A Conversation with James Gortner

As we celebrate 4 years of Silence Is Accurate (SIA), I’ve been reading the interviews I conducted and wrote about the incredible visual artists who were at the beginning of this journey. As they continue to change the world with their works, it’s interesting to look back to what seems a lifetime ago and revisit their projects.

“Art cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be transformed.” — James Gortner

Mana Contemporary is an awe dropping 1.5 million square feet warehouse of creativity. It hosts studios of talents such as James Gortner.

James has a tranquil enigmatic aura which spills into his stories and teachings.

He warned me that he tends to ramble while talking about his work, however what he may think is rambling, is actually the unfolding of the careful thought process behind each and every detail of his work. Revealing the incredible amount of passion he puts into each of his paintings.

The back storage area of his studio keeps dozens of his paintings which each have a captivating journey.

During our conversation, James gave a quick lesson on tarot cards, explained his process as well as the trust needed when letting other artists, such as Kara Walker, work on his paintings…


I grew up always drawing and building things. I never saw any actual art but my own until much later. I was exposed from an early age to natural science and history museums. Art was cut out of the LA unified public school district programming. [Only] later, when I was in private high school I was taken on my first trip to an art museum. Bussed to LACMA to see the once in a lifetime Picasso exhibition (I think Guernica was there). Unimpressed, I cut out early with friends to get McDonald’s. I’ve done penance for this in my adult life, now having frequented many of the world’s best art museums.

I am emerging! I just love the sound of that. Determining that is a balance of chosen-ness by others and personal ego. How others see you and how you see yourself. I had a solo show across the street from the Gagosian Gallery when Jeff Koons was soloing last year. Showing on 24th St. Next to Mary Boone, Jack Shainman, Andrea Rosen etc. placed me in proximity to the establishment. The fact that most media huge collectors and such cared somewhat less about my show than Koons makes me emerging. Hope that helps.

Artistically I always want to be in a state of becoming. I think that big name artists still have a choice to participate in the art world and continue to emerge. It seems some don’t feel that way.


I am a painter and theorist. I make layered paintings that incorporate oil, acrylic and mixed media- including found objects and the semblances of other artists’ paintings.

I don’t believe artists (even myself) fully create art. We facilitate a work of art momentarily, and then it moves on. It’s a non-static ever changing thing or things before and after our involvement. Creation of art is a continuous string going on both before and after artist. When I participate in that kind of transformation, it’s in order to help others see things. [I recognize myself in my work], identity is a complex. It’s nice when a viewer feels the same way.

When I receive or experience a certain amount of transcendence from a work of art throughout my time with it, I know it will succeed because if I can feel it, someone else will feel it. Its energy is sustainable.

During a conversation with Joan Mitchell, Yves Michaud is quoted as saying something along the lines of ‘A painting is not completed unless it’s looked at’. Do you agree

Slight change to that: a painting is not continued until it’s looked at. I believe a painting is never completed. First because it’s always decomposing on a molecular level-so it’s not staying the same. This question touches on a second reason why a painting is never completed. Because it’s meaning and context (two things inextricable from a work of art) are always changing due to where it is, and who is viewing it. Art continues. I have my strongest mystical experience to date with piece. The subject eclipses object and I wouldn’t move paint after that.


I’ve often set it as a goal to make a painting that looks and feels as patchwork as NYC. Even before coming here I wanted to make just such an expanded authorship taking place over long intervals of time as NYC seems- both up close and from afar. It’s my muse. A tiny model of the universe. One that no one person or thing could have created alone. [Some NY gems are] The Rubens Museum on 17th, the Cloisters Museum at the top of Manhattan. Barucha College library gallery. I took a lot of inspiration there for the frames I built.

[The NY art community] seems the biggest community of its kind and while there is no central location, there are a few good hubs to meet and see art: Chelsea, LES, LIC. And the many museums. I connect with it by showing my art, and viewing others art. Even if only online via social media. Pick any era [in NY] and my work would have somehow fit in. It would have somehow been odd as well. It’s both those things now. Both assimilates into art historical trends including the Contemporary as well as holds an intensely weird esoteric position.

When I came to New York on a visit I was leaving by train to the airport for home when the train came above ground and I saw an expanse of cemeteries like I had never seen before. I felt a strong desire to go off the train, curl up in the frosted earth, and not make my flight. Stay there. It was a day fantasy. I did not leave the train, I caught my flight.

When I moved to Brooklyn a year later I started running through some nearby cemeteries. I found a derelict building there that seemed to be calling me into it. There was strange dream catcher like structures in its broken out windows. There was a woman outside calling “Brenda! Brenda!”

I thought who is “Brenda”? I met her and not long after that, I noticed it. Looking up as a city train clanked above and past. This was the place where the train came above ground. This is where I wanted to be one year earlier.

I worked in this place, with these people who I painted for 2 years.

I will say that such a colorful life seemed ‘normal’ to me then, but seems in retrospect more crazy now.

Working in the cemetery building and Santeria ille in a part of the city unofficially called “Darkside” has been instrumental, but seems far away from me now.

If you could be an artist in NY during any era, which would you pick

Pick any era for me. My work would have somehow fit in. It would have somehow been odd as well. It’s both those things now. Both assimilates into art historical trends including the Contemporary as well as holds an intensely weird esoteric position.

Near the end of his career, Rothko, abandoned all attempts at responding to those who inquired after the meaning and purpose behind his paintings. Finally responding that silence is ‘so accurate’. How would you describe the meaning and purpose behind your work?

Helping build a visual language that balances the laws of the natural universe into harmony with those of the human ego. Inspiring others to find their own purpose, inside of this artwork and inside of their lives.

[January, 2015]

Images by Ashley Gallerani


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