You have said that your paintings are “family disputes between order and derangement.” Can you talk about that?
That’s just a metaphor that came to me; it doesn’t reveal itself in the final product in a literal way. It’s something that happens in my brain, the working out of the painting process. And I guess that’s what I’m interested in, the painting process. And that’s one way I look at painting, as brain activity. Other kinds of brain activity in art can be exciting and interesting but they don’t mean anything to me in my own work. And I tend not to be that interested in them in other people’s work, although that’s not always true.
You mean conceptually based art?
Conceptually based, narrative based. Even kinds of process approaches to abstraction that are seemingly about the materials, to me often look more like calculated equations.
Things that interest me can’t be defined in those terms. I think that’s what’s unique about painting. It’s a type of mental activity that will never be susceptible to being programmed on a computer or with artificial intelligence. When we make intelligent machines they’ll be looking at human activities like painting to be instructed, to be enlightened. Because painting is an activity that requires sensuous involvement, the capacity for ecstasy and sometimes, the capacity for bitter self critique.
Unlike chess players make who try to look 15 moves ahead, in painting the variables are so much greater. In my work one of the problems is that by being willing to accept the widest possible range of next moves the intellectual and physical energy can dissipate like water in dry sand. That’s a risk I’m taking. The worst part of the risk is that you wind up doing nothing significant and just burning out. The acceptable part of that risk is that you’ll do few works and far between – I make 4 paintings a year if I’m lucky. And the upside is that you’ll make works that can’t be easily explained away.
Could I change that and make a different kind of work? Well, whenever I try, it just opens up another possible channel. To give you a concrete example: whenever I start a painting I might try to limit myself to a palate of 5 or 6 colors so that I can have a back and forth dialogue with those colors. But if there are any other colors in the room, if I’m working on another painting for example, it’s just a matter of time before I run across the room and say, what if I put this one in? And at the end of a couple of weeks all the colors are in all the paintings. It’s just inevitable, plus I will have mixed up some more. Why is that? You could call it a lack of discipline but you could also say that it’s curiosity. That’s how I accept what I do.
How do you start a painting?
I’ve evolved a few technical aids, the most obvious being I use chalk lines to establish perspective space between two vanishing points. It wasn’t until I started making larger and larger paintings that I needed to unify them spatially and began to haphazardly use some kind of perspective-making device. It slowly evolved, because I’m very stubborn about adopting any kind of intelligent strategy, but now I’ve adopted it, and whenever I start a painting I use chalk lines to start.
There are other things I might do-starting with a color ground, sometimes a unified colored ground, sometimes a sketchy color ground. I thought about inviting chance into the process but I never seem to get very far with that. One of my articles of faith is that any mark that I put down has potential of some kind in an illustrative sense almost. Although in abstract painting is about the mark for its own sake, in a funny way I’m uninterested in that kind of painting. What I hope keeps my work from being illustrative is that in a microsecond it changes from one illustrative idea to another. There is just a heap of associations.
Yes, they suggest machinery or engines, or factories. So are these paintings totally abstract?
Obviously there are elements of industrial spaces but every bit as much as they’re architectural they’re anti-architectual, because they’re irrational spaces. You couldn’t construct these. A stroke put down does one thing on one side, something else on the other side, and something else in and of itself. The challenge becomes to let all of those visual functions coexist. Then it becomes this balancing act that takes as much restraint as it does abandonment. Perhaps that’s what I meant when I was talking about the family dispute between order and derangement.
Another of my articles of faith about painting is that each stroke has potential. Each stroke should be put down with the potential that it’s the last, even if it’s very early in the process. This is a hard ideal to live up to-in reality it doesn’t work that way. I think painting that isn’t open to simplicity tends to be tendentious. I dislike paintings about struggle if there’s no chance that it could not be about struggle. People sometimes make work that is only about that and they assume the painting’s going to be difficult. It’s not difficult to make a difficult painting, or a painting that pretends to be difficult, or says that it’s difficult. What’s difficult is to try and make a simple painting. It tends to not be too simple. So that’s an ideal.
I’m not trying to present the viewer or myself with this huge field of irresolvable incidents; I’m trying to present an instantaneous image. It may derive from tiny increments of seemingly unrelated ideas but in the finished painting they should make visual sense. I have to go back and reexamine every single stroke over and over again, put something next to it that redefines it, and slowly get rid of things. And if I have to adjust to the painting that hangs on the wall when I come in in the morning, then I know it’s not finished. It has to be instantaneous. I’m willing to leave something alone if it has that quality, no matter how rough or raw.
That sounds very disciplined.
It’s actually very simple. It’s just a reaction, a visceral reaction, although often one fools oneself. You think you’re at the finish line a hundred times and you realize later you’re wrong and go back into it – but, there’s a point where you accept this compromise. That anything else you’ll do will move it sideways, this is as far as I can take this painting, it has an integrity to it so that I don’t have to worry about it, it’s going to take care of itself. I’m saying this kind of defensively because I’ve been accused of being obsessive, by people who know my work. And I think I’m anything but obsessive.
Is there a spiritual aspect to the process?
For me this is all the spiritual I have. I’m incredibly lucky to experience any part of it. In painting it’s as close I’m going to get to acting on my spirituality.
What about music?
I’m very interested in musical structure. But I don’t think it applies directly to my paintings. Some years ago I made a three-dimensional computer-animated film with simple geometric choreography to a movement from a Beethoven quartet, a simple quartet, not a dark complex dramatic one. I see the potential for deep analogies between music and visual forms but I don’t think you can get at them through painting at all; the appropriate medium I think is probably 3-D computer animation. But that’s sort of a side topic, except in so far as to say I really detest weak analogies between music and art.
Let’s talk about your drawings a little bit. As a way in, is there a relationship between your painting and drawing?
I started doing drawings on isometric graph paper about five years ago. They began as simple experiments and now they’re evolving into a parallel body of work. I’m taking the drawings and when I have the opportunity to, making wall drawings. In a way that work is more gallery-friendly than paintings. But I’m not interested in the philosophical aspects of wall drawings. Wall drawings are just ways to make bigger versions of works on paper. The works on paper are about some of the almost exact opposite ideas as the paintings. They’re about symmetry and I guess you’d say there’s no derangement in the drawings, at least not obviously.
They’re spatially self-consistent and logical. Isometric graph paper consists of parallel intersecting diagonals and you can make 3-D representations showing the top and two sides. They’re used in architecture and engineering. “Iso” means “same” and the key difference between isometric perspective and vanishing point perspective is that all of the diamond shapes in an isograph field are the same size, so you lose perspective diminution, but you do have a sense of spatial mapping. And because all of the diamonds are the same size you can play interesting games with repetition and variation that you can’t play with perspective. In that sense I’d say it’s kind of like a musical composition. You can really think in terms of rhythmic groupings.
That said, symmetry is a fluid concept. Just because something has a statement of symmetry doesn’t mean it can’t change or that the terms of the symmetry can’t be changed. The example I’ve given is that people tend to have bilateral symmetry, although that doesn’t really hold up – the heart’s on the left side, other organs are on the right. But people are basically symmetrical. But what if you have a person and you cut off a leg? Then what if you found someone who cut off the other leg, and you brought them together? There would be a larger symmetry. That’s what happens in my drawings: things are cut off, they’re joined with larger things, and they might go off the page. There’s always the assumption of symmetry somewhere in these drawings.
I think that’s how a lot of music is composed. An overall formal order is changed and transmuted. I guess I’m talking about classical music by which I don’t just mean Beethoven, Bach, Mozart but also most rock n’ roll in the sense that its order is very clearly established. You’re going to have a bridge, a theme and a chorus – you know what’s coming. But variations and surprises keep it interesting.
So are the drawings harmonious?
Yes, but plain harmony is pretty boring. So you mix in momentary disharmonies that dissolve into harmonies, and surprising modulations and different harmonic regions that first seem strange, but then make sense.
You said the purpose of drawing on the wall was one of scale.
When I did the first large wall drawing, based on a small drawing which I liked a lot, the response was of a different order. I just did it because I had an opportunity to do it and wanted to see what it would look like. People who knew my work and liked the drawings liked the wall drawing a lot better; something about the delicacy of the surface of the wall, the thickness of the line, the density of color in relation to the larger wall surface, made for overall a more delicate, hovering presence. Part immaterial and part material. I always regarded the small drawings as having those qualities. Because I can always redo the drawings, my hand is in it in a way that I can’t redo the painting. So to take it to another scale was a completely natural and inherent part of the drawing process. The drawings have a temporal presence that paintings don’t have because paintings have a long life.
Do you feel reticent when the wall drawings come down?
There’s a certain reticence but it’s not that painful because I can redo them. It might take me another week of hard labor but theoretically the drawings still live, almost like music exists as notes on paper.
What projects that you’re working on now?
I’ve been invited to do a month-long residency at Hallwalls in Buffalo. Hallwalls is an alternative art space in Buffalo, New York and it’s been around for 20 years. They want me to do some wall drawings in a pretty large space. It’s a nice opportunity to spend some time doing the wall drawings and thinking about that whole process. That’s this summer.
Also, Cabinet magazine and the Sculpture Center are sponsoring a show of folding paper sculpture that will be a series of exhibitions and a book. A number of artists were given 3 pages each to create a sculpture that could be cut out and folded and put together. I made a piece that’s a sort of miniature camera obscura of a U-Haul truck, based on an experience I had last fall. I don’t have a venue yet for the new paintings and I’m looking to have a show of them.