There is a lot to process in a Jim Houser installation.
First, there is the painted landscape sweeping across the walls, geometric blocks of bold pastels interspersed with bulbous oversized characters, oblivious and indifferent, like some deep-sea creatures captured unknowingly in a diver’s spotlight. Interspersed about this, like small towns tucked into the vast countryside and observed from above, are pockets of framed art, bespoke artifacts, found objects and curiosities.
In HERE, RIGHT HERE, which Houser recently created at Viacom’s global headquarters in Times Square as part of the company’s Art at Viacom series, this eclectic visual language stamps its story across the lobby walls. An amalgam of original artworks, pieces repurposed from past shows, and a collage sourced from an employee workshop, the installation is a varied and fecund articulation of Houser’s inner world, a vast and carefully considered mash-up of sketches, painted characters, poems and three-dimensional objects.
Houser took a break from his installation to sit with me in Viacom’s humming seventh floor cafeteria, where we discussed his process, his creative choices, and why the company is a great artistic partner. Remarks have been and edited for length and clarity.
Stuart Winchester: How did you connect with Viacom?
Jim Houser: I have a commercial agent, who works with other artists in my vein, and one of them was Dabs Myla for their project here at Viacom, and they were like, “Viacom’s awesome.” So I sent a bunch of images and I guess they were into it.
SW: Take me through the process of planning and seeing the space and executing the design once you connected with Viacom.
JH: I had done a show in the early spring in Philadelphia, which is my home base. I sent the Art at Viacom people images, and said, “This is what I just did, I can easily make more work and then combine it with the installation elements that I used for this last thing that I’d done, and I can easily transform it to fit the space.” So I just mocked up images and they sent me images of the space they had, and I explained what I would do and it went from there.
SW: Did you actually visit the space live?
JH: I didn’t, but that’s kind of a common thing for me. I travel around doing this kind of stuff in different cities, and I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years, so I’m kind of used to saying, “send me a floorplan, and photos from the four corners of the room, and I’ll figure it out.”
SW: So once you get onsite, at what point does the piece start to take shape?
JH: The one thing that’s different about this install than maybe some other ones in the past is that even though this area is a room, it’s really just the two walls, and I’m not able to work on the full room at once. So it’s almost like I have to do two installations. I think there’s 60 or 70 paintings total, so in my head I’m splitting my paintings up, because I don’t want to hang 60 on one wall and be like, “Oh, I only have 10 for the other.”
SW: So of those 60 or 70 paintings, were there any created specifically for this installation, or did you have these already?
JH: Yeah, there was work I pulled back from another gallery, and then there were, I want to say, 15 or 20 pieces that were new for this installation.
SW: So when you created those 15 new pieces, were you trying to fit them into the theme that you saw in your head of those paintings, or what were the creative choices there?
JH: My work is really autobiographical. It’s therapeutic for me. I make this stuff to get out of my own head and just meditate on whatever it is that I’m thinking about. And I’ve been looking a lot at my motivations for making work, examining why I’m making the choices that I’m making.
SW: So as you’ve been thinking more about that process, can you give us a peak into your head and what you found when you were trying to examine your motivation?
JH: It’s tough. There’s definitely things that I’m doing that are, it’s almost like mediation. I realize that the idea of quieting my mind down is really important. If something happens in my daily life that is a situation with other people that I didn’t react in a way that I feel great about, it’s easier for me to sort of make a painting or write a poem about that than it is to just be stewing in my car, saying, “I should’ve said this,” or “I regret that I said that.” I sort of realize that that sort of thinking goes nowhere for me. But if I’m able to filter that through, analyzing things through my art, it makes it a little easier to put things to bed in my head.
SW: Were there any specific things you were thinking or going through or dealing with while you were creating any of these pieces that you can tell us about?
JH: The main thing that jumps out at me is that my son is in second grade now. In the beginning of the school year, which was a month ago, he was having some issues in school with calling out and just his mind goes a million miles an hour. And I think it was on my mind a lot, the similarities. Like, it’s really wonderful to have a little person that you made and you’re like, “Wow, he’s like me.” But then there’s the darker side of that where it’s just like, I didn’t have a good time when I was his age, and I don’t want that for him, and how do I help him – like, I have that same brain – and how can I help him manage that brain better than I managed it?
SW: It seems like there’s two ways to view your installations. You have the wide view when you walk in, and it’s this very dense, impressive amalgam of things. And then there’s the other way, which is up close and studying each element. What is the payoff for zooming in and just considering these?
JH: There’s a rhythm at work in it, and there’s some things that are graphically repeated small, and there’s phrases that sort of come up over and over again. I don’t know if it’s an apt comparison to jazz or something, but it’s like there’s pointed improvisation where you kind of come back to where you started and start to get settled again. And I feel like, when you look up close, you can kind of see that happen. It’s also the kind of thing where there’s a phrase or a word that’s repeated a lot, it kind of gives it more importance, like this is something to consider a little bit stronger maybe.
SW: What has the partnership been like with Viacom?
JH: I’ve had 100 percent creative control. They’ve bent over backwards to help me out, and just given me complete free rein to kind of explore what I want to explore and do what I want to do in this show. I’ve been given no, “Oh, you can’t do that, you can’t do that.” There were some issues – there are a bunch of sculptural elements, and they were worried about the fire code and stuff, and it wasn’t an issue of, “Well, Jim, you can’t do that because we have a problem.” It was, “We know this is what you want to do. How do we make that work?” And they did. So I’ve had no issues at all.
SW: Last question: Do you have a favorite Viacom show?
Houser’s installation follows a long line of Art at Viacom projects: the vibrant geometric paintings of Ogulcan Kush, the rippling sculptures of Marela Zacarias, the bold metallic oil paintings of Kip Omolade, the geometric wizardy of Tahiti Pehrson, the cartoonishy wondrous works of Australian duo Dabs Myla, the mammoth swirling tablecloth sculptures of Crystal Wagner, the multicolored yarn meadows of HOTTEA, and the massive ceiling-dangling floral display from Rebecca Louise Law. View all past displays here.