The above headline, “Sunset Going Down” is a phrase taken out of context from my interview with Massachusetts-based painter Joe Wardwell. Wardwell, as it happens, uses a similar methodology in his work, painting the kinds of quintessential American landscapes he saw growing up on the border of Washington and Idaho, and then topping them with snippets and phrases of song lyrics, a good deal of the time from classic and current heavy rock.
Inspired by the visions of Americana brought on by advertising and driven in part by his passion for music, Wardwell marries the landscapes and lyrics from the likes of Black Sabbath, Neil Young, Weedeater, Kenny Rogers, Sonic Youth and others, resulting in an evocative style that questions notions of what it is to be an American in an age where our identity as a people can be co-opted with equal ease in the name of selling beer or war. There is a subversive element to his work that speaks not to some nostalgia for a time gone by, but casts a judgment on the futility of such longing.
Wardwell’s current showing at Heskin Contemporary on 37th St. in Manhattan, titled “Untied We Stand,” began last month and will run to Oct. 22. He was kind enough to take my call on a Friday morning and discuss his artistic origins, love of music and much more.
Give me the background on how you got your start in visual arts.
I always kind of drew through school and that kind of stuff, and then I got really into art in high school. I also played music a lot, played in guitar, played in a band in high school and stuff. So those were my two main interests. And when I went to college, I went to college in Seattle in the ‘90s, and it was great.
The music scene there was really influential—it’s still influential on me—but there were so many musicians there at the time that I really defined myself by not doing [music], as opposed to doing it. And that’s when I just got more and more into making art. Because it wasn’t something that everyone was doing at that time. It definitely wasn’t cool, or anything. Basically, playing in a band was the only thing that was cool in Seattle in the early ‘90s.
So I got more and more into making art, and then, towards my end of undergraduate school, I got really into it, and ended up deciding to apply to graduate school, and that’s what brought me east to Boston at the end of the ‘90s.
Did you grow up in Seattle?
I grew up mostly in the west. I lived in Montana for a time, but mostly I lived on the border of Washington and Idaho, in this small college town called Pullman, Washington. Pullman, like the train car.
And what about painting first piqued your interest?
I guess in high school, you know, I was exposed to some art, but definitely not museum qualities. My mom and I took one trip to D.C., but it would be hard to say how much influence that had on me. It really was early album covers and such, the Iron Maiden album covers. I think there was a time in high school, when I was both playing music and drawing and painting—it sounds kind of silly now—I was like, “Ah, I’ll make my own albums and my own album covers.” That kind of high school desire.
And then, it wasn’t just metal. I was into SST punk, and there was the Raymond Pettibon covers that came out in the early ‘80s. That kind of art, that half-comic, half-street, but oblique in a weird way—had a big effect on me. I still think those album covers are some of the best album covers that have ever been, and it’s not just because Raymond Pettibon is so accepted in the art world now. Those covers are just very direct, very clear, very different than anything else that was coming out at that time.
What is the relation between visual art and music for you? How much is music integral to what you do?
I think it’s kind of like, I don’t remember where the quote comes from—it’s a writer, I don’t know if it’s Hemingway, but it’s, “Write what you know.” I grew up in the west, and I know landscape and landscape imagery, and I grew up around these landscapes that are used in sort of these icons archetypes of landscapes, snowy mountaintops and trees and all that, and while I’m in my studio working, I play music constantly, and I always have. I’m always in that pattern.
I wouldn’t say I’m a full-blown musician or anything, but I’ve always played music, and there’s definitely a relationship between… I remember one point where I felt like my work, the subject needed to be more about who I was. At that point, I was like, it needs to be more rock and roll feeling in the work, and I started directly using it as part of the subject.
As it evolved, when I started doing the work with the lyrics, I started keeping lists of lyrics as I was listening to music, and then they started to fit more and more over the imagery that I was doing, and I realized that I could start with something—a lyric and a landscape—and it would be two separate things, and then as they evolved, they could become one thing and they could talk about a lot more than just their original source, speak a lot more than just being like, “Hey, that’s a cool reference to that song,” but be more of an open interpretation to meaning and subtly suggest more than just the cultural reference of the music.
What kind of stuff do you listen to regularly?
It’s funny. It’s interesting. I usually call it “trolling.” When I’m trolling for lyrics, I kind of listen to everything. It comes from anything from ‘90s indie rock, to country, to a lot of classic rock work as far as finding a phrase that’s already embedded in the cultural lexicon and then paring it down and separating it from its context.
But then, when I’m working and I’m just painting and I’m not thinking about what kind of lyrics to use and I just need something to listen to while I’m painting, I’m definitely much more on—I don’t know what you call it—stoner rock or doom metal, but everything from the Melvins, to early Sabbath, to Boris, to SunnO))), to Orange Goblin and Nebula. I don’t know if that is all one genre or two genres now.
Tell me about the process of matching a landscape to words. Is there something in a landscape that you see that says, “This is perfect for this?” You mentioned in talking about that one about the sunset. Is there always something that stands out about a landscape?
How obvious it is, I don’t know, but there’s definitely sort of a political questioning, or a questioning of national identity, or a questioning of a collective American psyche that I’m interested in, and so when a lyric—I keep lists of lyrics that have some kind of evocative quality of either countering that psyche or challenging it in a way that’s maybe not necessarily obvious. I keep these lists that have some kind of American psychological either counter, or are in tune with American identity, and I paint landscapes that have a sort of American archetype. Like a sunset, or a snowy mountaintop, or like a bucolic stream setting, or something that has that kind of everything from Hudson River School, to a Coors beer ad landscape archetype within it.
As I develop the painting, I figure out and try different ideas that maximize the interpretations possible inside it. And then, at a certain point in the painting, I just have to go with it and commit and paint the text in there. A lot of times, I think it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
But there’s also a physical relationship too to how the text actually has to fit in the rectangle. I’ll be like, “Oh, this is perfect,” and I’ll have a lyric all ready to go, and then on the painting, it just doesn’t look right, or feel right, or it’s too many words. And then I have to change and adapt.
Joe Wardwell’s “Untied We Stand” runs at Heskin Contemporary through Oct. 22. More info at joewardwell.com and heskincontemporary.com.
JJ Koczan has the complete text of this interview, including a good deal more about Black Sabbath, on his blog at TheObelisk.net. firstname.lastname@example.org.