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Jivan Lee is a rising star in the Western Art world. After much work and perseverance, he has become one of the most sought-after plein air painters in the West. I drove up from Santa Fe to Taos to visit with Jivan in his studio. Join us for our chat about art and humanity.
Links: Check out Jivan’s website at www.jivanlee.com or follow him on Instagram at @jivanlee_art.
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Interview Part 1 with Jivan Lee, Plein Air Oil Painter
George: You guys have a farm? I did not realize that.
Jivan: Farm is probably a little bit generous. I would never say that to an actual farmer.
George: I’ll say garden?
Jivan: A large garden. Well, we sort of wild scape our property.
Jivan: Klara used to be a farmer. She’s a doctor of Oriental medicine now and she has a whole business of topical Chinese medicine things that she makes using stuff that we harvest at the property.
Jivan: So a lot of that stuff grows wild and therefor we just try to help it be happy in the wild. Farmstead, I suppose, is probably more accurate. We have chickens and ducks and stuff like that.
George: Cool. I had ducks when I was a kid.
Jivan: Yeah. They’re wild, man. They’re such cacophonous, interesting personality critters. Man, raising them from babies, they’re so stinky. Gosh.
George: Yes, there was always plenty of duck fertilizer everywhere. All right.
Jivan: So this is a four-panel painting I’m putting together that is one in a whole set of these … We were talking about these multi-paneled pieces that have broken picture planes and all sorts of unusual artifacts of being on location that I wanted to kind of give the space to develop on their own rather than being like, “Well, I better shoehorn this whole experience into one square-ish or rectangle-ish kind of canvas.” I started thinking, well, how about if I sort of inverted the idea of composition being what dictates the structure of a painting and allowed the experience of the place to dictate the shape of the final piece, literally. And where my attention was most drawn over the course of the day to be kind of what drives the compositional direction of the piece. And-
George: Can I …
George: I mean, maybe you’re about to explain this, but so do you then add panels as you are going to explore what you’re interested in …
Jivan: Yeah, exactly.
George: … as it’s happening?
Jivan: I mean, it depends on the day. The original idea was just this notion of what we were saying, just letting things develop. Because on location a lot of times … It grew out of a just necessity that, originally when I first started painting, I had this beater 1989 Toyota sedan with a trunk and a backseat and nothing else. So I had no room to do giant work on location and I thought … Until I was like, “Well, why don’t …” I wanted to do this really, really wide 10-foot piece in a spot that I was really excited about and I thought, “Well, I could split it up, I guess.” That was a new idea in my head, to do a landscape plein air piece at the time because my interest wasn’t as abstract as it’s turning these days. Which breaking up panels obviously is done all over the place in installation work.
George: Right, yeah. But-
Jivan: But for me and my own personal process, that was a new development in whatever was kind of driving the show of my interest. That was, I don’t know, probably seven years ago, I guess. So I split up this 10-foot piece into three 40-inch long panels and then painted it on location on the side of my car and the wind came up and blew the entire thing face down …
George: Face down.
Jivan: … and I was crying on location because that was the first really big painting I did. I did not have a big budget for paint, so that was extremely expensive little-
George: This one was, or a different one?
Jivan: This 10-foot one. That was the first idea of splitting things up.
Jivan: Then eventually I got fed up, honestly, with the day because it was so rough out there. I had to go back to my studio and I finished it. I didn’t have any room at our house because I didn’t have a studio at the time and I finished it in the closet.
Jivan: That was like 3×5 … or no, probably 5×7, I guess, with some weird shelves that made it very small. So I had the panels sort of separate and would be messing in this little closet space because it smelled so bad and it was at home, and usually my stuff was just outside. Anyway, necessity man, mother of invention. When I saw the piece done, I was like, “Wow. Well, I’m really happy I got this giant piece, but it’s really cool to see this scene that I normally would have thought of as only one thing separated into three moments of artwork.” And even though it’s one united image across the panels, I left the spaces between the panels because I didn’t want to pretend like they weren’t there …
Jivan: … and have it just be this weak point that didn’t actually just own that there was something separating the panels. And it ended up feeling like a film strip. It brought me back into the surface of the painting, and it was just a sort of jumping off point for thinking differently about why I was painting at all, really, and what was happening with the image and the materials of the paint itself and this constructed world that I was falling into in terms of this big view in New Mexico. Anyway, that’s where this first idea came from with the multi-panel things.
Jivan: Now I know that was kind of the seed of this idea of, “Well, I can change the shape of the panels.” So at any day later on, I would still do these rectangular, general forms but if I had wanted to do, say, Pedernal outside of Santa Fe where O’Keefe painted a bagillion times … which is this incredible mountain, and you can go and basically be right underneath it. I was out painting another 10-foot piece, I found out later, where Maynard Dixon had painted a painting looking the opposite direction. I had no idea.
George: Oh, that’s cool. Yeah.
Jivan: I saw a painting posted online. I was like, “Wait a second. I was just there.”
George: Yeah, that’s a fun feeling.
Jivan: Oh, it was so fun. Anything in New Mexico … I mean, a number of these places with a strong art history, you end up just constantly bumping into the coolest stories or happenstance and you find out later, wow, you were in the spot where some idol of yours was painting and looking at the world different.
Jivan: Anyway, so I was painting this large piece and I had done a 48×70 sketch, which is pretty big, and then I was like, “Well, by actually, it’s the entire sweep of this mountain’s shoulder that I want, and the peak and everything,” and so I added a … whatever, another 48, 50, I don’t know, something like that … and continued drawing the whole composition. That kind of idea of letting it grow as it goes is the foundation of this more developed notion, where instead of it having to be continuous pictures where even the panels at least are framed together and look like one image, I started letting … like with this tree behind you that’s 100 inches square of space even more on the wall … letting the picture plane be broken and have a foot or two feet between different sections of the painting such that it almost looks like a Tetris painting.
George: Yeah, that I think is a great example of the concept you’re describing about letting the focal points drive the composition, which I think happens in single canvas paintings a lot. People will focus in with contrast and detail on what they want you to do and pay less attention to background or other elements. But here, there’s actually nothing.
Jivan: Right. In between, right?
George: Yeah. It’s cool.
Jivan: So it’s this idea of letting it grow out of my intention. Then I realized how I look at landscape, and it seems like from talking with people over the years, it’s kind of common. You see a giant tree and you love the moss at the foot of the tree where the trunk is going into the ground, or you love the branches and their contrast to the blue sky … And in the case of this big cottonwood, in fall in New Mexico, it turns so brilliant yellow and yet there are these still hints of the green that once was in the summer and the ochres that enter in and then the oranges behind everything because of all the brush and everything else. And then still you get this almost acid green lawn because it’s warm enough that the grass is still happy, and usually it’s wet enough in that season that the grass will be growing.
Jivan: All these color contrasts for me were so exciting, and so in this big cottonwood piece, I ended up skipping around and then landing in certain spots and almost paying no attention to other places. When I saw that was happening, I thought, “Well, why don’t I just let that be what it looks like?” Which was, again, a natural progression that I didn’t know I was coming to, and at the moment I arrived there, felt pretty uncomfortable … but exciting. And so, it took me about four months to actually figure out the painting and the composition. When I was on location, I’d clamp stuff together and I painted different pieces, and just because of wind and logistics, it didn’t look like what it looks like now. And so in the studio, I had to tease the experience apart again and try and figure out what was …
Jivan: … what I could remember of the intensity and the emotion of the day.
George: It’s fun to think about, too, after you do these kind of … if you could break pieces off to have as individuals.
Jivan: Yeah, I think about that a lot. Yeah. My favorite panel in this, I think is … because it’s 12 different panels between 36×30 down to 6×6 inches, and so there’s a 36×18-inch piece in the left of the center trunk that …
George: Yeah, that is cool.
Jivan: … I love as an individual piece. It’s almost totally abstract and I almost just wanted to keep it when I first got it into the studio and let the rest of the painting go … because it was not as large as it was at the time. I did five panels, I think, on location. But then as the painting grew and I figured everything else out, it became one of many.
George: When you say you did five panels on location, was that in one session, or is that over-
Jivan: Yeah. Yeah, one afternoon was what was the core of this piece.
Jivan: It may have been more on location, now that I look at them. But in terms of what was continuous, clamped together on my easel it was five panels. It was these, kind of the center core here, and then around them I did some quick studies. When I looked up in the sky, I just painted it literally these 6×6 square in my hand …
George: Oh, cool.
Jivan: … and would hold them for, whatever, half an hour while I was painting in my hands, and it got very messy. Yeah, so I think on location, even these two were up in location, so probably … one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten panels …
Jivan: Then a couple in the studio.
George: Cool. You have such a bright aesthetic. Do you work with a consistent palette?
George: Or do you have a go-to set of colors that you use? Or do you just kind of see what you’ve got in your truck and work with it?
Jivan: Well, I mean, yeah, no, I definitely have my go-to colors in terms of I have a set that I buy and I don’t really vary that a lot. I mix everything fresh every day so there’s never … I can’t think of any time I used pure paint except occasionally. Maybe white, but honestly, even that not really. I mean, not a pure, unmixed color, I should say. Everything’s pure paint, actually.
George: I think-
Jivan: But yeah, so there’s a set. I mean, Gamblin and M Graham are my two companies that I like the most. I like the consistency of what they do and I like the feeling of how they mix the paint. Then I get some earth tones, some oranges, some yellows, a variety, and then go from there. Keep it pretty consistently laid out in my palette, too.
George: Your palette, right? That’s like the giant Tupperware thing?
Jivan: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
George: Those are awesome.
Jivan: Yeah, my giant Tupperware, one of the many that I carry around.
George: Yeah, or clear storage boxes, I guess are what they are.
Jivan: Yeah, right. I mean, they slide under beds. They have wheels. When I saw them, I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect. I can slide them into my truck and then I can build a shelf on top.” That’s kind of where the idea came from.
George: Okay, just to get really crazy detailed. When you are prepping your palette, do you put a whole tube of color in there?
Jivan: Yeah, so I have these-
George: Because you use a lot of paint.
Jivan: I use a tremendous amount of paint, yeah. That tree one we were talking about has three liters of paint in that one piece.
Jivan: Most pieces are between a liter and two, if they’re of any real size. In my spectrum of sizes, though, 48×60 is almost always about a liter of paint. These days. I don’t know, I used to paint different and it’s just been a ongoing development. But yeah, so I have a 20×16 paint carrier, basically, that I think people usually use it mix paint and also be their palette. I just have piles of paint in there.
George: Oh wow. Okay.
Jivan: That’s all I do, and so that’s my paint carrier.
Jivan: Then I mix colors fresh on a …
George: On there.
Jivan: I wipe down and scrape down my Tupperware storage box every day that I can on location, and then that’s where I mix. So I have a lid and I have the base and I can flip it up and then I can keep one clean for as long as possible and then switch it in. It gives me more time on location, and then I can save the color, too, and bring the color back in. So it’s a really excellent visual notation device …
George: That makes sense.
Jivan: … that’s not a notebook but works like a notebook on steroids. I don’t know, I don’t have to sit there writing, “This is a really pinky magenta-y kind of yellow white in this left quadrant.” That doesn’t work. It’s too slow. This is super fast and in the flow of actually painting.
George: Awesome. Do you use any … I mean, I’m sure you use some kind of medium, but to get the thick impasto stuff, is there … or is that just kind of like-
Jivan: Yeah, no that’s what I mean when I say pure paint. I’m not using a paste to add into it. I do use alkyd medium on the recommendation of the paint maker, both companies, to even drying time through the layers and increase the flexibility of the dried film on the surface and add some fat back into the colors that need it. Usually colors out of the tube need a little extra fat, according to what I was told from Gamblin at one point.
Jivan: I suppose that depends on the paint company, too, but … Yeah, so that’s a couple drops per inch that comes out of the tubes.
Jivan: It’s a little bit of walnut oil, basically, with alkyd added.
George: Cool. So obviously, you use a palette knife or something like that.
Jivan: Something like that, yeah.
Jivan: I actually don’t like palette knives. I have a strong, strong dislike of-
George: Or spatulas, right?
Jivan: Yeah, silicone spatulas. And I didn’t know this when I started … and bless the people who love palette knives. For me, I couldn’t stand the scraping sound all the time when I was on location. If it’s 5:00 in the morning and you’re-
George: Because of the metal on the …
Jivan: Yeah, it’s scraping and so it’s … constantly and … Whatever, it’s fine, but I found out that, aside from the sound, truly the palette knives in my opinion sometimes can impart a bit of sterility into paint texture and surface. It doesn’t necessarily have the movement and the organic quality of the human personality-
George: Because it’s so straight?
Jivan: Yeah, it’s such a straight-edged thing. And some people use that to great effect. No judgment on anybody else’s work about it. But for me, my taste, I found that I was … I felt I was missing something that I loved about brushes when I was experimenting with palette knives and how to scale up, especially because the great thing about palette knives is they have this big surface and they apply paint really quickly and deeply and you can get very specific edges, which is essential to make sense of all the cacophony of color and motion that happens when one paints. So then I found these silicone spatulas and the minute I got one in my hand, that was it. I knew that that was my favorite-
George: It’s flexible, too, like a brush.
Jivan: Yeah. I mean, I use big brushes. A lot of people, if you see my paintings in person or online, especially, you wouldn’t necessarily know, but there’s a tremendous amount of brushwork, usually … if my brushes are clean, which is admittedly not always. So sometimes there are no brushes, but when I have all my tools clean and ready, I love brushes because they have this flexibility. They impart their bristles and their personality of age and time and wear that’s gone into them, and there’s kind of a cool story that each brush has by itself. Then they’re special tools that have a really important place in at least my practice. The silicone spatulas are more versatile for me, because again, I can get a tremendous amount of paint on there and I can cover … especially when I’m doing a 12-foot painting on location, I need to move extremely fast, and so they’re pretty big and they … All the paint-
George: Scoop well.
Jivan: Yeah, they scoop well, and all the paint you put on them goes right onto the canvas, whereas with brushes, a lot stays in the bristles and then you try and mix and you have that …
George: Makes sense, yeah.
Jivan: … muddied color, and so it’s easier to keep colors fresh. There’s a lot of these kind of embedded things that allow quick painting to happen. And I don’t know if it’s exponentially changed my practice in terms of time commitment, but the amount of time I need to achieve a certain sense of color and structure and dynamism in work has really reduced over time, in large part, I think, to just finding the right tools and learning how to use them.
Jivan: So those silicone spatulas are awesome. Love them. That’s primarily what you see on the surface of my paintings because even if I use brush underneath, a lot of times I’ll smooth out the surface so that I don’t have too much interference from the bristles and the really thick paint. You get all these ridges, and in a dark spot, if you have a ton of ridges that are picking up a lot of light, it’ll diminish the contrast and really diminish the impact.
George: So when you were starting painting … You went to a liberal arts school, Bard College in the Northeast?
Jivan: Yeah, yeah.
George: And studied environmental science, or … No, well-
Jivan: Yeah, so I had a full ride. I had a full ride in science and starting from day one in bachelor’s, and then-
George: Did you study painting in school, or did you paint before that or after that? When did that start to happen?
Jivan: Yeah. I started painting in 2001, and that’s when I started grad school. I mean, I had done stuff in high school or whatever, but it wasn’t something … I wasn’t one of those artists who’s like, “I knew from five years old I was going to be an artist.” That wasn’t me. I just was kind of … liked to draw. My mom is a wonderfully talented artist, and so I saw her paint and illustrate and such when I was growing up. But mostly, I just was kind of floating along and seeing what was interesting and the scholarship I got got me into a school I really liked, and so I was happy to do that and felt really happy about it.
Jivan: Bard was great because it allowed me to focus on art and science at the same time. I did know I wanted to take some sort of art courses at Bard because it’s a pretty well-known art school in its own right, just in terms of the Studio Arts Program and their curatorial programs for grad school and all that and the MFA. It’s great.
Jivan: So a really wonderful place to be exposed to art. And so I took art classes parallel to my science courses and did that for three years and then ended up lumping my first year of grad school into my last year of undergrad, and that was more specifically in environmental policy. I ended up with a Master of Science in Environmental Policy. During that time, I focused more on photography, actually, because I didn’t have time to paint. And so photography kind of became my creative expression, and I’m really grateful, man. I would so advocate for artists to have to use a camera for a while, too, because it was so different. The voice, the breath of that particular medium was its own thing and taught me a lot about what I was interested in when I was painting versus what I was interested in when I was taking a photo. There was differences and also then just fundamental questions about composition and experimentation and having the opportunity to iterate on an idea. In these days, infinitely is such a luxury that we have, whether its on an iPad or a digital camera. You can do a bagillion different variations of one thing without any real risk to your …
George: Right. That makes sense.
Jivan: … final creation because you have undo and you have Photoshop layers and all these things. You can Warhol anything you want, you can turn it into anything, and then just be like, “I hate it. I’m going to turn it back.” It’s like nothing. No risk. On an oil painting, I can’t do that. If I think, “Oh, this looks like I’m off there,” I better know what I’m doing before I go ahead and jump into it, or I better have some sort of escape plan or just risk getting stuck up a creek that I can’t get back down.
George: Right, and then having lost all that time, essentially.
Jivan: Yeah. I mean, it’s such a substantial investment that it can be very painful. It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, just how the value of that risk … and what I had written just recently came out of this thought process. But the essential function that uncertainty and risk plays in propelling us forward, I think, is so important in terms of just … If you don’t have that edge, you don’t necessarily mobilize your full faculties. You don’t necessarily realize what you’re capable of. I love plein air painting in part because it introduces an element of unpredictability and uncertainty, and in my process every day, I never know. I don’t have the luxury of pre-planning what I’m going to paint. I just don’t, because even if I think, “I’m going to go to that spot where there’s a thunderhead usually,” it’s never the same. And very frequently what I think would be there in a strategic sort of, “This is what the weather does …”
George: “This might be cool to paint today,” yeah.
Jivan: … usually isn’t what happens. Oftentimes, the thunderhead won’t develop over that mountain, even though it has for the last two weeks. It’ll develop somewhere else, or whatever version of that happens. There’s a spontaneous element and unpredictability that means if I dedicate three hours to driving to a spot and then it doesn’t turn out how I hoped when I get there, well, I better figure out something else, or else I’ve lost an entire day. There’s a pressure and there’s things that can be super beneficial, I think, to a process of art, and also kill it, honestly. I’ve definitely had days where just all the worry and the concern or the uncertainty gets to me and my mood will decline because-
George: It cramps your …
Jivan: Cramps the free flow and I don’t necessarily catch the moment that I have to adjust my posture mentally or emotionally, whatever it is, to receive the change in my plans. And if I can’t adapt and instead I have this rigid attachment to some other thing that wasn’t ever going to be reality, that wasn’t reality, that was just some image in my head, then usually that will be a really rough day and I’ll have to come back into the studio, process, and take a few moments and remember what the point was and then try again the next day type thing.
George: Yeah. So-
Jivan: I don’t remember why I got off on that …
George: Yeah, I was trying …
Jivan: I was talking about, I guess, art at Bard and …
George: Oh yeah, yeah.
Jivan: … and painting and then what happened in grad school with the digital photo stuff that I was doing and the printing. I informally showed that work. The value of the freedom that less risk … in certain ways. I mean, there’s plenty of risks in all sorts of things, but the particular quality of you don’t lose a painting if you decide in iPad Procreate to do another layer and experiment with something completely wild. You can break open stuff in wonderful ways, and it felt like digital photography helped me do that with my own bigger creative practice.
George: I think you mentioned, also, it kind of helps you work through and get to know composition and value and just design properties.
Jivan: Yeah. I mean, you can do these micro-variations and realize that the inch left and inch right really mattered, and become some part of your muscle memory of a certain sort, I feel like, which is part of why now I can see I really benefited because when I’m on location, I don’t have time to quibble over composition in the same way I once did. I just don’t usually. I mean, less so now even with having a kid. But even without a kid, things change so quickly that if I thought a cloud was going to be a certain mass in the composition and then it completely and utterly changes, there’s an adaptation I need to go through pretty quickly.
George: Right, like adding a panel.
Jivan: Yeah, like adding a panel. Yeah, that’s right. It’s cool to look back, and then having gone to grad school and then start my career doing consulting work for big nonprofits and a tribe in New Mexico and teaching for the University of New Mexico and doing these variety of different faces of environmental work that eventually started merging back into my art I did not expect. And the manner that that happened was interesting, and eventually then, there was a point at which I just came to, I guess, a head and saw that I wanted to go back into painting full time, which felt like a odd jump to make after doing a lot of work that was directly helping people who were trying to get a job to be able to just put food on the table and stuff. That was satisfying in a special way. Art is spiritually nourishing, but it doesn’t necessarily help that person who doesn’t have bus far get bus fare.
Jivan: It might. I mean, I’ve actually been blown away in the way that it actually has. Like if I donate a painting to an organization that’s …
George: That’s really [crosstalk 00:26:04]
Jivan: … been positive to women, it’s been more financially helpful than I oftentimes was when I was doing my career fundraising. That’s been a total fun surprise and-
George: That’s really cool, yeah.
Jivan: And so, I mean, what a joy it is to be able to actually have something I adore and get to have fun doing help somewhere else for people who really need it. That’s been amazing. But there was another little leg of that notion, which is the part I didn’t expect. Because doing a lot of work environmentally, I met a lot of people on the business side of things in oil and gas or Major League Baseball, or whatever. I mean, all sorts of weird, sort of funny …
George: Interesting, yeah.
Jivan: … sort of clients and projects that I got to participate in. Then teaching for UNM, I was trying to get my students or trying to relate to people on an emotional level about something that’s a really big deal, which is how we relate to our environment as a species and what we do to other species on the planet. These are all choices that we collectively make even if individually our single choice is a drop in a large ocean. The collective is the ocean.
Jivan: But what got me was that. So I was trying to hit my students with a real emotional argument, but I was doing it from a place where they weren’t really buying it in a way I was hoping for. Then when I went and started doing what was really resonating for me, which is sort of homage to these places in the land and places in cultural landscape … I mean, I have a 10-foot painting of a gas station at night over there. I don’t know if you ever saw that. But it doesn’t have to be some big vista. Lots of things have this experience of place and landscape to them, and the shape-
George: Or you’ve got the Volvo excavator up there, too.
Jivan: Yeah, right? I mean, I love that painting.
George: It’s cool.
Jivan: That’s been one of my favorites that I’ve kept for myself. Something about it just got me and it’s a fricking Volvo excavator. It’s like the little boy in me was so happy that day. What was happening was the interstate was being constructed and they were actually bringing a deceleration lane next to an old historic New Mexico chapel and the interstate’s vibration is cracking the face of the chapel. There’s this really interesting story behind the mountain peak that’s sort of behind this excavator and behind the story of the excavator and the image is this whole milieu of related needs and purposes and human life and then the natural landscape.
Jivan: So anyway, trying to talk about this stuff in class kind of got long in the tooth. It didn’t really grab people. But then sharing something that grew out of a passion and a love that I have oftentimes was hitting people at a really strong emotional level that total blew my mind. I had no expectation that that would happen, and it really ended up meaning a lot to me.
Jivan: It’s mysterious. The kind of unfolding of these things is mysterious. Yeah.
George: Maybe it’s just like your most simple expression of truth or something, you know?
Jivan: Yeah, maybe. I mean, I hope-
George: It’s easier to communicate, I don’t know.
Jivan: Yeah, right, when it’s not so constipated with all these judgments and assessments, whether you’re polite or impolite and how you judge and assess and what you decide to do with your opinions. It still is a very tricky sort of unwieldy mass of anything to deal with. Whenever you talk about any of these social economic environmental dimensions, bajillions of people are involved and therefore it’s a complex conversation to be had. So there’s something in just the direct … I don’t know if purity is the word, but simplicity maybe, I’d say, of getting to be on location and look down … like at this painting of the Gorge right in front of us. That’s 1,000-foot deep rift that volcanoes made however many millions of years ago and now this beautiful river runs at the bottom of it.
Jivan: There’s just a simplicity of looking deep into that and trying to find something that feels alive in the visual stimulation of being there, and also the tactile feeling of smelling the sagebrush and feeling the rain out in the distance pushing wind towards me and getting that smell of moisture which is so apparent here in New Mexico because it’s so dry. The rain’s so moist, when a thunderstorm’s coming, you can really smell the rain in a uniquely dessert kind of way, I guess, high desert way. There’s something just very comforting for me in that, that I seem to have needed spiritually or for my soul or just general well being. So I’m very grateful to get to keep doing it.
George: So you started just painting kind of on the side and people started responding to it and you keep doing this?
Jivan: I mean, yeah, after grad school, I went back to painting for a while. So I went painting and science and then total science immersion in grad school with some photography and then I got out of there and I wanted to do more painting, so I was doing interiors of my niece and her room. She was a teenager and she had a wall of photos and a flat screen little tiny TV on her dresser and was working on her laptop …
George: Oh wow.
Jivan: … and a comforter billowing off of her bed and then a wood floor and a stool and a water container and a window. It was this insanely complex sort of portrait.
George: Yeah, it was really busy.
Jivan: Yeah, very busy. I wanted to capture totality of a space and I realized the person existing within all this stuff of our life had such a story that I was really interested in. This type of painting is not something that I left because I was done. It just happened that landscape became my obsession and has remained so so far. I have seen some of my interest return into people some and cultural landscape especially, like the gas station or the excavator or road signs or habitation. My Lewallen solo right now is a painting out the back door of our house in winter and you can see all the houses in our neighborhood. It’s very rural so there aren’t many, but …
George: Right. There’s a few, yeah.
Jivan: … you can see the fences. This story of human habitation has been reentering my work, not by any design exactly but just the sort of progression of its own.
George: Okay, so what was the first painting that you … either the first painting you sold or your first show that you felt like was a success or something?
Jivan: I guess it’s that kind of mystery of progression, I think, I was just hitting me a little bit while we were chatting here because I’d say the first show I really put together was at Bard. I put it up at the school and it was a combination of sketches from living in the back country in Montana and photos and some travel I did to Ghana on a couple occasions. I put together this almost travel log type of exhibit that at the time I wasn’t conceptually aware of that. It just was stuff I was interested in …
George: It’s just what you had done, yeah.
Jivan: … and it was reflective of my life. In hindsight, I would talk about it maybe differently. But for me that was a real success because I put it up in front of a bunch of people, and it was a lot of work and it was hard to do and I had to go through a lot of thinking to learn at that point what I was even doing. But that wasn’t for sale, it was just the measure of a personal moment of achievement. In terms of selling work and especially this leg of oil painting as my primary mode of artistic expression, my first really successful financially show, and where I started to put together kind of what has become my voice of sorts for the last decade or more, was … I’d say 2013 was really when it started taking off here in Taos, actually, and it was a tremendously successful show from a sales standpoint. That was where the first real genuine solo I had and where things, I think, started to get momentum.
Jivan: I’d had work in a group show that I’m really proud of having been a part of up in Denver the year before called Taos Contemporary, and that was a show curated by a couple people involved with the Metropolitan State University and the Center for Visual Art up there in Denver. That was a survey of art practice in Taos as an art colony that’s pretty famous and what’s happened throughout history. There was a question of what’s going on now because there’s so many people living here that you would never know that don’t show in town necessarily and are world famous.
Jivan: So that was really cool, because I had work up with Larry Bell or Ken Price and a bunch of other artists who I just adore and who are so committed to their practice and have found stuff that I find to be personally meaningful for me and that also critically has found acclaim or whatever else. It was a real fun show to be a part of, so that was a big moment.
Jivan: Then since then, I’d say the recent shows I’ve put up the last couple years at Lewallen Galleries at Santa Fe and then this one that’s at Altamira in Jackson Hole right now. They’ve kind of been a combination of things I didn’t expect because my work has sold pretty well for a while now. I’ve been lucky, really, fortunate. I mean, I work hard but that doesn’t mean work’s going to find a home necessarily. But these have had a combination of something going on that’s been exciting. I don’t know what it is yet because I’m in the middle of it. Again, it’s like a new leg of learning. But there’s something about it. Getting to put up the show in Jackson Hole is the biggest work I’ve ever done on location or off, actually, all in one show, and they put it up and it felt like I was walking into … If I didn’t know I was in the gallery, I would have thought, “Wow, this is like a museum.” And it felt like-
George: That’s cool.
Jivan: Yeah, that was a weird feeling. I don’t mean to sound arrogant about it, but, I mean, the honest experience was, “This feels so spacious and has breath and I feel something I didn’t know I was going to feel.” Because in the studio, I don’t … I mean, I get to hang my stuff up, I have a great studio, but it’s not the same as a gallery.
George: Yeah, you don’t see it presented like that.
Jivan: Yeah, and it’s not done and over. I’m sitting here thinking, “I can do something more with that and this is not right and I may have to repaint …” It’s not a spaciousness, and so seeing it in Jackson Hole this recent show was really exciting and it had a conceptual sort of framework that was fun for me. There was some conceptual things that I had been percolating for a while that I hadn’t known …
George: I liked … yeah.
Jivan: … were starting to come out of the work in a way that’s new.
George: Yeah. I haven’t seen the show in person. I would love to be able to get up there and see it. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But there’s some kind of more straight contemporary art vibe to some of it than just more some of the traditional landscape stuff. Even though a lot of this landscape … Did you title it ROYGBIV? The-
Jivan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I had this whole-
George: The spectrum?
Jivan: Yeah, the spectrum pieces that I did …
George: Those are cool.
Jivan: … which all sold to one person. I was like …
George: Oh good.
Jivan: … “Thank God.” I didn’t think it was going to happen, man, because that’s a big bite.
George: I was zooming in on the picture to see if they were individual or if it was a group piece.
Jivan: Yeah, so that was-
George: I was like, “This would not be the same separate.”
Jivan: No, well … And I liked them separate and I didn’t want to price work in such a way that it was not attainable for people who were passionate about it. It’s always a dilemma because that work took two months to figure out and a bunch of mistakes. There’s a tremendous amount of embedded costs, so it’s just a lot … They’re expensive to do, period. When a frame on one piece is however many thousands, it’s scary and difficult.
Jivan: I’ve used this word, “scary,” because I don’t want to pretend as if … to people who are listening or my friends when I talk about it, who are wanting to approach art … I don’t want to sound as if it’s some answered thing that’s settled or that all of a sudden something happened, I was successful and I was making money to pay for my house and food and everything was okay and I didn’t feel concern and fear and uncertainty. It’s like, that hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed really is this awareness that the uncertainty is coming along with me whether or not I’m okay with it, so I probably want to try to find a way to befriend it rather than combat it.
George: That’s an important realization.
Jivan: Oh man. Really important and so hard. I mean, I’m crap at it. I mean, I’m better than I was, but it’s not like … I posted that bit on Instagram because I’d spent a week being like, “I can’t stand not painting. I don’t know what to do.” I was driving myself crazy and I was like, “Wait a second. All right, I’ve been painting almost 20 years and I know that there’s ups and downs and I know …” I’ve been doing these shows for about 10 years now in some way, shape, or form, and I know that there’s just a space that is necessary, that is essential, that is a healthy, appropriate space after doing a big push. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to not want to fill in that space with jitter or [crosstalk 00:39:29]
George: Yeah. Well, I mean, you talk about having that feeling of uncertainty, and you can understand it and be certain that there will be uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel it.
Jivan: Yeah, right, right. Yeah. Yeah. So these shows, the Altamira one with this ROYGBIV set … red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, the spectrum of what happens theoretically in light … which I found out in doing this project is kind of outdated and not actually accurate, but was good enough. It’s an approximation, we’ll go with it, and it looked cool and felt great, and it ended up being … It was of the Grand Teton and this sort of really reduced down composition of the peak and taking, instead of the grand range … Usually on location, what I’m out there doing is trying to pay homage to the totality of feeling. And there I was on one of the most spectacular ranges anywhere that I’ve ever been, US or beyond, just so vertical, so extreme, and I … I was on location and I did a wide painting in plein air in 2015 and then I did a vertical one and I did this weird composition. I hated it and I brought it to the studio after this road trip and then after three or four days, started to be like, “I think I like it.”
Jivan: It was one of those ones that changed as I sat with it for a while. Such a good reason to not destroy things unless you are so certain that you have to. Because it ended up being that after I sat with it for a while, I started really almost laughing because it struck me as so humorous to look at this most profound of mountains as if it had turned into a high school yearbook photo in terms of composition. It was like, “Here I am. I’m the Grand Teton.” Just the face of the Grand Teton and the peak and there’s no context, and it just looked like it was the Grand Teton from the shoulders up.
Jivan: And something about that struck me as so funny. For me as a miniature little human who’s going to be here for a blip, a raindrop on the face of this timeless mountain, to look at it in such a cropped in way is to reduce down the totality in such a way. It started being a really vibrant, intellectual terrain for me, thinking about my role as a artist, but as a person in the advent of all social media in the last two decades and all these things that are going on that frame the world, quite literally, and our understanding of it in a really specific way. I mean, this whole multi-panel series is the same idea of how do we frame our world. And as an artist, I’m framing it all the time. I’m choosing, and what does that do to the thing I’m painting and if-
George: The idea of thinking of Grand Teton as kind of like a cute picture is pretty funny and an interesting contradictory thought. But also, if you come at it from a different side where you’re looking at it, it’s almost like one of the out panels of your panel building composition without the rest of it.
Jivan: Yeah, yeah, you know it-
George: So it makes sense.
Jivan: Yeah. So in the arc of my creative process, I think that’s exactly right. There’s this gap in what I’ve been doing and all of a sudden there was 20 paintings of the Grand Teton in a solo show that didn’t have … as of yet when I went into it … a context that I understood. Or I didn’t understand why all of a sudden I was doing a bunch of these. Because the palette, if you look at New Sneakers, is ridiculous. I mean, I love it. It’s so fun, but it’s ridiculous. It’s fuchsia and bright yellow and royal blue smashed together, scraped down as if it were some sort of wood cut sort of print and then put back on, and really smashing together technique and color in a way that I wouldn’t have done, and it was because I saw a new pair of Nikes or something that I thought were really fun. And I like loud sneakers. I like nice, mundane leather shoes or something, but I like loud sneakers when I’m buying running shoes or basketball shoes.
Jivan: And so that made it into the painting, and then it became kind of like a Instagram or a Snapchat filter being placed on top of this mystical peak, which I found it is like a … It’s a site for vision quests for the tribes that have lived under that mountain range for a long, long time and there’s a real gravity to it. I mean, you can’t be there without feeling that gravity. But then there’s this-
George: Well, almost like this physics definition, too.
Jivan: Yeah, right, right, yeah, yeah, yeah, because of-
George: It’s got a lot of mass.
Jivan: That’s right, yep. Anyway, so it just became this outgrowth. And the ROYGBIV set … I guess what was interesting was at first it seemed almost like blasphemy to my sort of serious artist self. You know, “I’m serious and it’s my job to be authentic all the time.” Great, those are essential things, but also it can get a little stuffy and too much. And so to do this, at first it seemed like a humorous take and I started … Back in 2015 and 2016 was starting to cook on this idea. I wanted to do eight 48×36 panels right after Warhol and literally just take the colors that Warhol had done in certain pieces of Marilyn Monroe or other pop icons, media icons, and put them into the Grand Teton.
Jivan: I didn’t know why, and I didn’t get to it until this year, and they weren’t 48x36s in set. It ended up being that I started these studies and these little ones based on the plein air work I did, and then started varying the colors more and more to more extremes, and I went after one of the first was Marilyn Monroe that Warhol did, and took that palette and applied it to the Grand Teton. And I did it with painting rather than printing because I wanted the drawing to change over time. I didn’t want to have the stress and the notion that I had to shoehorn my draftsman quality into this group. I wanted to see what happens with letting each painting be drawn roughly the same aiming, but seeing the human fallibility or something changeable.
George: Well, and plus that’s kind of your process and your signature at the moment, too.
Jivan: Right, right, yeah. Right, sure, I have process evident work. I mean, that’s what I’m interested in these days. I’m certainly not trying to remove the artist’s presence from the work in this case. But I don’t want it to be about me, I want there to be this sense of the mark of a person having made it. I actually really don’t even like signing my work because I don’t want to have some notion of a personality too involved with what the painting is about.
Jivan: But anyway, yeah. So those Grand Teton set of pieces just appeared. I didn’t know what they were about, and like you were saying, they were kind of an outlier, a broken, discontinuous section of my creative process at the time. Then I started seeing that there was this question of icon and how we look at things, and I realized I’d go on location, in a sense to pay homage and to bring something back that I can offer to the world that helps other people access something, I hope, that is meaningful for them, whatever that might be. And this Grand Teton series then started to take on a totally different dimension, especially as I started to study up about the area and the mountain and understand some of the ancient history and the geologic timescale history as well as the more recent history.
Jivan: And then bringing it right up into Instagram lately has been on my mind a lot because it’s such these little snapshot worlds and all this perfect stuff and people always make fun of that Insta life or the Pinterest-y kind of life and … Whatever. It’s all fine and good, maybe, I don’t know, but the impression that people leave versus the reality behind the scenes. And I started, again, that question of the difference between the single one color painted of the Grand Teton when it’s this infinite colorfield, actually, that’s hitting it, and taking just one … I mean, one in air quotations, I’ll say, because my red in that painting is not just red.
George: Right, like a dominant.
Jivan: Yeah, a dominant feel-
George: Feeling of a color, yeah.
Jivan: You wouldn’t look at one of them and say, “I don’t know what color that is.” It’s red, it’s yellow, it’s orange. Anyway, so then, yeah, that started to be kind of a cool idea. Then it went from just one … I thought I was going to do one color and it started growing in the whole set. There’s so many different things that came up for me in taking this material into the studio rather than keeping it plein air, because in the studio, it’s just another side of the coin of space and time. It’s a different pace. So that show up in Jackson’s been really fun.
George: That’s cool.
Jivan: Yeah, the one in Santa Fe, too. There’s a bunch of experiments this year that I put up to see what happens, ones that were messing with surface or playing with more contemporary art critical questions on my mind about painting and why I’m painting in an age of digital media and installation artwork and experiential artwork and-
George: That’s an important question.
Jivan: Yeah. Let me know if you have an answer.
George: Yeah, exactly. Same.