I met Joe Sorren shortly after moving to the village in Manhattan last summer. At the time, I was working on a couple of Italian art articles and I noticed that one of my facebook acquaintances, was an Italian art journalist living in the city. I needed some advice and we met for a coffee. Her boyfriend turned out to be Joe Sorren and they have become my dearest neighborhood pals ever since.
It was definitely one of those its a small world moments. I have admired for many years, the soft glowing colors of Joe’s compositions and the adorable squishy looking characters that populate his works. Turns out as a person he is very much like his paintings. Always ready to lend an ear when you need a friend to talk to and he has even helped me train my Australian Shepherd puppy.
Both of us have been painting up a storm, and one of the best ways our schedules overlap is a mutual need for more supplies. On jaunts to our neighborhood art supply shop, Joe has shared with me reflections on his creative process as he made preparations for his solo show “Knock Three Times” now on display through April 6th at AFA Gallery Soho NYC.
DM: I was asking you the other day what you thought was different about the newest paintings and you answered that there is more action from a wild brush.
JS: If brushwork is 2-dimensional recordings of movement in 3-dimensional space, then it goes that the same type of brushstrokes, painted on different days as we change from day to day, would convey different emotions independent of the imagery originally intended. Just like a musical instrument will reflect the mood and intention a player can be feeling, on any given day, in it's timbre; So it can be with brushwork.
DM: You were telling me about applying acrylic tones to the canvas before you start to lay down areas of color. I was blown away when you showed me some photos on your phone from one day of work. One single canvas looked like 5 completely different paintings.
JS: I usually start a piece with a ground of some sort. about 1/2 the time ochre, 1/2 with experimental choices. Alizarin Crimson is more of my personal preference lately. And just to be sure that it's not a quick sprint to a composition or idea, I like to build up layers of brushstrokes without agenda. As this goes, images invariably come and go, different compositions suggest themselves, which then influence the brushwork. I find that beginning a piece this way, allows me to enter my work engaged and curious to see what happens next. I really need to document the process in film, but many pieces are being painted simultaneously over many years, and I don't want to get in the way of the process, you know?
DM: Over the years a particular movement of painting has been named lowbrow, then pop surrealism, and now new contemporary. What do you think distinguished your work from the bulk of this lot?
JS: For some funny reason, I got in my head at an early age not to draw Bugs Bunny, but to make up different stuff. Being older and thinking back to that time, I had thought it wasn't legal to draw other people's drawings or ideas ever, even when your a kid drawing in a sketchpad. Even when I drew Snoopy at seven, I hid the drawings, eventually throwing them out. I can't remember anyone telling me this idea at the time. I guess my 7 year old brain just decided that was the way it was. Anyhow, other than a handful times where the painting called for it (like in the painting 'Glimmer' where I painted a small girl listening to 'London Calling' by the Clash for the first time), pop-culture really doesn't make many actual appearances in my work. I think I am influenced by it, as I was raised on pop-culture and it informs me in ways I probably don't even know. But it isn't something I feel compelled to include visually in my work.
DM: You mentioned a teacher who said something to you about sketches. And you also mentioned that if you were to paint from a sketch your mind would be bored and it would feel more like work. Do you feel the same for reference materials?
JS: I use reference, if I am painting a dump truck and can't remember how they attach the the dump to the truck, I'll look it up and see. But in general, I prefer my memory and compositional needs when considering objects and figures in my work. I was telling you about a talk the great Marshall Arisman gave in our college where he discussed the concept: 'If you make a sketch before painting, the sketch is the art, the painting is the copy.' I was always attracted to this extreme outlook because it offered a pathway into allowing painting to be an adventure instead of a re-rendering. Especially now, when computers can make everything perfect and consistent and controlled looking, it can make art feel a little caged and controlled to me. I want to find the line where the accidental just happens to be placed in such a way as to resolve the imagery as well as resonate with the imagery.
DM: I loved the story you told me about how a sequence of brush strokes made a dog from your past appear in one corner of the composition and that you let him “hang out” in the painting for a while and eventually painted him out. Do you have any other stories like this that occurred as you prepared for the show?
JS: Literally hundreds. But it's ok, because they arrive and go and come back again. What is being painted is what needs to be for that time. I find when I am struggling with a piece or a part of a piece, that it is often because the image I am holding onto for the painting, is no longer what the piece is or wants to be.
DM: Also you mentioned trying to develop a way to capture and share these moments. You spoke of a go-pro camera that you could wear around your neck like Flavor Flav’s clock. I think thats a great idea. What would you do with this footage?
JS: I dunno, still in the,' whats the best way to capture this process' stage.
Interview by David Molesky
Joe Sorren's exhibition at AFA Gallery SOHO will be open through April 6, 2014