By NOAH BECKER, Nov, 2017
I had a converstation with Pat Nash about his new show at SL Gallery in New York City, open from October 21st to December 8th 2017.
Noah Becker: Where are you from and where you encouraged to be an artist as a child?
Pat Nash: I was born into a middle class family in Buffalo NY in 1959. I had two older brothers and a younger sister. As a middle child, I can't say I was actually encouraged to be anything at all, but looking back, I can see that I was exposed to a lot of art and creativity from and early age.
Becker: Was a family member interested in art?
Nash: My mother was an artist, with a painting studio in the attic of our house and my father always had musical aspirations. Growing up, my mother would show her work at local art festivals, and my father and his friends would gather around the piano, drink manhattans and sing show tunes or Gilbert and Sullivan. Our house was approximately midway between Kleinhan's Music Hall and the Albright Knox art gallery.
Becker: What are some memories from that time?
Nash: When I look back I'm struck by the abundant cultural advantages available to any kid growing up in Buffalo, a city that's known for bad weather, chicken wings and football. At the Albright Knox, we had easy, casual access to some real masterpieces of modern and ancient art. As completely unsupervised seventh graders, we would wander in and hang out among works by Calder, Warhol, Van Gogh, Monet etc. There's a point in adolescence when abstract art suddenly makes sense. I had that experience sometime in the early seventies at the Albright Knox looking at Joan Miro's Femme et Oiseau Dans La Nuit.
Becker: Your work has a lot of contrasts - bright neon cutting through dark forms. When did this way of working start?
Nash: In the eighties I was juxtaposing neon with cement and other heavy, inert objects. At that time I always had the problem of a kind of "veiling glare" where the presence of the neon would actually obstruct the perception of the inert material, usually cement, or black painted wood. To fix this, I tried using argon with no mercury in clear glass tubing, but then I had the opposite problem, where the tube wasn't bright enough to stand up to the ambient light.
Becker: How did you finally resolve it?
Nash: I kept tinkering with different types of neon and dimmers etc. with some success here and there, but always kind of hitting that wall. This changed at some point around 2005. I was working a lot at that time with Schwinghammer Lighting and Juergen Riehm at 1100 Architect and through him I got the contract to fabricate and install a piece by James Turrell. At the time I was only vaguely familiar with Turrell's work, and far more concerned with the technical challenges of installing 500 feet of neon in this really small space at the site.
Becker: Sounds time consuming.
Nash: The job took a long time to plan, produce and install, and we were done many months before the man himself came to set the light levels. The guy kept canceling these meetings that were planned months in advance and I was frankly a little annoyed when I got a call asking me if I could go there RIGHT NOW because James Turrell was on his way. I rode over there on my bicycle, worried that my baby sitter would be mad because I was going to be late. What followed was one of the most seminal moments in my creative life.
Becker: How so?
Nash: I thought I knew this piece that I had been working on for more than a year. I knew nothing - NOTHING! In practical terms, what happened was, he set the light levels for the various circuits. But what really happened was that he brought the piece to life. By fine-tuning the relationships between the colors and the luminance levels on each level, he created a kind of intentional visual harmony in the space that I had never experienced before. Luminance ratios, I'm literally breathless right now just thinking about what happened that day.
Becker: So since that day it’s been concrete, steel, mirrors and neon lights? In terms of materials how did you come to this combination?
Nash: No actually, I first started using concrete in the eighties. There used to be a lot of street vendors around Astor Place in New York. At the time, that area was kind of a gateway to a really bad neighborhood, so this wasn't like a flea market selling artisanal crafts or "vintage" fashion items. It was people selling junk that they found on the street, or selling their clothes or books or whatever because they needed money. Once in a while there was an old guy there named Angelo Nardone who had these weird religious and military themed cement castings.
Becker: Sounds like old New York.
Nash: Yes it was. I was intrigued and at $5.00 for each casting, the price was right. So I started putting neon on Angelo's cement castings. My friends got interested in this guy so we decided to track him down. We found he had a studio in his garage in Nutley NJ. We actually went out there once and were blown away by it. None of us spoke Italian, but we seemed to detect in some of the inscriptions in the thousands of small cast plaques and bas-reliefs, a distinct number of references to Mussolini.
Nash: Yes and not knowing for sure whether these messages were pro or con, we decided to tip toe away from any further collaborations with Mr. Nardone. I then began casting my own cement pieces and embedding electrical components in them. Regarding the steel, I used to use almost exclusively aluminum, because it's so much easier to deal with. I eventually developed a growing appreciation for steel, in terms of its density, color, hardness and the way it interacts with the atmosphere over time - definitely worth the extra effort.
Becker: Is there an architect you are most interested in?
Nash: You could ask me this question and on any given day I would probably have a different answer. Right now, in the context of this conversation Eero Saarinen comes to mind. I used to drive a taxi, and then later a limousine. Waiting for people at the airport was a big part of the job, and whenever I could I would hang out in the TWA terminal to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. Again, at the time I didn't really know anything about the building, or the architect or anything, I thought I discovered it. The more I hung out there, the more I liked it. I was struck by so many features, including the fact that the wooden forms for the concrete casting were so evident on the surface of the building.
Becker: What did you like about it?
Nash: I loved that that was "acceptable" at the time. It seemed like such a harmonious relationship between the airy concept of the architect and the more earthbound concerns of the contractors who actually built the thing. One time, sitting at an impossibly mod table at the elevated food court or whatever it was, a sparrow landed by my feet. To have an actual bird come up to you when you are sitting in a bird-shaped building– at an airport just seems like it must be a sign or something. So, yeah, Eero Saarinen…
Becker: How to you choose the color of the neon for your works?
Nash: I'm really glad you're asking me this. I really feel strongly that in art, and especially architectural applications, colored light should be used judiciously and sparingly if at all. Again this has to do with the issue of the light source, its relationship to the object it's illuminating, and the environment. Monochromatic light deprives the visual environment of contrast, and makes all other colors disappear. This strikes me as being offensively authoritarian, and very unfair to all the other colors of the spectrum. So, I almost always use a high CRI triphosphor white. There is always a trade off between the color rendering index, spectral power distribution and the color temperature, meaning we usually have to sacrifice some color rendering in order to have lower color temperature or "warmer" white. Once the white light is established-and all the colors of the spectrum are reasonably happy and feel represented, then I add color, sparingly. Usually ruby red, I don't know why.
Becker: Are you influenced by literature or film?
Nash: Although I like to read, I can't really say literature influences my artwork, except in the most general way. My sculpture is rooted in a part of the psyche that is sub-literate, or pre-literate. My sculpture is a deviation of inspiration that might have been literate had it not been diverted prior to reaching the prefrontal cortex. Film, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. My creative work with light really began in a film class taught by Tony Conrad at SUNY Buffalo in 1982.
Becker: What aspect stuck with you?
Nash: Two of his films that were particularly influential were "Film Feedback" and "The Flicker." These films were not at all narrative, and instead dealt with the actual, immediate presence of light in the room in time and space. In particular, The Flicker was a stroboscopic experience that not only induced a kind of hallucination in the peripheral vision, but then went on to manipulate that hallucination in a way that felt deliberate and intentional. As an artist, I would be very happy to induce even one small hallucination like, in my wife or kids or something. In that film, Tony Conrad takes us through an entire hallucinatory world, like he owns the place.
Becker: Do you see these works as interactive?
Nash: I hadn't really thought about them in terms of interactivity. If you'll pardon the phrase, I would almost think of them as inter-passive. My sincerest hope is that someone might experience my sculpture the same way I have experienced the sculpture of others, that is, curiously, almost coincidentally.
Becker: Then what is the best interaction with your work?
Nash: To simply be quiet and still in the presence of the work, and know without thinking that it's an artifact of the inspiration that preceded it, and in that moment feel the same inspiration, somehow, hovering in the room. And in that moment, not to feel alone in the universe. Like that time at the airport when I had coffee with a bird and a strange, older Finnish gentleman who said nothing but revealed to us everything.
Becker: Some of your pieces are floor based and others work with the height of the room. What are your thoughts on the interaction of space and light?
Nash: Well, as I already mentioned, I try to be very careful with light and chromaticity because they are so important to everything else in the environment. After that it's a mostly a matter of ratios and proportions. But these are largely issues I try to control after the fact. When I'm really in the process of creating the work, I'm not thinking about any of that stuff, I'm just spontaneously doing what occurs to me to do next. Which is kind of weird, around a lot of open flames and power tools.
Becker: What's coming up for you?
Nash: I have so many projects going right now it's just crazy. I'm trying to line up a few commissions, and I'm already looking forward to the next group show at SL Gallery. Another thing we're working on in the studio is an installation piece on the subject of displaced people. The intent is to evoke an awareness of the emotional relationship between identity and place. WM
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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