What is ‘Garthim’? A conversation with Justin Ortiz

Przemijam: The pandemic has forced many changes in the way galleries and the art world function. However, there are places and artistic projects that seem to go beyond the framework with which exhibition places are usually defined. Thus, they remain independent and free in their creative expression. Garthim”, an off-space project functioning in the absolute wilderness on the edge of the human world, is certainly one of these places. What is Garthim? A nomadic art gallery? A curatorial project or something else entirely?

Justin Ortiz: Garthim is my project space which is basically me taking photos of art and an archive of curatorial decisions. The photos go here and there on the internet but the archive on the website is probably the home-base of the project. I’ve always wanted to curate shows, so I started just doing it documentation-based. When I first came across documentation-based exhibition spaces they really fascinated me and seemed accessible, like something I could do. It also is a good way to support my friends and work with people I want to work with. It’s a place to put curatorial decisions that I can control every part of too, I guess. Like another limb of my work.

Przemijam: Garthim exhibitions seem to be the shows where the only eyewitnesses are trees, stones and wild animals living in the wilderness. The presented works blend into their natural environment and interact with it symbiotically, especially Tatiana Sky’s works displayed at the Vasquez Rocks near Los Angeles. The idea of showing art that is deeply integrated with the earth’s biosphere from a purely visual point of view automatically leads to posthumanist tropes. Is the concept of this exhibition and Garthim in general somehow connected to a critical attitude towards the Anthropocene?

Justin Ortiz: I can’t say I’ve thought about it that deeply. I like the idea that the exhibition is a rarefied moment between Garthim and the artist and that the viewer is seeing it after the fact. When shows are completely isolated in a visually captivating natural place there’s a sacredness to it. It’s also far more private. So much of choosing the location is unspoken, it’s a feeling the artist and I get about a particular place that we act on. And from an aesthetic point of view you get juxtapositions and symbiotic relationships to the work that you couldn’t possiblyhave staged.

Przemijam: In off-space ephemeral shows, photographic documentation plays a very important role which often becomes the only trace and proof of the existence of these artistic activities. In the case of Garthim can we experience more than that? How does the process of creating an exhibition look like? Do you organise an event where people can come and see the exhibition live?

Justin Ortiz: None of our shows so far have had an opening or event based element, no. I’ve done studio visits with people who want to come and see artwork from Garthim shows but that’s long after the show is done. I think the documentation of the collaboration is enough.

Przemijam: What kind of work best fits into the Garthim concept? Are the artists selected according to a particular stylistic key?

Justin Ortiz: I curate based on what I like, who I see working really hard and whose work I love. It’s about getting to collaborate with artists I respect and get a lot of ideas from. The point at which the shows dovetail into each other and form a stylistic relationship is a great thing to witness but it is mostly unconscious. Early on I started looking at documentation of white cube shows for photography pointers, mainly sculpture shows, since I’m not a photographer. Also I looked at a lot of Andy Goldsworthy documentation and Nat Geo stuff too to see how you frame a subject in nature. I can’t say I ever used any of the techniques or copied those sources but they seeped into the way Garthim shows all look.

Przemijam: Your artistic interests also include mystical and religious aspects. Could you tell us about the Gilgal?

Justin Ortiz: It came about while I was visiting my friend Ben Sang, who is one of the most talented artists and curators I know, in Salt Lake City, Utah. I told him that I wanted to do a project within Garthim that would be documentation of a sculpture garden or public art space just to stretch out the elastic on what Garthim is doing and what we can get away with. He grew up in SLC and suggested Gilgal, which turned out to be just the thing. The next day I drove to the sculpture garden and shot the show before we left town. It took a couple months to package it nicely which I mostly did in my spare time. Gilgal was a really good way to open things up.

Przemijam: Moving on to your artistic practice, you are a creator of drawings and paintings, usually depicting undefined anthropomorphic patterns and figures with synthesised, rounded shapes. Are these created works based on any constant narrative? What is their semantic layer?

Justin Ortiz: Paintings and drawings link together where I have a segway from one subject to another. I think the jumping off points come about when I make them if that makes sense. There will be a lot of different “ways” of drawings, and I’ll pick one and burrow out a new path into it. I have sorted my drawings that way before, where I make a stack of “slab” drawings or “dance” drawings or whatever. They usually group up by composition. If I don’t feel like doing one of those established ones then I’m usually making a new “way” without knowing it, drawing something I’ve never drawn before and then contending with that. I’ll decide whether it becomes a new “way” or whether it’s just something to put on ice. All my bodies of drawings and paintings have started that way and grown into a mature thing from it.

Przemijam: In parallel to painting you also started making small reliefs resembling petroglyphs and fossils of some a distant civilisation. Are they a complement to your painting practice or is there a completely different concept behind them?

Justin Ortiz: Yeah, the reliefs are a thing that look like they’re going somewhere off on their own. They’re just as laborious as the paintings and have the same physical heft to them because they carry all that time and work. I have a solo exhibition of relief wood carvings called “Rockville” coming up with the good people at Light Harvesting Complex in Finland. Those sculptures have some of the same characters as in my drawings and paintings but also have a few new ones that came about for the first time while I was carving them. For the future I’d like to maybe scale sculptural work up. They’re a little itty bitty.

Przemijam: Your work has recently been shown in an old mine shaft at an exhibition called “Shedding the third skin” organised by Ben Sang of Final Hot Desert. I have the impression that you share a very similar way of thinking and you support each other. Do you have any ideas of doing another exhibition together?

Justin Ortiz: Ben has a solo exhibition happening with Garthim this year. It’s a video performance featuring some cave diving. I’m really excited to be putting out work of his because Final Hot Desert has been a huge inspiration to me. He’s a good person and a good friend.