean anything to you or to anyone else or is it complete self-indulgent folly.
2: Stress that the painting isn’t going fast enough, that your skill and creativity have left you. And anyway, the Art Gods gave you just enough talent to waste all your money on art supplies but not enough to actually do good work.
3: Stress if the painting is finished? Are you still working on it because you don’t know what you’re going to do next? Are you beating a dead horse? And would actually beating a dead horse be more artistically provocative and interesting than your art? And even more importantly, would beating a dead horse get you a show in Chelsea?
4: Now that the painting is finished, is the public going to hate your work? And by “hating your work” it is implied that they also hate you. DON’T WORRY! Just repeat the following like a Hari Krishna chant: “Those Philistines don’t know anything about art! I’m a singular talent and great artist! … AND … They’re right! I’m a hopeless uninspired fraud.” Note: It is important that both these thoughts coexist at the same time to have the most power.
5: Buy a new canvas or panel and repeat stage one.
Highlights, are now in the moment. Working in directions that surprise me, and still creating new worlds for me to explore as an artist. Three years ago I had no idea I would ever begin sculpting or writing art lyrics for example. In a few days I will begin video montages for two performance pieces. Every day that I create is a win.
Below are the rules I wrote to celebrate my creative spirit at its best – and as an antidote for the “Five Stages of Painting.”
Five Rules of Painting (when not beating a dead horse):
1 – Judge less, paint more. Your art and vision have a right to exist. And don’t worry if it has been done before, you are doing it now. You are the creative element in the equation, not the subject.
2 – Enjoy the artisan as well as the artist in you. This is not 0’s and 1’s. After all, you are pushing burnt dirt from Sienna, suspended in flaxseed oil, with animal hairs onto cloth, wood and metal.
3 – For critiques, find people that ultimately believe in you and your vision. They will help you achieve your creative goals. Everyone else will also have an opinion, so choose carefully. It is your art, your life, your talent. What is unique about you is what will make your art unique.
4 – Be Devotional in the act of creating, and then let “it” go.
5 – Often in art what was considered “wrong” is what is later regarded as “right.” Tastes change.
Bonus Rule: It’s just paint.
5. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting out as an artist?
Numerous people offered me sound advice as I began a life as an artist. Most of it was about how difficult the artist’s path can be, and maybe to pursue a more practical profession with my talent, such as graphic designer, art director, or illustrator (all of which I have done).
Art is not always a practical profession, and much of my art has taken a subversive, dark, and humorous view of my worlds. Because of my subjects, many people have suggested that I edit my visions to make my art more palatable and less challenging to a larger audience.
I understand that the majority of people just want to look at pleasant images and not be confronted daily by objects hanging on their walls. However, I enjoy being confronted and challenged by art and so I paint and sculpt the art that I would want to look at. I paint for my market – me, and then hope that I meet patrons and collectors that enjoy what I enjoy in art. For me, being an artist, one needs to be the magician, the wise man or woman, the hermit, and also the fool. That is my way as an artist.
John Wellington currently has a solo show at
The Lodge Gallery
131 Chrystie Street, New York, NY, 10002
January 25, 2017 – March 5, 2017