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A London native who’s lived in New York since 1974, James Nares began as a No Wave filmmaker while also playing guitar for James Chance and the Contortions. He’s since become known for abstract paintings of giant singular brushstrokes, but he’s kept making films. In 2013, his super-slow-motion production, Street, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, won critical raves. He’s applied the same technique in a series of portraits on film for his latest art show at Paul Kasmin Gallery. We spoke with the artist about his new work and how he directed subjects who were sitting still.
Who are the subjects for your latest pieces, and why did you decide to make them?
They consist of friends, family and people I admire. After I finished Street, a lot of people kept asking, “What’s next? Chicago? Paris? Calcutta?” That didn’t interest me, though I am still interested in what a high-speed camera can reveal. Portraiture seemed like a good place to pick up again.
How do these works differ from Street?
In Street, you cruise by people, catching a glimpse of their lives and maybe their thoughts while other things are going on. Here, I focus a little more precisely on individuals, revealing things that are quite profound about them. It seemed like I should start with the people closest to me.
Did you give them direction?
I did, though it varied from one person to the next. What I asked from all of them, though, was to look into the lens, without straining themselves. These weren’t meant to be like Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” I didn’t want to pressure them because pressure creates resistance in a sitter. I just wanted to allow things to come out. I asked them to think of the camera as a nonjudgmental place for their thoughts, to give whatever was happening internally to the lens. To think of posing not as a monologue but a conversation, using your eyes.
You mentioned Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” Were you afraid that people might say that your images are too much like his?
No, because portraits have been made since the beginning of time. I love Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests,” but they don’t really come to mind when I look at these because these are more like paintings. You get a chance to experience a person’s visage in the same way a painter working from life keeps looking at a person and, even if the subject moves a bit, manages to condense all of those moments into one image. When something moves slowly like that, you become an active part of the equation, and your eye can wander at will over this image and see things that you don’t always have time to see. It’s not something that people have time to do these days.