"I swear from my very being by what I'm doing," says John Motian. "You've gotta do what you are." And Motian is a painter.
Sitting on a simple twin bed, a glass of wine by his side, Motian is unabashed about a life lived through the end of a brush. Behind a strong Armenian nose and neatly trimmed white mustache, his eyes swing between distant dreaminess and mischievous intensity. Paintings, some of them 40 years old, crowd every wall of his small room, line up four or five deep on his dressers and cluster in the corner. The entire scene reflects Motian's singular focus, his unrelenting drive to paint.
Motian, who will be 82 in March, has been painting for more than 60 years. "I had to work and do weird jobs," he says, "but I always painted every time I had a chance." To call his artistic endeavors a career would be misleading, though. Until recently, very few people had seen his work. This month, Piante Gallery is bringing many of them to light for the first time in nearly three decades. With the help of photographer Suk Choo Kim, Motian has emerged from near isolation to finally put his stamp on the art world. "A lot of people have technique," he says cheekily, "but I think I have the best imagination of anyone."
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Motian came west to California in the late '60s to tramp around the Golden State's art scene. He eventually settled near Moonstone in a "lumber shack, living like hippies" with his wife and young kids. When his marriage went south around 1984, Motian trudged back east to take care of his ailing mother.
He stayed in Cleveland after his mom passed and threw himself into work. "That was a godsend," he recalls. "For 23 years I was alone." Years and years of art school, art museums, volumes of art books and an elaborate family history gushed out of him in an endless stream of canvases that filled the house. "Two stories, three bedrooms and a hallway ... I had to sleep on the couch," he says. With nothing else to distract him, Motian admits he "was kind of a hermit ... The only real person I was with was my mother's minister. He was my patron. He helped me, bought things, bought materials, did all kinds of things for me."
Painting is Motian's release, his healing and his outlet. "That's how I communicate," he says, "since I don't write and I don't like to talk about [life]." He does like to read though, especially poetry, and Motian likens his paintings to works by Rainer Maria Rilke and Kahlil Gibran. "Poetry is not just words," he says. "Poetry is everything. You can make your life a poem. Even cooking or whatever you're doing, you know?" Grinning, he adds, "Like taking a piss."
Motian doesn't paint from images or models — everything comes from his mind. Starting from a blank canvas he makes marks, sees something and runs with it. "I have an initial idea, but they always change," Motian says. "It ends up completely different. It surprises me."
Some works have obvious subjects. In one, a black and white loon paddles through steel-blue water, its head turned toward a rippling mauve sky. An airy, distant shore divides the painting in two. The composition, rich with cobalt and navy hues, resembles Dutch landscape traditions, but such comparisons end there. Expressionism dominates most of the surface. Flat, monochrome brush strokes anchor the lower right corner. Thick impasto ivories vibrate against swift ecru reflections. The sun streaks through the sky with a lavender comet tail.
In another painting, recognizable imagery almost entirely melts away. Vertical streaks of snowy gray and goldenrod frame an onyx form. Spindly tree shapes, a layered perspective and a teal sun suggest a landscape, but the prevalence of veiled shapes keeps the subject just out of reach. This ambiguity prevents Motian's work from becoming stale; you can always find something new in it. "I like things to be kind of vague," says Motian. "Subtlety leads into imagination, leads into mystery."
Motian's utter belief in art, in his creative compulsion, manifests in his works; each piece feels like a soul laid bare. During those decades in the cramped confines of his Cleveland home, Motian wasn't alone. He and his imagination wandered the world, weaving visual poems without waiting for the world to listen. "I work each piece like it's my last thing," he says. "I keep trying to find something. My next painting is always going to be the greatest."