Guest Post by Robert Burnier
After seeing Steven Husby’s exhibition, BRUTE FORCe, at 65GRAND, I had the opportunity to catch up with him and ask if we could dig a little deeper into his process. There were several aspects of my earlier writing on his show that I wanted to hear more about from him, but it seemed to me that certain activities of his outside the studio and gallery were also of interest. In response, he very generously took great care in his answers, giving us substantial insight into his motivations, ideas and ways of approaching a studio practice.
Robert Burnier: When would you say you first began to explore the notions that led to the kind of work youâ€™re doing today?
Steven Husby: I would say that Iâ€™ve flirted with pictorial recursivity, deductive structure, and something like absolute opacity for years. The houseâ€“painterly way I work really started in undergrad as something to aspire to and something to work against. A kind of popâ€“inflected formalism was in the air â€“ and I was young and impressionable. Over time Iâ€™ve generally found it to be worthwhile to give myself over to the more excessively restrained aspects of my practice, probably because Iâ€™m not a particularly neat, linear, or orderly person, but I like what happens when I try to behave as though I were. I think I was first attracted to limits both as things to provide traction and as things to be subverted in some way. I found as soon as I practiced these things, the force generated through restraint was greater than I could ever achieve without it. The channeling, focusing, and projecting of force â€“ whether from inside or out â€“ is absolutely key to the whole project.
RB: How do you feel about the use of concepts from science or mathematics in a work of art? Are they intrinsically important to you in some way or do they act more as metaphors on which to hang other concerns?
SH:Â Well on the one hand I sympathize somewhat with Joseph Kosuthâ€™s early position on these things â€“ on the face of it these concerns are external to whatever the â€˜artâ€™ concerns may be. But from that standpoint so is form, beauty, and meaning â€“ critical or otherwise. And though I sort of love the perverse absolutism of that, I wouldnâ€™t want to go so far as to say that these seemingly external concerns are not relevant â€“ they are; however, I think youâ€™re correct to key in to them as metaphors. Iâ€™m not a scientist or a mathematician, and I have no formal training in anything like those fields. If anything â€“ I would say that although Iâ€™ve had a â€˜crushâ€™ on math and science from an aesthetic standpoint for so long that I can hardly remember not being intrigued by the imaginative possibilities they suggest to the laity, I have almost no innate aptitude for the practice of either. Iâ€™d say Iâ€™m passably adequate with numbers, and although my studio practice entails some small degree of discipline and rigor, it pales in comparison to that required by even the most rudimentary scientific method. I think what has allowed me to move forward in my practice has been remaining open to the possibility that potentially nothing is external to it.
I think at first I thought that I was only ever interested in these strict pictorial procedures as perverse, radically artificial things in stark juxtaposition to everything else, and in the expressive potential of choosing that sort of perverse limitation as a resonant gesture. But Iâ€™ve also always really loved designing things and making and looking at objects. I believe in the work as this weirdly sincere gesture that somehow enfolds a healthy amount of skepticism. Iâ€™ve often been too proud to spell out my intentions, so as a consequence the work can be read as purely formalist or procedural, or in some way simply â€˜aboutâ€™ structure or something like that. And I believe that it is not really my place to say that itâ€™s not. Sentence meaning takes precedence over speaker meaning. But then why painting? Itâ€™s a very specific choice. Iâ€™m getting bolder about putting forward my own rather more emotionally loaded interpretations of my work as Iâ€™ve gotten more comfortable seeing more kinds of things as internal to it.
RB: What things were most important to you as you prepared to arrange and install the work for BRUTE FORCe? And what got you onto the idea of making those posters instead of the usual show card?
SH:Â I knew that I wanted to show the big red painting, and the rest of the decisions proceeded from that one. I had begun work on the black and white paintings when the show was first proposed several months ago, but I hadnâ€™t originally intended to show any of them until I had completed all sixty-four in the set. My original idea was to show the big red painting, and a group of small collages on the wall that is now occupied by the black and white paintings, but that idea fell by the wayside fairly quickly, as I realized that the collages just werenâ€™t going to hold that wall, and the idea of presenting the first eight of the sixty four paintings I began working on towards the end of last year just made more sense as something that could actually hold their own across from the red painting.Â I had recently completed the second four, so when the opportunity presented itself I couldnâ€™t resist the temptation to exhibit them earlier than I had originally planned.Â Progress continues on the remaining fifty-six, which I will show in partial groupings as I complete them.
This leaves the inkjet on canvas, which extends my investment in photographic imagery which began in 2009 when I began taking photos in the course of my daily life like a lot of people do, and experimenting with ways of bringing that kind of imagery into my exhibition practice. Iâ€™ve always liked how the really opaque geometric paintings looked in rooms â€“ what they do to the space around them as these relatively unmodulated pictorial objects breaking up the contingency of real space. And Iâ€™ve always liked how the paintings looked paired with other peopleâ€™s photographs â€“ so at some point the idea of â€œsamplingâ€ the real in that way just made a lot of sense to me â€“ so thatâ€™s where that decision comes from.Â The poster is just a natural extension of that process of sampling, formatting, and juxtaposition, in this case of graphic with more atmospheric sorts of visuality. The title also came pretty early on â€“ though originally it was going to be something like Brute Force: Coming Attractions. The text on the back â€“ â€œThis Is Not a Blogâ€ â€“ is one I wrote over the course of a couple of years for my website not long after I began maintaining one â€“ also in 2009. I think that process of maintaining a website â€“ the initial excitement, and eventual ambivalence I began to feel about its implicit demands and limitations â€“ led me to where I am now with respect to my attitudes towards contemporary image culture, and the pressure that that exerts on our perception of paintings as objects which occupy a peculiar site of intersection between ourselves as embodied physical beings and ourselves as beings looking, passively watching, seeing into and through everything, comparing images to images.
RB: When you move from paint to, say, inkjet, what kinds of issues are raised for you in the use of those differing methods? In both cases the surfaces are just immaculate and consistent, but is there something fundamentally questioned here or do these questions reside on a level other than craft?
SH:Â Thatâ€™s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. With both I feel Iâ€™ve been engaged in a kind of pantomime of external limitation. Compared to many other painting practices Iâ€™m aware of, mine has consistently been much more seemingly de-subjectivized in many respects. And yet Iâ€™m not really interested in renouncing subjectivity at all â€“ far from it. Iâ€™ve never thought of myself as a pure formalist. My work has been placed in those contexts, and Iâ€™ve never felt like it was appropriate for me to say no to that aspect of how it reads. But nonetheless, I often find myself articulating my concerns in weirdly formal ways when whatâ€™s called for is some kind of subjective or objective narrative, and in weirdly narrative and anecdotal ways when whatâ€™s expected is greater tact I suppose. As much as I seek out limits for their expressive potential, Iâ€™m never not chomping at the bit. I suppose thatâ€™s what it means to seek limits for their expressive potential.
I think my work is full of all sorts of â€˜tellsâ€™ that itâ€™s not just a matter of beauty, taste, decoration, or craft. Iâ€™m very much of my generation â€“ between the super restrained anti subjective artists who emerged in the nineties under the influence of the pictures generation, and the superâ€“subjective, affect heavy painters emerging now. I started using opaque color and hard edges when that was what the painters I respected seemed to be doing. It made more sense to me than trying to be a gestural painter, and I wasnâ€™t alone in that. But I have to emphasize that I always loved ab-ex, and even more the really unfashionable stuff that came later like color field â€“ specifically Louis. But then around â€™98 or so, when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate education, right around the time I started seriously diving into more ambitious literature around contemporary art, painters like Ingrid Calame and Monique Prieto were getting a lot of positive attention. And a painter friend of mine turned me on to the work of Gary Hume, and it just made sense to try something like thatâ€¦to try on some kind of obviously artificial restraint, rather than just keep layering imagery and processes relating to everything I was thinking about and responding to all the time into a finite number of surfaces. What I was doing before I â€˜discoveredâ€™ opacity was something like a clumsy, handmade version of Raygun Magazine. It had itâ€™s momentsâ€¦but what I found by limiting my methods and imitating what I was capable of imitating at the time was something that felt much more mine in a way I could actually stand behind without feeling totally feeble and awkward. I feel like whatâ€™s been happening in my work the past couple of years is that Iâ€™m finally finding ways to slowly find a place in the system for all the impulses I had to restrain in order to find the system in the first place. This process of opening and diversifying also happens to coincide with my introduction to teaching (not coincidentally.) So Iâ€™ve been giving myself permission to think like a student. To try thingsâ€¦to try on things which I donâ€™t necessarily â€˜own,â€™ the same way that I didnâ€™t â€˜ownâ€™ flat color when I began using it in the late nineties. I donâ€™t own inkjet on canvas, or half tone images. That stuffs just in the air, and if I think I can do something interesting with it Iâ€™ll try. The same goes for writing, making posters, blogging.
But to get back to your question â€“ what the inkjets and my earlier adopted approaches to painting share is a certain degree of apparent impersonality â€“ which I donâ€™t so much attempt to shatter or disrupt as find myself inevitably doing in a weirdly personal way, which is what I think makes it interesting and confusing to take in, and really hard to narrativize succinctly.
RB: How and to what degree would you say you incorporate chance into your working process?
SH:Â The answer to that question hinges on whether or not one believes in chance. On the one hand, randomness is real. On the other â€“ it is only part of what feeds into the stream of what we call â€˜chance,â€™ which is where genuine randomness and selection bias intersect. I believe in keeping my options open, following my impulses â€“ allowing them to act as a lens or a filter. I donâ€™t believe that the act of arbitration is necessarily an act of selfâ€“expression, and to the extent that it is Iâ€™ve found it more helpful not to try not to be overly censorious of it. But editing is still very important to me. I see recursivity everywhere these days, but that doesnâ€™t mean that itâ€™s always visible. I think for some of us, our task as artists entails keeping an eye out for it, and sharing it when it shows itself to us from our vantage point.
RB: For the red painting, do those shapes come from somewhere in particular, or is that pattern the result of interlocking circles?
SH:Â I arrived at this more or less ubiquitous pattern â€“ which I later learned is called Seigaiha â€“ through a process of simplification of previous, more idiosyncratic drawings. The drawings I paint from are always virtual, which permits me to work fast and loose with structure without loosing sight of the whole, and allows for global changes (inverting values, distorting the entire drawing in a consistent way, etc) without losing anything I might find a use for. The way I begin drawing is almost always the same. I build a very simple pattern â€“ usually a stripe gradient â€“ alter itâ€™s structure in some way â€“ then cut and past fragments of the altered pattern back onto itself, crop and repeat. Sometimes Iâ€™ll come back to an older drawing and change something simple about it, and a new body of work will spring from that. In the case of the wave pattern â€“ I was working with perspectival gradients distorted to form parabolas converging on a single point â€“ like Saturn rings. I was cutting and pasting these patterns onto themselves â€“ mirroring them, etc. The patterns that emerged from that suggested much simpler patterns, so I thought Iâ€™d see what would happen if I just drew those, using interlocking circles, as you suggest. I was curious what would remain if I stripped away some of the more sophisticated topologies the computer enables me to access. I was also looking for ways to try out more fallible kinds of marks, and these simpler patterns suggested themselves as appropriate vehicles for that.
RB: You seem to have an alternate practice of developing multiple tumblr blogs that are linked to your website. They donâ€™t appear to behave as continuous logs as much as they resemble carefully chosen artistâ€™s notes. Do these relate to specific bodies of work or perhaps mark plateaus in your thinking? How would you see us experiencing them in relation to the objects in your studio or in a show?
SH: I started playing around on tumblr about a year ago. I havenâ€™t been able to devote as much time to it recently as I did in the beginning â€“ but this seems pretty consistent with many peopleâ€™s experience of maintaining a blog, so Iâ€™m not overly concerned about my temporary neglect of it. My step dad recently asked me how I manage to follow through with time consuming studio projects â€“ and an artist friend asked me a similar question with regards to the big red painting in the show at 65GRAND. My answer to both of them was that I find that itâ€™s really helpful to maintain several projects at different speeds and different timbres simultaneously so that each can act as a relief from the others, enabling me to follow through on each one in due time. This is true to what I learned in graduate school, which for me was process of pulling things apart and allowing them to stand by themselves without having to be all up on top of each other in one piece. This is still how I like to work. Tumblrâ€™s really great as far as thatâ€™s concerned, because itâ€™s something I can literally do while Iâ€™m waiting for paint to dry. But on a more serious level, which Iâ€™ve attempted to address elsewhere â€“ on my blog â€œa little less democracy,â€ â€“ the tumblrs are a way for me to gather and collect, circulate and redirect things that are floating around our culture. I try to be savvy about how I use it, not simply passively participating â€“ but itâ€™s not always easy to tell the difference. In part I think Iâ€™m using it to teach myself how to be as savvy as I can about images. Iâ€™ve found it a lot harder to shoot photosÂ â€“ â€œfrom scratchâ€ letâ€™s say â€“ since I started using it. You get a lot more picky. And itâ€™s easy to get a lot more interested in playing with the relationships between whatâ€™s already â€˜out thereâ€™ than with adding more images to the pile. Itâ€™s all so seductive and yet so ephemeral and insubstantial. The relationship between that insubstantial current â€“ a kind of dreamtime â€“ on the one hand â€“ and the resistant density of paintings and objects and bodies in space on the other â€“ is pretty interesting to me. Iâ€™m no expert â€“ but when I give myself over to it (tumblr) it feels like Iâ€™m learning something â€“ though what that is exactly is pretty hard to define. I think it has something to do with creating â€“ or generating meaning passively through a kind of visual aikido â€“ rechanneling the othersâ€™ force, which ties it back to my more strictly painterly pursuits.
RB: Given the sorts of wide-reaching ideas you like to think about, to what extent do you focus on histories â€“ personal, artistic, cultural â€“ as being ruled by extra-historical forces? Is there a link between these notions and, say, a blog title such as â€œa little less democracyâ€? In that case, I donâ€™t see you as so much making a political point as just wondering aloud whether everything is in merely a matter of fluctuating opinion; that some things, if not universal and transcendent, at least move at much slower rate.
SH: Â For sure. Iâ€™m definitely in tune with the notion that politics as itâ€™s discussed in the mainstream, and practiced in the voting booth is epiphenomenal. Iâ€™ve always liked Ecclesiastes, and identified (perhaps a bit too much) with the spectator position. The older I get, the more I see that there is no spectator position, yet I also feel like I see how in the big picture our individual agency amounts to very little â€“ weâ€™re all spectators of a great deal of the structures which determine how we will spend our time on this planet. Things get done collectively. Masses move and are moved. Demographic biases are real limits in the world â€“ real forces moving through bodies that have to be accommodated. In that regard it seems nothing short of miraculous to me how much more progressive people have been persuaded to say they are on things like gay rights recently. This is a hard won and incredible step forward in many respects. At the same time, itâ€™s deeply disappointing that masses of people must be persuaded to accept what ought to be selfâ€“evident. This is sort of where the title of my primary blog comes from â€“ Iâ€™m a little suspicious of the â€œdemocratic impulseâ€ if there is such a thing. It seems like a con.Â And of course the defenders of democracy are absolutely correct â€“ itâ€™s the worst form of government â€“except for all the other ones that have been tried. At least itâ€™s less obviously sadistic than outright dictatorship. But stillâ€¦Iâ€™m an artist, so Iâ€™m predisposed to be suspicious of community. Itâ€™s been very important for me personally, and as an artist, as a child of the Midwest, to learn to not anticipate and accommodate my natural opponents before I consider how things seem to me from my own vantage point. Itâ€™s an ongoing process.
This interview was conducted via e-mail in April, 2013.
Steven Husby’s exhibition,Â BRUTE FORCe at 65GRAND, continues through May 11.
ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.