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.
October 3, 2013 · Print This Article
This summer I visited slow gallerys’ group show, Rehearsal Attire. It was an exhibit about painting and something about what slow’s Director Paul Hopkin said has stuck to my ribs. Hopkin talked about how many Chicago painters created flat canvases, with a picture plane that stands parallel to the viewer, suggesting this predisposition might have something to do with our immediate landscape — the way we live in a flatland, on urban streets crowded with buildings. By comparison Southwestern painters are prone to pictures with expansive skies and topographical landscapes stretching indefinitely out. Hopkin admitted that conversations like that — about horizon lines and abstraction — led Fischer and Hopkin to organize Rehearsal Attire together. In this case, however, landscapes were not expressly present, nor limitless topographies. Rather, Fisher’s abstract paintings hung alongside Meg Duguid, Mindy Rose Schwartz and Charles Fogarty. Duguid disassembled a wall in the gallery and packed it in a suitcase. Fogarty removed a wall from his studio, on which he had painted a gingham cloth and re-situated it inside slow, beside a pile of campaign-like baseball hats that read “LUNCH”. Mindy Rose Schwartz sculpted a figure out of plaster cast with an unprimed, and partially stitched canvas face; in another work a delicate series of hoops reach off the wall at variant angles. Between the hoops’ bounds, flowers and thread weave in abstract, figurative compositions. I was drawn into these works with many questions — questions about limits, deconstruction, assembly and abstraction, questions that brought me to Andreas Fischer’s studio, where we discussed his approach to painting, and how Rehearsal Attire came about.
Caroline Picard: How do you think about horizon lines in paintings? Can you have multiple limits operating at once in the same piece?
Andreas Fischer: Things like horizon lines and spatial boundaries come from conventions embedded in the images I have been using. The starting points for all of my recent work are what I would call conventional everyday image types -the kinds of images that are so present that they often get taken for granted or ignored. At the same time, though, they have a problematic status because they are completely contested territory even though they might look stable.
On one hand I am using various aspects of the conventional states of these images, which are socially determined. On the other hand I am materializing a reaction by trying to reconstruct these images, which I see as an example of how any individual might react. So, yes there are definitely multiple limits and they are directed by moving changing negotiations that I see as a kind of intersection of one idea of what is social and another idea of what is individual. Painting in this sense is a kind of materialization of reception or reaction — action painting in a sense, but not as a statement — maybe more like the way an electronic instrument might monitor a changing environment.
CP: Wait — that’s exciting. How is a painting like an electronic instrument? Is it responding to you or the viewer?
AF: Well, I think of painting as decidedly not static and that is a big reason I am interested in it. I do think that so called fixed images are different from what we more clearly accept to be in motion. Paintings are moving perhaps more slowly and can be understood as attempts to visualize actions in a heightened way. Literally and chemically paint is moving and changing over time from the moment pigment is ground, through the gesture of applying paint, to the drying; shrinking; aging and cracking that paint undergoes over time.
More importantly, though, a painting is an action or gesture that begins to happen under certain circumstances and changes as the context around it changes. Our perceptions and interpretations of paintings change as the changing chemical compounds intersect with worlds that are always trying to figure themselves out. In this sense painting is like an electronic instrument in that it is a kind of sensor and feedback system that outputs interpretable data as the world moves — the meaning of the painting (or its output) changes as the stuff around it changes.
I am interested in the act of painting as a way of thinking, sorting or diagnosing. Both painting and electronic instruments come into being in a sense because of what they need to be able to do with their environments. Electronic instruments are programmed to track, calculate, and relay data based on socially developed criteria or perceived need. Maybe we do a version of this too as individuals and if so I think painting is likely a materialization of this kind of reflection of a larger social environment.
CP: How do you think about the logic of a single composition?
AF: The operating functions for composition and formal relationships for me are negotiation and process. In a sense each work is compositionally and formally its own activity. The kinds of reactions and procedures that an image seems to provoke on a given day especially as these bounce off of different patterns of thought and expectation floating around in the world vary quite a bit. This part of the operation is not a logical progression — it is more preformative, maybe a bit like the way a player responds to the action in many kinds of sports.
CP: But in that case are you playing against yourself? Like a soccer player bouncing a ball against a concrete wall with static, physical and predictable qualities? Or do you feel like the canvas/paint/medium brush are less predictable and somehow capable of responding to you, like — say — another player on the field?
AF: I definitely experience it as the latter. What I was thinking about was the way a body navigates and responds to various barriers and desired outcomes in real time — the spontaneous interaction of it all is so much like the act of painting for me. Maybe the ingredients of painting are not quite like another player, but more like the entire context of the game. So yes, the medium is not predictable for me. If I could control it I wouldn’t paint. Furthermore, I suspect that I am deciding or acting and reacting coextensively with social interactions I have had or might anticipate having in the future. I think this is where the distinction between what is social and what is individual falls apart in an interesting way because each of these determine the other and maybe there is not really even a distinction in the end. Maybe we are really post-individual.
CP: How did your recent show “Rehearsal Attire” come together?
AF: Paul Hopkin and I have been talking about doing something for a while and when we started to think seriously about what a project might look like we started trying think of way to acknowledge conversation as a generative tool. I was making work that was in many was the product of specific conversations I was having with a few people and was very interested in a group show as a way to extend that dialogue. I think Paul had been on that page for a while before we started working on the project.
Much of art history is really the act of watching very particular materialized conversations between a surprisingly small group of people. One could argue that the real content of much art is the function of conversation or relatively intimate social interaction. I wanted to start acknowledging my work as a set of indexes of lines of conversation. I wanted to take that system into a gallery and mix it with a different group of people having different conversations so that one conversational context would bounce off of a few others to see how they would co-mingle and resisted each other. There are so many amazing ways that groups or specific conversations out in the world intersect with other groups. There is something fundamentally fascinating about a semi closed circle bumping into another semi closed circle. That vibration, that negotiation is incredibly exciting to me and has been a huge motivator for my work over the last several years.
CP: How do you see that fitting into the more general dialogue of painting at the moment?
AF: I see a great deal of coolness of one kind or another in painting right now. I might be interacting with that characterization in the sense that, even though I kind of love much of the work I would characterize this way, I am much more interested in a state of being thoroughly tangled in the messiness of thought, struggle, material, and process. I am probably not anything like cool in my interaction with painting. I think I embrace a kind of sloppy affirmational complexity that has more of a diving-into-the-muck quality to it.
CP: How do you think about deconstructing frames? Is that something of interest to you in painting?
AF: I love deconstruction and the expectation that it will yield different layers of meaning. But I don’t think of my work in those terms right now. I think the negotiations that I see the work enacting are more like a struggle to bring things together. There is the familiar idea about early modernism that at a certain point painting became more opaque, more interested in its own materialism as a way of enacting skepticism toward unified illusion and its ability to function as a vehicle for certain idealisms, perhaps dangerously so. This is a way of seeing materially oriented painting as engaged in negation, criticism or the act of taking apart to an extent. Now that the idea of a unified illusionistic painting is historical and the more usual way for painting to function is through assertions of materialism over illusion, I think materially active painting has executed one critical task that maybe does not need to be rehearsed as insistently anymore meaning that materialism is a kind of free floating signifier that can attach itself to a much wider range of potential functions. The range of possibilities for material activity has opened up.
One of the possibilities can be a link between opacity and the act or struggle to form an image or to produce rather than take apart. Painting can be expected to create a narrative construction relative to images we know to exist or not. For me the act that is most important is the act of framing in a sense, or getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame, on a surface, or within a field. In that case when we watch a painting we are watching something grow.
CP: One of the things I often struggle with in abstract painting is how to understand the meaning, or what is at stake in a given work. Taking what you said into account, I wonder if this idea of emergent order (is that an accurate paraphrase for “getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame”) is at the heart of the matter. Namely, whether or not a painting succeeds and/or fails at that — whether it makes the pursuit of that order interesting, and — if you’ll allow a sentimental tone — heartbreaking (again, because it succeeds, or almost succeeds)?
AF: I totally agree with what you are suggesting at least in terms of how I would like my work to live or die. Heartbreak could very well be a part of it all.
I like that you use the term emergent order as well. I understand that to be a bottom up kind of growth based on a kind of exchange and growth where no one entity is in charge, is designing or directing the process or even knows what is going on, but great innovation or development takes place anyway. I think social interaction that flows beyond individual intent or understanding (or maybe just determines it in the end), but operates none the less is totally fascinating and it might be that many kinds of paintings are symptomatic of this kind of function somehow because they happen through a group of impulses, gestures, thoughts, urges, curiosities that just move around an individual kind of unknowingly. There is an argument about Cezanne, for example that his supposedly individualistic innovations in paint handling are really just marks that anyone could make, which means that Cezanne is not an old fashioned modernist genius, but a kind of repository of commonality and his brilliance is really in his assertion of a shared, common, everyday kind of simple mark that anyone could make.
In the end if all of these interactions somehow reflect something valuable then they work. And as you suggest, maybe if this kind of thing is true then it establishes a different way for painting to function than relying on what we might have called meaning in the past. Maybe it is not really about the question of where or even if it ends up, but a kind of empathetic struggle to move toward something.
Over the last year Guerin has dedicated herself to a single shape. Every painting begins with the same premise — the same subject: an abstract shape originally derived from a chair, it has, over the course of its repetition developed other affinities as well. Sometimes it looks like a hat, or a four leaf clover, or a corporeal organ. Certainly it stands in for a figure. It is at once empty and pregnant with meaning. By working exclusively with this shape, Guerin explores the medium of paint, focusing on its expansive possibilities, while remaining formally constricted. A collection of these works are presently on view at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Galley, in a group show called “Slow Read.” Painters Emiliano Cerna-Rios, Magalie Guerin, Brian Kapernekas, Nazafarin Lotfi and Tim Nickodemus hang their work with accompanying, personally curated libraries. Guerin, for her part, includes a journal with notes from studio visits, reflections on the history of paintings, the work of her peers and her romantic life.
Caroline Picard: You use a repeating shape or motif throughout this series of works. Can you talk about how you discovered this shape?
Magalie Guerin: Well, it’s an invented shape loosely based on a chair design. As I worked with it, it ended up looking more like a hat, so I call it the Hat shape although now it seems to have morphed into an organ of some sorts… But really, it’s a structural form onto which I apply the paint.
CP: When we met in your studio, I feel like there was a point where you started talking about the shape in terms of a relationship, as though each iteration of the shape is another portrait that offers new insight. Suddenly the shape seems less abstract and more personal — is that fair? Has your relationship to the shape changed over time? Do you ever fight with the shape?
MG: Yes, that’s fair (perhaps a little strange too). The shape has become a kind of companion to me, a pet form. There’s a strong association in my mind now between my studio practice and that particular shape. I’m not sure how I can let it go at this point; it’s been a year. My relationship to it is very similar to any relationship—sometimes I’m bored stiff with it or I love it or I’m angry at it.
CP: I like thinking about how the shape somehow lives in your studio. Almost as though when you are in the studio you inhabit its space.
MG: Or it mine… it’s all very symbiotic.
CP: Does it feel like the shape exists as a thing that is separate and autonomous from you? Or do you feel like it is a projection of your own inner space?
MG: Hmmm, that’s a hard question and it creeps me out a little! A Cronenberg-esque scenario… So let’s think of the work— the paintings, not the shape itself. They wouldn’t exist without me so it does start with a projection of some sorts. But once they leave the studio, they develop a relationship with others so I could say a life of their own.
CP: I’m also interested in the idea of repetition and practice — it seems at the core of this project somehow and very meditative also (if that’s the right word). In other words, you return to paint the same shape again and again in different frames, with different colors and surfacing approaches — the shape remains the same, and yet I imagine your experience of the process changes dramatically depending on the day, the week, the month, depending on the peculiar challenges one composition demands, and depending on your own emotional landscape…what is that process like?
MG: I wish the process was meditative! It’s way too hard to be. I did reduce the possibilities in the studio in terms of size and shape but everything else is wide open so there’s a lot to attend to. Basically, I’m trying to create a focused practice and repetition has been helpful for that. I’m thinking a lot about what Morandi did with his ‘bottles’ and how, through sheer repetition, he was able to get to the essence of things—not the essence of the bottles but of life. It’s so very moving.
CP: Which then makes me want to ask about painting also — you mention Morandi, and the way he was able to distill his subject to earth tone bottles. I’ve heard people talk about how that makes his work emphasize the medium of paint. Do you think that’s accurate? Would you say The Shape does the same thing for you? By limiting your subject, you can focus on the materiality of your medium?
MG: Yes, I think that’s true. When I was working with multiple shapes, each painting was a new one and I was getting caught up on how the form looked and its design within the picture plane. There was a kind of anxiety about getting it ‘right’ because I had one shot at it. By repeating it, it’s more of an exploration of possibilities and subtleties—there’s no right or wrong. I can’t tell which painting is a better representation of it; they all blend in at this point. They are all the same.
CP: You often sand down your paintings between layers. I’m interested in the labor and erasure this process employs. Can you talk about how you came to that technique? And what goes through your mind when you begin to sand a particular layer of your work?
MG: It comes from doubt—I’m never sure that the color I add is right so I sand it down each time. And what that does is uncover the previous layers. The process is about revealing the past, building a richness of surface by allowing time to be seen. I often finish the painting by veiling it all with a coat of transparent Zinc white, which I love.
CP: For some reason this strikes me as a kind of violent act — maybe both sanding and covering with white.
MG: Really? That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of it being violent. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I hate them a little…
CP: It seems significant that you show these works with a journal, and like the paintings they are an amalgam of reflections on your studio practice, comments studio visitors have made, remarks you make about various aspects of the art historical cannon, your peers and then too your personal, romantic life. How did you decide to include this journal? And you’ve re-written it several times, by hand, for different exhibits — what was that re-writing process like?
MG: I write in the studio to help me understand what I’m doing (it’s a mystery most of the time!). When I started the ‘Hat project’ last September, I was interested in rules and limitations so I made a rule that I had to write something every single time I came to the studio no matter what it was. I really wanted to find out specifically what I was asking of my work. But obviously, there are days when my head is elsewhere even when I’m in the studio, that’s why the writing sometimes veers towards the weather of my romantic life. It was also a way to document how many times a week I was able to paint and how long the paintings take me to complete. Then what happened is that I was asked to make an ‘artist book’ for a show Sean Ward organized at Julius Caesar in Chicago. This opportunity came just after I heard the poet Kenneth Goldsmith talk about copying and organizing writing as his art form and I found that an interesting/conflicting activity for a writer to engage in. I thought—what if one copies oneself? If one also creates the original, does it change the nature of the copy?
So I took all the notebooks I’ve written in since moving to Chicago for grad school in 2009 and again, made a list of rules like ‘don’t add punctuation’, ‘delete dates’ ‘no chronology’ ‘repeat is ok’ etc. I merged and copied everything by hand in a Moleskine book. As I was transcribing the entries, I was also writing in my current journal about what I thought, critically, of the Notes project, complaining about the look of my handwriting and such while simultaneously copying these thoughts as a copy. That process became very interesting to me. I wrote about what I would do differently if I was to make a second version of the book, an edited/revised copy of the first one. A few months later, this latest opportunity—the Slow Read show—presented itself. We were asked to curate a selection of books to accompany our paintings. Nazafarin Lotfi contacted a few artists about making books for her space—that’s when I did the second version. So my book is included with Nazy’s work in the exhibition, not mine. I’m showing Anaïs Nin’s Diaries.
CP: Would ever think about these journals — with each subsequent generation — as a practice that parallels your shape paintings? For instance, could we think of each shape as its own, non-semantic journal? Could each journal be a kind of non-painted Shape painting?
MG: Technically I’d say yes but I’m still confused about the place of writing in my art production. It’s the first time I’m sharing it publicly. I mean, the questions are— how much writing of interest can I generate? How can I present writing as a visual artist? Should the books remain one-of-a-kind like a painting? How do I think of writing as a medium? Can I allow grammar mistakes and such? Is my writing too personal? So you see, it’s all very complicated…
CP: It’s interesting to think that an object in book form would demand a different aesthetic criteria than an object fashioned from paint and canvas.
MG: Maybe it’s not different, or at least shouldn’t be so, but it’s all very new to me so I have a lot of questions about it.
CP: How did you end up selecting work to hang in your show, by the way? I remember you were having a hard time deciding which paintings to exhibit in Slow Read.
MG: Ha! That was hard because as I said, they all blend in now as one project. To have to select a few (I think there’s 11 in the show) out of the 30 or so I’ve made seems irrational. Justin Witte, the curator, had some favorites so that helped. But most of it was trying to find a variety that would best represent the whole spectrum of the project as of yet––because, well, it’s still going…
Guest post by Mark Sheerin
It is more than 1,000 miles from Luton, England, to Reykjavik, Iceland. But Dominic from the UK town appears to love a good caper. Why else would he put together a group show on very little money in one of the most far flung and expensive cities in Europe?
“It was done on a wing and a prayer,” he tells me on the phone from his Luton studio. “The art was just really, really ambitious considering we didn’t have much money to play with. It’s amazing what you can do with a cardboard tube and a delivery van.”
Five artists took part. And the show has just run for a month at gallery Kling & Bang. Along with Dominic, the full bill included Gavin Turk, Mark Titchner, Laura White and Peter Lamb. The show went by the name London Utd. “It’s kind of doing what it says on the tin,” says Dominic, whose eponymous town is just a twenty minute train ride from the UK capital.
Not that he is the first to cross the Atlantic to the artist led space. He tells me that Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades have also shown at the dynamic and co-operative venue. And Dominic takes the opportunity to recount the tale of Kling & Bang’s legendary appearance at Frieze Art Fair.
“They did a Frieze Project in London in 2008 called Sirkus. It’s an incredible story,” says the artist, telling me that Sirkus was the name of a Reykyavik bar: “This place was the hub, the heartbeat of the arts community”. But after nine years of business, Sirkus closed down, leaving Kling & Bang free to turn the façade and fixtures into a temporary installation for the art fair.
Dominic warms to his tale: “They arrived at Heathrow in October 2008 and basically all their credit cards had been stopped because the [Icelandic] crash had suddenly happened overnight and so this bar, which was a mirror of good times and place to meet, became that again in London.” Word soon went round about the penniless Icelanders with the reconstructed bar.
Things are a bit better in Reykjavik now and in its way London Utd has become another bridge between the art scenes in both cities. Mark Titchner’s piece was a piece of text in Icelandic, which read The World Isn’t Working. (Perhaps the UK crash is yet to come.)
Gavin Turk meanwhile offered a twelve and a half metre diptych inspired by Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series and featuring the four wheeled emblem of working class Britain the Ford Transit. Laura White produced no less than 54 drawings of photos of sculptures which she herself had made. And Peter Lamb translated the shifting detritus on his studio floor into two large abstract canvases.
Asked about one of his own works in the show, Dominic is ready with another yarn. “That photo was done as a tribute to Paul Young,” he tells me. Like the artist, the singer came from Luton. “He used to work at Vauxhall [car plant] in the early 80s and he told someone I know in the canteen once that he was going to be a global pop star and then literally 18 months later he was, with Everytime You Go Away.”
The track resonates with many a Lutonian and inspired a Dominic from Luton performance at an event called Café Almanac organised by Bedford Creative Arts. This involved sourcing an 80s wig from Luton Indoor Market, posing for a portrait artist in the shopping centre and getting 5,000 badges made to cover a cheap suit. “I just stood up in front of about 50 people in this Working Men’s Club on a Saturday afternoon and sung my heart out,” recalls the artist.
This took place under a net filled with 200 balloons in the colours of the local soccer team, intended for release in the final verse. However “The net got caught in all of my badges so I had 200 balloons attached to me and I panicked and – it wasn’t scripted at all – I basically ended up having a fight with these balloons and stamping on them and stuff and it brought the house down actually.”
But despite the hazardous stagecraft, Dominic’s “biggest challenge” is a self-proclaimed inability to sing. So it comes as no surprise that the artist thinks most performance art is too earnest. “People would argue with this, but I think there’s a duty to entertain,” he says, “That’s just my take on it. That’s my little mantra.” Even the anecdotes which relate to each of his gigs are compelling experiences.
As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that the artist formerly known as Dominic Allan comes from one of the most derided towns in the UK. His “from Luton” tag is a sticky piece of cultural baggage. Dominic tells me that the name just came about through being easy to remember when he ordered materials.
Now, he claims, “It’s just a very glorious vehicle for the idea of the underdog and also to shove it back in people’s faces now because Luton’s one of those towns which people laugh about . . . The more I go on, the more I realise that it is serious, and it is serious”.
So that’s Dominic, from Luton, easy to laugh with, hard to laugh at. Prepare to be entertained if he ever comes to your town.
Mark Sheerin is an art writer from Brighton, UK. He can also be found on Culture24, Hyperallergic, Frame & Reference and his own blog criticismism.com