The cover image (“Local Hero”) of our Winter Reading issue was created by Nat Meade, an artist with true bi-coastal roots. Born and raised in Oregon, a mere two blocks from the actual Tin House in Northwest Portland, Meade came East to study at Pratt, in Brooklyn, and set down roots.
Nat was kind enough to conduct this interview with me while vacationing in Spain with his wife and child. The day we corresponded he had just visited the Prado.
ELISSA SCHAPPELL: We started featuring artists from our two home cities two years ago, and surprisingly given the crossover between the sister cities you’re our first bi-coastal artist. Which seems appropriate as you grew up just blocks from the office in Portland. Can you tell me a little about how you ended up on each coast?
NAT MEADE: I was born in Massachusetts. My parents worked at a boarding school there and that is where my brother and I spent our first couple of years. We moved to Portland when I was very young. I grew up mostly in northwest Portland, it what was then called the flats-near Wallace Park. The neighborhood was different then, not so expensive.
I originally went to Boise State University on a football scholarship. I studied art at Boise State–I have always been an avid drawer and always planned on pursuing art, but I wasn’t as invested as I needed to be. I was there for three and a half years–four football seasons and then left and took time off.
After a couple of years off I went to the University of Oregon to finish my degree.
After getting my BFA at U of O I traveled around Europe looking at art. The painting that made the biggest impact on me when I was in Europe was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind in Naples. I really didn’t have an awareness of Bruegel. I had never seen a painting do what this painting did. It was completely believable in space, and form and atmosphere and at the same time completely invented. The figures are absurd and brutal, and completely invented. I felt I like it was my own world I could crawl in and occupy. I felt so intimately involved with the painting. I saw a few more Bruegel’s during this trip. I think I was already getting pretty serious about becoming an artist but this trip really opened up the possibilities and ambition in painting. A painting is a live performance and the intimate connection with the artist is always inspiring.
After that, I moved back to Portland and started making work on my own. I lived in various apartments and in a warehouse. At a certain point I felt I needed a push, and started applying to art schools, I really didn’t know what I was doing, which schools were the best, I just applied to schools where there were professors whose work I liked, and almost all were on the East Coast. I wanted to live in New York. That was the most important thing. My mom is from New York, both my grandparents grew up there and I always loved it when I visited. It seemed like the center of the art world and I wanted to be in the middle of things.
Pratt seemed like a place where I would be able to move forward as a figurative painter but would still be exposed to the art world at large, a place where there would be lots of different artists making different kind of work. Pratt seemed to offer that balance, and it was in Brooklyn. I have always had a romantic notion of Brooklyn. I had just finished reading Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Fortress of Solitude.”
ES: There is a line in your bio: “Nat Meade builds upon historic painting genre and technique with modern references” I wonder if you might elaborate a bit more?
NM: I don’t know if that line would apply to my work now. I think it refers to my interest in painting’s history and what it has to offer. I try not to draw lines. Many old paintings feel vital and contemporary, that was certainly the case at the Prado yesterday. Like a Poussin landscape that seemed so odd, completely made up and strangely relevant. I’m not exactly sure, something about the inventiveness in painting. I don’t mean to relate it to video games or anything like that. Something in the painting seemed staged–it was an alternate reality. There are a number of artists working in this manner now, artists like Michael Schall and Amy Bennet who present these invented but believable realms that mirror reality and at the same time stand in as an allegory for our detachment from it. This Poussin painting at the Prado also presented an allegorical reality, the same with the Bosch paintings.
There is a gallery of Velasquez’s buffoons: midgets and outcasts—The Portrait of Sabastian de Morra and The Buffoon of Calabacillas, who looks exactly like the hitchhiker in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- of the king’s court presented on their own personal stage. While they are of their own time and context they certainly felt alive and applicable to me. The figures are alienated from their context, they are dressed up like dolls, presented as a particular type, accountant, or an actor but in is a farce. There is a loneliness. It is something I am very interested in with my own work, my figures are often repressed or alienated from their surroundings. In my own work I intend it to be a larger more open-ended allegory about being a guy.
I try not to limit the way I look at art and what I allow to influence me. I try to remain open to what art has to offer, regardless of when it was conceived. Sometimes it seems that young artists are uneasy with work done more than twenty years ago. I encounter young artists who seem overly concerned with being “contemporary” and looking outward for what this means, rather than looking inward and trusting that your particular viewpoint and context is also relevant–it seems limiting.
At one point I employed many techniques that would be considered traditional or classic. For example, I would do a relatively involved under-painting in earth tones. I spent a lot of time working on still lifes. I felt I needed this understanding before I could move on. I mostly worked on still life paintings, working from life and trying to improve my spatial understanding and handling of light. Light and shadows play a big part in my work today.
I still work within traditional genres: portrait, still life, etc. And I use rabbit skin glue to size my linen, and lead white and other materials that have been utilized for a long time but this is because they achieve the effects I want and not because they are “traditional”.
ES: There are a lot of shadows in your most recent work. They hover ominously around your figures, mostly men, like a ghost life. Sometimes rendering the figure’s features indistinct, if not obscuring them altogether. What was your intention in not showing us the faces of these men? Was this a conscious decision, or did you just discover one day that your men didn’t want you to see their faces?
NM: One of my main fascinations with painting has to do with light and shadows. There is a technical challenge in trying to figure out how light moves through the space and encounters forms. I taught myself about light, form and space through still life painting and this fascination has carried over. Light has taken on an physical presence in my recent work. I treat it almost like an object. I have read about Ensor and his “allegorical use of light.” I don’t think I could articulate what this means but I feel I understand it at its core. This ideas really appeals to me, that light becomes an active player in a scene. I create these simple motifs for light to engage, to reveal and obscure elements, the figures almost become victims as light takes on an active but impartial role. Shadows are cast and identities obscured. By obscuring the face the figure becomes generalized and allegorical, a stand in.
ES: What artists would you say have had the greatest influence on your work?
NM: My favorite artists make work that I would describe as universal, as lofty as it sounds. It doesn´t feel bogged down by its time. Painting presents a particular vignette and has the ability to remain open-ended and relevant regardless of what it was created. This open endedness allows the viewer to bring their own memories and associations to the work, to complete the experience. It is this relationship that I want to achieve.
Artists like Balthus, Giorgio de Chiricho, James Ensor, Charles Burchfield, some of Jacob Lawrence and Ben Shahn´s work, and contemporary artists like Martin McMurray, Christoph Ruckhaberle and Norbert Schwontkowski and Neo Rauch all create work with intense mood and atmosphere but much of the impact comes from what is general and left out. They lead you to a familiar and personal place.
I like the way an Edward Hopper feels like a performance. Rather than an actual apartment or street in New York, the paintings seem like a staged scene. The way the work distances itself from the actual thing. I can view the painting as an actual thing, rather than a documentation of something that happened 80 years ago. Hopper is probably my favorite artist, in a large part because he was so effective at achieving this. The painting is a like a permanent dream space. The painting itself is a performance and as a viewer I can inhabit it as a shared place.