John Wentz is a teacher at the Academy of Art in San Francisco with a perspective that all teachers would do well to adopt. As an artist he pushes the envelope, challenging the manner in which we, as a culture, view heroes, the idea of archetypes and the effect on future generations of depriving them adequate heroes and stories. His interview blew my mind. Read it.
Introduce yourself, what is your favorite, sandwich, have you ever died your hair, are you right or left handed? You know, the usual…
Howdy. I’m a native Californian born and raised in the Bay Area. Don’t know about a favorite sandwich, but I sure do like Mr. Pickles sandwich shop and it’s close to my studio. I’ve dyed my hair every color imaginable and I used to have dreadlocks down to my ass. Right handed because left handed is of the devil. I’ve been doing art most my life. I actually used to work in the art department for Tower Records back before the digital print explosion. My job was to reproduce record covers on a large scale
How has being a teacher helped you improve as an artist?
First, I’d say it’s just sheer repetition. Day in and day out, I am consistently surrounded by art and art conversation…whether I like it or not. At any time of day that is what is going through my head. I feel very fortunate for that. Another is having to find a way to clearly and concisely explain a concept to someone. That means that I have to have a very clear understanding myself of what I’m talking about be it something technical or otherwise. This has really helped my thought process and trouble shooting while working.
It’s also helped me to push myself and not get lazy. I even hesitate to call some of these students “students” because they are so good! Technically, I have to keep pushing myself. I also have learned that I have to keep my mind open. I personally do not think there is any one “authority” or “expert” on art. As an instructor, it’s not my job to dictate dogma but rather to share experience. Therefore, if I keep my mind open then hopefully I’ll have more to offer as time goes on. But as Wayne Thiebaud once said, “the problem with art professors is that they have more and more to say about less and less.” I think that’s what probably makes him a great teacher.
As a teacher, what advice would you give young artists seeking to challenge themselves and push the boundaries of their art?
- To keep in mind that you’re pushing the boundaries of YOUR art and not the art world. I see students get that confused all of the time. It’s all been done before and there is nothing new under the sun. Like that saying in Hollywood that there are only 12 stories and everything is a variation of one of those. At first that sounds really pessimistic, but it’s rather freeing because it’s all new to you.
- Be honest with yourself. Look to your own experience. Don’t paint what you don’t know.
- Educate yourself both about the art of the past and the present. I think it’s important to keep in mind that we’re working in a lineage. I had a student come to me recently who was very concerned about thinking “outside of the box”. I feel like you have to have a very good idea of what the box is and what’s in it before you can think outside of it.
- Don’t wait for inspiration. Do it everyday, especially when you don’t want to. That way, when you are inspired, it will only be that much better. I had a teacher say to me once that art is a verb. That had a heavy impact on me.
It seems the predominant colors in your work are red and blue, what emotional response do you seek to illicit in the viewer with these colors? What response, according to color theory should these colors provoke?
With this particular body of work it really had to do with the superheroes as subject matter. A lot of early superheroes were some variation of the primary colors. This had to do with the limited colors of the ink for newspapers and those colors (being the most contrasting combination) were the best for getting the costumes to stand apart from the flesh tones and be highly recognizable. I really really cannot stand yellow. I hate it. So I just stuck with the blue and red and minimize the yellow where I can.
For me, it’s not the colors themselves which I hope will illicit an emotional response from the viewer, but rather the use of saturation and combinations. And even then, at least with this body of work, it is more of an “idea” as opposed to an “emotion”. I wanted the devices of comic books to be more or less the vocabulary for the paintings. Those colors tend to just feel like a comic book. That’s more of what I wanted.
When we talk of color theory, it really depends on whose theory you are speaking of. We tend to think of color theory in terms of a blanket generalization, but there are many theories out there and even culture has an effect on that one. However, blue is mostly thought to be calming while red is more passionate. Some say red has the effect on the viewer of wanting to consume. That’s why stores and fast food chains use it to a high degree. If memory serves me well, the current scientific theory is that red puts us in a sexual state.
On your site you state that you seek to explore the archetype of the hero in regards with today’s children. This is evident in the depiction of children and superheroes in your series ‘The Human Condition’, but what is the significance of the inclusion of planetary bodies?
The planetary bodies were an additional layer in that specific series. Working in the framework of mythology, I used the planets to kind of enhance the idea of each piece. For example, the painting “Stella Martis”, which is latin for star of mars, is a post apocalyptic theme about the failure of the super hero. Mars is the god of war so I included the planet in the piece and made the overall color theme red, which is also associated with rage and anger.
Where do you think some of the misunderstandings of the current generation regarding the archetype of the hero spring from?
I think it lies in our lack of proper storytelling. I am mostly thinking about film in this case since it seems to be the most popular medium at the moment. The potency of the hero archetype lies in the hero journey. You need the story for that. I think film is too caught up with special effects and explosions at the moment. This probably has to do with video games. Forget the story, blow something up.
How do you think the archetype, portrayal and understanding of, has changed since you were a child?
See above. It’s all in the story. And it’s not just that it has to be a good story, there is a structure. Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” covers that topic with authority.
With regards to film: With the hero archetype, it is really at it’s most potent when the archetype is not identifiable. Let’s say in comic book movies. For example Iron Man is Robert Downey Jr., etc. The archetype isn’t as effective when you are looking at the screen thinking Christian Bale makes a great Batman. The idea is that you are to see yourself in the archetype. That’s why comics are such great vehicles for myths. Then a kid reads about Christian Bale going ape shit on set about something and in his mind he makes the connection to Batman and it has become all but completely impotent.
The city of San Francisco, as well as the greater Bay Area, doesn’t really own any superheroes. Tony Stark is portrayed as a superhero from California, but most of his work is international. Do you think there is a reason for the lack of representation?
In the comic he is from Long Island, which of course, is common with a lot of the super heroes….being from New York in general that is.
Actually, there was a small comic book called “Pariah” which took place in Oakland. Lol
I think it goes back to how all good myths are created. A myth generally takes place, to some extent, in the area in which it’s writers exist. Comics really started in New York so that was the backdrop and I think it works perfectly. The first time I went to New York I could see how Spider-man could exist in this environment. Not only is it so big that it seems like anything could happen, but unfortunately with a city that big, crime exists. New York needed superheroes. So writers either bake up a place like Gotham City or stick with New York. At least that’s my take on it.
What do you think the lore surrounding superheroes, the promotion and idealization of these characters to such an esteemed position, says of our culture?
The same that it does of the human condition: we want and need superheroes. Also, when I say superheroes I’m not just talking about Superman, Batman, etc. Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed…..all hero archetypes. Sorry if I offend anyone with that, I’m an atheist. And not only do we want superheroes, but we want the hero adventure. I really do think that the hero adventure is part and parcel to being human.
Look at the Epic of Gilgamesh. Considered one of the oldest (if not first) pieces of literature in the history of mankind and it is the hero adventure. Not a superhero, but the template so to speak is there.
Do you think superheros could be a method of atonement for the bystander effect and degree of self-interest our society exhibits? Or could they be the ultimate revenge fan fiction, a fetishization of the ultimate desire to take vengeance on those who take advantage of weaker individuals, of society’s bully’s?
Absolutely, all of the above and more. I think superheroes are both personal and impersonal. In that sense, you could fetishize them or just enjoy some gory revenge fan fiction. Look at The Punisher. Or look at some of the comics during WWII. Superheroes can be propaganda. Action Comics had Superman calling on America to help fight the Japanese. The Captain America comic was first introduced in 1941.
Who is your favorite superhero, and what makes them so endearing to you?
My favorite comic book characters are Dr. Manhattan and Hellboy, but I’m actually hesitant to call them superheroes. In the strict superhero sense it is, hands down, Batman. Specifically it is Frank Miller’s interpretation in “The Dark Knight Returns”. First, it is because Batman has no super powers. He is truly human and to me that gave him a greater stake in humanity. I never really understood why Superman really gave a shit about humanity….he’s not from earth. I mean, I fully understand what the comic portrayed, but I wasn’t buying it. Batman uses his brain and his strength which, of course, are way above average, but still human. Having a billoinaire’s bank account didn’t hurt either. I also just personally like the hero as a tragic figure. I think a lot of people can relate to that; being motivated by hurt or anger. His reason for becoming a hero is rooted in his dark past. I also really like how deranged he truly is. Something I wish they pushed stronger in the films that Batman borders on psychotic, that mask is a true dual personality..almost Sybil-esque. For me, that adds that deeper layer of “what is a real hero?” Are his/her motives and motivations selfish or selfless? That, of course, became an important character arc in that series.
Who is the child and who is covering the child’s eyes in ‘Angels and Demons’?
The child is my nephew and it is myself covering his eyes.
What is the difference between the feel of watercolor and pencil? How do you choose which you want to use when carrying out a piece?
Being that one is a dry medium and the other a wet medium there are many differences. Watercolor is, naturally, more fluid. For me, it also feels more organic. Even though you can have a high degree of control, there is a certain feeling of gambling. Depending on the paper you use, it will react differently. Certain papers will resist a bit more and the water will pool and can drip to a greater extent. Some absorb more and you are left with small biomorphic shapes. I guess it’s like a teenager, you tell it to do one thing and it just might do the exact opposite. I really enjoy that quality.
Pencil, for me, is more exacting and in a way more shape oriented. I love its versatility in working between line and tone and with regards to tone you have shading versus hatching. Which medium to choose is sometimes tough. Generally, it’s whatever the concept of the individual piece is. Achromatic is more psychological. The absence of color is dream-like and, for me at least, gives an image the quality of existing in the unreal or the mind.
Do you prefer oil on panel or pencil on paper? How do the two media differ mechanically? How does each translate from your mind to the real world?
No preference. I really like to try and let the idea dictate the medium. I’m trying to think of a small list of ways they differ because for me, it’s seems almost endless. One big difference is that painting is additive while working with pencil is reductive. That is, with pencil you are removing the medium to get to your lightest lights (highlights) while with painting you layer the medium eventually working up to your highlights. For me, this is a hugely different way of thinking. With graphite, I also work with a variety of lead softness from B to 8B, which is very soft. It’s easier to control value that way and expand your value range. It’s very different from paint. I always think of pencil as ghostly, even more so than charcoal. It’s not only the lack of color but the very subtle texture. It feels and looks delicate like a memory or a dream. I think this is another attribute which causes it to feel more psychological.
Oil paint on the other hand lends itself perfectly for texture. It can be picture smooth or heavy chunks of impasto and everything in between. You have to be concerned with consistency of paint unlike with graphite. For this you have to know your mediums and what effect they have on the paint. The mark making is usually very different than with pencil. The variety of brush sizes give you a wide variety of marks you can make.
However, recently I have been trying to bring qualities of one into the other. With the larger scale drawings I am using sponge brushes like I would brushes in painting. You can depict masses and planes differently and achieve marks similar to painting. With painting I find myself incorporating more line as I would in a drawing.
I apologize, but I’m not sure if I’m understanding the last part entirely. I look at the attributes of each medium and decide if it is the best vehicle for what is being expressed. Oil has color, texture (with the possibility of heavy texture), heavy mark making and so on. Graphite gets across line better, is mostly soft, dream-like and void of color.
What is the most important thing, book, article, blog or otherwise, that you have read recently? What about it did you find inspiring and what did you do with that inspiration?
Here is a list that all have something in common:
Documentary: “How art made the world”
Book: “The Tell Tale Brain” by VS Ramachandran
Blog: “Painting: Powers of Observation”
These all inspired me because it reinforced the idea that art (painting) is it’s own specific vocabulary….a language. I think I lost sight of that and I was painting and drawing things too tight and realistic. I even dabbled with photorealism for a bit in which you trace the image on the canvas then paint it. I found that it was kind of making me depressed and forced me to ask myself what is the point if I could just take a picture and leave it at that. Tracing is a large part of many artists processes these days. The aforementioned sources brought back the importance of drawing to me then the idea of not being “accurate” so to speak. I learned from VS Ramachandran that the art of the past (well up into the early 20th century) was about exaggeration and, to an extent, abstraction. That’s pretty staggering when you consider that that is just about the entire history of art. Even the art that looks very realistic is exaggerated or distorted in one way or another. This inspired me to think about exaggerating and distorting more…interpreting. That is the approach I took with this new body of work.
What pieces are you showing for your exhibit at Minna? Why have these specific pieces been selected?
There is only one on my main site that I’m showing. It is a drawing titled, “Abandoning Idleness”. I haven’t uploaded any of the new ones yet, but you can see various stages on my blog at www.johnwentz.net .
This whole new body of work is along the same vein as “Abandoning Idleness”. Basically, it’s because they are all a new direction for me. The concept is pretty much the same, but the vocabulary has changed.
What is generally the most trying aspect of an exhibit? What do you find the most rewarding?
The cost of framing!! For me it is the first hour or so of the exhibit. All these pieces have been on the easel for many months with pretty much just my eyes. Now they are on a wall together for all to see. I have been looking at them for months and know every mark and every “mistake”. The viewer gets to take in all of those months of hard work in a matter of minutes. It’s a very strange form of dialogue for me and takes an hour or so to get used to.
The most rewarding part is if at least 1 person says that a piece connected with them either emotionally or otherwise. That’s really what I’m shooting for.
How did you get into contact with Minna? What do you like about the Minna gallery? What do you hope to gain from the upcoming exhibit?
I really lucked out with connecting with Minna. I had been going to see shows there since they first started. A lot of my heroes showed their work at that venue. Right out of school I received a call from the curator at the time asking me if I’d like to be in a group show. I was so excited because I wanted to show there, but I was too nervous to approach them.
My favorite aspect of Minna is that they really want my input on the show and are supportive every step of the way. When I was approached with this show, Micah LeBrun (curator) pretty much gave me complete freedom. That’s a lot of trust and I really appreciate it. They really do have this way of treating you like family.
I’m hoping to just get my art out there more, gain a broader audience and more exhibition opportunities. A free beer would be nice, too.
Telepathy or telekinesis?
Telekinesis!!! I cannot even imagine how horrible it would be to hear the thoughts of everyone around me.