Monday, October 13, 2008

Art Space Talk: Bruce Noel Mortenson

Bruce Noel Mortenson firmly believes that art should be exhilarating. He is known for utilizing a playful mixture of biomorphic abstraction and images which are densely packed in surreal compositions. By exploring aspects of his own imagination he strives to make connections with others by creating a window into his imagination-- a place where his visual statement reflects organized chaos. Bruce holds a BA in Studio Arts from the University of Illinois, an MFA in Studio Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and a Professional Art Education Certificate Degree from SAIC.

Venus of Opulent Tension, 60"x72", Acrylic on Canvas, 2006

Brian Sherwin: Bruce, I first learned of your work during the announcement of the results of the myartspace New York, New York Competition 2007. You were one of the 50 finalist of that juried competition. The jury panel included James Rondeau, Frances and Thomas Dittmer Curator of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, Jessica Morgan, Curator, Contemporary Art, The Tate Modern, London, and Steven Zevitas, Publisher and Editor of New American Paintings. What have you achieved since that time? Can you discuss some of your recent accomplishments or exhibits?

Bruce Noel Mortenson: Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk about my work. As a serious artist, you often work hard without expecting recognition. This past year has been full of surprises in terms of awards. I am very grateful to have been chosen as one of fifty finalists from the myartspace New York, New York Competition. Some of my recent accomplishments include: a Fellowship Grant from The Illinois Arts Council and a Community Arts Assistance Grant from The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. I appreciate the opportunity to have received a solo exhibition at The Chicago Cultural Center, to have pieces displayed at The Miami Basel Art Fair and to have works published in New American Paintings.

BS: Bruce, you studied art at the University of Illinois and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Can you briefly discuss your academic years and how they influenced you? Did you have an influential instructors? Also, do you have any advice for students who are considering those programs?

BNM: Attending art school-not to mention completing a degree-is becoming an expensive venture these days. In my experience, getting this type of degree might not help you land a job. I would advise young artists to take a closer look at what they want to achieve with their art education. It is also important to focus on the strongest attribute in the work itself. Once you understand the identity of your work, you begin to see the vastness within.

It seems that the resolution of one’s own art form is the most pervading issue for graduate art students. It can be frustrating to juggle a multitude of classes while trying to focus on the nature and direction of your work. For me, there is no doubt that I received an immeasurable foundation of art concepts and history from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. But there were times when it felt like I was performing some kind of tedious surgery. I was searching for the strongest vein in my work and trying to find a deeper sense of truth and authenticity. It was Barbara Rossi at the Art Institute who helped me tremendously with some practical methods of simple artistic decision-making.

Another artist and instructor from SAIC who stood out from other instructors was Frank Piatek. He is a very thought provoking man who planted a seed in my head about quantum physics and Kabbalah. It was years later when I realized the relevance of these philosophies as it relates to my work.
Walking Through Euphoria, 72"x96"W, Acrylic on Canvas, 2007

BS: Within the context of your art you explore biomorphic and emblematic elements. Can you discuss this interest? Also, tell about the themes you explore with your art…

BNM: Biomorphism is a term that refers to the use of organic, amebic-like shapes in art. I am fascinated with these kinds of forms because they are whimsical and symbolize the miraculous force within life itself. I have such passion for developing varieties of shapes and observing how they interact with each other on a visual plane. For me it’s like setting up characters on a stage. In formal terms, I also refer to my work as being emblematic.
My shapes, for the most part, are frontally placed in a non-overlapping manner. I do not overlap my abstract shapes as seen in Elizabeth Murray’s work. To me, visual elements lose their sense of power when they are overlapped. This is similarly true when viewing actors on a stage. With this technique, each and every character or shape is treated with respect. There is a sense of symbolism and purpose that grows from this way of composing. It is through this process that I feel genuinely connected to a source of energy. My goal is for people to have a similar experience when viewing my art.

BS: What are the social implications of your work? Are you exploring any aspects of society or culture? If so, can you go into further detail about that?

BNM: Social service through volunteering and teaching is tremendously important in my life. It is through showing kindness and responsibility to each other that we all become better human beings. I worked several years as a schoolteacher on the West Side of Chicago, which was a very humbling experience. Working with homeless children who live in dire situations really puts your own life into perspective.

My recent community project is with the Around the Coyote organization and high school students at Noble Street Charter High School. We are creating murals for a public park in Chicago. I am enjoying every minute of it.

Phantasmic Conceptions (Panel 3), 72”x96”, Acrylic on Canvas, 2007

BS: So in your opinion, what is the importance of developing imagination? In your opinion why is it that it is more important than ever for people to expand their mental horizons today, so to speak?

BNM: I am very philosophical when it comes to social issues and I do want to come back to our conversation about art. The whole theme of imagination seems to resonate in both my art and my life.

It’s not a matter of developing it. Every person possesses a wealth of imagination but we choose not to trust it. With the overwhelming escalation of problems in our world today, this is time for the human psyche to expand its’ mental horizons. Realizing there is more to situations than we perceive on the surface, we have to understand that this it is just half the battle. We need to instill in our children more inventive approaches to problem solving in schools. It was my unfortunate experience as a schoolteacher to witness the non-stop repetition of teaching facts and “teaching to the test”.

Einstein’s famous iconic quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, encapsulates the foundation on which we have built all of humanity. Every single invention, whether scientific theory, scientific principle, philosophy, architecture, work of art or piece of music comes from the thoughts of single individuals who became inspired by their imagination.

Grey Rapture, 30"x40", Acrylic on Canvas, 2006

BS: Tell us about your current work. Can you give our readers some insight into the pieces you have been working on recently?

BNM: I think it is important to be flexible and open to growth while still maintaining your original integrity and vision. My paintings for the last few years have grown tremendously in scale, as large as twenty-four feet in length. This gets a little challenging when operating in a small studio. Recently I have shifted to creating smaller works on wood that range between ten and forty inches. There is a jewel-like quality that comes across in these smaller pieces.

BS: Tell us more about your influences? Have you been inspired by any specific person or event?

BNM: I love the work of Beatriz Milhazez. I can relate to her use of graphic shapes and the undulating energy in the work. Historically I have always had an affinity for the work of Wassily Kandinsky’s for his metaphor of music and spirituality. I like the jagged urban chaos in the work of Stuart Davis and Joan Miro for his sense of play and imagination.

BS: You have exhibited dozens of times since 1994. What do you enjoy about exhibiting and the reactions people have upon viewing your work?

BNM: I enjoy the satisfaction of working up to goals. It is surprising and funny to watch people’s reaction to my work. In larger shows I have heard adults act like children, showing their enjoyment in “oohs and aahs.” They begin to open up to the ambiguities in my work and become connected to their own sense of play and imagination. This is when I know my work is successful. But then there are others who have a difficult time with accepting art that is not fully representational. My work is not about making sense of the real world. If I had to create art based solely on the real world, I would not be an artist.

Abundant Notations, 30"x40", Acrylic on Canvas, 2006

BS: Are you involved with any current or upcoming exhibits?

BNM: I am currently exploring several other exhibition possibilities.

BS: Finally, when everything is said and done... what is the visual legacy that you hope to leave behind?

BNM: I hope that imagination will be part of my legacy. I would like my work to open the eyes and imaginations of people so they can become aware of things they’ve never seen before.
You can learn more about Bruce Noel Mortenson by visiting his website-- Bruce Noel Mortenson is a member of the community-- You can read more of my interviews at--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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