Trumansburg, N.Y. — Way up on the top floor of a rustic four-story barn in Trumansburg, Jim Garmhausen is drawing.
He works on the floor (only way to get his paint pens to flow) while instrumental rock plays from a small stereo in the corner. A radial saw occasionally shrieks in the woodshop below. Everything smells like pine.
“The moment I started working here I was on fire with the energy of the place,” Garmhausen said.
Although it took no time to appreciate the energy of Garmhausen’s work space, it was more difficult to grasp how Garmhausen’s street-style art — thumbtacked to particle-board walls and framed by the room’s rustic ambiance — could have been produced amid this calm.
The energy of the pieces seemed to jar with the setting of the studio.
But then Garmhausen started talking. He spoke about his upbringing, his early life as an artist and his recent emergence into the gallery scene.
And as we talked I realized that the tension I was feeling — the tension between the tranquility of the setting and the angst of the art — was just another version of the tension which has defined and continues to define Garmhausen’s life as an artist.
From comics to art
Garmhausen, 43, grew up on Long Island in what he described as a “wildly Christian” household.
Although he was always drawn to comics, his parents were strict and prohibited him from reading most popular comics and magazines. He was limited, for the most part, to comic strips in what papers he could find lying around the house. Strips like Peanuts, Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes made up Garmhausen’s personal bible.
When he tried his own hand at comics, he received a strong reception. Magazines such as ArtVoice in Buffalo and Pulp in Pittsburgh agreed to publish his work. Soon enough, however, he realized that none of the magazines interested in running his comics had any money to offer him.
“I was moving away from comics at that point,” Garmhausen said. “I don’t know, something about it felt too limiting.”
Garmhausen said that he’d always felt intimidated by the world of ‘high’ art. He was intimidated technically (always incompetent with a paint brush, he says) as well as stylistically, and was concerned that his “little scribbles” would be out of place in the intellectual setting of a gallery.
But then, two things happened which changed Garmhausen’s attitude.
First, he discovered paint pens. By using fountain-like pens which filled with acrylic drawing ink, Garmhausen was able to increase the size of his drawings without having to transition to a paintbrush.
Second, he became interested in street artists like Barry McGee who produce gallery art, but whose work is inspired by aesthetics of comics.
“The kind of art that comes out of an interaction with the public is just a cool art,” Garmhausen said.
“I felt like I could take my comics and transmute them into art, and get away with it. In some ways I just think these are just big cartoon panels without the words.”
Garmhausen said that as his art has matured, his characters have gained an openness and a quirkiness they’d previously lacked. This change in his art has corresponded, he said, to a simultaneous change in himself — a move away from self-doubt and toward a newfound security and confidence.
“I was very interested in this particular kind of character that was very lined and scarred and tough,” he said.
“But I realized at a certain point that it was my own defensiveness, and at a certain point I realized that I had to move all of these defensive characters out of the way. I needed to drop my own defensiveness and say, ‘okay: here are the little freaks. Do you like ‘em?’”
And people have been liking them. Garmhausen’s work has been shown to much acclaim in Ithaca as well as at pop-up shows in New York City. The work that was hanging in his studio when I visited was for an upcoming show at the Loft Parlor in East Hampton, Massachusetts.
Garmhausen said that although he’s been slow to embrace the gallery scene, his new work shows him turning a corner.
“I’m just getting a different sort of response to my work than I used to, and I think part of it is just energetically my work is saying: I want to be out there, I want to be in these venues. I think that before it had a little bit of a “(expletive) you” to it, you know, because I kind of had a chip on my shoulder and I didn’t care if people liked it.”
Now, Garmhausen said, he’s more trusting of gallery goers to appreciate what’s meaningful about his art.
“I’m happy if you like it and if you don’t like it, that’s totally fine too,” he said.
Garmhausen says that newfound confidence is the result, in large part, of the positive feedback he’s received from New York City gallery owner Dolores Neumann and her daughter Kristina. Neumann was influential in the 1980’s New York City art scene and helped to transition artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat from the street to the gallery, where they would ultimately receive upwards of $10,000 for individual pieces.
Garmhausen said that Neumann has expressed her interest in helping him transition to the gallery.
Although he’s been pleased to discover that the world of gallery art may be open to him, his own attitude towards his art seems — in many ways — to run counter to attitude embodied by this scene.
At many points in our conversation I felt Garmhausen resisting my attempts to intellectualize his art. When I would indicate what I thought were themes running throughout his pieces, he would quickly agree (“right, right,” he would say, nodding vigorously) in a way which suggested he’d rather not talk about his art in the high-flown tone I was flirting with. Furthermore, many of the aspects I found most interesting about his art Garmhausen attributed to “mere convention” or “thoughtless technique,” and what initially came off as modesty in the end seemed part of a deep-seated resistance to a certain attitude towards art.
And therein lies the battle for Garmhausen. How does he make a living off of his art (and, potentially, a lucrative living) while staying grounded in the ideas and struggles which gave rise to the art in the first place? How does he cope with the validation which comes with success when the art itself has been borne of social anxiety and ostracism? How does he continue just to doodle while the world is saying that what he’s doing is more than mere doodling – it’s capital-A Art!
For Garmhausen, getting his feet wet in the gallery scene has meant thinking about his art in a way that he’s not completely comfortable with.
“Whenever someone asks a painter ‘what were you thinking when you did this?’ The answer is ‘nothing.’” Garmhausen said. “And then later you make up answers to questions.”
Correction: 9/26/2014 at 10:00 AM. A previous version of the article stated that Jim Garmhausen was in contract negotiations with Dolores Neumann and her daughter Kristina. The artist would like to clarify that although a contract has been discussed, no negotiations are currently taking place.