December 16, 2013 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
As Elijah Burgher’s solo show at Western Exhibitions comes to a close and he sets his sights on the 2014 Whitney Biennial, he weighs in on his practice. With a ‘no stone left unturned’ approach to his work, Burgher is tough to stump and shows us why his work merits a bigger stage.
Kevin Blake:Your recent solo show ‘Friendship as a Way of Life b/w I’m Seeking the Minotaur’ at Western Exhibitions features an eclectic grouping of work. From intimate representational drawings that appear overtly labor intensive to large abstract paintings on canvas drop cloths that hang from the ceiling, each work demands something different of the viewer. These works interrupt the gallery space in an interesting way and requires the audience to physically adapt to your installation. Can you talk about how you conceived the schematic for hanging this show and how it may or may not reflect your ideas about ritual?
Elijah Burgher: Originally, I wanted to install the drawings and drop cloth paintings separately in Scott’s two galleries, constructing a labyrinth of sorts with the latter works. I had in mind something like Robert Irwin’s installation at Dia’s Chelsea space in the late 90s, which consisted of a maze of scrims lit by differently colored fluorescent lights. (I saw that when I was an undergrad, and it left an impression on me, but I hadn’t known what to do with that experience in my own work.) Or imagine being able to physically enter a painting by Mark Tobey or Brion Gysin. I was–and continue to be–interested in contrasting the depicted space within the drawings and the real space created by the drop cloths when they are hung as false walls–I am thinking of them more and more as building blocks for a soft architecture. I decided instead, however, to hang the drop cloths among the drawings, and use them to partition the gallery space into smaller rooms. The labyrinth idea is still present, but less literally manifest. I think it is also reinforced by certain of the drawings, like “In the horny deeps below finding,” which pictures two figures standing on the threshold of a space, on the walls of which sigils are painted.
The drop cloth paintings have their origin in rituals I was devising and conducting a couple of years ago, around 2011 or thereabouts. I was combining Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic, bits and pieces of European ceremonial magic, and my experience participating in AA Bronson’s Invocation of the Queer Spirits project in these rituals. The drop cloths functioned as both portable temples–spaces for conducting rituals–and artifacts of the rituals. I made a video documenting one of these actions with my friend, Tom Daws, three years ago, which was shown as part of an exhibition at Gallery 400 called “Intimacies.” That context remains pertinent, although the paintings are no longer, strictly speaking, artifacts of rituals. It’s the portable temple part I’m more interested in now–again: false walls, fragments of a soft architecture. And I hasten to add that I do, in fact, live with them in this way. For instance, my studio and kitchen are separated off from one another by two drop cloths hung back-to-back.
KB: I think the essence of Irwin’s work is experience–how the work presents itself at the moment you interact with it. Irwin’s work was made to transcend the material nature of its temporary existence. It certainly did for you, it seems. In that vein, your work evoked in me the idea of ritual–the ritual of looking at art or the art of looking in the gallery context. As I wandered through the space, I kept thinking about how I was supposed to maneuver, and if I was doing my part correctly so as to understand your intentions. Your work alludes, pictorially, to the occult, but the way the show was hung addressed Irwin’s ideas more overtly. For me, this over-arching metaphor for experience and ritual, really tied the show together nicely. Is this happenstance or a strategic move to conflate those ideas?
EB: This is a hard question to answer. It wasn’t precisely my intention to draw an analogy between the experience of looking at art and ritual. In fact, I worry about conjuring the look and feel of sacredness in a humorless, worshipful manner. On the other hand, I think that bringing ideas from magick and the occult into art can focus our thinking about art, especially regarding our psychic investments, our expectations and hopes and worries.
The stakes of Irwin’s work, generally speaking, are in prioritizing the phenomenological aspect of visual art, enabling a pure experience of looking: “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” My work does not share this aim. It’s invoked in order to be complicated, even reversed. I’m too interested in representation and language. I think that the experience of the show at Western involves toggling back and forth between depicted and real, imaginary and actual. I also hope to make those polarities more volatile. I’m obsessed, for instance, with making something happen by drawing.
KB: The way the drop cloths were hung forced a physical encounter with the intimate scale of the drawings, while simultaneously conveying a sense of being walled in by the paintings. I think this mandates an initiation to the work that is a compelling component to the show. How do you think about the audience in the production of the work, or is it a curatorial consideration post production?
EB: Yes, I wanted the drop cloths to operate in that way–to contrast the scale and sense of touch in the drawings, as well as suggest connections amongst certain groups of drawings by separating them off.
I was going to reply that I do not take the audience into consideration when I work, but that’s not entirely true. I suppose I resist the idea of a general or abstract audience. Primarily, I make things that I want to look at and think about (or try to do so, at least). And I also make work with specific individuals or sets of individuals in mind–people with whom I am already in dialogue or wish to engage in dialogue. When I am working, I am thinking about my friends–amazing artists like Doug Ischar, John Neff, and AA Bronson–as well as figures with whom I can only engage in imaginary conversation because they’re dead. William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Forrest Bess would be examples of the latter.
But maybe I’m misunderstanding the gist of your question? You’re suggesting that I’m molding the viewer’s experience through installation decisions, which direct not only the viewer’s bodily navigation of the show but their conceptual understanding of the works. I think this is right, although, again, I wasn’t really thinking of the audience. I was thinking about the works themselves and the relationships amongst them in the show as a whole. It was important for Lucifer and In the horny deeps, below finding to be in the first room, providing a kind of key with which to approach the other works in the show.
KB: For me the show does much in the way of re-instating the experience of art as something personal if not sacrosanct. Your figurative drawings allude to deeply personal narratives while the spaces in which the figures exist complicate the read. Those spaces are self referential in a way-suggesting a dialogue with your paintings. It is as if you give the viewer something, but not everything at once–morsels of information laid out in a trail from one work to the next. I’m guessing that you are working on multiple pieces at once, maybe making labored drawings at a desk and when you don’t have that kind of patience, you make these large gestural, energy-infused paintings that feel absent of circumstance. Can you say something about the experience of making, dictating outcomes, as it relates to your conceptual framework?
EB: I trust the space and time of my studio–its organization and furniture, its rhythms. From that perspective, I think about working in terms of wrist versus arm, sitting versus standing, stillness versus movement, head and hand versus whole body. I make work from above: it is either on a table or the floor. These physical aspects of making impart a charge to the work, conveying particular kinds of attention and intention. For instance, devotion–in its religious, romantic and sexual registers–is both cause and effect of the exacting care with which the two portraits in the show are drawn.
Right now I am very committed to drawing as a medium, and I’m interested in activating and exploring two of its primary traits or functions. Drawings were historically valued as a form of raw, active thinking: notes, plans, visualizations of paintings to be painted or buildings to be built. They were also valued in terms of pure mark-making–for their autographic nature. (Think of the cliche of a connoisseur being able to distinguish a straight line drawn by Picasso from one by Matisse.) The first has to do with drawing’s intimacy with the head, the latter with the hand. The first projects into the future, the second indexes presence. All of this has something to do with desire, its force and movement, but I am still trying to figure that out.
KB: I think you are right about art–particularly art-making–possibly being about fulfilling a desire. A desire to exert, regurgitate, project, exorcise, or summon an idea, dream, or memory. As both are perpetually changing or in motion, how do you think about the relationship between time and desire, specifically as it relates to the act of drawing?
EB: When I think about the experience of desire in relation to time, I think about insistence, rhythm and rhyme, repetition and variation of forms. It might be the case that my drawings embody something about desire’s force, form and tempo, but it might also be that I associate desire with these qualities because of the drawings themselves–the repetitive mark; the rulers and compasses I use, etc. We could also discuss the temporality of desire differently, though: the way it shuttles across past, present, and future. Desire retrieves objects from the past–a lost beloved, wishing something might have happened differently, etc–and projects into the future–I want to find my lost ipod, I want that artist’s grant, I don’t want to die!
Several of the reviews of the show at Western have noted that the drawings are stiff, cold, distant, and that this contradicts the ostensible subject matter of sexuality. I wonder, though, why desire should be represented by messiness, drips, open form, and other painterly effects? I think desire has as much to do with attempts at mastery and control as it does submission, accident, loss of control.
KB: Time and desire will surely continue to play a role in your studio life moving forward, and considering the recent news of your inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, time specifically, will be at a premium. How do you hope to maintain the integrity of your desires in the work, while fulfilling the desires of your professional demands?
EB: There were pictures I wanted to make for the show at Western that I simply didn’t have time to make, and I’ve begun working on some of those since the show opened. This is a pattern from the past couple of years–there’s always some image left unmade, some problem that hasn’t been addressed, some loose thread to follow, which keeps me both focused and a little frantic.
I do worry about the integrity of my desires, but that is fairly private and coded–there’s plenty of irony, metaphor and other games in my work to ensure that. This work is predicated on the thought experiment of art possessing magical efficacy. Taking that seriously–that artworks cause change to occur in conformity with one’s will, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley–results in some serious self-reflection.
In daydreaming fantasies, I’m a totally evil bad ass, I need no one, and I’m flipping a pentagram-adorned middle finger at the world… but when I’m honest with myself about myself and my desires, I end up thinking about other people: human relationality, subject/object, love/aggression, ethics. I say this not because I’m so exquisitely sensitive to the needs of others but because any rigorously rational reflection on desire implicates the social, self and other, etc. I have no qualms admitting I want success–critical esteem from my peers, a livelihood!–but it’s these other riddles that I want to think about, and that sustain my work in the studio. Perhaps, though, one day I won’t require magic to reconcile art and life, self-determination and sociality, etc? On the other hand, I can’t help but think that art itself is always already a thought experiment, always an as-if proposition; which brings me back to magic, arguably the mother of metaphor and salve/lens of contradictions.
By Kevin Blake
Josh Reames makes smart paintings. Whether he is deliberately utilizing painting tropes, such as the dripping brushstroke, or deploying obvious geometric abstraction, Reames’ work acknowledges his awareness of the painting vocabulary while creating his own grammar from canvas to canvas. Reames aligns his understanding of painterly tradition with his interpretation of contemporary experience that speaks directly to the viewer through text, emoji, palm trees, and anything that seems fitting in the moment of creation. As Reames carves out his own space in the painting world, he wittingly nods his head to a history he knows well.
Kevin Blake: You have an interest in the escapist ideal, and while those ideals are more overtly addressed in your multimedia constructions, I think your paintings, at times, depart from those ideas and allow for a more eclectic read. Can you talk about your modes of production and how those different methodologies have different relationships to your conceptual framework?
Josh Reames: Sure, I think the paintings lend themselves to an eclectic read, but only as a group. I try to keep individual paintings focused on specific ideas. I think all of the work addresses escapism, just in varied ways. The tropical imagery and psychedelic drug references are just as involved with escapism as the act of painting is. The eclectic read is a product of my scattered focus, which is probably a product of internet culture. My conceptual framework is pretty broad; if I had to describe my intentions with painting it would be to use painting as some sort of filtration device for cultural bi-product. I mean, I’m super into the idea of relativity (cultural, moral, etc.), and painting has this ability to literally flatten images and references into a rectangle. By pushing images together and composing them into a painting, you can flatten the references and remove the hierarchy of importance. So Abstraction, palm trees, emoji, drippy brushstrokes, dollar signs, cigarettes, and the Sphinx can all be flattened to the same level – composition. Either nothing is really dumb anymore, or all of it is, it’s getting hard to tell.
KB: You make pictures that perpetuate your grasp of the canon of abstract painting, and I wonder if there is any escape from those parameters. When you are making paintings, how do you filter your knowledge of abstraction (historical and contemporary) to maintain something that is your own? Can artists escape the initiated forms they supersede? Can painting ever escape from itself?
JR: Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the need for iconoclasm is outdated. I think the idea of superseding or escaping abstraction comes from some need for a linear narrative of “this became that, then that became something else” which I think has been a legit way of understanding a progression of artists, at least for the past few hundred years. But now I think it’s a little different; sampling, re-sampling, homage, and straight plagiarism are all viable forms of historical awareness in art. The drippy brushstroke has historically been an abstract tool, meant to express the presence of the artist – a remnant of the physical self. But over time, that becomes a trope, a symbol separated from it’s original context. I think this is liberating in a way. It’s sort of like Tarantino using the tropes of old kung-fu films like Zatoichi and Lady Snowblood; he takes an outdated thing and makes it fresh. In that sense, Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline didn’t have the internet, so I have a fresh set of tools to play with.
KB: Is sampling, re-sampling, homage, and straight plagiarism unavoidable at this point?
JR: I mean, all the best artists have stolen, it’s just easier now. When you are completely inundated with images on a daily basis there becomes this subliminal pool of imagery and information that seeps into the studio. I don’t think it’s completely unavoidable, but if you are like most artists with access to the internet, it is pretty difficult to avoid. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.
KB: Your paintings reference artists like Charline Von Heyl and Christopher Wool among others and I am curious as to how you think you arrived at those influences? What I am trying to understand from your perspective, is how you feel about so many artists drawing from the same well. The internet provides an infinite range of source material, yet the pool of imagery that seeps into your studio, seems to be oozing into everyone else’s simultaneously. Fortunately, you are distilling it all in an interesting way. It is a pattern in art history for contemporary artists to be in dialogue with one another. How do you negotiate those terms and demands?
JR: I love Wool and Von Heyl, I think they are some of the most important living painters. I relate to how Wool handles abstraction, especially with the screen prints, in an almost hands-off kind of way. He takes abstraction, historically an emotionally charged way of painting, and filters it through a Warhol-ian process that removes the hand. I think there is a lot of humor there, super dry though. So good! There are only so many ways to make paintings; different combinations of styles, tropes, paint handling, tools, etc. Eventually it’s not difficult to take a step back and see artists doing similar things. I’m not sure it matters though, as long as the thing being made is interesting and has some connection to the artist. After that it’s all personal taste.
KB:Shifting gears a bit, I was hoping to talk to you about text in your paintings. Often times, text is integrated into the image and sometimes the text appears to be squeezed out of the tube on top of an abstract composition–your paintings “YYY” and “Land Grab” come to mind. How does text operate for you in your paintings?
JR:Text is a way to guide the viewer, to give some sort of context to an otherwise abstract painting. I always integrate the text so that the letters or symbols double as marks, either sprayed or squeezed in the same way any other mark would be made on the canvas.
KB:I’m interested in your word choices and how, if at all, you see them as a personification of yourself. Or are the words derived from language you see fitting into your escapist trajectory?
JR:I keep a running list of text ideas in my sketchbook and on my iPhone. The word combinations that get used are usually really open ended, allowing for specific/individualized reads, but also have a specific connection to me. Sometimes it fits the escapist trajectory, but others will be references to books I’m reading or words that I came across that stuck with me.
KB: Can you talk about how the array of non-traditional painting materials have made their way into your painting practice? Spray paint, airbrush, and fluorescents, to name a few, seem to be the rage. Are these materials and/or high key palettes coincidence or do you think they reflect something more concrete?
JR:In a broad sense I think non-traditional painting materials, usually applied to abstraction, are a way to make abstraction relatable. Matias Cuevas’ poured paintings on carpet, or Andrew Greene’s glass abstractions are good examples; they bridge the gap between a messy abstraction which really just exists as a historical trope, and everyday materials, which pulls the trope into something new. I don’t think my work really fits in this category, I think using airbrush and fluorescents aren’t that uncommon; I started using the airbrush because I have no patience with paintbrushes. I’m a pretty shitty painter if you put a brush in my hand, I can never make it do what I want it to do! The airbrush is different, it’s way more versatile, and quick. As far as the high-key color palette’s go, I’m sure there’s some coincidence there, maybe trends – personally I just like shiny things…
KB:I think you are right, these techniques are becoming more and more common in contemporary painting practices. Maybe it relates to a culture of instant gratification, immediacy, and even escapism. Does the pace of everyday life influence your material applications and the speed at which you make your work?
JR:I agree, I think people (artists included) generally have a short attention span and as a result, a lot of impatience. I know I do. I am always able to look at a painting that took months to complete and think “wow, that took a lot of time”. But I don’t think the amount of time something takes makes it any better than if it was quick. Again, my use of the airbrush is entirely about speed and impatience. I want the paintings to look meticulous, with slick surfaces and plenty of precision – but I want to make a lot of paintings, so speed is key! The pace of everyday life probably has an indirect influence on that.
KB:Speaking of the pace of everyday life, how do things look in your studio right now as you prepare for your solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus in Los Angeles this January? What do you plan to show?
JR:It’s crazy in here, I just got back from an 11 day trip to NYC where I saw some pretty rad shows (Josh Smith, John McCracken, Joshua Abelow, etc.). It’s great to be back in the studio working on some new paintings. I think I’m going to make a handful of emoji paintings and text paintings with text-message shorthand. The working title is THE INTERNETS. Time is such a luxury though, I’ve been considering hiring a studio assistant so I don’t have deal with those pesky tasks like stretching and priming canvases… we’ll see!
Kevin Blake is an artist and writer working in Chicago.
October 8, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Kevin Blake
As his upcoming show at Sidecar Gallery in Hammond, Indiana approaches, Carl Baratta is poised for a timely event that will delve into the world of ghosts and mythology–subjects in which he is well versed. From his home base, Baratta builds on a legend of narrative-based painting in Chicago, and lends insight as to how that structure is the driving force of his work.
Kevin Blake: I’d like to start by asking about your upcoming exhibition “Ghosts Don’t Burn.” You are showing with another artist, Zack Wirsum, and the two of you seem to have some interesting parallels in your work. Can you talk about the title of the exhibition and how it reflects the works that will be on display?
Carl Baratta: ‘Ghosts Don’t Burn’ is curated by Lucas Bucholtz and in addition to Zach Wirsum, the artists Lauren Ball, Mindy Rose Schwartz, Nathan Carder, Mariano Chavez, Karolina Gnatowski, Michael Kaysen, and Pedro Munoz will have work on the second floor.
Originally, the show centered around Gustav Flaubert’s ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ and Ivan Albright’s painting of the same name and myth. Since then a lot of the themes have evolved for us and the Temptation of St. Anthony is more of a departure point for the actual show.
We chose the title for the show because it’s open to interpretation. Since this show is a collaboration between Luca, Zach and myself, we all agree it makes us think of how ghosts are emotionally tied to the things that they love and how one deals with this burden. Also the title is a fact. Ghosts don’t burn. Try it. It’s impossible.
Both Zach and I use narrative as an organizing structure in our work and we both seem to pick haunting moments with an unsettling relationship between shifting sometimes nightmarish landscapes and figures in duress. We both draw a lot of inspiration from different mythical/ art historical sources as well. For me, this is about caring for what you love the most, which is the art making version of being haunted.
KB: Do you see a direct correlation between the evolution of the show’s undercurrents and the fact that you are using the narrative form as the ‘organizing structure’ in your work? Does that structure require flexibility and a willingness to change gears, so to speak?
CB: In this case yes! Not always though. Depending on how the myth is used it can be pretty strict in terms of what imagery/ spacial configuration goes in and what stays out. Since this particular story is about hallucinating and being tempted by everything it’s much more flexible and allows for the evolution of ideas.
It’s a similar flexibility Bosch was drawn to when depicting a Christian Hell or Heaven. Basically it’s an arena or stage where anything can happen under a very broad header. So really obvious imagery that everyone understands symbolically is limited but stream of conscious imagery can get a free pass, but just because stream of consciousness gets to be fancy free doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Another important aspect to understand about organizing imagery through myths is deciding on which moments are being depicted. For Bosch, it’s an eternal moment during somewhere in the middle of all the action narratively speaking. Everything is going on at the same time and fixed. So as a viewer you can look at everything at your leisure.
But you can pick before or after as well. A good example is Goya’s ‘Witches Sabbath’ for depicting after. Whatever the goat headed guy just said scared the crowd but as a viewer you come in right after he spoke. What did he say that would scare everyone so much? We’ll never know.
Instead of depicting during an action where you can leisurely look and see everything happening, depicting afterward, in this case, lends some drama to the moment because as a viewer you will never know what you missed. As an artist, understanding which moment is best depicted for what you want to do, gives a bunch of freedom to the most stringent of narratives.
KB: So, as an artist using myths as a departure point, when do you depart? At what point does the paint dictate the outcome? It seems to me that your paintings are as much in dialogue with the painting language as they are with the language of mythology. Your work, at times, reminds me of David Hockney’s landscapes of the early 90′s in your mark-making strategies and it seems that you allow yourself enough intuitive moments to keep the paintings fresh and unaffected by a rigid narrative structure.
CB: Sometimes I will set up vignettes and each area has literally big spaces between events that I leave open so it stays responsive when I get into color. Other times I’ll take several images of paintings and want different aspects of each and in order to do so I have to have intermediary mark making that is totally different than what I’m drawing inspiration from.
I really love the colored mark making of David Hockney’s landscapes in the 90′s actually. To be honest, when I first saw them back then I didn’t really get those crazy vibrating color paintings. Luckily I got to see a Van Gogh retrospect of his black and white landscape drawings. That was one of the missing pieces to the puzzle and helped put Hockney’s color landscapes in perspective. The light and temperature of as well as Hockney’s mark making was too much to see first. I guess seeing landscapes stripped down to bare bones helped me wrap my mind around the Hockney stuff.
It wasn’t until I saw how Moghul painters used pattern and how Fauvist painters used color as light that I could even attempt to use it though. But for some reason those fit into place for me. I want them otherworldly but not so alien that it stops a viewer from entering them and getting lost.
KB: A couple of your paintings seemed to me to operate at the edge of abstraction. To be clear, in some of the paintings, the landscape and the figures within it are not as concrete or traditionally composed (a painting like ‘Double’s Double 2′ comes to mind), and it is in these moments that the narrative seems secondary to paint, and for me, that is exciting. Can you talk about how you make that assessment–what sort of limits exist for the viewer’s ability to digest your work? Is abstraction/representation the difference for the viewer? Is abstraction the ghost in the room for you?
CB: I was trained initially as an abstract artist. It’s kind of weird because traditionally an art student gets trained in figurative stuff and then they are allowed to meander into other modes of painting. In undergrad, I had a bunch of former students of NYC AbEx painters as my professors (students of Al Held for example). The figurative painters I did end up taking taught me how to find and extrapolate forms from what was around me. So basically literal abstraction.
The work I’m doing now is me backing out of pure abstraction and color field painting into something more figurative. Navigating between these two things is a major theme in my studio. Paint is always first to me even when I’m trying to figure out the shape of a nose or a chicken, so it naturally is always first and foremost in my mind. I can’t help it, I was brought up that way.
To answer the alien question directly though, if I’m painting a landscape and no ocular rules are followed at all, the piece becomes ungrounded. Things like temperature, weight, light, near and far, or flatness help ground a viewer. They can relate to a painting as a window into another space because they walk around a world that obeys those rules. Like good fiction, an author must suspend the readers disbelief so I guess the ghost in the room is the balancing act.
KB: One really learns by following one’s curiosities and in that sense your approach to investigating those things that make you tick is enthusiastic. Can you talk about your curiosities outside the studio, and how those interests inevitably find a way into your paintings? Through your Facebook posts, I would assume film, particularly bad film, is one of these interests.
CB: Yes B-movies for sure. Although I mean it in the truest sense of the term. Not A-movies. I like lesser known stars, sad little budgets, and this feeling of wonky duct tape freedom. I mean yes I could say I love the fragility of them in the same way I appreciate a river-hobo-canoe made almost entirely out of Bondo, but honestly, the ones I love are the most apeshit, and the most apeshit are the ones that make me laugh the hardest. And I get bummed out so easily that watching them keeps me out of opium dens. So thank you B-movies.
I also love Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies. Actual ground fighting, that is to say visceral ass beating, will never be replaced by slow motion crying to piano music! Plus all the computer generated fighting in newer Chinese kung fu flicks? Come on. I make fists at them and throw my arms in the air! You suck!
Anyway, I try to mix all that up with art history stuff. I mean, all these movies come from retellings of history so might as well bring it back around. I also love comics, sci-fi novels, Skaldic poetry, trashy disco….. The list is as long as it is insane. Basically I will use anything I can get my hands on and if I can get the color and composition to hum and blush to my liking I will probably try and use it.
Kevin Blake is a Chicago based artist and writer.