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Artist 2 Artist With Jim Hittinger

Rosalux artist Frank Meuschke talks with fellow Rosalux artist Jim Hittinger about studying art, working in Minneapolis, and takes a deep dive into his recent work.

Jim Hittinger

You grew up in Michigan, was it suburban, city, or rural?

It was the suburbs of Detroit, not far from the city. Metro Detroit is massive, ridiculous sprawl. If you were to drive from downtown Minneapolis to the forest, if you drove that same distance in Detroit, it would still be six lane highways, strip mall hell for a while longer. So, yeah, I grew up in the Metro Detroit maze.

And that created who you are today?

(Laughs) I guess so, yeah.

Did you have a sense when you were younger that you wanted to study art?

I always wanted to be an artist. Honestly, earlier than I can remember, I was always drawing. It was always my thing when I was a little kid that I was good at drawing -that was my thing. You know some people’s parents are like “We’re not wasting money getting you an art degree!” But my parents were always like “Yeah, you should go to art school. You should be an artist.” So, yeah, I was always gonna do this.

That seems to me to be a less common story. Why do you think they were so supportive?

Yeah. Well my parents are academics. My dad is a philosophy professor and my mom has been an administrator at various schools and non-profits. So my parents are into the liberal arts I guess. They were always cool with it.

That’s great that you had that support.

My parents are interested in art. My family would go to museums; we’d go to the Detroit Institute of Arts and look at the collection on a Saturday.

Where did you go to undergraduate school?

Wayne State University. It’s a state school in inner city Detroit. It’s a bit like the U of M Twin Cities, where there’s a little nugget just inside the city that’s the campus -so that’s where I went to school.

Is it a school that is known for art study?

Yes, there is actually a really strong art program there. I don’t know that there was anyone who went there that is super famous, but Arthur Danto went to school there in, like, the late forties. The printmaking area had some of his old woodblocks and editioned some of them in my senior year.

I had no idea he was an artist.

He is better known for his theory and philosophy stuff, but he was also a printmaker.

It’s an intellectual pursuit, printmaking…

Yeah, I guess so. That’s why I don’t have the patience for it, not smart enough I guess. (Laughs)

I did not have the patience for it myself. Did you have to read his writings while you were a student?

No, honestly, I think I had to read his stuff more in grad school at the University of Minnesota than I did in undergrad.

Was there a particular professor that stood out for you as a resource or mentor?

Jim Nawara. His work was very different from mine. He makes very traditional, hyper-realistic landscape oil paintings. He paints meadows and streams, very traditional. I think that was great for me to have because even though I do not make paintings like that, I learned a lot about paint. He was obsessed with paint! He was the type of guy you would ask, “should I use this color or this color?” He’d then talk to you for like an hour about the differences between the pigments and oils used in this one versus that one. There were a lot of formal things that I just didn’t know about paint; which I know talking shop about painting bores the hell out of people who aren’t painters (laughs). So there is a lot about that that I learned from him that has been invaluable to me.

Jim Nawara Painting
James Nawara, Blue Fence, oil on linen, 1999

It sounds like you were not going to resist going to college or say, “Screw this, I’m going to LA to be an artist.”

Well, the thought crossed my mind. I think I may have been more likely to do that if I didn’t have the support that I had. But you can go to college for art and I was like, okay, why not? I’ll have to take other classes, but I’ll get a cheap, shitty apartment in Detroit and go to art classes and hang out for four years. Sure, I entertained the idea of not doing that, but it wasn’t a hard decision. In school you get to learn your studio practice, you just kind of learn how it all works with some training wheels on. Going to exhibitions, talking to your professors about how you make money! Do you sell your work? Where do you show your work? Who do I have to talk with to show my work? It’s important to learn that stuff while you have this community safety net and I think that’s a really invaluable thing.

Did your teachers have an answer for you when you asked these kinds of questions, like, how do you make a living?

Yeah, I would talk to my professors a lot about that. And they were always encouraging me to try to show work outside of school. It’s like the best thing you can do to get the ball rolling is to show some work that’s not just the end of the year BFA exhibition. There are open calls at this gallery and this gallery, so I think that was a really helpful thing to learn. If I had decided when I was 18 to move to LA and figure that out for myself, I probably would have eventually figured it out, but I am glad I had that help to figure it out.

So you were actively showing while you were in undergraduate school?

Yeah. I think that was a benefit of being at a school that was in a city. Just being in a city that had a whole art community and art scene happening completely outside of school was really helpful.

So what brought you to Minneapolis?

Grad school.

How much time between undergrad and grad school was there?

I came right away. I wasn’t even expecting to get into grad school right away. I was looking for state schools that had teaching assistant opportunities, funding, but I wanted to be in a city. I didn’t want to be in some off the beaten path college town. There are some really good MFA programs you can go to, but you’re in kind of the…


Yeah. Exactly. So the University of Minnesota checked all the boxes for me. So I applied and got in and came. That was in 2012. I finished in 2015 and I’m still here ‘cause I like it here.

Sounds like staying here was a pretty easy decision.

Yeah, I was planning on staying for at least a little bit. But I’ve been here long enough now that I feel at home here. Not necessarily certain that I will live here forever, but I like being here right now.

So the U has been a kind of anchor for you after graduation?

Yeah, a lot of my best friends in town I know are from there and are doing lots of different things. If you are just going to uproot and move somewhere, it’s definitely good to have a built-in community.

What was your biggest struggle as a painter? What do you worry about, artistically?

My painting sucking! (Laughs)

So you weren’t worrying that painting was dead or where will I go with painting?

I think that is always there. There’s always going to be people who think painting is for idiots who just want to make pictures.

But not painters. It’s hard to be a painter who thinks that.

Yeah, that would be interesting, actually, if you were. I never had much of a concern about that. There were enough other painters on the faculty and in the program that there was always a good conversation around painting and about what painting can be, where it can go, and what possibilities are with it.

How broad is your definition of painting?

I don’t think I really even have one. It can be so many different things. If you are applying paint to a surface to make an image of a thing, you can separate these two things. Applying paint to a surface goes one way and making an image of a thing goes in the other direction. You could be working just with the idea of imagery, with making a representation; that doesn’t have to involve paint or traditional painting or drawing tools at all. There are also artists who are using paint materials to do something that doesn’t really look like painting at all. So I think there is a pretty wide and deep definition of painting now.

I imagine painting as being one of the broadest disciplines. For example, I like to think of photography as a kind of drawing. As a painter I sometimes made photographs as preparatory work, and I thought of that work as a kind of drawing. So now primarily working with photography, I see that as a kind of drawing too.

Yeah, I think more and more the idea of having a medium and sticking to it is not super important. Going back to art academia, there is an interest in blurring the lines between your study areas. I think this is a good thing, probably.

What brought you to Rosalux? You must’ve known about it while you were at the U.

I applied for the Open Door show in 2015 or 16 and had one or two paintings accepted to that. Maybe six months after that show there was an opening in the roster, and I got an email from, maybe it was Terry, saying this is what the gallery is and we are looking for a new member. It wasn’t an invitation to join, but it said I should think about applying for the open spot. So I did.

How’d that make you feel?

It was pretty cool, yeah.

I have a short list of exhibits that really impacted me as a young artist. Do you have any that had that effect on you?

There is one show, about ten years ago. I saw an exhibition of Vija Celmins work at the Menil Collection, in Houston. That’s one of the best things about my parents living in Houston now. Every time I am down there for Christmas or whatever, we go to the Menil Collection because it’s such a great museum. There was this huge show. It was called Television And Disaster. I bought the catalog for it, and I don’t usually do that, because who has the money for exhibition catalogs, but I had to get this one. It was great because I was already a fan of her work, pouring over images online and in books. It was great to get to see a lot of that work in person. She has done a lot of different types of work over decades, but it was specifically a lot of paintings of these hyper-realistic TV news stills…

Like a ship blowing up?

Yeah, yeah, a lot of stuff like that. She has this amazing way of painting those things where it isn’t just a painting of the event seen on the news. It really feels like a painting of the television screen of the event happening. She has this really fucking brilliant way of capturing that filtered experience with paint, which is something that I am really interested in doing. She has always been an important artist for me and I got to see a bunch of her most iconic work in one place and it was amazing.

Vija Celmins, Explosion at Sea, 1966, Oil on canvas

Celmins seems to exist on this plane of Agnes Martin. I have no idea what her life is like, but I imagine it as an ascetic kind of life. Maybe it has something to do with all that detailed rendering, the pencil work. It’s like, if Agnes Martin had watched TV all the time, you’d get Vija Celmins. (Laughs)

I always show my intro to drawing students some of Vija Celmins drawings; some of those insane drawings she did of aerial and water views. I tell them, "This is a pencil drawing by one of my favorite artists, just so you know here is a possibility for graphite drawings."

Does that blow them away?

Yeah, usually it’s “whoa!” It’s part of the first day lecture showing them a bunch of photo-realistic renderings in graphite; now here is a bunch of stuff that is not that, but are still very good drawings. It’s to show intro students that you do not have to be able to do a Vija Celmins water drawing to make a good pencil drawing. It’s a way to get over the fear of “does it look realistic?” I show Vija Celmins to say, “Here’s what you’re not likely to be able to do and that’s okay.” (Laughs)

Who’s work are you connecting with right now?

Aleksandra Waliszewska, a painter from Warsaw, Poland. Her work looks very different from my own and deals with different themes and ideas, but I think there is still a lot of overlap. I'm interested in how she presents these bizarre, fantastical images with a decidedly un-fantastical aesthetic. Her paintings show these surreal, nightmare scenarios, painted in this very matter-of-fact way in drab color schemes, mixing fantasy imagery with mundane scenes from contemporary life.

Aleksandra Waliszewska, Untitled, Gouache, 2012-2013

Did you have a moment that defined your point of view as an artist or has it been a steady evolution?

I don’t think that there is really a specific moment where that happened; I think it’s been a constantly evolving process, but I’ve had a lot of similar interests and aesthetic preferences for a long time. If I look at work that I made ten years ago, I’m like “what the hell? This looks so different and I would never make this now.” Yet there was never a moment where there was a hard left turn. I do notice that the work I am making now isn’t any different from the work I was making six months ago. Little, incremental things change.

So if you put that work that you made when you were 20 side by side with the work you are now making at 30, an observant person might recognize a connection or do you think not really?