In Dialogue: Nathan Ritterpusch

Painting at the End of the World recently had the opportunity to live chat the New York based painter.

Ritterpusch is a painter of exceptional skill. Working with a range of photographic imagery that is both found and staged, Ritterpusch creates technically astute paintings with a broad painterly vocabulary.

Ritterpusch employs a particular image selection technique, in which a range of disparate images, from differing times, motivation and circumstance, are brought together on canvas in order to allow their unique ideological origins new trajectories. The alternate demonstrations of skill in a variety of painted ‘realisms’ butted up against more gestural and expressive daubs enable the gaps between the selected visual rhetoric to bounce around inside our own individual take on popular culture and contemporary painting.

Ritterpusch paints like a virtuoso, not one that is stylistically slavish to his particular choice of subject matter. Selected images are often transformed from the original B+W into rich painted swathes of colour and vice versa. The particular and blissful mixture of painting technique and image choice, make Ritterpusch paintings reverberate with a skilful cool.

P: Hello Nathan!

NR: Yo! Ian!

P: How’s it going? How is New York today?

NR: Fine! Early spring! How goes Manchester?

P: Very gray and wet today, typical for Manchester, currently 10*c.

NR: A far cry from your palm tree pic?

P: Ha! You know it has to be a subliminal desire wishing I were in paradise, or at least the promise of paradise. So are you in your studio?

NR: Heading that way after some housework.

P: So I have a few questions to open up this conversation. I will try to keep typos to a minimum.

NR: Great!

P: So first of all you live and work in New York, are you from there originally?

NR: No From Harrisburg Pennsylvania, the small city and state capital.

P: So what prompted the move?

NR: I Went to art school in Baltimore Maryland at the Maryland Institute College of Art 1994-1999. I Moved to Brooklyn in 2000 to be closer to art world.

P: Ok, so Maryland was your undergraduate? Did you study painting there?
NR: Yes. I have a Bachelors of Fine Art with concentration in painting. Skipped grad school as I saw it as a waste of money.

P: By grad school you mean Masters or MFA?

NR: No Masters degree, as it was very unfashionable back then. A masters degree was an essential marker of an artist’s pedigree and indicator of likely success. It’s still favourable but waning, given the high costs of education and renewed awareness that long term financial stability in this field is the exception not the rule. Also I think MFA programs have always been and continue to be used as a way to enter or introduce ones work to the marketplace. Not a judgment, just an observation. I didn’t go down that route and there are trade offs. I’m not saddled with debt but I don’t get as easily accepted into certain support streams that understandably use that qualification as a measurement of validation.

P: Yeah, education is very expensive. I studied in London, with a lot of guys from the States who paid even more than I did. What kind of work were you making back then? Always painting?

NR: Always painting with some drawing and a little student printmaking.

P: So how was it moving to New York? Were you part of a group of friends who went there? Did you have connections there already?

NR: I came in pretty cold. I got a live/work space with a college friend that we built out and I got a job at Pearl Paint one day after shopping their for canvas. Made some friends there in the store. It was the biggest and most serious art supply store back when people still physically shopped instead of ordering online. Met lots of people and tried to grow those relationships. I built a network mostly by just going to openings and such. It was a very slow process for me and six years later I got my first decent group show.

P: So the scene was already full of big hitters and you were friends with the up and coming, who are now all now also very established artists. So looking back at the work you were making and from what I can see on various online sites, you have an exceptional talent for the hyper-real or, accurate representation of the common experience. Have you always been able to paint like that? And I guess more specifically, and correct me if I have timelines wrong, you more recently started to ‘de-skill’ on occasions and add collaged elements? Just to put that in context I was looking at an image from Rare Gallery ‘A Portrait of a Lady’.

NR: Yeah. I’m not sure I would say ‘deskilling’ rather that I expanded my painterly vocabulary. There were collaged elements and use of non-literal space early on, but always sourced from my own photography. There were certain very limiting ideas I had about what was and what was not acceptable on a canvas. I started using found image material firstly from magazines and then later other people’s discarded pictures, from the internet on places like Flickr and Tumblr. Also, understanding how to use a computer was a big step forward. I’m typically a late adapter.

P: I didn’t mean to be rude there, I meant yeah, there is a massive amount of accuracy in terms of portrayal of objects and things and that you often seem to ‘let go’ of for a more gestural interpretation?

NR: For the first show I did at Rare Gallery, I used images that I had set up and shot over several years. They were all B+W photos that I had I printed in a rental dark room in TriBeCa. Yes, now I’m beginning to appreciate other forms of painting particularly things that go against my natural facility or sensibility in representational rendering. Not rude at all! Don’t be shy.

P: So let’s focus first on the hyper real and photography. So all the images you were painting were often found, but also you were setting up a photo shoot with specific sitters?

NR: From 1994 when I was a student up until probably 2012, almost all major painted works were taken from photographs of friends and lovers in homes or backyards etc. People that were all close to me in either New York or Pennsylvania. With the noted exception of ‘Old Enough to Be My Mother’ series. I think there was a vulnerability in the photographs I felt both as a creator and something I wanted to capture for the paintings as a painter. ‘Old Enough to Be My Mother’ series came about when a woman I worked with was widowed and brought a smut stash to work in an all male workshop!

P: Right ok. So there is an engagement with subject on a personal level and you were choosing to compose the image via photography, before committing to painting? Could you tell me a little more about the choice of rendering them in that ‘realist’ way?

NR: Sure. It was just a combination of my desire and my training. I used B+W images so I could choose my own colors on the canvas as I painted, and therefore distance myself (and the finished painting) from the original photography. That kind of thing was a No! No! in school, and I liked and still like well-defined realism. A famous artist whose name was Jack Beal, the American social realist, told me a painting should be judged like a perfect dive, i.e. in the same criteria used in competitive diving. A convenient idea, but a rather limited one.

P: Ok great. So you trained to paint that way, were you the best in the group? And the addition of color comes during the painting? It is subjective rather than objective? Explain the diving analogy to me a bit more? Do you still do that with color?

NR: Just that form of grace or difficulty in a one off task i.e, older conservative realist notions of quality were to be strived for and were ‘what really mattered’.

P: I see, the craft! So you wanted to break that orthodoxy somehow? And you did that by playing with color?

NR: The color was added as I painted not like it was grisaille and then added in glazes.

P: Sure. So lets quickly talk about collage. You mentioned that you liked to use non-representational space as elements in paintings? What about the works like ‘Dreamers’ for example, talk me through your system for choice there? It’s a work with lots of disparate elements?

NR: Good call, the one with the sunset? No. I didn’t like the orthodoxy that was coming from a disdained group of plein air painters, but every body else at school was doing video or performance or 7th generation classical abstraction. I just followed my own instincts and tried to improve my painting. Richter and Bonnard were an early refuge. All of it was via books in the library.

P: YES, palm trees and pink smoke ! Great ! Did you feel like painting still had something then? Despite what the new media were? You like to test your skills to extreme levels, like replicating silk-screen dots or smoke or the marks in other paintings? Do you think the challenge of painting a ‘thing’ is bound up your choice, like saying, nah that’s too easy, or fuck, how would I paint that, lets do it?

NR: Sure. I like the idea of artist as magician. It thrills me when I see a painting that I can’t figure out or that I am really impressed by the difficulty of the task, to borrow from the earlier diving analogy. The figures in ‘Dreamers’ were posed and the sunset, dead girl and flowers were found online. I own the trinket /sculpture of the Asian dude and photographed it and reused it here.

P: Ok…do you have failures?

NR: Yes a studio full. But I keep them around for future experiments etc. some have second lives years later.

P: So tell me again about the series ‘Old Enough’, how many are there and how long have you been doing them?

NR: Started in 2000. I’m at 90 something now. Will do a show primarily of them in June in NY at a place called 57W57 arts (on Instagram as Sue Ravitz Gallery). They’re small, attractive and find homes more easily. Yes I’d love to see some in person!

P: Ha! Are they something you do whilst thinking about bigger works? They are all dead women now right? They are from playboy or something even harder? You said a lady brought them in for the guys at work? It was her dead husbands porn stash?

NR: They’re from lesser-known porno-mags of the time. Yes, more obscure but importantly less polished. Yes, his death was a Suicide to boot!

P: Oh wow…that’s an incredible story. Ok so last questions about the more recent work you are doing. So thinking about ‘Deco Interior’ and ‘Brownies’ can you talk me through the choice of elements again there? Knowing now that of course a lot of the imagery is found/recycled etc, I want to know what the dialogues are in those works for you perhaps? What attracts you to each separate element and why put them together?

NR: Sure. A lot of my decision making still corresponds with what I run into, like and have a response too. The brownie image came from a Ralph Lauren cookbook I saw while freelancing for them, so I took a photograph of it. MOMA is a short walk from their offices and I stood in front of Riley’s work there. The paint blobs were an early foray into abstraction and the physicality of paint and that was a good contrast. So there are three distinct primary visual experiences simultaneously taking place. Also, the shaped canvas folds another art historical reference in and the fact that the brownies are distorted by the convex page and additional light source from being re-photographed in a book all add to the visual complexity.

P: So visual complexity as we discussed, but in terms of connections and non-connections between imagery, is there a thread for you? The day-to-day etc? Or, is there a bigger conversation internally that is questioning something about relationships on a bigger scale like class, ideology etc?

NR: I like putting things together that are far enough apart so that an audience can fill the gaps in and I hope that leaves plenty of room for them to project. I like these particular things enough that I felt compelled to recreate and assemble them for 160 hours. I don’t think there are any wrong answers but I didn’t approach this imagery with class or ideology in mind.

P: Do you know the phrase ‘taking the piss’?

NR: Kind of. Like making fun of an established idea in a clever or sarcastic way?

P: Yeah. I was just thinking about my own work…because I often say the same as you do about putting interesting and visually complex things together that have enough room between for some dialogue. What I was going to ask was about critique. So some (not me) might say that putting Riley with a cookbook page is perhaps taking the piss, either out of Riley, or cooking or who ever is looking?

NR: I see your point. I’ve always liked Op Art and the wave of the re-photographed page echoes Riley’s lines. So for me the decision wasn’t governed more than from a purely visual perspective.

P: I’ve seen a photograph of your studio on Instagram and it looks like it’s filled with prints and pages of images etc. What governs the choice when thinking about what to paint? Is it lottery? Or is it purely about image quality?

NR: In terms of what to paint I collect images all the time with camera phones and computers. They get sorted a little bit into two groups, one for now and another called future work. At gathering stage I am indiscriminate and take anything that interests, excites me or I’m attracted to. Later I revisit them and make decisions from there.

P: In terms of image content, how big or small does the content of the selected image impact on choice? I mean are there bits of content you just would not touch?

NR: The smaller Mylar works allow me a freedom to explore divergent themes because of scale and cost of material in both financial and preparatory terms. ‘Loaded’ imagery, things too pregnant with meaning or association tend to interest me less. Low hanging fruit as they say, also less room to project onto by an audience.

P: Great insight there thank you ! What’s happening now in the studio now? What are you working on?

NR: Right now I’m getting ready for show in June at 57W57 Arts run by Sue Ravitz in NY that will focus mostly on ‘Old Enough to Be My Mother’ paintings and a couple midsize new pieces.

P: Thanks for your time Nathan !

Nathan Ritterpusch is an American artist based in New York.