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photo: Quinn Tivey

Jed Ochmanek: Breed St.
with Matt Fishbeck

When rock + roll was going through puberty, lots of bands felt it was necessary to cover “Louie Louie.” I don’t know why. Maybe I should try it sometime and I’ll understand. Have you ever seen a painting in a museum and thought “I could do that.” Yeah? Has it ever occurred to you that you did do that? That you, like Vermeer, have burped, have told lies, have coveted thy neighbor’s wife, etc. You just didn’t paint it, maybe. There’s thought and there’s expression, and as the man sang, “A LIFETIME” lies between the two. The black canvas might be rock and roll’s “Louie Louie.” I was Philistine once. I’m still an idiot, but now I have a little experience. I saw my first black canvas, and I thought, “Ok, clever.’ I saw my second, and thought, ‘But.’ By the time I saw my third I thought, ‘That joke isn’t funny anymore;’ It’d erased whatever I’d previously ‘understood’ about the ‘idea’ in the first place. Then I saw a black canvas by Jed Ochmanek and everything made sense.


MF: Who's gonna die first and why?

Me—anxiety.  Or lets flip a coin.

Iridescence.  Where do you stand?

Exactly—encountering iridescence is proof of optical simultaneity that physically implicates the viewer.  This contingency of one’s position vis-à-vis where light enters the perceived surface is an issue of wavelength interference - like sound in space.  I use iridescence to highlight philosophical problems of painting as experienced in time.

Poverty and the arts. Indulge me.

I've always wanted to live and work in places that could house the greatest possibility, so in terms of intersecting poverty I’ve played the traditional artists’ role of canary in the coal-mine of gentrification.  The life of an artist as a vow of poverty isn’t any more interesting to me than art as a brilliant marketing scheme.

How much of your work sells?

It sells acceptably but the problem is keeping up - selling has less to do with a given work’s quality than it does with the artist establishing and maintaining “market presence.”  They want a horse that will run.  This unfortunately often results in an arms race - a sort of “might is right” situation that strikes me as the anthesis of art’s appeal. 

For the most part, successful young painters have had to find a way to make their originals into, essentially, minutely differentiated editions by way of photochemical processes, hyper-pared-down procedural approaches, and hired help.  Arguing the value of artisanal labor isn’t my prerogative, as I’ve dabbled in all of the aforementioned production models, but I have yet to find a particularly rewarding solution within the “business-art” paradigm.  There are of course successful artists who refuse to produce at the rate of this collective consumption, and it’s no coincidence that the “slow read” is often central to their work.

Do you care where a painting of your goes?

A good painting should be able to hold its own in a number of situations, though my work’s close relationship to architecture makes this a bit more delicate.  I’ve always envied music’s ability to occupy, punctuate, and inform a plethora of unforeseen circumstances.  I love that story of someone going into labor in a car careening through San Francisco streets with Holy Shit coincidentally on the tape deck.  What a context in which to enter the world!

When and why did artists become so social?

I'd imagine the reasons were largely geo-political and socio-economic.  It’s easy to be jealous of past bohemian cradles or centers of culture – what was your quote? “London in the 60’s, Soho in the 70’s, Manchester in the 80’s, Berlin in the 90’s, LA in a heartbeat?”  I think we could safely add the Weimar Republic in the 20’s and Florence in the 1500’s as fun places to be if you knew a good crowd.

Exotherm, 2012, oil on stainless steel, 16 x 24”

Your work is so masculine. Is it because you have long hair?

I think that it has more to do with my having had a shaved head in adolescence.

We both just watched Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, but separately.  Talk to me.

It felt amply off – though Caravaggio didn’t achieve his velvety blacks or pitch-perfect, luminous flesh-tones by hacking away at the canvas, I think the film was enriched by the slips that caused it to exist out-of-time - car horns in the background, the calculator, etc.  Caravaggio’s fascination is largely his disjuncture – while his tumultuous life could yield any number of screenplays, a realistic portrayal of his painting process would have likely been unwatchable.

Have you read Jarman's death-bed book Chroma?

Yes – I liked that.  I especially liked the chapter on grey – his description of it as a place of no return.  He called art critic’s love of grey an allowance to describe color without getting into “the bordello of the spectrum,” but in my experience grey has an incredible capacity to stir.  I immediately wept walking into Dia’s room containing Richter’s Six Gray Mirrors, for instance.  Jarman points out that Matisse’s studio walls were grey, but he re-imagined them as scarlet for Red Studio (one of Rothko’s favorites.)  Grey is without this flight of fantasy; its honesty is disarming.

Tell me about Breed St.

Breed St. was named after the cross-street of my home and studio, where I share a disused 1920’s ballroom and banquet hall with Marinna Wagner and our cat. I made the paintings outdoors in the shadow of the Breed Street Shul - a commanding brick building that was home to the West Coast’s largest orthodox Jewish community from the 1910’s through the fifties and has been in disrepair since the 80’s. 

The show consisted of three floor-to-ceiling paintings made of oil-based enamel poured across mirror-polished stainless steel sheets, as well as two smaller wall-works made of cast cement.  Both types had a palpable weight.  The sheets were mounted nearly flush with the wall - hovering about a quarter of an inch off as planes. It was about articulating the feeling of my studio environment and achieving a balance specific to the gallery’s architecture.  They were looming, empty pieces but had, I hope, a strange sense of sweetness.

Breed St., 2012, installation view, Young Art

One thing I particularly like about your work is that it's classical. Classical in the sense that its pre-postmodern. It's not about other art. It's not idea-art. It bears, instead, the practice of art...

I've pursued something like this in recent paintings, but a programmatic restructuring of classicism is not an immediate goal.  In fact the sculpture and video in Palladium could be judged especially well in relation to other art.  The best art confounds false dichotomies: from Vermeer to Sandback, one cannot say “this art has no ideas in it” or “this art is solely the product of an idea.”

But there's a sense of the eternal. It's neither in nor out of vogue. Light's still light, dark's still dark...

One can hope to have absolutes in play, however impossible that may be at this point for the socially inscribed construct of painting, but yes – no overt gimmicks.  I can’t claim to have escaped the fashion system - the gauge of the steel might seem too thin or too thick in a decade or so.  The ingrained obsolescence of the desperately vogue, however, has only ever served as a plea for solvency within existing power structures. 

In terms of painting I’m obviously intoxicated by the concept of the eternal.  Painting as mental object commands an incredible indifference, it’s “always on” by virtue of its basic presence.  This stasis of painting is primary and also total lunacy.  Standing against the eternity of the tomb, the Terracotta Army constitutes a triumph over reality.

Breed St., 2012, installation view, Young Art

Also I'd say your work is 'traditional' inasmuch as it, as often as not, will depict things we observe in the world, or have observed - things physical, things ambient, things experienced: gloss, the blacked-out windows in a desperate room, a mackerel sky, the spectrum of color that overlaid grids can produce, smog. Beckett might call these portraits, or landscapes, and that wouldn't be stretching it. Or would it?

Not at all, I started out painting landscapes.  Then I spent a few years experimenting, trying to figure a way into abstraction.  During that time I worked primarily in squares, 1x1’, 2x2’ or 4x4’, and in black and white, quite literally because there were too many problems to afford having dimensions and color confuse things.  The first real breaks were vertically oriented colorful abstractions that were specifically the size and proportion of my head.  They almost comically begged the comparison to portraits while behaving like serial, architectural interventions.

It's elemental stuff. You play with ontology a lot . Your tonal paintings - which I see as both studies and complete works - are intentionally evocative. By virtue of what's 'in the painting,' it will job a memory, or stir an emotional state, say. You know this... you aid for this... right?

My interest in particulate detail lies in examining the limits of knowledge - how can one claim to know a square inch of a stream?  This turns painting into a daily lesson in humility, a reminder of my incapacity as author, a form of self-preservation. A friend walked in on Beekeeper prior to my titling it and immediately said it looked like pollen, which I hadn’t thought of at the time. Beekeeping is an apt metaphor of the painting’s toxic process - donning a mask and gloves and “going in” to this other situation that one is not totally in control of.  Associations cross-pollinate.

Psychic still-lives, I'd say.  Cézanne paints onions and you paint ennui. Both might make a viewer tear up, but in the case of Cézanne it's not the onions. What's depicted is less the point than what's going on. So the physical gets meta. It's still life...

Eli Langer’s review of Palladium put a fine point on it: the physics that produced the work - evaporation, dispersion, etc. – are working on everything around the painting as well, so this meta characteristic enters in.  The same gravity pulling enamel down the steel causes glaciers to calve.

And this dictates the materials you use?

Absolutely.  Enamel retains an intensity of color after being extremely thinned out, foil remembers touch so specifically, and no canvas is as flat and non-absorbent as polished steel, so there’s incredible fidelity with which to index all the elements at play. Were the sheets to be left blank, Breed St. would have been a hall of mirrors.  In theory this should add to their luminosity, but in this case it’s more the concept that’s attractive to me.

I look at a painting of yours - say Dead Flag Blues or Breaking - and its primordial and entropic at the same time. Things are forming, things are eroding. What time is it?

It's an artistic cliché, but those two in particular were produced at unique points of crisis both inside and outside of their material process.  That those pieces faithfully reflected my “falling apart” was central to their being generative.

Plateaux (detail), 2012, oil on mirror-polished stainless steel, 48 x 96”

Why is the shit so unwieldy?

If one's to articulate the tides, it’s not so outlandish.

Surely we have different cognitive color-registers, no?  What do you think about this?

We're stranded within ourselves.  I try to create evocative dynamics regardless of their chromatic specificity, but this is why image correcting drives me crazy – at what point is it a profound philosophical problem and at what point do you press print?  Context of course also changes everything.

What about colorblindness?

My uncle is color-blind, and while looking at Plateaux he asked Marinna at what points the red shifted to purple and out to blue.  For him, the transitions translated to an either/or.  He’s an incredibly eloquent and incisive investigative reporter - society looks to him to pursue human truths amongst often-opaque lines of fact.  In that sense I’d imagine their linguistic scrutinizing of shared yet dissimilar cognitions produced a rich area of ambiguity.  I’d love to see the pieces in his mind’s eye.

Your last show of paintings at YOUNG, the room of smaller chromatic moments. At first I thought, jail-cell, the delineation of interior and exterior getting reinforced. I'm trapped. Then I thought, portholes: light is admitted (and possibly air). I can see. I can breathe. Then I thought, a zoetrope's flickering. I'm dizzy and I like it. What were you thinking?

I was thinking those things in that exact order - “I used to be sort of blind, now I can sort of see.”

What do you think about the optics of flicker?

Artists have a bad habit of citing science that they’re not suited to substantially address.  I’ll be no exception in bringing up the quantum physics discussion of consciousness as a by-product of wave function collapse (a phenomenon with occurs at measurable intervals.)  This is an unpopular view as I understand it, but the concept of consciousness as having a “frame rate,” which by definition betrays dead zones between frames, is of great interest.  The optics of flicker could carry some crude similarity.

I want to make a painting that is heavier than any wall could possibly support. Didn't I therefore just do it? Or does there need to be footage in order for the KLF to have burned a million quid?

I don’t know, though I would like to disagree with [Lawrence] Weiner and say that footage is necessary for a shift in reality to occur.  You should, I’ll help.  I’m just glad the KLF burnt the million quid so that I don’t have to.

- 2012