Studio Visit

James Cullinane

April 2019
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James Cullinane in his studio.

In March 2019 we visited James Cullinane (b. 1955, Washington, DC) in his Queens, NY studio to discover more about his past, the evolution of his work and what explorations await in the near future.

Part One:

RHC: Having grown up in Annapolis & Baltimore, MD is there any specific experience or event that you can remember from your childhood that has a direct bearing on your work today?

Cullinane: I can recall being sent to a strict military school and forced to stand at rigid attention in the hot sun. As an act of rebellion, I tensed every muscle in my fourth grade boy’s body, and forced the blood up into my head until I passed out. It took two more years to get expelled, but I knew I would fight the system from then on. Making art as a logical extension of rebellion against the prevailing social order of Baltimore (and straight America) would happen later.


James Cullinane, O Felix Culpa, 1984, Pencil, ink, gouache & stamped letters on paper, 38” x 30” (96.5cm x 76.2cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: You received your BFA in 1978 from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science. What attracted you to making art as a profession...in other words was the decision to pursue art making as a profession a conscious one? How did that develop?


James Cullinane, Two Shirts, 1985, Ink on paper, 16” x 17” (40.6cm x 43.2cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Cullinane: There was never a conscious decision to pursue art making as a profession. At age 16 I started going to the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art on the city bus at every opportunity. I remember seeing Rauschenberg’s Inferno series at the Baltimore Museum as a life-changing event. I loved the Walters…in particular, I was fascinated by Jean-Léon Gérôme’s, Duel After The Masquerade, with its mortality wounded harlequin dying beautifully white in the predawn mist. I did many collage variations on the work. Being an artist was a lifeline, and coming to New York was the only thing that mattered.


James Cullinane, Duel After the Masquerade (After Jean-Léon Gérôme) 1-6, Collage on found postcards, 6” x 4” (15.2cm x 10.1cm) ©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: What aspects of your work, if any, can you identify in your earliest professional work...or even things you made as a child that are still evident in your work today?

Cullinane: I would say that there has always been a certain kind of arabesque, a specific energy of drawing that is only mine. I titled a drawing I did a few years ago, “My Book of Kells”. I was referencing the intricate line and light that arises when one sets about constructing a specific world that is unknown, but becomes revealed in the process. It’s not THE Book of Kells, but MY book of Kells. It’s not imitation or homage, but taking that bit of something that is truly yours (or truly no ones) and daring to make something with it. I understood early on that making a painting was as serious as your life. I saw painting as a way to try to understand the world.


James Cullinane, My Book of Kells, 2015, Ink on paper, 28" x 18" (71cm x 45.7cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Part Two:

RHC: Your "My Book of Kells" drawing is a good place to discuss the interplay of expressionism and conceptualism in your work, which your work vacillates between. This “struggle”, if you will, between expressionism and conceptualism is basically, it seems to me, a visualization of emotional needs versus, or maybe in addition to, a need to make rational sense of things...a sense of control essentially. How do you see these two strains of thought playing themselves out in your work?

Cullinane: By the time I got to NY in 1975 as an 18 year old kid Rauschenberg had already erased a DeKooning drawing, John Cage had published “Silence”, and Ad Reinhardt & Frank Stella had completed their Black paintings. In other words…the paradigm of the lone abstract expressionist hero stepping into the arena of a large blank canvas was entering into it’s nadir. The reigning style musically & visually was minimalist. The artist working like a jazz soloist making unique overtly “expressive” paintings in the wake of DeKooning seemed bankrupt. By the time you first gave me the opportunity to show “Little Hands Clappiń” at Walden, I had essentially eliminated paint, canvas support, gestural incident and permanence in my work. I was interested in deconstructed historical images being projected onto the walls and built out of tens of thousands of nails. I was getting into a temporary construction that was part Gesamkunstwerk, part Navajo sand painting. There were even wall mounted speakers playing a sort of sonic Rorschach sound loop of Skip Spence’s Little Hands Clappin' forward and backwards.


James Cullinane, Little Hands Clappin', 2000, Carpet tacks on wall, 12 wall mounted speakers and sound recording, 8'h x 8'w x 20' (2.44m h x 2.44m w x 6m), Installation view at Walden, New York City
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Cullinane: Things had gotten very far from painting. I thought I’d never make a painting again, but I was mistaken. After a decade of large installation work I decided to see if I could make a painting that was any good. Mr. 9x9 was the first one that I didn’t destroy from that period. When I did “My Book of Kells” I felt that I was building a genuine vocabulary for how to work. I had this idea of trying to work with the same intensity and focus that was part of the large scale installations, but concentrated into a drawing or painting format on a much smaller scale. It was trying to make something by hand and by the book. My own book of cultural bricolage .


James Cullinane, Mr. 9x9, 2009, Paint and paper on panel, 21”x 17” (53.3cm x 43.9cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

RHC: Historical references in art, and especially literature and particularly poetry appear and reappear in your work. Who are the writers that have had the most influence on your thinking and, other than the titles of your works, what is there influence on your work?

Cullinane: There are a handful of painters that I feel have deeply affected my life, and whose greatness is unquestionable. First in the Pantheon is Cézanne. His dogged persistence of “a law of harmony”, his belief in “realizing one’s sensations”, his pursuit of the laws of impressionist painting to very different ends. Picasso said,” What forced out interest is Cézanne’s anxiety-that’s Cézanne’s lesson. I also think that Velázquez’s Las Meninas was the single greatest painting I have ever studied. The hours I have spent in front of it at the Prado was a life changing series of encounters. By way of Vélázquez (and Manet) I came to understand how profound the black, grays and ochres of Spanish paintings are. I felt that the gray was the only color. Johns, Giacometti, Goya, Marden, Rothko, Malevich all led me to a belief that with grey and black were all the color one needed.


James Cullinane, Goya Clot , 2016, Ink on panel, 12” x 12" (30.5cm x 30.5cm)
©2019 James Cullinane/Robert Henry Contemporary

Stay tuned for Part Three coming up...!

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