By Keith Waits
Copyright 2013 by Keith Waits, all rights reserved. Published in conjunction with Pure Uncut Candy.

Artist and musician Joel Pinkerton tells us about his new work and his journey from tinkerer to found object artist.

Upstairs Galley at Zephyr.
Arts-Louisville: Tell us about the work in the new show, “More or Less,” currently at Zephyr Gallery.

Joel Pinkerton: The work is what I call “3-D drawings” – welded steel rods constructed, using simple tools, into 20 or so human figures in various poses. They are covered with a masking film, which I found, abandoned, on a curb…my work always involves found materials. This kind of “drawing,” if you will, goes between medical charts of muscular structure, vascular pathways and skeletal structure to a human figure bound with this plastic film and heat-fused to encase it.

AL: You are known for, as you say, using found objects in the past, and it was often figures made from pots and pans and other random metal pieces.

JP: I think the thing about found materials is that it always gives me a line or the volume that the materials may have. This is maybe quite a bit different from what people are used to seeing. I’ve done similar figures with this steel and they were like drawings with just a few lines done in kind of a relief fashion, and the steel material kind of comes from the curb as well, being the kind of steel rods used for political yard signs that you might find in the alleyways every May and November.

AL: Looking at this work, it seems there is something more elemental or basic about them, as if they were gestural studies in a life drawing class.

JP: Yeah. With drawing you ask yourself, “Is it ever really finished? Do you erase the lines you don’t like?” So this is, in a sculptural way, that same process. They were inspired by a drawing mannequin but brought into a different context and given emotion, which is what I believe I’ve always been know for. You bring out the gestures and make real characters out of them. All my work is rooted in that.

AL: Zephyr has two floors and, somewhat unusually, you will be using both levels?

JP: Downstairs, when you walk in, I will have a figure like these, that is positionable, but it will be three-times the size (of a normal human), whereas these are three-times smaller. The viewers will find themselves in the middle, imposing on a smaller figure just like the single large figure will impose upon them.

“More or Less” installation in progress on the
ground floor of Zephyr. 
AL: So the viewer becomes a part of the exhibit?

JP: He does, whether he likes it or not (laughing). I intend to have a video surveillance element so that when there is movement it will record those reactions; not faces…I’m looking for bulk. Once I’ve recorded enough material, I may cull some of that out and show it in the gallery. I’ve also experimented with stop-motion and hope to have a short film showing some of these figures going through a range of motion as if they were one.

AL: So people who come to the opening should come back later to see the video you’ve added.

JP: They should. One of the things I’ve encouraged in the announcement is, whether you’re a student or, for anyone who likes to draw and is looking for figures who can sustain a pose, there are some choices here. So bring your drawing materials and spend a little time in Zephyr.

AL: What has inspired this group of work?

JP: I’m always changing. I’ve used this material before and the steel is small enough that I don’t have to use special equipment. This goes back to classical figures from the 20th century, and the large one will be along the size of the David statue at 21c. I had this idea before that was placed there, but one of the future ideas for the large piece is a photographic project where it’s placed in public and photographed to play off the reaction from the public. Kind of the same “wow” factor of that golden David statue.

AL: Is there sort of a subculture of artists working with found or reclaimed materials?

JP: Yes, there are, and I’ve heard many art students say they wish they had worked more with found objects because of the cost today of canvas and paints, or stone and marble, any of those things, with any artist who is struggling. I do see more and more trained artists working with found materials. I’m self-taught – I took an art appreciation course and I think I slept through most of it [laughing].

AL: You say you do not have formal training in art, how did you get started?

JP: I was tinkering in the basement about 20 years ago, tinkering to the point to where it became something of an obsession. I was in a corporate management position but, unfortunately, the company I was working for was not that great, so we parted ways. So I put a plan together to make sell art any way that I can, and I’ve been doing that for about 13 years now. It’s been a lot healthier than the corporate position.

AL: Did the kind of artists’ community we have in Louisville help you or inspire you?

JP: I had friends who were artists and knew other artists. I had always been a tinkerer and a salvage person. I was the youngest of four kids, and there were always broken GI Joes and other toys, so I would fashion something together. I can remember a Christmas when I was 8 or 9, and I got a pedal car, a U.S. Navy jeep (my dad was U.S. Navy), and about three days later I had the whole thing taken apart. We managed to get it put back together, but he was pretty mad. Building go-carts or scooters, in my day, were a busted pair of roller skates and a plank, so we made do as kids and throughout life had handy skills or carpentry skills.

AL: So your instincts as an artist were developed in your childhood?

JP: I think so. This exhibit about 3-D drawings? I was asked by a friend if I was going to include schematics or drawings of my vision of how the show should look. That sounds like a good thing to do, but I don’t draw very well; I don’t practice it or have the patience for it. I like that tactile quality of getting it in my hands, or looking at it, feeling it, seeing the shape of it, where that takes me. It’s a series of parts and how the parts flow together in my mind. The other pieces that I do kind of stretch the boundaries of the imagination: inanimate objects come to life. People recognize these objects, but they are stupefied seeing them used differently. I’m always trying to put life into the pieces.

AL: Some of these things you talk about: the lack of a formal art education, the instinctual approach, is characteristic of folk art or so-called “primitive art.” How do you define yourself as an artist?

JP: There are 21st century folk artists who are a different generation using what the last two generations have left, or the things that haven’t decayed or been lost or recycled or buried. I work intuitively. I rarely have any set thing I’m looking for, just a general idea. In the case of these new pieces, one kind of bred another, which all of my figurative work tends to do:  related but uniquely different. Everybody sees things differently. People are afraid of art sometimes. “What’s that really mean?” and it means what you see.
AL: Do you feel like viewers tend to overthink art a lot of the time?

JP: Actually, I hope they do, because not enough viewers spend enough time with visual art. Unlike the music industry where a song gets listened to repeatedly, with visual art you really have to put yourself in front of it. It’s not just streaming in the background. I hope people will spend time and not just rush in. First Fridays are very social, but there’s not a lot of careful thought given, so they should come back on Saturday!

Artist Joel Pinkerton.
More or Less: New Work from Joel Pinkerton

March 29 – May 11, 2013

Zephyr Gallery

610 E. Market St.

Louisville, KY 40202

Hours 11-6 p.m., Thur.- Sat., or by appointment.