Jef Gunn on the coming and going of his art

The Augen Gallery show reflects Gunn's process, creative and spiritual

Jef Gunn moved to Portland in the late 1990s. Over the past 30 years he has participated in numerous exhibitions in the Northwest and has wide ranging teaching experience. Gunn paints in a wide variety of nominal styles. He enjoys using encaustic (pigments in beeswax) because, as he says on his website (www.jefgunn.com): “With encaustic, I can bring together all of my other methods: oils, papers and inks, fabric, tar, and gold. My work draws on multiple lineages of art, culture and spiritual meaning.”

Jef Gunn in his studio, August 2017/Photo by Paul Sutinen

An exhibition of recent paintings is at Augen Gallery through September.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

I was 13 years old. I remember it. I had always been drawing, but in our house there was no talk about art. We didn’t have a whole lot of books—not that we were poor, but nobody read. Then my mom remarried and on my stepfather’s shelves was everything that Time-Life published. I just started looking at books and I pulled up a volume of Rembrandt from the Time-Life series and I just knew—I just saw—‘oh I get it!’

I want to do that?

No, it’s more like, ‘That’s what I’m doing. Oh, I see what I am now!’

That’s really cool. How did you pursue that?

I drew all the time. I didn’t know they were etchings. I wasn’t reading very well, so I just saw drawings. I could relate to drawings, but they were etchings. So I copied his etchings out of the book.

Then did you move on to other artists after Rembrandt?

Velasquez and Goya. They were in the same series.

Did you take art in high school?

Yeah, I took art in high school. That was like all I could do. I did very poorly in everything else, even gym.

So art was the thing where you thought, ‘This is me and I this is what I do and I’m good at it.’

Actually, in my senior year in high school they said, ‘You’re not doing very well in high school. How about how about you take the last half of your senior year and go up to Pasadena City College and take art classes?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I went and took color and design and drawing and found out that I wasn’t the only artist in the school. In high school I was the artist in the school. I spent a year not knowing what the hell to do and went back to PCC and then transferred to Cabrillo College. Before Marylhurst [BFA 2005] that was the only college I had—junior college painting classes, and I did a building technology program at the same time.

During your time in high school and college were there teachers or important experiences for you?

I learned most from this one fellow at Cabrillo in Santa Cruz named Tom Allen. I remember him saying the most important people he looked up too were Hans Hofmann (I didn’t know who that was at the time) and Paul Klee. One time he took us on a field trip to the museum at UC Berkeley. There were a lot of Hofmanns.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over I”, 2015, oil on panel,
12 x 24 inches

What did you think of the Hofmanns at that point?

By the time I started painting I was really interested in Monet and Matisse. I hadn’t gotten into Cézanne yet. I didn’t know what to make of Hofmann because when I was drawing as a teenager it had to be tight. It had to be real. It had to be believable. I was drawing fantasy stuff like people riding dinosaurs.

I took my first painting class in 1975 when I was 20. It was in the mid-’80s—I was in Seattle then—I started looking at Picasso, and I had what I called ‘my cubist epiphany.’ I kind of went to it by way of [Lyonel] Feininger actually.

Yes, I liked Feininger early on, too. There’s something about those lines that describe something that’s there, but not quite there. What do you think about paint? What is your relationship with paint? There are painters who have a relationship with paint itself and there are painters who just want to make an image with paint.

I love everything about it. I love color and form, but also material—I don’t only use oil paint and encaustic—primarily I do that. It’s material, the thing itself. Oil paint can be a lot of different things. It can be dry and wispy or it can be scratchy or wet and gooey. And it reveals your hand. It reveals a momentary gesture. It’s like your mind thinks something, your hand does it, and—something about the springiness of the brush, the viscosity of the paint—it appears as your thought.

When you’re talking that way it makes me think of a violinist with the relationship of their bow and a string on the violin and the thought through the hand.

It’s direct.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over II”, 2017, oil on panel,
37-1/2 x 61-1/2 inches

Do you have an idea of when you first had that feeling about paint?

I think it took a number of years after I started. In the first five years I had a few kind of interesting paintings. I could create an image that was believable, might have some realism to it, but it becomes really about the paint in the early ‘80s landscapes and portraits and things.

Someone asked Tom Allen how important a likeness is in a portrait painting. He said the first duty of a portrait is to be a good painting and if it’s got a likeness, so much the better. The point is don’t sacrifice good painting for a likeness.

Do you feel there are any painters or painters’ works that that have had a particular influence on you?

Well, all those people we’ve talked about. Picasso and Motherwell, at one point after I started looking at Picasso. Monet previously. But when I got to Barcelona in 1986 (I was there for a year and a quarter), I kept seeing this fellow named [Antoni] Tàpies. So that year was huge because of looking at Tàpies, and he was like something you had to deal with. Every painter in Barcelona has to deal with Tàpies.

He was very prolific.

Outrageously prolific. I used to say the Zen of it just made me stop in my tracks, totally arrested. It was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to address this guy?’ On the other hand I was dealing with all that stuff up on the hill—that Romanesque stuff from the 700s, the 900s, was there.

Was there something about Tàpies’s materiality that affected you or something else do you think? It’s very much about thick stuff and other kinds of collage elements.

It was also his marks—marks you could tell carried metaphor—and everything about them. The metaphor that’s often talked about with him is the wall and what a wall could be. And the walls in Barcelona are highly textured, there’s graffiti, sometimes going all the way back to Roman times. And Tàpies used that to create these huge spaces with strange marks that looked like honey, or straw—the Dada of it was a huge force in it as well.

Dada, meaning?

The absurdity of it.

The feeling of chance?

There’s a great deal of chance, but there was always some sense of spiritual import behind it all that I could feel when I first saw it. I couldn’t make sense of it, but I could feel sort of like—if I say this it’s going to sound really ridiculous—a Zen master stands right in front of you. You’ve got to get around him. How are you going to get around him? It really feels like a challenge.

I realized all the things I carried around with me, what made art important—color, design, fine lines, technical dexterity and all these damn things—that’s not really what carries the power of a piece of art. All that’s fine and good and it might have all that, but if it doesn’t have this sort of gravity then maybe it’s just nice, but I got really got interested in stuff that had gravity.

When you say gravity you mean some sort of seriousness and meaning?

Like life and death. Like being and non-being. That’s what Zen is all about, what Buddhism is all about. I wasn’t a Buddhist at that time. I’d done meditation practice, but it felt like those sort of very primal human practices.

Are you Buddhist now?

Yeah.

Does that have anything to do with your painting?

More and more and more, actually.

There are a couple ways to think about that. One is your approach when you’re making the painting and the other is the artwork and what the viewer receives.

For instance I had a show in May of this year at Traver Gallery [in Seattle]. It’s entirely different from oil painting—mostly prints of small objects on Chinese papers mounted onto panels. Very very serene. Very very very very methodical. The same print from a nut shell over and over and over, and each time I printed there’s no thinking about it. There is no deliberation. There’s no philosophy behind it. It’s simply this moment, press, this moment, press, this moment, press— it goes on in a mantra so it’s like a whole visual field of mantra. No one needs to know what the mantra is, but I made it more explicit in my statement for the show. The act of painting is very much like that of meditating.

Do you begin a painting with an idea of what you’re going to do?

Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I see something. I still go out and paint landscapes. Then I come home and I’m dwelling on that landscape.

You paint landscapes on site?

Sometimes they’re finished right there just like classic landscape painting, but more often they’re better if I they cook in the studio and I keep puttering with them and looking at them. Sometimes I’ll look at them for a year. There’s one on the wall there—I thought, “Oh I know what to do,” so I kept it.

The classic abstract expressionist question is how do you know the painting is finished?

It just feels that it’s done. You know Chagall’s answer? I always liked Chagall’s answer: My wife tells me.

You talked about doing drawing from Rembrandt and things like that. Do you still do drawing?

Not as much and I feel guilty about that.

Drawing guilt?

It still feels to me true that it’s the foundation. I used to draw incessantly. I’ve got boxes and boxes of old stuff.

Why do you think that dwindled away?

The more I started painting and the more I started going into the sort of repetition pieces on paper. The more I paint I think more like painting than I think like drawing. There’s an interesting correspondence between Matisse and Bonnard. When Matisse was feeling depressed about his painting, he said that a colorist who is a drawer is not the same thing as a painter, and that made me look at those two painters differently. And even in Bonnard’s drawings he draws like a painter. He draws shapes and textures and squiggles because he’s working the shape and texture in the field of the shape whereas Matisse draws and then puts big flats of color around to the drawing more or less.

The painter Robert Ryman said, “It seems that the main focus of painting is to give pleasure: if someone can receive pleasure from looking at paintings, then that’s the best thing that can happen.” Is there more than pleasure that you want someone to get when looking at your work? Is there an emotional aspect that you seek?

Nowadays what I’m looking for in the work, and maybe it relates to how I know it’s done, is when I start feeling—even if we don’t want state it as drastically as life and death—but is it coming or is it going? That’s a Zen phrase. It’s a Buddhist phrase, but Zen uses that more than others. Is it there or is it not there? Is it somewhere between useless and useful or alive or dead? It’s got to be alive. Painting has to be alive for that to happen, but it should have this—I don’t know if I want to call it at tension because it’s too common a word—no one really knows what it means—but it’s got to arrest me and make me consider my existence for a few minutes. But then again I don’t want to it to be unjoyful. I’m really I’m really interested in joy right now.

How long have you been interested in joy? Was there a time you were interested in something else other than joy?

No, I enjoy painting especially in the landscape paintings, especially the ones I do outside. I have a real joy in painting them even if I am screaming at them and it’s all falling apart because I really enjoy that tussle.

A couple years ago I did something in painting that I’ve never done before. I just had a big canvas and started filling it up randomly, just putting paint on with no design in mind. Over time the painting started looking like a landscape I’d seen a couple years ago, obviously subconsciously showing up on the painting, so I developed it. And it was a really good painting. It had a joyful feel, strong colors and crazy, ludicrous, really free. So I’ve been trying to do more of those.

Be more wild and crazy and joyful?

Really spontaneous. Spontaneity is one of those qualities that comes with joy and Zen.

Do you visit the Portland Art Museum much?

No. I have a membership, but I don’t go very often. I’m a busy person. I work for a living so I don’t end up with a lot of time.

Jef Gunn, “Ranch Next Over III”, 2017, oil on panel,
24 x 40 inches

I was just wondering if there are any particular things you like to look at the art museum, something that you can revisit, that connects for you.

There’s one little Monet that I’m really fond of, the brushwork on it. It’s little, looks like the bank of the river with some trees, big sky. I usually go up to the C.S. Price room and those old Portland people. I always go to the Asian section. Asian art is really been a huge influence on me for two decades at least.

What do you think about being a painter in the age of video and computer generated art?

There’s a part of me that feels like one day the electricity is going to go out and everyone’s going to not know how to sharpen a pencil. Some of my hobbies include edge tools—chisels and gouges, saws and things like that. I’m a carpenter, so I’ve got a huge collection of chisels and planes and things. I like to know how to keep them sharp. There are a lot of things you can do just as fast with hand tools. I love hand tools. I love tools of all kinds. So I’m very interested in non-electric and non-digital things—not just to preserve them in a museum. But, I have a feeling that it connects one to the moment in a way that screens don’t. Screens can’t actually.

You paint landscapes as landscapes and you paint other paintings that are paintings as paintings.

Sometimes they are paintings as paintings and hidden in there is a landscape. Or I paint paintings just as marks.

What are the similarities or differences between those approaches? Do you approach a landscape painting differently from one that is just marks?

They’re similar in that they’re all about materials and marks, the materiality of the thing, and the marking and the shapes are all very important as themselves. But, in a landscape painting they will reference a landform like metaphor, like it’s a hill, or it’s a river or it’s a lake, or it’s a sky. Those all can have metaphorical significance. I used to say the landscapes come from walking and these other pieces come from sitting.

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