Interview with James Michalopoulos, 2017

by William Pittman Andrews • Executive Director, Ogden Museum of Southern Art

The following interview was conducted by William Pittman Andrews, Executive Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the artist James Michalopoulos in his Elysian Fields Avenue studio in New Orleans on January 3, 2017.

WPA

It’s clear that you love paint.

JM

I do.

Material is a very interesting aspect of the painting as is the textural quality. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular objective of mine, to charge the surface, but I would say that the surface qualities are critically important to me. So is the image itself, as a point of interest.

The image has to be of interest to me. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing there if it isn’t. But I’m hoping that it might be interesting to somebody else too, because this is a communicative process at its root. Then there’s the surface quality of it and the question, “Can you convincingly evoke an image of something interesting and then, when you do that—when you’re close to it, when you’re sitting next to it and when you’re six feet away or ten feet away—does it have materiality that is offloading or intriguing, additive or distractive”? There are any number of possibilities.

But I definitely want it to read really well right there on the spot.

WPA

You speak about painting being communicative. Is there something you want to communicate specifically?

JM

No. I would like the surface qualities to be additive. I would like that to be contributory to the overall experience of the painting. I’m concerned that they are effective. What does that mean? I mean they’re either pleasing aesthetically, or they are useful, in terms of conveying the substance of the image. Aside from that, who the hell needs it?

In fact, I’m not wedded to any particular idea of surface. I go back and forth and kind of in and out: if you follow my work over some period of time you see that there’s just tons of paint or there’s very little paint, there’s a lot of knife work or there’s almost all brush work.

I basically leave it to my feelings and then the caprice of life although, that’s not to say that deliberation isn’t useful from time to time and that a concerted effort in one direction or another isn’t sometimes warranted. I’m really not trying to control too much of the whole thing on a philosophical level.

You know I’m from New England. I didn’t come to New Orleans to be more controlled, I came here because I loved how out of control things are, and how there is a “heart orientation” to life here rather than a “head orientation.”

There’s an absolute diminishment calculation in the way that I go forward with the work. I really leave a lot up in the air and out in the open. I start out with an intention, but honestly–with regard to the thickness of the paint (or thinness this morning) or the materials, or even what image finally comes out of all of it–it’s all completely open. That’s the way we do it, we come around riding bareback down here. This is New Orleans.

WPA

Do you see a link between the image and the picture plane of the surface? You talked about earlier work with thin veneers of paint to build up and gather an image, and then the opacity of building colors underneath the layers. Is this change from subject matter or is it just a matter of your language changing?

JM

I think it can change with anything. It could be the subject. I think one subject might incline me more one way or another, but honestly I almost think it has more to do with the day and how I am in that day, which can be an interesting thing.

If I’m working with a subtle subject, and there’s a lingering impatience, I might just reach out to that palette and take a spoonful of paint and lay it on the surface, just to get there. Now is that effective? Maybe yes and maybe no, but it’s truthful.

At other times you’re in a situation where you’re struggling with your methodology. You’re struggling with your own self, with your impatience, or you’re upset with the progress of a piece, and any manner of things can happen. So, I find myself opening up my toolbox and I use basically anything I can to get there.

There is a certain amount of kneeling before the subject that requires me to use certain methods to get there and if I need to do that, I will. I don’t care if I’m into big paint or not, if I’m working the subtleties of someone’s eye or, you know, a delicate motion with a leaf or a tree. If it’s a thin layer of paint that’s called for, it’s going there.

WPA

You mentioned the methodology. Can you comment on methods that organize your work? Whether it’s time spent thinking of the surface or on the creation or the support itself, or in the studio organizing color, or time outside as a painter.

JM

I’m a funny kind of person in that I’m analytic and I’m given to dissecting something to understand it. I like to solve problems also. On the other hand, I have a lot of times that I’m totally swept up in what I’m doing and any semblance of rational control is merely an illusion. A lot of this happens in a moment of abandon, and in a sense going in and out of control and in and out of my ability to marshal some kind of precise comprehension of where I’m going. Sometimes I’m just fine with that wandering. I would say overall that my process is characterized by a will to the finish, a will to a successful expression.

I have a notion of effective techniques. I have my ideas about the way that these things ought to go. I’ve been a painter for about thirty-five years, and there are very, very fundamental things that I occasionally have to recollect. It’s amazing that I have to remind myself how important those fundamentals are, and what a state of disregard I can be in with reference to that. In a sense the abandon is much more there, and then I have to collect myself, pull myself back, remember the basics.

I’ve been in various states with regard to use of productive technologies. Sometimes I mix my paint well in advance, that’s a practice that I like to do, so I’ll do a period of color study before starting on a piece, and so I’ll isolate eight, nine, ten, or twelve colors, and I’ll work them a bit and then sometimes I work to the left and to the right and back on the palette. Occasionally I’ll even look at how that structure will come out in the painting. However, to continually be that deliberate is a bit of an undertaking for me, because I feel this rush and interest when I paint that is more spontaneous.

WPA

You want to get right into the image.

JM

Yeah! I just want to draw, and go for it, and I only know by the many, many halting efforts and failures that I have had, that it makes sense to take some time and deliberate a little bit about the delicate passages here and there, or even to develop subtle but broad ranges of color and take some time at the beginning of the painting to see that if I can’t get there with Prussian Blue maybe I need some Cobalt Blue. I actually lay out quite a number of the colors I’ll use in it and then I often now have a secondary period, or even a third, where I would do the same process again.

Keeping the area clean, the palette worked out, the brushes and knives clean and up to shape–there are certain disciplines that are almost religious and very important which I employ with all the thrill that I do most religious exercises – with great reluctance.

WPA

Is there another type of creative ritual? Is it merely confronting “the day” that you spoke of earlier, or is it about a particular place you’re looking for, or is it that you go through photographs, sketchbook journals or wandering? Or is there something that you spiral around a while before you center on what the next thing is?

JM

I definitely do a kind of circling. I think the thing that is most noteworthy in regard to my process, is that I typically decide on a subject matter or subject area that I concentrate on for some period of time.

For instance, if I’ve decided that I’m going to work on landscapes then I’ll stay with landscapes for a month or two, maybe three, maybe four, maybe five, and I focus on this one thing and I find that it’s very helpful to me because the requirements for the paint alone are pretty significant. I may be dealing with, perhaps, thirty different colors that would not be part of the portrait pallet or have anything to do with human imagery.

In the meantime I find that a lot of things carry over from one painting to another. There’s variation in how one day I’m painting fields and other hills of fields or straw or even animals, but there’s a certain repetitiveness to the need for certain colors and it helps me focus. It helps me not reinvent as much, and I can go forward concentrating more on the particular expression and less on technical requirements of it.

Another thing is that I work in a certain area until I feel like I’m tired of it, and when I stop feeling the inspiration I move on.

WPA

Simply put.

JM

Basically, the thing that drives me more than anything, on any particular day is, “What turns me on? What’s exciting”?

There are commercial expectations or perhaps even material limitations. Perhaps I don’t have the size canvas that I need together. There are always little problems. Life impinges. I may be in the countryside and I want to paint urbanity. In all cases I just have to get to work. I try to keep to that and tell the truth in the painting and tell the truth for myself, a level of personal honesty – in terms of exercises and orientations, things that I do.

I try to keep myself together. I realize that my physical wellbeing has a tremendous impact on the nature of my work, so I try to stop after one bottle of wine the day before, and yes, the degree of my privation is extraordinary. I don’t eat a large meal before I go to work. I try to exercise from time to time, to stay in reasonably good shape because being a painter is actually very physical.

I stand when I work. I haven’t sat down for thirty-five years and so if you’re partying too hard, if you are overindulgent, it takes a course, it takes something out of the next day. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do good work–you can, but you have to include your hangover time, you have to include your impediments along the way, which are sometimes interesting. I mean it can all be grist for the mill.

In general, I like to be able to attack that thing physically, and I also like music, and I work with music, and I find that that influences my psychology a lot and I’m thrilled to have that input.

WPA

When we talk about all of these things that are part of what you do as an artist, is there something you enjoy the most or is it all really grist for the mill?

JM

I’ve never lost the thrill of the challenge of a new work. I love painting. I can’t believe that I still love painting after all these years. In some ways I’m surprised by that, but I do. I still love it. It’s not like I don’t like doing other things—there are lots of things that I like doing—but I find that there’s something really exciting in a great challenge in a piece, and I like trying to break new ground.

I’m thrilled by making something beautiful or exciting, or challenging in some way, and by the idea that it can be in some way contributory to life on this miserable planet (laughs).

WPA

How do you differentiate between a beautiful subject matter and a challenging subject matter?

JM

Sometimes they can be the same. But for me, in a broad way, there are two poles that a lot of my work vacillates between and something exciting is not necessarily beautiful. Certainly, the image itself could even be disturbing. It could be a disturbing subject, a disturbing thought. It could be an actual prefiguration of an unlikely circumstance–something ugly, industrial, forgotten dilapidated or even disgusting.

Often in the midst of the most humble circumstances there are things of great beauty. I’m blessed with this blindness in the sense that I could be in a parking lot in suburbia and be enthralled by the sparkle of the sunlight glistening off the concrete. That could hold me up for a while. I could actually work in a parking lot for a week or two.

Sometimes the most interesting work comes out of very uninteresting situations that require you to call upon reserves that you might not use otherwise. This pole between interesting, exciting and beautiful is, you know, a really great one and a complex subject.

There are many things that are interesting that are not beautiful and there are things that are beautiful that are not interesting. I gravitate more toward interesting and feel very happy when beauty shows up in the middle of that. Most of my attention is in the realm of things that are interesting, therefore I’m passionately interested in what I paint and sometimes it is the beauty, but mostly it’s the excitement that I feel for the subject and how that feeling generates a kind of reverence for the inherent beauty.

I think that is an opening for dangerous development too. You might call it beautification or purification but it could be a devolution into decorative or a devolution into some kind of summary treatment of something that is superficial.

I like to look at something that turns me on, and render it and its full ugly or beautiful glory and let it speak for itself.

WPA

I’ve looked at your nocturnal images for years, and I’m able to pick out more depth of color and more character of tone than ever before. There are subtleties–all kinds of physical things that take some serious looking. How does it appear to you when you’re painting in some of these near dark circumstances? Is that an intentional foray into the territory you call challenging and exciting? Does that result from your concept of “the day engaging the moment”?

JM

It’s more the matter of a kind of inherent excitation. I feel moved by the mystery and in this town, there is so much mystery. We have such a marvelous nightscape and, not only that–it is hot as Hades here half the time, so I began painting at night under deadlines for exhibitions after finding that when I was an en plein air painter it was just too darn hot outside.

I was actually having trouble with my paint drying up on the canvas. So I shifted to night, and would go find a street light, and then work a scene, from under there. For a number of years I was an en plein air painter, many years, and then I evolved. Immediately I felt a deep appreciation for the beauty of New Orleans at night. It was shadow filled, and there was such an amazing amount of mysterious beauty, that spoke to me–the spirits of the past. The interest is terrific and the challenge is great. I mean I love it. I certainly am not the first person to find interest and beauty in the shadows of night. You can learn a lot by looking into the darkness.

WPA

Poignant.

JM

I’m lucky.

WPA

I’m interested in the temporal aspect of your work and how that informs a lot of what you’ve spoken about—being out of doors, en plein air painting, heat drying the paint right on the canvas, your studio time and practice, and the passage of day into night.

JM

My operating principle is to be alert and available to what’s there, at any point in time. So I try not to be too theological about how I bring myself to what I’m doing. I try not to be too theoretical. My orientation is to be as present as I can be, and as honest and available to that. I spend a lot of time wandering, riding my bike and walking around different parts of the city and the state and I don’t know where it’s going to lead. I’m honestly not sure. When I come to work, I have a broad range of opportunities. I have literally millions of photographs and all the sketchbooks I’ve made of the world, I don’t know exactly what direction I’m going to go into. One of the wonderful things about being an artist is that you’re allowed, and actually in some ways encouraged, to follow your inspiration. I don’t know where that’s going to lead me on any particular day, and I like to follow that, to give into that.

WPA

Do you have a most inspirational place?

JM

New Orleans is my most inspirational place. I love being here. I think it is a terrific city. It is a power spot on the planet and I think I felt deeply attracted here because it is such a religious center. It’s a center for ecstatic transcendence, and artistic endeavor and research.

It’s a great place to be an artist and it’s a deeply mysterious place, a confluence of peoples from around the world and I think that the Mississippi River and the Gulf have some kind of a magnetic effect.

It’s always been my belief that New Orleans is a spiritual center, and in fact certain neighborhoods that I lived in are confluences within the middle of that spiritual center. Look, if you want to be in the middle of a vital life, you go where the vitality is, and New Orleans is a place where there’s a tremendous amount of freedom for you to live your life the way that you want to live your life.

Now some people think that’s problematic and I’m sure that it is. Definitely it can be. There are a lot of people that fall through the cracks. On the other hand, it’s a great place for you to experiment with your limits, and a place that has always been, at least up until recently, forgiving enough financially and economically for people to have a certain degree of liberty. It was a very important thing for me as a young painter that my cost of living was as low as it was, and that I could take the time to experiment as much as I could.

WPA

What originally drew you to New Orleans or was it part of a bigger journey?

JM

I came to New Orleans as a vacation, as a way of getting away for a little bit, I was also aware of it as a cultural center, but my intention was to come and stay briefly, and I fell in love with the city as so many people do. I resolved to come back and I returned two years later and with no regrets. I’ve made my life here and I feel that we still represent a cultural élan, and one that has a lot to tell the rest of the world how to live.

A lot of what life’s about in New Orleans and Louisiana is about a celebration of life. It’s about gratitude and giving thanks, and it’s also about personal responsibility, and learning to live with it. Nobody tells you much of what to do here in this city that care forgot. You can basically be who you want to be and if it’s going to take you down some dark and difficult roads it’s going to do that and you have the opportunity to master that ship and maybe take it where you want to take it, but nobody’s telling you where to park.

There are tremendous opportunities for personal expression, personal growth and for the opportunity to celebrate. The context of this culture is one toward transcendence. It’s transcendence through an orgiastic kind of practice. We dance. We make music and we drink. We party and we give thanks and we celebrate over and over and over again all year long. It’s a wonderful cauldron for thankfulness and celebration and in the midst of that your art plays a part. Your art is an expression of your admiration and your love or your upset, in a way that we all contribute to the conversation, for the possibility of the city, and for life in general.

To come back to the point, I think what America needs to do is to be much more like us. They need to wake up, and turn around, and embrace the values that we have and make Mardi Gras a much, much bigger part of their daily life: costuming, celebration, thankfulness—and this would do a tremendous thing. That’s what we need to bring to America.

WPA

A lot of encyclopedic museums seem to be on a linear track from beginning to end. Although it’s often segmented with lots of beginnings and lots of endings, it’s still a line, yet art is organic and it flows in all directions. One of the great things about the Ogden Museum is that its mission is cyclical and relates to the Southern experience to do things over and over and the desire to explore shared histories. The only thing a Southerner likes better than telling a story is retelling a story. When you speak of celebration over and over and over, it’s part of the concept that captures what we feel about where we are.

JM

You know I think you’re really on to something there and I think there’s a lot of people out there at the end of that line going, “Where the hell does this go from here?” We don’t have to be as linear because we’re not going anywhere. In a sense we’re already there! You know what those guys with the line need to do is turn around and look down here, and then they’ll know where to draw the line.

WPA

That’s right. A lot of the frustration comes from the ambiguity about the future, and when you know that your whole culture celebrates a cyclical existence, you don’t have as much of the fear and trepidation about where you’re going next, because you were just there and you’ll be there again.

JM

I don’t think that we’re denying a change, ultimately. We remain, to greater or lesser degrees, open to it. We’ve learned a lot about how to live and how to cultivate joy and happiness. And so we return to a lot of those things over and over again and that’s called wisdom. In the midst of that we selectively look forward to where we go from there. But just because somebody calls it “progress” doesn’t mean that we buy that.

WPA

Right.

JM

Because we know better.

WPA

To some, “progress” is a dirty word. Whenever I talk to people from outside these communities particularly New Orleans and certainly in the American South, I sense a great degree of encapsulation.

Yet here we have a totally different understanding and frame of mind. The people that embrace it here embrace it well. For some people it creates friction if they don’t understand it or maybe understand themselves.

JM

Absolutely. They encounter a tremendous amount of difficulty with the looseness of it all, and if you’re not able to abide some of that, there’s ways to make peace with that. I mean, you can go inside your house and recite the rosary all day long too. But to live in this world with some degree of enjoyment and peace, you need to be able to abide with the plurality of it and the lack of direction in a lot of cases. That includes the good and bad. There’s a lot of crap that goes on here too, you know, a lot of stuff that you’d do much better to just ignore.

WPA

You’ve been very kind to answer so many questions and we’ve covered a lot of territory.

Is there something you think we’re missing?

JM

I am very grateful to be here and in New Orleans and to be a painter and still very happy and engaged in my work and looking forward to all of the years to come, and feeling very challenged by what I’m doing and really into it. I go forward, not with trepidation, but with hopefulness

Kate Cichosz