NATHAN HAENLEIN’s graphite drawings of old ladies at slot machines, the willingly-hypnotized, car engines and snow storms use the geographic region of the Rust Belt as a container for exploring universal ways of coping with the life’s difficulties. His gel pen drawings, on the other hand, employ an arbitrary analog system that leads to complex, colorful patterns. The underlying connection for these disparate ways of drawing is an investigation of patience and repetition. Nathan received his MFA from the University of Iowa in 2002 and is currently a professor at Sonoma State University. His work has been included in Shifter magazine (2006 and 2009) and the forthcoming international drawing annual Manifest (2014). He has had solo exhibitions at Visalia Art Center (2008), Cleveland's now defunct Exit Gallery (2006) and The Ridderhof Martin Gallery (2003) at Mary Washington College. His work is included in the group exhibition Deadpan (the art of the expressionless), which closes on December 7, 2013, at Whitdel Arts (Detroit) and in a juried solo exhibition at the online exhibition site Gallery Gray. Nathan lives and works in Santa Rosa, California.
OtherPeoplesPixels: What do the seemingly unrelated subjects of your meticulous graphite drawings have in common?
This body of work began with the collapse of our economy in 2008, the
bankruptcy of GM and subsequent bailout by the government. I was raised
in Michigan and Ohio. The majority of my family was employed or
benefited from the auto industry. I was distracted by what I read and
heard in the news and the reality of the people living through the
lowest point in an economy that had been below the national average
for decades. My graphite drawings are broken into conceptual subgroups
that expose the complexity of a geographic area and the varying
possibilities of experience.
The willingly-hypnotized are a metaphor for the Rust Belt. For years, the people in this area watched as economies constricted and changed their cities. Works depicting food, vice and escape shine a spotlight on how we cope. Additionally, the drawings elicit a small amount of shame followed by guilt. These feelings are powerful motivators that can cause either change or stagnation. The factory and its products are the gems in my work. I focus on the product and how they make it. I think of them as science and the genius of engineering. Lastly, the environment is always present. The weather and landscape shape a community. I am interested in natural beauty and the human impulse to control it.
OPP: Are the human subjects in your drawings individuals or are they just symbols of unwavering consumption? Do you relate to them or feel compassion for them?
NH: The human subjects in my drawings are archetypes. Since I have lived in California for ten years, I have become more and more removed from the day-to-day experiences I have taken on in my work. I purposefully avoid the use of friends and family as subjects. The distance, both physical and personal, allows me to build a narrative without conflict. I am absolutely empathic to the individuals in my work. I come to them with a sense of loss and hope to somehow elevate them from struggle. I take extreme care and patience producing the drawings. I am at times conflicted about the act of consumption. Why we consume and how what we consume shapes our personal economies, class and perceived wellness. Where does this lead us?
OPP: What are your thoughts on patience and repetition in the digital age?
NH: As I answer these questions for the blog of the company that hosts my website, the obviousness of the digital age is too apparent. It sounds moot to use the term, but the speed of change has an impact on how I work and experience art in general. I fall victim to the constant distraction that technology affords. My studio practice is a counterbalance to these distractions.
Since childhood I have been a model of impatience; my daily life is a battle of impulse control. These struggles have led me to hone my working habits. There are now long periods of exaggerated patience. I have yet to understand my ability to focus completely on the production of art works. Additionally, the daily act of working satisfies my compulsions/obsessions and brings about a state of equilibrium. I am curious about the act of repetition. Whether it is revisiting the same ideas or repeating the same physical exercise, this need for repetition in our lives somehow reflects the human condition in a non-narrative way. What propels these acts and thoughts?
OPP: In my opinion, it's about a spiritual need. Repetition involves a way of comprehending the world that is beyond the intellect, especially when it includes a physical act, an embodied motion. Through physical repetition, anxiety can be transformed into presence. So when you say that your studio practice is a counterbalance to the distractions of speediness and technology, I think about meditation, which is about coming back to the body and to the present moment. Is it a stretch to call your studio practice a meditation practice?
NH: It would be a stretch to call my practice meditation. I think of meditation—which I have been advised to utilize by professionals—as an internal space of absolute calm, a way to remain still both physically and mentally, and recharge. While my studio work is very repetitive, it is wrought with a constant stream of thoughts and urges I tamp down in order to produce the work. I find the finished art works have a richness that comes from forced patience and this internal battle. Lastly, I think you answered my question on what propels these acts and thoughts, and I will adopt the idea of repetition transforming anxiety into presence.
OPP: Quad Drawings, a series of geometric, gel pen drawings, and your resin and enamel paintings from 2006 are stylistically different from the realistic, graphite drawings? What made you decide to unite these two styles as postcards in 2011?
NH: The Quad Drawings and resin works grew together in my studio, informing each other and allowing me to formally investigate a two dimensional plane. All of the quad works began with a detailed plan before entering the studio. I focused on color and a mathematical system similar to knitting or crochet to create the compositions. Additionally, this detailed plan was an analog system, quoting the vector software used to produce the resin work. I was interested in building a three dimensional illusion simply by my counting and color choice. After years of counting, color testing and sitting still, filling in rectangular boxes, I became dubious of my intent and started to question whether these drawings were fulfilling my need as an artist.
In 2008, I simply put down the gel pen and cleaned my brushes. I needed a new challenge. I was no longer able to ignore my needs for a concrete narrative in my work. I made rules: no color, no counting, be descriptive and simplify my tools. The graphite drawings are the result of these new rules. They are visually completely different, but the planning and execution of the drawings mirrored the quad works. The tedium of my practice started to take its toll on my production, and slowly I began to break these rules. My intent in the postcards was to give myself a break from a rigid system that didn’t/doesn’t allow any play or improvisation in the production. Soon I had made over 50 new small pieces, and my daily practice was consumed by working on the postcards. I still don’t know if this is a bridge of the two bodies of work, but I continue to produce these small works.
OPP: Your newest body of work is a series of paintings of repeated racquetball instructions. The text reads like an advertisement, encouraging the constant striving to be better that advertising always capitalizes on. Stylistically, the work evokes psychedelic concert posters from the 60s. When I Googled you, I found that you have a racquetball player profile and ranking, so obviously you have some experience with the game. How did this body of work grow out of your personal experience? Is racquetball a metaphor in this work?
NH: There is an apparent under-current of obsession in all of my work. I am obsessed with racquetball. It keeps me up at night. I replay matches in my head and focus on points where I could have made better decisions. I decided to make a gouache painting of the growing list of things I need to work on. Before I knew it, I had made eight. I photographed the courts I played on, digitally printed them on fine art paper and painted the list directly on the court. My initial intent was to become a better player, but soon these paintings started to reflect a larger narrative of my daily experience.
game for me is a metaphor for control. The paintings let me impart my
will on the game. While making these paintings, I began to look at
vintage GM ads and the promises of a better life through Chevy. These
absolutes are mirrored in my lists. I have never shown the list
paintings, but for some reason I decided to put them on my website. I
still read the list before each match. And I have enjoyed answering this
OPP: What about the experience of flow? Do you feel it more on the racquetball court or in your studio?
NH: Again, I am enjoying these questions too much!! I believe there is a time when flow in the studio happens. It is so elusive, here then gone, and only recognized days later that it occurred. But to link my obsessive hobby/sport with my professional practice is giving me too much credit as a racquetball player. My studio is a place of ideas and actions converging into objects. Also, the underlying structure of my studio practice hinges on current conceptual concerns for the project at hand. Whatever the content, it is the impetus for making the work. Racquetball on the other hand can be a metaphor in my work, but it doesn’t go both ways for me. I can remember a NBA finals game when Michael Jordan scored an insane amount of points in the first half, and the announcers proclaimed he was in a place of “flow." I guess my point is that flow comes to the truly invested and focused regardless of the endeavor. I have not reached that yet in racquetball.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is on view at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) until December 6, 2013, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.