James Sterling Pitt: The Ritual of Remembering
“It drives people absolutely crazy," James Sterling Pitt (NAP #103) tells me with a laugh one hot summer afternoon in Albuquerque’s North Valley. “So many people want to see my work strictly as either sculpture or painting that when I tell them they’re vessels, they just can’t figure it out.” Uniquely occupying both symbolic and utilitarian spaces, Pitt’s work initially grew out of his response to both personal trauma and the subsequent recovery process, but more recently however, these experiences have led to a fundamental shift in the ways in which he views and records his surroundings, interactions and memories. This desire to physically document his daily experiences makes his artistic practice virtually inseparable from his everyday life. - Claude Smith Albuquerque/Santa Fe Contributor
Having grown up in New York, Pitt and his family moved to New Mexico after his father took a job at a research institution in Los Alamos. Upon arriving to New Mexico, he immediately adjusted by experimenting with art. “I pretty much immediately just started painting in my dad’s studio apartment,” Pitt recalled. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Pitt made the move to California where he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, where he completed his MFA. When I asked him about the work he was making during that time, he mentioned the work of German artist Franz Ackerman as a comparison. “It was basically the exact opposite of the kind of work I’m making now. Back then everything I was doing was so big, colorful, highly refined and calculated. In order to achieve these super bright industrial-like colors, I was using automotive car paint and applying it in a spray booth.”
Pitt’s work shifted dramatically while recovering from a traumatic brain injury as the result of a serious car accident. In a dream one evening, Pitt found himself in the midst of a critique at Mills Collage, and after having as he called it “An A- or B+ critique” a skeptical professor refused to believe the work was genuine. Pointing to three small sculptures made of wood and cardboard resting a top a filing cabinet, the professor instructed him to go and retrieve the modest creations, which he informed Pitt was his true work. As Pitt picked up and examined the objects, the professor offered a somewhat ominous warning of which Pitt recalled was, “If you don't make these now, you never will.” Waking up in the middle of the night following this premonition, Pitt immediately began to draw the shapes he had seen in his dream, and over subsequent nights, compiled a substantial journal of these forms, of which he soon realized were helpful with organizing his thoughts.
Soon thereafter, Pitt began recording events and memories and recreating everyday objects with this newly discovered visual language, and in addition to taking notes and compiling lists, making art became a central activity for him. As a result, due in part to his diligence to maintain this outlet, this “ritual” of creativity, he slowly started to see improvement with his cognitive functions, and it began to serve as a way for him to practically and efficiently record and make memories.
Pitt began to experiment by recreating certain drawings from his journals three-dimensionally and found their unique forms were quite successful as objects. Comprised of multiple sheets of plywood, these “object-based journals” are cut and layered together to create silhouetted forms, often taking the shape of grids and voids–shadowboxes of suspended networks of wires or interchanging and overlapping zigzags. Evidence of Pitt’s handiwork is visible in the subtle variation that each layer exhibits and one gets the sense that the objects are deeply personal. Looking closely, imperfections and variations suggest a dramatic departure from his early interest in industrial fabrication. These “externalized” manifestations of his thought process are quiet snapshots that allude to the visceral process by he responds to and makes sense of his experiences. “After the accident, all the art history, theory and rules that governed my sense of composition were really confused, so all I really had to work with was my intuition,” he said.
As Pitt’s work has evolved, he has become interested in the idea of physically representing or commemorating certain memories and capturing ephemeral “sensory experiences” of specific places in these conceptual “vessels.” Likening them in a way to ceremonial or ritual objects, Pitt is quick to note the importance of music and its relevance to the work. “Music plays a big part in the ceremonial aspect, and I often have musicians whose compositions played a vital role in the development of a body of work, perform with the work, filling their negative space and becoming part of the materials of the work, it completes them in a way,” He said. While these aspects of his work are invisible, the objects themselves resonate with a palpable sense of energy–an aspect that provides added intrigue and complexity and “Feel as though they have a purpose aside from just being looked at,” he added.
Having spent significant time in New Mexico, Pitt instinctively makes artwork that recalls his experiences while living and frequently visiting the state. Not surprisingly, he has found rich influence from a variety of sources that so many other artists reference. Pitt cites the work of Agnes Martin, Ken Price and Richard Tuttle, (all having made significant works while in New Mexico) as extremely important to his development as an artist. “A lot of the work I make is about being in New Mexico,” Pitt says. “Not for nostalgic reasons, but I guess there’s just a certain clarity that comes with being in the landscape here.” Adding, “I guess I’m really just always looking to find those moments of clarity that I get when I’m here.”
James Sterling Pitt studied at the University of New Mexico (BFA) and Mills College (MFA.) He has had numerous solo and group exhibitions both nationally and internationally. Most recently he has had solo exhibitions with Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco and Steven Zevitas Gallery, Boston. In 2014, his work was the focus of an exhibition at the University Galleries, Texas State University and included in the exhibition “Color Shift” at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Claude Smith is an Albuquerque-based arts administrator, curator and writer.