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‘Timeless calamity’

Joe Andoe talks Tulsa in his Brooklyn studio

Joe Andoe stands in front of one of his landscape pieces in his Brooklyn studio

From the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a view of Lower Manhattan sprawls across the East River. Joe Andoe’s art studio is burrowed in one of the brick buildings of that industrial park. His building is surrounded by trucks and vans loading and unloading merchandise. Inside, long white halls look all business and resonate with the sound of labor. He began our meeting by telling me about the Navy Yard’s history.

It was constructed on what used to be Canarsie Indian marshland, though Brooklyn was entirely colonized by the end of the American Revolutionary War. During this period, 11,500 British “prison ship martyrs” died and were buried there in mass graves. In 1801, the government constructed the Navy Yard, where U.S. Navy vessels were built and repaired for every American war. It was closed in 1966 because modern ships couldn’t fit under the bridges.

After waves of city revitalization, the Navy Yard is now home to various commercial ventures and several artists’ studios. Andoe has occupied studios all over New York City, and has been at the Navy Yard for one year.

Paintings line the walls of his studio: white faces of wolves in close-up against black backgrounds, bikini clad girls in repose against the same black space, and his landscapes and horses, familiar to anyone who knows Green Country.

Against another wall are three large skull paintings. He described them as “Neanderthal skulls,” and said he was inspired to paint them after taking a DNA test that revealed he had excessive amounts of the Neanderthal genome. There are also several works in progress—one large canvas done in sky blue with clouds, waiting for a horse to gallop toward the viewer.

Andoe’s paintings have always been minimal. He distills the essence of figures and objects from memory onto dreamlike fields of monochrome. Many of his landscapes are angled as if the viewer is glancing out the window of a moving car. Done in color or black and white, they resemble the outskirts of Tulsa as seen by day or night. Though his early work takes the symbol as object, such as horns or wreaths or flowers, these are not signs to be interpreted. They are pure image meant to convey feeling.

“I use abstract language, but I paint figuratively,” Andoe said.

He described how universal feelings arise from particular images, saying that it doesn’t necessarily matter that people know where an image comes from. He leaves it open so that others can relate to what he feels when painting.

Tulsa is the place from which Andoe’s work both arrives and departs—in a literal and metaphorical sense. He had to leave Tulsa to find any recognition in the art world, yet his hometown subject matter is what set him apart in that environment.

“Tulsa—it’s not like I’m nostalgic for it,” Andoe said. “It’s more like my muse, my tuning fork. It’s like, I want my work to look like that. There was a sort of generic plainness in the early ‘70s, probably when my frontal lobe developed … I can almost trace it to the second where I realized. I’m sitting in my car, some place on the edge of town, and I’m probably listening to Houses of the Holy or something, and I just realized how beautiful everything is—how cool this is. And my record kind of skips on that.”

He would take this beauty and refine it, first in classes at Tulsa Junior College, where he realized you could make money as a professional artist, and then at the University of Oklahoma where he graduated with his BFA and MFA.

Andoe’s final project at OU was a 3x45-ft. landscape set below skylights. The painting would change as the natural light in the gallery shifted. He discussed how the climate at school during this period shaped his creative outlook.

“It was the ‘70s, and it was all free-form. Anti-style,” Andoe said. “They really didn’t want you to be derivative of someone else, and you were painting in these open studios, and you were constantly being pushed out into the lane even if your gesso looked like somebody else. Originality was held at a high—it was what we were going through at every step of the painting.

“I had a vision of just air blowing through them—not tying them off at the end—they’re just open. I’m not drawing any conclusions. I’m not directing you to feel one way or the other. If I do it right, it has more to do with how you feel than how I feel. It has more to do with the viewer than with me, and hopefully it looks different to you every time you see it. Like a mirror: Every time you see it, you feel something different.”

Andoe moved to NYC in 1982, but his work wouldn’t be shown in Tulsa until a 1999 exhibit at the Gilcrease Museum. Since then, he’s had one more show in Tulsa at Exhibit by Aberson in 2015. Titled “Grand Lakes,” it was his first show to feature works on paper and collages that he made at home when he was between studios.

Andoe has always painted daily. He doesn’t attribute his worldwide recognition to goals that he set, or a vision of success, but to what he finds joy doing.

“What I want to do is make things, actualize. Make things that look the way I feel,” he said.

In “Jubilee City: A Memoir at Full Speed” (2007), Andoe laid his life bare in poignant stories about growing up in Tulsa and his transition to life in NYC. He repeated this process, but instead channeled it through fictionalized perspectives of people he knew, for a collage film project called “RAINBOW ROAD.” A blend of black and white footage, cut-out photographs, drawings, and text narrated by the artist, the texture of the film matches its narrative potency. Andoe’s writing and film projects are first-hand accounts of his feelings about Tulsa.

His most recent solo show, “Rainbow Road Part 2,” was this year in Brussels at Almine Rech Gallery—who currently represents Andoe. They presented a painting at Art Basel Miami this month, and next year they’re hosting another solo show of his work in NYC.

Although there’s repetition in his work, and the foundation of his subject matter is established, Andoe is not a one-trick pony. His 2015 show “Super Highway” at Nathalie Karg Gallery in NYC engaged with technology, reimagining the familiar spaces of Tulsa from the digital perspective of Google Maps satellites. Telephone poles figure prominently, with fields bombarded by radio waves beaming from outer space—a conversion of technology into paint, representing our experience of it.

“There’s that old Frankenstein movie,” Andoe said. “It’s a dead guy, he’s put together with parts, and then the lightning strikes and he moves his hand and takes a breath. It’s almost like the minute it takes a breath, I want to stop. … It has life in it. That’s where the effort and the content resonate.”

The way in which life is represented in his work is both familiar and distant—almost as if his memories are able to carry over to the viewer and engage them in the same process of recollection. Even those who haven’t driven through East Tulsa in an American muscle car or seen horses grazing Green Country pastures will likely be moved by these images. The power of Andoe’s work speaks because it isn’t saying too much or too little. It’s speaking to a higher truth about what it means to be young, and how the beauty of the natural is reflected in us.

I asked Andoe if his paintings contained a message.

“I just want to be timeless, like timeless calamities,” he replied.

Tulsa has its calamities just as Brooklyn does, but they’re not on the surface. They lie hidden, buried underground. Andoe’s art resonates this depth without showing it directly. Whether a wolf, a girl, or bare skull against a black background, those images express the timelessness of our desire and tragedy.

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