Interview with Jim Modiano
Beverly Weiss, sculptor
You spent years painting landscapes directly from nature. How does your experience of nature currently affect your work?
My work is everywhere informed by my experience of nature. I spent many years immersed in the natural – both while studying it at the microscopic level and while living in it. Painting landscapes en plein air, I was given over to the totality of the experience of raw, unadulterated nature. My focus was on the entirety of the natural environment; the all-encompassing system, the balance hewn from imbalance, the ecology. I was subjective and I was emotionally engaged. These are the roots of my abstraction.
Is that what you would expect viewers of your art to see?

I have no expectations of what my audience will see. But yes, I would hope that viewers come away with a sense of nature as totality and interdependent parts. My overarching goal is to imbue the work with specific emotional content that will resonate with viewers of the paintings.

In this sphere of abstraction, the emotional content is carried by the colors and shapes. There is no question in my mind that they are sufficient means to exact an emotional response – Matisse’s la Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence is proof positive that this is so. And of equal importance to me is that the elicited response is not primarily cognitive, but perceptual.

Do you relate the colors in your palette to specific elements?
If by elements you mean earth, wind, water, etc., then no. I am simply not that premeditated. My lack of intentionally does not preclude the viewer from ascribing meaning to the colors presented, though. And of course, I can’t exclude the possibility that my color choices are unconsciously guided by my deep-seated impressions of nature. Right now I can say with certainty that I relate the colors in my palette to each other. They describe a kind of system that provides me with a range of interactions – of balance, harmony, and contrast – well suited to my present purpose.
The colors in your paintings have a special vibratory quality - would you describe how this happens?

Well, I can try. Basically, I am working with color contrast. The vibratory effect you are referring to is the result of the colors being equiluminant, or in other terms, the colors have the same value. This lack of color contrast confounds aspects of our visual processing so that we cannot fix one color field over the other. In addition to vibrations, the equiluminant areas enhance any figure/ground reversals.

At other times I employ an effect known as simultaneous color contrast. This is when a single color appears to shift in tone depending on the color surrounding it. I use this phenomenon to great effect in many of my works, especially those painted with only five colors. The simultaneous contrast effect creates the illusion that there are more distinct tones than are actually present.

I also tend to work with pairs of complementary colors – red and green, purple and yellow, blue and orange. Complements enhance each other when they are next to each other and this contributes to the perceived intensity and vibrancy of the works.

In many of my paintings you will see that I use two pairs of complements plus a fifth color. The pairs may strive toward equiluminance internally but toward simultaneous color contrast across the pairs or visa versa. The fifth color can add to these effects or function as a ground.

When viewing your painting in person, I find it dynamic to the extent that I am unable to obtain a memorable image from it. Is this something you strive for?

You are describing what I refer to as visual ambiguity. An underlying theme of my work is the unfixedness of things - that reality potentially has as many faces as there are perceivers, that outcomes are variable, and that we spend a lot of time imposing our expectations on the world around us. For example, did you ever mistake a downed tree for a person or fail to see a squirrel owing to its camouflage?

So yes, it is something I strive for. I accomplish it by exploiting the visual phenomenon known as figure/ground ambiguity and through interdigitating shapes. Coupled with the color phenomena I discuss above, the net result is a composition that presents to the viewer with no preferential point of emphasis. The mind is set free to configure the painting elements however it desires. All of this visual ambiguity creates a kind of perceptual competition in the mind and so the works appear to shift over time as we continually re-sort the inputs. This perceptual flux suits my goals entirely.

In creating ambiguous compositions I am saying, quite unambiguously to the viewer, that the world of experience is not fixed. This not a new idea and has its roots in phenomenology.

How do you arrive at the individual shapes within your paintings? Do they have specific references?
That’s a good question. For some of the shapes, I have a pretty good sense of their source. For others, they have developed over time. All in all, the shapes I work with were not consciously arrived at – that is to say at no time have I said ‘Oh I am going to use that shape, it is like such and such....’ So, I can say with some confidence that all of the shapes are derived from my unconscious, but that over time I have succeeded in associating some of them with naturally occurring antecedents.

For example, this shape, I have realized has its origins in the petals of California poppies. I first used it in a 1995 painting entitled ‘Poppy Dance.’ At the time, I was living in Point Reyes and our garden was filled with these poppies. In this case the journey from the external environment to the internal is pretty clear.

I see my frame of reference as nature-based. So I think the origins of many of the shapes are found in the natural environment. Some are actually negative spaces that you see when you look between things, like between the leaves of a tree. But as with the poppy shape, I was using this shape before I associated it with a feature of the environment.

Others, like the biomorphic shapes, strike me as pretty straightforward expressions of the dynamic, living principle I try to convey in my work. And yet the similarity between this shape and a metaphase chromosome is striking.

Can your art function symbolically?

In principle, I believe so. In my work it would be the shapes that may carry overt symbolic meaning. The colors, while also potential carriers of symbolic meaning, are inclined toward cultural relativism which really limits the penetration of symbolic meaning.

Of course, it remains to be determined if the shapes I work with have collective meaning and thus could function as symbols. Of interest in this regard is the shape the Japanese call the magatama.

I use this shape frequently and most of us recognize it as part of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a Taoist symbol. Arnheim analyzed the magatama from a Jungian and gestalt perspective seeking the ‘visual properties on which spontaneous perception of symbolic meaning is based.’

So if he was right and Jung was right and the Gestalt psychologists were right, it is likely that the simple shapes I work with will turn out to have symbolic meaning.
© copyright 2013, Jim Modiano