Jersey City Artist Graham McNamara Talks About His Work, the Studio Tour, and the Business of Art

The Jersey City Artists Studio Tour celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend, with hundreds of artists exhibiting work in more than 90 locations in the city, from Downtown Jersey City to Greenville, Journal Square to the Heights. One of those artists will be Graham McNamara, an emerging artist from London who has called Jersey City home for about four years. His work, along with that of many others, will be included in Existential Dread, a massive group exhibition at 190 Christopher Columbus Drive curated by Tina Maneca.

“I studied at Middlesex University, which offered a very self-directed open course with no constraints on medium; this certainly influenced my approach to making art, and the work I produce now,” McNamara says. “Although my work could be described as painting, I find it hard to classify as one particular medium, so I call them art objects.”

We recently sat down with Graham to discuss the studio tour, his work and the subtle differences between London and Jersey City.

You were born and raised in London, England, and currently live in Jersey City. Fate brought me here. What’s your story?

I met a Jersey girl and fell in love. My wife Tracy studied abroad for a semester at my university; she liked England — and me — and decided to transfer the rest of her studies there. When we graduated, we moved as close to New York as we could, not realizing what a great place Jersey City is. It couldn’t have worked out better.

How does New York City’s art scene compare to London’s? Is one city more artist-friendly than the other?

My knowledge of interacting with the London art scene is limited compared to New York; I left university, got on a plane, and headed for America, still wet behind the ears. I think both cities are tough and exciting, but I think London is more critical whereas New York is more all accepting. I think at this point in my career this is the best place for me to be, although I do try to stay involved in London. I’m currently in an exhibition at Edel Assanti Gallery there titled Superunknown; it’s a fantastic space and I’m excited to be showing in both cities.

Has living in Jersey City shaped your practice in any manner?

I would say it fits perfectly with how I want to conduct my practice. Jersey City has an aloof relationship to New York. It is neither a part of it nor apart, and so you interact with New York in a very different manner than if you lived there. I am able to draw inspiration from New York City; its art scene and people, yet live and run my studio at a step back. Jersey City is the calm I need to research and create my work!

How did you become involved in Existential Dread, and what work will be on view?

I have known Tina for a number of years; we worked together and have stayed friends ever since. I really respect her work as an artist and as a curator, she puts together shows that really harmonize and convey her ideas well. Tina told me about the show and asked if I had anything that would fit; we had a studio visit and picked 4 pieces from my IMG_ series — IMG_6297, IMG_6293, IMG_6295 and IMG_6291.

The studio tour is a great chance for the public to meet artists in person. What time will you be on site?

It’s nice to discuss your work with so many people; I’m excited to be participating. I will be around for all of Sunday to meet, greet, and answer any questions.

Tell us about at the IMG_ series. What is it, and why should people come to the gallery to see the paintings in person?

In the IMG_ series, I focus on unsettling accepted norms. The series deconstructs the very chocolate-box works of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, which are quintessential in their idyllic imagery and comfortably absorbed into a mainstream acceptance of art and history.

I subvert these moments from this dreamlike state: reduced to one color, seemingly corroded by drips, painted to look as though they were pasted arbitrarily onto medium-density fiberboard (MDF) — a composite, false wood — as opposed to a traditional canvas. This system of processes strips away Bouguereau’s romantic idealism, removing the aura and exposing its “truth,” which in turn confronts us with our own. It’s like a movie star on an autopsy table, guts on the side in a bowl. The pieces are titled after their own documentation; the code given to the main image by the camera that photographed them.

I’d say these pieces need to be seen in person because there are a lot of subtleties in the work that are important, like the ultra smooth painted area and how the thick, uniformed MDF boxes take on a sculptural presence, taking the work outside of a painterly reading and turning it into a conceptual art object.

What a great analogy — the dead movie star, in the meat locker, cut up and dissected. This says a lot about you and your work: the artist as coroner.

I have always taken a very analytical and scientific approach to my environment, and I enjoy exploring the world in a somewhat controlled and methodical way. But I also love those moments of chaos; like in my work how the drips are done before the image is painted, and without thought to how it would affect the image.

The series appropriates paintings by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Who is this artist, and why did you choose his paintings to subvert and not someone else like David, Ingres, or Corot?

Bouguereau was a French painter from the 19th Century; very academic, very traditional, very romantic. He sold well and was highly regarded around the world until Impressionism grew in popularity; he opposed this and they considered him a dinosaur, which he soon became. I am drawn to his work for its overt romantic idealism, especially in light of his stubbornness to move away from his dreamy idyllic style. I am also working with a lot of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, and that strand of German romantics. Although David’s work is stylistically similar, the subject matter comes from a very different place; it’s much grander and less intimate than Bouguereau. Corot’s portraits have far too much honesty to them, and even his landscapes have this subtle bitterness in their beauty.

Bouguereau was popular, had it made, but refused to change with the times — as a result, he fell into obscurity. He is Skid Row to Monet’s Nirvana. Speaking of music, do you listen to it while you paint or do you prefer silence?

It depends on what stage I’m at — I go through a real range. While I cut wood and build the MDF boxes, I listen to bands like The Streets and Babyshambles. Then whilst I’m sanding, taping areas, painting base coats and drips, its Coco Rosie, Beirut and Sigur Ros. And whilst I paint the image, it’s This American Life. I normally spend a good hour or so every studio day in silence, thinking about whatever I’m working on.

I like the fact that you are not afraid to use paintings from art history in your work. In 1997, I had the opportunity to attend the Vermont Studio Center on residency. A visiting art critic from Newsweek blasted me during a studio visit for using art historical references in my painting and collages, and his remarks paralyzed me.

There’s a great Glenn Brown quote:

To make something up from scratch is nonsensical, images are a language. It’s impossible to make a painting that is not borrowed — even the images in your dreams refer to reality.

I think where the problem lies is when art is not moving forward, when I see new young artists making abstract expressionist paintings or geometric minimalist works and not considering them as referential. Whatever you are exploring with your work should be unique.

Before we move on, one more question about your show on the studio tour. Will your work be available to purchase?

Yes they will — get them while they’re hot!

As an artist, I have always found it difficult to determine the value of my work. Is this the case for you, and how do you determine the price of your work?

It’s very difficult; there are so many factors to take into consideration. Every element of my work has deep amounts of thought put into it. With the IMG_ series, please pay close attention to the joins in the MDF boxes; it’s intentional and required a lot of tests to what worked well for the piece. Although I’d like to say it’s an hourly rate plus materials, it isn’t always that simple. If I applied that formula to my paintings, I’d average about $1 an hour. You always take a loss as an emerging artist.

The emerging artist makes a dollar an hour for their work — I think you’re being more than generous. In my experience, the wage for an emerging artist can be calculated in nickels and dimes. What can we do to change this?

I love what I do, so I don’t mind that the financial reward isn’t there yet; I work hard and I hope it’ll pay off. I think in a way it’s part of the process and only makes you more focused and dedicated.

Oil painting was invented sometime in the early 1400s. This is the medium you choose to use today. Why use oils when you could be using laser beams like everyone else?

With my use of paint I make a reference to the material; if I abandoned the paint completely it would lose an important element to my pieces. I think it’s more about how you think about and use the material. In my work the brush strokes in the paint are wiped clean, leaving the surface balanced between the romanticism of painting, and the impersonal, aura-less mechanical print. It becomes about the transition.

Apart from folks like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, most artists are poor, especially painters and artists who use Polaroid cameras and typewriters — they live on stale bread and water. Why did you become an artist, and what steps have you taken to sustain your career?

I don’t think you really chose to be an artist; it’s more that you are one, and you have to figure out how to make it work. You find an art-related part-time job to pay the bills, and work every free moment you have around it. I’m currently a studio assistant three days a week for an artist in New York. The key in today’s art world is to realize you’re a businessman too. It is a career at the end of the day, and you need to balance that with your creativity. Damien Hirst is a very smart businessman, and no comment on Jeff Koons.

What’s wrong with Jeff Koons?

I don’t like his work or how he runs his factory-esque studio. I know Hurst’s studio isn’t much better, but his work is much stronger and that goes a long way.

Let’s focus on Jersey City. What is your favorite diner? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?

The best diner has to be the Flamingo; its Jersey City’s best-kept secret, straight out of the movies. I love White Star as well, as it’s just like an English pub and plays lots of English music. For a coffee it has to be Legal Grounds, which is actually opposite my apartment — lovely garden, great staff, and always a perfect cup. I still have had no luck with a good cup of tea, I have to import bags from England and bring them with me! There’s nothing like a good cup of tea.

MORE OF McNAMARA’S WORK (all of these pieces will be on display at Existential Dread):

Brendan Carroll

an artist and a writer. In 2006, he cofounded Agitators Collective, which creates site-related installations in urban locales that have fallen into neglect or dereliction. He has exhibited his work at a number of museums and galleries in New York and New Jersey, and his work has been featured in several periodicals, including The New York Times, Village Voice, Art Fag City and Time Out New York. Find him online at