Under the Surface (Pt.1)
Interview with James Busby
Greggory D. Bradford October 15, 2007
James Busby’s numbered white works are mentioned in comparison to other artists who have in the past made “white paintings.” In the catalogue interview, with the Executive Director of the Drawing Center, Brett Littman, Busby’s paintings are described as “immediately intriguing due to their simplicity of form and pristine surfaces. They take visual cues from early Robert Ryman ‘white paintings’ and nod in the direction of Judd’s minimalist forms.” I had not met James, but upon seeing a selection of works from the exhibition “Incomplete” at Chelsea Art Museum (on view until February 2008), I wanted to meet him. I had seen images of his white paintings at Stephan Stux Gallery website, but until now I had not seen one in the flesh. They have this great energy to them in the pictures as well as in person. All sorts of things had sprung to mind. With a strong sense of design, I assumed they were calculated and obsessed over without emotion the objective stance of mechanical procedure to have the power to create these pure objects. These interesting structures look so pristine, immaculate and dense. I imagined them to be like Serra’s, bisecting the room and the size of gallery walls. I wanted to stand next these behemoths and try to guess how much they weighed out of fear I may be crushed by standing to close to them. It was jaw-dropping to find that these works were actually small paintings cared for in the lap of their maker. I feel that the Littman comment only scratched the surface and I went searching for more.
In an essay by Arthur C. Danto, the white paintings from Rauschenberg are compared to that of Ryman’s because of the art history in a monochromatic painting. Honestly they are created “from distinct ‘original choices,’ though this may not be seen in the work themselves.” The Rauschenberg works discussed in the essay are from his time at Black Mountain. They were prepared surfaces to be painted, but as history reveals Robert Rauschenberg “found the white so pristine that he could not bring himself to sully it.” Ryman’s words as confessed to Robert Storr, “I was just seeing how paint worked” the essay informs that “white came to satisfy most of his chromatic needs, as the square format came more or less to satisfy his formal needs. That left him free to experiment with size, texture, and other properties of works….” I found that Busby’s creations were that of “original choices” and I wanted to draw attention to this for the exact reasons he explores the ritualistic nature of preparing his paintings. Such is a labor of love that is involved in “erasing the hand of the artist” noted by Littman. This also echoes the Rauschenberg execution that was then the theme of the Black Mountain Institution. I did have the opportunity to discuss these previous works with James at the Incomplete
exhibition recently.G - When I first saw images of your works they immediately conjured up memories of Tron or Bladerunner. They have a very Sci-Fi feel to me. The sleek nature of the design but these aren’t sculptures they are paintings right? You have a painting background?
J- Yes. Studied painting. I used to do large canvases. And then one day I could not find the reason to pick up the brush.G- Do you approach these as structures or as paintings? They are very sculptural wall pieces.
J- They are paintings with traditional materials, traditional applications and presentations. Gesso, canvas, over a support and then presented on the wall.
G- These pieces seem pretty solid, complete. Do you have a sketchbook full of images of your designs that you refer to?
J- No that is one of the things that made me quit painting to begin with. I was doing these drawings and writing down my ideas for these larger works. Why make the works? There was no reason to follow through with it at that point. G- So how do you approach these?
J- Each one is created as it needs to be created. They are not predetermined. I try to do different things with these. Cut a curve here, cut out a section here. Maybe this side , like along this one here, is beveled. Then paint layer upon layer of gesso. Some I have even added a halo type effect to it by painting the back a different color , say a red, like that one over there. It has a red tint reflected onto the wall. That draws more attention to the surface of the piece. Ultimately I am concerned with the surface. G- Sounds like they take a long time. How many do you work on at a time then?
J- It does take a really long time. I generally work on about 6 at a time. Waiting for them to dry, all the sanding. If I did only one at a time I may only get one done a year. And since I do not plan these out. I may be using a router or the table saw creating a texture or pattern and a certain cut may cause a reaction with the existing composition that allows for an exciting variable to occur. And sometimes it causes me to scrap it and start another one.
This has lead to a natural progression to the new work being shown at the solo exhibition middle of October at Stephan Stux Gallery. I was working on these pieces face down and I was unable to see what was happening with the surface and I wondered what it would be like if I could see through it. So I ran out and got the acrylic sheets of plexi- and there you go.G- It is hard to look at them as if they are paintings. They seem so dense. Almost marble like.
J- That is a funny thing about them as well. They do have this stone quality about them, but they are very malleable. It is such a finely sanded and polished surface that the tiniest ding or rub up against them can ruin the surface. I have had a small gray strip appear across the piece before because my ring brushed against it. So then I have to sand, maybe paint, sand and polish it out. G- Is there one thing that you would like to add that you generally do not get asked about your work?
J- There is actually. It seems really funny to me that people always talk about how serene, peaceful or quiet these works appear, but they are made out of all this incredible noise and leave an enormous mess. I have to wear ear protection, a respirator and goggles. I look like I am going to go on a space walk in all of this protective equipment. The window in the studio has been padded to sound proof it a little bit as not to offend the neighbors. I apologize ahead of time when I have to get ready for a show.