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Artist Interview with Joe Wardwell: Through the Empires of Eternal Void

To look at the paintings of Massachusetts-based Joe Wardwell, it would seem like juxtaposition is the center of what he does. Having developed an aesthetic over the years that marries quintessential American landscapes with snippets of lyrics from classic and heavy rock, on the surface, he seems to be working with disparate elements. And maybe he is on that level, but there’s something political and subversive about it too — a questioning of what it is that makes these sunsets, streams, forests and mountaintops what we think of when we think of the American pastoral.

Wardwell‘s technique, as seen in work like that featured in his current Untied We Stand showing in New York — the name is taken from a Weedeater chorus lyric to “God Luck and Good Speed” — or the collective gallery show We Still See the Black (named for Candlemass‘ “I Still See the Black”) running to Oct. 14 at the New Art Center in Newton, MA, in which artists like Seldon Hunt and Nader Sadek are also taking part, borrows as much from propaganda and advertising art as from rock and metal, toying with these visions of the ideal and undercutting them with evocative half-phrases. Pieces like “You Must be Blind” and “Never be Strong You Can Only be Free” offer more than cultural references to Black Sabbath and Guided by Voices, commenting on the authority given to art to speak for us as consumers of it and pulling new meaning from the lyrics around which they’re based.

Also a member of the heavy rock trio TAJ, Wardwell discusses in the interview that follows how he got his start in the graphic arts, the move from Seattle to Boston that resulted in his living in Massachusetts to this day, where he teaches at Brandeis University in Waltham, how he discovered Sabbath and came to incorporate so much of what they did in their early days into his work — yet another confirmation of the scientific fact that Master of Reality is the greatest album of all time —  his appreciation for the aural and visual work of Japanese trio Boris, the direct relation between music and his painting, and much more.

I know it’s not the kind of thing that usually gets covered around here, as to my knowledge he’s never done posters or album art or that kind of thing, but I saw Wardwell‘s work, thought it was cool and figured maybe I wouldn’t be the only one. The clear passion he showed for music in our conversation and the huge part it plays in what he does made it a fit in my mind, and I hope that follows through for you as well. As always, click any image throughout the post to enlarge it.

Complete interview is after the jump. Please enjoy.

The We Still See the Black show looks—

Totally metal, right?

Yeah.

I was worried it was going to be a little cheesy, but it’s awesome. It’s going to be a really good show. I hope it gets some good press here, because it’s definitely – not just because I’m in it or whatever – even if I wasn’t in it, I’d still be like, “Wow, that’s a fucking cool show.”

Give me the background on how you got your start in visual arts.

I always kind of drew through school and that kind of stuff, and then I got really into art in high school. I also played music a lot, played in guitar, played in a band in high school and stuff. So those were my two main interests. And when I went to college, I went to college in Seattle in the ‘90s, and it was great. The music scene there was really influential – it’s still influential on me – but there were so many musicians there at the time that I really defined myself by not doing [music], as opposed to doing it. And that’s when I just got more and more into making art. Because it wasn’t something that everyone was doing at that time. It definitely wasn’t cool, or anything. Basically, playing in a band was the only thing that was cool in Seattle in the early ‘90s. So I got more and more into making art, and then, towards my end of undergraduate school, I got really into it, and ended up deciding to apply to graduate school, and that’s what brought me east to Boston at the end of the ‘90s.

Where did you go for grad school?

Boston University. That’s how I got stuck out here. I went to Boston University from ’97-’99. There’s so many schools, and by the time my wife was done with school, I had landed a teaching job at Brandeis, and teaching jobs in the arts are so tough to come by that we pretty much just stayed on. But we still go back to Seattle a lot. Even though I haven’t lived there in 13 years, I still think of it as home.

Did you grow up in Seattle?

I grew up mostly in the west. I lived in Montana for a time, but mostly I lived on the border of Washington and Idaho, in this small college town called Pullman, Washington. Pullman, like the train car.

And what about the visual arts first piqued your interest?

I guess in high school, you know, I was exposed to some art, but definitely not museum qualities. My mom and I took one trip to D.C., but it would be hard to say how much influence that had on me. It really was early album covers and such, the Iron Maiden album covers. I think there was a time in high school, when I was both playing music and drawing and painting – it sounds kind of silly now – I was like, “Ah, I’ll make my own albums and my own album covers.” That kind of high school desire. And then, it wasn’t just metal. I was into SST punk, and there was the Raymond Pettibon covers that came out in the early ‘80s. That kind of art, that half-comic, half-street, but oblique in a weird way – had a big effect on me. I still think those album covers are some of the best album covers that have ever been, and it’s not just because Raymond Pettibon is so accepted in the art world now. Those covers are just very direct, very clear, very different than anything else that was coming out at that time.

What is the relation between visual art and music for you? How much is music integral to what you do?

I think it’s kind of like, I don’t remember where the quote comes from – it’s a writer, I don’t know if it’s Hemingway, but it’s, “Write what you know.” I grew up in the west, and I know landscape and landscape imagery, and I grew up around these landscapes that are used in sort of these icons archetypes of landscapes, snowy mountaintops and trees and all that, and while I’m in my studio working, I play music constantly, and I always have. I’m always in that pattern. I wouldn’t say I’m a full-blown musician or anything, but I’ve always played music, and there’s definitely a relationship between… I remember one point where I felt like my work, the subject needed to be more about who I was. At that point, I was like, it needs to be more rock and roll feeling in the work, and I started directly using it as part of the subject. As it evolved, when I started doing the work with the lyrics, I started keeping lists of lyrics as I was listening to music, and then they started to fit more and more over the imagery that I was doing, and I realized that I could start with something – a lyric and a landscape – and it would be two separate things, and then as they evolved, they could become one thing and they could talk about a lot more than just their original source, speak a lot more than just being like, “Hey, that’s a cool reference to that song,” but be more of an open interpretation to meaning and subtly suggest more than just the cultural reference of the music.

One thing I’ve noticed in looking through the pieces is you don’t use a whole line a lot of the time.

I start with the whole line. Usually I’ll write out a whole lyric, and then it’ll get more and more abbreviated or edited as the painting evolves, and then coming to bring the lyric in and it ends up being much more in a relationship to each individual piece. And even though my music tastes sort of run the gamut, I would say I’m usually on the heavier end of things as a whole. I let the lyric stand for itself. It takes on a new meaning in the context, so it’s not just about picking my favorite band or something. If something’s from a really uncool band or song, and it fits a piece, I’ll use it. Everything has to be kind of unique to what needs to be said.

What kind of stuff do you listen to regularly?

It’s funny. It’s interesting. I usually call it “trolling.” When I’m trolling for lyrics, I kind of listen to everything. It comes from anything from ‘90s indie rock, to country, to a lot of classic rock work as far as finding a phrase that’s already embedded in the cultural lexicon and then paring it down and separating it from its context. But then, when I’m working and I’m just painting and I’m not thinking about what kind of lyrics to use and I just need something to listen to while I’m painting, I’m definitely much more on – I don’t know what you call it – stoner rock or doom metal, but everything from the Melvins, to early Sabbath, to Boris, to SunnO))), to Orange Goblin and Nebula. I don’t know if that is all one genre or two genres now. What do you call it?

I usually go with “heavy rock.” Nebula’s more heavy psych, Sabbath’s more doom. You can go almost by band, but “heavy rock” is what I’m using to encompass it lately.

There was like a year when I was in that needing-to-work mode where I was just listening to Boris. I draw a lot of artistic and creative inspiration from Boris, and it’s the only band that I actually collect all the vinyl for.

That’s not an easy task. I’m sure in that year, Boris put out six albums.

I know. I stopped doing the Southern Lord vinyl, just because they pump out a lot, and it’s really, “Get this limited edition of 5,000!” and I’m like, “Dude, there’s 5,000 collectors of Boris?” That is not limited edition (laughs)! But no, I definitely draw a lot of inspiration from Boris, and from the Melvins. I’ve been seeing the Melvins live since 1988. I just saw them two months ago. That’s a really long-standing influence, both musically and artistically. Interestingly enough, I think that both – who is it, Atsuo, the drummer from Boris, and King Buzzo are very interested in art and stuff. I think King Buzzo especially is very interested in contemporary art, but that’s through other people, I don’t know that. He asked to borrow a Fred Tomaselli image in their book Neither Here Nor There and stuff, but definitely, I think Atsuo is that FangsAnalSatan, and Boris is all art school dropouts, and I really like the albums they put out, I like their design. In a lot of ways, I find kinship with their text, with how Atsuo pulls from the classic… He’ll make a Yes reference with his fonts, or he’ll make a Judas Priest reference. So Boris is big. But really, all that kind of High on FireSleep, obviously – that whole… it’s band by band, but if there was a lump area — and that’s the kind of music I play with my… fellas that we play with.

(Laughs) Is that not to say “band?”

Well, it’s a band, but we’ve only played out like five times in four years or something like that.

Semi-band?

Semi-band, yeah.

What’s the name of the semi-band?

TAJ. We were Todd, Alex, Joe, and then we lost Todd and got Tony, so we remained TAJ. We’re actually playing at that New Art Center, the metal show. We’ll have one more gig to add to our history.

When did you discover Black Sabbath?

When I first got into music, I kind of went straight from my dad’s country records to D.C. punk and L.A. punk. It was a dramatic transition, and that was sort of the early ‘80s. A bunch of my friends started getting into metal, and it was really dorky at the time – in retrospect, it sounds like I was the coolest kid on the block – but I didn’t like hair metal at all and wasn’t into Cinderella or Ratt or Mötley Crüe or any of that kind of metal. I really just started liking Sabbath, and people would play Sabbath, because Ozzy was big at that time with Bark at the Moon, Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Ozz, and all my guitar friends were into Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee, but I was really into the early Sabbath sound, and I liked Motörhead a lot. I really got into them, and I played in an all-Sabbath cover band called Mourning Sun. It was the ‘80s, and so I don’t think the term “tribute band” was in there, but it was never even discussed that we would play any other covers other than Sabbath, so I think it was an early model of a tribute band, and that just completely cemented my love of Sabbath. I still would probably say I’ve never listened to anything as much as Black Sabbath, and probably, you know – it’s funny, in your email, you were talking about Master of Reality, but I probably have not listened to any other album more than Master of Reality.

That’s because it’s the greatest album ever.

Exactly. It is the greatest album ever. Did you read that John Darnielle 33 1/3 book?

No, I didn’t.

Don’t. It’s like the most depressing, pathetic, indie-rocker trying to write about metal. It’s like the saddest thing. Someone who either really loves Sabbath but is scared to admit it, or someone who just does not get metal. Anyway, I don’t know if you saw the small 8×10 paintings I did in 2010, but they were all Sabbath. Most of them actually were from “War Pigs,” and some of them were from “Hand of Doom.” Basically, I didn’t know what I wanted to say and where I was at in my work, so I returned to my core, or whatever. I was like, “Okay, let’s start with something we know,” and I took – I think it was across eight paintings, 10 or 12 of them in total, but across eight paintings, I took most of “War Pigs” and broke the lyrics up, had “Evil Minds That Plot,” “World Stops Turning” and little phrases from most of the song, as a way of starting to generate work from where my original love was.

I saw the “Evil Minds That Plot” piece. There’s something about that that’s so foreboding, those words over that landscape.

That song is so direct and accusatory. It’s just great. It’s great. I guess I felt, because of politics and where our country is going, I just felt that that song really hits home to what we’re experiencing now, and in some ways, that landscape, I used tropes of early American painting – that sunset going down. There is that, “Okay, end of times” feel to things. I was trying to activate that. Just the idea of “Evil minds that plot destruction” seemed too obvious? So I just took out “destruction.” “Evil minds that plot” seemed so fitting. That is actually one of my favorite paintings from that series.

Tell me about the process of matching a landscape to words. Is there something in a landscape that you see that says, “This is perfect for this?” You mentioned in talking about that one about the sunset. Is there always something that stands out about a landscape?

How obvious it is, I don’t know, but there’s definitely sort of a political questioning, or a questioning of national identity, or a questioning of a collective American psyche that I’m interested in, and so when a lyric – I keep lists of lyrics that have some kind of evocative quality of either countering that psyche or challenging it in a way that’s maybe not necessarily obvious. I keep these lists that have some kind of American psychological either counter, or are in tune with American identity, and I paint landscapes that have a sort of American archetype. Like a sunset, or a snowy mountaintop, or like a bucolic stream setting, or something that has that kind of everything from Hudson River School, to a Coors beer ad landscape archetype within it. As I develop the painting, I figure out and try different ideas that maximize the interpretations possible inside it. And then, at a certain point in the painting, I just have to go with it and commit and paint the text in there. A lot of times, I think it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But there’s also a physical relationship too to how the text actually has to fit in the rectangle. I’ll be like, “Oh, this is perfect,” and I’ll have a lyric all ready to go, and then on the painting, it just doesn’t look right, or feel right, or it’s too many words. And then I have to change and adapt.

It’s interesting you mention advertising art and Coors ads and things like that. That’s always a concern in marketing, and propaganda too, the actual look of the words on the canvas or the page.

I definitely want to play on those clichés as well. I think that one of the clearest examples is the one you mentioned, that popped out at you, the “Untied We Stand.” That was a painting that I saw in my head, basically. I listened to that lyric, and I was like, “That needs to be visualized,” you know what I mean? Everywhere I go, people say “united.” “United we stand,” but that one little twist of the typo was such a visual trickery that you barely understand what it is until you see it spelled out, how that plays on “united we stand.” I just saw it in my head in a classic American font, and done in the colors of those posters, “These Colors Won’t Run,” after Sept. 11, the red, white and blue – “These Colors Won’t Run.” And I had that idea with the sunset going in the background for that painting. So sometimes they come to me where I’m like, “Oh, that’s just perfect.” In a sense, it’s like where the words need to be made visual. I like Weedeater specifically. It seems like they’re thinking in that way. You listen to music, you write down lyrics, and you almost don’t realize sometimes how – sometimes it’s almost a bummer to find out what they’re actually saying (laughs). You’re like, “Wow, that’s disappointing.” But sometimes it is nice. I have another painting that has, “Mankind is unkind, man,” which visually is almost like a palindrome, and I have it with a waterfall, where it’s “Mankind is” and then “Unkind man,” so it has this almost mirror-image feeling of it. I was just writing down the other day, Sonic Youth in “Youth Against Facism”: “Redneck in check.” I don’t know if I’ll use it or whatever, but writing it down, I realized it’s 14 letters, seven and seven. Anyways, there are certain almost visual elements that come into the words too. If people do look up the reference, they get more of a relationship to how those things are constructed as well.

Joe Wardwell’s website

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2 Responses to “Artist Interview with Joe Wardwell: Through the Empires of Eternal Void”

  1. gideon says:

    Great interview. Great paintings. Awesome.

  2. Owen says:

    Smart and extremely talented work. Joe’s great and makes really great paintings.

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