Nathan Wasserbauer interviewed by Heather Morgan for Issue 8 of Cheap & Plastique.
Nathan Wasserbauer is a painter, living and working in Brooklyn, NY. His work comprises vivid geometric abstraction, evocative of architecture, digital transmissions, kinetic spaces.
Heather: You talk about the excessive consumption of our society and your childhood robot toys and comics being elements in your work. Are robot toys the bright side of that coin?
Nathan: You could say that robots are a starting point. So are dinosaurs and superheroes and all the things you’d expect a kid might draw. We’ve come to a point now where themes from popular culture can be cited as artistic influences. When I was a little kid drawing Godzilla breathing fire, I’d make the sound of the fire while I was drawing it, when it hit the tank I’d do the explosion sound. I even hummed the music from the films. Adults would sit there and be entertained. I love watching kids do stuff like that now that I’m an adult. When you get older and you come to realize what an exploding tank really might entail, you’ve left the starting point. Part of being a grown up is realizing that there are wonderful things you cherish from your past, but there are also negative things like fear and aggression we bring from childhood into our adult lives. Sometimes we act on these impulses, and it makes you wonder if there really is such a thing as an adult.
Heather: Considering the dual nature of your themes, do you aspire to uplift or present a dark hidden meaning?
Nathan: I think there is some slapstick in my work, which is a kind of cynical humor and healthy in appropriate doses. If I’ve really done my job well, a viewer might find some mystery there and then their imagination takes the baton. In my opinion, anything that moves a person toward investigation and curiosity has great uplifting potential.
Heather: You are also a musician and a martial artist. Do these pursuits influence your work?
Nathan: If I’m doing animation there might be some music. Overall these things get me thinking why does that make that tone? What’s the overall structure? Where does it have weight and where does it release? In martial arts you get a sense of how the human body works, with all its strengths and limitations. There’s certainly an aesthetic tradition with martial arts forms, movements, weapons and such.
Heather: Your acrylic paintings are very tactile. Tell me about your drawings, which achieve a very different aspect. Do you have different ideas for drawings versus paintings? How
do they inform each other?
Nathan: The color and light in the paintings give the objects weight. The light is somewhat internalized so the structure pops out in a bombastic kind of way. Painting is more a summation for me. Drawing, however well I plan it is always an input stage for me. The nature of simple tonality creates more atmospheric effects, light is externalized, and you figure out new vocabulary as you carry on. Eventually, you hope the best bits find a way into the paintings.
Heather: Tell me about the process of creating your images. Do you begin with drawings? Or do you organize your ideas around color?
Nathan: I begin with drawings on paper. I sort of create components and find ways to collage them together. Once I’ve got something I hadn’t expected, I might draw on top of that and add some new component. It’s like inventing grammar for a new language. In regards to color it’s about intensity and proximity. Either process might lead the charge depending on what I’m going after.
Heather: The digital age is a major theme in your work. What appeals to you about “old school” media such as oil paint and various printing techniques to create your imagery?
Nathan: There is a tradition of alchemy associated with drawing, painting and sculpture that I’m fascinated by. Gesso is ground bone, pigments come from earth, insects, plants and some need to be treated and enhanced through chemistry. When you consider the longevity of these materials, the work that goes into these techniques and that artwork is meant to outlast its creator, it puts things into a very real and constructive perspective.
Heather: Tell me about the influence of Italian painting on your work. How has your residency in Rome impacted you?
Nathan: I mentioned the materials already. Much of renaissance and baroque painting is meant to memorialize, and/or glorify. The fact that much of the subject matter involves violence, sexuality and such an effort is made to make tragedy beautiful, well, that’s epic! But when you take away the opera of it all, the fact that light and color finds consistency from the renaissance to futurism also gets my attention.
Heather: Who are some of your favorite painters, living or dead?
Nathan: Last year I was in Italy and really took a look at Filippo Lippi and the things that guy did with layering color are amazing. Here’s a list: Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Julian Stanczak, Paul Klee, Lucian Freud, John Romita Jr. (he drew Spider-Man and X-Men when I was a kid, and still does.), Mark Rothko, Hieronymus Bosch, Sol Lewitt, Robert Longo, Al Held, James Turrell, and Timothy Hawkinson.
Also Herman Melville (Best known for the whale thing, but he wrote Bartleby the Scrivener! Artists who’ve had jobs other than studio work to pay the rent can relate to this.)
Heather: Do you think that looking at paintings influences you as much as the massive amount of visual information (advertising, movies, internet, etc…) we are exposed to on a daily basis? Your work comments on this “problem”, as well. Are you telegraphing your mental billboard?
Nathan: I think only looking only at art to make art leads to a sort of creative inbreeding. It’s important to me to view paintings and be able to enjoy them outside of my own studio practice. Outside research is pretty crucial. I would say in earlier work there was more telegraphing. Now some material has become less penetrable upon initial investigation. Dave Hickey once told me “You work too hard. Leave some out. Let the viewer do some of the work.”
Heather: I have heard it said that every painter has one picture that they make over and over and that a good artist has several. Do you think that you have one or more images that you continually reinterpret, reinvent? What are they?
Nathan: There is a lot of stuff that Bernini did that I’m after, from individual sculptures to those grand city plans, architectural projects and colonnades. That spiral movement you find in baroque art or Chinese dragons. A lot of monumental ancient architecture and ruins come into play. Chinese landscape painting is also something I keep coming back to. The simple architecture of Italy and the American southwest, the way light and color break them down compositionally, when you reduce that to post painterly abstraction, and then multiply it again, you end up with endless possibilities. Think of the roof tiles as just one component.
Heather: Do you envision yourself remaining in NYC, or will you run off to a villa in Tuscany/cave in South America/Moon settlement someday? If the latter will you take your future phone with you?
Nathan: I enjoy New York City and I feel fortunate to live here. It’s nice to go away for a refresher, but I’m pretty glad to come back here. Life is long though. If I could spend part of the year in Italy and part here in NYC that would be great, but given a choice I’d stick with here for now. If I went to a moon colony I’d hope to take communication. I can’t envision cutting myself off.
Heather: Tell me about what you are working on now.
Nathan: In the studio now I’m working on vast space compositions, landscape and aerial perspective, and I’m considering the archeology, and in some cases anthropology of the subject. So a whole world with its own language and history could emerge! I suppose this work could be a prequel or sequel to the last body of paintings I’d done. Some of my drawings to be shown at Fountain are taking on the role of artifact, or fossil, or a look at the smaller components of larger compositions. Some drawings are working with different grounds, silverpoint and watercolor, referential to rare or unknown material composition. So stay tuned for some scenic viewing art lovers!
Nathan will be showing at Fountain Los Angeles this weekend with Cheap & Plastique.