Name: James Nares
Occupation: Artist and Filmmaker
City: New York City
Your film “Street,” now on display at the Saint Louis Art Museum, was shot from the back of an SUV on the streets of Manhattan. You edited the footage down to a glacial pace to make quotidian movement look like an elegant dance. How did this project develop?
This film emerged from the marriage of two longstanding fascinations of mine — the “Actualité films,” which were made around the turn of the last century, and high-speed photography.
Actualité films offer a particularly clear and unfiltered lens through which we can look at the past. Coming so soon after the invention of cinematography, they are fresh and vibrant with their enthusiasm for seeing and recording life on the street — as they found it. At about the same time, filmmakers realized that they could use film to manipulate reality too — by constructing a narrative, then acting, editing, and [using] other kinds of artifice to create a new and imaginary reality. But the formal beauty of Actualité films comes from their willingness to simply look, and their being shot in a single, long take without cutting or other manipulation of their world (it wasn’t until Andy Warhol trained an Auricon on his subjects that the thread was resurrected). The camera, of course, by virtue of its presence, changes what it sees, but even this participation is recorded intact, with the way people react if they see the camera — some frown, some clown, many just return the stare. Video has now opened wide the door to “real time,” but Actualité films were the first reality films.
To my mind, looking back through time at the “way things were,” both confirms and reveals things about the “way we are” today.
These [Actualité] films were not necessarily intended as historical documents, but that is what they have become. When I first tried raising money for this film, it was a bit of a hard sell, especially since I proposed it along with a working subtitle — “A Film to be Seen 100 Years from Now.” It was tongue in cheek, but I was serious too. We do create our own histories after all.
High-speed photography fascinates me quite simply because it reveals things which are invisible to what we call, most poetically, the “naked eye.” By filming on the street in Actualité style, I hoped to capture increments of moments within moments in time, that revealed human interactions and gestures and thoughts in action that are too brief to be observed in “real time.”
I wanted to have the observer/camera in constant motion to give the feeling of floating through a city where time stands still. To this end, certain conditions had to be met to be able to film at all. The car that carried us had to be moving between 30 and 40 mph and we had to be as free as possible of other cars, whether parked or in motion, coming between us and the subject of the shot. I then had a maximum of six seconds (because of the frame rate, averaging 780 fps, at which I was shooting) in which to adjust focus and aperture, choose focal length, frame, and shoot a given subject — all whilst traveling at speed with rapidly shifting light conditions.
Your paintings — which feature a long ribbon of paint applied with a single stroke — and “Street” both arrest moments in time. What interests you about capturing and suspending movement?
My paintings have an ongoing dialogue with photography. There are many painters who would say the same, I’m sure. The difference is that I’m thinking more about the temporal aspect of photography, rather than the visual. My paintings are made in a similar time frame to the taking of a photograph. They also have a “photographic look” because of the strength and nuance of the “modeling,” combined with the flatness of the surface. Malevich talked about his paintings being like “Photographs of the mind.” I would concur.
What really interests me about capturing and suspending movement is that I get to experience something invisible and inaudible, as elusive and fleeting as thought itself, and give it form. The Hindu god Shiva is said to have danced the world into existence. I like that. Maybe my paintings are all just little fragments of the Cosmic Dance suspended in time.
This year you have a monograph coming out with Rizzoli that chronicles the past four decades of your artistic career. As someone whose work is about the fleetingness of time, what’s it like to look back this far?
Looking back on my own history in this way, as I prepare for the Rizzoli monograph, is like opening a storage locker for the first time in many years. There are things that look really good, things that verge on embarrassing, things I clean forget I ever made... The real joy is in discovering that the twigs and branches of my practice are all firmly rooted in a single tree, even as time goes by and I become increasingly aware of the fleetingness of all things.
You’ve said that you’re actually related to the other famous James Nares, the 18th-century English composer and organist. In “Street,” you collaborated with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on a rambling guitar soundtrack. You also make music yourself. What role does music play in your visual art?
Yes, James Nares (the elder) was Organist and Composer to King George III (“Mad” King George to most), who did so much to revolutionize America. Maybe it was the music of James Nares that drove him over the edge or maybe it was just those royal genes. We shall never know...
Music has always been important to me. Rhythm in particular features in most of the things I do. I stumbled recently upon an old notebook in which I’d written, “Touch, timing and timbre ... keys to the heart.” That just about says it all.
When I decided to add a musical soundtrack to “Street,” I knew that Thurston was the man to ask. He knows New York, he knows noise, and he knows how to demolish expectations without effort. He never takes you where you thought you were going. The music he made for the film still astonishes me. It is tough, lucid and beautiful. He wanders through his mind in perfect counterpoint to my wanderings through Manhattan as I shot the film.
You’ve been known to go to great lengths to execute your paintings, including building a rig that suspends you above the canvas and producing your own brushes. Can you tell us about these processes?
It’s true, I do sometimes suspend myself over the canvas, but mostly I work at a table when I’m making a painting. When I use “The Rig,” my feet are firmly anchored. I lower myself horizontally just long enough to make a brush stroke — a matter of seconds — and then I’m upright again. My assistant then erases the painting quickly with a squeegee and I go for it again. This continues, over and over again until I get it right. It’s like trying to hit a home run. I have other ways of working, too. I have a way of working with the painting or drawing in motion and myself stationary. I do make my own brushes and have done so for many years. I’m constantly refining the designs, trying new materials, reconfiguring other brushes — all in my never-ending quest for the perfect brush.
Describe a typical day in your life as an artist.
I get up, drive to work, put in my day, come home, eat dinner, go to bed — just like most people, really — I work, I play, I laugh, I cry, I fall down, I get up... I like routine. It enables me to improvise.
I remind myself that traveling through life as an artist requires one to distill things slowly. To be inquisitive, inventive, and patient — a lot of things get discarded along the way. It’s a little like boiling sea water to get at the salt.
What’s your favorite place to see art?
I don’t have a favorite place to see art. I like to encounter it anywhere, museum, gallery, home, studio, street... I do prefer to see good art, when I see art, but it doesn’t matter where I see it.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?
My brushes, my cameras, and my willingness to use them.
Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?
Everywhere and all around me. Never really know when it’ll strike. All I have to do is keep my eyes and my mind open and the rest just happens.
Do you collect anything?
I sort of half-collect things spherical — practice billiard cue balls, a lump of brain coral from the bottom of the sea, an Irish glass lobster pot buoy, oversized steel bearings, a Tarahumara Indian ball made out of “burl” wood (taken from where a large branch emerges from the trunk of a tree)… I’m unsure, truth be told, whether I collect them or they collect me.
What’s the last artwork you purchased?
I like, most of all, to trade art, but the last piece of art I bought was from a diner in Ajo, Arizona. It’s a little still life of semi-recognizable objects in blues and reds that looks like it might have been painted by El Greco on angel dust — unsigned, but inspired.
What’s the first artwork you ever sold?
The first artworks I sold, other than to a couple of encouraging people when I was a kid, were a group of small works on paper to Julian Schnabel, in about 1982. He asked me how much I wanted for them and I didn’t know what to say, so I just said “Fifty dollars?” and then “…each?” and he said “Fine.” I might have suggested a trade but I really needed the money.
What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery?
I was pretty impressed during the opening of one of my shows, when the five-year-old daughter of a well-known movie actress took a running jump at one of my paintings, like she was diving into a swimming pool. I preferred to treat her impulse as a compliment rather than insult. Sadly (I think) she hurt herself more than the painting.
What’s your art-world pet peeve?
Well, this week’s peeve might be... when art writers talk about an artist’s “efforts,” meaning their work. It always sounds patronizing to me, like “I’ll give you an E for effort.” How about the artist’s “effortlessnesses” instead? It’s certainly something, or at least the appearance of something, that I aspire to myself.
What’s your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?
The little Ayurveda Cafe on Amsterdam at 94th Street. Yes, that far away. It’s simple and delicious and I leave feeling clean inside. It can be a fine antidote to wherever I might have been for the previous couple of hours.
Do you have a museum/gallery going routine?
No, though I sometimes wish I did. Maybe that’s why I sometimes miss shows I really wanted to see. I should take a few pointers from my own studio practice.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” Read it if you haven’t already done so. It will almost certainly remind you that you have a heart, too.
What work of art do you wish you owned?
Well, where does one begin? I’d be pretty happy (like scrape-me-off-the-ceiling… please) to live with the Titian self-portrait from 1550-62 that hangs in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. It’s a magnificent painting. He stares beyond the picture frame with an exacting look in his eye and a hint of recoil from what he sees, while looking equally inward at the same time. This is because he is looking at himself in what, to my mind, could only have been a configuration of two mirrors, angled in such a way that he could see himself in three-quarter profile. Thus he would also see himself as others see him, rather than as a “mirror” image of himself. His left arm is large and finds the light — the right withheld, deformed almost and clawlike, poised and ready to strike… or maybe poised and ready to bear his weight as he leans back and onto it. He seems strong and vigorous, even in old age — and he sees himself unsparingly. And just look at the way it is painted!
My only problem is that I might not be able to tear myself away from it.
It occurs to me that the things going on with and between people in “Street” are equally open to interpretation. That we inevitably bring our own reality into the mix of what we see. This space between the two is exaggerated even further in my film by the slowing down of time, because the camera distorts as much as it reveals. What may seem like someone who’s really down on his luck, stumbling along, head hung low, staring at the ground, will be seen if the film is played in “real” time to be merely glancing at his shoelaces or something on the sidewalk.
What international art destination do you most want to visit?
The Louvre in Paris. That’s because I’m going there next week and I’m really excited.
What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?
I think people should know more about what was happening in New York between say, 1977 and 1980. It has received some attention lately but there was so much more going on that anyone realizes — even those who were there at the time — and there was something going on that was common to artists of all disciplines. I see it as an era where something in the culture reached a critical mass that touched everyone in some way before dissipating back into the safety of it’s constituent parts. There’s plenty of room for research there.
Who’s your favorite living artist?
All of them, good and bad, bundled together and staring me in the face.