Art Word: CJ Nye

Desire

CJ Nye was born and lives in New York City where she has been painting in oils for over twenty years. She studied and received her BFA at the School of Visual Arts and an MA in Arts Administration at Columbia University. Looking at her work, one may see many stylistic influences. Yet her work refuses categories as it re-forms itself almost daily. This movement and re-movement of form, whether oils or the canvas itself echoes her own conversations about art and current events.

I’ve known CJ for about 2 years. During this time, we’ve had many discussions on Twitter and Facebook about the arts. For an artist (her) and an art historian (me), we generally agree on most everything. And like many of my favorite artists, CJ is one I look to when I have problems or questions about the most current issues about contemporary art. In fact, CJ is usually the first person I ask. With an integrity that is present on the canvas as well as throughout social media, CJ Nye spoke to me about how she successfully manages an honesty in both media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desire, 2011

Perhaps what I love most about your work is that it seems so self-reflective. This honesty, I think, is how you successfully avoid what seems to be a contemporary call to artists to brand themselves. From your Doodles to your oil panels and even your installations, each canvas is fresh. Even your diptychs, each panel seems to be freshly independent of the other. This not to say your work is random or spontaneous. Instead, I am seeing an intentional hand that creates the abstract forms in all of your work. How are you able to bring those two things together and still avoid branding?
Thank you, Kathy, that is a wonderful thing to hear. The short answer is: I don’t try to be myself, I am myself. The long answer draws in larger issues: “nature vs. nurture,” and “high vs. ‘low’” art, and I think the best way for me to answer the question is the same way I deal with the issue: separately.
So—first: yes, my work is self-reflective. My “subject matter” is whatever is going on in my life at the moment. And the work can look very different one to the next, as life offers up extremes and inconsistencies on a fairly regular basis. Thus, as Desire is encompassing, and layered, and intricate, and I a simple declaration of presence, so the work must be. To reduce the scope of my expression would be tantamount to describing life in a bubble. Compound that by the fact that each is essentially a distillation of thoughts, associations, feelings, what have you—and at first glance, a person might think the work had nothing in common at all. Yet, look closely, look longer, and in each, you will see me. My work has the cohesion of having come from one life, one point of view, and one body; the synthesis of which is the artists’ hand.
Next: How do I “avoid what seems to be a contemporary call to artists to brand themselves”? Well, branding has little to do with art; it’s an issue of the marketplace, one I speculate began as a surrogate for the hand with the advent of purely conceptual art. So, while a current fashion of the art world, it’s easy to avoid if you are prepared to accept the consequences. And I am, though I hope it doesn’t come to that. Why I am no doubt has roots in my personal history.
I was raised to a very broad understanding of art; from infancy I was immersed in folk art that my mother brought back from all around the world working as a travel photographer. Formally trained at Cooper Union, she also instilled in me the idea, “learn your craft, then you can do whatever you want.” Growing up in NYC, “the melting pot,” with easy-access to museums offering every kind of art reinforced this broad, yet traditional, view. Dating myself, you might say my arts education presupposed the information age.
That goes to “nurture.” By “nature,” I have always had an independent streak. I remember the first time I was given oil paints to use. It was in school, I was 11 or 12 years old, and the teacher wanted the class to make a landscape. The minute I touched the oils, I knew this was “my medium”—so lush! so smooth, malleable, the colors! I started out doing the assignment, but the flower broke, feathered, blazed into an alien world where physics didn’t exist— where physics didn’t need to exist, and patterns and form ruled all. I got scolded. I didn’t care. And I still love that little painting. So, by the time I got to college, where professional practice enters the picture, I was already committed to expressive latitude.
Finally, I don’t feel the need to adopt a brand because I have faith in the viewer; the hand may not be as easy to recognize, but who ever said art should be easy? Still, desiring not to limit my vocabulary does not mean that I have not had to address the issue of the brand; I am fighting against the current somewhat—which is fine—I think there’s room for that in the art world. How I approach this current in dialoguing with the art world, I can better address later.

Nye V.5 (Doodle)
V.5 (Doodle), 2011

Recognizing this honesty in your work, I wonder if your Doodles are studies for larger works or considered finished works on their own? Do they offer your viewer a glimpse of your eye and hand, thus being more personal than your larger panels?
The Doodles are finished works; I rarely do studies for work, and most are purely for the sake of mechanics. My eye and hand are no more or less present in the Doodles than in other works, and in the making of them, I am being neither more nor less personal. I am, however, utilizing the immediacy and the limitations of the materials to express simpler things, and that simplicity may allow the individual notes to come through more clearly.
It’s about choosing the right physical stuff to exemplify the right emotional stuff. To make a painting about a slowly unfolding situation of unearthed understanding, of layers and layers of intricate, convoluted, but distinct tiers of codified meaning requires time; it requires patience. And it requires materials that can accommodate those plastic demands: oils. Work on paper demands less. And that can be the exact right thing; not everything in life is heavy or complicated. And here I have to mention that some have suggested I demean the work by calling them Doodles. I disagree entirely. I think that as long as art is about life, there is as much need for play as there is for “gravitas.” I think some aspects of life don’t want analysis as much as they want acknowledgement— ever catch yourself annoyed at a rainy day or idly humming a jolly little tune? I think those moments can be as profound as any other.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I, 2011

While you intend your viewers to develop their own narratives about your work, there is no doubt you lead this discussion. After following your work for a couple of years, I sometimes see it as your personal journal. Admittedly, I look forward to seeing every new work your post on Facebook because I am interested in what you are seeing that day or week. This may lead to a viewer’s narrative, but as the artist, you are always part of that conversation. Do you wish to disengage from that conversation and allow the painting to stand in your presence to the viewers can create a narrative? I understand you do not see your work as a tool for teaching, but what if I told you I look to your paintings and our conversations as lessons in my own learning how to see?
The answer to this also lies in my personal history. Blazing through a series of events that had an enormous effect on my practice, I was hit by a taxi in 1998, my senior year of my BFA at the School of Visual Arts, and lost all meaningful use of my dominant hand. I managed to graduate in 2000 and made a few insecure attempts at showing, but I had essentially given up hope, and shifted gears. In 2006, my senior year of my MA in Arts Administration at Teachers College, needing to take one-credit while I finished my thesis, I took “Introduction to Painting,” where I was allowed to do my own thing off in a corner. It was frustrating at times, but I knew I could never leave the studio again, and slowly, my work began to meet my standards. Anticipating your next question slightly, In 2010, I learned of X-Initiative’s BYOA through Jerry Saltz on facebook; a 24-hour art free-for-all, I would not need to explain the 10-year gap in my CV, my work could speak for itself. That evening was the first time I met Jerry, and he liked the work. His objective and eminently qualified assessment renewed my confidence. I decided engage with the art world again.
I carried with me into this re-entry all the tools I had acquired during my graduate studies, through which I had chiefly focused on the issues of arts engagement in art museums; of greatest bearing on this question was the extensive coursework in museum education, namely, arts education in free-choice learning environments. I knew I wanted a larger audience to be able to engage with my work, and I had the tools to facilitate that. I threw away the artspeak statement I had used in undergrad, and I wrote a statement that I hoped would enable audiences at all levels of arts education to access my work.
The first aim of my statement was to create a “safe learning environment,” introducing myself as guide: “To know my work, know that I know what I do. Every mark is there for a reason, exactly as it is.” In other words, whether harmonious or discordant, I want to empower the novice viewer with the certainty that the mark is there deliberately, to free them to consider what purpose it serves where it is, and the way it is. I am saying: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
The next was to give permission. “[T]hink of allegorical tales. At once evocative and reflexive…. Ultimately, I intend my abstracted symbols to facilitate the viewer in generating their own narrative.” And the phrasing is a bit wily on my part, you see, everyone will bring their own history to the interpretation of artwork, even if the work has a far clearer storyline than non-representational work such as mine. It’s just human nature. In stating this intention, I am saying: “It’s ok, free associate, run away with it, follow the yellow brick road—see where it takes you.” And I do not believe I lose control in doing this; I set the mood with color, tone, the speed and weight of a brushstroke, scale—there are countless visual “tools” to cue non-literal responses—thus, the details of my life create emotions, which I translate into visual expression, which I ultimately hope to trigger, to evoke, some recognition of fundamental commonality. I seek to make a connection. As we all do.
The third and fourth paragraphs reach back a bit to art parlance, showing history and practice. In essence, they again state, but to the expert audience, and in answer to the issue of brand: “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
Thus, though the Statement is a teaching tool, it is not the teaching tool many, I think, have come to expect; because the purpose of my work is not to illustrate a scenario or pose a treatise but to connect in a meaningful way with a viewer. So the statement is not a decoder ring, but a key. I think, Kathy, that your take-aways from our dialogues are testimony to your embrace of life-long learning.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Benglish, 2012

You are engaged in a number of online conversations and debates on Twitter and Facebook. In fact our own relationship began and continues to develop through social media. You share those things you see in New York museums and galleries, thoughts in your studio, as well as critiques of the art world. I think what I enjoy most are the Artist Statements you periodically post on your Facebook status. These are not only entertaining and many times very humorous, but always poignant. I wonder however if posting your paintings on Facebook risks reducing them to simply a fb status. Are you concerned your viewer will not take the time to engage your work as honestly as you make it? Are all of your “friends” just waiting for the next thing to come out of your studio? Afterall, Facebook, Twitter and other social media applications are tools for successful branding. Or perhaps you use these as a way to elevate your work by making it part of the dialogue?
My use of social media also has roots in my MA and my desire to help people connect with art. I was always trying to rally my non-artist friends to go to museums with me—there weren’t a lot of takers until I made a wiki, “The Grotto,” of everything I wanted to see, then they could see the breadth of offerings much like reading a menu. I used facebook to coordinate Grotto “rampages.” I used photography in the museums to encourage friends to take ownership of art in a playful way, and shared the good times via Flickr. I began to use Twitter because art museums, for the first time, were making direct contact with their publics; I wanted to talk to them, and I wanted to share the enjoyment I got from them with other people.
I also found social media to be invaluable in demystifying art, in showing the “99% perspiration” part of art. Many of my friends do not have backgrounds in art, and I was always a little amused by people waxing romantic about talent, and a little saddened by people thinking they did not “know enough” to “understand” art. In terms of outreach, I felt I had a unique and necessary perspective, that of the artist. Social media enabled me to show, in real time, the constant working, the germs of ideas, the feelings, the influences, the choices I was making, and why I was making them, even the fact that my thumb hurts when I stretch canvas and that I’ve had to use an electric can opener open my gesso. All of it.
A few years later, I started to engage with art world people. After so many years away, with no one to laugh at a reference to Vito Acconci under the floorboards, I was starved for deep art dialogue. Better—this time around, when I went to openings, I didn’t have to stand around alone in a room full of strangers; I went to openings, and I saw friends. And this hyper-connectivity has implications for the paperwork side of being a professional artist as well, to which I collegially offer up such understanding I may have as one with a solid foundation not just in arts-education, but also in the business of running arts institutions. Further, the protracted dialogues enabled by social media have afforded me the opportunity to contextualize my work in a way that no ten, or even twenty-image proposal can: it allows me to cite the precedents of recent work going back a lifetime; ergo, It grants me the communicative flexibility to answer that pesky brand issue with the consistency of my hand.
The “Artist’s Statements” I post as status updates function as one-liner insider-jokes, “Artist’s Statement: ‘There is no avant garde anymore- we pop out of the jungle these days.’” Anyone involved in the arts today will recognize this as a signal to the fact that artists can no longer be easily grouped into “movements.” The information age, as well as the general embrace of “other” cultures (can you even imagine someone using the term “primitive art” today?), has essentially shattered linear art-history. Artists of today are not forging a new movement, we are heralding in a paradigm shift, and that paradigm has at its core fluidity and openness.

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    One Response to “Art Word: CJ Nye”

    1. Julio says:

      - Hi GuysA friend of mine (Jess Scott) remcmoended I check out your work.Very interesting! Just wanted to say how impressed I am with the photos that’s some serious photography! Anyways, we’re travelling through Africa, and thought we’d say hi.I hear Burundi is dangerous at the moment, but everyone has an opinion. We are in Tanzania and then off to Rwanda (which I hear has some of the best coffee in the world ) Keep up the good work!Alex & Kath

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