In the advertising photography world, it takes a team to envision and to execute a shoot from start to finish. Sometimes this rings true in the fine art world as well. RIAD speaks with a two fine-artists who embraced the idea of collaboration and grew artistically as a result. Rebecca Norton of New York and Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe of Los Angeles, AKA Awkward X 2, crossed paths in a university setting with the defined roles of teacher and student. As their paths converged, roles flipped and folded, and evolved in to the collaborative force we see today. The two artists challenge their personal techniques, concepts, and talent to share a synergetic vision, breeding a final result that is complex in its undertaking, yet simple in its beauty.
RR: Can you describe your personal artistic endeavors and how you got started ?
RN: There have been many ideas and experiences that have shaped my development up to the present. I first considered painting as a career when at 20 and attending the University of Louisville as a painting major.It was there that I first explored the pursuit of collaboration.
During my last year in undergrad I volunteered my time teaching art to Carol Cooley, a woman in an assisted living program. In her fifties when we met, she had suffered a head trauma at a very young age, and as a result, was paralyzed and affected her mental development. During our time together I noticed how her drawings were incorporating stories or fantasies of our friendship.
I looked at Carol’s drawings, which were crude and resembled my childhood drawings, and began exploring gestures that looked somewhat naive. I was interested in this naivety as a position important for development, vulnerable to feeling and elemental to constructing new associations and meaning.
For my BFA show, I incorporated Carol’s drawings in my paintings and included her original work in the installation of the show. It was incredible to share this moment with her, a dual exhibition that showcased our work and relationship. It was also very emotional, some people at the opening cried and others thought I made the whole thing up. Since then, I have found it important to explore my own relationships and experiences with people and places in my work, primarily because I want people to connect deeply with the work I do.
JGR: I make paintings which are meant to be about what you can’t put into words, although they are certainly sparked by content which in part can. I came to America in the first place because of seeing Barnet Newman in London and thinking I had never seen that much space before. I can still remember the sensation. My ideas about painting since that encounter (which took place in 1963) have developed but haven’t fundamentally changed. I certainly think it’s about space.
RN: I met Jeremy in 2007 at Art Center College of Design, where I received my MFA. I went into the program wanting to find beauty and truth in painting,heavy stuff I guess, and Jeremy was a great mentor during my time as a student. By the time I graduated he was saying he was learning as much from me as I was from him, which I still find hard to believe. After graduating, while assisting him, we decided to collaborate.
JGR: As Rebecca has said, we met when she came to the school in which I teach. She herself was intriguing at first, not because of what led me to suggest we collaborate, but because the work was so soulful. It is quite true that by the time she graduated she was teaching me more than I was teaching her. Rebecca is as much into complexity as I am, and the similarities and differences between our approaches and starting points were and are a blast. The affinity (to coin a phrase) between our palettes made it possible for us to think that we might make work that neither of us would on our own. As I’ve said before and say every time I get the chance, I think her saying in the MoCA interview that she thought she could ‘liven up’ my grid is a total hoot.
RR: What made you decide to collaborate?
RN: Collaboration is a fluid process for me, I enter into a collaboration when it feels right. Jeremy was painting using some moves and colors from my student work in his new work, and I was wondering what would happen to the space of his paintings if I introduced my affine compositions into them. When he asked me to collaborate I was already thinking I would want to. This is what I mean by fluid. We were both in same place at same time, and think about painting in similar ways. We also have our differences, which is important to me because I think it would be quite boring to work with someone who always agreed with my opinions and ideas.
Also, I had been wishing to collaborate for many years since my working with Carol in 2004, but such working relationships for me cannot be arranged by will alone. I tried once or twice but never found it feeling right. It was always a forced effort on my part, as in forcing myself to remain interested or find a healthy way of working with someone without it feeling like I was compromising anything. With Jeremy it felt right…not without its difficulties, of course. In fact, he has a very intense and challenging personality while at the same time is considerate and empathetic to my place as a young artist right now. Plus we laugh, a lot, which helps takes the edge off.
JGR: I don’t think I have a lot to add to Rebecca’s answer. Asking her to collaborate seemed to be a no-brainer. I have of course done scholarly/critical collaboration but the idea of working with another artist had never occurred to me. I’m into recklessness, it’s so great to be working in a way where you really don’t know what might happen next, to something you just did….
RR: How does collaborating help you grow as an artist ?
RN: Working with another person opens doors to new perspectives. When collaborating I have thoughts or ideas I might not otherwise have. It also has made me realize the strength of my vulnerability. I am sincere in my work and so pretty emotionally open, which can be hard to deal with when working so closely with another. Trust becomes a very big factor, as does honesty and understanding. Again, going back to my first collaboration, I learned I wanted to really throw myself, all of me, into my work. It’s easy to believe I am doing this when isolated and alone but in collaborating I have to face this in a very real way in real time.
Don’t miss their show, “Into the Arcane of Animation”, which runs until February 9th at the Active Space Gallery.
Norton and Rolfe also have individual and collaborative art in another not-to-be-missed group show, “Vivid Paintings” curated by Chris Haub, at Terrazzo Art Projects until February 23, 2014