Brent: If a big slab of red, blue, even yellow or orange came out of nowhere and found home on top of one of your paintings, we’d be set aghast. But I guess you, the maker, get that all the time and cover it up so our experience is different? Add the scale, a work is no larger than 14 inches on the high side, and the fact that the internal dynamics don’t really push beyond the borders, urges us to focus on what is there, with our eyes and our shoulders: it’s here we do most of the work.
It’s an intimate world that we enter, a cave full of reserve and refrain. The paintings are close to white, are anything but white, are minus dilemma, loss, void, end, or struggle-in-sight with purity. We enter simply, plainly, and form a bond – between the thing and ‘we’ the observer. The way we enter is ‘slow’ until slow catches up, and then it’s fast… to find a world of things that could have flitted by if we hadn’t stopped and noticed.
Jeff: It’s a slow process of viewing and processing, but not necessarily in the making. There is a responsibility to reward the viewer for spending time with the work and to those who look past ‘white’. I want the viewer to notice shifts: from warm to cool; from the mostly matte surface to the little tinge of gloss that hangs out at the edge.
My 5-year-old daughter recently said “Dad, your paintings are not really beautiful because all you paint is white.”
I’m usually pegged as a ‘white’ painter, and usually peg myself as a ‘white’ painter too. And it happens when people who don’t know my work ask me what I do the reply typically is that I paint white blocks on top of white blocks. The truth is I don’t make white paintings and never have. The viewer has to have an intimate and singularly experience – one that is more akin to reading a worn paperback of poetry than the deafening and overwhelmingly shared experience of the cinema.
Brent: I mentioned that the information in your paintings stay within the borders. You seem to agree with that, describing, well, in your words, the preference for an ‘intimate and singularly experience’. Your studio suggests this with one painting sided up to the next. So in a sense you are a what’s there is there kind of painter, but what is there is hard to see, I mean physically see. But that’s not actually true. In front of a painting you see a lot, and the experience is a solid one, adding a feather to the pragmatist’s hat.
I’m thinking about the analogy between the worn paperback book of poetry and cinema…
Jeff: I make a lot of stuff and work in less than 100sqf so they can’t help but be together. The paintings also need to influence one another in their production so I can see how they vary. The slightest change in something can drastically affect the whole lot. Albers said “Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions” and I’m interested in that.
As for the book verses the movie, it is about scale, intimacy, distance, and speed. For a while in undergraduate school I was working large and ‘heroic’: fast, with big brushes, sometimes with a broom, in tar and latex house paint on whatever surface I could get my hands on. Like most undergraduate students, bigger was better. That was until I saw my first Anselm Kiefer in the flesh. I loved it and hated it at the same time. I wanted to see it, understand it, but felt a little ripped off. I loved its physicality, surface, coloration, and the scrawled text across the top, but he was only allowing me to ‘see’ less than the bottom third because it was so damn big. He made me get close and I missed out on so much. That was a defining moment.
The book is personal – you hold it and control how fast you flip the pages being able to skip ahead or revisit. You can read aloud to others or keep it internal. It’s a physical object that has weight and a particular scent. It is about that close relationship between the author, the object, and the reader. The movie (going to see a film in a theater) is like that Kiefer: so large that you can’t ‘see’ everything. You move your head to the right to see something and as you do something important happens to the left and you miss it… you can’t rewind. It’s loud – too loud sometimes. People talk behind you and you miss. Painting is that close relationship between maker and viewer. Very few really look at art during an opening; it’s about spectacle and the shared experience.
Brent: Certainly, an opening is seldom about intently looking at one thing, and is about community. And I like that! It’s the residue of the often silent and singular practice, bringing people together as group in a gallery… social sculpture. We go back and have that communion at another time. Like you say, the art has to come into contact with life, with all its varying intentions, degrees, and intensities. I don’t think you necessarily have to make the art do that – be so literal – but it happens, and there’s a response.
We are going to start with the studio, that pocket book of poetry (written/ unwritten) place where you head to when it’s time. But before we get there I’d like you to talk about the images of the walls, billboards and ephemera that you sent me, which I also see you post onto the various social networks where we both participate.
Jeff: There is a scene/song late in the musical Sunday in the Park with George in which the character of George (Seurat) is questioning his painting and purpose. Worried that he is unimportant, not meaningful, idle, and feeling that he has no voice or vision, he says, “I’ve nothing to say, well nothing that’s not been said…I want to make things that count, things that will be new… What am I to do?” In response, the character of Dot comforts George and says, “Look at what you want, not at where you are, not at what you’ll be… Look at all the things you’ve done for me, Opened up my eyes, taught me how to see, notice every tree, understand the light, concentrate on now…” I played George in college and the part about ‘seeing’ and ‘noticing’ really hit home hard and became paramount. Almost daily, I tell my students that it’s their job as visual communicators to see things others take for granted. To really see those things, internalize them, recontextualize and reinterpret them, and then teach others to see them.
I came to art through skateboarding, punk rock, and graffiti, and there is this mentality in those three cultures that understand the world a little more creatively than the masses. Skateboarders are always looking at the ordinary and mundane saying “I can do this on that…” or “what would happen if…” They know how a brick sidewalk feels as they roll across it, how it will affect their speed, what it sounds like. Skateboarding is about having endless possibility. I see things. I get excited when I see the way tags are buffed out, and then tagged again, only to be overpainted. I used to intentionally put up a tag where I knew it would get buffed so I could see what color was used to cover it up. The way the sun has bleached the wall except for where a sign once was. The back of that sign and how it gets randomly paired with another. The rubber from a cars tire as it rubs up to the curb. It’s the most beautiful artwork out there, the type of honest and unpretentious work I wish I could make.
Brent: So when you go in to that studio how does it work for you? I mean, are you competing with what is already out there, the world of car tire rubs, and other mundane things? Or are you going into the studio surrendering as a painter, with that history of painting? And, are there artists who excite you how they deal with things inside and outside – make good with the ordinary and mundane of painting?
Jeff: Those things happen in a very naïve or accidental way, by people who are trying to control ‘blight’ or simply by entropy. It informs the way I approach painting but I don’t compete, how can I? I consider how fast or loose; how many layers; should I sand, buff, or scrape. Should it hug the wall or float. Should color and light bounce onto the wall or come through the physical piece itself. More importantly, it forces me to be decisive. To put something randomly on, normally a taped off block of color, and then quickly react to that by covering or obscuring it in someway, usually another taped off block of color, and so on. It’s automatic and instinctual. Studio sessions are short bursts of not more than an hour at most. I don’t give myself the luxury of being able to sit and look. That comes later, after they’re on the wall.
Folks that are on heavy rotation…Fergus Feehily, Ian Kiaer, Andrew Bick, Zebedee Jones, Gordon Moore, Ron Buffington. They are my go too’s: my standard bearers. They make me smile. But recently I’ve been looking at a lot of quilts. The quilts of Gee’s Bend have haunted me for years. They are unrestricted and unexpected, worn out and faded while possessing a tremendous feeling of presence and unbearable absence. Talk about an ordinary and mundane use of materials and purposes with transformative results. But the quilts of Denyse Schmidt get me going the most. They resonate: sparse, delicate, wobbly, full of refinement, and restraint.
Brent: I think underneath what we have been talking about is not how a good painting gets made, but how a surprising painting gets looked at. We have been so surprised by painting – by art – for, well… let’s not raise the dividers. But in that looking, when it’s done, can you describe what you see… in 1963, which, for me, shifts and glides around in the quiet, and presents itself in full visual byte.
Jeff: Relationships – an excited whisper that’s about to erupt; a stable stack on the verge of collapse; something that has very little physical weight yet visually starts to pull downward; slightly off-kilter striations that converge and coalesce. I think it’s quite happy. It’s improvisational and impromptu while at the same time feels planned. It’s very simple at first glance. That’s 1963.
Brent: Behind every good story lurks a liar: a borrower, a truth teller, and a lark.
First and foremost you are a painter. And the work you make is painted flat. The surfaces hold the legacy of hard-edge painting and color abstraction, and this is true whether you are creating large wall paintings in situ, or in the studio making images on small separate panels. There is humor! And this, perhaps, comes with the dialog with Dutch non-objective painting and pop minimalism. The forms you use are simple. But what you do with them spatially as well as color-wise keep integrity and humor equally up to speed. A title gets worked out much like a theme does – in that – say, with something like zigzag, it will reappear and morph into a seemingly inexhaustible supply of sly motifs and gags that play with the mind and pull at our perceptual purse strings…
Guido: I move between different ongoing series. These are held together by the title, which usually consists of one word and has its origin in small ideas. Tickertape, for instance, is based on the tickertape scattered from buildings during a parade. The idea of the sky and the streets filled with little white spots of paper is a humorous interpretation for the series that deals with repetition and arranging.
While working on different series at the same time the shapes and colors I use get influenced by each other and change gradually. They move around in the series and pop up if needed. They can change from a singular form to a motif. I like this freedom to move, it’s the fun part of the research that I do in my work, the playtime. I guess it has its origin in me as a person. I don’t want to make work that’s too dogmatic.
Brent: Rubble (the wall painting with the singular pink form) talks to a very classical elegance. I’m actually wondering how that gained place in the Rubble series? And I could ask where the title finds itself in the actual wall painting. But that aside, it’s the simplicity of the singular that strikes me most; how it enlivens the space around; how it forces you to read back to the perfectly poised pink in rotation. And then the title returns, and it lingers.
Guido: The pink wall painting is a good example of the transformation of shapes in a series. Within the rubble series this transformation shifts between oval forms, lines, rectangles and in this case a heptagon. It shows how a singular form works, opposed to a surface filled with multiple forms like most rubble paintings.
I found out that the irregular shape works best in this position. I like the inevitability of that. It’s the same with the proportions of the form and the rest of the wall; they only work best in a certain size. That’s when the whole wall becomes a work, when in fact you only paint one form on it.
Brent: And another very large wall work, again titled Rubble, is made up of ovals. I’ll come back to that. You also mention that Rubble can contain lines, rectangles, and, I notice, half circles. These are on separate small panels each no larger than 12 inches. They work as a set, though still I’m not sure how the title swings them all together. They are humorous, fun, even animated! But formally they root out some very interesting places and spaces for painting.
Guido: I’ve presented the Rubble series together once and it really did read like a story, and yes, it did kind of come across as a comic. And I enjoyed that! However the narrative wasn’t based on a storyline, instead the connections between the different canvases had more to do with the formal qualities; a visual disruptiveness through the boldness of shape, line, and color.
Actually, the whole series and individual pieces play with disorder, working intuitively within set boundaries. The pink Rubble wall painting is a tricky one here, as it’s obviously well balanced on the wall. But the shape itself is totally arbitrary, which makes it suitable as Rubble. The disorder here is the choice of the shape (derived from other forms in the series)… chaos with a wink.
Brent: Returning to the large rubble wall work, was there a drawing or a plan, or did the location dictate how the installation would look? The same goes for the small works on canvas, are they planned to a detail, with preliminary drawings or doodles? Or, where does it start?
Guido: I collect ideas for works in a sketchbook. It’s a combination of doodles, little sketches, bits of texts and words (that can be used as titles). This is where it all starts. By the way, there’s no color in the sketchbook.
I design the actual works by computer, making lots of sketches to fine-tune them. Designing a wall painting works slightly different. The architectural circumstances, like measurements of a wall, corners, doors etc, play an important part in the design. Each work is designed for a specific space and functions best there. They integrate in the surroundings, but keep a self-contained quality. A combination of the given facts of a space and the ideas that originate from the sketchbook determines what kind of work it will be.
Brent: It makes sense that the design and color get worked out on the computer. I can see that clearly as the colors you use have a screen feel, in that they are very poppy and fluorescent. In Tickertape the design is simple and has the look of a reverse sheet of dot stickers, which charges the piece despite it really being only one color.
In another installation, also entitled Tickertape (this one with a blue background with the white circles) the support is braced off from the floor at an angle. The architecture informs both pieces, but each end up working very differently. How did that work for you?
Guido: I always tend to put some fluorescent color in when I’m mixing paint. Maybe that comes from the designing part on the computer. On a screen light comes from behind, so the colors are much more vibrant. I like vibrant outspoken colors. By mixing them myself, I can make off-colors.I don’t like harmony so much; there is always a tension. These colors help to achieve this. I’m always refining a sketch to get that tension, shifting forms a little or just stirring up colors. But always keeping in mind that less is best. One of my favorite quotes is by Roy Lichtenstein: it’s not that simple to be simple.
The wall (for the blue and white tickertape work) was assigned to me in the exhibition, and, as you say, was tilted and hovering above the floor. That’s quite some information to work with, was my thinking at the time. So I had to keep it simple: it was based on a sketch that had white dots along horizontal lines. I reworked this sketch to fit in to the tilted wall, but that meant that some dots didn’t fit, because of the angle of the wall. Those dots I left out.
One of the rules I set for this piece was that everything should stay within the floating wall area, and not to extend outside the wall. That way the image remained contained. The result was a work that’s simple and obvious, but still looked just off or illogical. I like that tension.
Brent: You say you don’t like harmony, but what I see, especially with the installation work, is that the design has everything to do with harmony, albeit a dissonant harmony. Adding your particular brand of humor creates a sum that is entertaining just as it is formally succinct.
And, if we look at some examples, the columns in the large Rubble installation could have been painted with the organic rock motif but are not ––you chose to keep things flat to the wall, the columns thus functioning as gaps or pauses, massively large physical ones at that. Another: the parallel white pipes in Knot. The pipes are real but in paint on the wall they become a twisted replica with humorous scale differentiation. With Zigzag the boxes and whatnots attract you like odd socks. Zigzag also has the stroke of a roller, you know, when you use a roller to paint or prime a wall. Again, there is this animation thing going on, and it’s a real plus. Add the bits and pieces that reconfigure the flow, you end up with this not-bare-minimal color arrangement, but instead a playful discordant song, punctuated by encroaching dramas sometimes big sometimes small.
Guido: Dissonant harmony, that’s a good one. The works should let your mind short-circuit a bit, so it gets your attention. The disruptions on the walls add up to that. They let the work be part of the real world and the actual space.
When I just started making wall paintings I always asked for difficult walls, with corners and doors or in stairways. Now I go for the more subtle disturbances, which give that dissonant harmony. I especially like sockets. I don’t mind it at all, if there’s a box or some pipes on a wall. It’s just a given fact you have to deal with. The fun is in creating a work that ignores them as well as embraces them. The playfulness in the zigzag work is a sum of all the components. The wall, the disruptions, the use of color, the cartoonish strokes, the scale, the desk in front. Even though the idea is quite minimal (black versus white, horizontal versus vertical) the outcome isn’t.
Now you come to say it, the work does look like a pair of odd socks, but they still keep your feet warm.
Brent: Canvas as conundrum: the small discrete canvases or panels are something else. They are objects with a graphic image painted on the front with a color field wrapped around the edge. They are images weighed in, alive, and, as such, successful… I want one!
What’s the logic of their success?
Guido: Initially I started working on canvas, but I never painted the sides. Flatness was (and still is) the focus. I then changed to working on panels because I wanted to emphasize the difference between the small paintings and the installations. Large works have an impact on the surroundings, just as, and we have talked about this, the location and its details influence the final work. And it’s definitely different when you have these small intimate objects. So, sure, there has to be a good reason why you make a wall painting, and then work at a smaller scale.
With the wall paintings my curiousness is triggered with flatness: I only paint the walls and the image is super flat, but the surroundings do something with that to make it all real space. And, as such, the viewer navigates the space not only with flatness in mind but also becomes very conscious of the volume of space that the wall paintings inhabit.
The panels work differently. They draw the viewer in to their little universe.
Both the wall work and panel work have the same graphic imagery, but because of scale and a different sense of ‘objectness’ the graphic quality shifts considerably. The panels have all the tools to suck up a viewer. The paint is very matt, not shiny and reflecting, but absorbing. They also, as you said, are wrapped in color. And in that sense edge towards being an object, but are, and still stay in the realm of paintings, not sculpture.
I like handling these small works, they’re fun to make and kind of luscious and gem-like despite the matt surface. Making them in my studio feels a little like cooking up something in a lab, having a good idea what will happen, but also there’s the element of mystery.
Brent: Odd things, enchanting in their simplicity, for sure!
Brent: In painting you really do need to question why you go around the edge and paint the sides. Painting is about the face, the surface, and yes, the edge, which is not the end of the world, but is at the crossroads of a painting. The edge in painting engages the frame as something that contains the image or, as a physical limit, prohibits/suggests infinity. But when the painting is sculpture, and clearly is sculpture, all of a sudden the edges don’t matter anymore. Or they do matter more, but not to reassure the painting’s side, instead they work the sculptural. And it’s here, within the three-dimensional, that your work resides, though with a painting color sensitivity.
Suzie: For me the experience of viewing art (or anything) is three-dimensional. If you are painting a painting in the traditional sense of paint on canvas, the choice of canvas or linen texture, the thickness of the frame, how the edges are finished or if it’s framed, how it hangs on the wall, the face of the work, the space within it is seen, all are important, all inform the experience of viewing the piece. As I am occupied with trying to capture a sense of mass or volume of colour, the thicknesses of the edges or sides are integral, as is the importance of the pieces hanging flush on the wall. The edges of the pieces are curved/rounded off, to soften the transition from the front to the sides, to give a sense of solidity of form and colour.
Brent: What I’m noticing too, is that a particular color affects the look and sharpness of an edge: white, for example, retains an object specificity irrespective of the radius of the curve, while a red softens out the form when the edges are blunted, and hardens them the tighter the curve. With the recent pieces across a range of color and shape the edge appears more rounded. What are the decisions for that?
Suzie: The pieces change depending on the light, so the effect light has on the colour, the resulting reflection, and how the eye reads it varies for some edges to appear sharper than others. The colour of the wall the work is hanging on also plays a part – for example, White Pink on a grey background is quite a different experience. Certainly, with the earlier pieces I rounded the edges by hand, so they have a tighter radius, whereas the more recent pieces I trimmed the edges first and then finished them by hand – nasty dusty work, but it allows me to sculpt a softer, uniform curved edge. So each panel is finished in the same way, they only differ in form, size and colour (or combination) from one another. Your eyes, or your perception, do the rest.
The curved edges are a way of adding tension to the work – by increasing the radius of the edges in combination with the high gloss surface it was giving the pieces a more tactile, more sensual element, and I am intrigued how a geometric bit of coloured mdf can evoke an emotive reaction.
Brent: Had you thought about the curve in terms of product design at any stage, referencing or borrowing from the world of already existing things? I’m thinking of tactility as well as the look and shape of the object. We equate a soft curve with a sensual touch. It also goes back to what you said earlier about the choice of materials, the sides, edges and face – the intangible sense and the physical. And I’m wondering if this has anything to do with the kind of response you are hoping for from the viewer.
Suzie: Product manufacturing processes influence how the pieces are made, but not why they are made – it’s more a means of getting closer to singular form and colour. Initially softening the edges was instinctual, a way of giving the pieces a more sculpted, solid form. Once the high gloss finish was applied it then became a practical element of dealing with the visual continuity of the reflective surface by having a curved edge. As a result it does make them look rather plastic and manufactured, but they retain a certain (visual) weight about them. The deep relief gives the forms a tangible physicality, and the smooth reflective paint finish gives a luminous material quality to the colour, which in turn changes with the naturally transient effect of light and shadow.
The paint finish is rather deceptive – though physically very thin it appears to have more depth, so that makes it intangible, gives it an otherness… rather like you try to look ‘into’ the object, but all you are really catching is what is being reflected in the piece.
Brent: A number of the recent works have two parts: in Transition two parts merge into one (1 part absent); and with the new Pink Red, the two parts inform the idea of one, though with a noticeable cleavage and a more plastic feel because of the pronounced rounded edge. The rectangle as motif is set in both pieces, but in Pink Red there is a greater tension.
Suzie: Two parts of one whole, two sides to the truth, one part completing another, each being a separate unit in its own right. The idea of modular pieces balancing each other out through size and colour, harmony under tension…with Transition it could be perceived as having a section missing, the front of it having been carved out, or dropped away. With Pink Red the smaller red panel seems to be strong enough to stand up to or interfere with the larger amount of pink; any larger and the tension/power play between the two colours would shift again.
Brent: And in Green White, 2012, the one is created by the gap of the two abutting vertical rods. There’s a strange relation between the forms, the color, and their almost equal value and weight. The piece is also very playful catching you off guard to the pleasures of experiencing. The way you talk too, which is intriguingly visual for the times, brings forth Tuttle and even the Zen-minimalist McLaughlin.
West Coast car and surfboard culture may have informed McCracken, Irwin, and Bell – they were all letting go of something, and they kept letting go – but I’d like to know what decided you to start working with these reflective surfaces, knowing that there is a history, in the US, and in Europe – more recent with Gerold Miller, et al: the history is a male one, and therefore before we go any further I’d like to get your take on where you feel you fit into all this.
Suzie: Very interesting question – and I am rather embarrassed to admit the following: I had my first introduction to the West Coast group when reading a book called Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface while waiting 2 hours to see Doug Wheeler’s work at David Zwirner in New York in February 2012. Both the book and the experience blew me away. That was followed by an exhibition of Anne Truitt’s drawings at Matthew Marks gallery. I had only been introduced to Anne Truitt’s work about half a year prior, thanks to Lynne Eastaway (it was also thanks to her recommendation I went to Dia: Beacon, another experience in itself). To say on that particular day in New York I felt like I had crawled out of a cave to see the light would be an understatement! As well as asking myself why and where the hell I’d been all that time your mentioning Tuttle and McLaughlin induced a similar feeling of déjà vu.
Prior to this Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Ellsworth Kelly have been my main influences, along with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ben Nicholson and Rachel Whiteread. I came across images of John McCracken’s work and his planks 7 years ago; I’m both shocked and embarrassed to say. Gerold Miller’s work appears to be beautifully executed – again, it is thanks to images of his show at PS Projectspace in Amsterdam (July 2012) that I am aware of his work.
Though most of my work has been made in the last three years since I’ve had a studio here in Sydney, it is based on sketches spanning past 10-15 years; I have a back log I’m trying to work my way through and trying not to jump to new ideas too quickly in order to keep the series together and some sort of sequence. Why the reflective surfaces? In my mind at the time this was one of the means of getting a ‘solid’ colour and a means of showing a form, not wanting the viewer to be distracted by the textural quality of the canvas apparent under applied paint or being able to trace the artist’s hand in the making of the piece. And perhaps a fleeting fascination with Japanese and Russian lacquered bowls at the time may have had an influence, as well as my background in furniture design. There are still works I need to make that have matt, heavy textured surfaces that absorb rather than reflect light; I have yet to find a satisfactory method and material for translating this into reality.
In terms a male history, that’s interesting, because it has never occurred to me as such. I guess I react to and enjoy the experience of viewing specific art, regardless of who made it. Following my initial reaction, I am far more interested in how it was made and why, than who made it (thought admittedly it helps to know these things if wanting to see more of that particular artist’s work, but being male or female is irrelevant to the equation). Though not out of deliberate choice, but one of the aspects of abstract, concrete and non-objective art I so enjoy is it’s apparent non-referencing of gender, religion, race, time or person.
Brent: I’m also curious to know about the 10-15 years leading up to the current work, the sketches (odd that you would make them for so long and not materialize them, if indeed they were sketches for sculpture): and this all due, presumably, because you were without a suitable working studio.
Suzie: No studio or suitable space at home to make work, little income and continuous moving around London didn’t help; along with a fair dose of procrastination. Burgundy Burgundy Red (2001) was made out of found bits of pine timber and hardboard on the hallway floor of a small apartment I was sharing in Shepherd’s Bush, and then completed in another house I shared a while later as it had a small garden to work in. I used kid’s toy lacquer (enamel) over and over again, lightly sanding back between layers, it took forever…I made two other pieces, but they weren’t very successful and continued to dabble with painting (work unlike what I do now). About half a year before leaving London to migrate to Sydney the need to turn some of the sketches into something real became too acute, so I signed up to evening classes that gave me access to a fantastic timber workshop, part of East London University. The technicians thought I was nuts, making these things I refer to as panels, rather than nice mitred hardwood timber frames to go around mirrors etc. But I managed to leave with 4 panels, which I took with me to Sydney. A year after being in Sydney, Paul (my husband) and I got our first studio together – I couldn’t believe my luck. Having the studio enabled me to complete those pieces, and others. Seeing them hung together provided a sense that this might be something worth pursuing, that’s why I’m mindful of past sketches and keen to get them off the page.
Brent: And of course I’m eager to know what a sketch looks like?
Suzie: The sketches are very simple line drawings, more a kind of shorthand to capture a thought. It’s the real object that does so much more, relies so heavily on light, (visual) weight and proportion. It’s never really clear until completion if the piece works or not, it’s all up in the air until then. That’s the beauty of a sketch, it holds so much potential.
Suzie Idiens’ homepage: http://www.suzieidiens.com
Brent: Your work has long been understood as between a gestural prose and a geometric abstraction, and I think this continues, yet with a greater freedom, and a somewhat stronger persistence toward austerity. And, might I add, closer to the bone. Can we chart some of the background: what fuels this interest in dichotomy?
Michael: When I first learned about abstraction there was what seemed to me an artificial distinction being made between the “theological” impulse of geometric painters and the physical expressiveness of the “action” painters. Also, when I was coming up, Conceptual Abstraction was in its heyday, those painters used the formal language syntactically – imagine David Salle mixing and matching abstract motifs rather than images of porn and furniture. Lastly, I’ve always admired contrast or counterpoint in art, and the Heraclitean idea about the binding of opposites–”From the strain of binding opposites comes harmony”. With regard to austerity, for me it was always more about economy than minimalism per se, and I am interested in drawing down to the bone, my paintings at this point are literally made with two coats of paint, black and white.
Brent: Who in the Conceptual Abstraction bag, at that time in NY, are you thinking of?
Michael: Well, I was at the opening for the Conceptual Abstraction show at Janis, and it’s adjunct at John Good–I think a 20th Anniversary reprise is in the works. Stephen Ellis‘ first show at Liz Koury had a profound effect on me while I was still an MFA student at Pratt Institute. That show seemed completely on the button to me, everything abstraction could be in New York City at that exact moment, and remains still some of my favorite painting. I was on my way to see Ellis’ second show at Koury a year or two later when I ran into John Zinsser, who I was already friendly with. I asked Zinsser what Ellis’ new paintings looked like and he said something like “they look the same but the active areas are larger” which, of course, conjured up a mental image. My own image didn’t quite match what I saw, but as a young painter that image gave me something to work with for quite some time. I’m completely indebted to that group of painters because they defined what abstraction could be before the Matthew Ritchie/Vitamin P style rolled in and came to define painting in the ’90′s.
Brent: “Stylistic hodgepodge“ – where abstraction, gesture, appropriation, and a different kind of ’cool’ distanced the historical modus operandi… as it should have. You say your mental image of Zinsser’s description ‘the active areas are stronger’ impacted you. How did that work into your art making?
Michael: It gave me license to do larger areas of organic abstraction. My preoccupation with the bottom band began around then, at that time I was thinking of it as something like a second infinite. Remember too, this was on the other side of Neo-Geo, and Lyrical Abstraction was viewed as the least informed kind of painting. For me, Conceptual Abstraction revealed a successful form of reconstructed modernism where previously isolated languages of painting could be combined to enhance one another. One of the things I think that painting has always done very well historically is combine separate orders simultaneously, like the realistic and rapture scene in El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz“.
Brent: In Lyrical Nitrate, 1998 you get a fix of red, red all over, except for a narrow horizontal gap – a bar full of stormy activity. There certainly is eye-work, and mind trying to make sense of the incongruity, all harvested in a container 12 x 10 inches on wood. Maleficent 1998, a midscale painting at 58 inches across, is a horizontal panel with a band. It runs yellow end to end and sits at the bottom. There is no storm above or containment, just the impenetrable, denying the landscape conduit. Halley is in this.
Both paintings were in your show at Lucas Schoormans, 1998.
Michael: It was with this show with Schoormans where I started to get an inkling that I might be better at smaller paintings rather than larger ones. The larger paintings seemed to contract and the smaller paintings seemed to expand when usually the opposite is true, and one small painting in particular was wildly popular–these are the kinds of things you learn from showing, that can’t be gleaned from the studio alone.
I might’ve denied Halley at the time, but I did see a large black and orange painting of his with a long strong horizontal at SFMOMA in 88 or 89 that did make a deep impression on me. Not to sound like Nietzsche, but I believe the stronger artist always influences the weaker artist. I liked the conceptual and physical continuity those bands provided Halley’s work. I like feeling the painting underfoot too, and maybe I needed something like that band back then to make my paintings look smart, there was much anxiety about the dumbness of ‘slow’ paintings at the time. Of course, my relationship to bands has changed greatly over time, but I do now think this is probably how it all began. With some of the other paintings it was more about balancing the strengths of the geometry against the organic areas. I got the idea for the narrow strip from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the scene where Arronax looks into the Nautilus’ reactor wearing some kind of blast mask.
Brent: Where things come from…
With time the bars usually horizontal move around. When you add the vertical it works as a delineating structure. Second Teilhard, 2005, oil, wax and enamel on canvas, 16 x 24 inches has a wonderful vermilion looking open band streaming across the center. Horizontal format again, two closed systems perform. At the bottom you have added the crossbars. Light pours out via the spread of paint (and wax?) knifed across the surface. The paintwork effect reminds me of a scrunched up paper bag smoothed out before reusing, something Tauba Auerbach would have responded to. The black bars revisit the austerity of early European modernism, less loaded with the metaphysical, effective here as visual/style juxtaposition. The light pours, just the same.
Michael: Very astute, I often created those chaotic patterns by crunching up newsprint and imprinting the paint. Light has always been a main concern; I like paintings that give off energy. In those years I was mostly using color to create different kinds of space. The hazy areas were made with cold wax, megilp, and alumina hydrate. It’s mostly clear, but appears white where thicker. Unlike with acrylics, it’s very difficult to find or make both a clear and non-yellowing oil paint. I spent at least 10 years working with ghostly properties of that medium, which began with works on paper. A much wider gap existed between what was happening on paper versus what was happening on canvas for many years.
Brent: Working small-scale inevitably begins the train to paying attention to the object, what is, where it is, and how it is messaging. Agreed, some artists are better at this. For you what is the relation between wanting to exert a presence, a powerful memorable experience, despite how diminutive the thing?
Michael: I think a lot about my painting as (an) object, and the size best suited to the natural mark of the knife I use. I’m not interested in projecting to scale up, like Kline, Still, or Motherwell. I don’t want to work with a giant tool like Richter or James Nares.
(I think that) Myron Stout is exceptional in his use of scale; the feeling of his forms can be gargantuan even in his sketches, which are often postage stamp sized. Most viewers these days are “platform agnostic” meaning they are comfortable say watching Lawrence of Arabia on a hand-held device. I am interested in that kind of face-to-face engagement, I believe it holds people’s attention longer. I’m thinking more about the scale of hands and faces rather that bodies per se. Stout’s preferred size was often 24 x 36″, a standard paper sheet size, but his work is as heroic as any of his contemporaries because of his deft use of scale. I have a photograph of diminutive Stout at Acquavella Gallery that more than holds its own against both a larger Stella and Poons.
Brent: You moved to Park Slope, and your work added the diagonal. There is a video here, but… going back?
Michael: When I moved to Gowanus seven years ago (I’m on the wrong side of 4th Ave) I was struck by living in a basin, surrounded by bridges that were taller than the buildings, or seeing double concertinas of razor wire on top of already 16′ fences. I got the feeling that in Gowanus there was a double horizon, a natural horizon (the flatlands of the canal zone) and the manmade, elevated horizon. I showed these paintings at Minus Space, which at that time had a spectacular view of the Gowanus Canal, and all the visual referents were there to see, in the paintings, and out the window!
Brent: Was the diagonal and its referents a short stab in the history of your production, or did it carry on?
Michael: Flirting with the diagonal wasn’t as big an issue for me as surrendering to larger and larger planes of color. I was happy to embrace some new qualities into my work in response to my new landscape, and exploring the particular possibilities of one of the very first shows at Minus Space. In fact, I specifically made those works for that situation, but afterwards I had to address questions of how far I wanted to go with color, and architectural forms. I really just wanted to put all of that aside and embrace some of the simpler qualities that had defined my works on paper already. It was a sorting out process that took some time.
Brent: The works on paper at Lucas Schoormans’, 1998, are subterranean. There is an abstract vase, a base, but what stems is anything but abstract. And, of course, the scaffolding is gone, as color is (something you had been playing around with for quite some time). Here I don’t see it as a poaching or borrowing, instead en route to commitment, and with that a relinquishing, a kind of return to a singularity, which makes sense in terms of dispensing with the duality. That said, as wooly as the interpretation may be, what are you committing too, seen in the works on paper, and those works that follow, and what are you withdrawing or moving away from?
Michael: I was thinking at the time that the paintings would be about color, and the works on paper just form, or rather image. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with color, and I think what happened was that the works on paper became stronger because they became more concrete, not in the strict definition of the term, but what happened was a more direct use of material. I think paper always forces that hand; it forces one to become more direct. The works on paper were just two coats, of etching ink at first, a lamination really. I moved the ink with dead credit cards. That’s where my main interest in “how much can be done with so little?” began, not so much in the sense of minimalism, but more like “what can I find between two coats of paint?”. I was letting go, I was letting go of color, which I had been using more as an attention grabber, and began focusing on subliminal image and contrast of value. I am not concrete because I think about image and flirt with the pictorial.
Brent: The division of concrete reminds of Oscar Wilde’s “The Truth of Masks“, where Wilde moves us through Shakespeare’s aesthetic conveyed through props, costumes and masks, making us aware of the master’s use of the diminutive, the bare, and verisimilitude, along with practical considerations of the grand ellipse. Wilde’s argument is prose, using the auspices of beauty for truth. “(For) in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true”… ‘The truths of metaphysics are the truth of masks.”
Michael: In my experience people are freer with paper, less investment, less anxiety, more experimental, because behind paper is the liberating belief that one can always throw it away, which is an attitude that doesn’t come to painting so freely. I also think works on paper tend to lead the way, I always see the next phase of development in people’s drawings.
Brent: And how did this impact the newer paintings on canvas, the knife series?
Michael: I went from credit cards to knives, and gave up the brush. For something so seemingly simple, it took me a very long time to cultivate similar qualities in painting. Also, I discovered different things via paper, like how to work with the knife to create a positive image, rather than only just scraping in a negative one. It gave me license to do less.
Brent: The knifing also relates to how the borders work. They appear around the painting, which helps build a window, and at the same time brings the wall closer to the surface of the canvas, similar to how a framed drawing sits.
Michael: The white border, in its various manifestations, fixes and telescopes the image–something like what an old-fashioned stereopticon does with the photograph. And, as you framed it, it negotiates between the wall, the object, and the image.
Brent: The illusion comes across beautifully, and the bordering of parts fastidiously tuned. There is drama. Then, like earlier painting, you return to the edge.
Michael: I did, I need it. Every six months or so I make a completely organic painting and it never works, it needs that counterpoint, it’s absolutely integral. I don’t just do it out of historical genuflection, to Johns or whomever, it’s not some lazy design habit. It’s absolutely essential. Otherwise, I would have purged it, like color, some time ago.
Brent: The crisp line of the border or bar at the bottom clarifies the internal marks.
And when the occasion only the bottom white bar is present you are almost an all over painter. These internal happenings, trophies of gesture, heroic diminutives, fascinations with heraldry, Jungian subliminal, suggest, tell… or are they better understood as Freudian?
Michael: I’ve been reading the Iliad for pleasure. When you read a classic you’re immediately struck by the leveling of time. How could something ancient seem so contemporary? I walk around Brooklyn a lot, and sometimes I imagine the people I encounter are the lesser heroes of another epic, that they are the same type I’ve already discovered in Homer. I figure that in this age of avatars, compromised, and de-professionalized super-heroes that this is somehow appropriate, and that kind of thinking gives me fuel for images and titles.
Brent: I like also how in some of the images of recent work you have decided to place them clearly into a space that we inhabit… humorously, art historically. You did suggest early on that we work much of our information through a screen. But not all of it! You like walking through the streets of Brooklyn.
Michael: I think most people think of abstraction as something striving to be apart from the world, like geometry, but nothing is entirely apart from the world, Euclid was of this world, and I often think of my own abstract painting as earthy. I walk in Brooklyn where I’m free to do most of my thinking I walk, but I do not strut.
*Photo credits go to Bill Sullivan, except image ‘Razor Painting #2′
Brent: We met in the afternoon outside the Apple store, downtown San Francisco. It was March, coolish… and we wandered back to Telegraph Hill. On the way we talked.
It came as a bit of a surprise that you were not really aware of or interested in op/perceptual painting when you first began painting. What, then, prompted you to start making art that way? Or, is ‘that way’ a misnomer?
Gilbert: I was aware of op as a historical movement of course; I was an art history major at Columbia before deciding to move into fine art. And op is one of the most distinguishable styles out there. Even if it wasn’t around to be seen first hand (which it certainly wasn’t in the 1960s in the town of Terre Haute, Indiana where I grew up) its influence was everywhere; you didn’t have to go to a gallery or museum to experience it. I bought record albums (a habit which lasted for four decades and resulted in thousands of LPs from all over the world) and studied the covers and the posters in the head shops that were full of op influences. My mother even gave me a fascinating Richard Annuskiewicz puzzle when I was a kid. However; I never intended to make art related to op; what I’m making is just where I ended up.
At the same time, in the last quarter of the 20th century op was pretty much invisible in the New York arts scene, where I had moved in 1974. When Phillip Taffe was appropriating Bridget Riley in the eighties, Riley herself was nowhere to be seen. After the Responsive Eye show at MOMA in 1965, she did not have a solo show in New York until her retrospective at DIA in 2000. One could see an occasional Vasarely here and there, though rarely his best work, and I was totally unaware of the work of figures like Julian Stanczak, the members of the Anonima Group (Ernst Benkert, Ed Miezkowski, and Francis Hewitt), Edna Andrade, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Francis Celentano, Tadasky and Jesus Raphael Soto. And of course there are the many Europeans, who seemed to have had a comparatively more receptive audience on the other side of the ocean, but who remain pretty much unknown here. My introduction to these people came through the Internet, and later, in person at the Optic Nerve exhibition in 2007 in Columbus, that was the first major museum exhibition in America that focused on the movement in decades, and through an excellent ongoing series of exhibitions at Dee Wigmore’s gallery in New York, which continues to this day.
When I was studying art history, I became interested in what I saw as musical elements in the work of artists as diverse as Uccello, Cezanne, Mondrian, Stuart Davis and Pollock, and I wanted to find a way to make work that incorporated similar elements. I also had a radio show at WKCR, Columbia’s radio station, and was exposed to a wide array of music including, most influentially for me, the minimalist music that Philip Glass and Steve Reich were writing at the time. The basic structural motif of this music seemed simple enough, but the simplicity was deceptive, and from these simple structures emerged a complicated music that was mesmerizing, but not overwhelming or overdone. For me, it was an aural counterpart of what I call perceptual abstraction, which is how I refer to my work.
Brent: The World Clock and Inverted Memory are early pieces made in the nineties, with another, an even earlier painting, Composition with Four Black Squares and Four White Squares, made around the mid-eighties: these aren’t optical paintings in the sense there’s no overload and there are no illusionist shifts. The viewer is able to hold the visual information, while the flow remains relatively stable. How did you move from these early pieces to, say, a work like Revolver, which is dated 2007?
Gilbert: Well it really depends on one’s definition of optical. A dictionary definition would say optical refers to either light or sight, which would at some level refer to all the visual arts. I think you’re using it in an art historical context here, referring to op art, what Time magazine referred to it as ‘Art That Attacks the Eye‘ when op was taking the country by storm. I think this is what you mean when you talk about the eye having the ability to hold information or not.
Brent: Okay, I was thinking in terms of op art.
Gilbert: I have never thought in terms of the quantity of information that the eye can hold or that the mind can process. Nor do I want to attack anyone’s eye. I think more in terms of ways visual information can be organized with the goal of achieving a perceived experience that is pure and total but at the same time not static. From my earliest forays into abstraction in the early 80s, I was thinking in terms of making a static canvas appear to move, whether in terms of it moving across the surface (on an x and y-axis) or from front to back (on a z-axis). If I create this movement it would result in a viewing experience that would require the observer’s involvement over a period of time, much as the experience of listening to music requires time.
This desire to capture time has been consistent in my work; in that respect I don’t see a difference between my earlier work and my current work. What seem to be evolving are the shapes I am using as visual (or one could say musical) elements. I used the square as my basic element in the earlier work, as well as the shape of my supports. The World Clock, Inverted Memory, and Composition with Four Black Squares and Four White Squares are all examples of square based work. There’s a lot of figure/ground shifting that supplies them with much of their dynamism. After 2000 or so I’ve worked almost exclusively with stripes. Revolver is an example of this. The stripes allowed for the development of the shaped supports that evolved slowly over time, and which continue to do so. I can’t imagine making a painting using square elements in a shaped support.
Brent: I’m glad you mention ‘duration’. In painting, ‘time’ is a funny thing, just as the Z-axis is. Probably what I was suggesting is that the work approaching the nineties became faster, started to operate with retinal overload, along with the blurring of information. This, call it a hybrid system if you will, creates another entry into the experience.
Gilbert: I would agree that there is accelerated blurring of information on an overall level that continues to this day. At the same time this accelerated blurring is highly controlled, although the results are not predetermined, as I never know how the end result will look until the tape is pulled off. It’s interesting that you allude to speed. I was not thinking about speed in the nineties; however it has been something I have become conscious of in the last three or four years.
Hybrid system – I’m not sure I’m clear what you mean by that but it sounds interesting. Could you elaborate?
Brent: Jump and flow… I guess what I mean is what’s actually there and what we experience differs, or undergoes change, through the gears of perception. There exists this other life, or other lives. Not quasi-science-life… doubt you are interested in that? Think of new age music, it tends to have a semblance to a dreamy experience, something over-romanticized. On the other hand, Glass or Reich stay with the sound of the notes, and the notes create something else, not a drive back into the world we know, or the memory of it.
So looking at the ‘jump and flow’ of Go Off: the piece is shaped. It performs around that shape. The work doesn’t confuse with some other experience, though it could, I guess, given people’s imagination. The painting is itself, and this is the way it goes.
Gilbert: It’s interesting that you mention jump and flow. In the last few years, beginning around the time Go Off was made, in 2007, there is this physicality that has crept into my work. During the 80s and 90s I was interested in movement described as ‘recalcitrant motion’ and ‘syncopation’. The paintings were an arena where the eye bounced around, sometimes repetitively, sometimes not. There was something cyclical about them. I didn’t consciously leave that, and it’s still in my work, but a different kind of speed or acceleration has developed. More recent work demands more space around the physical painting; the eyes at times fly off the work and onto the surrounding walls.
By the way, I love your term jump and flow. Can I use it as the title for my upcoming show?
New Age… whenever I hear the words New Age, I run. There is nothing associated with New Age that has interested me in the least. I’m skeptical of anything that provides answers to life with a narrative, except for maybe Buddhism.
Two pieces in particular, Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich and Music with Changing Parts by Philip Glass, have been great sources of inspiration for me. As you say, there is something that stays with the sound of the notes; we’re not drawn to a narrative but respond to the music physiologically, even physically. I remember seeing a performance of Dance at BAM by Philip Glass (collaborating with Sol Lewitt and Luncinda Childs) back in 1979 and it drove me crazy because while I loved the music the last thing I wanted to be doing was sitting still in my seat.
Brent: Sure, go ahead with the Jump & Flow as the title of the show, sounds good!
Before we move on to the space outside the work can we stay with the silver and dark paintings, especially the shaped pieces Go Off, Shift, and Space Probe? You say that you never know what the painting will finally look like, though you have a good idea before you start… how were you thinking about the internal dynamics to the external shape? And why the color refrain?
Gilbert: As far as visualization goes, I think I have an idea of what a piece will look like, which is why I begin it in the first place. The visualization has a lot to do with my memory and past experience of my work up to that particular point in time. As the piece develops, this visualization in my mind fades as the piece comes into being. By the time I finish, I have pretty much forgotten how I originally visualized the piece in the beginning because the presence of the actual physical piece has killed the memory. I don’t have a good visual memory, so it’s good I gave up my formal studies of art history!
Shape of course determines the internal dynamics. However, I determine the shape with the internal dynamics in mind. When I was still in high school, a former classmate who ahead of me and had just returned from studying at Yale, Louetta Chickadaunce, explained to why the square was a difficult shape to work with; that it is static and hard to knock off-center. For some reason, this stuck in my head, and a few years later when I made the transformation from working figuratively to abstractly, I made working with the square my challenge. I was working in a reductive mode, trying to keep the number of random decisions I could make to a bare, but not absolute, minimum, and working exclusively with the square allowed me to not have to decide on what is the most important decision in making a painting, the shape. All shapes are the similar, there is by definition only one shape to a square. Rectangles, of course, appear more often in the course of history of painting, and their proportion has to be decided upon.
I composed my paintings by breaking up the square into equal parts, halves, quarters, eighths etc., and things would develop for each individual painting from there. Whatever the final result was, it was a characteristic of the property of a square.
Brent: At some stage you started to work outside of the square. Can we talk about that?
Gilbert: The first none square shape which I worked on at length was the circle, a shape that I continue to explore. This was around 2000. Then, slowly, I did works in the shape of an equilateral triangle, hexagon and octagon, all offshoots of the square I suppose, but that’s another discussion. I got the idea for the shape of my first truly unconventionally shaped piece, Go Off, while taping a circular piece, which had been divided into six segments. As you can imagine taping these pieces is a tedious process, and as I’m doing them I look at the shapes, which are made during the process, which make a surprising suggestion for further exploration. So Go Off, which represents one sixth of a pie slice, was a natural development of the circular work.
Go Off contains a heavy hint of linear perspective, with the vanishing point doubling as one of the corners of the painting. Our eyes start at the foreground, the right portion of the painting, and are led back by the combination of the top curve and the compression of moire patterns receding to the left, where we end up at the vanishing point/corner. But for some reason your eyes don’t stick at this point; they seem to slide along the lower edge of the panel, which angles downward and forward and thrusting us back to the foreground, and we begin the cycle all over. This was not worked out in advance; it was the result of an organic process, where a vital decision, the one to alternate the bands of black and white areas, was made as the work was being executed. Again, I spend a lot of time taping, and when I’m taping I have a lot of time to weigh options. So the act of taping acts as kind of drawing that allows me to visualize what certain options will actually look like.
The shaping for Space Probe and Shift came about as a result of a more complicated process. I had been working with shapes that utilized a combination of straight lines and arcs when I moved to Berlin. The carpenter I was using did not have the equipment to cut curves, so I had to rethink my process. I started with a sheet of plywood, and had him divide it into irregular triangles, quadrilaterals, and even five and six-sided figures. So the final shapes were not individually determined, but were dependent on the other shapes coming from the same piece of wood. So there was kind of a random logic to how the shapes came into being, but I did not have to agonize over the shape of each piece individually. They were also the pie slice taken a step further. The internal dynamics of these works are once again heavily determined by the characteristics of the shape of the support; I tend to work with the primary and secondary axes, and points, which bisect or trisect the sides of the panels.
Color usually does not become a concern of mine until the first phase of the work is done, that is the black and the silver are done. I visualize what color might achieve with the piece at hand and then proceed from there. The use of color totally changes the effect – the jump and flow, the grouping, the total perception of the work. So it’s a big decision whether to continue on with color, or to keep the piece without color. The black, white and silver pieces have all been visualized with color, even if in the end I decided not to go down the color route.
Brent: So – what you are saying is that you can do without the physical presence of color to give a sense of it?
Gilbert: I’m saying that without the physical sense of color, a profoundly different sense of space is perceived. Black and white works oscillate between surface and infinity, while the use of color defines something in between.
To go back to your sound of the note analogy, it’s kind of like the difference between the sound of a note and the sound of a chord. A note is about a sound in space, followed by reverberations related to the note; it’s fleeting.
Color is more analogous to the chord: it complicates things with relationships of harmony or dissonance, and with overtones from each note that interact with one another; it has more punch and presence, almost a material being. Color creates tension. It creates relationships that arrest the mind or eye or whatever while those relationships are processed.
This is all determined by how we see; of course the cones in our eyes perceive color, while rods perceive movement and contrasts of light and dark. Take away the color element and the entire focus is on light, dark and movement. So it follows that the black and white work is ‘speedier.’ Add color, and things slow down as the cones, which form the focal point of our vision, fire. The rods are located on the periphery, but there are many more rods than cones.
So it seems as if I’m working the black/white/movement/peripheral vision element of our visual process against the color/focus element. I took a psychology of perception class with the prominent visual psychologist Julian Hochberg, and it was that class which stayed with me the most from my college career, not that I’m a scholar on the subject. And of course I did not think about what different parts of the eye were doing when I developed my work over the years; it’s just how things came together.
Brent: At some stage also you seem to have embarked on another project, that of divestment, with the use of altogether different motifs and materials… was this also part of the Berlin move? And if so, what prompted the shift?
Gilbert: While living in Berlin I came across a number of materials I hadn’t seen in the states. It started when the Swiss painter Pierre Juillerat, introduced me to this wonderful striped paper available in a number of different dual color combinations. It was natural for me to use this paper to experiment with collage; cutting paper was a refreshing change from all the taping and spraying I do. These particular collages have developed into a number of studies for wall paintings.
An important part of the experience of my paintings besides, of course, the participation of the viewer is the changing perspective of the viewer. The spectator should look close, from a distance, from different angles. The pieces I use with glitter, holographic and iridescent materials are a development of this idea; I love these materials because they are so kinetically charged. I first started working with kinetic material about ten years ago when I was painting stripes on Rowlux, a material most well-known for wrapping drum kits. This is kind of a return to that period, only I’m making constructions with them now, using them in conjunction with a system of filters such as perforated paper or polyurethane foam.
The work is prompted by the same phenomenon that prompts my painting, perhaps best described by a German word, irritation. Irritation in the German language does not have the negative connotation it has in the English language; my understanding of the word as a description of an effect which occurs when there is a disconnect between what is perceived by the senses and what is understood by the rationally by the mind. My favorite example of this can be illustrated with the spinners you see on souped up cars today; spinners are the wheel covers which make the wheels seem stationery when the car is in motion (because the wheel covers are not rotating), and which start to spin when the car’s brakes are applied and the car stops (so it appears the wheels are turning, even though the car has stopped). So my work is very much about irritation, in that sense, and the departure from traditional painting materials to these newer materials is a further exploration of irritation.
Brent: New materials, or non-art materials, stir up interest, for sure! Crossing over (2006) and The Last Crusade (2006) speak tape, or ‘of experienced tape’ – adept, loosely fashioned, exotic, unusual. Quad band (2011), Interweave 1 (2010) offer a more simple visual idea. They are ‘readily-made’ works imbued with a kind of mystery. Quad and Interweave are fast. You get the information all at once. Yet the pieces linger and stay with you.
I’m also interested to know more about your use of non-art materials. You sent a box of panel works and along with them many of these ‘readily made’ pieces. X-10 blows way past its material and diminutive scale. The feeling is bold and pop. It reads solid, plain, central, but there are these quirks. I can see it large, painted directly onto the wall…
Gilbert: Before talking about Crossing Over and Last Crusade, I want to go back to the Rowlux series I alluded to earlier. Rowlux is a vinyl material that changes when you move. This was the first kinetic material I worked with. The changing background excited me, and I painted parallel stripes that acted as foils and anchors against the dancing background. I was fascinated with the stuff and still am; I worked on a whole series of these for a couple of years.
The body of work characterized by Crossing Over and Last Crusade, also from around 2006, is an offshoot of the Rowlux pieces, but with no Rowlux, just paint. It’s the same structure of three layers of overlapping stripes placed at different angles, but without the flat areas of color. I want the colors in the different layers to blend with each, but remain distinctly within their boundaries. I wanted to create a different kind of kineticism with more emphasis on color.
Interweave and Quad Band are both collage experiments utilizing the printed striped paper I mentioned earlier, but they function like drawing. The use of this pre printed striped paper allowed me to find a different way to work with stripes than I had with my painting; the ease of working with these prefabricated designs is opening up possibilities for new directions for me. In the Interweave series, I am using stripes with offsetting angles as I do in my painting, but the result is quite different. Readily made is an intriguing term; there is an ease of working in this manner that allows for spontaneity in real-time.
Brent: Yeah, it’s been around… I don’t own it. Now… what’s happening with these new panel shapes?
Gilbert: I will have about a half-dozen pieces in my show at Minus Space, three larger pieces and from this year, and three smaller works from earlier years, all irregular shapes except for one circle. They will be hung as an installation designed to work with the architecture of the space, reacting to details such as heating ducts, wall protrusions, fuse panels as so forth. The largest ones
include a tondo, a color piece in the shape of Go Off, and a shape similar to Go Off, but with an arc that is concave instead of convex.
Brent: I’m looking forward to seeing what you do.
Gilbert: I just want to add one more thing before we end. I’ve been thinking about how I spend my time and what I want the impact of what I do to be. We as human beings have an amazing amount of physiological potential that we do not utilize, because we are not aware of that potential; there is a whole being in use that we are unaware of. I think what I’m trying to do is to tap into that potential to discover that hidden being, to make my audience aware of things that they may not have been aware of before within themselves. So what I’m trying to do is to make visible a tiny part of something that is invisible in us all, and in a minute way to call attention to our potential as a race that can do positive things. Our societies stress individual accomplishment; how we can distinguish ourselves; we fail to give much thought to what we all have in common as perceiving, physiological beings. It’s really too bad that we have developed as societies which do not seem to place emphasis on how we can develop based on what we as humans have in common, especially in an age where we are rapidly learning so much about the universe surrounding us and how insignificant we really are in the scheme of things.
Brent: We are made of star stuff!*
Thanks Gilbert! Good luck with the show.
* “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
Brent: I think we live in a funny color world: I mean the hills and trees, they are green, rust, brown, hay, and they are soothing. The bay, well that has every personality under the sun, and the moon… and I think of your work, and I think of the light that is much less in the hills and more in the bay, while also a refection of the synthetic.
Freddy: For me the color of things becomes more poignant when its perceptual presence asserts some kind of independence from its source. Bluish dusk framed by a window… or driving in the rain with water drops obscuring as you look out the window at the glowing red light: these are all recognized. But how do these things translate from recognition to sensational experiences? Being awash in blue, red, violet, or any other colors: even if only in the space of the mind.
I often have a hard time answering questions about the use of color in my work. The process itself is intuitive, maybe to the point where the colors in a specific piece become a given, as if there was no other choice. And maybe it’s always a reflection of the synthetic, as in everything has to be synthesized to start with.
Brent: Which brings us to an interesting point: you mention the fleeting moments, your example a red signal blown out of specificity by the rain on the windshield, the color exploding into an experience. And in a sense it is a shared experience, I can hear the wipers and the driving rain. I have my personal take on all of this, though it becomes collective as long as we have had the red light, the car, and the rain, or something similar. This way it’s not only the color that registers but also all that color signifies and addresses. It is then that the color is synthesized, released from any one label.
We did have the chance to talk in your studio before you left for Milan about the earlier time-based work and how that has grown into the newer work.
Freddy: Yes, I was glad you came to see the most recent pieces I created for the show at Fabbri C.A. in Milan.
I should perhaps give you some background to how my work has evolved. Painting was really where I had my first experience of engaging myself with the idea of art making. This was back in ’99; I was in the middle of my architecture course at Berkeley. At first, I think I simply drifted into painting in order to find a more direct experience of using my hand in a way that did not feel like an analytical exercise. But of course, the moment this engagement started to feel alive, it required me to periodically take a step back and perhaps analyze what was going on. It was then that I saw the connection between the paintings I was making–which actually felt more like drawing within the space of painting–and architecture, or the visual language that I acquired through the study of architecture: the structuring of space through time, and time through space. It then seemed to make sense to explore working in three-dimensional space again. In graduate school, my work was primarily about finding ways to build out into real space what I was trying to do with my early paintings. I completed several time-based installation works in the period from the start of graduate school into the four years that followed, up to 2007. The final installation in this series was …three minutes from now… at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. These works employed constructed objects integrated with multiple light projections within an architectural context. These pieces suggest sequential visual movement through different points in space. From 2008 on, I re-shifted to doing works that are wall-based. This partly happened because I felt a need to do work that would require me to have a somewhat consistent daily practice, a practice where I would be able to move through ideas more quickly. Having said that, I can see returning to three-dimensional space again in the future.
Brent: I remember your piece with the taut optical fiber at San Jose ICA, 2008. It was probably one of your last architectural time-based works (maybe the Headlands was the last). I should mention that nothing (no thing) moved in this installation unless you, who engaged the work, moved. What shifted was light, and for me that ties the earlier time-based work with what was to come: the use of the stationary object, here the taut threads of optical fiber, enhanced the fact that the interaction is very much part of creating the experience.
You insert drawing within the space of painting and architecture, or the study of architecture. I see your practice very much part of drawing. The way you work, looking down over the piece on a bench, and the instruments that you employ to draw the color out, remind of a draftsman’s drafting board and tools. Though you are probably talking about a more conceptual relationship with drawing with painting and architecture?
Freddy: Brent, you make a very good point about Fugitive Horizons at the Institute of Contemporary Art. The first iteration of this installation took place while I was in residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in 2007. Cathy Kimball, who is the Executive Director of the ICA, came to see this, and it was subsequently shown in an exhibition there initiated by Nancy White called The Space Between, which was also where I first met you. The fleeting nature in the experience of this piece is absolutely tied to the movement of one’s body and vision; a slight physical shift could potentially alter your perception of light and material within it. I haven’t consciously thought of this piece as being a link between the earlier time-based works–where elements of an installation (light from video projections) literally do move around–and the current wall-based works that are static in the literal sense while implying movement. But it makes complete sense.
This installation is very much about drawing; stretching each one of the hundreds of monofilament lines literally felt like drawing in space. The act of drawing/pulling a mark/ a line across space is a common denominator for me.
Although my current work is usually referred to as paintings, I often feel they are more about drawing. Yes, they are obviously painted. Yes, my use of color recalls that of color field painting. But, the work comes together through the physical process of drawing: pulling a mark across space. In this case, I am making a distinction between making a mark in painting, and making a mark in drawing. I think that mark making in drawing is about marking space, and marking time. The clarity of the structure itself and the rhythm it creates are important in relation to the resulting experiential quality. And in this way, it leads back into architecture. From conception to completion, making these works feels like drafting an architectural blueprint, or scoring music.
Brent: Both the architectural blueprint and the musical score are packets of information that tell the interpreter how things will turn out, while the actual structure/space of the architecture and the performance or recording of the music is what the partaker gets to experience. Clearly what you are saying is that you are the producer of the pieces you make and those who end up experiencing these visual scores or compact architectures don’t need the middle player to get it.
Are you asking your audience to work a couple of jobs?
Freddy: At face value, the answer would be no. This is one way I look at it: the blueprint or the score and its tangible manifestation are the same entity. In a sense, I am interested in having transparency in the relationship between the logical structure and the lyrical flow surrounding the work. The audience clearly does not have an opportunity to literally construct the work, nor is there anyone to re-perform the piece to be experienced.
This is unlike what happens in the case of Sol LeWitt’s work. The work starts as a set of instructions–analogous to a score, perhaps––and for the work to be tangible, it has to be re-constructed or re-performed in a new situation each time.
I do think that if there is enough structural transparency, the audience has an opportunity to synthesize what they see into an experience that is specific to that moment. Perhaps this is about attempting to create an open-ended structure to allow for a synthesis that is not generalized, but specific to each individual and to that particular moment. Does this seem paradoxical?
Brent: Relinquishing specificity… I guess this is what non-objective art does. But we are talking about a concrete thing, whether it be a concert of indefinable gestures and marks, or, be it… one color over one thing, we can respond without the need to give it a name. And that, perhaps, is optimum life?
Are you consciously making decisions to keep the work open-ended, or does that just happen as part of the course?
Freddy: I don’t believe I can build it into the work, or perhaps I do at times, and this is when things usually don’t work. I feel more connected to the impulse of wanting to make when I can forget any deterministic rationale for it. It becomes about really trying to have a connection between what I can take in observationally, and what I can do to translate these sensations. Over time, certain parameters are established, and the visual language gains a more familiar structure; but I think this place of being open-ended has to do with not knowing what I can see before I see it. The physical work, in the end, is just a vehicle, an instrument, an artifact; but hopefully to make possible another layer of experience. These statements may seem obvious on the one hand, and nebulous on the other, and are more about a general drive behind working.
Brent: As objects the work is impeccable. There is not one thing out of place, not a mark to be physically seen. Color appears saturated, embedded in a thick block of Plexiglas. But this is not really the case. In earlier work you use resin. What made you shift the material, and how did that move the sensibility as well as where color physically sits?
Freddy: Often, the shift in material was initiated by the need to find a process that is flexible, as well as archival. There were slight permutations along the way, in this regard: graphite embedded in layers of resin, colored resin that is cast, colored resin applied on Plexiglas, and so on. Most of the work I had in my solo shows at Brian Gross Fine Art (San Francisco) and Walter Maciel Gallery (Los Angeles) used a combination of these methods.
At some point, the process of casting solid blocks of custom tinted resin became cumbersome, and I felt I was going through a lot of technical steps that took me out of a certain zone of focus. To prepare for my exhibition in Düsseldorf at Galerie Lausberg, I decided I had to find a process that would feel more uniform or ‘simplified’. The work now employs solid panels of clear Plexiglas as physical support. Subsequently, all colors, value gradation, and marks/ lines are applied to the surface of these Plexiglas blocks using transparent and translucent layers of acrylic paint with an airbrush. Because of the paints’ translucency and how it allows light to be transmitted through, there is this illusion that colors are embedded within the physical support.
I think this shift to using paint on a transparent support gives me more freedom in keeping certain elements of a composition open during working: colors, value, line density. Marks are made more precisely, to the extent, perhaps, that they are not ‘physically seen’. The use of an airbrush certainly has a lot to do with this; as a tool, it distances my hand from the surface I work on. All layers of paint, from the ground colors, to the modulation of line density, to the build-up in value gradation, are collapsed into a single physical film that sits on the surface of the support.
As you mentioned, the colors in my work have become more intensely saturated in the past year, year and a half. The use of paint film as a material sort of opened a valve for me. I am more aware of the surface tension of the picture plane, and consequently of the spaces before and behind this interface. The push and pull of color intensity, as well as the use of greater depth of value, are what come out of this, I think.
Brent: I like how the film gathers there on the surface, and that you simplify the process, which in turn intensifies the color experience. But all said and done, there is still a lot of process involved once the color gets put down. The color shifts, is still embedded, and leaves it all sort of ambiguous.
Freddy: Yes. I think the varnish and the thin layer of resin on top of the paint film further remove most traces of touch. This does perhaps create some ambiguity in terms of how everything is done: what creates the color, is it image or object, is it surface or depth, and so on. Maybe what I am trying to get at is making something that doesn’t look like it has been made. Does this make sense?
Brent: Like the sunrise!
So what happens when you take the color out?
Freddy: I like that analogy. So the phenomenological experience of something potentially overwhelms or transcends its physicality.
Okay, now you must be referring to Whether, a monochrome I recently completed for the exhibition w h i t e-h o t at Margaret Thatcher Projects in New York. When color relationship is taken out of the mix for the most part, I had to decide what kind of activity (and how much) I wanted a composition to have. With the color works, quite obviously, color plays an important role in affecting the structure and atmosphere of a piece, its rhythm and its resonant frequency. Without apparent colors to work with, I realized I would be dealing with a whisper. And probably because this was my first time revisiting a non-color situation in a long time, it felt a little bit like walking in the fog. This was exciting. But I also thought this whisper still has to have a clear, albeit less apparent, structure, in order for the piece to happen. Here, mark making was done with neutral iridescent acrylic paint, which has mica as its pigment source. The iridescence of the mica causes the painted surfaces to shimmer and change its appearance, depending on one’s point of view and the light. I decided that I also needed to have different surface sheen for the different parts of the piece: high gloss, satin, or matte. This is about modulating the surface tension you may feel in interfacing with the image. All these elements then form a kind of architecture to move around in.
I just now realized this. In a sense, with the color works, the structure falls into place in order to achieve some kind of overall resonance; while with the non-color works, the resonance seem to come first, and subsequently I have to find the underlying structure. This is probably too neat of a summation, but I think there is a kind of reversal going on.
Brent: With the color taken out you do read the thing as a whole first, and then the structure, which includes, in this case, the use of different finishes, thus a wider sense of space. I notice, too, that you become very aware of the wall, also the base or back of the work. Perhaps without the color you are apt to notice everything more, including the subtle shifts in color in the apparent non-color forms, even the room itself… but this also works with the color pieces. What role does the space (the gallery) play when viewing your work?
Freddy: In contrast to the architectural installations, which I consider to be site-conditioned and site-adjusted work, the wall-based work are largely self-enclosed systems. Having said that, the wall spaces in between discrete elements of a single piece are integral to how you read the work. External space punctuates and disrupts the internal space of the work. Rhythm is formed as presence relates to absence. Furthermore, within the context of an exhibition, I tend to explore the interrelationship between individual compositions. One is a precursor to another, and to an extent, this affects how a whole exhibition may be sequenced as an integral spatial installation.
Brent: I noticed that you made a vertical piece, and another that pulls apart the self-enclosed systems, at least in the organization of the modules… you have recently moved into a larger studio, more of that architectural space, do you think that it will have an impact on a new body of work, possible greater fragmentation, longer, or even taller strips?
Freddy: I am currently gearing up for an exhibition at Thatcher Projects in late October. I know there will be a couple of large vertical pieces for this as well. I have wanted to explore the vertical orientation for a while now, having initially felt uncertain about this move. The horizontals definitely have a very specific sense of movement that is inherent in its orientation. Visually, the horizon touches on what a person may glean in his or her periphery. The left and right edges of the work suggest an imaginary continuation into a peripheral condition. A vertical orientation, I think, has a direct correspondence with one’s standing figure. The sense of movement will inherently be different. I still have to see where it takes me.
With regard to the pulling-apart happening in Coalesce 01 and Coalesce 02 for the Milan show, and also in another recent piece, Murmur, it is actually an idea I have been exploring since 2009. What I find to be challenging in this direction is to avoid flamboyance, in a sense. What is the point of reference for this fragmentation? What self-enclosed system is being broken apart? How do you retain some kind of logical clarity in the process? A synthesis of structure and gesture has to be there.
I am thrilled about the new studio. I don’t know yet how it will affect my work. But it’s a big relief to be finally moved in and more or less organized. It will be a busy three months leading to the show in October at Thatcher Projects.
Lastly, thank you so much, Brent, for this conversation. This has been absolutely great for me!
There is a punk painting by Billy Gruner and a couple of kiss paintings. One kiss is painted directly on to the wall, and is designed by this speaker, with the title taken from the onomatopoeia sound of mice nibbling, in Japanese “chu chu”. Another piece, formally a readymade–a black square table napkin–is later manipulated with color and pencil. Large would be a table cover, small the napkin–this work by Candida Alvarez.
The title of the show is Deep Black. There is a lot of black, though white predominates, that being the color of the wall.
The show is spare: one napkin; one wall piece; and one original punk painting dated 2011, none of which are all black, and all to which seem to have their roots in the everyday. Everything is abstract, or is it? Or can someone explain it out a little further… the individual work, the practice, the attempt at a unifying theme, or the disarray of it?
Candida Alvarez: …my sister is always putting the past behind her-Well I use the past to make my pics and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every “lover” I’ve ever had–every friend–nothing closed out–and dogs alive and dead and people and landscapes and feeling even if it is desperate–anguished-tragic–it’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it–the dreams–and paint it
Here, deep black represents anticipation. It is like walking into a movie, once the picture has started. Memories, too, are like the everyday. They are abstract, swirling around in invisible space, until needed. My painting, “A Kiss” begins with a photo snapshot meeting a ready-made black ground. Drawing pulls it close, like a microscopic lens. In this painting, the picture transforms into an architecture of color-forms. The foundation is the photo, which gets shredded through drawing to serve as the memory pulp for painting. Disarray, is the common denominator
Deep black is sexy, no? In my painting, a sliver of black barely visible at first glance, fights for dear life to get noticed on a formal level. It is the deep black and like the kiss, reverberates throughout the painted body. In this conversation, I am nothing but that small glimpse of “black magic women.” Go towards the dark. There is always something there, waiting to be noticed.
Billy Gruner: I like the title Deep Black because it refers in many ways to a kind of mystic reading I like more and more, deep space implied for instance. But also a kind magic nature is summoned, its fun in many ways. The so-called punk works come from a long way back and issue from a certain aesthetic response, and many of these are done in black. The stripes just sit there vibrating without any pretense to design or meaning. These ongoing works are made simply, from ordinary inexpensive materials and have long been linked to a DIY understanding–that was punk’s greatest achievement. I have always admired the democracy of means and sense of lowbrow aspiration associated, and for these reasons I have always been a Post Punk style of artist. These works attempt to restate my interest in what my overall body of social oriented works may represent. Regardless these impromptu works done on site with a poverty of means have broader meanings than that, and have an almost Asian aesthetic response also: simple, repetitive, reflective, and utterly unique from each other despite the system of reproduction. The works emerge out of a longer background i.e., the tape works that I still do, and, the stereo works which have a music connection. I don’t believe I have to reinvent the wheel at present, I just like to make work that produces its own dialogue and I like how that resonates with other artists’ works, so difference for me is cardinal. In this case the relationship to colour and to its apogee, blackness is placed under discussion – this collective dialogue albeit in visual terms when paintings are used is referred to in the black paint, the gesturing of the stripes. Importantly, the act of making the punk works is symbolic, they are made just prior to exhibition or even during, so they are immediate, it is performative by nature.
* Lady Painter, A Life, by Patricia Albers.