Artist Interview and Studio Visit with Painter Nathan Florence

Everything has a Story

We recently visited newly represented artist, Nathan Florence, in his Salt Lake City studio. Everything about Florence from his home, to his art, is rich with history, layers, and symbolism. His remarkable studio is filled with paintings, books, tools, knick knacks, and pieces of his past and friends. Seeing the beauty and potential in everything is a clear theme in Florence's life, adding elements of authenticity and originality to his work.

You currently live in Salt Lake City, Utah. How does living in SLC inspire you as an artist?

There are many things that make Salt Lake City ideal for me. I live in the 9th and 9th neighborhood, which means I can walk to many of my favorite restaurants and coffee shop, as well as great little neighborhood businesses. I can be downtown by bike or car within a few minutes and we have world class theater, music and art venues. My daughter dances at the Ballet West Academy so I'm in the city every day running her to class. I can also be in the mountains and on a bike or skis within a few minutes, which is essential for my mental health! I'm Artist in Residence at a school at the top of Parley's Canyon so I'm driving through the mountains almost every day. It's quite inspiring.

It's also a small enough community that I can be involved in making a difference. I'm on the board of the Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive policy group, and participate in many of our local art and museum events.

Every day I see something around Salt Lake that takes my breath away. We have stunning landscapes and beautiful, variable light.  

Judgement of Paris, by Florence, is the largest painting in his new show. It references the Greek story of the Judgement of Paris, where Paris of Troy must decide who is the fairest Greek goddess, Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena.

The human form is often in your work as portraits or figures in the scene. Can you explain what they bring to your works?

People are what interested me in art in the first place. I'm really influenced by other figurative painters, like Odd Nerdrum, Antonio Lopez Garcia, John Singer Sargent, etc. But I'm equally influenced by photographers. My parents are photographers and I grew up poring over the catalog from The Family of Man exhibition at MoMA and then later found Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Francesca Woodman and others, who were doing wonderfully mysterious things with people. People add complication to paintings because, as people, we have strong reactions to the figure. It's harder to sell a painting with people in it because it can make the viewer uncomfortable or evoke some sort of emotion. I love that, though. It's one of the things that draws me into the painting.

Your paintings are textured, effortless, but still detailed. What is your approach to painting with oils?

I prefer to paint on a surface that has some challenges to it. I saw a documentary where Jack White said he played guitars with problems because wanted playing "to be a fight" and I immediately identified with that. I use a variety of tools to paint with, but never smaller than about a 1/2 inch brush, and up to house painting brushes, palette knives, razor blades, etc. I use Liquin as my mixing medium so that my paint will set up by the next day and I can scrape it or sand it. When I started painting I was really interested in details, but realized that less information is often more. Nice cliche. 

You often paint on textiles instead of canvas. What is the story behind choosing to paint on fabric or wallpaper? How does working with different materials affect and influence the work?

I've always loved patterns and fabrics. I was painting on the abstract, textured canvases and panels and started a series of paintings where I was painting china patterns onto human figures emphasizing their fragility. I was intrigued by the way the pattern could flatten the figure out or even appear rounded in spite of not curving with the figure. It occurred to me that I could use some of my fabric I'd purchased on a recent trip to India to paint on. I almost immediately dismissed the idea, thinking that there must be some reason I hadn't seen it before so maybe I shouldn't do it. Well, fortunately I immediately dismissed that thought as well and decided to try it. It is an ongoing experiment. I love the symbolism of the patterns that underlie our lives and I love the way I can hide or reveal the fabric as I want to. 

Florence told us about his unique way of obtaining frames.  He uses frames that have been discarded or simply given to him by previous owners. These funky frames become art themselves with their own history and story.

Florence starts out with the various sized frames then paints in a size that will fit. He starts with canvases covered in layers of old paint scraped onto the  canvas. Without considering the background, he then paints on the colors and textures, organically leaving details of the background as he feels. 

Utah is known for loving landscapes. Is it a challenge to create new landscape paintings that stand apart?

Do my landscapes achieve that? I hope so! I try to respond to what I see and to react to specific elements in the landscape that strike me. I was criticized once by a Utah curator for putting a power pole in the middle of a painting because it was "too academic" and "east coast cynical". I loved that it wasn't straight and that it split a white wall and then cut the sky into two separate areas. I do feel completely intimidated when I try a red rock landscape. I have the ghost of Maynard Dixon et. al. sitting on my shoulders and I know I'm up against a lot. Sometimes the scene is so beautiful that I have to try it anyway. I'm also drawn to conflict within a space, I have a love/hate relationship with things like oil refineries and coal power plants. Immense and monumentally beautiful but producing ugliness as well.

The theme of utilizing history continues as Florence finds titles for his work from an old poetry book that was his fathers. It is the same book Florence was reading on the train as he rode to meet his wife for the first time on a blind date in Philadelphia.

View his work here

By Jill Lingwall