I was born and raised on Long Island, New York and currently live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I received my BFA in Printmaking from Cornell University and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA in Painting & Drawing. Before settling in beautiful Santa Fe, I lived in Brooklyn, New York.
I am a Santa Fe-based artist making enigmatic landscape drawings with ballpoint pen on paper. The size of small hairs with the occasional inky misfire, my methodically layered iridescent pen strokes blend to create a rich and complex surface. The images are inspired by a variety of historical and popular romantic sources, such as the luminous Hudson River School paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church, the earnest outer space paintings of astronaut-artists Alan Bean and Alexei Leonov, the psychedelic prints of Wyland and Thomas Kinkade, and the troves of otherworldly imagery accessible on the internet. I think of my drawings as apparitions of these sources, one step further removed, revealing phenomena more similar to what you may hazily recall from a dream than from observation. Much like the dazzling pixels on a screen or the pointillist Ben-Day Dots of a print, the ballpoint pen strokes simultaneously mask and reveal what lies beyond the paper’s facade.
Interview with Mike Nudelman
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Where are you from originally? Were there any early experiences that shaped your desire to pursue art-making?
I grew up in St. James, New York. My parents aren’t artists, but are both very creative. For as long as I can remember, drawing has just been what I’ve done — for fun, for meditation, for education, and for a career. Long Island is a beautiful mix of malls, beach towns, chain restaurants, and farms. It concludes on one end with the Atlantic Ocean and on the other with New York City.
What motivated your move to New Mexico? Does this expansive, desert landscape or its history provide inspiration for you?
New Mexico has such a fascinating diversity of cultures and climates. You can walk past thousand year old petroglyphs on a short hike after work.
You’ve created various drawings after Hudson River School painters, including Church and Bierstadt. How have the aspirations associated with traditional landscape painting influenced your work?
The traditional idea of landscape paintings as windows overlooking sublime and magical worlds is really funny to me. It’s so absurd and romantic that I find it nearly impossible to relate to. I love Church and Bierstadt in particular because they seem like such modern thinkers. Looking at their monumental paintings it’s clear that the object’s surface is more active than a mere pane of glass between viewer and vista. It is a screen that simultaneously conceals and contains the world within. They traveled America and the world making sketches and studies, then returned to their studios to mash them together into pictures better than the real thing. Those guys got that time is a relative construct, and those paintings are timeless.
Similarly, you’ve also made work based on the paintings of former astronaut Alan Bean and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Can you tell us about these drawings as well as your ongoing interest in explorers?
Former astronaut Alan Bean and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov seem to share a similar instinct with Bierstadt and Church. Leonov was first to walk in space and Bean walked on the moon, and both returned undeterred by the futility of trying to share with us just how awesome it was.
Can you talk about your fascination with Swiss cult leader Billy Meier and the mythology surrounding him?
Most recently as I’ve been working on more UFO drawings, I’ve become fascinated with the photos and philosophy of swiss cult leader Billy Meier. In addition to his thousands of (faked, obviously) flying saucer photographs first published in the 70’s, he’s managed to turn his following into a lucrative cult with a robust mythology. He’s spoken with an extraterrestrial visitor named Semjase on several occasions, traveled back in time with aliens to meet Jesus and photograph dinosaurs, discovered a new book of the Bible in Jerusalem in 1963, and lots of other crazy stuff. Like wrestling, it’s most fun to enjoy the performance for what it is, not ask too many questions, and not wink. And who knows, maybe it all happened.
What is the significance of the image pairs (of the Moon, Jupiter, and a UFO) that recur
throughout your work?
I’m interested in this duality both philosophically and practically. I’ve used image pairs in two different ways in past drawings — sometimes as two conceptually related images drawn beside each other, and other times as stereo pairs, which when viewed with unfocused eyes side-by-side, combine in the brain to create the perception of three-dimensional depth. Untitled 12 falls into the former and Detached Observers and Detached Observers 2 fall into the latter.
Can you elaborate on the compelling surface quality you achieve through an accumulation of repetitive mark-making?
The size of small hairs with the occasional inky misfire, I methodically layer iridescent pen strokes to gradually build a lush and dynamic surface. It’s a meditative process. Similar to a scanner or printer, I begin in the bottom left corner and work my way towards the top right. The process is an experiment in inverting the illusion of traditional landscape paintings, as the velvety and richly drawn surface presents the viewer with both a conundrum and compromise. If the physicality of the object is undeniably real, then the image must be a fantasy. The drawings aren’t reproductions of sights seen, but are unique worlds of their own.
What is your relationship with the “occasional inky misfire” of the ballpoint pen or broader element of chance while you’re drawing?
Ballpoint pens can be fussy and unpredictable. Depending on the tooth of the paper, every so often the ball of the pen will gunk up and drop a big glob of ink. To me, they’re like a glitch in the matrix. Or like when you’re looking at a computer or television screen with a few broken pixels. I embrace the chaos they cause and appreciate how they can break down the sense of illusion within a picture. They’re little UFOs. The more you look the more you find.
Can you share your perspective on the preservation of your work? You seem to welcome the capacity of these particular materials to shift or break down over time.
A lot of course can be read into the deliberate use of less-than-archival ballpoint pens. The colors may fade and break down at different rates, selectively revealing or obscuring different elements of the composition. But it’s not like they’re made of mud and leaves. The drawings won’t go away or die anytime too soon. They’ll just slowly turn to ghosts. The uncertainty of the future is the most beautiful part of life.
What source materials do you typically seek out or work from?
I prefer working from printed sources. Mostly images clipped from books. On a computer screen you can only see so far. I collect printed images of a variety of sublime and seemingly unbelievable pictures, such as Hudson River School paintings, NASA space photos, and lots of more ephemeral and niche stuff. I have at least 20 books with a reproduction of Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental painting ‘Rainy Season in the Tropics.’ It’s a spectacular painting, and I’ve drawn it a couple times from these books. Until I finally saw the painting in person in San Francisco a few years ago, I had no idea what color it actually was since each reproduction I have looks vastly different. Now I can’t remember which is closest anymore, which is fine.
Can you talk about the intimate scale of your recent drawings?
The largest drawing I’ve made, Lookin’ Out My Back Door, is about five feet wide and took a little over a year to make. The monumentality and awe is a big part of experiencing that object. With the recent UFO drawings, I’m hoping for a more personal viewing experience. Something like having to slowly adjust your eyes as you step up to a telescope or finding the right focus as you scan the landscape with a pair of binoculars.
Do you see your creative practice as one, ongoing body of work or is it broken down into series?
I think of it as one ongoing body, but with some thematic subcategories.
Can you tell us about your current studio? Is it important for you to have a separation between your work space and domestic space?
I currently enjoy working from home in Santa Fe. I used to share a separate studio with my wife when we lived in Brooklyn, which was nice too. The separation isn’t too important to me right now.
Does your digital design work have any connection to your fine art practice or is it an entirely separate endeavor?
The design work is a separate career. Of course to some degree my design and art careers inspire one another, but they’re different mindsets for me. I was a Senior Editor at Business Insider, leading the news graphics team for nearly five years, and most recently was a Senior Visual Designer on the UX team at a blockchain technology company. The common thread for me in design and art is drawing, but otherwise they’re just complementary pursuits.
In what ways do you think social media has altered the experience of looking at art?
I love how much easier it is to discover awesome artists, artwork, and shows on Instagram. Though I hope it goes without saying that if an artist is making objects, then the phone is no substitute for experiencing the real thing. But let’s follow each other! https://www.instagram.com/mikenudelman/
What non-visual works of art are important to you - from film, music, or literature?
I try to read a lot and I collect books. Right now I’m beginning to slowly acquire Wendelle Stevens’ many self-published volumes from his vast archive of UFO photos. On deck is And Yet… They Fly! by Guido Moosbrugger — one of the better known followers of Billy Meier. At least once a year I’ll read Baudrillard and Alan Watts again to keep myself in check. I spend a lot of time browsing used bookstores. I think I only do good work in the presence of books. One final book highlight for me—recently I found a copy of Steven Spielberg’s Letters to E.T., which is a collection of letters written by children to E.T.
What are you working on right now in the studio? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, events, or other news you’d like to share?
I’m working on more UFO drawings and hoping to show them all together sometime soon.
Thanks so much for talking with us!
To find out more about Mike and his work, check out his website.