Jamie Bollenbach seems to work backwards, starting in politics and moving to Art,
starting in Alaska and moving East, "starting abstract and working to
classical painting space. "
"Pushing around the mud to chase the temporal," he fully embraces
painting traditions, but rejects the idea that painting has any special
place in art except for its history. "Painting is art to the extent
that it continues to create art," he says. "This most ancient of media,
an almost curious shelter in the contemporary blizzard of pop images, still
provides irreproducible processes for the exploration of our nature as
visual thinkers, as cultural identities, and creatures half conscious
of time and place. Painting, pushed to the limits of its capability, still
asks urgent questions, and provides a hard visual step into persistent
philosophical questions and methods of serious intellectual inquiry."
The son of a meteorologist who painted and a psychologist who helped
pioneer Alaska's feminist movement, Bollenbach grew up in Anchorage,
Alaska, which was still a wild city in the 1970s, as the Alaska Pipeline poured
billions into a scruffy, remote city still recovering from the 9.2
earthquake of 1964. With trans-global flights landing for fuel, it was
a town where Bears, professors, coked-up welders and French
stewardesses mixed, strangely frontier, strangely international at the
From elementary school on, he worked on political
campaigns. Always drawing as child, obsessed for a while with fishing boats, his career shifted toward a long interest in
progressive politics. "Alaska used to be a progressive, even socialistic state
but with a tremendous love of individual freedom. Oil changed that- I
thought it could be fought. For that time, I was wrong."
Accepted at Reed College in Portland, he got his BA in Political
Science, and returned fresh out of college to become the Executive
Director of the ACLU for the state for five years. "A fantastic
opportunity -fascinating work, but ultimately consitutional advocacy
left me wanting to exercise freedom more than just advocating it."
Alaska had a curious art and music scene, big enough to produce
aggressive work, but small enough that it "smooshed everyone
together,"painters, rock and classical musicians, poets, dancers,
politicians, all knew each other. "I threw a party once that started
with few state Senators dropping by and ended with fifteen little punk rock kids cowering in the back, hiding from the police."
Jamie also helped start "The Disastronauts," a band he wryly describes "as one of
the top three original rock bands in Anchorage, Alaska in 1992."
Eventually, though Alaska's limitations caught up. "It was growing
more Republican by the minute, the local art couldn't break out of
moose and mountains for any length of time, and, in like the bumper
sticker says 'In Alaska, you don't lose your girlfriend, you lose your
Jamie moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, set up his first
studio in East Oakland. "Annoying in reflection. I might have stayed
permanently in that great loft, but my work was not up to what I
wanted, and I had some trouble adjusting."
Back in Portland in the 90's he worked for an artist's non-profit
and founded a work studio building, where he first "really started
painting seriously- starting with a notion of muscular
modernism and eventually becoming a decent colorist," making paintings
that treated color with the same spatial rules of a landscape. It
wasn't originally, but it was promising. After three years of
self-taught work in Portland, he applied to the MFA at UW in Seattle
and was, to his astonishment, accepted. "No Art degree. Just some
half-way decent painting."
At U.W. he worked with Denzil Hurley, Norman Lundin, Ann Gale, Phil
Govedare. "Denzil would take your brain, lift it above your head about
six inches, and put it in backwards." Jamie knew he was finally on to
something "the day Denzil started yelling a me."
He taught all the way through Grad School, getting a new
competitive quarterly appointment each quarter. "Lucky for me, since
money was most certainly an object. Fortunately, I love teaching, the
atmosphere, the camaraderie, minds awakening. The problem with most
adults is that their brains have ossified."
About this time he met Sara Graves, a Seattle actress and grad
student who has worked for him as a model for years. "Sometimes,
traditions work - here's a beautiful, bright, engaging woman and the
simple fact is that in painting her she inspired me to return to the
figure, to start asking that key visual question - what do we really
experience being in a room with someone, emotionally, analytically,
temporally. Giacometti got farther than almost anyone in this." Prof. Ann
Gale at the University of Washington was a major influence.
Bollenbach works at different speeds, learning to follow where the
painting "must" go. "I realize how archaic, almost romantic that sounds
in an environment of endless Pop regurgitations and cute conceptual
jokes. But when it stops feeling true I'll stop doing it. "
Yet Bollenbach considers himself contemporary. "Some of the better
painters today don't work with paint: James Turrell, Gary Hill. But
they have the same attentiveness to material, to space, to emotional specificity
and to the implication of infinity which I believe the most powerful
artwork depends on. "
Painting has spent decades now digesting Pop, but it's Pop that feels
antiseptic, even cynical, despite the tidal wave of visual energy coming
from popular visual culture. " While absurdly rich with a blizzard of
images, The visual world is often pop, cold, uncritical, anti-poetic,
often deliberately anti-humanistic. Our culture has become a marketing
culture- we sing most often about products, we make most of our images
about them, we dance about products, we think internally in products. We
live in marketing culture to the point that our identities erode.
This is a disaster, and I'm in the resistance."
In contrast, "the painter that moves me most now is probably Anselm
Kiefer, his towering ambition, his way of incorporating all the
rigorous conceptual experimentation of Josef Beuys back into what
amounts to classical painting and sculpture, and his ability to cut his
way through stuff to "Heaven and Earth."
"Which has me experimenting now with sculpture - as long as it
involves specific spatial relationships and an implication of occupied
infinity, it feels like painting to me. " But he stresses that painting
is art only as long as it makes art. "My only problem with new media
has been the quality- which, I'm delighted to say, is rapidly improving.
And by quality, I don't mean professional sheen- I mean substantive
exploration of human imagination and experience, using the media chosen
as a the tool of discovery."
Jamie Bollenbach lives in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Washington and keeps a studio at 1148 NW Leary in Ballard.
original images copyright 1998- 2011 by Jamie Bollenbach.
reserved. Reproduction with attribution only by written request.)