Artist David Orr is engrossed in the pursuit of knowledge, seeking through study and experiment the mandalic systems that form the natural order of the universe. Like a host of artists, musicians, philosophers, and scientists whose investigations into everything from the atom to the psyche to the weather have progressed human insight for millennia, Orr is omnivorous in his curiosity and eclectic in his expressions. At the heart of his visual art is a layered process of observation and interpretive design that yields compelling patterns giving shape to invisible forces—mandala-like and meditative, responsive to sacred geometry, and availing of digital cosmology. An exhibition of Orr’s new work in photography and video opens this week in Santa Monica, offering a space of wonderment and reset at the start of a new year.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
DAVID ORR: Much later than I should have.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
My work is about the ways we seek and create patterns to both discover and impose meaning. There are areas where art, philosophy, and science overlap—which I believe is where truth resides.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
Honestly, I’m already doing it.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I went to film school at Temple University in Philadelphia. There was a kind of bridge to art in David Lynch, who’d studied painting and made his first films in Philadelphia (he famously called Eraserhead “The Philadelphia of the mind”). I quickly learned the most interesting people seemed to be in art schools, which was where I would hang out. Those friendships have lasted to this day, and continue to influence me, but ultimately I suppose I’m self-taught.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I lived in New York for many years, was shaped by it, loved it, and still visit often, but I get more done here. There’s more breathing room and I can focus. L.A. is an incredibly subtle place which continues to surprise me, and I find the combination of the art scene, the ‘Dream Factory,’ and the aerospace presence irresistible.
When was your first show?
My first ‘show’ was probably when I was eight or so, in my backyard in New Hope, PA. My first real solo show was at Laurel Canyon Gallery (RIP) in 2007. The owner, Spike Stewart, was and is the ‘mayor’ of Laurel Canyon, and the coffee shop he runs with his partner, Lilly is the beating heart of the neighborhood, so the opening was packed—and it wouldn’t have been, otherwise. There is an amazing link to L.A. art history there, as well. During one of the recent Pacific Standard Time programs, I learned that Ed Kienholz had his first show at Vons Café Galleria, in the same location, in 1955. That felt pretty great!
When is/was your current/most recent/next show or project?
My next show, The Space Between, opens Saturday, January 7 at Open Mind Art Space in Santa Monica. My most recent projects have been video collaborations with musicians John Cale, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and poet Jorie Graham for The Birdsong Project. I will be debuting Invisible Light, a collaboration with New York violinist and composer Concetta Abbate, with a live performance at the closing reception at OMAS on Saturday, February 11.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show or work with?
How do you pick?!? And would they want to? I love James Turrell, Edmund de Waal, Mona Hatoum, Andy Goldsworthy, Nancy Holt, Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, Ruth Asawa, Agnes Martin, Mauricio Cattelan, Georgia O’Keeffe, Harry Callahan, Bridget Riley, Francis Bacon, Vija Celmins, Saul Leiter, Gerhard Richter, Agnes Pelton, Jenny Holzer, Félix González-Torres… really, too many to name here—but they all changed the way I think and see.
Assuming I could speak the language, however, I’d love some time with artists like the Lascaux Cave painters who created works we now find enigmatic. What were they really thinking? Trying to represent or communicate? The more we learn, the more we realize that there’s nothing primitive about ‘primitive work.’ It’s always been more rich and layered than we assume.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
I actually work in silence most of the time, because I’ll always forget to put something on, but when I’m driving and thinking, or in the studio doing other things, I listen to a lot of music. I tend to gravitate towards musicians whose work falls between genres. Scott Walker, Joni Mitchell, Chris Whitley, Sturgill Simpson, Talk Talk, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Agnes Obel, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Beth Orton, Kendrick Lamar. Lots of Jazz, mainly from the late 50s/early 60s, but recent folks, too, like Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (Christian Scott). I always like a blending of styles—I used to love going to Giant Step in New York.
But Bach never fails to astonish me. The Goldberg Variations as performed by Glenn Gould, or the Cello Suites (there are many superb recordings and interpretations, but I keep coming back to Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma) remain my favorite deadline/focus soundtracks. A friend once described Bach’s music as “architecture that glows” and I can’t think of a better characterization.
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