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Annie Proulx's essay "John Hull's Junkyard"     Interview with Robert Birmelin     Today's American Scene    
Interview with Robert Birmelin

RB: Most artists, John, who define their work as narrative, do little more than take motifs from history or myth. Your work, on the other hand, confronts us with a genuine narrative structure based on questions of cause and effect, and beginnings and endings. It seems to me that you are truly serious about narrative, you’ve labored in that field for a long time. What preferences, predilections, habits even encouraged you to explore that territory?

JH: I started out as a writer. That’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always been interested in narrative. One of my problems was that I was okay at being a journalist, but had aspirations to being a fiction writer.

RB: Did you work as a reporter?

JH: Yeah, I did. I was a sports reporter mostly and I also worked on the city desk.

RB: Where?

JH: In North Carolina. I started out writing for the Marine Corps newspaper at Camp Lejeune and a story I wrote about Joe Louis was picked up by a local newspaper and I started working for them. Then after I got out of the Marine Corps I went to Yale where I majored in English and it was there that I took a course with John Hersey which was important to me. It showed me that my own tendency as a writer was to be didactic, to explain things completely, and art whether you’re talking about fiction or visual art is always about showing things, not explaining them. When I was a junior I took a basic painting course with Bernard Chaet, and that’s when I began to think differently about what I might do.

One of the things I found with painting is that I could be as didactic as I wanted to be and yet the mystery of story, the experience of the story remained intact. I’ve always been interested in storytelling. My father, who is a physicist, is a great storyteller. Anyhow, I grew up in Oregon in a rural part of the state and spent a lot of time by myself. I would wander around in the woods and I would come across a clearing and the landscape would suggest a story to me – an incident that had happened near there or an event from the bible or literature. Somehow, certain kinds of landscape lead me in the direction of narrative, to the staging of events.

RB: Yes. The way I characterize your work in large part is as landscapes with figures in action. You're putting the figures in the landscape space.

JH: Right. When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I was doing these large figure paintings. I tried simplifying them to the point where all that was left was the figure and a flat background. Finally I came to the conclusion that I didn't know how to paint, so I decided to go out every day and paint in the landscape. That was between my first and second year.

RB: How did you choose the University of Illinois?

JH: They gave me the most money.

RB: Because you never said much about Illinois.

JH: There was a teacher there, a guy named Bill Briggs, a painter, who was good for me at that point. He wasn’t part of the graduate faculty, he just taught undergraduates. But I would go to his studio on weekend afternoons, ride my bike and sit in his studio, and he'd have a Cardinals ball game on the radio. And he would show me things he was working on--he was an abstract painter. He’d give me books to read. So I read John Cowper Powys for the first time, and I got reintroduced to Dickens, and to Joseph Conrad. All that was good. At the same time I saw in a very intimate way what it was like to live by and for art. I mean, I had other great teachers, but…

RB: When did you really start looking at art, at paintings? Were you interested as a child, or later in high school?

JH: My parents tried taking my sister and I to museums… I remember when I was in high school we went to the state championships in basketball, which is a completely separate thing, but we had a chance to go to the art museum or to the mall and I went to the mall…

My first exposure to great art was when I was in the Marines. I was on a boat and we were in the Mediterranean. The first port we stopped at was Venice. And I remember getting off the Liberty boat in Venice--they let you off at Piazza San Marco at 9 o’clock in the morning. There were no bars open, so I ended up at the Doge's Palace, and I spent four or five hours there. And finally this guard came up to me, because I guess I stood out with my Class A uniform, and he says, well you know there are other places you can go look at art. And he takes me down and he makes a little map--this is where Peggy Guggenheim’s house is, and this is where the Accademia is, and so on. So I went to those places, and I left there with a bunch of postcards and an empty drawing book. When you’re in the Marine Corps and you’re on a boat, your battle station is your bunk, so you really don’t have a lot to do. You get up in the morning, you do your exercises, you get showered, you go out on the deck and you have inspection and you’re done for the day. Most of the people read fuck books and played cards, but I drew. I started out just copying postcards and then I started drawing my friends and tanks and stuff like that. I still have those sketches, they’re really horrible, but that’s where I started.

RB: A point I'm interested in: What seems to be characteristic about your work is that it’s always a series--more than series, it's sequences. Not necessarily comic books sequences but interrelated images that almost literally speak to each other.

JH: When I was in college, I saw a show of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. I was really impressed by them. Nolan was lucky is a way though because the Reed’s, an Australian couple who were great supporters of modern art, bought that whole series so it could remain intact. The only time I really get to see my stuff in a series is during the show, when I can say to myself—that's exactly what I was trying to say. There is a thrill seeing them all up together. Because then they really do talk to each other.

RB: I find that the work of yours which most resonates with me is in some of the areas from literature like the early series that draws on the Nick Adams stories from Hemingway's In Our Time

. JH: Well, I like the collaborative aspect of those projects, you know where you’re working with someone or at least with their art work. I also enjoy doing the research – going over a play or novel over and over – reading about an historical event. Ultimately though, the paintings are about me or my vision and are basically a misunderstanding of whatever text I’m working with.

RB: Well, the baseball paintings to me are about the work of being a baseball player. Not about the drama or romance of “take me out to the ball-game”. There's the players waiting and preparing, the quotidian aspect of being in that job.

JH: I was giving a talk, I think at Wesleyan College and somebody asked me “How do you reconcile the baseball painting with your soldier paintings?” And I said “My painting is really about men standing around in uniforms”. And it’s true to a large extent.

One of the people who has influenced me is the French filmmaker Bertrand Travernier. I’m interested in how his Catholicism influences and shapes his vision, his concern with issues of responsibility and justice. I’m also intrigued by his use an off-stage characters to illuminate large historical events—for example focusing on a minor civil servant stuck in French West Africa at the start of World War II rather than on a hero and his role in a famous battle.

RB: Your posture as an artist in general, is anti-rhetorical. Although bizarre and terrible things happen in your work, they are contained within a world of ordinary places.

JH: It’s like in the Iliad, the language itself is kind of dead-pan, but there are some pretty extreme things are going on.

RB: I don’t feel I need to look at your pictures in a specific order. But I feel there is an order.

JH: Let me just tell you how the notion of a series came to me. It was at Illinois and I wanted to make a contemporary painting about a human being’s relationship with God and not have it be corny or ironic. And it seemed to me that the best way to express that was to use the figure of a man with his arms outstretched. After I did that painting I realized it would be a lot better if I just took the figure out. Well fifteen paintings later, I finally got the figure to stay in a painting--it was also probably the worst painting in the series. I also noticed that I actually liked the paintings as a group better than I did individually—or at least liked them differently. Ultimately my series usually start out with the idea for one painting and after I finish the painting I find that it did not express completely what I felt about a certain subject and then I have to make another.

RB: One aspect that is dominant in the art of our times but absent in your own is irony—I might add here that most contemporary work uses the easy irony of pastiche, which indicates that the artist is only pretending to be outside the dominant popular culture, even as he makes his appeal to it . If anything characterizes the art of the last forty years, it's the tongue-in-cheek stance that distances the viewer from the ostensible subject.

JH: I absolutely agree. It’s odd because in the 80’s when I first became successful, I was lumped in with the postmodernists; most critics assumed that I was working ironically, and I always felt awkward about it, but at the same time I wanted to be included in shows. So I kept my mouth shut.

RB: In your work you play continuously with the struggle between good and evil. In that sense it reflects your own Catholic background.

JH: Always. What's changed over the years is that the scenes have fewer overt references. I was also more judgmental when I was younger. Now I try to see the good in people that are evil and the evil in people that are good. It's more interesting.

RB: I want to move this on to another thing that I think is important, and again I’m going to make a statement: “A good illustration isn’t a description, something is happening in it, something is revealed, we are looking at the machinery of cause and effect.” For the last fifty years or more art has been disconnected from illustration, anything illustrative was seen as parody or simply dismissed. You, John, seem to stand alone, or nearly so. I can think of Eric Fischl, Leon Golub, other artists who buck that trend but not in quite the same way. What is your relationship to the tradition of illustration? And we’ll throw in a few names here, people from the early part of the 20th century like the great American magazine artists Harvey Dunn and Harold Schmidt, as well as someone like Remington. And also could you maybe think about your work in relation to people who are currently illustrative in a camp way like John Currin, or Alec Rockburne?

JH: I have an easier time talking to your first point—my relation to the work of some of the great illustrators of the past because I feel closer to them and I continue to think about those guys.

RB: Of course illustration was one of the magic 'no-no's, right? Certainly for my generation. It was probably a different case when you had arrived, Pop art was already ten years on the scene, other so-called postmodernist events had …

JH: --but you were considered dumb if you weren’t an abstract painter.

RB: You still did?

JH: Yeah, at Yale the graduate students were either of the abstract group or the figurative group, and the abstract group were the smart ones and the figurative group were the dumb ones. At least that’s how people thought of them.

RB: But what about the issue of illustration? You’ve used the word a couple of times earlier in our conversations, it seems to indicate you’re over that hump and simply accept the illustrative aspect. And yet you found critical acceptance of your illustrative subject matter quite quickly.

JH: I don’t know. In grad school I sort of ignored the problem. I was in a crit one time, defending my work, describing it, and the head of the painting area says “John, why don’t you choose one painting and tell us what it’s about.” And I was taking the guy seriously and I explained the painting as best I could. When I was done he leaned forward, looked at me, put his finger on his chin and said “Yes, John, but what is it really about?” “Well,” I said, “it’s about 24 x 36.” Anyway, after the crit was over, Audrey Ushenko, who was my great supporter, said--

RB: She was there?

JH: Yeah, in my second year. So she came up to me and said “John, you’re going to get a C for painting. They won’t take your grant away, but you’ve got to learn to shut up!” So I guess that’s why I wonder about the acceptance aspect. In school I never felt there was a lot of support for what I was doing. The art I was interested in looking at didn't interest anyone else. Of course later I realized that the English painter Walter Sickert was right when he said, “I’m a narrative painter, thank God, like all great painters.”

RB: Did you look at the work of any of the illustrators, Remington, or Dunn?

JH: Yeah, absolutely, those were the guys I grew up with. From an early age I had several Remington posters in my room – as well as a copy of Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkeys”. There was also a book that my Dad had of illustrations from the First World War, and I know every Harvey Dunn from that period.

RB: From your vantage point would you say, in terms of aesthetic or artistic value, that the difference we usually draw between illustrators and the world of museum art is a false one?

JH: Yeah, I think that viewpoint has changed for me. When I started out I always felt awkward about the artists I wanted to look at. They were not very well considered.

RB: Of course here in America, the realists of the earlier part of the century came out of magazine illustration--the major figure was some one like Hopper, right? You must have an affinity for him.

JH: I do have an interest in him, but he's an abstract artist in a way that those guys we’ve mentioned aren’t. I do think that once I found Goya—the six paintings at the Chicago Art Museum – the bandit and the priest series -- and I began to work out the difference between a great narrative painting and an illustration. And I began to realize that, in the first place, people like Remington were getting a raw deal, that he’s quite often an interesting painter. Now there are many things in his work that aren’t very interesting but who doesn’t have those? And he’s not in the category of Rembrandt or Goya, yet all have similar kinds of approaches--they are developing a space, and the space is the stage for action. The difference between Rembrandt or Goya and Remington is that the abstraction is a much stronger element in their painting than it is Remington’s. I guess when I look at painters I look at them in two categories: there are abstract painters, or painters where the abstraction is a mantle for the subject matter the subject matter, and I’m always the latter.

RB: What about the role of photography in your work? So much figurative work we see now is evidently photo derived.

JH: I think I am heavily influenced by photography, even by particular photographers like Danny Lyons, also Koudelka.

RB: Well, it’s true, some of the most remarkable artists of the 20th century are photographers. It’s so ubiquitous that there isn’t any visual artist that isn’t influenced by photography, even if they are painting in a non-figurative mode. The use of cropping and shifts in scale and various other disjunctions come from a lifetime of being saturated in photographic images and films.

JH: Absolutely.

RB: Beyond the influence of photography, how much photographic material do you use directly?

JH: Almost none directly. I go through the newspaper every day, and I find stuff I like but what I do is do a drawing of based on a photograph from the newspaper. I have sketch books full of such drawings.

RB: So what you get are layers of reinvention between the photograph and the final work. I’ve gone through some of your notebooks and seen sketches you’ve made--some from real life--and how direct they are, all about information….

JH: My sketches tend to be fairly straightforward – usually a line drawing or a line drawing with one wash. My problem with photographs, and I’ve tried using them at various points, is that I get too caught up in incident, I have difficulty separating what aspects of the photograph lead to meaningful expression and which detract from the narrative. So if I have the photograph in front of me, then I’m just going to paint the photograph and not really develop my own story or vision. If I do a drawing first, the incident has been simplified or abstracted so I’m much more willing to change and invent and develop.

RB: I must say that when I look at some of these paintings, if I had to guess how the image develops, I see it as a kind of painterly rather than graphic approach. I see it coming out of large masses of darks, lights and color that gradually accrue into the final form of the picture, rather than a filling-in from some projected outline.

JH: Most of my paintings start off with a daylight landscape study. I then transfer the landscape to a larger canvas and begin to introduce figures. As I work and the story develops and matures I begin to consider the time of day or atmosphere of the place that will best support the story. The atmosphere comes over time because it seeks the narrative.

RB: Does the painting become more abstract as it develops?

JH: It does because now I have to find a way to develop this story in a more interesting and subtle way and to do that you need to consider how the abstraction supports the narrative intention.

RB: You have to develop the structure.

JH: Right say I’ve got these two figures and they’re behaving the way I want them to behave but they don’t have a strong enough visual impact. And I realize that what I need to do is differentiate between them. Now they both have dark heads, so I’m going to lighten up this one head or I’m going to change the light situation behind it to call more attention to one figure than the other. So the illustration begins the painting and then the abstraction has to take over. And the characters begin to come to life through a formal solution.

RB: This is interesting, because I think the way I tend to work goes the other way around.

JH: I agree.

RB: An arrangement of shapes or forces that only later on take on any kind of specificity or narrative. That’s the difference, again a generational difference, of being trained initially with people involved in the Abstract Expressionist mode, even if indirectly, and you being in a sense a post-Pop artist, after the collapse of the modernist effort.

JH: Most of my painting teachers were abstract painters. So basically I had to ignore any good advice I was being given. Another thing in terms of developing a narrative is that things change in each painting, but also change as the series develops. The current series I’m working on started off being about a relationship between two men from different families. I had to have a son or daughter and a wife for each one. It got kind of complicated. Over the last couple of weeks I've been changing the figures' gender and moving things around. I’ve gotten rid of one of the girls entirely and one of the spouses entirely, and ended up telling a whole different story than the one I had envisioned.

RB: Is there a specific literary source behind this series?

JH: There is a source, it’s the story of Norman Johnson, who was a thief. They made a movie about him, “At Close Range”, with Christopher Walken and Sean Penn. The story centered on this group of criminals in rural Pennsylvania. So I am ostensibly using this story to explore relationships between a small family group. To some extend I’m also drawing on experiences and recollections of my mother’s family – from summers spent in Western New York. My father's family was very Protestant white bread. And my mother’s side are Catholic, immigrants, Czechs. So in a way, I’m using the Norman Johnson story to tell a story about people I know. Of course, you never know where these things come from. A few years back I had a show in Wyoming, at the Ucross Foundation. Next door there was a junkyard. And I thought, God what a great place to paint, so I applied to the Foundation’s residency program and I went there with the idea of painting the junkyard. I did that for about two weeks and I ended up with about 20 landscape studies and heart failure. So I had to go back to Denver to take care of the heart problem and by the time I got back the junkyard had been closed down -- the guy who ran the junkyard had died. Anyhow, I ran into a guy who had worked there and he had this tee shirt--you know the “Got Milk?” ones -- well his said “Got Meth?” From methamphetamine. So I had this location that I loved, I had this “Got Meth?” tee shirt, and I started thinking about “At Close Range” and then the story began to come together.

RB: Another question. Where am I , as a viewer, in relation to the paintings? Psychologically I am outside, just as you are outside, but should I go and look at the painting up close? Are there different rewards, or properties that you seek to produce by playing with the viewing distance? I’m, thinking of Velazquez and how at a certain distance the illusion is complete, and as you move in on the painting the picture turns to paint--the picture’s readability ceases and something else takes its place. Comparing that to a Monet from the 1860’s where there is a screen of facture that happens all over, and at a certain point—not as close as with the Velasquez--the painting turns totally to paint.

JH: That interests me. Velazquez does it in much more subtle ways than I do. Yet the surface of a painting and the fact that it's paint is important to me; I don't want to lose the material aspect of the paint, or disguise it. After all, if I am making paintings, they should, at least to some extent, be about paint. Beyond that, I want the viewer to deal with that painterly quality at the same time that they’re dealing with the story. The viewer is never an actor or participant in the paintings – he’s always the viewer.

RB: Let me say, that the thing you just said about your own work is the reason why we know each other. I saw your show at the New Musuem in 1985. I didn’t know you, I just happened to see it.

JH: But you wrote me a letter.

RB: Right. The reason why I wrote the letter was, you showed the guerrilla paintings, the Algerian war paintings. And I was struck by the way you held me at a distance and that you implied things that were happening in the picture--events, description--you implied them. I believed they were happening. I wanted to get closer. But you wouldn’t let me closer. It did turn into paint and you held me at a physical and also a psychological distance, which intensified both the mystery and the reality of the event. I felt as if I'd just come over the side of the hill, nobody knew I was there and I’m ready to duck away, because I know it’s not a good place to stay. That seemed to me a very special contribution to the perceptual psychology of figurative painting. And I’ve always prized that immensely. That certainly is the reason why I wrote you and we’ve become friends.

JH: The longer I’ve painted the more I tend to value the brushstroke, the kind of meaning the mark makes on the canvas. I think those early “Algerian War” paintings were the result of a struggle to get an image on the canvas and the technique was simply the result of being put in a difficult situation and then how do you go about solving it. As I continued to work I gradually got tighter. The baseball paintings are an example of that kind of ‘more refined’ work. But after I did those paintings I remember giving a slide talk and I was showing these slides from my earlier work, like the guerrilla paintings. I realized I missed the expressive mark making in those paintings. Ever since then, I’ve tried to be considerate of brush stroke and how paint is delivered to the canvas.

RB: We haven't mentioned the series done in Connecticut. "A Domestic Drama."

JH: Those paintings all happen in a house in Norfolk, Connecticut—the perfect New England town. It was a house I stayed in when I was teaching at Yale-Norfolk summer art school, which I did for several years. I don’t usually do interiors, don't like to do them, but these I wanted to do. I realized later that the wallpaper I envisioned was the same wallpaper as in the house where I grew up in Oregon. So there's the house I grew up in, and I had my son with me for those summers, and I started thinking about being young--an eight or nine year old boy--and learning about sex. And it’s not something that back then you would learn in magazines, but it was something you found out about by hearing stories or by observing your brother or sister in some dating ritual. So I had this house and I had my son with me and also these stories, some I'd witnessed but most that people had told me over time.

RB: There is one very fascinating painting, I happen to have it on a postcard, near my work table, which is the policemen sitting on the chair and then the little boy on the sofa and the woman at the door drinking coffee with her robe half-open, which is from that series.

JH: Yes, the little boy is actually my son Isaac. The reason he is looking so attentively at the man is because when I painted him, there wasn’t a man there but a TV. The story came from two sources. One of my friends growing up had a dad who was a cop, and he was a very strict guy and we would always be sort of scared of him. Sometimes he would get loaded and beat the hell out of his kid. But the other thing was that his sister, who was probably fourteen--five years older than we were--was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was my ideal. My friends and I would sit around and her brother would tell us about seeing her coming out of the shower or walking around with no clothes. Things like that, things that I realize now were completely untrue, but when he told those stories he would have an assured audience of many little boys. So that maybe that stuff never happened, but for me it did. Flannery O'Conner said “By the age of fourteen you should have enough material to spend the rest of your life writing about." I took her literally.

RB: Yes, it’s there, if you dig, right? And let me ask one other question: you went to school in Illinois, you were down in Baltimore for a while, then Yale, now you are out in Denver. All of your work has been done outside of the orbit of the NY art world, although it has been regularly exhibited here. Do you think living outside the city has been advantageous or not?

JH: I think to some extent, career-wise, it would have helped had I painted about NY or lived in NY. I think it might have helped me to get to know more painters and better painters and regularly follow their work. But I live outside of NY because I want to live outside NY. I like living in places I can paint about. I grew up in Oregon so I’m drawn to rural landscape. Whether I'm living in Illinois or Maryland or Colorado.

RB: Part of your special contribution is that your work is about America in a broad sense, about aspects of American life that are important to see.

JH: I don’t have a choice. These are the paintings I can make, because they're about what I know.