James Griffith: Painting with Tar


In the paintings he creates, James Griffith combines his deep love for making art with his deep love for the natural world.

His longtime subject matter has been animals, large and small, and now he finds himself fascinated by celestial bodies—the sun, the moon, and the stars. And then there’s the raw material he uses to make his paintings—tar from the La Brea Tar Pits in midtown Los Angeles, the tar being the remains of organic material from long, long ago.

In his Altadena studio, he worked on one large painting for a month, “The Sun and the Gravity of Radiance.” It’s a 6-foot-wide tar painting, with the sun in the center, its surface exploding with solar flares and the manifestation of magnetic fields.

The painting is his contribution to the art series “Gyre” (through March 28) at the Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum, on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. “Gyre” consists of eight, one-week exhibitions, with each exhibition featuring just one work from an artist. It’s thought of as a way of slowing down and concentrating on one work, getting away from our media oversaturation.

Griffith’s week is March 3 to March 7, and he will be giving a talk at noon on opening day. “The idea was to have people come and talk about one work and create experiences for students and people who go to the museum,” he says. “People will be encouraged to leave their cellphone at the door and sit on the benches and be in the present.”

For this painting he stretched canvas over a wooden panel, to give it more support because of its large size. Then he applied layers of gesso to seal and to smooth out the surface. With the canvas lying flat, he poured a mixture of tar, solvent, and water over it, and “let it run wild across the surface,” Griffith says.

“It’s a balance between control and out of control, I try to let the stuff of nature happen so that you really feel the texture of the tar. When I’m carving through it with the knife, the lines behave differently depending on whether the tar is thick or thin.”

He uses an X-Acto blade to make incisions through the tar coating, giving each work its fine details.

Born in Long Beach, Griffith attended Art Center College of Design in the late 1970s. In 1999 he moved to Altadena with his wife, landscape designer Susanna Dadd. They have lived in other parts of Los Angeles, but Altadena with its mature trees and hiking trails seemed closer to nature. Also, he says, “the sense of community is the strongest I’ve ever felt anywhere, it’s really a wonderful place.” They bought a house to live in, and he maintains a separate studio in part of a former firehouse.

About 10 years ago he sought a new medium to work with. When he looked around his studio, he found asphaltum, a material used in printmaking, and began painting with it. He loved its dark rich tones, and then realized he could go to a local source to get more of the same, off Wilshire Boulevard. The people at the Tar Pits were happy to let him have some of the tar that naturally bubbles up—a 5-gallon pail of the stuff that lasts him a year or more. “It adds this other dimension,” he says, “this primordial goo that had this history of having trapped all these animals that are now extinct.”

His main subjects up to now have living creatures, often birds and mammals. Typically, he begins by pouring thinned tar onto a prepared surface and lets it dry while pondering what creature might be emerging. Once he decides, he paints form and contour, and further refines through scratching out details such as whiskers and fur. He works on several paintings at once, partly because the coatings need to dry. For his current work, “The Sun and the Gravity of Radiance,” he knew beforehand what the subject would be, with “radiating lines, looping magnetic fields, the solar flares,” he says. As reference, he looks at NASA photographs.

His last gallery show was last fall at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica. “Terrestrial and Celestial” featured his usual subjects, wild animals, including a cougar and a snail. It also pointed a new direction with paintings of the earth, moon, and stars. In the work “Moon – Reflector” Griffith even touched on a bit of his own history. Taking an oval wall mirror that once belonged to his grandmother, he drew the moon into the tar coating, half in darkness, half in light.

“At certain angles, you can actually see yourself, which is like the moon, a reflection,” he says.

One of the largest paintings in the show, “Cougar with Milky Way,” combined his interests—a black cougar prowls across the canvas, the stars of the Milky Way emanating from his torso. “I live up here by JPL, so many friends work on the Mars project or listen to the background radiation of the universe,” Griffith says. “I started reading a lot more about how we are essentially stardust.”

The Tar Pits themselves fascinate him. “To me, it’s almost like a sacred space because it’s like a portal into this other world, a time machine that shows, the processes of extinction and evolution are real,” he says. “Our particular home Los Angeles, has changed dramatically and will continue to change dramatically. I find it inspiring, and I hope other people can enter into that frame of thought as they’re looking at my work.”

Griffith will also be in a group show next March 2021 at El Camino College.

Through March 28, with James Griffith’s presentation  March 3 to March 7
Carolyn Campagna Kleefeld Contemporary Art Museum,

1250 N. Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach