Studio visit with Jaime Brett Treadwell: exploring the next dimension of color, form and line

High-chroma 80s nostalgia meets the fourth dimension in Jaime Brett Treadwell’s eye-catching work. The 2D geometric forms that characterize Jaime’s current work seem to glow and hover above the panels they’re painted on, creating mesmerizing optical illusions. Jaime’s interest in pure abstraction has increased over the years as he’s found himself drawn deep into a wormhole of design and color possibilities. “Geometric forms have a sense of power and clarity that can be somewhat seductive, possibly because geometry appears exact and indisputable,” Jaime explains. This trajectory has led him to reflect deeply on color, and experiment with how this impacts visual deception, nostalgia, spatial ambiguity, and retinal stimulation. Growing up in the 80s, Jaime’s aesthetic cues draw strongly from electronic music, art, films and style from the era and as such his work is a fantastic mashup of kitschy “low” and “high” art influences.

Jaime lives and works in Philadelphia with his wife Heather Ramsdale (who is also an artist) and is a full-time Associate Professor of Art at Delaware County Community College. In the wonderfully candid conversation below, Jaime lets us in on his artistic process, what steered his move towards abstraction, how teaching influences his own art-making, and how to negotiate failures or “gutter balls” as he calls them. Enjoy!

AMM: Hi Jaime! You share a lot of work in progress images on your site (which is great!). What does your creative process typically look like?

JT: Typically when I begin a painting, working flat first, I’ll rough out a design directly on the painting panel using rulers and a hard graphite pencil. I spend a bit of time contemplating and resolving the overall design making sure every line and shape serves a purpose within the whole; also, I make certain the graphite drawing can translate as a painting. Once I’m satisfied with the design I’ll hang the panel on my studio wall and start painting. This part of the process also takes a lot of deliberation and indecision, but eventually I’ll commit to a color scheme, etc. Next, I’ll select an area to begin painting, possibly mix gradients, or prepare whatever colors I decide to go with. I prefer to work on a hard panel surface mostly because I paint such small shapes, and I need to stabilize my hand by leaning onto the panel. I paint with tiny brushes one small shape at a time, which can be tedious and laborious, but it’s worth it. My process is slow and methodical which provides the time necessary for me to contemplate the next move. The more I describe my process I’m starting to hear how unexciting it sounds.

AMM: How does your studio space influence your headspace and by extension the work you produce?

JT: Over the years my process has changed along with my work. During my earlier figurative phase, I would often appropriate from found images I plastered throughout my studio, which looked chaotic and unorganized. The images peppered throughout my space definitely influenced my work. I found myself painting a mishmash of unusual combinations similar to the cluttered relationships on my walls. Currently, my studio space is organized and my process is more systematic. I’m not sure if my new work is a result of that or the other way around. Either way my work has entered into a non-objective geometric stage, and my studio facilitates the way I work. Maybe the older you become the less time you have, so one tends to become more efficient with time and space. Currently, I try to rely solely on invention or further exploring ideas from previous paintings hanging in the studio.

AMM: Your new body of work feels a bit like an 80s view of the fourth dimension. What sparked your interest in exploring the geometric forms that feature in this body of work?

JT: My wife is a sculptor and her work is so pure and simple as if every decision feels right. Her unique sensibilities helped me to develop a deeper appreciation for unusual geometric shape and form. My wife’s name is Heather Ramsdale, Google her, shameless plug. Anyways, if you look at my previous work you’ll see moments of geometric design and color experiments throughout the composition. I found myself more interested in exploring the relationships between design, color, and line than representational subject matter; eventually I made a full departure. Geometric forms have a sense of power and clarity that can be somewhat seductive, possibly because geometry appears exact and indisputable. Also, another lure geometric forms possess is a sense of abstract purity as opposed to the various associations derived from representation. Recently, I’ve entered a never-ending rabbit hole of geometric lunacy, although, in my new body of work I recently incorporated curved shapes and line. Big move for me!

AMM: Seven or so years ago your work was more figurative and fantastical. Can you tell us a little about how your style has evolved over the years?

JT: I realize it’s quite a jump from then to now. The transition was slow, but consistent and lasted over many paintings. What propelled me to move further into a formal and minimal direction is that I lost interest in the figurative/narrative discourse often connected to representational work. The dialogue focused on the technical facility required to paint the figures and the time it took to paint them. Discussions revolving time and skill don’t interest me. I do realize this was not the only criterion used for evaluating my earlier works. There’s an obvious dystopian communal narrative in the older work that I enjoyed, but I felt the process was becoming a conceptual recipe that restricted growth. My biggest fear was not having the freedom to execute future ideas. Concentrating on design elements offered an endless exploration and freedom that I found appealing. My goal is to maintain a personal newness that comes from anticipating new outcomes; once the process and decision becomes formulaic, I lose interest.

Even though my work appears different now, there are common denominators evident in my palette and how I interweave ideas. In earlier work, I used specific colors to feminize masculine objects and to also portray a sense of fiction intended to contrast the depressing issues of the “state fair” subject matter. In my more recent non-objective paintings I’ve been experimenting with how color can impact visual deception, nostalgia, spatial ambiguity, and retinal stimulation. Overall, my painting routine, both in older and recent work, simulates a science experiment. Similar to the creation of Frankenstein, I combine a variety of components in hopes to find unusual relationships. The only difference is that I used to combine representational forms, whereas now I intermingle design elements.

AMM: What are some of the themes that you’re interested in and explore in your work?

JT: My paintings tend to be a mash-up of Art history, Sci-fi, Retro Futurism, Miami Vice, MTV, Op Art tenets, and early computer graphics. Recently I made six new paintings incorporating “Structural Constellations” made famous by the painter Josef Albers. His designs are about simplicity and reduction. I thought it would be amusing to incorporate other factors that pop up in my work such as neon light, 80s nostalgia, and early digital aesthetics. Not to poke fun at Josef Albers, I admire his design sensibilities and think of these paintings as somewhat of an homage. I’m just an odd bird that likes to mishmash things and make it work. For me the combination is new and satisfying. My color decisions are very important to me and lend themselves to the themes I explore. I also teach a color + design theory course each semester. This course provides a bounty of material and constant discourse that often times generate color schemes and design. I think of my students as one big research group. Often times I demonstrate to students how to design a form, or I’ll suggest color options that might trigger an idea I am working with in the studio. I absorb everything around me, which has its drawbacks, but I’m always on the lookout for things to wiggle into my painting.

AMM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received and how did it affect your artmaking?

JT: It wasn’t advice, but more of a realization of the level and commitment it would take to achieve my goals. Over ten years ago my colleague, Joshua Marsh and his wife Chie Fueki invited me over for dinner. Joshua and Chie met during graduate school at Yale University in the late 90s. Joshua and I were hired as adjunct professors to teach a drawing course at the local community college. We were both just starting out our teaching careers and formed a friendship. I assumed we were operating at similar levels, but little did I know both Joshua and Chie’s work was far beyond anything I have encountered. Joshua and Chie took me on a house tour where they also showed me their beautiful spacious studios and works in progress. Chie was nearing her deadline for a solo show at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York City, and Joshua was between shows, experimenting with new ideas that blew me away. Trying to hide my face-drop and remain casual, I was realizing that they were out of my league far exceeding what I was tinkering with in my studio. I’m splashing around in the kiddie pool, and compared to me they were professional synchronize swimmers in the Olympic-sized pool. The dinner and conversation was great to say the least, but the one thing I learned from that experience was how to be a professional. It was a major wakeup call that changed the way I thought about my work, scale, and how far to pursue an idea. Two years later I completed a body of work that spring boarded my career. I don’t think they realize how much that experience changed my life.

AMM: Have you ever made a work that completely bombed? How do you work with failure in your artistic practice?

JT: Oh yes, LOTS! Although, I believe failure is a good thing. You need to make a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. It’s difficult to understand that concept early in your career; you want everything to be amazing. I tell my students to make tons of bad work; work out the bad and learn to recognize what works, then capitalize on the good. A while back my former professor and I were talking shop, etc. I said that I entered a zone of confidence where I think I can resolve any painting I start. He said, “That means you’re a professional”. Even though that made me feel 20 feet tall, the reality is that bad paintings are in the future no matter if you’re a pro or not. Today, if I make a bad painting or can’t work out a solution, I know when to stop. Too many times before, I suckered myself into a cycle of bad decisions where I couldn’t resolve a painting to save my life. My stubbornness kept persisting, time wasted, confidence shrinking; I call these paintings, “gutter balls”. Like bowling, you cannot recover from a gutter ball. Best thing for me to do is to face the painting toward the wall, look away, and start another one.

AMM: How have you gone about promoting your work and managing your artistic career? Do you have any advice to share with emerging artists?

JT: My advice is to make the work that is sincere and honest to you. Find peace with yourself in the studio, because it’s a lonely practice. Make decisions that energize you, and do not consider how your work will be perceived from the invented audience in your head. Don’t give up when things are difficult. Develop a process that works for you, but make sure your process does not generate the same work over and over and over. Find ways to keep things fresh, and always move forward. Everything else will follow.

In regard to actual promotion and management, I have a few suggestions. Don’t expect the gallery to disseminate your work to the masses; you cannot rely on someone else to shape your future. Once you feel your work is show-ready, I suggest submitting it to various online blogs. For me, I submitted my work to Hi-Fructose Magazine’s online blog in 2010. They responded and wanted to do an interview. Their platform of readership and global presence initiated a landslide of press that helped to generate a wave of additional interviews, gallery inquiries, and promotion. That single moment jumpstarted my career. I was under the impression that only galleries and curators can push your work, but after that experience I learned that online readership is expansive and immediate. Submit to everything, rejection is inevitable, but do your best to ignore it.

AMM: Do you have any daily rituals to get your creative juices flowing?

JT: For me, I need to anticipate going to the studio. Having a plan before entering the studio helps me to look forward to working. I often plan out my next move during my last studio visit. When I’m working on a lengthy section of a painting, I’m focused and absorbed in the work, which puts me in the best mental state to reflect on future decisions for my next visit. If I do not have a plan I find myself contemplating or second-guessing a move, which freezes momentum. I hate that feeling. It took years to understand how to be both innovative and efficient in the studio. I now trust my process and move forward without worrying where the next idea will come from. There are times where I do start cold and need to figure out where to enter a painting. During these times I play music, which of course will have an 80s electronic vibe to it. I start off with smaller panels to work out my ideas before committing to the larger panels. Also, I’ll try a new color combination or design, which energizes me to further explore ideas. Instagram helps, I follow quite a few artists, galleries, and curators that I admire. It helps to see what they are experimenting with, process shots, new work, etc. Often times I’ll catch something that motivates me to experiment.

AMM: Have you always been into kitschy 80s aesthetics? What appeals to you about this?

JT: I’m a sucker for anything cheesy from that time period including solo digital synthesizer riffs or Don Johnson’s corny cool-guy vibe from Miami Vice. Not to mention, I dressed like Don Johnson as a kid; he was my idol. I know these things are ridiculous and amusing, but on the other hand I hold a deep appreciation for 80s kitsch, retro electronic music, and a high chroma color palette. Maybe going through my tweens during the 80s makes that nostalgic feeling more potent. Whatever it is, bits and pieces from that time period both consciously and subconsciously continue to emerge in my work. There’s a sense of comfort with what feels familiar to me.

AMM: What makes you laugh? Has humour influenced your artmaking at all over the years?

JT: Yes! I love humor. I love comedians, I think of them as performance artists channeling a similar practice as the visual artist. Tig Natoro and Louie CK are basically performance artists that employ comedy. I listen to comedians when I work, along with podcasts, anything that engages me during the laborious parts. As far as humor in my work, I feel it is clearly present in my former paintings, but more subtle in the new work. I usually laugh at my work when I am able to combine two elements that don’t belong together. Or, if I get away with it, I like to sprinkle in low-art kitschy elements like cheesy pastel purples and pinks with serious high art movements like Minimalism or Op Art from the 60s and 70s. There has always been a low art/high art combination in my work that makes me laugh. Some artists may take their ideas a little too seriously; to each is their own. In the end the maker is the viewer, and you might as well laugh a little while doing it.

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

JT: I teach full-time at Delaware County Community college, which occupies a lot of my time; however, I really enjoy teaching and everything involved such as preparing students, developing projects, and constantly learning new things. As far as non-work related, I played ice hockey throughout my youth and in college, so I still dabble here and there in the rink for exercise. I have a little place in Maine that I love to visit and never stop thinking about. But, one of my most favorite things to do is sharing a few pale ales with my wife at the end of a long day. Also, I like to play with my cat Prettykitty… can’t ignore her.

Find out more about the artist: www.jaimetreadwell.com

Text and interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.