NATHANIEL LANCASTER
with Kim Rae Taylor

Your paintings demonstrate you're comfortable exploring both figurative and abstract forms. In one of your most recent works, Thomas Contemplates a Major Purchase, these two approaches combine. Is this the direction of your current work? Could you describe your process, how you navigate between figurative representation and abstraction?

I don't make any distinction between abstraction and representation in my work. I don't consider myself beholden to either. They're both painting. It's all mark making. The work is based on how those marks were made. Do they build up to make a face? A recognizably distinct image or a flat tonal variation? The marks serve the concept of the image the artist is creating. What is needed in one painting will differ from what another needs based upon the artist's desired effect. As I make work, I use whatever tools are required to execute my idea. 

As for direction, my current work will always be informed by the previous work. Currently it's just a bunch of ideas, and I'm looking forward to getting started on them.

I appreciate that you acknowledge the role of mark making in executing your paintings. You mention the use of "whatever tools are required" and I wondered if you could elaborate on that... do you use unconventional tools as part of your mark-making process?

I don't necessarily use the word "tools" in the context of applying paint to a canvas. I’m referring to a broad sense of items/capabilities/programs that will let my communication be the most successful in any given project. This could mean a camera, a computer, a certain process that I don't normally initiate. For some artists, I see how limiting oneself to a predetermined criteria might be useful, but I am looking to continually grow my studio practice by exploring new processes.

I see a lot of your older paintings incorporate text. I can make out some of the words, but they're primarily illegible. I think most viewers would typically consider the figurative forms to be the primary subject matter, yet somehow the text disrupts this perception, even functioning as negative space. Could you describe how this came about, especially in the context of what you explained regarding figurative and abstract forms? How important is the text's message in each painting? I'm also curious to know if you've worked in graphic design? 

When I started school, I originally decided to be a graphic designer so I would have the support system of "a job" after I graduated. After going down this path for several years, I realized that although I enjoyed the practice of design, I did not want to be a working graphic designer. That's when I decided to spend the rest of my time in school painting and exploring other ways of making art.

The text serves several functions. I normally come up with titles before any imagery. My sketchbooks are mostly writing instead of sketches. The text across some of the older works are also the actual titles of the pieces. It serves as an erasure of the actual image while trying to determine what imagery is actually important to get the idea across. I also like the duality of erasing visual information, so the negative space is actually adding more visual information for the viewer to decipher by the inclusion of the text.  It’s a literal visual reading, in a way.

Could you elaborate more on what you described about the titles preceding the actual painting? And if it's not too personal, could you discuss what you write about in your sketchbooks? 

It all stems from college and having a kind of artists block, and not being sure of what I wanted to make images of or what might be interesting. So, instead of trying to come up with an image or a composition, I decided to invert the process and try a new way to work. It seems that is now the way I operate seventy five percent of the time.

As for the writing, it's not as if I sit down and actually write in my sketchbook. It's normally tossed off one-liners and the like, punch lines for untold jokes and random strung-together words to make a phrase. 

Did Thomas Contemplates a Major Purchase begin as a title? In looking at this painting in the context of the preceding paintings, it has an unexpected sense of levity. It's as if Thomas broke through the blocks of color and abstractions to spontaneously appear, almost like a super hero.  

Yes, that is one of the writings that appeared from somewhere. For a long time I have tried to make my work have a sense of tongue-in-cheek silliness to it. Although that might not be apparent to every viewer, I at least am aware of my intentions! Not that I don't think there are serious topics behind some of the paintings, but I like a little humor. 
More recently though, I have become interested in a renewed sense of history, or focus on the sense of place within the work. That might have been where "Thomas" came from? That is definitely the case with some commissions I'm finishing up at the moment and will probably play a part in upcoming work.

Are you able to share anything about the commissions you're working on right now?

I am finishing up work for a restaurant opening in Charleston towards the end of September. It's called 5Church and there is already a location here in Charlotte where I live. I have completed some work in that location, along with other artists based here. It's a couple of historically themed portraiture types of work along with another larger piece that is similar to a different work that I did for the Charlotte location.

You speak about history playing a role within your work, so I thought this would be a good time to ask about your own history. How old were you when you realized you wanted to be an artist? Did art play an important role in your childhood?

Well, I never actually planned to be a fine artist/painter. The plan was to go into graphic design, but as I progressed in my studies, I realized I didn't want to be a practicing graphic designer. That's when I switched my focus to painting, though I still never thought I would actually be a working artist. I figured I would probably just get some job that I was pretty much uninterested in and punch a clock every day.

I don't think there was ever a moment when I said, "Well, now I'm going to be an artist." I just remember always doing something. My parents both studied art in college and there were always supplies around the house to mess around with. I think I always showed some talent as well and have tried to nurture that over time.

Who are some of your favorite artists? Are there any in particular who have had a significant influence on the direction of your work?

If I had to pick a few that were probably the most influential, at least in the beginning, I would have to say that I really loved Rauschenberg and Johns, along with Jenny Saville and Basquiat. But these days I'm so happy to be surrounded by fantastic friends, local and otherwise, who I can check out all the time. Plus, the Internet is now one of the greatest resources outside of seeing work in person in order to be able to keep up with what's happening. There's a trove of great websites, such as this one, to help people find new and exciting artists.

Are the commissioned projects for 5Church restaurant indicative of ways in which area businesses support local artists? What is the art community like in Charlotte? What makes it a good city for artists?

I think there is a decent local arts scene here in Charlotte. The support that select local businesses supply is definitely needed, and without it, there would be a dearth of local arts in the community. I think over the last few years this has become vital to building a burgeoning scene here, where artists might stay, instead of moving to bigger locales where they feel visual/performing/audio arts are supported with more enthusiasm. On the flip side of that though, Charlotte has been great in that it has been a very cheap place to live for a number of years, although that has started to change in a very short amount of time. The neighborhoods that many of my friends and peers were living in have shot up in value, and many can't afford the rents that have come about in the last couple of years. 

The community is varied for sure, but the nice thing is that it seems to be encouraging. People go to others’ shows and many know each other well. I'm sure there are plenty of artists in Charlotte who I've never met. I need to get out of the house more.

I'm not sure if it is a good city for artists? I just know that I talk to friends in NYC and I can't figure out how I'd be able to afford a living and then studio space and then have time to actually be the studio. I know that I enjoy living here, and my house and friends are here. I can't really speak for other artists’ experiences, but I hope they’re enjoying themselves!

I’ve recently been talking to an artist friend who’s frustrated while in a serious creative rut. I’ve been through these periods myself, so I’m always curious to know how artists remedy these cycles of creative stagnation. Is this something you’ve had to deal with in your practice and how did you get through it?

There's a problem most artists know! There are a couple of things that keep me going when I'm not sure what I'm doing or what I need to do next. There was one professor in college who I didn't always agree with, but gave our class one great piece of advice: "You have at least 50 bad paintings in you, might as well get them out now." Those words have always stuck with me and keep me working. Through work, the breakthrough usually ends up happening. The other, especially when I'm not sure what to do next, is my favorite quote by Jasper Johns: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." It's the best way I've found to jumpstart a work. And it’s a really easy process to start!

Do you have a set schedule for keeping active in your studio? How do you balance your practice with other responsibilities?

Recently I have been able to set up a somewhat consistent studio practice, which has been nice, even though it means a fairly boring Monday to Friday 9-5 (or maybe more like 10-6) kind of schedule. While being your own boss and making your own hours is a luxury most people never get, the effort to keep yourself accountable for your own progress can be daunting, at least it is to me sometimes! So since that can be the case, I've definitely tried to start treating painting as a full-time job, which is something I'm happy to say.

The advice from your former professor and quote from Jasper Johns are very helpful, but do you have any nuggets of wisdom for aspiring artists?

The best thing I can think of is that, if you want to be a working artist, don’t think of your work as too precious. We all know it's important to you, otherwise you would not be making it, but being too worried about how others might receive your work will actually be stifling to the creative process. There are going to be people out there who will not like or perhaps flat out hate your work. Realizing that fairly quickly was freeing for me. I know that no matter what, that's going to happen, so I actually don't need to worry about it. On the flip side though, there will be people who will connect with your work. Your job is to find that audience.

Do you have any upcoming projects or shows we should know about?

The only thing I have planned right now is to spend some time in the studio, hopefully working on my personal work. While it’s great to be hired for commissions, not getting to work on my own projects consistently can leave me feeling lacking. I can't wait to get back to some experimentation!


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