To look upon the paintings of James Lavadour is to see worlds you know like your own backyard. Nevermind that you can’t place the exact peaks and drainages, that you can’t claim to have seen these exact combinations of color cast upon the Missions or Beartooths. These are landscapes we Montanans know by heart: jagged cliffs slicing red-streaked sunset skies, cascading sheets of rain plunging from blustery clouds.
Yet James Lavadour is no Montanan. Born and raised on the Umatilla Reservation of eastern Oregon, Lavadour continues to dwell in wheat country near the base of the Blue Mountains, not far from his childhood home.
Even those peaks cannot readily be discerned in his paintings – not literally, at least.
“This is just what is going on inside my studio,” he says of the paintings.
More to the point, the images one finds on his striking canvases – a collection of which is currently on exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum – are just what is going on upon the canvas. An almost entirely self-taught artist who never attended college, Lavadour says that his paintings don’t depict landscapes; rather, they are landscapes.
Lavadour will visit Missoula for an artist’s talk on Friday, April 6, at the MAM. In advance of that visit, the Missoulian spoke with him by phone from his home in Oregon.
You are generally lumped in with landscape painters, yet your work differs fundamentally from that of most landscape artists. How do you view the work you do?
I don’t consider myself depicting or representing anything. I am nature. A painting is an event of nature, it’s not a depiction of nature. It is nature.
So when I work, I layer one layer of paint on top of another, on top of another, and the circumstances that add up are these things that we recognize. Our brains recognize them as part of the world we live in, but they’re not pictures of the world, they’re events of the world. So it stands to reason that all those things are related and that they remind us of other events and processes that are familiar, such as those processes of nature that produce the landscape around us.
Why, then, do we feel so certain that we’ve been to these places in your paintings?
I use a landscape structure: horizon line, middle-ground, foreground. You throw a stain on a paper and you discover landscapes within landscapes, because that’s the property of paint. That’s what paint does: Paint is the land. It’s the same elements. It only stands to reason that it echoes what we see around us.
I think of landscape as a structure that I hang paint on. Those events of paint add up. A painting, of itself, is not a picture; it is a series of layers upon layers. Our brain actively reads those things. Our brain tries to make sense of those things. You look at an abstract pattern and our brain says, what is it? And we associate.
Painting is not about making pictures. It’s about jumping into the great unknown and bringing back things you’ve never seen before that are good to look at. And those good things are uplifting. Every little discovery is uplifting. The whole purpose of painting, for me, is to uplift the spirit, make you feel good, give you something that is good to look at and informative of some unknown thing that you never considered before.
You credit your hiking habit for a lot of the inspiration for your approach to painting.
Yes. I was an avid hiker and early on I realized the connection between the kinetic experience of hiking and the physical experience of painting. I became aware of this microcosm-macrocosm thing, that the events happening on the land – sedimentation, hydrology, erosion – was the same as the stuff happening with paint on the canvas.
Given that you feel such a connection between the constant processes of nature and the process of painting, I wonder how you ever come to feel that a painting is finished – since, after all, nature is never finished sculpting the land.
Oh, nothing I do is ever finished. It may be balanced, but it’s never finished. It’s like saying the world around us is finished. Rocks slide off a cliff, new things happen.
I’m working on maybe 100 paintings at a time or more. So the paintings that make it out to exhibitions are really sort of gleaned from that process. Out of the 100 I’m working on, possibly 10 are exhibition-worthy. I just keep working on them. There at the Missoula Art Museum, you’re looking at a group of paintings that have been taking place over a 12-year period.
The paintings at the MAM are presented in clusters. Do you create them that way, or group them together after the fact?
I’m not creating in groups. Different events happen, different palettes, different phenomena, and as I continue to work, they begin to attract one another. Certain things come back around as I’m working, certain patterns or rhythms or compositions. They start to come back into the same vicinity, and those start to develop into genres of what I’m doing. I use those individual works to compose larger works.
It’s a process much like poetry or music, where you’re playing one against the other, color and composition and direction and event. The composed pieces – the multiple-panel grids – that is the very last thing I do out of the many paintings I’m working on. One responds to another, like one word starts to give depth and direction and meaning to another in a poem.