Art : Interview

Whiz Kid: Xylor Jane

by Mack McFarland

Away from the classroom and into the gallery space! Xylor Jane proves that artists get A’s in math, too.


Xylor Jane, Snow Globe for Roman Opalka 0-99, 20 × 24 inches, Oil on wood panel, 2011. Courtesy of a private collection in New York.

Xylor Jane’s oil paintings are regiments of colorful dots, laid out in psychedelic grids and spirals. Working with systems of counting, such as palindromic prime numbers or Julian Day numbers, she develops a visual cadence on the panel. The rhythms she creates with the dots hide the figures with which she is working; buried in the negative space are sevens, threes, and eights. Standing too far away, the viewer loses sight of the numbers, too close and it’s all bits of color.

Jane blends the approaches of Pointillism, Op art, and Conceptualism, arriving at works which spike the synapses in our visual cortex and dazzle the mind. I had the pleasure of catching up with Jane at the close of her two-person exhibition Xylor Jane and B. Wurtz (curated by Arnold J. Kemp) and with a solo exhibition just around the corner, opening in New York this May at CANADA.

Mack McFarland Your works are so complex, I’d love to hear how you begin. Mock-ups on paper? Or on the computer?

Xylor Jane Many times I start with an idea. For example, a rainbow crossing a rainbow. And it percolates for a time. Then I do a bunch of 8.5 × 11 sketches until it starts to formulate. The Pythagorean triangles were sketched for two years before I could get them to do something systematic that could be a painting. One of my rules is there cannot be too much layout required. I also grid and mark columns/rows. The first color, usually red. If a ton of layout is needed then it should be a drawing, not a painting. So maybe I have an idea of what the painting will do optically, but the translation from small drawing in ink to oil on panel is limiting. And often the paintings are done one color at a time so their evolution is profound. Most of the time they change their mind and demand major adjustments. I do not use a computer, except for email. I think they wish I would. I keep a flip-book of color xeroxes of all the paintings to ensure ideas are not repeated. That has happened, it’s a drag to get two-thirds through a painting and realize I have already done this.

MM And then could you tell me how you work them? Flat, or the wall? A desktop magnifier, jeweler’s monocle?

XJ I ground and grid flat, then the panels go on the wall with the sketches and notes taped nearby. I wear high-powered lenses (plus-fives) to do the painting at less than a foot away so I can really see the quality of each dot.

MM I still have this memory of seeing you for the first time, I was coming into the gallery, and you were about two inches away from your painting Culled, examining it with a magnifying glass you had around your neck. Do you recall what you were looking at or for?

XJ I was examining the grid. It was drawn with graphite. Recently I have expanded my use of the grid beyond utility, so I was curious to take a close look at one from 2007.

MM You mentioned how nice it was to see the works again that are in this exhibition, all of which we borrowed from collectors. Could you talk about that, what you may have found or what was brought back to you from seeing them?

XJ First, I was pleased to see that paintings from five different series hang well together. And next that they are in good shape and the materials aren’t degrading, and it’s great to see each of them for other reasons. VCX stripped (Via Crucis X Stripped) is the first Pythagorean triangle painting I made, I am working on the sixth one using this triangle. Each painting has used a different method of rotation of the hexagon (unit of six) triangles. The orientation is based on the sixth row. Via Crucis X Stripped employs the idea of spiraling spirals. The new one, #6, tessellates in three dimensions, flips and flops. This translates to tossing and turning in the Nox Rex series (28 paintings began in 2010, paintings are hatched during the wee hours of 3:07 AM until five-something). With Gates I have been promising myself to paint it on a white ground for several years, so standing in front of it I renewed my vow.

MM Have you kept any works for yourself?

XJ I have many drawings I kept for myself, my favorites and some of the best and some that were important in my development. I have a few paintings stored in the attic from before I got with CANADA. Sometimes I paint one with the notion it is for me; it’s a ploy.

MM I am curious about the titles of your works. Some have titles that reference death, your last two shows at CANADA were Dying Every Day and N.D.E. for example, and Arnold’s essay pointed out to me the connection of your Via Crucis series to Barnett Newman’s fourteen paintings titled, The Stations of the Cross, a story ending in death and rebirth. Some others are connected more to the numerology your mining, such as 727 Digit Tetradic Prime. How important are the titles for you? And at what point do they come?

XJ Each series is titled; that provides a solid working structure to explore a theme. The 11 N.D.E. paintings were based on the most universal aspects reported by people who had had a near-death experience. For example Gates is life flashing before your eyes. That series included a bridge, a bright light, a presence, a tunnel, a warmth, etc., and I did an infant N.D.E. and a whole family dying together. Death is on my mind. I am also really into time. Some say they are pretty much the same thing.

The Via Crucis series is the 14 Stations of the Cross. I am familiar with them from my first five years in Catholic Church. I saw Barnett Newman’s about ten years ago at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and thought, geez, someday I am going to do a set. And I was so psyched to start them after my show N.D.E. in 2009. I am committed to doing #5 again each year. That was the most difficult one for me, Peter helping Jesus Christ. VC V 2011 is a total flop. The 727 digit tetradic (four-way palindrome) prime 1818181 is a very special number; a Sophie Germain Prime—meaning 2x+1—equals another Sophie Germain Prime. I am working on the tenth painting of it. I thought I would stop at eight and made that one all summer and fall. It’s big with a red ground, epic. The first one was VC IV-DOJ 2009. Usually each painting is titled and numbered within the series. The paintings begin with working titles that are shaped by their conception. Sometimes they stick, many times their names change through time because the paintings take so long to make they get nicknames as they reveal.

MM In Via Crucis IV, there is the add-on (Hi Mom) to the title, is that the reference to that Station of the Cross, (which has now been removed in the revamp of the stations by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI)? Or to one of my favorite films of the same title by Brian De Palma?

XJ Station #4 is Jesus Christ meeting Mary (his mother) on the road to Calvary. So: “Hi Mom.” And thanks for the film tip, I haven’t seen that one. I love cinema and don’t see many comedies.

MM I am always interested in what gallery preps, registrars, or curators are privy to, that viewers are less likely to experience. Such as the other artist in the show, B. Wurtz, whose sculptures include blue ballpoint pen drawings on the bottom of them that explain how the work’s multiple parts come together to form the piece. On the back of your paintings you often have something written that seem to hint to the math or method of the composition. On the back of 12.11.10 is written, “2,455,542, Julian Days, minus 29, 53 in rows of 1,000 reflected four ways painted in one direction.” Can you tell me about these hidden texts?

XJ I write the composition notes on the back for reference. I usually have the notes available during an exhibition for anyone interested in more info. They include the number sequence and the system. For instance 12.11.10 is the date of a Julian day number palindrome—2,455,542— that is a full moon. So this painting lists the full moons of my life by Julian day number and is composed in quadruple reflection.

MM I want to ask you a question you asked of Tauba Auerbach in an interview you did with her that I loved: “What is your studio success/failure ratio?”

XJ Last year, 2011, the failure rate was the highest ever—one in seven ideas succeeded. Even more were rejected prior to execution.

MM Do you have a favorite number? Or color?

XJ 5, 7, Yellow, Yellow, Yellow. Violet.

Xylor Jane’s solo exhibition, titled 3:07AM, will open at CANADA May 6th 2012.

Mack McFarland is the curator for the Feldman Gallery and Project Space at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. He is also an artist who creates his home in Portland, OR. McFarland has been quoted as saying, “Wherever I am, I’m making.” His post-studio mantra has taken him to archives, karaoke microphones, canoes, and into his studio.

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