By Brian Goslow
In 2012, Jon Goldman began work on the “Village Portrait Project” with the end goal of digitally painting portraits of the 780 Wood’s Hole residents registered in the 2010 United States Census; he’s currently nearing portrait number 200. A portion of the series can be seen in the “At the Crossroads: Six Narratives at the Intersection of Identity and Community” exhibition that’s on view through August 28 at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, 60 Hope Lane, Dennis, Massachusetts.
Artscope managing editor Brian Goslow “cornered” Goldman via email in June in gathering material for his preview of the exhibition; his story can be seen in our July/August 2016 issue. Here’s their email exchange, in full:
WHY HAS THIS BEEN AN IMPORTANT PROJECT FOR YOU?
“Community” is an abstraction which can become animate when you engage with an environment outside of your studio. I am attracted to many things when I approach the practice of creating a large-scale work. History and site specificity have always had serious underpinnings to what I create.
Specific to history, my works have always had a subtext of meaning and often it is a reflection on the natural world around me. My earliest large-scale helium inflatable work for example, like ‘hydra,’ concerned the active water body of the Charles River in Boston and the microscopic creatures that live therein. It is also an artistic delving into metaphor and meaning about all that surrounds that work. Hydra as a scientifically examined creature, but also the mythic interpretations of Heracles and his labor with the Lernean Hydra. For me, that work is about taking kinetic sculpture and giving it a sense that it is alive.
With the ‘Village Portrait Projects,’ I was continuing an image-based work to “build community” that I did in 2012 called ‘Occupy Santa (you can view it at https://vimeo.com/35721900). I had 80 inflatable Santa costumes, from a previous life, and wanted to distribute them to strangers around the holiday season. There was a proviso: you had to wear the costume together with all of the other inflated Santa wearers and pose for a group picture. What ensued was a kind of participatory performance and a subsequent short film about what Santa and consumerism had come to mean. But there was an instant community of mostly strangers, that came together out of a sense of irreverence. The opportunity to be silly, in a very non-silly world became a momentary glimpse into “belonging.”
I am profoundly inspired by Robert Smithton’s idea of the “non-site” in which he describes not only a specific piece, but a quasi-theoretical concept of representation; he says: “To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three dimensional picture which doesn’t look like a picture. … A logical intuition can develop in an entirely “new sense of metaphor” free of natural of realistic expressive content. Between the actual site in the Pine Barrens and The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance.”
Building on ‘Occupy Santa,’ I began to think how I could expand this idea of capturing community using imagery. Again, I looked to the history and found many remarkable instances of an artistic tradition of recording Place through its inhabitants. I began to imagine: what does MY village look like? The village is the building block of society, and as I live in one (we all do to some extent) I figured I would examine that place I call home in a way that I could communicate not only who made up the village, but how it looks through portraiture painted on a computer.
In the Western oil painting tradition that I learned, it is one thing to paint portraits (even self-portraits), but a rarer thing still — to think on the grander scale — of that something larger than the self—has held a very interesting place in the canon of portrait. In other words, I would not be adding anything to that enormous canon if it were random portraits and a self-portrait here and there. So I began to think on a village scale.
I looked at the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 records for permanent residents of Woods Hole, Massachusetts and found the number 781. As an ambitious benchmark, I would set out to paint that number, but with the intent, again, of having them ALL assembled together. Currently in 3rd year and painting #195 I am slowly making my way through to my target.
But it is important to me to be part of a larger tradition, and yet to be saying something fresh. Gustav Courbet between 1849 and 1850 painted ‘Burial at Ornans,’ remarkable for a number of reasons, but primarily as the elevated Realism to an essential part of art history. No longer relying on actors, Courbet used real people from the burial. August Sanders, the German portrait and documentary photographer, took an equally ambitious approach to envisioning portraiture in his ‘People of the 20th Century’ specific to the German people. Here too an artist tries through a relatively new medium to produce a large body of work based on the portraits of a community.
Later too, in 1955, Paul Strand and Cesare Zavattini collaborated on a book published in 1955 documenting the Italian village of Luzzara. “Wherever I happened to be,” Strand wrote, “I sought the signs of a long partnership that give each place its special quality and create the profiles of its people…”
As a process integral to my practice as an artist, the ‘Village Portrait Project,” is a life work. It has and will continue to take years to make. It has introduced me to a community, and as the archive of the works continues, the portraits become my community. I am not going door-to-door; it is more organic than that. It begins with an iPhone image, (no glasses) that is imported into Photoshop, and with a stylus and a Cintiq touch-sensitive monitor, I actually “paint” directly on the screen, using the iPhone image as the springboard for the portrait. I paint the originals at 36 inches but they are printed as metal prints on aluminum and hung in a grid. There is no specific order to them except as they become volumes of 100 printed in limited edition books.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT THE PEOPLE OF WOOD’S HOLE AS THE PROJECT’S PROGRESSED?
Here are a few things:
Some want their image painted and some do not. I keep insisting: ‘It’s really NOT about YOU, but about the larger picture of a community. They usually remain undeterred and have insisted that their representation be removed.
As I largely suspected this is a very dynamic Village with everything from Nobel Laureates and high level scientific minds, but equally highly talented people in all fields especially artistic, nautical, fishing, musical, engineering, scholarship, education, law, activism, entrepreneurism and serious craftspeople.
There is also a repentant thief.
There was a period in the Town of Falmouth that was (and to some extent still is) a major bifurcation. It is the fallout from recent efforts to make the town energy efficient by erecting large-scale wind turbines. The placement of these large pieces of industrial equipment have impacted abutting neighbors and politically torn the town apart between those who support the turbines and those who want them removed. I began the project under this cloud of dysfunction in mind and as a springboard of trying to bring people together. Woods Hole is one of six villages, recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau.
One villager recently said when I approached him for a photo, “Not yet, because I am not sure what I want to ‘BE’ yet.” He was referring to the short identifier that follows the name and the portrait. Then he offered: “Playboy” and someone else shouted: “Bon Vivant!” Something of a treasure hunt to find when I do actually paint him.
HOW HAS YOUR WORK CHANGED SINCE YOU STARTED THE PROJECT?
Workflow, and specifically archiving has taken far more time than I imagined. But the more that I do it every day, the fast I get. It is kind of like burden on my shoulders because of the ambitious nature of the project, and I always say ‘Talk to me when I reach #350…’
The other major thing is the social media aspect of “sharing” it with an audience. The digital nature of this project kind of demands this. Sharing it is mostly a VERY positive exchange with an audience. But ‘Village Portrait Project’ exists on its own Facebook page. Usually I would be building a website for it, but this time, with a built-in audience, I just post it when it is done.
The backgrounds. After concentrating so closely on “Getting the essence” of that person’s portrait, there is something extremely fulfilling and freeing about clearing my mind and just letting the digital paint fly. Sometimes there is meaning in the backgrounds, like images from the scientific research of some of the scientists portrayed, or a water droplet for a marine salvage expert. But I feel that the backgrounds compositionally have allowed me to explore in a way I did not anticipate.
The village itself has changed since I started. People we love have passed on, some unexpectedly which also gives more impact to their image. Some of the people are not a permanent resident, but they have some part of their life connected to this place. They may work here, they may play here, they may study here they may live here. As an interpretation of “MY” village they ALL belong here.
The work has during its construction has made me think often of villages “on the move”, especially in the wake of World Refugee Crises and a growing sense of intolerance of those different from your own. This may have a long term impact on how the work will be displayed in the future. I do envision a “permanent” home at some point, but am exploring traveling it as an exhibit.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE WORK WILL TRAVEL TO A LARGER AUDIENCE?
If you mean “translate” to a larger audience, I think it will be very powerful when completed. Currently I work in my studio which is a 15’ x 25’ white room with a 20’ peaked ceiling. Once completed, EVERY surface (walls and ceilings) will be covered with the small metal prints (13.9”x 5.34” each). It will be an installation with a huge impact, a moment of joy and not a little overwhelming.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE VIEWERS TO TAKE AWAY FROM SEEING YOUR WORK?
A better understanding of the diversity of my work and with a question: “What does my VILLAGE look like? It is important to me to feel connected with the larger world. AN artist is in the communication business. If locked in his garret without an audience, he lives in Plato’s Cave. As a constant world traveler — I leave for Africa in a few days — it is critical to see that we are all connected, we are from the same stardust, so as soon as we all get on the same page, the more constructive we can be. It is the power of imagination that happens in the world of the mind, but when it gets shared, that is when the artist, through communicating with his audience, brings the magic.
“Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them, and they begin to give names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”