Saints and Sinners: The Paintings of James Behan

James Behan,  Leeward , oil and enamel on canvas, 6 x 7 feet

James Behan, Leeward, oil and enamel on canvas, 6 x 7 feet

by Scott Gleeson

The art of James Behan negotiates the contested and intersecting terrain of modern art and masculinity. Continuing the legacy of modernist abstract expressionism, Behan creates art much in the same way his modernist instructors taught him to, through an investigation of form and materials, as well as gestural mark making. However, drawing on his identity as an Irish Catholic gay man, the artist punctuates his abstract painting practice with images that investigate constructs of gender identity through strategies of appropriation and institutional critique. A painter's painter, Behan levels his critique at the visual culture of Catholicism and popular consumer culture, identifying unlikely "heroes" and "saints" as sources of masculine ideals, all the while staying true to his preferred media of painting and collage. The artist's nonobjective abstractions offer a respite from the more overtly political works. These large paintings of up to seven feet occupy the viewer's visual field and are characterized by vigorous, gestural mark making on heavily worked paint films. Peripheral Vision has connected with the artist to learn more about his inspirations and how he responds to the continued legacy of modernist abstraction.

What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?

The first artwork I remember experiencing was from Tom Wesselmann’s bathroom collage series, “Bathroom Collage #3.” I was about five years old at the time, walking with my mom through a then contemporary art exhibit at a local museum in North Texas. Holding her hand and approaching the collage, I remember being mesmerized by its audacity and defiance, its clarity and simplicity. This work still reverberates through my studio practice in a desire to discover that same form of defiance, audacity, clarity and simplicity in my own images. Since that experience I continued to appreciate and be informed by other artists from the Pop Art movement, such as Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist. Growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I was very aware of America’s celebration of consumer culture; its unabashed belief that “new and improved” would create a new paradise in the form of suburban life. My own studio practice also continues an idea of the “new home” through the use of such materials as house paints and wood paneling, questioning our culture’s belief that new architecture, products, and technology will always translate into social progress.

Tell us about a museum exhibition or travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.

In 1999, I spent a month travelling to New York and then to London. Arriving first in New York, I was very disappointed to find I had recently missed a Jackson Pollock retrospective. Some days later, finding a thick Pollock biography in a small, crowded NYC bookstore, I purchased it and began reading his story. When I arrived two weeks later in London I was thrilled to discover the retrospective had travelled to the Tate Gallery. With my reading of Pollock’s biography nearly complete, I visited the galleries that contained his greatest works. Standing in front of “Lavender Mist,” I stared intently, and was amazed as the striations of paint began to lift off the surface and seemingly float in the air. The experience was overwhelming and unforgettable. I understood that, for myself, these works were about transcendence – moving beyond materiality to a greater level of presence.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I began my academic training as an artist studying graphic design at the University of Dallas in Irving. Part of this academic pursuit involved my love of the marriage of image and word. My decision to become a fine artist occurred after graduating from UD and completing my first professional design project as assistant art director for the inaugural “Holiday in the Park” at Six Flags Over Texas.  While enjoying the creative opportunity, but frustrated by the inevitable constraints with any commercial endeavor, I realized that such creative restrictions from outside concerns would only continue as a designer. I decided then a career in painting would allow me greater freedom to pursue creative projects without such constraints. I went back to school, and principally studied with professional artists Bill Komodore, Cindy Hurt, and Ellen Soderquist at Brookhaven College.

James Behan , Martyrdom   of Bernard , oil on canvas, 48 x 40 inches

James Behan, Martyrdom of Bernard, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 inches


A memorable moment came when a fellow student, a young woman, who was severely affected by rheumatoid arthritis, walked into class carrying a small canvas covered with thick mounds of dried, cracked gesso. Bill took the canvas from her hands, which seized me with fear, as I recalled that such cracking was the result of a departure from the “proper” method of applying the primer in repeated thin coats. To my relief and joy, Bill held the canvas above his head and loudly proclaimed to the class “Now, this, this is a gessoed canvas!” It was an important moment for me, instantly allowing me freedom to pursue unconventional materials and methods without fear. Freed to explore, my work at that time combined objects, images, text and paint, the illusion of space and its simultaneous rejection, in a nod to Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, and Jean Michel Basquiat. My education was subsequently completed at Southern Methodist University with graduate study in painting and sculpture, where I continued the idolization of the object, unconventional surfaces and materials, and an exploration of gay themes in the form of Greek myth and catholic iconography.  

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

My most current paintings follow two trajectories which occasionally intersect: one body of work consists of nonobjective abstract paintings emphasizing form and materials; the other, abstractions referencing cultural narratives and imagery from popular culture. The narrative abstractions involve my continued development of gay themes in Greek myth and Catholic iconography. Growing up as a gay Irish Catholic in a small southern city in the 60’s and 70’s was a perilous experience. I learned by age 5 to hide most of my feelings to successfully navigate the then current culture, expressing them only in art making. The exposition of these realities, which often collide more than combine, was first professionally represented in an exhibition entitled “Gender: Fact or Fiction?” at Laguna Gloria Museum in Austin, Texas. The current iteration of this work is seen with my “martyr” series, featuring images of the Big Boy statue set outside Kip’s, a regional chain restaurant from my childhood. This figure is then juxtaposed with a pair of grappling wrestlers that, in their abstraction, are sexually suggestive. Named for martyrs of the Roman Catholic Church, these images explore ideals of masculinity as expressed in marketing and visual culture, whether in food product advertisements or in religious teachings. Who is the hero? What makes a man? These questions underlie the images created. As a dual citizen of both the United States and Ireland, these works also combine conflicting sentiments of European indulgence and American austerity. How these two cultural currents resolve themselves or not mirror my own personal life choices, including choices made in creating my art.

The nonobjective image making was first professionally represented in an exhibition entitled “Lone Stars” at the Fresh Paints Gallery in Culver City, California, and was also featured in an edition of “New American Painting.” The current manifestation of this track focuses on the elements of nature such as wind or water, which we experience through currents. These forces of nature can either be gentle or terrible, and can either be accepted or rejected in how we choose to respond to them. This current work was a direct result of losing three family members in a little over one year, my mother from cancer, and my sister Helen and nephew Brendan in separate vehicular accidents. These paintings express the pain and loss we inevitably encounter even as we endeavor to build our singular utopias. For me, the physical choices made with these works mirror the emotional and mental choices we make in the struggle not only to survive, but also to thrive, in the face of loss and change. Knowing when to go with or against the flow is a daily part of choice-making in each person's life, the sum total of these choices forming pathways that define not only our individual lives, but also our collective social experiences.

Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of ideas?

I live where I work. I find it important to be immediately available to my paintings. I have learned that entering the studio without a moment’s notice offers a frank honesty that is inescapable. Within this space I allow myself complete freedom to create without any restraint. Often chaotic and cluttered, the space itself becomes a challenge that I work through to get to the image or object I am seeking. I dig through the work as I dig through the space; accumulating and then casting away what is not essential. My studio practice is a struggle of coming to terms with both desire and reality; how they meet and miss.

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

With my series involving natural currents, my process is built upon the actions of addition and subtraction. My materials involve oil enamels, asphaltum, or roof paint, and primer such as Kilz. These materials are applied through brush or by pouring onto a birch plywood or paneling. The levels of paint are quickly built, and then reduced through sanding or chisel. I repeat these processes until each work achieves a sense of stasis, active stillness, or vibration. For me, the use of commercial grade materials references the human impulse to create a sense of permanence in an impermanent world. The techniques used to add and remove layers of paint reflects the reality of time and how all things that rise must eventually fall. But it is in the wake of this rising and falling that beauty can be captured as a residue of desire.

Describe your work as an educator or administrator and how this relates to your personal art practice.

I was never too interested in teaching; however, once given the opportunity, I thought I would try it. I have since found great value in teaching, as this action has directly impacted my own studio experience in a positive fashion. Individually I have found that teaching reconfirms best practices for my own artistic efforts. Often when I am advising a student related to art, I am frequently reminded to follow my own advice. I have realized that my own best teaching is found in relaying what has been given to me by my own instructors. The passing down of what is learned, this sharing of artistic experience as instruction, forms an artist lineage that connects us to the history of making art, and ultimately to the first artists. In passing down what was given to me, I include my students in that lineage and that history. My lineage from Bill Komodore includes his own instructors Hans Hoffman and Mark Rothko. I look continually to this lineage as I move forward in the art I make.  

Learn more about James Behan on the artists' Profile.

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