(born 1942) Gary Stephan has been showing his painting and sculpture since the late sixties in the United States and Europe. He has had solo shows in New York at Bykert Gallery, Mary Boone Gallery, Hirschl and Adler and Marlborough Gallery; in Los Angeles at Margo Leavin Gallery and Daniel Weinberg Gallery; and in Berlin at Galerie Keinzle and Gmeiner among many others. His work can be found in the collections of The Guggenheim Museum of Art, The Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as museums nationwide. He is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches in the MFA program at School of Visual Arts in NYC and is currently represented by Kienzle Art Foundation in Berlin. Gary Stephan lives and works in New York City and Stone Ridge, NY.
All your bases belong to us.
Everything I’ve read about Berlin-based painter, James Krone’s, recent exhibit Waterhome centers Krone’s practice around an empty aquarium. The aquarium in question, however, is not present in the exhibit itself. Instead you’ll find a series of paintings hung on the wall, a folding screen dividing the room that is similarly composed of paintings and a stack of paintings face up on a plinth. These monochrome works seem at first either black or white. At first they appear unpainted, as though they were salvaged from a musty basement and hung as testaments of mold and unforgiving sunlight. The marks on the canvas seem to have grown over pure blankness, or pure darkness — like intrusions of time and environment. Slowly, upon closer inspection the range of color becomes apparent, the areas of bleaching and stretch marks conspire to create a cohesive, aesthetic experience. The image of a tank collecting algae is tied in with this work, and I kept asking myself how it — with its self-generating, dynamic ecosystem — connected to painting, especially when these paintings speak so directly to minimalism, and abstraction. Waterhome opened this past Saturday and will be up until February 2nd at Kavi Gupta Gallery. All images courtesy of the gallery.
Caroline Picard: I am interested in the relationship between your paintings and this fish tank — an object that seems present in everything I’ve read about your work, even while it is absent from the physical exhibition space. Without the fish tank, I experience your paintings as these lovely, subtle color fields that reflect back on a collective/historical painting conversation — your works strike me as non-painting paintings, almost. They have been crafted in such a way as to seem like canvases left in a damp basement for an extended period of time — flecks of paint look like tiny blotches of mold peppering the surface. And yet, by incorporating this fish tank, even as a (non-present) totem of the work, your paintings engage the natural world as well. I have started to fixate on this fish tank —What is its relationship to your paintings? Does it function as a muse of some sort? Or does it have a more direct relationship to your painting process?
James Krone: The fish tank was something that I had, was given as a gift at one point because I had wanted a pet lobster. I had some miscommunication with the electrical company at the time and my power kept going off. I was worried that if I put a lobster in the tank and the electrical company turned off the power again, the lobster would die. Also, I realized what a lot of work it would be to maintain a salt water tank. Instead of getting rid of the tank I filled it with water and put it on a table in my apartment and decided that that was enough. I couldn’t tell if it was a sculpture or if I was just keeping water as a pet but I found it somewhat fascinating and it didn’t take any effort to have it there. It was visible and transparent, recycling its qualities through an electric filter. It wasn’t very long before algae started to grow in the water, a rather delicate layer of soft velvety chartreuse. I’ve never really thought of the algae as nature, primarily, so much as an inevitable form of production that was filling a void while simultaneously articulating my incapacity to maintain either an illusion of emptiness or a consistent object. I’m often seduced by points where assumed binaries falter and merge back into one another.
The accretion of the algae persisted and would get quite thorough, creating moments of total opacity and then it would die, or do something that appeared to be entropic, and just collapse off the sides of the tank in sheets of fibers. The process would repeat itself. It seems to be a form of decay but in fact its an active, matter subverting an otherwise sterile space. I admired the mindless production of its cycle and the revolutions of transparency and opacity, persistent and hungry yet apparently neither progressive nor resolute. It is difficult to say whether the algae was a subject coming into being, a subject arrived sui generis or something that was destroying the subject. I think that the paintings work in this way, too.
CP: It sounds like you see a process of painting in the aquarium’s inherent, or natural, process — can you say more about it? How are those conversations wrapped up in one another for you?
JK: I think of the aquarium’s relationship to painting as being about the quotidian and transfiguration, being as a form of continuous maintenance, more than I think about it as nature. Or what is natural? A fungus that eats plastics was recently discovered in South America. I guess I see nature as the incomprehensible totality of everything and just shy away from the references that get associated with nature or the natural (organic, etc…) as they seem to suggest a necessary idea of the unnatural, that I can’t accept.
Maybe if this idea of the unnatural were really just a prudish stand in for perversion then I’d have an easier time dealing with that.
Painting is a thing a person can do quite easily but it will most likely happen in an empty or undetermined space because it isn’t a solicited activity, if it’s of any value. There is no proper or prepared place to make a painting or art because no one is initially asked to do so. If I wanted to be a nurse or make sandwiches for people, there are rooms for me to go to that would be readymade. To make paintings I have to go get an empty room and bring my things there and the person who rents it to me probably says, “Don’t get it on the floor.”
CP: You directly speak to the idea of entropy in the Waterhome exhibit description. I want to say this connects somehow to the blank canvas, or the empty fish tank. That these blank spaces inevitably fill up and get dirty. Is this where you are locating entropy? i.e. the fact that “the purity of the void” will be compromised marks a sign of failure? I’m interested in this idea because I feel like it’s somehow based on a philosophical premise of your own, namely that something clean and clear and empty is an idealized state; the addition of mold/small flecks of green color, scuff marks, the apparent bleach of the sun, or errant stretch marks is the function of dilapidation. But you could also think of mold is an additive growth, a positive, productive transformation. And the signs of age and dilapidation on your canvases are fabricated by you — which also seems additive. That’s a rambling way of arriving at my question: How do you think about entropy as a painter?
JK: I think it does speak of entropy. Maybe it’s also a rejection of the notion of entropy. Is entropy anything more than an effect that articulates… what? A disappointment with the impossibility of nothingness? Of permanence?
I don’t know but I don’t like to think of painting on a canvas as going somewhere so much as doing something.
Each painting does end, though, and working on a single painting forever would make it seem far too important.
This thing of dirty is interesting to me because on one hand I do feel at the moment I first touch a blank canvas that I’m somehow soiling it… but claiming a blank canvas is even worse than ruining one.
The term “purity of void” has more to do with a criticality of the notion of purity than it does with championing the fantasy of the void. It’s exposing that there would be this idea of a void or an anti-space and that in the totality of this emptiness, a certain purity would be attained. I see the void as the imaginary friend of the puritanical; some evidence that the desire for the pure is motivated by death drive.
There is a promise of clarity in a glass box and that is probably just an illusion. It’s cruel because we know how to yearn for that illusion. It performs a job until something else arrives and that arrival ruins the illusion. This is both a relief, as it cancels this yearning, and a disappointment, as it cancels this yearning.
The death of a false promise is still a loss.
CP: I am also interested in this idea of choreography and exposure — as I understand it, you apply layers and layers of washes to the canvas and the washes respond to a laid rabbit glue surface, settling permanently in some places as they wash away in others. Is that process where you locate this idea of dance?
JK: The canvases are sized with several layers of rabbit skin glue and then I paint a single wash of paint on them daily. The colors I use are based on the colors produced in the aquarium; viridian, sap green, alizarin crimson and lemon yellow.
This accretion of the layers of paint negates the color of those preceding and the canvas builds towards an ostensible black. Eventually, a section of the sizing on the canvas wears down and begins to resist saturation and even degrades back towards a lightness. I take either occurrence as a signal to stop. It’s an exposure of the painting in that it destroys the painting’s potential to be a monochrome. I either leave the canvas like that or I unstretch it and reverse it. The paintings that get reversed seem to have something more like a personality because of the moments where the support has faltered and paint has bled through. But as much as you see the points where the color has come through you are also seeing the places where it has not.
It isn’t a terribly complicated process, rather deskilled, if peculiar and specific.
The choreography is knowing what I will do beforehand and remaining more or less consistent to that, intending that the repetition of the behavior avoids a narrative of progress.
I’d hope that the paintings are anachronistic, not in the sense of timelessness but in that they might deny tense.
CP: One of my favorite pieces in your exhibit at Kavi Gupta is the stack of canvases — I loved the way you transform the painting into a sculpture and by stacking them emphasize the painted side or edge — a typically marginalized space where accidental drips and stains exist like a dirty closet in a house or dorm room. But you emphasize that side and cover the faces of many paintings. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to stack these works? And did your process of painting change when you anticipated stacking them?
JK: The sides of these paintings were always attractive to me because they look the same regardless of which side of the painting has been stretched. Last February in Berlin I made a different exhibition with this work that included a coffee table consisting of a stack of square Waterhome paintings elevated on rather feeble legs. The dressing screen in this show made that option seem too much like a literal conversation between painting and furniture but I wanted to retain some kind of focus on what is usually, as you said, a typically marginalized space.
There was some playing around with that piece for a while, verticality, horizontality, what a pedestal does or does not do or infer, etc… I felt that it had to be a piece in itself more than just an apparatus to describe the other work. I think it becomes a grammatical elongation of those margins by collapsing the physical space between them.
The process of the painting really doesn’t ever change but different consequences seem to arise as I continue to make them, whether or not I want them to.
If you’ve been reading my “Cultural Divide” contributions over the past several months, you’ve gathered that I go to great lengths to try to deliver evenhanded criticism. So much so that a few have accused me of being an apologist for everything from hunting to performance art. My on-the-one-hand-on-the-otherness isn’t a righteous stance of journalistic integrity but rather a reflection of a sincere belief that the terms of cultural difference in America stem from very basic misunderstandings about the structural composition of various cultures, which if inventoried, might bridge the widening divide.
An example: Many of my culturally agnostic New York friends adamantly oppose organized religion, yet they remain open to the most phantasmatic, shamanistic, quasi-religious conceptualism in the high cultural milieu. A Lutheran service severely disturbs their enlightened senses of rational propriety, but they’re more than happy to attempt the leap of faith needed to appreciate Richard Tuttle, Robert Wilson or Trisha Brown. Likewise, most of the parishioners at a Lutheran church in Wisconsin gladly throw their worldly faith behind a 2000 year-old fairy tale about a prophet conceived without intercourse, yet they walk into a contemporary art museum and feel a Duchampian readymade or a Specific Object by Donald Judd is part of a conspiracy dreamed up by cabals of elitist charlatans from Vassar trying to control their minds.
The two scenarios sound pretty similar to me.
The Lutheran church isn’t as religious as many would have it.
The High Art world isn’t as secular as many would have it.
Religion is culture. Culture is religion.
But none of that is my point. My point is that even though most of a particular culture’s eccentricities or attitudes can be written off to relativity, some can’t.
My wife told me last week that I came down a little hard on the tapas bar in northern Wisconsin that served jalapeno poppers and truffled popcorn. She said it was a little snotty of me and that in the process I tipped my hand a little. Sometimes a guy has to pass some judgment.
On the flip side, for the past week New York Public Radio has been running a series of commercials whose appalling arrogance makes me embarrassed to have participated in their pledge drive. It’s the kind of navel-gazing, self-satisfied righteousness that turns people off to New Yorkers and their near monopoly on advanced culture. New Yorkers have taken the blind patronage by the rest of America for granted. Sold out Broadway theaters and stuffed contemporary art centers aren’t a right, though. If New York dismisses everyone whose dinner conversations aren’t about Philip Glass, people may stop making the trip. Instead of traveling to New York for its wealth of culture, they’ll stay home and invent their own, spreading praise amongst themselves. Ever wonder why NASCAR is the most popular sport in America?
As a cultural producer I’m not ready to completely alienate the 20 percent of the country who hasn’t defected to NASCAR and Captain America. We, at least I, need the 60 million Americans who might rather go to a Dodgers game, but still begrudgingly visit LACMA like a good boy eating his Brussels sprouts.
So here it goes: 15-yard penalty on New York Public Radio for Unnecessary Smugness.
(The spots are read by Stanley Tucci)
“There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children.”
“There are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They don’t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the world…or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please don’t do a half-assed job, that’s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.”
This week: David Salle! Great conversation. Listen. You. Now.
February 8, 2012 · Print This Article
This Friday, Steve Seeley’s painting show opens at Rotofugi (who not too long ago moved to Lincoln Park, so check the website for their new address if you’re unsure). Seeley’s figurative work often features the juxtaposition of human bodies and animal limbs, or heads. Sometimes alien parts make an appearance as well. He integrates old and new surfaces, incorporating the nostalgia of his childhood into a present assemblage. I grew more and more interested in something we didn’t talk about, namely the idea of the hero and how it charts through these visual, narrative landscapes. Seeley’s icons adopt the iconography of saints and superheros with all of the mystical proportions childhood bears with them. To re-erect and reexamine the Gods of childhood in effort, perhaps, to examine those ancient power structures. In Seeley’s case, they often become hybrid.
Caroline Picard: I’m really interested in the way you combine natural elements with mythical ones: for instance, the way your work often offers a kind of misty (and almost traditional-painterly) background with a vibrant superhero, or animal, alien or hybrid in the foreground. It kind of reminds me of old cartoons; in the Smurfs, for instance, you could tell the background was fixed to one surface, and moving figure(s) interacted on a clear gel over top. How did you come upon this strategy in your own work?
Steve Seeley: The backgrounds for me are definitely an homage to animation cels. I’m a child of the 80s and I grew up on cartoons; He-man, Thundercats, Thundarr, and the like, so that sort of nostalgic animation occupies a huge section of my creative mind. I started the “delicate matter” body of work in 2004 with the backgrounds being multi-layered and muted, almost ghost like, paintings, and at some point maybe three years ago, I transitioned to printed matter. I have always integrated things I collect into my work, I guess in a way bowing to my inner nerd. Thus the action figure-y, comic book-y and taxidermy look and feel. I also happen to collect antique chromolithographs. Mainly landscapes. So it was only natural for me to eventually incorporate/appropriate these into the work. The process involves buying a lithograph, scanning it in, messing around with it, and printing it out to paint on. By printing them out (opposed to painting directly on the print) I can control overall scale, color, direction and halftone size. And after all the other elements are painted, I get that stark dichotomy with the digital print and the paint, given that animated feel I grew up on.
CP: Your use of the bear, the deer, and the wolf feels very iconic, somehow, especially in those places where give your figures gold-plate halos. Can you talk about how your engage the animal world? Is the ram-figure any different from superman’s figure?
SS: Again, a great deal of my work ideas come from a nostalgia. The animals are a nod to growing up in the sticks of Wisconsin. I use animals that I used to see everyday (the deer and specific birds) as well as the animals my brothers and I feared when we played in the woods (the bear and wolves). I grew up in the super small town of Ringle which happened to be home to one of the largest wild dog packs in the state of Wisconsin. So I incorporate any number of dogs that I saw or that may have survived to be part of the wild pack (sorry chihuahua and pugs, I love ya but I you wouldn’t have made it).
As for the difference between man and animal, there isn’t a huge difference for me. In the “delicate matter” series, the story so far is that man has left earth for outer space because he becomes enamored with something he can’t comprehend, something that is entirely different from what he knows. He leaves earth on bad terms with the animals and while he is gone animals become what they were destined to be, a transformation per se, into heavy metal loving, super power using, pop culture loving creatures. When man gets to space he finds it to be less than he had hoped, and he tries to come back but the animals refuse. So man is stuck in space while animals take he’s place back on earth, essentially filling his old shoes, and becoming the new “man.”
There were a few years when I only painted animals (except in the “segue” paintings) but currently man has started to reappear. But only under the guise of a superhero since generally that means your true identity is hidden. Oh yeah and celebrities have always remained on earth, which is why the animals often chill with Miley Cyrus and let Sasha Grey ride around on their backs.
CP: At the same time, your figures are basically anatomically correct, and feature studied detail. Then of course there are places and points where you interrupt our expectations, creating a hole inside a bear’s chest for instance. Or giving a human torso a wolf head: how do these interruptions come about?
SS: The holes (along with the halos) are meant to lightly symbolize a religion, rather literally. The holes become an extreme stigmata of sorts. I am not necessarily a religious person but I am fascinated by what religion does to societies. It causes rifts and causes people to take sides, which can result in conflict… which is something for years I didn’t have in my paintings. Everything and everyone peacefully coexisted. It was thru adding the religious aspect that I was able to split the world I had created.
The head swapping was a way for me to even more-so humanize the animals. Initially all the human body, animal headed figures in my paintings were referred to as “saints”, figures that were idolized by the other animals and which usually also adorned halos. But once Saint Sasha Grey and Saint Cringer (from He-man) got introduced, I began to play with the animal headed figures as not only religious icons but also celebrity icons. For my upcoming show at Rotofugi there are 25 animal/alien/monster headed human figures all imagined as boxers or wrestlers. My intention is to make them a whole new breed of celebrity within the world they exist, at the same time causing additional rifts. Sport is such an easy way for people (or animals in this case) to turn on one another and choose sides.
see more of Seeley’s work by going here.