Justine Frischmann

Marin County CA, Painter // May 2012
Encountering inspirational work makes me want to feel what it’s like to have created it. It’s not enough to just see it; I want to experience what it felt like in the body to make it, like the difference between hearing a song and actually singing it.

We arrived at Justine’s home in San Rafael late in the afternoon, with the sun in slow descent, casting long drawn-out shadows across the courtyard fence and floor. It was that time of day when the world seems to get a little quieter and the warm light becomes all encompassing and the only thing that seems appropriate is a nap. Or a nice cup of tea— which is exactly what Justine offered us. We sat in her kitchen for a while chatting about her newly renovated home, the calm of “country” living, and what her life was like in the years before moving to the Bay Area. Justine is best known for being the lead singer and guitarist of Elastica, the Britpop band that hit it big in the ‘90s. The band is now defunct and over the last few years Justine has reconnected with her longtime passion for painting. In her studio, a converted double garage just steps away from the kitchen, Justine let us check out work she’s been busy with for an upcoming group show in New York (opening on June 1st) called “All Together Now.” There’s a grimy aspect to her work that calls to mind graffiti-laden walls and tunnels, the electricity of the “inner-city”, and a casual disregard for authority. It’s noticeably at odds with her current surroundings; nothing about it is synonymous with the muted sounds and gentle rolling gold-green hills of Marin County. When I asked her about this she said, “The edge is inside.” A simple answer, but a significant one. A few days later I told a friend about our visit with Justine, mentioning a few of the many ways in which her life has changed course. My friend smiled and said, “See, life is long.” And…well, I guess that is what I found most inspiring about our visit with Justine— that there is time for many different incarnations, that the force of creativity is ever-shifting and can take on many forms, and that if you really want something, there’s room for it.

What mediums do you work with?
For a couple of years I was using very “ordinary”, DIY type materials that you can find in a hardware store: plywood, spray paint, latex, and also photocopies. I enjoyed the “punk”, throwaway aesthetic and the way it challenged traditional notions of permanence. Using materials that suggested impermanence and messiness seemed more true to life as I experience it.

In my latest body of work, I have been embracing “art” materials like oil paint and specially made artist panel. I have recently discovered the delight of having days to return to the painting and re-manipulate the paint when using oil. I am still using fluorescent acrylics. I really enjoy the synthetic, Pop-look of fluorescents, and the magical, almost mystical way they seem to light up a surface. They only came into existence in the latter part of the 20th century and for me, they are one of the best things about our toxic, synthetic times. Medieval artists used gold leaf to light up a surface; we have fluoro!

How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
One of the themes that keeps recurring in my work is the dichotomy between faith and doubt. At the beginning of the year I made some paintings called “The Battle of Faith and Doubt” which were a departure in terms of aesthetic, they were black on black. But to some degree, I think every piece of work I have ever made is about this. Any creative endeavor requires a great amount of faith and trust as does calling oneself an artist and stepping daily into the unknown.

Formally, there is an ongoing theme of order versus chaos. I like utilizing a geometrical structure as a starting point, but then pushing at the boundaries until deterioration or deviation occurs, and things start to unravel. There’s opportunity for something surprising in that state of unraveling, and again it just feels more honest. More like what life actually feels like… we impose geometrical structure on a biomorphic, curvy world in our built environments. We try to impose order on our lives, but it takes an enormous amount of effort and upkeep because nature pulls it all back to a kind of chaos.

I have a degree in architecture and I think that it is an ongoing influence in my work. I’m drawn to the forms in geometry and to the function and aesthetics of maps and diagrams. I’m particularly interested in the period of early Modernism and the artists and architects of the time who were interested in expressing spirituality through form, people like Itten at the Bauhaus and the Suprematists.

Do you see your work as autobiographical?
Not in any kind of explicit way, but yes. The themes and ideas I am working with are in direct relation to an ongoing personal narrative; the big questions are reflected in the choices I make in my art. My recent black on black pieces echo my ever-evolving relationship with my spiritual faith. I think my approach and aesthetics reveal internal struggles and speak to my family origins and history.

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?
My greatest “fuel” is other work I like. I have a physical reaction to it, a visceral jolt that spurs me into action. Encountering inspirational work makes me want to feel what it’s like to have created it. It’s not enough to just see it; I want to experience what it felt like in the body to make it, like the difference between hearing a song and actually singing it.

So sometimes my work begins in this way, in relation to other’s work, in conversation with it, in ode or mimicry. And then comes the faith that my work will emerge from that process as it’s own thing, with it’s own voice.

I always listen to music while I’m working. I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that seem to be good for working and I listen to them on repeat. It’s mostly non-lyrical stuff: Brian Eno, some Krautrock, Battles, Dusseldorf, Hatchback. I still love the Fall and Wire and listen to them if I’m flagging in energy.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It’s incredibly important to have a space to make work. It’s the difference between making work and not making work. I need somewhere quiet where I can be undisturbed for long periods where I can make a giant mess and have all my materials on hand. I’m really untidy when I’m working and I like to leave everything out so I can pick right up where I left off. I’ve also discovered it’s really important for me to have studio space very near where I live.

My studio is a converted double garage in an Eichler which my husband and I bought in a tear-down state and restored to its original glory. I studied the California Modern Movement as part of my degree in architecture and was very excited to find that there were Eichlers in the Bay Area when we moved here. The renovation was actually a much bigger project than I originally realized and it took over my creative life for about a year. But it feels like it was worth it.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
I love the work of Isa Genzken who seems to find order in the rubble and decay of contemporary pop culture. She embraces the confusion of our time to create sublime totems.

I’m also very drawn to Sarah Cain’s exploded grids and to Paul Pagk’s work, which I see as a kind of geometry of doubt. When I first saw his work, it reminded me of the strange, geometrical nightmares I used to have as I was a kid whenever I got a fever. I think geometric relationships are inherent to our innate consciousness, the way we look for symmetry and pattern. This “geometry of doubt” that I would see in my feverish state refuses to reflect order or logic, it hesitates and stumbles and fails to fit together. I think Wendy White does something similar using letters and language to great effect.

I’m also enjoying and watching the work of emerging artists Sabine Tress and John Phillip Abbot.

How do you navigate the art world?
I’ve been wary of using my success in music to ask for opportunities I might not be ready for. I recognized that I needed to take time to establish a practice, develop my work, and allow myself room to experiment. I know that making work is the end in itself, not external validation or financial success. Having said that, I know that I need community, support and deadlines in order to make my best work. I look forward to opportunities arising organically and authentically, and I feel ready to push myself and move forward.

A commonly held conception is that artists often make their best work during periods of personalturmoil, have you found this to be true?
There’s that Leonard Cohen song lyric in “Anthem”— “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” which I think he related to a Zen idea originally. My understanding of this is that we touch the divine through our imperfections. I believe that all creativity comes through a divine source but it’s the twists and breaks in each artist that make the work come out in the way it does. If I hadn’t had my share of suffering and had a happier, more stable family I would probably be painting cats on cushions.

When there are difficult emotions coming up for me I do find that my studio can be a place of solace. But it’s a fine line. I need to be calm and grounded to show up and make work.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I am participating in a group show in Brooklyn in June, curated by Julie Torres, which I think is going to be fantastic. It’s the work of eleven abstract painters who connected through social media and are travelling from all over the world to meet in person and show together. We’ll also be making some collaborative work in the week before the show. The show’s called “All Together Now” and opens on June 1st.

There’s an overview of the participating artists at:

To see more of Justine’s work:

  • Tracy Mitchell

    Thank you for the great interview. Justine is talented on so many levels.

  • Jack

    Tedious art school drivel

  • jay san

    Beautiful :-)