John Folsom's Studio 2020, Atlanta, Georgia
John Folsom: In Dialogue
by Deanna Sirlin
John Folsom,Turquoise Deep II, 2020, 48 X 48 inches, mixed media on photoboard
John Folsom is an artist who moved from traditional photography into the conversation of painting through the use of a hand-rendered patina of oil paint and wax. Folsom grew up in Paducah, Kentucky in the southern landscape of a part of the county where the Tennessee and Ohio rivers come together. Paducah is also the home of the National Quilt Museum, and one wonders if the celebration of quilt-making in this part of the country blended with the natural landscape had an imprint on the pictorial possibilities perceived by
this artist. Perhaps the geometric abstractions of quilts informed Folsom’s desire for order in his photographs of landscapes. Folsom currently resides in Atlanta where he has lived and worked for the past 22 years. His works range from large scale paintings with photographic underlays to sculptural works in translucent media that are rectangular and in command the space with the clarity of representation and a compositional structure that borders on minimalism.
John Folsom,Turquoise Core V, 2020, 12 X 6.5 X 6 inchesArchival pigment on repurposed acrylic in marble dust base
Deanna Sirlin: You began your art career as a photographer. When and why did you decide to add paint and wax to the photos? Can you elaborate on the purpose of the additional media?
John Folsom: My love for the medium of photography began when I was a student. I became addicted to a kind of luminescent magic related to the materials. Once I learned the basics, I began to question what else could be attained by seeing the image as a jumping-off point synthesized with other media. At my college there was a Time-Life series of photography books which was highly influential in steering my experimentation. There were all kinds of exercises related to solarization, darkroom techniques and print manipulation that I incorporated early. As a student, I was the freak taking an Xacto blade to my negatives, much to the chagrin of my professors. I was immediately interested in texture and more painterly effects and became interested in the pictorialist movement of the 19th century. The work that I became known for in the 90’s was landscape based and highly romantic but also ironic regarding materials. I started incorporating the grid because I knew it was an efficient way to make an image larger and not be burdened with more expensive large format paper. I started applying encaustic to the photographs in about 1995. At that time, encaustic was experiencing a resurgence, and I was interested in suffusing the surface of the print with translucence. I liked the effect as it related to memory but it also transformed the print into a kind of object. Eventually I decided I wanted more control, so I began using straight oil paint with an applied wax varnish. This was not unlike a hand-colored photograph but I was more interested in mimicking camera effects such as vignetting and lens distortion. Palettes were muted and warm which visually connected the work to alternative processes of the 19th and early 20th century. Over time the work has evolved and become lighter in feel. I reached a point where I think I was trying to make the subject matter disappear and I’m still trying to get there.
John Folsom, Blue Skies Come and Go, 2020, 48X48, Mixed media on photoboard
DS: There is a compelling relationship of the geometric sky to the ocean water below. This created grid also enters the space of the water but overlays it. Can you tell us more about how the grid is integral to the work?
JF: The ocean work demanded something different in the way it was presented. I am obsessed with the reduced or minimal nature of the horizon line and the way someone’s memory of experience can be ignited by something so simple. I had previously been using a physically assembled grid, but the ocean works are scored with a blade and a T-square almost like drawing on the surface. I borrowed heavily from the philosophy of Agnes Martin and the idea that the structure is a kind of underlying truth in all things. I am printing the images in rows, which are of measured heights. The cut lines across the width are completely random and not measured. Initially, I was influenced by billboard stripping and how the vertical strips disrupt and reveal layers or establish a rhythm. This also reminds me of music for some reason, and I began life as a music major, so maybe there is the influence of the musical staff and notation.
John Folsom, Aqueous Familiar, 2019,48 X 48 inches, Archival pigment print on board with oil and wax medium
DS: Who are the artists who inform you on combining representation and abstraction? I see a direct relationship to Rauschenberg, for example, as an artist mixing paint and photographic representation.
JF: I love that you mention Rauschenberg because he is a superhero for me, my favorite of the 20th century. In my previous work combining the disciplines of painting and photography was more about creating a seamless symbiosis. I wanted pieces in which it was almost impossible to discern where the photograph ended and the painting took over. With the ocean pieces I was trying to decouple that idea and force more of a hard juxtaposition. I see this in Richter’s photographic works and also the work of Ian Wallace. It also goes back to that billboard idea and using a universal image that relates to a tourist or holiday promotion. The grid or lines in this instance become more of an index of experience.
John Folsom, Study In Blue III, 2020, 40 X 32", Archival pigment on paper with oil and wax medium
DS: Is light important in the work? How did you chose your palette for these particular works?
JF: The softness of the colors seems to reference the sky or impressions of things. They’re not really that important but they help to reinforce the grid. The structure is more important.
John Folsom, Mood Indigo, 2020 48 x 48 inches, Mixed media on photoboard
DS: There is a feeling of calm in your work. Is it becoming more pronounced in this time of the pandemic?
JF: I grappled with what to make during this critical moment in history and kept coming up short. Art production is not the kind of thing that can be thought out and then executed, at least not for me. I have kept a meditation practice off and on for the past 25 years and this work seems like a direct manifestation of that so it made sense to go back into this series and try to figure out ways to not only refine them but to reduce them even more. I am still not quite sure what that means but I hope the work is getting better.
Atlanta, Georgia 2020
John Folsom is a multimedia artist born and raised in Paducah, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor of
Fine Arts in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University. Folsom's studio is in Fulton County in Hapeville, Georgia. His work was most recently acquired by the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.