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“On the Grid”
A series of tar paintings shown in the exhibition URBANATURE curated by Constance Mallinson at Art Center College in Pasadena

This group of paintings addresses animals in the interface between the wild lands and the city.  The ancestors of many of these animals have lived in these areas long before the ever expanding cities existed and now they must adjust to human development, traffic, and waste.  Each animal is painted in a fluid, improvisational process that includes organic, liquid textures of the tar combined with traces of a mechanical geometric grid.  Without a hard line between the Natural and the Man-Made, we are left to reflect on the new condition of each animal: they are now neither entirely natural nor man-made. They are hybrids of URBANATURE.

The asphaltic material used to paint these images is intended to contextualize each animal within aspects of tar’s primordial origins and its commercial usage a petrochemical.  The bubbling, swirling textures of the tar suggest geologic and biologic processes.  Cellular and astronomical forms sometimes appear to erupt in the body of the animal and the body of the environment.  Deep time, cycles of evolution and extinctions, ecological crisis play a part in the poetic of these images.

I approach each animal I paint with two ambitions.  One is to essentialize the image in a reductive way, to capture the type of animal in a basic form.  The other, contradictorily,   to give enough detail to suggest the specific individuality of a specific being.  This way I intend to suggest the implications of the embodiment of life.  In having a body, we are all part of a long, ancient evolutionary process in which we find our particular and personal way of perceiving and expressing.


James Griffith
Artist Statement on the Tar Paintings
Working with tar instead of paint, I draw the viewer into a sepia colored world that is suggestive of a vision of the primordial origins of life and also of 19th century prints and photographs. The paintings in the series “Natural Selection” are poetically based on Darwin’s theory of evolution.  My work does not illustrate Darwin’s theory, but rather, through images, materials, and painterly processes, I strive to ask the same essential questions that Darwin asked:  Who are we?  How did we get here?  Where are we going?

Darwin’s revolutionary theory changed how we think about Nature. He gave us a mechanism, Natural Selection, by which we could see Nature as a self-generating physical process in which all living beings on this planet are related by way of common ancestors.  Through gradual adaptation to changing environmental conditions, certain genetic variations succeed in reproducing, fuelling the evolution of new and diverse species. This point of view challenged the religious, political and social structures of Darwin’s day and continues to discomfort many people today.

The theme of evolution appears in my work in a number of ways.  I have abandoned the traditional oils of my earlier paintings and replaced them with tar.  Tar is primordial goo made from extinct organisms over geological periods of time.  Making painted depictions of living animals with tar suggests the transformative cycles of evolution and extinction.  Tar also reminds us of our own potential extinction as it is at the center of the ecological crisis caused by our need to burn petrochemicals to fuel our economy.  Other materials that I use have their own metaphoric meanings, such as pollen evoking the optimism of life or the way broken glass can imply fragility.

I develop my paintings intuitively making use of accident and chance.  In some pieces, I allow tar and water solutions to run wild producing unexpected textural events (echoing geological processes that effect evolution).  These stains suggest to me images that I further develop.  In another series I begin with a large circular gesture.  The inevitable irregularities of the hand painted circles suggest the accumulative time displayed in tree rings or the geological layers of a planet.

The primary subjects of the work are always sentient, individual animals. When I paint an animal, I imagine myself living in their body, seeing the world from their perspective. If my work inspires empathy for other species, I feel I will have accomplished the first step in expressing Darwin’s profound vision: that life on this planet is one fluid entity and that it has changed its forms and its methods of survival countless times. In acts of “creative destruction” it devours itself to reinvent itself.  It is capable of almost limitless variation and complexity. Change is its ongoing method and will continue beyond the time of humans. This show reflects my desire to honor the whole fabric of life on Earth and to understand the forces that have made us who we are.




As an artist that is always on the hunt for new painting materials, it was the gooey messiness of tar that first trapped my attention.  The pleasure of probing an oozing puddle of tar with a stick and pulling out runnels of shiny black strands is no doubt an ancient experience shared by early humans.  This primal quality of ‘playing’ with tar lead me to think about the meaning of making contemporary art with a primordial goo.

In the Miocene Age, microorganisms lived and died in ancient seas.  Sediments formed as their bodies settled into the seafloor and over eons  became deposits of oil and tar.  Tar is then evidence of a geological timescale and of the evolutionary processes of our planet.  Now, as I paint images of contemporary nature in a medium such as tar,  the image is re-framed with an awareness of this moment’s ancient provenance.  It underscores its place in time.  The ‘painted moment’ can be seen as a brief segment in a vas fluid process we call Nature.

The contemporary human use of tar as a source of petrochemical fuels also brings additional meanings to my work.  Tar colors my paintings with smoggy sepia browns and erosive textures that can easily be seen to reference the ecological impacts of human industry.   Just as the tar of Labra Tar Pits (where I collect my tarfrom pit #91) is associated with dinosaurs trapped in its deadly clutch,  so too,  the tar of industrial oil spills can be seen as an intractable snare.  Petroleum is now a ‘tar baby’, once so attractive now so regrettable.   What better way to imply, with one stroke of ‘paint’, both the dynamics of geological time and the tradgedy of Nature at the mercy of human development and pollution.

I have further stirred this cauldron of meaning by adding other natural materials to the tar paintings.  Yellow pollen dusts the surface with the promise of renewal from nature’s reproductive power.  Volcanic and glass sand add grit and sparkle to the darkness of tar.  Copper sulphate adds a beautiful but poisonous blue.  Human ashhes bring home a sense of mortality with a somber grey.  Hope and danger swirl together in Nature’s grand time scale.


“Synthetic Nature” Paintings

I was hiking in a Canadian forest last fall. The leaves were turning and the sun’s dappled light was just about as high as it could get on an October day. The rythm of hiking carried me into a meditative state of mind inwhich I was pondering the difficulty I had been having finding a visual metaphor for the existential chasm that separates human nature from wild Nature. An hour or two passed. Then suddenly I was literally stopped in my tracks by a wall of plastic sheeting that someone had stretched across a large swath of forest. It must have once served some function, but now it simply stood catching the dappled light, sparkling with reflections, and obscurring the forest like a Vaseline-smeared lens. it was at once stunningly beautiful and appalling, a veil of petrochemicals separating me from thr forest. I knew I was looking at a form that could express the problems I wanted to explore in paint. The forces of the moment did not fall into simple polarized opposites of good(nature) vs. evil (industrial man). While the plastic intruded into the forest it was still a part of our chemical world and it billowed in the breeze as beautifully as any leaf. The plastic romantisized the view with its soft focus effects, but at the same time it threatened the scene with the suffocating power of a plastic bag. I knew I would paint this for a long time.



In recent years my focus has been on presenting the duality between the natural and the man-made world. I have addressed this subject matter in a number of different ways in a series of recent paintings.

I am currently addressing these issues by showing the conflicted nature of human thought, and our wish to hide certain inconvenient realities from ourselves. To that end I paint a layer of plastic sheeting over my chosen imagery, wrapping the subject in a synthetic glaze. There is a poetic echoing between the way that the plastic mediates (and sometimes even romanticizes) the image it is obscuring and the way that brushstrokes of paint also mediate an image.

The duality I am focusing on is apparent when we use the right side of the brain to respond to the world in a holistic and emotional way, but often in opposition with this view, the left brain goes on to analyze advantages, problems, structural considerations, war, and competition. Part of our mind senses our unity with the world while another part divides us from it. Ultimately, we humans are living uncomfortably with conflict in our minds and my paintings seek to illuminate our thinking about this as I try to reconcile my own right and left brain responses to the world I live in.

In previous work I divided the canvas into two parts, each having different subjects that interlocked in a toothed, explosive pattern. The incongruity of the opposing subjects causes us to think about the connections between them and the difficulty of resolving human desires and long term sustainability. In this new work I am trying to consolidate the various levels of dissent into an undivided image using plastic as a metaphor for the increasing alienation of humanity from the natural world that supports us.

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