ROBERT BINGAMAN IS A visual artist based in Kansas City. His work is in collections including the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Emprise Bank Collection of Art, and significant private collections across the United States. Bingaman earned a BFA from the University of Kansas in 2005, and an MFA from the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007.
DESCRIBE HOW YOU GOT STARTED. HOW LONG HAS PAINTING BEEN A PART OF YOUR LIFE?
I grew up being told that I was an artist. However I never really took this idea seriously, because I didn’t take the people who were saying it seriously. This was my introduction to the word, and with it came a feeling I didn’t appreciate. I came to associate the word with not being taken seriously and so in time, I didn’t take the word or the idea seriously either.
I didn’t know what I was going to do when I grew up. I remember not wanting to grow up because I already felt grown up, and I knew that actually growing up only meant more responsibilities and consequences. I quite liked skating by in school and otherwise obsessing over my own interior world.
By late high school, I had fashioned myself as a designer. I went to college to study industrial design—which I knew nothing about and was not prepared to study. One of my first-year electives was painting. I felt comfortable and capable right away. Not with the technical problems of moving paint around, but in the environment of a quasi-intellectual creative praxis.
The contemporary painters I studied and admired were living the life I had been imagining for myself as a child—wherein painting served as a kind of miniature garden of ideas, images, and sensibilities; each following their own loose, local rules. Painting would be a place for me to start my life’s project from—I could write or make films from there and would surely know the most interesting people. It is an odd enough choice to make for one’s career that it’s either taken seriously or not at all. I felt I was good at it, and believed I would be taken seriously. I changed my major immediately and it has turned out much like I hoped it would. The biggest surprise has been that all those grown-ups were right.
“I FELT COMFORTABLE AND CAPABLE RIGHT AWAY. NOT WITH THE TECHNICAL PROBLEMS OF MOVING PAINT AROUND, BUT IN THE ENVIRONMENT OF A QUASI-INTELLECTUAL CREATIVE PRAXIS.”
A LOT OF YOUR WORK DEPICTS A DREAMLIKE JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN NATURE AND MAN-MADE OBJECTS. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS COMBINATION THAT YOU FIND SO INTERESTING?
A common thread with many of my subjects is some relationship to desire; luxurious places or things that we want to be in or near. Whether these places are fully manufactured or more subtly manicured, nature is intertwined. In fact, many of the objects and places I’m interested in are borrowing from nature to arrive at wonder, delight, or escape. If there’s something I find interesting about the juxtaposition it’s the overlooked tension between them.
YOUR NIGHT POOLS SERIES IS HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL. WHAT STORY DO YOU HOPE IT PORTRAYS?
THE POOLS ARE AN OPPORTUNITY for me to express as much as possible with very little physical material. With some kind of impossibly dark night as their visual exposition, the pools are singled out—alone on the stage. Lit from within, the prototypical swimming pool—nothing more than a volume or series of planes—serves as a stage for the thoughts, memories and desires that brought me to obsess over its image in the first place. The pools I’ve painted are honest expressions of my lack of first-hand knowledge on the subject. Instead of patient studies of water, they are simplified projections of unfeasibly plasmic nightlights, guiding old and coddled longings. The paradox of a pool that embodies both absence and presence (and yet neither in its flat, painted bind) holds my attention as a symbol for what many have wanted.
“THE PARADOX OF A POOL THAT EMBODIES BOTH ABSENCE AND PRESENCE HOLDS MY ATTENTION AS A SYMBOL FOR WHAT MANY HAVE WANTED.”
You’ve documented some of your Nocturne series through time-lapse videos. They really showcase the complexities and layers of your work. Describe your process for creating and documenting such large scale paintings.
The time-lapse videos HAVE OPENED MY EYES to how curious many people are about the process of painting. I decided to document a few of them with time-lapses because I enjoy them at their different stages. They are essentially “built” by layering stacks of two-dimensional treatments of color and form, not unlike the flattened, compressed props and backdrops of a theater. With painting though, the final image is opaque, and that story is hidden.
IF YOU COULD MEET ONE PERSON, DEAD OR ALIVE, THAT HAS INSPIRED YOU, WHO WOULD IT BE?
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, a friend of mine brought the writings of W. G. Sebald to my attention. I have never felt so strongly tied to one person’s sensibility. His work deals chiefly with place, memory, loss, and phenomenology. If I could do anything as well as he did, I would be very happy.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST INFLUENCES AND SOURCES OF INSPIRATION?
THE PAINTERS THAT I keep referring back to are Ed Ruscha, Caspar David Friedrich, Peter Doig, Michael Byron and Cameron Martin—the latter two of which I had the privilege of studying under and now enjoying as friends and mentors. I often have conversations with them in my mind, and they are always helpful.
YOU CREATED WHEELHOUSE REVIEW, DOCUMENTING GREAT ARTISTS IN KANSAS CITY. DESCRIBE HOW THIS COLLABORATION CAME ABOUT. WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PART OF THIS PROJECT?
WHEELHOUSE WAS A PERFECT (if quiet) storm between me and two people I immediately admired upon moving here, gallerist John O’Brien and photographer Mike Sinclair. One day, John told me how sad it was that the great studios in town weren’t being documented. This got me thinking that I could satisfy his lament and gain a community of artists for myself at the same time. He had mentioned the same ideas to Mike and by the time I gathered the courage to ask him out for dinner to discuss him being the photographer, he was already thinking about doing something similar. I’ve been honored ever since that he has been willing to collaborate with me.
YOU ARE ALSO VERY ACTIVE IN THE KANSAS CITY COMMUNITY AS A FOUNDING MEMBER OF KC PAC. HOW DOES THIS GROUP OF ARTISTS INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?
FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS, we managed to paint outside every single Sunday morning at 8:30 AM—no matter the weather. There are so many byproducts of such a commitment—from friendship to technical development. It became a very special, positive experience over time. Serious and critical as we could all be, we used the time to expand our appreciation for each other and nature most of all. I could write a book about what I learned from that time, and I know that about six of the two-hundred or so people that eventually attended would read it.
“THERE ARE SO MANY BYPRODUCTS OF SUCH A COMMITMENT—FROM FRIENDSHIP TO TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT.”
IS THERE ANYONE YOU TEND TO GO TO FOR CRITIQUE OR FEEDBACK?
MY WIFE HAS A VERY SHARP EYE, and she needn’t say much to communicate what is working and what isn’t. I take her for granted and otherwise enjoy keeping my studio mostly private. I find it fruitful to receive feedback on finished work that I have allowed to leave my studio—these are the long moments at which I am able to reflect—but I’ve never quite understood what artists are doing when they ask for critique midstream.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO WHEN YOU AREN’T PAINTING?
I’M GETTING INTO FILMMAKING. That’s a massive, all-encompassing undertaking. With the time that remains I am fairly predictable: I prefer to travel, drink wine, enjoy friends, watch baseball and luxuriate in general.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO YOUNG ARTISTS STARTING OUT WHO ARE HOPING TO MAKE THEIR MARK IN THE ART WORLD?
No one is looking for you.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
I’LL BE TRAVELING to Japan in July. For the first time ever, I plan to make a series of large paintings from something I see or find there. It’s both scary and exhilarating to plan something so open and direct.
“I FIND IT FRUITFUL TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK ON FINISHED WORK THAT I HAVE ALLOWED TO LEAVE MY STUDIO.”
WHAT THREE THINGS CAN’T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?
THE ABILITY TO see things from a distance, time alone, and memories.
UNIQUE TO KANSAS CITY, WHAT IS ONE LOCAL RESTAURANT, STORE, OR SPACE YOU LOVE?
I’M FROM WICHITA, but my grandparents lived here throughout my childhood. My oldest association with the city is still the strongest—my grandma would take me to the Nelson-Atkins Museum because I was a “little artist,” according to her. Though they are gone, the wonder I felt then still lives there.