We have methods of managing complexity, of sorting and organizing objects and information into categories, in order to prevent ourselves from experiencing the totality of things that taken all together can become overwhelming. An Illuminated book of hours like the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry depicts themes of changing seasons and their activities. Each scene has a half dome of sky, the constellations and attendant signs of the zodiac. All things, on earth and in the celestial realm, are in their place. A single acorn contains an oak tree, and a mature oak can contain up to 200,000 leaves that we catalog as foliage, verdure, canopy, bower, shade, grove. Likewise, a museum or collection of art becomes a representation or selection from a larger group of objects.
South Portland artist Jimmy Viera related that “I have always been a collector. My mom likes to tell this story from when I was small about how I loved to go into the backyard and fill up my bucket with acorns. Everyday I would follow her around, adding to my collection, and she was amused, watching the acorns accumulate. This tendency has spilled over into my paintings. I collect gestures and shapes from my sketchbooks to build the compositions of my work. These images are sometimes imagined or drawn from life. I act as a collector, adding items to a shelf.”
In art making, there are many methods for managing complexities. Artists use composition, a grid, or repetition to contain their forms, color choices, content, or marks and materials. There is no specific formula and so the results are varied, and myriad. Complexity is a part of a sympathetic muscle system that we learn to use to cope with excess detail. The greater the complexity we are confronted with, the greater the need for limits or structures to contain or support the totality.
Jimmy Viera uses his painting process, that is masking and taping off areas while working, and an abstract language of organic geometry to contain and isolate an area of detail, almost quarantining it, from the other shapes and forms that share the picture plane. His is an architectural structure, and his composition is a scaffold.
Viera explained: “there is always this underlying urge to completely fill up the painting. Many times, the longest part of my process is deciding when a piece is finished. Sometimes I will leave a painting up on the wall and not do a single thing to it for months until one day I decide that it seems finished. Recently, I was talking to another artist who suggested that I completely fill out a painting as an experiment. I think that might be the next step to work towards in my paintings.”
Portland artist and musician, Greg Jamie, works intuitively and tries “to let the story lead,” describing it as “courting chaos.” Greg builds textures and patterns within areas of his paintings, “I find that a form of maximalism in this light allows for greater freedom of chance—a way of making room for the subconscious to take over. I rarely keep the first idea I have when starting a painting—I try to let the lines take over.”
Jamie’s music adds an extra layer of detail to his painting. His song Inherit the Wind, on his album Crazy Time, contains layers and repetitions of instrumentation, and lyrics that parallel the dreamlike quality of his paintings. To view his paintings while listening to his music is to enter into a multi-dimensional tapestry.
Jamie said of his approach to making a painting that “when I start a painting it’s important to me to create a scene, like a wide-shot of a movie where multiple stories are taking place at once. I usually find that story by letting a lot happen at first, and then trying to take away pieces that aren’t working for me by erasing, through adding more paint. Watercolors are perfect for this for me, because it allows the bleed through, but dries fast. It shows the work, but lets you hide it as well.”
Irene Hardwicke Olivieri makes images that are colorful and densely detailed, but her figures and established sense of place act as a container for her patterning, and tattooed bodies, which resemble the ancient Picts.
Olivieri’s maximalist tendencies in art do not stop on the surface of her images, her subject matter is also maximal. Olivieri explores the big topics of death and impermanence and asks numerous questions.
“Ever since I was a child I’ve loved visiting cemeteries and often find myself thinking about mortality. I love making things out of bones, bringing old skeletons to life. A quote I have on my studio wall from Rilke: “Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?”
Olivieri continues: “I am moved by the lyrics of Phil Och’s song “When I’m gone,” which I first heard at a music sing along on Mount Desert Island last year. I often think about how it would be if we could leap forward in time and our dead self could come talk to our living self. An encounter which would surely snap me into full vibrancy in an instant. So hey . . . Are you getting what you want in this life? Are you doing what you truly want to do? Are you making the most of each day? Are you forgiving those who have hurt you? Are you loving those who need it the most? These thoughts turned into The Painter and Her Skeleton.”
Olivieri discusses the origins and afterlife of one of her paintings: “I Knew You’d Come Back, shows me with my parents. My father died in the high desert of Oregon; my mother died in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. I’ve lived in many places and moved to Maine several years ago. While kayaking off of Port Clyde one morning it hit me that my parents never knew me here. I can’t go in the kitchen and recall memories of my mother making enchiladas or my father helping me in the garden. I wished that I could bring my parents to Maine, to create a kind of oceanography camp for them, showing them the seals, cormorants, eiders and lion’s mane jellyfish; kayaking out into the sea together. A funny thing happened when I finished this piece. A man who owns a cryogenic company bought it. Cryogenics freezes bodies, or sometimes just the head (for a discount price) with the hopes of bringing them back to life at a future date.”
Recently, astronaut Jessica Meir was the guest on the radio program Maine Calling. Born in Caribou, Maine, in northern Aroostook County, Meir talked about her experience of living on the space station for many months. One of the callers asked her to speak of her home, specifically the special nature of Maine: had she looked down from the Space Station and been especially taken by the beauty of Maine from outer space? She replied that all the man-made boundaries of states and localities fall away revealing earth as a single, fragile and unified planet, suspended in vast space. She said that view transcended but did not erase her sense of home. It is called the Overview Effect that many other astronauts have spoken of and written about.
Artists travel in a kind of reverse overview effect called liminal space, the threshold between two realities, that space where art and ideas begin. For this issue, artist Casey Jex Smith, who is maximal in his style, shares a candid view of his work and artistic goals. I first saw his work at Able Baker Contemporary gallery in Portland, Maine, although he resides in Provo, Utah. Smith makes highly detailed drawings that tend to be primarily black ink on a white background, which anchors the intense complexities of his line work.
Smith explained his evolution towards increased detail as a confluence of events: “I started to fill the entire picture plane with marks around 2010. There was a slowed-down art market during the recession that created fewer opportunities to exhibit or sell work at the voracious and bloated pre-recession art fairs. I had the time and vowed to never make throw-away (art fair) work again.“
For Smith, this rethinking of his approach “coincided with an interest in RPG video games and Dungeons & Dragons and their use of isometric perspective to create worlds. This view allows the player to see every monster, treasure chest, skeleton, and brick. Because of this downward angle, there is no sky to take up a portion of the drawing. I became obsessed with filling every inch with grass, shrubs, rocks, cobblestones, and brooks. It’s a transparent view that gives god-like power.”
The very big view or the very small focus both achieve similar goals. There is a parallel approach to making any painting, drawing or sculpture that seems to be on a continuum from maximal tendencies to minimalist iconography. But you cannot walk two paths at the same time and so must choose your means, your methods and your way.
Greg Jamie is guided by the feeling of building something without trying to be precise.
“When scribbling throughout life, I’ve always found smaller markings to be more satisfying than exact or precise lines,” he said. “I think there is a form of catharsis—an almost therapeutic nature to compiling smaller, inexact markings in a painting or drawing.” In this way he depicts a theater of dreamscapes that are as evanescent as his music.
For Jimmy Viera a certain precision helps him to bring order within an abstract language. His is a structured world that seems to be occupied by organic yet mathematical objects, perhaps the realm of the fractal.
The highly articulated world of Casey Jex Smith takes place in a crystalline clarity, but in a world without shadows and with a cryptic content that seems to require decoding or serves as a Masonic handshake.
Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s art is a detailed narrative, saturated with color. Her works enter the realm of autobiography via a spirit world.
With these four artists one is dropped into worlds that are fully formed and occupied. It is an already moving train, a story in medias res. With them you get a glimpse of how detailed and richly embroidered is the realm of their art.
White light contains all of the colors of the spectrum and is actually polychromatic. The highly polished surfaces of Anish Kapoor’s reductive sculpture The Bean reflects everything around it, from spectator to cities and the clouds above, becoming an unintended illuminated manuscript. It is only within the polemics of art criticism that terms like Minimalism are used and countered with the opposing term Maximalism, creating a spectrum that is entirely man-made. A spectrum of sorts does exist, but the continuum is so vast and so complex that a person needs to adopt the world-view of an astronaut in order to navigate it. We occupy one planet and are perhaps alone in the universe where the diversity and divisions among all things and all beings is so intense that it can only become unified from a celestial realm. That is a vantage point which very few traverse. But on rare occasions, if you look closely, with open mind and the right kind of eyes,* the boundaries fall away and you just might experience the Overview Effect.
* ”You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, New York: Random House, 1972, p. 68.
Link to Greg Jamie music: gregjamie.bandcamp.com
Image at top: Greg Jamie, Untitled, watercolor and graphite on paper, 14 x 20 in., 2020.