Jump and Flow – Gilbert Hsiao
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