Interview: Justine Frischmann
Andrew F Giles
The US journal Sensitive Skin suggests your work “dig(s) through the ash and rubble of Modernism”. Walter Benjamin expounded on this image, with the recorder of culture (a historian, an artist, a poet) as “collector or bricoleur… (who) rummages around in the debris or litter left by the past, and reassembles them in a new “constellation”. How do you respond to this?
That seems to be a fair description of what any artist does! Or culture, or even what any human being does. I don’t think it’s possible to be alive without doing that.
The Benjaminian ‘constellation’ suggests an array of influences, however fragmentary. Which artists, musicians inspire you, why, and how?
Gosh, hard to narrow it down – but if I had to just choose a few currently: the artist Isa Genzken appears to be digging through the same rubble, I relate to all her reference points and love the balance of masculine and feminine in her work; the same with Wendy White, but also her use of colour and her balance of chaos and composition; Paul Pagk – I love how fragile and emotive his paintings are – for me, they represent a kind of ‘geometry of doubt’ which I can relate to deeply; Sarah Cain’s exploded grids; Katarina Grosse, her sublime vandalism; Cy Twombly – the way he lived and worked in rural Italy and never had an agent or even a secretary.
In terms of musicians: Brian Eno – what’s not to love? MIA because she’s so tough and determined and keeps making good, interesting work.
For the artists (and others) amongst our readers, could you explain some of the processes and techniques you use to produce a finished piece?
I often start by surfing the web for images I like. If I find something inspiring, I seem to get a little flash of energy, it seems to spark the right kind of chemistry in my brain to get me moving. If I can’t find anything new, I have an “inspiration” file on my computer with images that seem to work every time.
I usually work in series, if I find a new technique, or effect I like, I will just keep “riffing” on it until I can’t find anything new. I find it incredibly hard to repeat myself, even if I want to. I can’t make something work, unless it feels like it’s delivering something substantially “new”.
At the moment, I am using acrylic and oil paint on panel and I’m really enjoying the way the paint goes onto the panel. I take pictures constantly and am enjoying the way the oil and panel allows a good time window to travel backwards as well as forwards.
Do you listen to music or sound as you paint?
I always listen to music while I’m working.
Could you give us a quick description of your studio?
I just moved into my new studio about a month ago, it’s in a double garage in which has been converted to have a sink and skylights. Originally I thought it would be best to have a studio away from where I live, so there’s a clear delineation, but I realized that I actually prefer the making of art to be a completely integrated part of my life, no different to making a meal or doing stuff in the garden.
You originally studied as an architect, as your father Wilem Frischmann before you. How does this grounding in structure and space inform your work – most obviously, perhaps, in paintings such as The Tower (2008)?
My father’s actually a structural engineer but he has a passion for the architecture and design of the early Modern movement, and I was definitely brought up to notice the man-made environment and have strong opinions about aesthetics, particularly buildings.
Modernist aesthetics and architectural plans will always be linked to my relationship with him and with my childhood. And for me, geometry will always represent the masculine, right-brained, logic driven part of myself and the world.
The titles of your paintings vie between the anonymous – a variety of Untitled pieces – and the personal or potentially political – Mother Tongue (2010) and Another Green World (2011): what process do you and the image go through, for the image to take on a name – or not, as the case may be?
Another Green World is not political – it’s one of my favourite Eno songs. I like to use song titles. I actually find it incredibly hard to name works, they usually start out untitled unless something comes to me. But they all have “secret” working titles which I use to file them.
My personal favourite of your pieces is Battle of Faith & Doubt (2012). I like its dark and scientific evocation of a human psyche – and also, of course, it suggests a ‘constellation’ – had to get that in there! Could you talk about this particular painting – its ethos and genesis?
I spent a week at Christmas at an amazingly beautiful retreat centre in Big Sur called the Esalen Institute. There was a new moon so the skies were very dark and I have never seen so many stars.
I was there assisting Nina Wise who is a Dharma teacher and performer who I have been studying with for a couple of years now. She teaches a kind of “Zen improv” known as Motion theatre. It’s performative but utilizes many aspects of Zen mindfulness training, and above all trains the student to observe a kind of relaxed presence in their work. I’ve found it incredibly useful in making paintings.
It encourages a kind of faith that the subconscious is going to deliver whatever is most meaningful to the piece. Improv can be terrifying, but Nina describes it as a car headlight that just lights up enough of the road to see where you are going next. The whole path is not illuminated at the beginning, and the practise is having faith that if you are relaxed and present, in other words have mindfulness and equanimity, the lights will show up in order to reveal the path as you need them to.
It occurred to me that this process of trust that the lights will show up as you need them is true of making any visual art too – and this ongoing struggle to be “in faith” is central not only to every piece of work I make, have ever made, but is really the most potent theme in my life. I wanted to make some work that expressed this experience more directly. The pieces from that series all started out as black on black because that’s how making work, or even being alive, really feels a lot of the time… like moving forward in the dark with courage and faith.
We’ve interviewed other musicians who have peeled away from mainstream rock to follow more academic and informed careers (see our interview with ex-Siouxsie & the Banshees Steven Severin). How has your career in music influenced your art? Is there an element of fluidity, a transition? Or, perhaps, no ‘transition’ at all, but a lifelong interconnected creative process?
Making music and making art feels the same to me. Making art feels less tiring, partly because I am able to make a finished product without involving, or negotiating with, anyone else.
Your public image (I’m thinking of Reginald Gray’s portrait of you, for example, or Juergen Teller’s photographs), and a typically apocryphal rock & roll “narrative”, have achieved iconic status. Does the notion of your well-known connection and contribution to music (and Britain’s recent musical and cultural heritage) interfere with your art?
Not sure… it’s hard to tell how that will manifest. At the moment it doesn’t feel that relevant. But it will depend on how much journalists and writers want to concentrate on it. I’ve consciously avoided using my previous career to try to speed the process of getting my work “out there”. I wanted to allow my opportunities as an artist making visual work to unfold as organically and naturally as possible, and to make sure I had a solid practise before I let it be known that I was making paintings.
But it’s inevitable that it will have some impact – help in some ways (would you have asked me to do this interview without it?), and a hindrance in others, as there will be an inevitable ‘novelty’ factor.
The cult of personality and celebrity is endemic in Britain, and in the art world. Artists like Damien Hirst have arguably infected art with a Warholian personality which some say devalues the scene. Your work seems to shrink from that concept in various ways. Would you agree?
Yes, I think that’s true. I’m very happy to be living a fairly anonymous life again and I learned in my previous career that the “cult of celebrity” just didn’t suit me. I found it very toxic and detrimental to making work that I was happy with.
Are you planning to exhibit in Britain – more specifically, even, in Scotland?
No immediate plans – although I’d love to show in the UK in the future.
Justine Frischmann is an artist working out of the Bay Area in San Francisco. She is currently involved in the ALLTOGETHERNOW project at The Coin Locker gallery in New York, curated by artist Julie Torres and in conjunction with Arts in Bushwick. Check out her website here.