A CONVERSATION WITH
ARTIST MIKE NESBIT
Michael Nesbit (a native of Los Angeles) is a fine Artist
and project designer for the award winning architecture firm, Morphosis. Along with his current discipline, Michael is exploring areas between art and architecture, with an interest in technique and representation. These particular interests have worked their way into gallery exhibits from Los Angeles to Brooklyn. Previous to his current work, Michael played four years of professional baseball with the Seattle Mariners. He received his Bachelor’s of Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
We have worked together in the past and I was able to catch up with him over the phone to discuss his latest work and ongoing direction...
Sam: So our themes this year is the under-construction-ness that defines New Orleans, the constant rebuilding, the roads are never finished - it’s a state of being -- it is the stage there is no finality. And there is rarely a spectacle at the end of the construction, you don’t really even know what they built.
Mike: You don’t even know as you’re doing it, when it ends.
So, I thought it would be good for good to talk to you about your work, its placeness, and maybe even New Orleans.
Absolutely, I have been to New Orleans a few times now, it’s definitely a city like none other. Especially compared to New York or Los Angeles; the only way I can describe it as a visitor is just how saturated it is. And every time I go there’s such a level of cultural saturation. Whether it’s the food, the local people, visitors, I don’t’ know. I always find the food such a saturated thing, it seems everywhere you turn you get a combination of flavors and things you can only find there, which I imagine that can only extend itself into other things. Whether it’s just the streets or art and architecture.
I like the word saturated.
Whenever I think of New Orleans, and whenever I describe it to someone it’s such a saturated place. And it has a level of saturation that when you think of a city, I would say Tokyo has a level of saturation as well but it’s different. The layers of saturation there are much more - the edges are easier to define, I think things are a lot more linear, grid-line, based, and stacked. When I think about New Orleans and its level of saturation there’s a lot more mixing, and things maybe mix in a friendly way, and others are forced to mix with each other.
Exactly, sometimes there are disturbances, and there is an intimacy in its size - I can even hear the foghorns off the Mississippi barges from my house, it would take me a bit to get to the river, but I can hear them. There’s few boundaries between things. My bedroom window faces into eight backyards - all the back-lots, we all share space.
Yeah its funny, cause where we live, on top of this building kind of right on the outskirts of downtown, right where i’m sitting right now; and especially when you think about boundaries in relationship to space, and you talk about a foghorn or something off the Mississippi -- I’m literally right underneath the LAX flight path. We get this continuous line of planes, and some I swear, like the old trains, if they opened up the bathroom it would drop right on us. I had some friends over and we got an app that actually registers these planes, you just point your camera at it, and it tells you what type of plane, where it’s headed, the speed it’s going. When you talk about boundaries it’s an interesting boundary that you don’t typically think of, not as close to you.
So let’s talk about the work a little bit.
Where do you want to begin?
What were you doing today?
Well today I’m actually painting the place, one of the interior walls. But, what’s funny is I was painting -- you can never just paint a wall. Even when you just start painting something in your place, and it’s a wall you’re not thinking of it as having any meaning, the wall is just that; maybe it’s just a color. Maybe it’s one of the more intimate walls, it’s a wall in a place you’re living and you see it everyday. There are certain colors that are added, at least to our walls, that are maybe more personal to how Amy and I live, but when I start thinking about ideas like the abstract technical, at least to me I think of some level of abstraction, in a way that it doesn’t have an objectionable meaning. And when I think about the technical part of it, not just the initial physical application to get to that abstractness, but once you start to implement that technique -- or that abstraction that’s in your head, and maybe its something thats figuratively abstract when it’s finally represented, that abstract thing is produced by a technique. And I think at least for me in working in between those two realms, the abraction and technical, is understanding when I roll paint up and down on a wall, there’s one stroke up - two strokes down, and you understand there’s a maybe a gradient or saturation of ink.
Then you become aware of that and then you try to repeat it, and repeat a simple technical application to the abstraction -- roll up and down two times -- repeat. And I think that anytime you create something abstract at the beginning you are creating your own rule-set, that produces something in the end that’s quite personal. I think that understanding the technique and the abstraction, while still creating something that’s personal, and also something that can be described to someone else -- can create a more communal discussion; that can even bring us to life. We had this swipe show, you have a good understanding of the swipe, because you were a part of that, and I think of the phlattness drawings - and I think there’s two very different, distinct working methods - working through different conceptual problems, and coming with a solution that’s in some kind of representation. And I think when you’re some kind of artist or even an architect, were always responsible with understanding technique, and that the technique is going to produce some kind of representation that we use to describe our ideas. Especially when you go from a building like a single family home, to how do you describe a positive implementation into something much more urban like infrastructure -- I think i’m gearing back to the difference between let’s say the phlattness show -- which was a series of drawings that I think architecture could relate to because there were techniques involved in drawings like drafting, and programs that people are contemporarily used to.
At the time I was also reading about Alfred Jarry, who’s a French playwright around the tail end of the nineteenth century. And he developed a writing style called the pataphor, and the pataphor was an idea of unlike a metaphor where you describe something, the bicycle is like a light, or you describe something as something else, in a metaphor you can still connect to the thing you are describing to the original thing. Unlike a pataphor, which is even further removed than a metaphor, so a metaphor of a metaphor creates a pataphor, through doing that you relive the initial ideas or meaning of the original object to something completely brand new, and so I think the implementation of that in the phlattness show. There was a drawing of a boot, and the drawings that were shown in the that show were drawings of a drawing of a boot. What was important to create drawings of drawings as opposed to consistently drawing the object, is that by drawing the drawing we were able to move the representation or misrepresentation further beyond the boot so that the boot didn’t even matter. Thus, we were only concerned with the information and the thing right in front of you. And I think as a design method or a practice it allows the person whose generating it, who’s searching through means and ideas to press something not necessarily forward, but further differentiated from the original thing. And so I think that the final representation of that show which was also done in lithography and offset printing, and that technique of collage, of stacking images on top of each other is another way of extending that idea of phlattness; where you’re removing the image that your collaging onto another image. In a way you’re erasing the meaning of the original image. There’s not necessarily a hierarchy as far as this is better than that. These things are different at one point, but once they’re put together they have their own generated meaning. And so the phlatness show was much more about a representation of a representation, or misrepresentation, or complexity for the sake of complexity. Also, there was an over-saturation, an intentional over-saturation of images in the drawings in a way to kind of -- maybe there is a little satire of parametrics or in a way that you give so much information that it’s meaningless.
I think there’s a little bit of that.
There definitely an intentional insanity of saturation of information, whether in just physical offset collaging as a technique, but also in the scale of numbers, and scale of drawing that is much more maybe understood in architecture; but saturated to a point where its really considered kind of meaningless. And I think that after that show it was at least for me -- and I think as an architect as well, in thinking about scale -- if that was a show maybe dealing with how far you can zoom in, I think it was important to produce another show where we broaden the scale as to how we think as architectus; materials and space. So, conceptually for that show it was important to come up with a strategy and idea that had a level of simplicity, whereas the phlattness show - a lot of people went in there and they kinda had to take in what they wanted to take in - it was hard to describe the work.
Were they looking for meaning and process, and trying to decipher them. To understand them as these drawings that meant something?
Well I think that the intention from the beginning was to produce something that was meaningless, or at least meaningless to me. Where I would look at them as the first time, I would not want to know what they were, or I would not want someone to describe them to me. I think it was very important for someone to come up with their own understanding and meaning of looking at this abstract thing. Whereas swipe I think it was -- I like the analogy that I can bring my mom to the swipe show and say “mom it’s a swipe”, it’s not trying to be anything more, it’s not trying to be anything less. Coming up with that initial strategy of simplicity, conceptual simplicity, at a certain scale technical simplicity, but then understanding that the complexity was going to come in scale; and producing the swipe on a more architectural scale. And I think that developed itself through producing larger swipes, and so there was a point -- I don’t wanna get sidetracked too much, I wanna talk about judgment, swipe was a good exercise on understanding our ideas of judgment, through things like technique and representation.
What do you mean judgment?
Judgment on how we understand something different from another, whether we think somethings good or bad, how is one swipe better from another, different from another. I think that a lot of people will talk about difference, but there are things that are better or worse than others, and I think it’s important that -- I don’t know this is very personal, how I work is not necessarily how someone else should work
Yes, similarly to how some other abstract painters would make marks, and react, and then if they didn’t like the result they would cover it up and keep going. So how did you handle when it’s just one or two moves and you can’t really throw it away.
Well first there’s no mistake, you do something, the mistake you realize after the fact, because you understand it in relation to something else. In swipe it was about a move and then go to the next one, and then the next one, and you start to understand. Especially when we first started I was swiping with Kevin Griffen a silkscreen master printer, is that once we started going to a scale of paper that was 50 inches by 70, at that scale it required two people to swipe at the same time, and right away we could see maybe a lack of our technique, or our understand of doing it before we could see through the swipe ink. At the swipe itself as a section of color that you could read our movement through the swipe, meaning if Kevin was one foot in front or behind me and we weren’t on the same page and on a rhythm then you would read that chatter through the swipe itself. And we realized if we’re trying to produce almost like a color drop in illustrator, kind of thinking about Reinhardt’s black paintings, it took practice, probably took us 60 swipes before we got the stroke-less section of color. But then you look back and realize through certain times you can see an evolution of work, and see where one thing was perceived as a mistake, where it was unintentional, is interesting, it wasn’t planned, it’s different. And you take that thing you maybe perceived as a mistake and you make it an intentional technique, and there was a couple examples in the swipe show, like the swiggle. The swiggle originally, my foot maybe slipped and the squiggy moved and it created a swiggle. There was something that was an interesting byproduct of a misconduct of technique that produced something that was different enough to use that new technique as something that was intentional.
For the swipe show in the old swap meet, how long did you do those over, and did you learn something throughout, take a break in between each one, and how did that affect the result?
I don’t like to take a lot of breaks, when we’re working i’m always interested in just going after it. I don’t like to spend much time stopping and observing, there’s a certain rhythm that i’m interested in, I like to get in a rhythm of producing the work and doing something is at a certain level of instinct, and then observing the work at the end of the day. So for those, there wasn’t a lot of time in between each one. I think there were things we recognized, like certain paints we were using that had certain byproducts in the representation that we couldn’t have anticipated, or even the material itself, because that was another thing -- it was important at the swipe show to not only produce the gallery work, but it was more important to produce work in a larger space that forced the issue of scale and material. To find a venue or part of the city that was being underused and then we get into a broader discussion of scale. And the understanding of the gallery, the building, especially in downtown Los Angeles there’s a lot of vacant buildings that have no more pragmatic use. I think this was building that we saw right away that allowed us one to put program in it again, and also look at the space -- how the swipes were going to deal in the space, but also the understanding the position of that building in the broader context of Los Angeles.
That actually leads to something I wanted to ask, on your website it says the work is “made in LA” was about it is native, what is Los Angeles influences it, is it what you just talked about, or a history of abstract painters?
I think it’s a little more personal than that. I’m an Angeleno, I grew up in Los Angeles, but its funny as an Angeleno - Los Angeles is a broad city, it extends itself with the car, it’s quite expansive. When I grew up you never ever when to downtown Los Angeles unless you were going to Philippe’s or to a Dodger’s game, and I remember moving back into downtown and realizing this city that I was from that I had no idea about. And I think at that point I kind of developed a certain -- not necessarily a chip on my shoulder, but wanting to have a certain footprint, and I mean ownership in the most unselfish way, but of taking a bit of ownership. Not necessarily ownership of this city, but of our work in this city, and ownership of maybe the pride and strength and what it takes to produce work. Whether it’s artwork, or you’re a chef and producing food, or you’re a construction worker, or you’re in fashion, I think it’s just about taking some level of pride and ownership of your city, and so I think i’m always very proud. I think of putting LA out there, and it’s kind of funny because i’ve done some work in Louisiana and so it extends itself LA to LA. Because Louisiana, and New Orleans is another city where I can definitely find myself, but yeah, I think, I have a certain position in Los Angeles that i’m looking forward to continuing to produce work here.
I wanted to ask about process again, some artist work in the studio -- maybe they like to be more isolated or intimate and work by themselves. I know you do some of that, you’re practicing in the apartment, but also a lot of it is on site, in situ, in the city, and how does that do you think affect the work, versus people that work in more isolation?
I think, and that’s part of the architect -- just the sublimeness, and excitement working with a group of people. Because I can work in my studio and it’s quite personal, but it’s maybe uncomfortable at times. To work with a group of people on an idea that’s much larger than yourself, it can’t be put into a hundred square foot studio, it can only be put a space that’s much larger, much more communal, much more urban. Working with a group of people is always so much more refreshing, and exciting, because when the scale changes like that it allows the work to produce something much more; your surprised much more often because you have a bunch of other minds and a bunch of other people who are going to bring in other ideas that are going to make the work better. I get much more excited working with a group, its teamwork, and its something thats something I grew up with. There’s something refreshing about using the skills that we have to produce things on an architectural scale.
Yeah, and probably a little bit, almost from your sports background goes into the teamwork.
In terms of display the small swipes and phlattness drawings fit nicely in a gallery, they are on paper or delicate wood frames, but the larger concrete pieces are connected with bolts, they have a steal border, and they are sort of more under-construction. They have this quality, is that what you’re looking for in the final resolution if you had more resources? To have them at a higher level of finish and for the connections to go away, or is it important to keep the visibility?
Its funny because I have a real appreciation and fascination for the fetish finish guys, and just that insanity to finish something. When you work in a certain scale in the studio where it’s much more controlled we can really fine tune the swipe or the move to where we can really guide it, and I think my original thought would be yeah, we’re gonna repeat that and just make it larger, and you get into guys like Koons or Anish Kapoor and you do these things at a massive scale but with a fetish quality, and i’m starting to realize that maybe when the work has a level of in-construction, not finished, it’s a product with the resources I have right now -- there are things that are pushing it besides my own intention, which I think produces work that’s a little less expected, and those are qualities that I find more interesting.
It’s a little more architectural, there are these forces -- you’ve got to make a building, it’s got to have bathrooms, work in an earthquake, and you also have your own artistic intentions.
Yeah, but it’s funny I remember thinking, man you want that concrete to be absolutely ice, and we want a really clean stroke-less swipe, but then you do it and you realize at a certain scale nothings gonna be flat. And, you maybe realize you’re getting a product that’s completely different than what you started out to do. That surprise is the thing I always search for, and if you’re always trying to be surprised there’s a responsibility to always do different things, and to try to maybe repeat a swipe at a certain scale that had a certain product that we didn’t expect, and then we got something that we were interested in, and trying to repeat that exactly would be doing the work a little disservice.
On the larger pieces, which are kind of young, you have the one hung up at Urban Radish, and what happened to the ones at the old swap meet?
There still there! I can’t get them out, there too big (laughter). I have always been interested to make something in a space that you can’t get out. I remember I had an instructor in school once in SCI-arc, I lived in Tokyo for about six months in this studio we were always working in small places, and we had to make a site model. Our site was Shiodome and it was Kurokawa’s capsule tower, which I actually got a tattoo of while I was there. But our instructor reminded us these models we would have to take on a plane, and also first get out of the room. He told us about a model he made once where they did not measure the room, and were in a rush, and it was too big they couldn’t get it out of the room; that always stuck with me. Especially as something he thought of as a travesty, but man what a great idea, you intentionally make something too large to get out of the space. And what’s interesting about that is it makes you intentionally make decisions about deconstructing the work. And I would have no issues, when we have to take them out, to just cut them into pieces. Then you start to get a product in the representation that’s even more unexpected, you get these cuts, and now full bleeds where you cut the piece... Yeah no, they’re still there.
My last question is about your career path, is the goal to be an artist full time?
I really enjoy, and producing artwork from the studio, I think there’s a certain instant gratification to it, that is -- it’s fun. There’s a lot of joy and excitement that I get out of it, but I can also see that the more that I work within architecture, and the more that I build, I can see these two working together more and more. I can see the way of thinking, ideas, strategies kind of working, it’s easier right now to see the architecture right now work itself into the artwork. To be a young artist is almost easier than to be a successful young architect, because architecture takes time, and buildings are very complicated, systems that belong in buildings are very complicated, the infrastructure that takes anything to get built, whether it’s physical, economical, political. Architecture a very difficult thing, but there’s something, the techniques and knowledge that you develop trying to produce a building, it gets clearer and clearer, that I can see both benefiting each other, i’m interested to see how they work back and forth, whether one comes before the other as far as, I don’t wanna say success, I don’t think that i’ll ever be able to escape either one of them.
That’s not so bad.
I definitely, i’ll tell you right now, I got into studio yesterday, we produced an edition of twenty swipes, and one six foot by six foot swipe, a black flood swipe on a canvas, a six foot by six foot canvas that I prepped for about two weeks. Just thinking of Rinehart again, just rolling on paint back and forth, drying it with a hair dryer, just for hours. I mean i’m gonna go back and paint this wall now, and i’ll think about the same thing, whether i’m painting the wall of our bathroom, there was such excitement, I remember I walked in yesterday and there was such excitement, I saw Kevin and was like yeah man, there’s nowhere else we’d want to be right now. There’s a playfulness within art, maybe an allowance for a little more playfulness in the artwork than the architecture. Architecture is a lot -- don’t get me wrong i’m an optimist when it comes to architecture, and architecture does have the qualities to make life better as far as how someone lives in a home, to the right architecture within a city and urban environment, its still -- there’s a lot of issues and problems that have to be tackled that aren’t as much fun.
I know what you mean.
I don’t wanna get playfulness confused with -- i’m always interested in things that have a level of seriousness and rigour, but then also allow -- we can never take ourselves too serious.
The seriousness of effort.
Yes, absolutely. I think we owe it to the discipline and to ourselves in the community of art and architecture to understand, no we are very serious about this, I mean if your not serious about it then what are you going to do? To understand that there is a broader discussion, and the discipline is broad.
Yeah, thanks for chatting with me, this was great.
Yeah that was fun, you never know where these things will go.
More of Mike’s work can be seen online at
or on his instagram