“Nothing but Evolution and Change.”
Tom Pazderka has left a dent in Glenn Dallas’ history as he has had works featured in almost every exhibition. Pazderka is a fascinating artist who works with unique mediums and creative processes that allow him to stand out and call attention to important subject matters. Not only does he have extremely intricate and beautiful works, he also is the Lead Preparator for the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture, promoting public art in a way that is engaging with the community and draws attention to the vibrant Santa Barbara art scene.
Hali Galloway: What led/ influenced/ molded you to become an artist?
Tom Pazderka: It’s probably a cliché but I believe I was born an artist rather than become an artist. Art chose me. I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to become an artist. As early as I can remember I wanted to draw and make art. I suppose my first conscious decision to make a particular form of art was painting. This was in high school. At that point I was already influenced by many things, but if I was to pick a few then I would choose underground heavy metal and punk rock music (black metal, death metal, doom/sludge, grindcore, power violence) because of their low fidelity aesthetic (lots of high contrast black and white imagery, dissonance, etc), highly skilled musicianship that appears simpler than it is (atmosphere is created by literally creating new sounds and song structure, skill and creativity go hand in hand), strangely disassociated or clashing ethics and philosophical attitudes (black metal is typically right wing with some exceptions, proclaiming allegiance to very disparate ideas like paganism, individualism or nationalism, while grindcore, if political, tends to be very radically left-wing, part of the black bloc, anti-authoritarian, and so on) and film genres like horror, scifi, arthouse cinema and my personal favorite, B-movies. Like with music style cannot be everything and for me to enjoy it, there has to be enough substance to feed the mind. This is how movies as different and totally opposite on the spectrum can be enjoyed in the same breath. Some good examples are films by Tarkovsky that are very high brow, high concept films and demand a lot of attention and then opposite to that is schlock like Manos the Hands of Fate or Bloodsucking Freaks, which seem like the lowest form of entertainment, but have a strange sense of atmosphere and uncanny eeriness about them. They are just as much art as The Shining or Under the Skin, because the filmmakers created a unique set of sensibilities, like lighting, camera angles, what they choose to show and what they leave out, that even if one tried to reshoot a really bad B-movie, it would be next to impossible to do it and stay true to the original artistic vision. This is what I am always struck by when art is ‘good’ (and I mean ‘good’ in the most subjective way possible), it is that it penetrates into the deepest parts of one’s psyche and resonates with it, like a good song. When you hear a song for the first time, you know within a few seconds whether you love it or hate it and it has nothing to do with the quality of the production or musicianship, but everything having to do with the way you receive it, a kind of conjunction between you the receiver and the received. Architecture works in the same way and because I am also heavily influenced by my past, being born in Europe, in Czechoslovakia to be precise, which was Communist, then became capitalist, becoming Czech Republic, then moving to NYC, then to North Carolina, and eventually to California, this is what I consider the formative experience and it is what I seek to understand by making art. In this sense all my work can be looked at as ontological, but I really don’t like using the word because it misses the point somewhat and I would hate to sound academic or pretentious only to make a point that can be made in other ways. So in other words, I make art because it is a method for understanding myself and the world and to present this to the public.
HG: And, dow do those influences manifest themselves in your work, if they do at all?
TP: Well, the latest work is pretty obviously about all of these things. Black and white images, burned wooden panels, old family photos, images of fires, falling buildings, gothic windows. Given the above it may seem a bit on the nose, but I like to think that it’s all more nuanced than that. If I didn’t give away what the story was behind the images, I think they still work because there is enough room for anyone to make an interpretation. This is my big gripe with lots of contemporary art, especially the political kind being produced by every graduate student, it tells the audience what they should think and feel, it takes a stance and tries not to back down and since most of it is produced to satisfy a certain method of behaving or being in this world, it lacks the room for interpretation. I didn’t mention any artists in the answer to the first question, but perhaps I’ll mention a couple, Joseph Beuys and Rothko. These are big names, but they work at a level that reaches beyond their fame and their work can be endlessly debated and reinterpreted. When I made the first ash cloud paintings, I think I arrived at something similar that both of these guys had, a good connection between material and concept, the idea of the painting and the thing itself, almost a semiotic relationship, using ash, fire and paint, to produce paintings of ash clouds that are composed of similar materials. I couldn’t be stuck in the production of endless ash clouds so eventually the imagery diverged into what it is today. I like history, the past and studying nostalgia, so it was inevitable that these would find their way into the paintings as well.
HG: How have you seen your work and aesthetic evolve from when you first began exploring your creative path to now?
TP: I think it’s been nothing but evolution and change. I’ve been working on the current series of works only since 2016. Before that I was making large site-specific installations, assemblage and generally not painting. Before that I made a series of works that were made from various detritus I collected from work sites. This was while I was working as a house painter and carpenter. This was the time when I thought I made my first ‘really important’ work. Important to whom I don’t know, but it sure was important to me. One of the pieces I made in that period actually got me into grad school. This was also the time I was first experimenting with fire and burning as a conceptual position. Even further before this period I was a straight-up painter and like all people starting out, I thought I knew what I was doing. I was basically just copying other painters and hoping something of mine would come through. I realized fairly quickly that it takes years, decades to become a good painter and I quit painting for a while and started to focus on ideas and concepts rather than images. I thought this would eventually help me with the painting, if and when I would pick it up again. I guess now is that time.
HG: Tell me some more about your portraits of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Why them? What does the line infer? What was your artistic process for your pieces.
TP: Well, the Trump piece was something quick and fun rather than tedious like some of the detailed black and white paintings. I made the Two Donalds first by simply inverting one image of him and placing them side by side. In the inverted photo Trump looked like a demon and that was fascinating. He had that familiar smirk on his face and white eyes. I believe that Trump is a symptom of our times and I try to look past the bullshit that is endlessly being written about him and his ridiculous persona. I also believe we spend way too much time analyzing that persona. I can’t go into all the details about what I think about him, that would be a waste of everyone’s time, but the images told me something that I couldn’t put into words. And this works with most of these personalities, like Hillary or Mark Zuckerberg who I also made into a similar piece. These are split personalities, they appear as one, then as another. They are not truly who they are, but they appear to us as someone who we ought to take as what they appear to be. For this to really work visually, one would have to imagine a giant wall, filled with nothing but small portraits of Trump, each one slightly different than the next, but all with a bit of similarity to the one next to it, until one arrives at the complete opposite of the original image, which is what the inversion is. But even this wouldn’t be enough. But to answer your question, I had these two prints, mounted. I wanted to use the boards for another project so I decided to burn the prints off and to tape the process. While I was doing it, it became clear that I shouldn’t just destroy the piece but make a whole new piece out of it. I kept working, added some ash, and painted the face to partly occlude it and add a bit of a sinister look with the red paint. With Two Hillarys the process was the same. To me the line symbolizes the literal split in the personality of the subject.
HG: In your artist statement, you mentioned that your works have an element of Czech Fatalism and American Optimism. Can you go into more detail about that and how do your works portray this concept?
TP: I wrote that statement a long time ago, but I think it still holds up. At the time I was making lots of conceptual installations that were personal investigations into the private spaces of various mythic individuals, that then bled into the public spaces to be seen as manifestations of nationalism, patriotism and how these two spaces are easily nestled together. The people were never present, or real for that matter, they were just figures that stood in for the presence of their absence, or in other words, many installations were built to make it seem as though they could have been occupied by some of these kinds of people, but never were. My efforts really circled around figures like Ted Kaczynski, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Heidegger. I built a whole world around them and people similar to them in their outlook and discovered that each one of them shared something with my own outlook on the world, which was sometimes unnerving. The fatalism that I was suggesting is really manifest in the way these ideas and installations are presented, very matter of factly, with used, terrible materials, picked up by the roadside, sometimes there were my own personal items mixed in, things that I found around town, or bought at a thrift store, there was a deadpan, almost end of days feel to a lot of the work. But the optimism cut through some of that, because despite what the work looked like, it retained a certain warmth and charm. I didn’t want the work to be simply dark for the sake of darkness, that is too easy to do. I tried to steer clear of politics, but inevitably they always crept in. I made confederate flags out of carpets and pallets, but those were meant as strange mementos of my past in North Carolina. Once I stopped making the installations and started painting again, the fatalism and optimism remained, but I think they took a back seat. I can honestly say that I am still working with the same set of ideas as when I was building installations, except that now I am producing images instead of sculptures you can walk into. Though I am still intending to make installations as opportunities present themselves.
HG: What was your artistic process for your cabin works? What is the idea/theme behind these?
TP: This was the ‘important’ work that I mentioned earlier. I made a version of this piece some years ago, by drawing the two cabins (one was Thoreau’s the other was Kaczynski’s) on some two by fours that I brought home from a job site. It was a formative piece for that time period and opened up a whole conceptual field for me. It was the essence of the American experience brought together into a single image. On the one hand you have Thoreau, the great American transcendentalist, abolitionist, activist, humanist, environmentalist and on the other you have Kaczynski, the great American hermit terrorist. Both men, and I have to highlight that they were men, represent a facet of the American attitude toward the private and public, and the political. Once I realized how similar these two men were, I got very interested in their lives and what drove them. There is a Thoreau problem out there, one that paints him as a national hero, a mythical figure, but the reality is that he was a complex guy, capable of great things but also the most petty idiocy. His aunt washed his clothes while he was living at Walden Pond, but he never put that in his book. Kaczynski was probably even more complex. Born a genius, studied mathematics and while he was at Harvard, got entangled in some unsavory campus experiments that were part of the infamous MK-Ultra. Soon after that he quit his job teaching at UC Berkeley and went off to live in the woods in Montana in a place called Scapegoat Wilderness. You can’t make this stuff up. He also wrote, like Thoreau, and about similar things, just updated to current times. I could go on and on, but the piece itself is done in a similar method to Two Donalds or Two Hillarys. If anyone is interested in reading more about this, there is a book called Two Cabins and was produced by James Benning who now has a show up at the MCASB. To be sure, I made my piece completely independently from his. I didn’t find out about his work until two three years after I already made mine.
HG: What is your intended reaction from the viewer?
TP: Curiosity. That’s all. If anyone wants to talk about this sort of stuff I’m available.
HG: What are some techniques, mediums, or ideas that you want to explore further in your career that you have not yet had the chance to explore?
TP: These sound like high-powered concepts, but let me assure you they are not ☺. I’ve worked with most of the basic elements, earth , water, fire…. The last one I haven’t explored is air. To some degree, I haven’t really worked with water as much either, but air is the last element that is probably the most elusive and I think that will be the next stage. It may take many years, I don’t know. I’m not talking about just the physical manifestation of these elements either. Most of the time when it is time for me to change directions I get a strong sense or urge to do it, as if it isn’t really me that is doing it. The only thing I can do is to wait, work and wait. Some good things can come from simply making things up, thinking up ideas, concepts, but I don’t believe that these become great ideas or produce great things in the end. Thinking is good, but it is only a part of the dynamic of thinking and being, living and being lived. I have been getting the urge to put color back into the paintings, but I am also finding myself resisting it just as much. Black and white imagery forces you to look and think. Color makes you react and feel, mostly without thinking and that’s the danger, because color can be misused. So I’m on the fence, though I’m pretty sure there will be a way for color to seep back in without the necessary compromise.
Pazderka is currently showing some new works in our upcoming exhibition, Stardust and Satisfaction: Art and Music. This show features art about music, musicians, and festival culture from a selection of local, national, and international artists.