Word Play: A Conversation with Tm Gratkowski

See also: “Tm Gratkowski: NOTHING SHOCKING.”

December 2013 Written by Jill Thayer, Ph.D. for ARTVOICES Magazine, Winter issue


Tm Gratowski in his Los Angeles studio. Photo courtesy of Artvoices Magazine (2013).

“There became a point where art making became the career wasn’t about taking notes, it was about doing.”

     Tm Gratkowski

A stream of print media is captured, codified, and shared through the process-driven works of Tm Gratkowski. His art contextualizes image and word in a semiotic landscape that yields a subtext of social commentary. Tm’s compositions are dynamic, reflexive, and prolific in medium and message. He explores the tenets of contemporary culture through the intricacies of paper collage using stacks of magazines and publications to fuel his ambition. In a visual lexicon of communication, his gestural passages echo the artist’s formal training in drawing and painting––and the complexities of his work define an aesthetic in mass culture.

Currently, Tm is producing One Mile, the first continuous, uninterrupted, mile-long collage scheduled for completion in 2015, and is simultaneously preparing for several upcoming solo shows. I caught up with the artist at his Los Angeles studio, as he shared his thoughts and methodologies.

JILL THAYER:  Is this a working drawing Tm?

TM GRATKOWSKI: This is the actual piece. It’s a triptych and I am working it out on the layout. Most of my work, because of the nature of the material, always has text in it. But I have just subtly used that text. The work hasn’t been text-focused, but now I am changing what I am doing and making the text the actual subject.

JT:  Is it subliminal or a subtext?

TG:  It was a subtext. Some of those words would question or enhance the title, which was based on a specific subject or idea. The subject or idea is the actual word so I am kind of flipping that process and the imagery around.

JT:  Your current work is entitled Good, Bad, and Ugly. Can you tell me more about that?

TG:  I like the movie reference, but the genesis of the idea is more about those words. You can look at the title of most of my older pieces and the words are not words commonly used in the English language. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit more astute understanding of the language. That’s where I wanted to push people. You know, get to specifics of words rather than the generics of words. I am using these words in reference to the movie, but these are words that are so subjective, they are almost meaningless now. What’s ugly to you is not ugly to me and vise versa. So I am trying to use words that people have an understanding of. It’s how they have been used throughout time and how they are used now. They don’t mean anything to anyone anymore.

JT: The media has desensitized us.

TG: Exactly. The epistemology of the language goes away, because you can’t go back and find its origins. But it’s so far removed that now, what does that mean? You have to go to the urban dictionary to understand the current reference. 

JT: I understand your parents were artists and musicians. How did childhood impact your chosen career as an artist?

TG: My dad was a drummer in a polka band, as were his uncles and the rest of my extended family, so it was fun to say the least. My mom played the piano and drew.  That’s how I became interested in art, seeing her drawings and sketches, and being so impressed. I wanted to express those same sensations. There was artwork on the walls and we were surrounded by really great music. I think that cultural richness my parents put in front me and my brother was everywhere. I was really lucky to be brought up that way.

©2013 Tm Gratkowski. Photo courtesy of Artvoices Magazine, 2013

©2013 Tm Gratkowski. Photo courtesy of Artvoices Magazine, 2013

JT: How did your transdisciplinary studies in art and architecture influence your career path?

TG: They were simultaneous in some ways. I’ve always been doing art and that was primarily the thing I wanted to do. But I wasn’t necessarily surrounded by people who could tell me how to be an artist, how to make the work. It was a different time, and different experiences or opportunities for artists. I did it, but I wanted more so I tried to do both. I was exploring my art through architecture as a way to have the day career to potentially survive as an artist. I went to a nontraditional architecture school for my Masters at SCI-Arc, which was like an art school for architects, so I was able to be both at the same time. 

JT: What is your connection to Frank Gehry? 

TG: Upon my final thesis presentation, I was hired by Frank Gehry’s office so that’s how it started. What I realized working for Frank, and a few architects after that, is that all the architects were also artists pursuing their practice in an art kind of way. It wasn’t architecture just being architecture––it was exploring ideas in art or ways of making it a different type of practice.

JT: What led to your painting and drawing with paper? 

TG:  Well not painting with paper, but I like that idea. When people see my work they talk about it as painting and we’ll go through this conversation. It’s really all paper. I think what I do right now is fundamentally still painting and drawing. Layering all those pieces of paper is like putting the paint on your paintbrush and every time it hits the canvas, it’s another color, another gesture, and you’re slowly building this thing you’re searching for. And that’s what I do. 

JT: Your work aligns constructs of semiology through image, pattern, and text. How does your methodological process reflect the confluence of visual language and textural narrative? 

TG: In some ways it’s a pattern-making kind of a dialogue. We are surrounded by everything everywhere at all times, thanks in part to the Internet. It’s bits and fragments. When I walk through an urban environment or any kind of environment, I’m looking for things that stand out. And I ask myself, “Why does it stand out?” That same thing may not stand out in a different context. So, that pattern, that context, and that visual language of word text is all part of this media-saturated world we exist in, and I’m really looking for those. 

JT: You look at what is going on today in mass culture and a 24/7 information media stream. What is the relationship of your work to contemporary culture? Is there a social critique?

TG:  There is a connection because I’m a part of this world now, as we all are, so my art practice is rooted in the now. It’s relevant, it’s contemporary, so it’s appropriate for me to use these materials because it’s always changing and it’s always current. It is important for me to talk about what’s happening now and not some historical reference that is just frankly irrelevant, including language. There are words we don’t use anymore. There are words that come out of the dictionary. There are more words that are going into the dictionary. So in some way my work is about collage in general. It’s about combining ideas at any given period of time, just by the nature of the material I use, what changes next year, because all the things that are coming out, including graphics, including colors, including words and stories, and etcetera, etcetera, it changes, therefore the stuff where I’m pulling the material from is changing right in front of me.

JT:  In 2011, Howard N. Fox, Curator Emeritus of Contemporary Art at LACMA stated that you emerged as one of the foremost impresarios in the art world in Los Angeles.  

TG: Well, Howard and I have developed a friendship now. We just have a great conversation and every time we get together we have no idea what that conversation is going to be about or where it’s going to go. We walk out of it refreshed and opening up new possibilities and doors. So I appreciate that support and interest in my work. In a way, it gets me excited about the possibility of new things, and bigger and better things. I think we have a mutual respect in what the other does and actually brings to the table.

©2013 Tm Gratkowski. Photo courtesy of Artvoices Magazine, 2013

JT: What you are working on now? Looking ahead, what can you share of your exhibitions coming up?

TG:  Yes, even though I’m working on these, it’s not about what you are doing––it’s about where you are going. Because I’m so engaged in the process, I am thinking about scale, like extra-large, mini, small, and sculpture, and three-dimension. I’m thinking about works that are not going to be expected, like the mile-long collage. It’s a huge endeavor and it’s being worked out, and the process is now being started so that it can come together. One of the solo shows will be at Walter Maciel’s gallery in Culver City in fall of 2014, then another at L.A. Artcore in August.

JT:  Thank you Tm for this wonderful conversation and your contributions to the cultural discourse.

TG:  Thank you.

Artvoices Magazine Cover, Winter 2013. ©2013 Tm Gratkowski.

Artvoices Magazine Cover. ©2013 Tm Gratkowski. Photo courtesy of ARTVOICES Magazine.


After attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hochschule fur Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, Austria, Tm Gratkowski went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of Wisconsin. He earned a Master of Arts from Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles. In 2013, Tm was selected as one of seven Americans represented in the III Bienal Cuidad Juárez, concurrently exhibited at the El Paso Museum of Art, Texas and Museo de Arte de Ciudad, Juárez, Mexico. His work is shown internationally and included in Documenta, the inaugural exhibition hosted by Jerry Saltz at the New Museum of Art, Detroit, Michigan (Sept. 28 – Nov. 30, 2013). Tm is represented by Walter Maciel Gallery and Patrajdas Contemporary. See more at: http://artvoicesmagazine.com/2013/12/word-play-a-conversation-with-tm-gratkowski/#sthash.LthgA8KG.dpuf

ARTVOICES Magazine is a nationally focused publication that explores issues and people in the contemporary art discourse. Check out this and other articles at: http://artvoicesmagazine.com


Photo Gallery

Tm Gratkowski Studio, Los Angeles, October 2013. Photos by Jill Thayer, Ph.D.