Featured artist James Zwadlo spoke with The Eisenhauer Gallery about his art collection and the concepts behind his unique series of paintings called, "Pedestrians." From his roots in rural Wisconsin to his experiences living in New York City as a young artist, Zwadlo's fascinating story and point of views are an interesting read for all art enthusiasts and collectors alike.
Q: Growing up on a dairy farm and then graduating from SUNY Potsdam doesn’t offer a tremendous amount of resources to the arts. How did you maintain your passion for painting in environments that don’t cater to or boast the arts as well as other locations you lived in like New York City?
James Zwadlo: Growing up on a farm, I was surrounded by forests, fields, herds of animals, lakes: a Prelude to art, a Wordsworthian paradise. I was immersed in reality, the reality of nature, where people understood art as being about the image, the subject. They always asked “What is it?” when looking at a painting.
I remember early on seeing an illustration of a Miro painting, one of the Dutch Interiors, and asking, what is it? No one knew…., but I kept looking at it, and trying to figure it out.
This happened regularly with other paintings I saw, Mondrian’s, Kandinsky’s, Pollack’s, found in the popular press or the school library. I did study a lot of science and math in preparation for college, but those paintings presented the bigger mystery. At college, I started seeing real paintings, not just the photos in magazines, and that really did it. It was a kind of awakening, to see that an image could come from the mind, and not just from nature. And to realize that I could, maybe, somehow, do that too.
Q: How did you grow as an artist from your experience living in New York City?
James Zwaldo: I got my best advice from a teacher at SUNY-Potsdam: “if you’re serious about painting, you must go to NYC.” I was and so I did; I worked as a studio assistant for artists there, in the ancient apprenticeship style, and did all kinds of odd jobs in between. NYC was about as far from nature as one could get, and New Yorkers are hyper-alert to every idea; I met lots of people comfortable with ideas that come direct from the mind without an obvious reference to nature. It took some time to get used to that, and to find ways to paint that both acknowledged that attitude, and challenged it too. For some years, I painted cityscapes that alternated with landscapes; the idea was to juxtapose opposite points of view, nature vs. urban. One day my wife Sue and I were looking out our window, 4 lanes of traffic, street vendors, crowds heading into the subway, and she said, “Why don’t you paint that?” We were looking straight down at the steps filled with people going into the subway.So naturally I did, although it was years before I found the techniques and skills to show it the way I ‘saw’ it. It was a matter of reducing the image to essentials, which turned out to be showing only the people, the pedestrians; everything else, the buildings, cars, etc was clearly implied in the scene of a crowd of pedestrians. No one has ever doubted that these paintings are urban!
Q: The pedestrians in your paintings are all faceless, as if they could be anyone and everyone at a given time. However, at the same time they are unique in their own through their clothes, gender, and hair color, giving some sense of individuality. How does your view of the “pedestrian” play out in your paintings?
James Zwaldo:Well, they have faces all right, but it’s hard to see them from the aerial view. Did you ever wonder what you look like to other people, when walking in the street? One feels unrecognized, but not really anonymous. Then you might realize that the other people you see could be thinking about you in the same way…. In a crowd we have a lot of really fast, unconscious interactions and reactions, changes of pace and body movements. We may think of just walking in the street as something ordinary, literally pedestrian, but the patterns and movements make something rich and complex, something resembling an abstract painting, like the Miro’s, or Kandinsky’s…
Q: You have described your artistic process beginning with your camera, which serves as a catalyst for your paintings. Do you believe there is a difference between capturing a true reflection of time and space with your camera, opposed to illustrating an idea within your paintings?
James Zwaldo: For me, the camera is a tool for recording, transferring, and scaling an image. The camera conveniently puts a grid over space; I no longer have to draw the grid lines and painstakingly transfer an image from a drawing to a canvas. The digital camera’s pixels form a grid that is very tiny, to record fine detail, and lets me scale the image easily. The camera also places a grid over time, to record time intervals down to a 1/1000 of a second, to access another kind of detail, that of movement. At these stop-motion shutter speeds, I see the subtle shifts in the balancing act we call walking. In my paintings walking becomes “found choreography,” a minimalist dance.
Q: What is the difference to you as an artist?
James Zwaldo: Many of my paintings include stripes, a reference to the markings in the streets; crosswalks. To me, the real stripes painted on the real street are real paintings, “found paintings.” I tend to be literal-minded about photos and paintings; they are both real, in themselves, and I can paint a photo just as I can photograph a painting.
Q: What is the difference in your opinion for the viewer?
James Zwaldo: I think the aerial point of view is appealing because the images of people seem to come out of the plane and share the viewer’s space. It is surprising how few paintings in the history of art depict shadows; for me, shadows are a big part of the image in every painting.The shadows push the figures out into the viewer’s space, but the foreshortening of the aerial perspective compresses the colors, intensifies them. This creates a kind of tension, and a stimulating energy. And of course I like to paint all the little details, fingers, wristwatches, glasses, and that’s fun to look at. Hair is a big feature, lots of tiny lines to paint. The figures occupy a space that is perpendicular at every point, so that each figure gets the same amount of room and is in the same scale as everyone else; not a real space, but a democratic space, which I think must be unconsciously reassuring to the viewer.
Q: When people look at your paintings, is there a predetermined or ideal experience that you expect for them, or do you look to create a unique experience for each individual?
James Zwaldo: I tour the galleries of New York as often as possible, and the result every time is that I find a few shows that seem just great. They are the ones where the painter seems to really want to make a beautiful painting, and they just barely, in a desperate effort, manage to do so. It’s hard to explain how it happens, but it does, and it’s clear that it does. It’s like the old saying “The first one to do it didn’t know how.” It’s a lot of work to make a painting like that, but it’s a lot of work for the viewer to see it that way; I hope we can meet halfway.
Q: What’s next for your collection?
James Zwaldo: I’m interested in the way paintings from the aerial view can make it difficult to decide which way to hang a painting, what side of the painting is “up.” There may be two or more equally acceptable ways to do that; so which one is “right”? This was a problem with many abstract paintings, which would be illustrated in a magazine or hung in a gallery “upside-down”, but is quite rare for a painting with recognizable imagery. I next discovered that a painting could be designed to hang either as a square or as a lozenge; by turning a square 45 degrees, it looks like a diamond shape. The discovery here was that a painting could then have multiple dimensions, if it is measured according to the typical horizontal and vertical method. A lozenge measures a lot larger than a square, as the measurement is along the diagonal of the square (as everyone knows from computer monitor measurements). The latest ambiguity is the result of making a set of square paintings, which can be hung together in many different configurations. I call these ‘magic squares’ after the math game where numbers always add up the same no matter which row or column is used. The paintings look remarkably different in each configuration, yet none of the possible configurations emerge as the ‘correct’ one, or the ‘better’ one. I like the way this reinforces my idea that there are many points of view, and all of them can be interesting.