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Portrait of the artist as a late bloomer

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"The idea that the emotional condition of the artist is the subject of art--that van Gogh's emotional state was reflect-ed in his work--is one of the great myths of our time," says artist James Garrett Faulkner. "Van Gogh was one of the most disciplined of artists; as a regularly working artist, he overcame his problems."

Faulkner's own career path has not been a smooth one. He was inadvertently introduced to art as a young boy by his grandmother. On the weekends they would often head downtown to a restaurant her friends owned near Union Station called Cafe Bohemia. "She used to go there on Saturdays. The first time she took me downtown, she got me a membership in the Art Institute. She brought me to the corner of Clinton at Adams and told me, 'If you walk east you'll get to an art museum.' I wasn't supposed to reappear till four o'clock." Faulkner, now 64, recalls a museum very different from today's, one more oriented to connecting art with history. "It's interesting that in publications of the last 40 or 50 years there's more and more about art as it relates to social history, yet museums try to move away from that notion, except in didactic labels. Back then the Art Institute still had a plaster cast gallery," reproductions of major sculptures. "There were chess sets whose pieces depicted the kings and queens of England. They had a very beautiful collection of Renaissance medallions, each cast to memorialize a person or event; each one told a particular history. You wondered who all these people were--Lucrezia Borgia, Cosimo de' Medici--and soon I started reading history."

Curiosity about the outer world remains important to Faulkner. "Much art today is generated by artists who seem to think that what they're about--their emotional condition, the detritus of their lives--is what we want to look at rather than reactions to the external world. The manufacture of art becomes part of a self-help program." Meanwhile, they ignore "this wonderful and in many ways beautiful external world--everything from sitting on the CTA and watching other people to what kind of day it is to street signage"--to, of course, history. He's especially fond of nonart museums, such as Paris's Musee des Arts et Metiers, which he says is "50 times better than our Museum of Science and Industry. There are so many things in that museum that are central images in 20th-century modernism, and people don't even know they're there."

Faulkner first attended art school at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design, where he studied photography with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. "I wanted to be one of the six greatest photographers in the world, but suddenly I realized that my teachers were right--I wasn't a terrific photographer." Influenced by Joseph Cornell, whose "serious addiction to the past" he shared, Faulkner made assemblages while studying at the School of the Art Institute, but "they were wretched--they never seemed to express my interest in the material of the past. I later destroyed most of my SAIC work. On several other occasions in my 30s and 40s I destroyed almost everything I'd made, because I didn't think it was very interesting," he explains. "We all know plenty of artists who seem very satisfied with what they do; if they are, that's wonderful. I was doing other things--trying to find out about where I am, where we are. I wanted to see as much of the world as I could. I wanted to sit around in cafes and watch as many people as I could. I also drank a lot and took a lot of drugs. I once went with a friend to a party in Gary, Indiana, in the 50s, and two weeks later we came out of a drug stupor in Central Park in New York and had no idea how we got there. I was much addicted to sex; it was a vivid interest of mine, and I was successful at it. I abandoned drugs years ago, but I don't know that I have settled down as an artist."

Faulkner didn't start showing his art until he was in his late 40s. In his new work he has attached his collages to the undersides of clear plates he purchased at Crate & Barrel. "I've been mostly making collages of found images on paper. We live in Niagaras of reproduced images; some of them are so wonderful. I love taking a piece of an image which means one thing and then putting it together with other things and producing something that means something else--creating your own world while using images from the external world." The work stems in part "from thinking, What's it like to make something on a circle?" Faulkner points out that circular pictures are rare: Picasso did a few, and there's Michelangelo's Doni tondo in Florence, on whose composition he based some of his designs. One collage is composed of dislocated map fragments from various cities. "Maps are one of the great fantasy art forms. I love Japanese maps of the 18th and 19th centuries. Everything's in a horizontal line; it's a travel route done as though you never had to make any angular movements. I also did a punning plate about that Duchamp Mona Lisa," the notorious mustachioed Mona Lisa titled L.H.O.O.Q., a coarse pun whose letters sound like "she's got a hot ass" in French. Faulkner's plate adds clothing to an underwear model in imitation of a portrait of Duchamp in drag by Man Ray. Images of teenage boys also appear on the plate; one seems to whisper "L.H.O.O.Q." to another. "It's about presumptions we make where gender is concerned; it's about teenagers who know much too much about sex--so they see Duchamp as someone they could sodomize.

"I'm very hedonistic," Faulkner says. "I have lived my life primarily to give myself pleasure. Making things gives me pleasure; if it didn't, I wouldn't do it. I enjoy gluing pieces of paper to other pieces of paper; I don't think I have some mission."

James Garrett Faulkner's new exhibition opens tonight from 5 to 8 at Roy Boyd Gallery, 739 N. Wells, and continues until August 23. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 to 5:30. Call 312-642-1606 for more. --Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Garrett Faulkner photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

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