Galaxies, Grids, Scattered and Gathered – Devin Powers

Untitled, enamel & latex on wall, installation, 2008

Brent: The structure of space, theoretical models such as n-space and the hyper-cube usually lose most of us even in adult life. However you had an interest in this as a child. How did this fascination arrive?

Devin: Well, I was no child prodigy. In fact, I was born dyslexic. I did not learn how to read until around the forth grade and it was a few more years till I could honestly say I was a fluent reader and several more before I became confident in writing. In an odd way, this deficit propelled me toward asking and thinking about big questions early on. My parents are well educated and impressed upon me the value of education not just as a method of upward mobility but for its own inherent value. I believed them. Books became these mysterious venerate objects to me that contained great secrets that everyone else had access to except me. I deeply wanted to read in order to gain access to this knowledge. I believed that there was some deep mystery I did not have the pass code to and I wanted to know it, I wanted to know everything. I remember fantasizing as a boy that if I had a superpower it would be the ability to instantly absorb and comprehend any book I had contact with. I pictured myself visiting the Harvard libraries and being immediately Untitled, tape on walls floor & ceiling, installation, 2005inundated by the immense tidal force of knowledge housed within its walls. I could not imagine any better power. Understanding was everything.

The big ideas and mysteries attracted me the most. I liked thinking about things just beyond the crest of understanding. PBS shows like NOVA were huge for me as a kid, especially when the subject was space and cosmology. I remember staying up late into the night thinking what space would be like before “the big bang”. Could there be nothing? What would nothing be like? There would be no time. There would be no direction, dimension or space. Just nothing. Then something, and with it the beginning of time and its direction. With something, there would be space and dimension as well but what about direction and scale? Ok. If there were two things then there would be direction and scale as well, an orientation. Now, how does something come out of nothing? These were the questions that kept me up at night.

The truth is no one knows what the structure of space is past the third dimension because we exist here in the world and the world as we know it is three-dimensional. I can give you some answer like, “the fourth dimension is another axis which is perpendicular to X,Y, and Z”, but what does that really mean? It is unknown. In geometry, we have illustrations of basic higher dimensional shapes as they appear as two-dimensional and three-dimensional projections and models. In physics we have theories that include higher dimensions. We do not know if it exists. It is unknown. And frankly because it is unknowable, I do not waste my time with it. I am interested in the shadow it casts on our world–my body of work began with a fascination for the shapes created by two-dimensional models of these higher dimensional ideas in geometry. The strange kind of illusory space a hypercube drawing creates captured me and led me to a love of complex geometrical form. I think that is as best as I can answer that one.

Brent: Your earlier tape and ticket pieces utilize an open space that makes use of fairly simple constructions of the hyper-cubes. These exist either in a white cube environment or in public space. They make use of the physical structures available, wall, floor, and or ceiling. The structures often mirror, shift, and even droop.

Devin: Yeah, that is true. That was the Fall and Winter of 2005. I had moved to Brooklyn. I was tired of painting and I was broke. I wanted to do something large,untitled, tape on walls floor & ceiling, installation, 2006 something that interacted at a human scale, something that took in the architecture and reacted to it. At the time I was stuck with easel-sized canvases because I could not afford the materials to make a big canvas; painting felt too bound to the limits of the support. I wanted to do something that was hard-edge but also more wild, fast and loose than the kind of same-old geometric abstraction I was used to seeing. I hated the tedium of the taped off painted edge. It drove me crazy. I was good at painting a freehand edge but it slowed me down too much. I thought there had to be a better way. Then it dawned on me, the tape is the line: forget about the paint, forget about the canvas, just use the wall. It was fast, it was cheap – the price of tape – and it was effective. I did not care if they lasted. They were sketches to me, quick ideas like the kind you find in a notebook, except they were on a building. The important thing was that they were realized, made physical. I always took a picture of it when I finished. That was what was important: it had been made, it had been seen and there was a document of it.

I did make pieces in public spaces and nontraditional spaces, sometimes without permission, but this was not an overtly ideological act. I was not trying to make a comment about the “white cube”. I was aware of those ideas at the time. I had read “Inside the White Cube” by Brian O’Doherty around then and loved it but honestly, I like the gallery and the museum space. I think it is great that we have these spaces dedicated to looking, thinking, and interacting with these things we call art. It would be better if art spaces were more ubiquitous and more inviting of course. I know they are not perfect institutions and are exclusionary but I do not want to make art about that. I made the tape pieces in the public realm because I wanted everyone to see them and I did not have access to the gallery space or the museum space. They were not an option. I wanted to make due with what I had and could do. I was also interested in how a wider spectrum of people would react to the work other than artists and art world people. I would sit, read a book, and watch people encounter the work, stare at it, walk by it, touch it, and ignore it. Sometimes I would talk to them and listen to their reactions and impressions. That was exciting to do. There was a potential for something unexpected.

I wanted a bigger perspective; I approached mathematicians, started correspondences with a string theorist, and consulted architects. I became drunk with ideas. At one point, I was convinced I had made a newUntitled, pen on paper, 22in by 30in, 2006 contribution to mathematics, a 4-space Menger sponge and then a 5-space Menger – I had not, it had been already thought up years ago. Making objects became less important. I stopped caring if what I was doing was art. What was art anyway? I remember thinking. I had momentarily forgot my role. I am an artist. It took a while to remember that.

Brent: And you became a furious drawer too! I remember you saying that you would do a drawing in one sitting. These were pencil or pen on paper? It’s hard to believe, especially with some of the very complicated structures.
I notice too that there is this constant shifting sometimes moving very close to say some known form, that architecturally, or as a reading, resembles a skin for some known or probable thing. Other times the lines and fields are nothing more that a beautiful web of geometry and space. Sometimes you make use of different planes on a sheet of paper.

Generally in that period of drawing you were working with similar models of space, still the hyper-cube, though with more and more complex settings.

Devin: I make my best work when I push myself hard. I think that is probably true for most. For a while, I told people I wanted to obliterate the difference between order and chaos in an image. I think this is still true. I do not think it has happened yet, but it is one of those things that keep me moving forward. Why? I don’t really care. Why is less interesting then the moment of experience, than the experience itself.

The drawings in that period, 2006 and early 2007, had a lot to do with that kind of conflation of contradiction. I did make most of them in one sitting. I believed if I got up, I would lose the energy or power of focus to return to the image. I also wanted to know what a drawing would look like and I did not want to wait. Many of the decisions were made in the moment. There was not a lot of preplanning. This added more risk, making it more exciting for me because if I made a wrong decision I could ruin 12 or 18 hours of hard work.

I think all the labor comes out of a belief that if you want to get anywhereOld Studio new, you have go through something, something that tests your limits. It is a little like swimming down to try and touch the bottom of that pond when you were a kid. Will your lungs give out? Will your ears start to hurt too much? Will it get too cold, to dark and too scary down there? And finally, do I really want to touch what’s at the bottom? I am curious to see how far I can go.

I made those drawings with Micron .35mm Red, Blue, Orange, and Green pens on gray Rives BFK paper with a hand drawn 1/2 inch grid guided by a straight edge. The lines on top of the grid were free hand, no ruler, mostly because it made things go faster but I also liked the touch of the hand. I drew them sometime after Katrina – about a year after. I wanted to capture that spiral you see in aerial images of great hurricanes and in Hubble images of some galaxies. The spiral gives movement to symmetry. The spiral is fundamentally turbulent. Some of the most powerful and terribly destructive phenomena take on its shape.

I made a few drawings that dabbled in perspective and then perspective within perspective and impossible and contradictory perspective. I also emphasized planes, giving the drawings the illusion of volume. But all this play of illusion became confusing and too much of a perceptual game. I think art is more then a game.

Brent: Well, perhaps a game that you set up the rules for and at some stage go in and break. I don’t mind that sort of game. If art isn’t a game then it sure has a neat way of playing tricks on you. You mentioned about the world we live in, very physical and practical with its challenges and ponds. Personally I think we build those worlds and build the challenges. Challenges are like plotted points, I guess that hold things and ideas that are out there. And you bring them towards you or you go towards them. A bit like turning on the Untitled, sharpie on walls, installation, 2007magnets to a certain range of attraction, and you identify some of the things that you want to attract, but also things that you are not aware of are also getting attracted. And there are questions. Goals seem to be about building a reality, like you build a drawing. You start with something; it’s got to be pretty clear otherwise there is no telling what the good mistakes are. And there is this kind of freedom. And ‘where is freedom?’ is a question.’ And this sometimes can undo worlds, or change the course of activity.
You did a number of large drawing installations, very beautiful, each different that relate to the fine line and color paper drawings. They reached a very high point.

Devin: Thanks. I think a few of them were successful at taking what was happening in the complex works on paper and transferring it to a human architectural scale. That was actually the idea all along. The works on paper were meant to function as individual drawings as well as a blueprint or model for large-scale wall drawings. Most of them were never realized because they would require a truly huge wall. It is hard to get a wall like that in New York where space is premium. Some day I hope to get the chance.
I was flipping through Battcock’s Minimal Art anthology. I love how it begins:

I think both art and life are a matter of life and death.

- Walter De Maria

It really sets a heavy tone for everything that follows. You feel the weight of his words and you know he is not joking around. He is not playing. I understand what he means. I even partially agree. If you are seriously engaged with art, if you are serious at all, you believe in what you are doing, you believe in what you are making and you put everything you have into it. Everything you make is made as if your future depends on it. And it does, up until you make another piece. Art is not about making things that are good or nice or satisfactory or fashionable or fun (although it certainly can be fun). It is about striving to make something great, something singular, something honest, and something true. When I forget this, I make bad work, but when I take it on fully, that is when it is the most rewarding.

I agree with you. We do set our own rules and by necessity we eventually break them. Things do not stay the same; that is time; that is the law of entropy. But the question of freedom is especially interesting to me. Freedom can beblack & white #2 (42in x 30in), acrylic & enamel on canvas, 2009 paradoxical. For example, in my experience, when I get rid of all restrictions I come up with conventional compositions and solutions to making art. One decision has no more weight then any other. There is little or no justification other than some vague notion of “expression” but what are you expressing? Yourself? Well, that always struck me as kind of presumptuous. Do you really think you are that interesting? That important? I think art is about a lot more then the self. The self is the vessel or conduit for something larger then you, perhaps it is life expression or some sort of universal expression. I don’t know. I am still out to vote on that one but I know I am not just trying to express myself. I like what T.S. Eliot wrote about this one in, The Sacred Wood, “The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.”

I have found that by setting up rules or parameters or systems or limits or whatever you want to call them, my work becomes free. It opens up new possibilities I would not have discovered otherwise. That is one reason why I like working on the grid so much. I think it creates the necessary pressure for that part we call the art or the subjective to build up and burst to the surface.

I think the grid gets a bad rap. We associate it with this sort of dystopian controlled world of endless office cubicles or something and that vision is not unfounded but it is shortsighted and a bit overblown. Yes, a lot of boring modern architecture comes out of the grid but so does the good stuff and so does the Book of Kells and the Islamic Art of around the same period. Anything we make can be plotted on a grid; probably everything physical in nature can be plotted. Someone once said nothing in nature arranges itself in ninety-degree angles. Not true. Go to a natural history museum and check out the gem and mineral room. The grid really is fundamental and omnipresent. It is also neutral – we add the politics.

Brent: Recently you have made small paintings. Again there is the grid. And there are lines. Earlier pieces play with creating curves with straight lines. While this is a simple enough system you continue to navigate the thread quite intuitively. They all have a black background. The line appears to be white. These are on stretched canvas?

Devin: Yeah, it feels good to make paintings again. At first they were small, 12 by 12”. I lost this free space in Long Island City so I had to make stuff in my black & white #1(16.5in x 30) study for 72" by 216" drawing on a 120" by 216" wall.apartment until I found a new studio. I did not want to make anything big then. I did not have the space. Now I have a new studio and I am working on a 6 x 4ft canvas.

For the new series, I asked myself, where is the energy really coming from? What really interests me? What is the source? The answer is in the structure. The geometry. The form. So I thought I would focus on that and filter out all the other stuff as much as I could.

The ground is black. The lines are white. I call the series Black & White. I want to be literal about it. I asked myself what is this thing I am making? I thought it might be interesting to answer the question concretely. Is it the sum of its parts? I came up with this description:

Straight line segments made with Sakura Pen Touch extra fine point 0.7mm quick-dry opaque paint pens plotted on a _” grid drawn with a Staedler Mars Lumiograph 2H graphite pencil over a mixture of Golden Acrylic Primary Cyan and Golden Acrylic Carbon Black paint on Soho Art Materials #12 double gesso primed canvas fastened with Arrow Type JT21 8mm staples to Tri-Mar Enterprise Inc. 1 _” deep heavy duty stretchers made out of Obichi wood.

It is a bit absurd but it makes a strong point.
I don’t trust metaphor either. It is too easy. It feels lazy to me. It feels like a diversion. A lie.

It is it. It is itself. It is not made of words. It is not an idea. It is strait lines of paint on a surface. The meaning occurs in the visual perception of the structure of these lines of paint on the surface.

Brent: Currently you are working on two projects that I know of. One is What was Scattered Gathers. The other is Space/Time. You are working with the computer?


Devin: Yeah. The Black & White series is ongoing. There are three other related projects. What was scattered gathers/What was gathered blows apart is the title of a branch Black & White series taken from a quote by Heraclitus. The series consists of random line drawings that are then exactly copied as their mirror reflection.

Symmetry is to space as rhythm is to time, tests the truth of the analogy. I am collaborating with a composer, a mathematician, a programmer, and a sound engineer/experimental musician to literally play my drawings as music and then make music that is then drawn and back and forth. If the drawings have rhythm as sound, and the sound has symmetry as an image then we know the analogy is true. I do use the computer for this project.

The other project is a book. It is called, the point from whence we came, and I think that is all I am going to say about that one right now.

Brent, a warm thank you for this interview. I got a lot out of it. It was a real pleasure.

Thanks Devin.

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