Memory and Metaphor: Monika Bartholomé at Devening Projects

November 5, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

“Four score and seven years ago,” is how my mind tells me to start every essay I sit down to write. This is my memory at work. I remember the tone of the words that follow in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. I remember the cadence. I remember that it was taught as a triumph. As a novel speech from a novel man. I can see the address in a block quote in a semi-thick American history textbook. It was highlighted in blue with Lincoln’s portrait in the top right corner of the elongated box, at the right side of the page, and at the end of a chapter covering the Civil War. I was given the task of memorizing the words and reciting it to my classmates, but all that remains are the first words. The image of the words. The feeling of time passed.

When I am staring beyond my computer screen–perhaps out the window–searching for the right words to begin with, Lincoln’s words make up the phrase that my mind tells me to jot down. It seems as much a method of mocking myself for my own distrust in my ideas and the effectiveness of recording them in this way,  as it is a natural beginning. A way to set the tone. A point of abstraction. Only now am I realizing that the attention I have paid to it–in this introduction–may either eradicate its insistence in my writing regiment, or forever disturb any ingenuity it may have had. Today, the words are there and I’m responding to them.

I recently admitted to a habit of writing my articles the day before the deadline, and since then, I have been stewing over the probability of procrastination. I’ve been questioning my routine and routinely questioning the validity of the way I think, rationalize, and project my ideas. I am forever convincing myself that my ideas are valuable and that the time I have spent Not preparing this article, has been used to decompress the information that has consumed me in the month prior. I am often successful in my persuasion, however, there also exists an acute awareness that convincing is essential. Therein lies the paradox. Therein lies the necessity for crackerjack acumen–or the ability to form enterprise with intuition and memory despite one’s rational concerns that may encourage otherwise.

Hans Hartung, Untitled, 1956 Ink on Paper 34.5 cm x 26.5cm

I’m constantly waiting for a bolt of lightning to electrify my thoughts–to send a signal from brain to stem which results in an action–in this case writing. Molly Zuckerman-Hartung revealed to me the genesis of the lightening bolt as Hans Hartung’s signature. He believed the lightning bolt was especially for him, and that its form (the zig-zag) represented spontaneity in a way that was true to the idea of what spontaneous action might look like–erratic pivot points descending from above a surface it will eventually contact. It will be surrounded by other bolts (they come in storms), and will offer the conscience a choice at every zig and every zag, eventually determining where the bolt will be grounded.

Last week I was struck at Devening Projects by the drawings of Monika Bartholomé. Before reading any literature about the work, I felt the drawings had allowed me to access very intimate spaces that were not only intimate in their portrayal of domestic interiors. Though there is ample information to suggest that these drawings are simple representations of the artist’s habitation, a closer look reveals imaginative brushwork, a keen understanding of light, and most importantly, an uncorrupted investigation of memory.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on paper 11.5 x 8 inches

My memory of the Gettysburg Address and the application of it,  is a corrupted memory in the way it has manifested in this piece of writing. It was stimuli that has since been captured, dismembered, and postulated as metaphoric reasoning. We reason from metaphors in our attempts to make sense of ourselves, our actions, other people, and the physical world around us. We engage in metaphoric thought processes simply because much of our experience is metaphorically structured, and it is from our experiences that we reason. It is through this type of reasoning that I have abstracted more rigid or formal strains of logical connections to perpetuate my ideas, and to understand Monika Bartholomé’s drawings through my own narrow framing device.

When I visited Devening Projects, Bartholomé’s drawings had the zigs and the zags of the lightning bolts. I could see choices being made. I could see the movement of the brushes as well as her hand, and I felt a connection to the impulses that drove those decisions. I envisioned the way the  brushes moved across the drawing surface and quickly made jagged sloping turns to radiate in a resting place. In each conglomeration of intuitive marks, a space would emerge. These spaces are ultimately derived from memory, but are defined by the hand’s memory rather than metaphoric representations of existing places. The work seemed to be about the impulse to move the hand from one place to the next using a tool that makes a mark on paper and leaves a trace that creates a dilemma for the maker. This dilemma and the response to it, is how her images are made. Everything else is corruptible. Every attempt to create, rather than respond, would be a false step in the process of creation.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on Paper 29 x 21 inches

Looking at the drawings that materialize as living spaces, one can see how the hand’s memory is as familiar as the mind’s. Bartholomé makes repetitive decisions in similar situations. When she reaches an edge, one can see the pressure applied to the brush gradually subside. As the hand recognizes its place in space, it makes adjustments to the tool. The tool, in turn, responds with a trace of that impulse–a mark of muscle memory and the basis for the next drawing move.

Monika Bartholomé, Night Walk, 2014 Ink on Paper 11.5 x 8 inches

Bartholomé has an incredibly efficient economy in her mark-making strategies. However intuitive it may be, it is also learned. The labor and reduction required to arrive at such simple, yet elegant, descriptions of space doesn’t occur on a whim. In her essay, “The Eyes Following the Hand,” Bartholomé describes the marks she makes: “…they do condense into pictorial language by means of abstract abbreviation…The lines bring something into the open that I once perceived, for the most part unconsciously and incidentally, and that is recorded here in whatever form. To be able to get what has been recorded, to the connections that the perceived thing entered into, and then create a place for it and be surprised by it–this is what interests me, among other things, in the medium of drawing.”

Bartholomé’s drawings seem to posit that metaphor is a pervasive, yet indispensable structure of reasoning that calls into question some deeply rooted views about the nature of knowledge and understanding. This balancing act is at the heart of her work. The artist is both visible and absent. The spaces are both intimate and ordinary. Recognizable and abstract. Reductive and chock full of imagery. These drawings are easy to get lost in, but only a few steps backwards will bring your eyes back to a reasonable place.

I’m at that place of reason right now after having written this piece. I’m standing in a place that is far enough from the image I have created, and it seems to make plenty of sense–at least to me. My distortions of Baratholomé’s work are my attempt to regurgitate her production schematic–letting memory serve as the metaphor that describes the process.




Catch and Release: Kim Piotrowski at Linda Warren Projects

October 1, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

I drift. A good drift. A perfect drift. One that will catch a nice trout. I swing my rod overhead and flick the tip upstream. Mend. Mend. Recover and drift….fish. My memory takes me downstream and the water sweeps my feet from underneath me. I allow the current to drag me away from here.

As I rush past the shores of my recollection, I realize that it may take a lifetime’s worth of attention to learn the secrets of the river. I realize that each section of the stream requires a different understanding and consequently, a different approach, to unlock the mysteries of each pool, eddy, and riffle. I’m reeling but not too aggressively. I don’t want to lose this fish.

Fly fisherman, like painters, have an uncanny ability to liken any conversation to their pursuits with a rod or paintbrush, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it relates to their quests. In Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release at Linda Warren Projects, this perpetual metaphor is alive and well and permeating from the walls of the gallery. The rush flows from one piece to another. The fish spook and swim under rocks and stay there until I walk away, only to emerge again as I distance myself from the work–forcing me to return and throw another glance at the image. These are freshwater works(predominately made with water-based media), bottomless and infinite–their currents creating a generative energy for their creator that seemingly erodes her immediate boundaries and transforms those limits into the conditions upon which the next work is made.

Process Photo Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

I lodge the toe of my boot underneath a submerged log as to brace myself for another run. It’s trying to get away from me. I hold my rod high and behind me with my left hand and keep my right hand on the reel. My body twists to make the position possible. I’m adding line as fast as the fish rips it off. The cold water makes new seams around my legs, adapting to my temporary damn. I watch my line tighten. The fish changes direction–and once again–I’m reeling.

I stand suspended in the gallery, surrounded by effort–large and small. Piotrowski has transformed the space to not only display her achievements, but to advance her inquiry. In her debut exhibition with LWP, Piotrowski casts her lines in every direction. Her massive site-specific painting done directly onto a gallery wall that spans 43 feet, is a glowing example of her fearless attempts to allow opportunities to be the source of her invention. She has titled the piece Tide Tango and in her words, it represents “the dance we do with the rush of thoughts as life runs over and through us.”

Tide Tango 2014 12′ x 43′

Like the river, Piotrowski’s paintings meander, dash, swirl, and coalesce in spaces that cannot be confined by the limits of the page. She recognizes the necessity to expand the space into different formats(see Corner Lot, 2014), providing new borders to break free from and allowing new puzzles to emerge.

Piotrowski’s paintings remind me of Matthew Ritchie’s complexly scaffolded spaces that find organization in chaos. The ability of arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of a painting is particularly present in both artist’s works. Though Piotrowski seems to be making the paintings with much less discrimination. Less rules. Less fuss. More risk. Yet, in both artist’s work, there are common mark-making strategies, similar viscosities in paint applications, and there is an ever present familiarity in the natural locomotion of fluids on the surfaces they paint on.  While Ritchie seems to be interested in corralling those fluids to work within his system, Piotrowski seems to let paint go where it wants, and her next move is a response to its uninhibited resting place.

Matthew Ritchie Self Portrait 2064, Oil and Marker on Panel 80″ x 100″ 2003

I’m bringing him afoot. The line is tight but loosening. As the fish lays down, I pull him softly toward my free hand. In an instant, before I could grab him and at exactly the moment our eyes meet, he gives one last fit of terror and snaps free of the fly.

Fishing and painting are matters of timing in a changeable universe, and even when one returns to a place or moment of success, its doubtful that it will be under the exact conditions. Having broken the rhythm of a brilliant performance, it’s possible to never go back at all, and one shouldn’t go back–forward is the only worthwhile direction. The next hole upstream holds a trophy too, and its there that Piotrowski seems to be constantly aiming.

Corner Lot 2011 84″ x 120″ silver leaf, acrylic ink, flashe, markers, acrylic paint on synthetic paper (Yupo)

Life is a dangerous and unmanageable mess, but somehow these paintings have achieved a different description. Piotrowski’s description of life and linear time, is something much more approachable. Catchable even. As life runs over and through her, Piotrowski stands in the river waving a stick, trying to catch the catchable and upon success, immediately releases it back into the water for the next fisherman to stumble upon.




Inside the Outside: Richard Loving and Eleanor Spiess-Ferris at Hyde Park Art Center

February 5, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Chicago Imagism represents something more complex than a published manifesto, an aesthetic engagement, or a theoretician’s aim at creating an avant-garde. One might argue that Chicago Imagism, an internationally recognized movement with roots in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is still alive and well in the second city. On his 90th birthday on January 26, 2014, Richard Loving explained to a rapt audience at the Hyde Park Art Center, that his work–like the work of other “Imagists”–were simply about making the work that they wanted to make.

In their current exhibit, Inside the Outside at the Hyde Park Art Center curated by Aaron Ott, Richard Loving and Eleanor Spiess-Ferris’s works on display span two careers that aptly describe the very complicated historicity of the Chicago Imagist movement. Inside the Outside is a critical investigation of the ambiguous framework of Chicago Imagism and how these two very different artists bound geographically but also aesthetically chose to utilize its tenets to spur their artistic visions.

The works are hung chronologically–a relatable choreography that adequately stresses the aesthetic distances traveled and the hard earned merits of two lives of artistic engagement. In relation to the Imagists’ aesthetic–high key color strategies, figuration, symbology, and text to name a few–these works can fit the bill. However, the distinction as Imagist work may also deprive them of the singular translation they so deserve.

 

Richard Loving “Fire and Smoke” 2008

Spiess-Ferris and Loving’s works are clearly about themselves. Throughout the show, there is an overwhelming sense of self discovery or exhibitionism that develops into a confident vernacular that is uniquely their own. In Loving’s case, this idea takes the shape of a materials quest, that over decades evolves from small enamel works that become large format abstractions and matriculate to color drenched dreamscapes that embody the entire narrative. They are Loving’s accumulated wealth of knowledge with his materials, and a pointed emulsion of his interests.  Loving’s work “Fire and Smoke” is one such amalgamation.

Hovering above the very unnatural bands of lush color is a curved horizon that encloses the space of the painting and alludes to an inevitable ending–a forced punctuation. This curvilinear maneuver has become a staple in Loving’s later works and allow for the landscapes to remain in the netherworld of abstraction while maintaining the graphic qualities central to the Imagist aesthetic. Loving’s narratives are not forthcoming, but they reveal enough of itself to spend time with their mysteries. The paintings can operate as storyteller or simply as an object of contemplation, and therein lies their success.

Richard Loving “In a Budding Grove” 2008

On the surface, the narrative elements seem to be more readily available in such works as Spiess-Ferris’s “Resignation,” where the viewer is immediately immersed into a parallel universe that is completely her own. The cast of characters is the entry point–as there is a familiarity that grows from one piece to the next. Everything in Speiss-Ferris’s paintings is as familiar as the paint itself, yet there are no answers to her riddles either. The paintings allow you to meander through them, but never actually be a part of the place–it is her singular experience of a world in which the viewer has no role. It is in the moments of expectations unmeant that the viewer can understand their exclusion. “Resignation,” exudes Speiss-Ferris’s anguished charm while allowing for self discovery through her range of emblematic totems that find their way into her imagined worlds.

The show also presents some of Speiss-Ferris’s drawings where one can see the artist looking at her creations from without, while also participating in the ironies and chagrin of human awareness. In “Acquisition” the sketched portions of the drawing remain as portals into her studio–a nod to herself and remnant of her hand.

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris “Resignation” 1988

This elusiveness and earnest approach to her materials has kept Spiess-Ferris on the periphery of Imagism. Her work is an acidly good-natured view of human follies, largely concerned with the roles and relations between women and nature. She presents the human comedy through her imagined places that are often absurd, charming, hostile, seductive, and ridiculous. Charged with strong doses of painfully comic self-discovery, her host of symbols, images, and characters all play theatrical roles in the ongoing comedy that is a perpetual remix of itself.

The affinity to nature, the paint handling, geography, and the parallel working timeline are enough to link these two artists, but the strength in this show comes from both artist’s unflinching dedication to their practices. Decades in the making, their works have evolved and remained on the edges of a discussion that Chicago painters cannot seem to avoid. Imagism is the staple, the running joke, the license, and liberator for Chicago painters. It is the all-encompassing genre most aptly described by Richard Loving as “just making what we wanted to make.”

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris “Acquisition” 1992

To pair these two artists in a conversation about the reaches of Imagism was to operate on the periphery–to think outside the proverbial box. As the Hyde Park Art Center enters into its 75th anniversary year, a show to kick off the celebration that commemorates a pivotal moment in the center’s history as well as the history of Chicago image making was a grandiose gesture, most welcome.




Smart Painting: An Interview with Josh Reames

October 31, 2013 · Print This Article

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.

 

Josh Reames “commencement” 2013 Acrylic on Canvas 45″ x 55″

 

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?

 

Josh Reames “bomb jokes” 2013 Acrylic on Canvas 24″ x 28″

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?

 

Charline Von Heyl “Bluntschli” 2005

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.

 

Josh Reames “YYY” 2013 Acrylic on Canvas 56″ x 66″

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.

 

Christopher Wool Untitled 1990 Enamel on Aluminum 106″ x 72″

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.

 

Josh Reames “VALIS” 2012 Acrylic on Canvas 36″ x 40″

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.




Ghosts, Mythology, and Painting: A Chat With Carl Baratta

October 8, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by  Kevin Blake

Carl Baratta ‘Draw a Circle Around the Sun’ 2013

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.

Carl Baratta ‘A Wind Night, A Wolf Night 2′ 2013

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.

David Hockney ‘Twenty-Four’ 1992

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?

Carl Baratta ‘Doubles Double 2′ 2013

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.

Carl Baratta ‘A Dog Leg of Red Light Splits the Black Machine’ 2013

Kevin Blake is a Chicago based artist and writer.