Unless otherwise stated, O'Keefe's paintings are untitled, acrylic on panel,
about 24" x 30" and recently made.
I was struck by a Suzan Frecon quote that I came across recently while endlessly scrolling through the idealized microclimates of Instagram: “I think the truth of a painting is the paint itself.” In a world where the truth feels slippery and elusive, there’s something so rational and so radical in that notion- that material and looking can be connected to reality. When I visited James O’Keefe last fall at his studio in Joshua Tree, CA, I had a similar feeling, but I didn’t know how to put it into words. Several months of mulling later, I'm simply going to paraphrase Frecon’s insight to express what I felt about O’Keefe’s spare works as I was standing in front of them: the truth of his painting is in the object itself. Less concerned with painterly techniques than most, James O’Keefe instead plays with space and form by contrasting his minimalist’s palette with understated transformations to his supports. The finished works hover somewhere between painting and low relief sculpture, defying easy categorization and confidently presenting the simple truth of their own unique shapes and colors.
For this installment of The Semi-Finalist I'm happy to present my interview with James O'Keefe. In it he talks about Nothingness, life in the Mojave Desert and the impulse to work in a reductive style.
The Semi-Finalist: Let's jump right in. We talked a lot about nothingness and openness when I was in your studio. Can you explain how you approach those themes in your work?
James O'Keefe: I really enjoyed our conversation about Nothingness and Openness, and it rests at the heart of my painting process. Let me first say that I did study the practice of meditation for many years, but for this conversation I will emphasize how it applies to my painting practice. The contemplation of Nothingness (or Emptiness as the Buddhists would say) is really about removing issues about yourself, for example self-doubt, self-criticism, self-editing, etc. The goal, for me, is to get a calm and clear state of mind in front of the painting. If you can be comfortable in this study of Nothingness, so much will flow into your mind and into your work.
In the studio, I also call this being Open in front of the painting. Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs. The series of work I call Open Paintings take as their theme this concept of Openness. Very often in the Open Paintings the frame is left open on one side, or if the framing is complete it covers only a portion of the painting. Both, in my view, are illustrative -in a painter’s way- of this state of Openness.
"Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs."
The S-F: Visiting your studio and home in Joshua Tree, CA was such a treat. I was so taken with the understated beauty of your surroundings and I felt it being echoed in the spareness and confidence of your work. Am I reading too much into that, or has the desert landscape that you live in had an impact on your work?
James O'Keefe in his studio in the Mojave Desert.
JO: The desert takes getting used to. At first it can seem like a wasteland until you start to see it's hidden beauties. Small micro flowers, colorful rocks and the cactus that bloom in the spring. It is a place of vast vistas and rugged mountain ranges. It is not uncommon to have visibility of distant ranges 30 to 40 miles away.
My wife and I came to the small town of Joshua Tree on our way back to Oregon from Arizona. Joshua Tree is about 3 blocks long but has 3 Art galleries, a Natural Food store, a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant, and is just 3 miles from the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Since establishing ourselves here it has influenced my paintings in many ways. The first thing you notice is the light, about 340 days a year of it. After living on the Oregon Coast for over 30 years, it was very bright. So when I built my studio I put modestly sized windows in it which gave me a more workable light.
"I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts."
Other influences on painting from the Mojave desert is a changing sense of scale and space that begins to enter your work in very subtle ways. I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts. You could also include understandings of balance and imbalance. I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift.
Work on the studio wall.
The S-F: I think of your work as existing in that wonderful space that sits between painting and sculpture. How do you see yourself- as a painter, a sculptor, or something else?
JO: I take your point, David. There probably are similarities between my paintings and some contemporary sculptures. I suppose I could point to the minimal angularities and the mono-color usage of these new paintings as related to sculpture, but overall I think of myself as a painter. I love that painting can still be an intimate and thought provoking experience for the viewer, like sitting down with a good book.
I am a painter who is led by ideas. First an idea, then a concept that is worked out in my sketchbook, and then the painting begins. I know some artists that start a painting and then begin to figure out on canvas what the painting is. I have worked like that in the past but now I like knowing more before I start. My paintings are non-objective and reductive in that I try to make them very simple. I want them to be clear enough for the mind of the viewer to rest comfortably in them, but complex enough for the viewer to maintain an interest in them. I choose placing my works on a wall directly in front of the viewer, and for this reason I call myself a painter.
"Open Painting," acrylic on panel, 25" x 32", 2020
The S-F: Who are the artists that inspired you in your formative years and who are you looking at now?
JO: When I think back to the early days of my interest in art, the first artist that comes to mind is Picasso. I found his portraits, and particularly his treatment of the face, the most interesting. Later on in life I found in many people that it was his depictions of the face that was not liked, but for me that was his genius.
Then there were the surrealists and out of those it would be Magritte that I still admire to this day. It was the curious shape of his mind and how he staked out his own very independent variation of surrealism. Above them all, for me, was Juan Miró. My wife and I flew to New York in 1995 just to see his retrospective at the MOMA. I have always admired the painter’s language that he invented and how he invested so much of his soul in each piece.
There are many others of course - Klee, Jasper Johns etc. - but since Covid the gallery scene is shut down and I just Instagram. Simon Callery and Susan Frecon are two very good artists I have encountered on Instagram.
"I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift."
S-F: What's next for you?
JO: Not much happening right now. Covid has pretty much shut down our galleries here in Joshua Tree. I have some pieces in Asher-Grey Gallery which is an online gallery out of Venice, CA. I may buy a forty foot shipping container and convert it into ½ gallery and ½ painting storage. We’ll see.
S-F: I can't wait to see that!
Below are more images of James O'Keefe's work. You can also find him...
- on Instagram @jamesokeefestudio
- at Asher-Grey Gallery
Practical and inspirational elements of studio life.
The other obsession.