BS The lenses are …
JN Different grades of convex discs from hydra stone, a casting stone, which I use to construct the paintings—like petrified lenses I stack them in sequence as an analogue to motion pictures.
BS You made a film; a cement sphere rolling down a ramp …
JN In 1976, with Tim Burns. A concrete ball rolling under its own volition and the force of gravity down one of those ramps off the old West Side Highway. Letting it roll. A lot of these objects refer to natural forces light, gravity, electricity—there’s a kind of metaphysics at work.
BS I saw your woodcut of the unicorn you did for Brad Morrow’s Bestiary book.
JN “ … looking at its reflection in the pond, and wondering if it really exists …” It was the only mythological creature in the book.
BS The Owl was written as if it were.
JN The Owl was the next one I chose, and The Starling. The starling because it’s a mass of animals all acting like one; when they fly, they do so as one organism, all turning at the same time. And there’s no leader; it’s this democracy of vision not unlike the making of the lenses. According to the poet Holderlin, the sense of a lens is of life questioning or interrogating the sky.
BS They’re cast from the same mold?
JN Yes, very promiscuously.
BS I’ve seen forms in your drawings that look as if they come from motifs in nature.
JN I try to embody the nature and combine forms—it’s like one and one making three—to expose a metaphor of some kind. It’s searching for metaphors, for likeness, like a breeding ground. It seems to me, that that’s how a language develops. Everything breeds through metaphors. I think of the lenses as seeds. Indeed, the word lens comes from the word lentil. Once I have the epistemological base for metaphor, the pieces just happen in the same way that a pun might occur. It doesn’t make sense but it makes sense. It can seem flippant and facile but it can work the other way as well and reveal hidden truths. There’s something about the irreverance of the pun which frees the spirit, makes nonsense out of meaning. I try to encourage those kind of events. It’s almost as if the objects breed themselves. They get together and they …
BS They procreate.
JN Yes, and something comes out of it. Although, sometimes I wonder if these things make me, or if I make them.
BS But you still gather them.
JN I just show up …
BS … to receive them.
BS This idea of the lens and the seed …
JN I can’t remember when I first came upon it. I have cast clear ones. Do you see them, in the window, prisms and lenses? To me, they’re objects of transfromation, the transformation of physical properties—which is analogous to a transformation of the internal world. With a lens or a prism, it’s the literal remodeling of light.
BS And yet these other lenses are all opaque; the light is contained, hidden.
JN In a way yes. The first piece was completely black. There were 38 lenses and it was called 38 Blind. The other objects, forms, these wing shapes, have to do with the transformation of air into flight. Flight is a reccurring motif. There’s a sort of neutrality to these objects. They are like simple tools. It’s not uncommitted—but there’s a neutral presence. There’s no moral binder.
BS Yes, but implicit in the making is its participation in life, it seems to me. What’s that beautiful shape that looks like a magic wand over there?
JN That’s, a curious one. I’m attracted to it; it’s very beautiful, but it’s also poisonous. It’s lead. I think of it as a river, a delta staff with artesian properties. It’s very female; it’s like a certain kind of woman to me.
BS What certain kind of woman?
JN The femme-fatale.
BS Have you studied fauna, botany? (laughter) You have such a feel for those shapes.
JN No, but I read a lot of … different kinds of books. The things I get the most from, in terms of my work, are books which are raw information. Raw information is untainted in the way that it can be thrown together, fertilized, and allowed to generate.
BS There is always the sign of your hand, touch …
JN Certainly, after the eye; touch, hearing, rhythm is important to me as well, but that sense of touch is something that delights me. To me, intimacy has a very important role in the work, in that it’s the intimacies which everyone can understand. If I’m looking for a common language with which to communicate, that common language has to do with intimacies and emotions.
BS And is that dependent upon touch?
JN Not necessarily, but for me, it is. I experience the world through rhythms, like a comedian or an actor—timing is …
BS … Everything. (laughter) But yours is more of a visual timing. When the color stops, when the shape changes, is a more concrete, visceral …
JN Yes, there is a rhythm in the image, there’s also a rhythm in the making of it, the activity. I can hear the paintings . There is a film of Picasso drawing on a piece of glass in the reverse, and the beauty of it was that you could hear the work being made CRICCCK, chli, chli, chli, the sounds I hear sounds when I work, (Brushstrokes?) No, music, sounds … . For me it’s absolutely essential. One of the things that I have to do, as an artist, is clear the channels and let it happen. If I start to think that it’s me making it. I’m in trouble. I think it’s very presumptuous to think that I was responsible for it, fundamentally. This is tricky territory.
BS Your work has always had thread, a sameness, which has to do with your touch. And yet, in this wonderfully uninhibited way, it’s always been able to change, drastically. I saw Haunted Summer last night. It’s a fiction about Shelley and Byron, but it uses some of their texts. Byron says, “The only thing eternal is change.”—I’d been thinking about the word chameleon in relation to your work. I’ll read this to you. “A small lizard-like creature distinguished by … their power of changing the color of the skin through varying shades of yellow, red, gray, brown, and dull inky blue. From their inanimate appearance, and power of existing for long periods without food, they were formerly supposed to live on air.”
JN What a lovely creature. As far as changing and adapting, that’s one of the basic tenets of survival for any creature. It could also mean to be a little windblown and uprooted, which I’ve been in my life: but as an artist, I have to follow those callings, check them out and resolve them. Sometimes it’s resolved very quickly, on just a little piece of paper and other times it takes a series of paintings. I like that chameleon, it’s like the bamboo, which is my favorite plant. it bends; it has some give to it. What a supremely spiritual creature, that he survives on air. Air is very tangible, as tangible as objects. (turning on a light) Does that blind you, that light?
BS If I look into it.
JN Let’s keep it dark.
BS Yes, I like this twilight.
JN I’d like to talk about my last show in a way which refers to my work as a whole; which is my sense of history and it tying in to the past. I’m totally drawn by the past, drawn back in time. Henri Michaux talks about the poet’s job being to feel his way, blindfolded along the golden thread that finds its way inexhorably back in time; to return with what he finds.
BS The shapes that look like found objects—the fossils.
JN Yes, that stuff draws me back, in the same way physicists search for the beginnings of things, or anthropologists search for where we come from. Those kinds of questions which in a sense, are rather ludicrous, pointless questions to ask.
BS Well, they’re so grand, it seems you can’t get to them. So you start in smaller places.
JN To resolve the present I have to look backwards, in terms of discovering who I am. I’m thinking about interior work: looking back at yourself, human past, knowledge—wherever the hell we come from. In my last show, the piece with the glass shelf and the blue TV screens alternating with clear lenses is called Scarab. The Egyptians thought the scarab beetle pushed the sun through the sky. He saw the scarab beetle rolling its bail of dung in front of it and so the scarab became the sacred creature that for all intents and purposes pushed the sun through the sky. And I’m sure the Egyptian mind believed that … . I was going to call the piece Suspicion. Because while I thought the TVs looked like scarabs—there is much suspicion among most thinking people concerning the use of television, for instance, the dubious broadcasting of the news. And the lens was treated with suspicion when it first came out. Spectacle makers were regarded as being distorters of the truth. It was considered to be interfering with God’s work. Philosophically, the Church regarded the whole idea of the lens revealing deeper truths about the universe by exposing things that are so small and making them big enough to see, or allowing us to get close to things that were so far away—with fear and disdain. And to complete the cycle in that piece of work, the idea of the scarab pushing the sun through the sky is certainly treated with suspicion by contemporary us.
BS And the wing shapes, standing vertically?
JN As in air foils. The Adena has one wing or foil like a digit on the hand there are five wings, each one corresponding to a finger. There was a tribe of American Indians whose last known trace is the 5th or 6th century, BC … after that these people just disappeared off the face of the earth, which is something that intrigues me. The only extant record of this entire tribe are these images of men with their hands turned into wings.
BS You are attracted to things that no longer exist?
JN I’m intrigued by mystery—I’m attracted to things that aren’t what they seem to be. I really don’t believe in permanence; I’m very aware of the fragility of our existence. And I certainly believe in man’s ability to totally obliterate another culture without regret. I wanted to pay tribute to … so that’s The Adena. The next wing piece, The Sound, is seven foils standing vertically, which plays on the idea of sound coming (James picks up a tuning fork and claps it) from the displacement of air. I made it in Long Island over the summer; and it looks like those sailboats off of Long Island Sound. Kind of a joke.
BS A resonant pun, or a resident pun.
JN And then the big black painting. Seeds of Light: seeds of knowledge, the staple seed—a spiritual sustenance and nutrient—light. The big white painting, Plow, alludes to the idea of planting light into darkness, planting knowledge into the pigments: the lens, seeds, knowledge—used as a tool to churn the earth. The silver metallic painting with the horizontal copper quills. The Inoculations, is another of my hybrid objects which is a cross between a pen and a sword, a hypodermic syringe. Literally it’s a cooper pipe that I cut at an angle and put an eye shaped oval into. Inoculation translates literally into “inoculare—to put an eye into.”
BS Grafting metaphors.
JN It’s like grafting, exactly, which implies a new branch of life; the capilliary feed; in the pen paralleling the capilliary drinking action in the tree. So, inoculation. Inoculation against disease. By seeing, by putting an eye into it, we immunize ourselves against its destructive power.
BS Once a revelation has taken place …
JN Yes. Also, they were dipped in ink—the ink on the pen is the same as …
BS … The blood on the sword …
JN … or the immunizing fluids, or the sexual juices. When you graft, you shove it into the tree and you paint it with bitumen to seal it, like wounding and healing.