"Blocks": A conversation between Alberta Maez and Leonard Joseph Klikunas
AM: What would you attribute your love of art to?
LJK: To me, love of art is innate. Ability to love art is part of the human standard equipment. Each individual has individual preferences as far as what they like and what they relate to. My mom and dad were never afraid to let me be an artist, so my innate love of art was never stifled.
AM: What was the genesis of your journey into to world of painting?
LJK: I suppose I was like a lot of children. In my case I started out pencil drawing and moved to Crayola. I did my first pastel at age 7. I did my first watercolor at age 8, my first blue monochrome, and I have loved monochrome ever since. I was age 10 when I did my first melted Crayola painting on cotton textile. I must have been age 11 or 12 when I got a Palmer Paint Craft Master paint-by-number kit. I loved the smell of the paint in the little plastic vials, and the brushes, but I did not like keeping the paint precisely between the lines. After that, there was about a ten year hiatus in painting until 1968, when at around age 24 I started using tempera from large jars. I drew and painted wall-sized murals, loosely figurative humans and symbols, on the plaster wall, and an abstract landscape on the window glass of the room I rented in the barrio in Placentia, California. I believe I was age 29 or 30 when I got my first tube of oil paint. The following year, about 1974, I started using acrylics and got into my first gallery, the Courtyard Gallery, in Portland, Oregon.
AM: Is there a particular medium you are most fond of?
LJK: There is a particular medium I am most fond of now: gesso. I am fond of using it on Indian and Chinese textile. I started using it almost exclusively in 2014. Part of my intent is to showcase gesso as a medium in its own right. To me, gesso is fundamental and foundational. The gesso is versatile and archival. Gesso bonds well to the textile and does not damage it. Gesso can soak into the textile or float on top. I often use dozens of nearly imperceptible thin layers of gesso. From a distance my treatment of gesso appears to give a waxy patina to the work. I’m as interested in the effect the textile has on the visual experience as I am in the often gestural evidence of the brushed-on gesso that traces the outline of the underlying wooden form. I like letting the textile significantly show through. I am fond of having both the sometimes painterly brushwork gesture with the gesso exist in balance with the acknowledgement of the reality of the textile and the underlying wooden form going on in the work.
AM: Would you mind expanding on the three-dimensionality of your work?
LJK: I make my own wooden form to create depth in the work. The wooden form is a medium itself in the work. The presence of the form creates the depth and mostly geometric, rectangular outline within the work. The visual form of the wooden structure is working behind the scene under the textile and gesso used to trace the outline of the form. I am fond of the form structure since it so obviously bends the space and light and reaches out toward the viewer. The surface of the work not only reflects light, it also casts shadow within the boundary of the work as well, and even often moves light and shadow out beyond into the space around it.
AM: Is there an ultimate purpose or end game with your art?
LJK: Your question gets at the meaning of life. To me, we all come into this world as biological beings and then whatever culture we are exposed to takes its effect on us. What the purpose of this process is seems immensely complex. For example, I cannot even make a flower. It is much easier to kill things than to create. My art is one part of this huge process going on. My assignment, as I see it, is to combine form, light, outline, and material in my particular way to modify experienced reality through visual expression. To the extent that I can, I make a stand to use my work for a contribution to the struggle of humanity to survive and prosper. It seems such a waste to go through life and not enjoy it as much as possible given whatever circumstance. My art lets me enjoy my life to the fullest. I like to think the ultimate purpose and end game of my art is to express love of life and contemplation.
AM: Do you have a particular inspiration that spurs you on in your art?
LJK: I have this overwhelming need to express my love for this world through my art. I am particularly driven to paint a work that is somehow universal. The inspiration to achieve the perhaps un-achievable art is what spurs me. My art is my record.
AM: Are there particular individuals you derive direction from?
LJK: I think there’s a difference between deriving direction from and deriving support or help from. I do not derive direction from any individual. I derive support and help in particular from my spouse and friends. Like William Blake did, I particularly have supportive and helpful conversations about my work with my spouse. My spouse is not just a sounding board for me. My spouse's insights and feedback enhance my life and give me another set of eyes for my art.
AM: How would you describe the confirmation of your work? I mean the feeling, person, and circumstance when you know you got it right.
LJK: Confirmation is a profound neurological, psychophysical experience for me. I experience intense visceral reactions leading me to confirmation of my work or not. The work that is not ready for confirmation makes me sick to my stomach, literally. The work I confirm is a paradox: calm, restful, visually dynamic and intensely powerful, to me. I am not saying that the work would be confirmed that way by any other person.
In most circumstances, I have to keep looking at a work for several days to get a confirmation. For example, sometimes the drying process will take some time and alter the tone. If I get queasy as a result of viewing a work, it will not be confirmed no matter what. A work that triggers a contemplative experience and has seemingly inexhaustible visual variation to me results in confirmation. In cases where I still don’t get a read one way or the other about a work, I will ask for feedback from my spouse, my daughter, and/or a close friend during the process. Confirmation of my work is never achieved by a vote. I don’t over-ride my personal confirmation of a work by a coin toss, or someone else’s opinion.
AM: Was there an "ah ha" moment when you knew art had captured your heart? What was the circumstance?
LJK: There definitely was an “ah ha” moment when I knew art had captured my heart. It was about 1972 or 1973, I was about 28 or 29, in a garden in Fullerton, in Orange County, California, and I never looked back.
I will never forget that time when I opened my first ever tube of oil paint, that happened to be white, squeezed a daub of the thick white paint directly onto the canvas board, and made the first brush stroke. I experienced an immediate feeling of release and freedom. I continued blissfully painting white stroke after white stroke with the heavily loaded brush. I knew I found something immeasurably valuable to me in the gesture and act of painting.
AM: What would you say is the relevance of your art?
LJK: Relevance? Ha, interesting you use the word relevance. Relevance was the main word at Stanford when I was an undergrad in the 60’s. Actually I think it still is. Anyway, it has been said artists and politicians are always worried about their relevance and if they are no longer relevant, they may not keep their job. Relevance can be measured personally and publicly.
To me personally, the relevance of my art is in the particular way I chose to balance form, light, outline, and material. For example, in my particular process I bring the gesso to the forefront as medium material, let the textile material significantly show through, and let the underlying three-dimensional form create the depth and the geometric outline that I trace with the brush. The work not only reflects light, it bends light and space, casting both light and shadow within its surface boundary and out beyond it. Since the work is three-dimensional it does not totally depend on light for recognition. For a perhaps extreme example, the work’s three-dimensional shape makes it possible to recognize its individuality, even in the dark. My work is intended to be relevant as contemplative art, to express my love of the world, and to modify experienced reality through visual expression.
Publicly, the relevance of my art, like all art, resides in market fluctuations, style preferences and shifts, exposure, availability, and "bad" and "good" fortune. Appreciation of particular art forms can be cyclical, passing in and out of fashion alternately over millennia.
AM: Which artists would you say you most closely relate to?
LJK: Chronologically I most closely relate to the southern California minimalist and contemplative artist John McLaughlin since he lived in southern California as I did and, like myself, started painting full time later in life and was also self-taught. Starting in the 60's, I was fortunate to be exposed to his reductive work on exhibit in California. Further back chronologically, I most closely relate to the contemplative artists Ma Yuan, Fra Angelico, William Blake, and El Greco.
AM: What art pieces speak deeply to you?
LJK: As far as purely emotional response, Rothko art pieces speak deeply to me. In I believe 2014 I was in downtown Los Angeles and happened to walk into MOCA late one afternoon. I had no idea huge works of Rothko were on exhibit in the first gallery. I took a step into that room and the art pieces spoke so deeply to me that soon tears streamed down my face.I also like to remind myself of a simple connection that Rothko and I both lived in Portland, Oregon.
As far as serene and contemplative response, Fra Angelico, Ma Yuan, William Blake and El Greco speak deeply to me. John McLaughlin speaks deeply to me with a combination of contemplative, cerebral, and structural response.
Art pieces by Franz Kline, Morris Louis, and Albert Pinkham Ryder speak to me for their “what have you got to lose” approach to painting. The exquisite mostly sculptural art pieces of Tony Duquette during the time around Christmas and New Year in 1972 or 1973 at the museum in Barnsdall Park in Los Angeles spoke to me.
AM: Which museums would you recommend travelers visit and why?
LJK: If I have to narrow it down I would recommend a dozen museums. In Amsterdam I like the Stedelijk Museum for the modern art, and of course the Van Gough Museum. In Los Angeles I like MOCA for Rothko and Kline, and LACMA for McLaughlin and the red Rothko. In Paris the Louvre is great for the Mona Lisa and the Musée d’ Orsay for the Impressionists. In London I like the Tate for Turner, William Blake, and Rothko. New York is wonderful for the MET which has Ma Yuan, Fra Angelico, and El Greco. The MOMA has Rothko and Morris Louis. In Washington, D.C. I like the Smithsonian American Art Museum for Albert Pinkham Ryder and the National Gallery of Art for El Greco. Last and not least I suggest the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) in Vancouver, British Columbia for its global indigenous art and First Nations art. Even if a person would not like the artists I suggest, these museums might be of some interest in general. Someday, personally I would like to see all the Fra Angelico works at San Marco in Florence, Italy.
AM: Why do you believe in your work?
LJK: I believe in my work from my personal experience in living with the work. I don’t believe in my work out of faith. The work does not paint me into a corner. To me, I just like making the work and living with it literally hanging around me on the wall, or resting on the floor before the work goes out into the world. I work on it and then it gets to work on me. The work is made to be tough enough to get along on its own out in the world, even on its image file alone.
From a conversation that took place January 27, 2015 in the artist's studio.