La Brea tar is his paint. How one man turns ‘primordial goo’ into celestial art
“Isn’t this luscious stuff?” says artist James Griffith as brown shiny goo drips from a stick he’s pulled from a five-gallon pail. A grin stretches across his face. It’s tar — from the La Brea Tar Pits, no less — and it’s the material driving new paintings on view at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica through Nov. 30.
An artist thrives on challenges, and a decade ago Griffith sought a different medium. He looked around his Altadena studio and found asphaltum, a material used in printmaking, and he began painting with it. He fell in love with its dark, rich tones, and he realized that he could get tar from a novel source. The tar pits provides him with a bucket of the stuff that lasts a year.
“It would add this other dimension,” he recalls thinking, “this primordial goo that had this history of having trapped all these animals that are now extinct.”
The irony is that his main subjects are living animals, often birds and mammals, rendered through a combination of serendipity and meticulous draftsmanship. He begins by pouring thinned tar onto a prepared surface. He lets it dry while pondering what creature might be emerging. Once he decides, he paints form and contour, then refines the imagery by scratching out details such as whiskers and fur.
The current show, “Terrestrial and Celestial,” includes creatures great and small, from a cougar to a snail. It also reveals a new direction with paintings of the Earth, moon and stars. In “Moon — Reflector” Griffith has incorporated a bit of his own history. Taking an oval wall mirror that once belonged to his grandmother, he has drawn the moon into the tar coating — relatively accurately, he says. It’s half in darkness, half in light.
“At certain angles, you can actually see yourself,” he says, “which is like the moon, a reflection.”
“The Radiant Sun” is on panel and shows a solar orb bursting with lines of magnetic force.
And in one of the largest paintings in the show, “Cougar With Milky Way,” he has combined his interests: A black cougar prowls across the canvas, the stars of the Milky Way filling his torso.
“I live up here by JPL, so many friends work on the Mars project or listen to the background radiation of the universe,” says Griffith, who will be giving a talk on his work at 11 a.m. Nov. 16 at Craig Krull. “I started reading a lot more about how we are essentially stardust.”
All this intrigues him.
“Yeah, it pulls me in,” he says, “and hopefully it also pulls an audience.”
Where: Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building B-3, Santa Monica
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Nov. 30
Info: (310) 828-6410, craigkrullgallery.com
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