CONVERSATION WITH NEO-EXPRESSIONIST PAINTER TJ OWENS.
The American artist has lived in Sauve, in the south of France, for many years
INTERVIEW BY DAVID LAURENÇON
English edited by Hilary Burgess
DAVID LAURENÇON: Hello TJ… TJ, what do the initials stand for exactly?
TJ OWENS: My name is Thomas Joseph Owens.
dL: I have been following your work for a long time, having discovered it by chance on Saatchi Art. Then I contacted you, two or three years ago about the illustration of a poster. Before we get to the heart of the matter – your work – can you tell me what brought you to live here in the south?
TJ Owens: I came to live part time in Sauve during the Bush years. I was looking for an alternative place to feel secure.
dL : To feel secure? What do you mean?
TJ Owens: The Bush years were starting to cause a great deal of anxiety within my psyche. I was feeling fearful of the future of the USA as I had known it! The Vietnam “conflict“ was re-imagining itself and caused a great deal of fear and doubts for the near future. I wanted to have an escape route. Of course, now I know there is none.
dL: Why here, precisely, in this village?
TJ Owens: I discovered Sauve when I was looking for a place to camp while on the way to see an expo of Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence.It appeared friendly small and out of the way. I have never regretted my choice!
A SIMPLE APPROACH TO LIVING
dL: Do you still keep one foot in – or an eye on – your native California?
TJ Owens: Yes, I do. I prefer a choice of “doors”! But in today’s world there are fewer and fewer. I will continue to find solace in my art. It appears to be the only real choice I have that brings me a deep form of satisfaction and grounding. Water food and shelter will always be my primary needs. But then I will seek to make art! It is perhaps a rather simple goal and approach to life but one I feel I can accomplish and be satisfied with.
dL: An approach to life that seems ideal to me. That is, more than satisfying! Right. Your works sell for between 700 and 900 dollars and can reach 1500. How do you position yourself in the unlikely jungle of the art market?
TJ Owens: The price of my work today was set because I really didn’t want to sell my work and figured I could show it but price it out of the market. I was quite surprised to find that it did sell and I concluded the transaction. In regard to positioning myself in today’s art market I am quite cynical as to the true values functioning in our contemporary art auctions and major financial art houses. However, I am not sure the art market has ever been “on the side“ of the artist throughout recorded history? I decided a long while ago I was not motivated to do art for someone else’s satisfaction. I bought into the process and system on a specific level. However I will never be joined at the hip. I do it for my own pleasure and of course that is where some of the guilt comes in again being able to live comfortably and do my art with no need to be paid for it. I have enough money to live happily. I don’t have a lot of fancy expensive tastes and live quite simply. It remains very satisfying. I shall live in this fashion until I am not able to continue!
dL: That is clear. Let’s talk about your style. It’s very intuitive and sometimes it feels like you’re experimenting, without even knowing yourself what it’s going to be like.
TJ Owens: I seldom have a clear idea what may become of the final drawings unless I am doing a landscape! Generally, I like to feel it’s a rushed, giant experiment with the materials I gather or have on hand. I quite like and even thrive on the spontaneous explorations that immerge.
dL: Does the term « primitive techniques » suit you?
TJ Owens: Yes it is certainly a mixed bag but not very refined in general. Primitive, yes. Also basic, primal reactions that sort of explode into images. My first serious attraction to artists were the expressionists and colorists! My progression into art continued alongside. I found my abilities to form images very self-satisfying and almost a shelter or refuge from negative “vibrations“!
dL: All your drawings and paintings, or almost all, are figurative and neo-expressionist. Why represent men and women with shapes, let’s say… more than generous? The bodies appear as if amplified. What does this mean?
TJ Owens: My figurative works are indeed more generous than say Egon Schiele. I prefer my work to be recognizable in form more than non-objective in presentation. Egon Schiele’s works I feel are almost the opposite of mine though they may present a similar wounded Psyche! Mine are indeed more amplified and robust. But still suggest a nervous impulse of concern and doubts!
dL: Two or three years ago, I went to see the Basquiat-Schiele exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. I went for Basquiat. It was superb, completely crazy. An explosion of pure energy, a salutary slap in the face, the kind of thing that stirs and awakens. Pumped up by Basquiat’s work, I went to see Schiele. It was the fastest journey in the world: with Basquiat, I had just plunged into action and vital force. Facing Schiele: it was a painful impression, that of tumbling into a hospice. Or an old people’s home. The kind of place that gives you the blues and makes you want to flee. A gallery of sickly creatures.
TJ Owens: I do not follow the idea of Schiele vs. Basquiat as a position I would take. It is surely an interesting combination of artists. I would be curious what the thinking was behind this showing. I have never seen either of their works in person. Only in catalog format. And I don’t know much about Schiele’s personal life. However, regarding J M Basquiat. I was attracted to both the person and his art since he was an “American” and contemporary. I have an odd nagging feeling that he was “done in” through his associations with Warhol and his groupies? This is based only on what I imagine since I did not associate with any of them even though I was in New York City at the time. It was not a lifestyle I was attracted to. Basquiat’s work appears very authentic and exhilarating to me, compared to the work Warhol was producing. I can only imagine their association as a spin-off of the NYC environment and unfolding art scene. I had no desire to associate with “the action“. It was a milieu I was not attracted to. To my recollection it didn’t end well even though Warhol’s works are quite valuable. I don’t believe history will authenticate his present standing. Another example of the contemporary net worth of art which is still alive and financially paying off certain clients! I really don’t want to buy into that network even though on some levels as I mentioned, I have!
A ROBUST AND “FLESHED OUT” IMAGERY
dL: Okay, but that doesn’t stop this relationship between you and Schiele, with his dangerously exaggerated sickly thin people, from bothering me. What is the possible connection with your own work?
TJ Owens: Although I appreciate Egon Schiele’s expressive approach of figurative works, I like to indulge myself in a more robust and fuller imagery. More “fleshed out“ you may say. I mention Egon because he is so different than I in approach and format! Perhaps he was more realistic in his experience and expressions? I don’t know?! His emaciated figures cry in anguish seeking compassion and comfort?? Mine are better fed generally but still I portray a certain level of psychological anxiety and doubtfulness. A level of uncertainty and fear appears to reoccur often in my figures. Seldom a glowing smile on any face!
dL: Indeed. No smiles, but a sure and certain life. I mean, not a gargantuan life, that’s not the word, but a life that overflows and eats up all the space. A life without embarrassment, a brutal shamelessness.
TJ Owens: I am struck by your associations! A life that overflows and eats up space… A life without embarrassment… A brutal shamelessness! My professional life and career may have exposed me to a rather raw perspective of life, as well as my experiences in the US army 1965-8. Which awakened a certain level of cynicism and to question authorities. It’s a hard thing to pin down exactly! Much of what I do is of a personal narrative and nature. That being said, you would maybe expect me to understand and explain my foraging more clearly? But I don’t appear to be able to do that in words very well. Perhaps this is why I do art? I actually believe in the concept of the collective human unconsciousness somewhat based on Jung’s thoughts. I imagine myself at times as a simple conduit that really has no choice but to emanate and manifest a form demonstrating our collective human experiences! Yes, that sounds pretty nutty…
dL: A vast topic, as they say. I am content to discuss and exchange ideas with artists whose work I admire. This allows me to reconsider their impulses. With words. With the Word, so to speak.
TJ Owens: I am quite pleased with you admiring my art! It’s a very satisfying feeling! And the understanding of the « artistic impulse » is a rare perspective I believe! It’s a bit of a mystery actually and I am not being very helpful at explaining my reasons and purpose precisely. It is a very emotive process which I am sure has roots somewhere in my warped subconscious! Raw lusting emotions sharpened with my mix of interpretations drawn from life exposures we all must contend with in some form! My choice of the human figure as a subject is most often my way of processing and exploring our environmental interactions with one another!
dL: Is asking an artist to talk about their work torture?
TJ Owens: Yes. It is a bit painful to try and explain my artistic purpose or function. Especially when it appears to have no intrinsic value to the process of human life, and it’s need for compassion and comfort to so many others who have basic survival needs on a daily basis. I am here doing art and enjoying myself. I have these creepy feelings that I am guilty of a lack of realities. I am living such a fortunate existence because of where and when I was born.
REALITY AND GUILT
dL: « Guilty of a lack of reality »: I love this formula. Coupled with this feeling of happiness, « luck » or « lucky »: it seems magical to me. I find this formula very rich in meaning and possibilities… Feeling guilty of a lack of realities!
TJ Owens: You are a master of the written/spoken word. I am not as fluent in that respect. I do struggle within my thoughts of guilt and the lack of realities are from the idea that so many others are living a less fortunate experience. Absence of the freedom to sit and safely make art. The guilt arises from knowing I am free from the lack of these basic needs. Shelter. Indoor plumbing. Refrigeration. The lack of these has never been a part of my reality. I lack that realization. I find a similar form of guilt in the idea of returning from the US Army intact while many did not! It is a very strange form of guilt. One I find difficult to explain!
dL: Your personality demands respect, TJ. And in this conversation, the interest lies not in an attempt to decipher, but in the will to transmit. Thank you very much, very sincerely, for accepting and taking the time to answer my few questions!
TJ Owens: People like you will be the ones I will trust to make more sense of it with your cognitive skills! I will continue doing my art until I can no longer.
Paris, August 19, 2021
– Tyler Island Studios -Walnut Grove, California permanent display
– Galerie Vidourle Prix – Sauve, France – permanent display