Using large backlit sheets of clear plastic stretched across wooden posts on a stage as his canvas, Santa Monica lifeguard and shark-wrestler, Norton Wisdom, performs live improvised painting onstage with musicians, interpreting the music being improvised during the performance in real time. His paint is dilluted to stay malleable, so his paintings remain in continual motion, through Wisdom's use of paintbrushes, windshield wipers, sponges, and his own hands.
Unlike most painting, his live work does not aim for a finished image, but celebrates the process of fluid metamorphosis: a cornucopia of images emerging unpredictably from one another: clouds become bodies, bodies become musical instruments, buildings become rockets, and dinner plates become crowns worn by monarchs, in a labrynth of unexpected paths. The live experience of his work continually challenges your perception of what you think you are seeing, and your ability to predict how forms and shapes relate to each other.
A local gem of Los Angeles, Wisdom has been invited to paint all over the world, including Bali, Turkey, and Morocco. The venues for his painting performances range from punk clubs, to prestigious concert halls, to the Berlin Wall upon which he made guerilla paintings prior to its demolition. Wisdom performs regularly with Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction), Mike Watt (Minutemen), and Nels Cline (Geraldine Fibbers/Wilco/etc.), under the moniker, Banyan; however, he has also performed with a wide range of artists as diverse as the National Bamboo Orchestra of Bali, Beck, and my own band, The Autumns.
I conducted this interview with Norton Wisdom at his home in 2003, and took the accompanying photographs of Wisdom in 2003 and 2004.
The Fertile Mistake: An Interview With Norton Wisdom
(Background painting by Norton Wisdom)
ELKINS: I've noticed that something really unusual happens when you paint in front of an audience. When all the music stops, and you put down your brush, you sometimes grab a camera from the side of the stage and take a photograph of how your painting ended. What's unusual is that every time I've seen you do this, the audience laughs.
What this says to me, is that in a single performance, you manage to subvert the entire audience's understanding of what the experience of a painting is generally understood to be: a finished image which is the product of unseen work. In other words, through the experience of watching you work, the audience ends up finding the idea of arriving at a finished image through painting to actually be funny, even though your paintings are not abstract...they are usually scenes of recognizable images.
WISDOM: Well, no work of art is ever finished. The idea that a painting represents a finite point in one's experience, is not necessarily true. The paintings I do at home, are painted on over and over again, over the course of ten to fifteen years, so they are the layering of my experiences through that period of time. You can see my struggles, and my mistakes, and my answers to those mistakes, in the final image which remains on the canvas. In the performance painting, you see that same struggle in motion, rather than in a finished image. You see me in continual movement and change, without aiming for a finish line. So in the studio painting, I have to learn how the motion of my life relates to a still image. In the performance painting, I have to learn how the "fixed point" of me relates to the motion I find myself in.
I'm not interested in making paintings without mistakes. That's why I typically don't perform with musicians who play songs. I'm not up there to be a chained monkey, like an actor following a script. I'm up there to paint what I hear, and go somewhere new. If the musicians don't share that interest in going somewhere new, then I'm not interested.
One of the important things about an audience when I paint live, is that we all go on the journey together. By that, I am not saying that the performers onstage just take the audience where they want to go. I've found that the musicians and I get a sense of the consciousness of the audience in the discovery that takes place on stage. So in a sense, the audience helps paint the paintings, and helps create the music. On the other hand, if I'm in my studio, and I think about an audience for the painting, the work crumbles. In that situation, an artist can't be looking over their shoulder, wondering what people are thinking.
ELKINS: To what extent do you think painting is a musical activity, if at all?
WISDOM: I think painting is a musical activity. When I'm on stage, what I'm doing is taking the themes, rhythms, colors, attitudes, and phrases that the musicians are playing, but I'm translating that linear progression of time into a two-dimensional image. I'm simply translating those ingredients of music, which depend on time, onto a physical surface, so that they can be experienced without the aspect of time. The musicians are reversing that simultaneously. They take the two dimensional image that is appearing on my canvas, and transform it back into something that unfolds in time.
Simply looking at a painting is a musical activity. Even if a painting is a static image, the eye travels around a painting. It's very difficult to focus on an entire painting at once. So by moving across a painting in time, the eye encounters colors, themes, and phrases in the rhythm set by the painting. When I'm working with musicians on stage, the music directs the painting, as much as the painting directs the music.
ELKINS: I've noticed that you have certain themes that continually appear in your paintings, such as crowns, rockets, genitalia, and medieval religious icons. Can you pinpoint where these themes come from, and why they keep recurring in your work?
WISDOM: I think that people carry within them the collective unconscious of the human race. That's why the presence of an artist is inseparable from any human society, because their role is to express, or give voice to, that collective unconscious. I think the imagery in my paintings comes from the historical growth of music and culture.
There have been well-known arguments that music began when primitive man was attempting to mimic the mating calls of birds. I can't say if that's true, but if you start from that aspect of life, and follow man as he progressed down this bloody trail that we've been on, you see these other symbols along the way: the crown, the mono-king, religion, militarism. These things have always been there, and art has always been critical of it, or subservient to it. Either way, the entire human experience is incorporated into the creative experience. There is no such thing as a contemporary creative event that isn't rooted in history. Interacting with musicians is like walking down a hallway into a room where all these elements of human experience are on display. That room becomes sound.
ELKINS: As we discussed in conversation earlier, I'm interested in how a life practice of free improvisation in art, affects your perception of life outside of art. Are there ways in which the act of improvising through painting has noticeably changed the way you think, make decisions, or the way you live?
WISDOM: I guess the penalty of committing yourself to improvisation, is that outside of it, you begin to see the world as dangerously repeating old patterns. You become pretty intolerant of the decorative arts, which use successful, commercial imagery that does not engage with the world we actually live in. I mean, it is definitely a part of the world we live in, but it's not a part of the world we feel. Its whole reason for existence is consumption, rather than for the growth and knowledge of who we are. Decorative art turns people into consumers, rather than feelers and thinkers. Improvisation is a tapestry of the now.
ELKINS: Earlier, you talked about painting being essentially a musical activity. Do you think there is any relation between the idea of making a mistake in a painting, versus the idea of a mistake in music?
WISDOM: I don't see any difference. I mean, without a mistake, you can't go anywhere. It's where the most fertile ground is: in the anxiety of failure. It leads you to really go into some uncharted territory. The birth of the next move comes from putting pressure on that gaping wound, the laceration that's occurred on a canvas, or musically. Often that moment of panic is one of the most valuable events that can happen to an artist.
To speak in musical terms, that state of anxiety has helped me to understand that dischord is just misunderstood harmony. And I like working with musicians who can tap into that howling beast. Musicians who are not interested in doing the same thing twice, but prefer to stumble down unlit corridors and struggle with their own limitations. The musicians I tend to work with, whether it be Mike Watt, Stephen Perkins, or Nels Cline, if they see you doing something that doesn't have to do with the struggle that's taking place onstage, they'll just pour gasoline on you.
I think that art in general is fed by the subconscious awareness in each person that mankind keeps making the same mistakes. Improvising on stage is seeing the struggle of individuals to find new paths from that. The artists on stage have to find new paths to save the event, and sometimes just that act, or process, of saving the event is really what's valuable. Improvisation is about the struggles, not about a moment of transcendence, which an artist believes he has harnessed and polished. In improvisation, the transcendence is found in the struggle itself, not in safety, or a smooth finish. It explores the aspects of our lives that are rough around the edges.
Whatever the case, the only real mistake in painting, is painting something you've already painted before. Because that's not what art is about. Art is about new paths in the human event.
I think this is why, as a painter, I relate more to the music world than to the painting world, or the gallery world. Because for me it's all about that struggle unfolding in time, which you can hear tangibly in music, because music unfolds in time. Painting unfolds in time too, but only in the private experience of the painter, not necessarily in the way the viewer of the finished painting experiences the painting. By performing painting, the audience and I take part in that struggle together.
I've been really fortunate that there has never been a marketplace for my paintings, so I've never been able to produce art just as a commodity. Don't ever take up painting. You just don't want to have to store that much shit. One of the virtues of destroying the painting at the end of each gig is that you don't have evidence of the ass you made out of yourself that night.
ELKINS: Do you ever feel vulnerable on stage, since the audience sees your entire process of getting from point A to point B?
WISDOM: Well, I always feel like a jerk. I always wonder if I'm making an ass out of myself. I think, who needs this? I mean, self-doubt is inevitable. It amazes me when anyone comes up to me afterwards, and even wants to try to talk to me. It always seems like quite a phenomenon when the audience seems to have been on the same journey that I've been on. Even though I'm alone on stage, the whole room has been traveling on this special little planet in that theater together. Self-doubt is an important part of that process. Revealing that is an important part of what happens between you and the audience. It's part of the gravity that you share.
ELKINS: Can you articulate any "new paths" that you've discovered recently?
WISDOM: A rather unexpected one fell in my lap recently. Well, you've spent time in my backyard where I paint. The other day it started pouring rain on a bunch of the paintings I had left scattered throughout the yard, and the paint from each of them started to pool together into a river in the middle of my backyard. I can't even begin to tell you how beautiful it was.
ELKINS: The first time I saw you perform was with Nels Cline, and you've continued to work extensively with him over the years. How does he share in your appreciation of struggle onstage?
WISDOM: Well, Nels has committed his life to this vision that he has. He's very focused on not compromising in what he believes is time well spent: creating something vital and relevant to our nature. And I think he's created something inextinguishable. It can't be undone. I think time will show that there's something priceless about what he has contributed to music. And he's paid the price for it. You know, you hear every so often of guitarists who have had to sell their guitars to pay their rent, but Nels has had to sell his guitar strings to feed himself. What an inspiration to know that kind of commitment exists, especially knowing how utterly non-exhibitionistic he is about it. To work in such close proximity to that kind of fire and sincerity...I'm honored.
Nels and I recently performed at a big fund raiser at the Laguna Beach Art Museum. He showed them what music will sound like three centuries from now, and we were never invited back. That's what I like about him.
ELKINS: I remember being on a hiking trip in rural Utah a year ago, and stopping at this bar in the middle of nowhere called "Bit and Spur," and discovered that the bartender and all the locals knew who you are, because you perform there.
WISDOM: Oh yeah, I know Bit and Spur. Near Zion National Park. I play there a lot, actually.
ELKINS: You've performed with a lot of unusual people in a lot of unusual places. What's the strangest gig that you've played?
WISDOM: They're all strange. They all start out with, "No you're not going to paint in my club!" That's the first thing I hear when I walk in the door.
There was a Banyan gig at the Hammerstein Ballroom, which is an opera house in New York. I was painting in a pink chiffon nightgown. A little negligee. The head stage manager was a teamster, and the whole night he just rode me, and rode me. Finally, the gig was over, and I went to take a friend backstage, and he stopped me. I looked at him, and said: "The gig's over man, you don't have any authority over me," and I slapped him. The next thing I know, these two goons grabbed me. I said to them, "What are you going to do? Beat me up?" As I said it, I felt this really cold draft on my back. They had opened the back stage door and threw me outside into a snowstorm. I had to get on my hands and knees in the snow to beg as they shut the door.
Now, being outside in a pink negligee in New York in the middle of a snowstorm, somebody's going to take you in, but whoever takes you in...your life is never be the same, let me just tell you. I managed to get around the block, and get back in the front door before security was alerted, and before my knight in shining armor could sweep me off my feet, and take me to wherever his castle was.
The stage manager eventually won that night, because I got very drunk, and started vomiting on myself, and they had to carry me out by the armpits. I remember looking up at him with vomit all over me, as they dragged me by, and said, "If you ever want to get back at Norton, you just leave him alone."
The funny thing is that, in my experience, the communities that you would think would be much more open to the dissolving of different artistic disciplines, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, are actually much more rigid. People in those places seem much more concerned with protecting the status quo of the art world. But when you get out into places like northern Minnesota, you know, these frozen tundra Paul Bunyan sort of environments, or The Bit and Spur in rural Utah, like you mentioned, or in Turkey, where I just performed in Istanbul...I find that people in these places tend to be much more open to the creative experience, than people in the so-called art centers of the U.S.
-Los Angeles, California