Nathan Cartwright met us on the sidewalk outside his building in the middle of the art district in downtown Los Angeles. As we chatted, he greeted several people who walked by or rode by on bikes calling them by name. It seemed strange with the huge buildings towering over us, but I became cognizant of his congenial nature from the beginning of the interview. Inside the building that holds the Hive Gallery in the basement, we met a few of the tenants on our way to the elevator. All of the occupants are artists. The walls of the large lobby are affixed with paintings and tidy fake potted trees align the walls. We went up the elevator, down the hall, and entered Cartwright’s apartment.
The interview started abruptly because I was immediately drawn to several pieces that he had on the wall and was compelled to start asking him questions about his work. On a few of his pieces, I noticed small figures with yellow smiley face masks on their faces. Cartwright says, “I’m all about the mask.” He uses the smiley face to satirize the emoticons used in email and texting which don’t really carry any emotion. When “The Man,” as Cartwright calls him, wears the mask, then he becomes drone-like fulfilling his tasks brainlessly. In one piece, a farmer has his mask partially coming off; he has begun to understand real meaning. When the mask is completely off, that is “The awakening.” In typical Cartwright fashion, the back story, the mythology within the painting, far exceeded my interpretation.
This type of understanding of Cartwright’s works is not necessary to enjoy it, but only adds to the complexity and interest of the piece. Cartwright feels the viewer has to first ask: “What is their experience? Are they repulsed by it or intrigued by it?” That should be the main factor in appreciating all art, but if they want to study more about it or learn what the artist intended that just adds to the experience. Cartwright studies Eastern and Western religions, but is more interested in Western alchemy along with the Eastern religions. He commonly represents the Buddhism idea of samsara, “life is filled with pain and pleasure” in his work. “I’m into everything,” he explains.
Cartwright grew up in Ohio and attended Miami University in Ohio where he was influenced by his teachers in art school. One taught him to open up his process and he in turn “started getting really messy, almost like Mirot.” Another teacher, Mrs. Kang, told him that drawing could be anything these days, giving him further license to experiment with his technique. After graduating, he traveled to Los Angeles with an idea for an art project in mind, complete with an entire world of metaphorical characters. Eventually, he parlayed that idea into the seven lands of Hive Land.
For a recent book that he is putting together, the artists created avatars for themselves. They chose which land they should live in based on the characteristics of the lands that Cartwright supplied them with and then they created their avatar based on that. “It’s a way to commemorate my featured artists, but also get them mythologically involved in a theme.” They are going to play a game with the characters. There will be six tables representing six different lands, and each land will include a different challenge. For example, ethos land will have an abstract concept idea for its challenge while Mellodara will be a sculptural challenge. This is a small example of Cartwright’s ingenuity at work. They just put out their third deck of Tarot cards. They did a show with twenty-two of the major artists who all had to do research on their card. “They really get into it and they really nail it. It gets you thinking.” Cartwright continually pushes his own artists to create work with depth.
As we looked through sketch books filled with notes from books as well as research as varied as different types of yoga to invented instructions for dungeons and dragons, Cartwright pointed out more of his philosophical ideas that he brings to his work. He had a small sketch of a lake with a reflection in it. “You see the reflection mirrored off the water. That is the self, but the self is everything beneath the water too.” This mythology of the self, based in Eastern philosophy, pervades Cartwright’s work, but his abundant amount of notes and sketches indicate his attempts to represent these ideals in concrete metaphorical ways.
Another of his techniques utilized within his sketch books is straight-ahead drawings. “I’ll throw down ballpoint lines. No erasing. I’m open. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s about connecting with the infinite.” Some of these works in black and white become intricately detailed pieces that exhibit his complexity of thinking along with mastery of his craft. He uses this idea of straight-ahead to analogize the difference between painting and illustration. “When I’m sculpting, I have a plan. Illustration is like that, where you have a blue print and you carry it out. There is no unknown there. It’s all perfection, idea, goal-orientation and goal completion. It’s very mathematical. Painting is a more organic, shamanistic process. You have to be open; it’s a risk and it makes you feel more in it. We are in the infinite only in the moment. Molecules fall into nothingness, rise back up, become something for a while. Everything is molecules. It’s infinite, just a dust bowl weaving between the known or external world and the unknown or internal world. The shaman was the channel for mythology that gave the culture meaning. Artists use symbols to create a dialogue between spiritual meaning and cultural meaning and that makes the whole thing congeal. Artists are the modern shamans of our culture.”
Cartwright’s oldest work in his archives was from his grade school years. A comic book titled “Superman versus the Monsters” where superman is attacked by bees and dragged to a hive served as a strange revelation when Cartwright recently came across it. Cartwright’s upbringing certainly shaped his current vision for his art while his thirst for greater understanding pushes him to study and explore more. He gets the balance. “A lot of buyers go for shallow stuff that’s not a risk. They want something safe that they don’t have to think about too much. It looks good and it sells. Everything I show looks good, but I’m really looking for the mad scientist, and they are very few and far between. Few people have the skill- level, intensity, and symbology along with the artistic language that has that depth. Most artists are freaking out trying to make a living.” It’s important to see the difference. “This is what sells. This is what I respect. I did four pieces for $500 a pop and another piece for $2,600. It’s fine to do both, but you have to keep pushing both sides. The mad scientist is so closed off you can’t even find him. I would just quit if I couldn’t keep pushing the boundaries. If I couldn’t be an art samurai and go to battle in my worlds and just do it, there’s no point.”
Standing in a separated area of his apartment that serves as his studio, Cartwright showed us one of his pieces from the ironic bird series. He yells, “What’s up, dude? How’re ya’ doin’?” and the bird repeats him and moves around a bit. By reallocating toys and using Magic Sculp, an epoxy resin more for special effects guys, Cartwright’s birds come to life. Recently a guy named Simon Lee, who Cartwright compared to Leonardo Da Vinci, convinced him to switch from Sculpey to Magic Sculp and he seemed pleased with his results. He showed us a stack of magazines that he rips up to create pieces that combine similarly colored magazine cut-outs. He then covers it all in Modge Podge to give it a clean gloss. This dedicated studio appeared organized and useful.
His “master work” in the series, “The Ladder”, was on display at Bergamot Station as it was part of Chet Zar’s Conjoined sculpture show so we were only able to see pictures of it. His life-long love of monsters and battles comes out in this piece. The central figure of the piece is a bird turning into a robot, but it also features a phoenix symbolizing infinite death and rebirth aligning itself with enlightenment similar to the Sahasrara, the thousand petal lotus, in Hinduism. The gray rainbow and the ouroboros are other symbols that he continually comes back to. He’s also into using doorways. For example, a bigger painting had doors on it and it was sort of a challenge. “I love that about life, life is filled with adventure, opportunity, and also hardships so that’s the pain and the pleasure.” The world of Cartwright’s art augments the various inculcations of his philosophical and religious leanings.
As we came back to the living room to chat, somehow I knocked a 12” round metal ouroboros sculpture on the ground, the snake eating its own tail. We had been talking about this symbol and its use in Cartwright’s art; I had even mentioned that it was on the cover of a book by Karl Jung so it was strange that it fell on the ground at my feet. “Don’t worry. You couldn’t break that thing if you tried. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I like it.”
“It’s like a wreath. Put it on the door,” my colleague insisted. Cartwright conceded that that was a great idea and we discussed how it should go on the inside of the door so as not to get stolen. A great piece of work seems to be inspired by tremendous vision, but there is a certain quality, realism perhaps, that he seems to also possess, that allows him to present his vision in an easily consumable manner.
Nathan Cartwright is a well-grounded, eccentric artist. He would be just as comfortable at a rave as he would in a business meeting. After spending some time with him, I would use his own terminology to describe him as part mad scientist, part art samurai, and part shaman. Just as he imposes his system of symbology regarding a group of works featuring “the man”, a character with a smiley face mask, similarly, in a piece called “The Ladder”, he implements ideas of Eastern philosophy, sculpting a bird turning into a robot culminating with a marriage between a man and woman representing both the yin and yang, the balance of hermaphroditic qualities. These features and countless others represent the depth and intense nature of Cartwright’s work, but he continually creates works that capture the eye of the viewer as well. He engages the viewer with doors to open, lights that turn on, and echoes of the viewer’s own voice. Cartwright understands the balance between following your own journey to do the art you want to do and creating something that you will be able to later sell.