Scott Espeseth’s sedate composition, “Aluminum Storm” embodies the artist’s punning sound-images, ashen palette, and generally understated rendering of his immediate environment. “Storm” depicts the stark metal siding of a neighbor’s unassuming frame house and some lawn clutter, filtered by a screen in a bare aluminum storm window. The softly-focused center enhances the darker interior casing, drawing attention to the edges and contradicting the deep space intent of its one-point perspective. Espeseth is exceptional at inverting the restfulness of common domestic accoutrements, offering them in striking, but temperately shaded graphite and watercolor. The scrubbed middle-value washes and flecked surfaces of charcoal and ink normalize a prankish use of some classic drawing practices.
“Two Bandaid Boxes on My Windowsill” is a kind of companion piece depicting an etched glass bathroom window that reveals mostly refracted sunlight and two silhouetted bandage boxes. While less referential, it’s a flawless architectural image, embracing two mute “actors” poised on the sill proscenium.
Espeseth’s take on representation, however, is a question dormant in materiality, rather than dedicated objects. The pictures reinforce Werner Heisenberg’s assertion that observation alone changes the nature of what one sees, leaving less evidence than a measure of the surveillant. It presents the world as basically immensurable or unresolvable – a temporary interruption of space-time continuum, with the real ironically out of reach. The staging of these drawings lets Espeseth look harder at what flanks visibility.
Modern art, which most are indebted, or subject to variously, was designed to reconfigure the real. The 20th century produced culture that in its relativistic narrative, initiated fragmented routines and insolated experiences, far from the subjects of the salon and privilege. One outcome was a lean, contemplative, studio-driven critique that ignored official tastes, and market pressures and connected to ordinary experience with unanticipated links to manual labor and qualitative research. Gradually such projects became filtered, reduced, and formalized – even domesticated. But the experience of unhurried, almost ceremonious observation remains a persistent, project where artists like Espeseth track mundane possessions and scenery, pulling the alien and the irrational out of thin air.
Espeseth’s pictures are both gratifyingly subtle and manifestly curious – permitting materials and his facility to carry as much meaning as compositions and symbols – maybe more. His tools and mediums tease out reductivism and vernacularism simultaneously. He identifies place through residential detritus, biographical fragments, and lastly a grasp of the culture of rural Wisconsin, with its fabled architectural legacy and preeminent status in the geographic subaltern.
PK: Scott, can you briefly foreground some of the things that guide your decisions with regard to subject?
SE: My recent work owes a lot to the loose group of artists often lumped under the descriptor “magic realists.” Think Andrew Wyeth without the sentimentality or John Wilde without the pretentious surrealism (I had several opportunities to meet John Wilde before he passed, but never did. I didn’t know at the time that his work was going to become important to me.) These artists share a strategy of finding strangeness in mundane objects/spaces, as well as in sometimes stark rural settings. All of my works start with an encounter, or a moment of lucidity, then shift as the studio process unfolds. Though people sometimes feel the watercolors look like photographs, I am not interested in the particular distortions of the camera, and I almost never use photographs in making the drawings. Instead, I work from direct observation whenever possible, which can mean looking, but also making measurements, applying linear perspective, etc.
Something like “Eagle” was inspired by a neighbor’s house, plus my general fascination with those eagle ornaments (supposedly initially displayed during the depression era as a sign your house was paid off, and later popularized as a general patriotic symbol.) Their eagle wasn’t quite right, so I found one on eBay that was going to work better, and constructed the rest of the image via some on-site sketches combined with my general knowledge of house gables. The contrail was a flourish.
PK: I’m particularly interested in how you’ve limited yourself to works on paper for an extended period and that watercolor seems to be your preferred medium – that, and your limited palette. The medium decisions seem particularly suited for the perceptions of details in your immediate environment, so if you can address that choice as well.
SE: My sensibility has gravitated to black and white or monochrome since undergrad, which is part of what drew me initially to printmaking. There is something about a really great engraving or a black and white etching that feels complete as it is. Adding color dilutes the power of the statement because it’s not the point. I feel the same way about drawing, and I primarily consider myself a “drawer.” I realized that my interests in printmaking revolved around its drawing qualities, while the printmaking world was more concerned with layering, skate boards, and other stuff I don’t care about. I consider the watercolors drawings, but people can call them paintings if they want. Of course, drawings can use color, but I think of drawing as having a directness, like “I’m going to grab this material and use it to work out a problem on this paper in front of me,” whereas painting has felt to me much more like a stage show.
I have always admired how writers – and I would include comics artists – can create powerful, culturally significant works by just putting words to paper, and maybe a few simple drawings. I want drawing to be like that, using a few basic materials to flesh out a vision that is absorbing, not trying to overwhelm with a spectacle.
I also think the limited medium asserts itself in a way. For years I made drawings using only ballpoint pen, some black, some blue, some red. I wanted these drawings to be just like getting way too absorbed in a doodle, like something I would draw during a boring meeting, only taken to a level of finish. So, there is a conceptual link that was clear with those drawings, that’s maybe a little less clear with the watercolor.
PK: Any thoughts on images of domestic vs. civic, or individual vs. collective, and any considerations of architecture or text as it may be reflected in your work?
SE: Yes, these are images of moments of clarity that one experiences privately and are difficult to convey to another person. Very few of the recent works are exteriors, literally and figuratively. It comes from an experience of things you have when you are by yourself.
As far as architecture, my day job for many years was as an interior/exterior house painter. I cultivated an intimate relationship with architecture that was about being up close. My days revolved around styles of fascia and muntins and soffits and door panels, how the parts fit together and how they functioned visually. I thought a lot about how the brush strokes should relate to these forms, and what the procedure should be to keep a wet edge, prevent runs, etc. How well a wall is “cut-in” can enhance a space, or muck it up badly.
There was also the unique perspective of being up high on roofs and ladders, the scale change that happens when you see something up high from the ground, vs. when you climb the ladder and it’s right in front of you. I became familiar with the details of different eras of housing, whether it was the airplane-wing trim in ranch houses, the tidy proportions of 20s bungalows, or the sadness of Victorians converted to student housing.
Add to that the education by osmosis that happens from living in Frank Lloyd Wright territory. There are several notable houses within a mile or two of mine. We sometimes attend a Wright designed church, and of course Taliesin is a short drive. I think all this has sensitized me to notice particular details, especially domestic spaces. When I draw them there’s a lot of attention to switch plates and vent covers, and things I would have to address if I were going to paint the room.
There is the eeriness of rooms that have been emptied out, where you can see ghostly outlines of where things used to be, or debris that’s been hidden for years. I remember painting a kids bedroom, and I could tell where the bed had been because there was a little patch of dried boogers on the wall. We sometimes would be hired to get a house ready for sale after the previous owner died, and it was like our job was to eliminate the traces of their existence. My experiences as a contractor definitely left their mark on my work and influenced how I experience architecture.
PK: Some of your work seems to have a vernacular flavor and there are serious folk artists in this part of the country – any conscious associations?
SE: Yes, especially in some of my earlier work. I absolutely loved “outsider art” for a long time. I connected with the obsessive sensibility, and also its championing of “authenticity,” in that the artists seemed to be making to satisfy their own appetites regardless of audience or market.
There are the peculiarities too, that came from graphic obsessions coupled with not knowing the rules. When I was weighing grad school options, I remember one of my West Virginia University faculty Sergio Soave saying, “Go Midwest, young man,” because of my similar weird, Hairy-Who-esque imagery at the time. I like the spirit of the folk-art environment, that of the creative whose gotta get it out there, so they work with the art world they have at hand, whether it’s making concrete sculptures in their front yard or quilts for their family. I think it’s because I never saw myself as someone who would go to New York and carve out a career in the center of the art world. It’s just not the life I wanted, and that kind of validation didn’t matter to me. So, I took inspiration from these people who were about as far away from the center as you can get. I’ve been to just about all the sites here: Dickeyville Grotto, Grandview, concrete park, and naturally the Kohler.
Of course, there’s nothing worse than an art school hipster who adopts the tropes of an “outsider artist.” I wanted to work in the same spirit, while recognizing that with an MFA, I was much more of an insider than out, and knew the rules. I was probably closest to that kind of raw enthusiasm in high school, where I would just draw something I thought was “cool,” and take pride in putting a whole lot of work and detail into something, so I took inspiration in trying to get into that same place, hence the early drawings of spaceships and stuff with a ballpoint pen. I was also interested then in how those images related to memory, and memory of pop culture, and the distortions of memory. I was interested in how we fill in the details with our imaginations, and the weirdness and inventiveness that comes out of that. For example, if I try to draw an airplane without a reference, and I don’t know much about airplanes, what do I do to make it credible? This was another way to tap into that spirit of folk art.
PK: I like exploring contemporary art’s geography. Can you talk a bit about your history in the Midwest and Appalachia, biographically and aesthetically?
I grew up in the DC area (Prince George’s County, MD) but my parents are both from small towns in Minnesota. We made an annual family trek back to the homeland to visit the relatives, so I was aware that the upper Midwest has a unique accent and culture long before “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Fargo.” The conventions of our household were often out of step with those of my friends. I thought it was because my parents were hopelessly out of touch, but I’ve since become aware they were just more midwestern. Moving to Wisconsin felt a bit like a cultural homecoming, though I’m not quite like the natives, either. Still, we were the only Espeseths in the state of Maryland, whereas there’s another Espeseth family that I’m not related to right here in my own neighborhood (it’s a Norwegian name.) Wisconsin is like Minnesota, but more laid back and fun. More Catholic Germans in the mix, less dominated by Lutheran Scandinavians.
The Midwest is used as shorthand for boring (you know the cliches,) but I don’t find it boring, nor do I think anyone with an ounce of curiosity would. It’s true its aesthetic pleasures lack razzle-dazzle (no grand mountains or canyons, etc.) You have to pay attention, observe. The sky and the quality of light is distinct in all four seasons, and different than they are on the East coast or West Virginia. People who find beauty here are paying attention to different things than those who find it dull, and this is directly connected to the work I’m doing now.
PK: Given your skill with drawing you don’t make elaborate illusions, yet there are very subtle ones that come into play, I think, from restricting your hand a bit.
SE: Yes, thank you for noticing, this is something I am very conscious of. I recoil from drawings that are designed to impress with skill and detail, like a photographic rendering of some weathered old man’s face. I try not to just fill space with detail for its own sake, but to highlight observations that seem significant, so the viewer pays attention to a certain kind of wood paneling which triggers a memory, so things will feel specific. My first body of work in drawing were graphite drawings of about 3” by 4,” and I arrived at that scale because it forced that kind of restraint. The watercolor, as well, doesn’t like to be fussed with and resists a sort of “rendered” detail. It’s a way I found I could work at a larger scale and still find that kind of restraint.
PK: I also appreciate the surprisingly idiosyncratic, sometimes biographical narratives that circumscribe your work, for instance in the “Cabal” drawing.
SE: The image is an interpretation of the video game cabinet that used to sit in the Morgantown, WV Greyhound station. I took Greyhound a lot, to get home and to visit my girlfriend at Oberlin. The schedules were always a mess, and I frequently found myself stranded in stations for hours waiting for buses. On one of these occasions in Morgantown, it was just me and the “Cabal” video game cabinet for four hours, with the game constantly running a demo reel that concluded with a laughing skull. It burrowed its way into my brain and rattled around for years, until I finally used it for this drawing. I had to do a lot of research to reconstruct the game cabinet. I’m told this piece was purchased by Tim Allen’s ex-wife.)
Scott Espeseth lives in Madison, Wisconsin and teaches at Beloit College.