AiConnections Artist Interview Series: Joseph Podlesnik
Filed under: Film & Production
November 11, 2015
An interview with artist and instructor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online, Joseph Podlesnik. Mr. Podlesnik teaches in the Foundations department at the college, and is a fine artist, who works in a variety of mediums. He has also published his works in book form.
Interview with Joseph Podlesnik, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division | Instructor | Foundations
Interview by Mary Clare, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division | Instructor | Graphic Design
MC: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
JP: I’m a native Midwesterner and attended Catholic elementary/high school. I had an interest in and facility with drawing from a young age. I was also interested in movies; I remember shooting with a friend’s parent’s 8mm movie camera and loving it. Later in high school I made small animation flip-books. It was in high school that I was lucky to have art teachers who encouraged my interest in drawing and I’d won a couple of art awards.
I never really thought about art as a vocation until I suffered an on-the-job accident at age 18 (I plunged fifty feet from an overhead crane). After that happened, the state of Wisconsin offered me as vocational rehabilitation a chance to attend college. At first I started out in filmmaking, then chose an inter-arts major (film/theater/studio art); after changing my major a few more times (from pre-med to nursing) I returned to studio art, focusing on drawing and painting. During college, I had two influential professors: Alicia Czechowski (for drawing/figure drawing) and Roy R. Behrens (for design). It was through Czechowski that I first encountered the writings of art historian E.H. Gombrich (and through Gombrich the work of his friend/colleague, philosopher Karl Popper); through Behrens I discovered the work of theorist Rudolf Arnheim and his thought on art, gestalt theory and visual perception.
After undergrad, I was offered MFA assistantships from a couple of universities (Boston University and the University of Chicago), but found I wasn’t emotionally ready yet to move away from home. After another near-false start, I eventually finished out my graduate studies at Cornell (I chose Cornell in part because E.H. Gombrich served as Andrew D. White professor-at-large there, so it seemed my interests were not only in studio practice). I then found teaching work shortly after graduation and have been teaching art foundations and “ways of seeing” (or attending visually) since. Lately, during the last 3-4 years, my interest in photography, specifically digital photography, has grown.
MC: You’re an instructor here at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – Online Division, teaching Drawing, Design, Color Theory and Perspective. How do you find the experience of teaching online?
JP: Being an online teacher yourself, I’m sure you know the challenges. Nothing can quite match the face-to-face on-ground experience, but then some might argue that there are awkward, unnecessary distractions in face-to-face instruction (which may or may not have to do with learning), which the relative anonymity of the online learning experience circumvents to some degree. I find it a personal challenge, within the accelerated format of our courses, to help students grow in the ways that they see things (through drawing, color and design), how they can learn about media and how visual ideas are communicated (commercial or otherwise) through their own work and works of others. Based on my student’s feedback, it sounds like I’m engaging them in their studies. Online education isn’t intended to replace the on-ground experience, but serves as an adjunct to it.
MC: When did you first become interested in art and design?
JP: More or less formally during my undergraduate years. Before that, I thought my detailed sophomoric/surrealistic color ink rapidograph pen drawings to be accomplished. Much of that changed when I was introduced to the larger stories of art history, different languages of art and exemplary artists/exponents of those languages.
MC: What would you say has been your biggest inspiration?
JP: One artist I keep coming back to is the Swiss painter/draughtsman/ sculptor Alberto Giacometti. The Quixotian struggle or the uncertainty that he never overcame was to see with fresh eyes, to notice and see past the visual constancies to which we grow accustomed. This continues to inspire me, spur me to continue on, no matter with which media I happen to be working.
MC: How do you choose your medium for any specific idea?
JP: Odd as this sounds, for me it may depend on nothing more than convenience
or situational circumstances. For instance, I’ve not had a ‘studio space’ in decades, so my involvement in conventional easel painting has waned progressively. I still draw some but, as I’ve mentioned, digital photography has come more to the fore for me. With digital photography, I go out into the world seeking a range of objects/subjects/compositions/configurations/inspiration that I wouldn’t say I’m inclined to invite or notice with painting at this point, then bring the images back to my office and into the computer. Of course I can’t help but wonder how this might change if/when I have access to a studio space in which I can move paint around. Then again, if the impulse to work in paint was genuinely strong and pressing, I think I would have figured out a way to resolve this - I’m honestly not sure.
MC: What led you to photography?
JP: I came to photography – let me preface this by saying that shortly before I had the on-the-job accident (mentioned above) I had a 35mm film camera (the old classic Canon AE-1), so an interest in photography was there, but I had no knowledge of what one might call a ‘canon of art photography’, so for me the camera was really just a prosaic recording device, you might say. I came to photography initially as a way to record subjects to paint, to have images to paint from, but then that changed: I started using photography as a way to teach design. I remember being struck by some photographs and wanted to figure out how they worked, what made them “great” (at least in terms of design), to reverse-engineer them in a way, and so I’d show them to my students and discuss how they are examples of good design. From there, my students and I would go out on campus finding/framing interesting designs, using the camera. This, I believe, is where it started.
MC: Your black and white photography appears to focus on stark contrast and geometric shapes. Would you tell us a bit about your focus and inspiration?
JP: Being interested in gestalt theory, I see photography as a tool for design, for arriving at engaging and balanced patterns and arrangements. I suppose I’m less interested in reportage, overt social issues or how a face or emotion might carry an image, etc., but more intrigued by how I can use the camera to frame scenarios/ compositions, to communicate ideas more formally through design (shape, structure and effect through flat/deep space contrast and light/dark contrast, texture, asymmetrical balance, etc.). If there is a face or a body in the photograph, it needs to be anchored down compositionally to the format in which it exists. Inspirations for this architectural approach to pictures would be Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Lee Friedlander, Andre Kertesz, Saul Leiter, etc. I must be a formalist at heart. I also like the idea of “stunted seeing”, as James Elkins has put it, allowing things to get in the way of the assumed invisibility of the camera lens, to stunt or impede the clear matter-of-fact photo world, as we assume it, with ambiguity. I like to see photography not only as a window but as a surface, interrupting or stunting logical perspectival space. I like seeing things that offer more than I can handle, more than I can process; for me, there’s a lot of potential in that. I want others to experience this.
MC: Your paintings include the use of vivid color choices and have a surreal quality to them. Is mood/emotion what you’re working to capture?
JP: Painting is a different animal for me. It’s a more contemplative/re-creative/reconstructive process. It’s been said that painting is to writing what (straight) photography is to reading. It’s challenging and satisfying to create through weaving pigment (via pastel or paint) together to build up form and space by manually dragging resistant materials across a surface. How do you feel my paintings are surreal? I’m curious to know how the work evokes that response. Mood and emotion are definitely working points in my painting work, as they are I suppose in my photography as well (though faces don’t seem to be the main vehicle).
MC: Your drawings are beautifully organic and appear as quick studies, with pastel and pencil as your main mediums of choice. The energy in your loose sketching style is inspiring. Would you tell us a bit about the development of your style?
JP: Of course I want my drawings to reflect physical action, inquiry, an active search at the same time that they depict things. I see drawing as a kind of linear/planar emphatic reconstructive mapping rather than photo mimicry. Perhaps my drawings are as much about performance, per se, or graphic re-enactment as they are about the depiction or suggestion of a motif. I’ve not gone into full abstraction (yet); I still like the tension between marks working a flat surface and the volumetric suggested forms that emerge from that.
MC: What’s integral to the work of an artist?
JP: For me, it is intuition or largely the unconscious, backed by skills that come with visual language-making and being able to see what you’re making in an objective a way as possible, being responsive to what the work is saying, how it unfolds to the viewer, etc. Being objective and self-critical is difficult. I’m reminded of the story of when one of (James McNeil) Whistler’s students claimed that she only painted what she saw, to which he said, “But the shock will come when you see what you paint.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that.
MC: Did you ever have an idea that you rendered in one medium that you would like to redo in another? Why?
JP: That is an interesting question. If I return to painting, I’m hoping that these photo-taking experiences might teach me something about paintings. I think photography leaves me open to more options. Until now, I think I have more (self-limiting?) expectations of what painting is supposed to be. At the moment, I don’t feel as hemmed in with photography. Now I see paintings of things, of scenes, and think, “Hmm, if I had taken a photograph of that same scene, in that same arrangement, would I have thought the photo to be any good? Does the fact that the image is hand-wrought automatically lend legitimacy to it, even when carried out through a common, uninteresting composition?” Perhaps I’m mixing or comparing media where I shouldn’t. Am I holding photographs to different visual/expressive/compositional standards than I do for drawings and paintings? This may depend on the painter, the type of painting or the painting approach used.
MC: Your color photographs seem to capture interesting visual moments in time. Would you talk about that?
JP: Don’t the black & white images do this, too? (laughs) Those interesting visual moments, I hope, come from a fair amount of picture-taking. I like to think that each of the thousands of dead-end uninteresting photos I’ve taken these past 5 years have taught me some things, even if only minor lessons, about how to make compositions more dynamic, how to make foreground/background relations more engaging, unique, perhaps poetic. Some of my images rely on the ‘moment’, but most are in search of compositional dynamics, with that serving as message.
MC: How would you describe your creative process, and your approach to drawing, painting, photographing, etc.?
JP: As mentioned above, I value instinct and intuition. Some of what I feel are my most effective images, I think, were caught instinctively, unconsciously, impulsively, without overthinking the act. Reveling in ambiguity, not strictly linear thinking, seems to be part of the process, too. Much of my photo work comes in the editing/selection process later. I like to think a grasp of art foundations (drawing, color and design) applies with pretty much any media.
MC: What have been your artistic influences over the years?
JP: Poetry has been an influence, helping me to notice metaphors all around me, making connections, seeing similarities between things which most of us ignore. Music is another influence. I want the rhythmic effect of music, its formal drama, its tension vs repose, to be felt in my photographs or drawings. Of course my photographs are colored by my experience and some of my knowledge of the language of painting.
MC: You’ve had two beautiful books of your works published. Do you have a new one in the works?
JP: Not yet. This 2nd photo book was published not more than a few weeks ago.
MC: Who or what is your muse?
JP: I’m not sure we have a direct link to the muses; if so, how can we test their reactions? Maybe the muse is vanity. Maybe it’s compulsion itself, or unresolved personal issues in many forms: anxieties, insecurities, etc. Muses could be in the form of genuine nagging curiosities, too. When I was a kid I used to steal my sister’s toys (I’m told toasters, too, etc.) and take them to a hidden place to take them apart. I HAD to know how they worked. Trouble is, I didn’t know how to put them back together (laughs). I’m guessing this curiosity about how things work plays a part in my interest in some of the psychology/inner workings of visual perception and pictorial representation. Art-making, on the other hand, is probably rooted in performance of a sort or in sport; I loved sports and theatre as a kid and wanted so bad to be a pro athlete, aspirations which never materialized. Instead now I play or act out on graphic and photographic fields. Another muse, I suppose, is ambiguity – an arena in which possibilities are malleable, open-ended, where different solutions are possible.
MC: What new type of projects do you have in the works?
JP: I have a drawing foundations text book in the works; I have lots of edits to make on it yet.
MC: Describe yourself in three words.
JP: Curious. Persistent. Indecisive.
MC: What advice would you share with a student studying art and design?
JP: I’m not sure one needs to know why one makes art. If one feels it, feels the impulse, follow it, practice it, explore, and study the works of lots of others doing it (through formal schooling and/or on your own). One of my Facebook photo albums is titled “Compendium of Photographic Possibility”, which is comprised of myriad images from a broad range of sensitive photographers. I refer to this album often for inspiration for what is possible through the photographic media. I encourage my students to study the works of others, follow lines of inquiry through the pictures/constructions one makes or wants to make and from that let the evolution of the work – whether it’s commercial or otherwise – be the result of those efforts and questions.
(Cover image: Self-portrait, 2015)
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