You make the work by performing it. ...when you're going past them, the paintings sort of pivot themselves.
You make the work by performing it … when you’re going past them, the paintings sort of pivot themselves.
Matt Ballou, Kyle Hendrix, Nikos Karabetsos, Caleb McMurray Zach Nutt, John Schneider, Colleen Smith, Simon Tatum
Cover: Attribution Uncertain (Joseon Dynasty Royal Painters), Donggwoldo, c. 1830, ink on paper on silk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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Matthew Ballou We’ve been invited to be a part of this ongoing conversation at The Finch, and it seems that everyone involved is taking a little bit of a different angle. So what we are going to do in our discussion is express some of the ways that we understand what Dorothea Rockburne brought up and, in particular, talk about how that intersects with our work. We could be very technical and go toward geometry and mathematics or it could end up being much more experiential. There are many aspects of what Rockburne talked about that address the kinds of 3D and 4D realities that many of you are dealing with in your studios right now. I’m thinking here particularly in terms of the axonometric information. For instance when you’re sitting there at the wheel and you’re throwing a pot, you understand the elevation and the plan: two different orientations to the object. But then you’re also projecting it out axonometrically and thinking about how this object is going to sit in relationship with other forms. How my hand is going to hold it, how my mouth is going to touch it. The geometry of that approach is important. I think we all do that instinctively, but how does that operate?
There are also unique issues when it comes to your work, Caleb (McMurray), particularly in the context of earth-based works. The idea is that there are actions that happen experientially but are represented on an almost idealized or essentialized horizontal plane. So all of that could come into it.
Mostly I’m interested in how you think your work engages with the viewer — the ideal viewer being you — and how you’re thinking about relative distances either on the surface or across a space. How does that work in a large versus a small painting? Do you want people to be far way or up close? How do you engage the periphery? Are you trying to disrupt what we might consider standard resolution or standard imagery or are you purposely utilizing it?
John Schneider I don’t think I ever think about things in terms of axonometric or isometric or any of those formal ways of thinking in my own work, but with what I’m working on now, since I have a lot of small pieces, I’m thinking about how to put them together. At first I was always trying to keep them separate because I was trying to represent these psychoanalytical constructs; I wanted to keep them small so people could get in and kind of read everything. That was my tendency, to give people the chance to get up close and really read the colors and interactions between the texts and the handwritten elements. But one day I threw everything up on my studio wall and realized I had something going on there. It’s confusing, but I think I’m drawing together the smaller pieces to navigate a larger narrative.
MB Do you think that you’ve been instinctively — I mean, you have these larger subject matter themes: Freud, id, ego, superego, etc., — do you think you’ve been pushing them to different locations? In other words, in terms of scale in relationship to each other but also in relation to the viewer, is there a sense in which there are some elements that we have to get closer to and other elements we can resolve from farther away? Do those different scales or resolutions convey different meanings?
JS I think so, because as I’ve added in printmaking and photographic elements to the hand drawn aspects there are different reads. I’ve been making the photographs into really low grade bitmap so you’ve got to step back from them now to get the image. It puts that content into a new context. So I combine that with the small little cells that initially had Superman in them but part of them are now cut off by the narration of the original story.
…once you take the work off the wall and put it on the floor, suddenly you have so many more dynamic angles of approach — walking around it versus up against the wall.
Nikos Karabetsos So you’re saying at a distance you can see the photographic aspect and general subjects, but up close the manipulation of the comic cells and more conceptual subject matters become more clear?
JS Yeah. I mean, even when you pull back there’s still a distortion. So maybe at 10 or 15 feet you can see the soldier standing over a burnt corpse… the idea is that you’re combining the closer imagery and the imagery you need to step back to see. It’s an inversion…
NK I was just reading this piece on Pollock talking about [Zeno’s] “paradox of meaning” being “the closer we get the more numerous and splintered our frames of reference become.” The idea being also that, once you take the work off the wall and put it on the floor, suddenly you have so many more dynamic angles of approach — walking around it versus up against the wall.
JS I guess I always knew that in regards to Pollack’s work but I suppose that’s what I was doing, too: rearranging to get different angles and combinations.
NK And you can enter it from all these different points.
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MB Right: a dynamic approach to the object and the surface. That’s partly what I’m trying to avoid when I’m teaching Beginning Drawing. You know, I want their eye to be stable and to be the same distance from the top and bottom of the drawing. If they have their drawing bent away from them they get that isomorphic distortion. But perhaps that’s part of what is most interesting about Pollack where he’s starting to make decisions based on that distortion. I mean that he’s actually doing a projection. He’s not standing in an orientation toward the picture plane that allows him to see it all from the same distance. The vantage point is at an angle. That’s automatically going to craft different visual cues.
Maybe all of that wasn’t really as overt for him, but when I think about a more contemporary artist like Julie Mehretu, I sense she’s really thinking about these different planes sliding away or coalescing. She’s actively mixing isometric, dimetric, and trimetric spatial structures. It’s almost like cartography.
What’s interesting here is the question of whether it’s possible to have a form that you always have the same orientation toward. Or is it more appropriate to have a form that we see, project, and depict from other angles? For instance, Rockburne brings up the example of Giotto. In Assisi, he could never see the work straight on, so it makes sense that he would craft an order there that’s about moving through it. The angles of perspective in the actual image will change as you walk by it. The default in 2D art where you’re always looking onto it straight … is that the most appropriate?
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MB Here’s more what I’m getting at: my advanced color drawing students who are fibers or ceramics majors tend to be better at manipulating the materials. This is in terms of both color and form. It’s not that they necessarily have a better grasp of perspective than their 2D major counterparts, but they have a better grasp of the relationship between the material in one location and the material implied in another location. So they are able to make modifications based on that fact. It’s almost proto-cubist in that they sense the perspective but they allow it to distort so that the material takes on the character of something that is seen. There’s technically a distortion but it’s got a sense of the seen to it. I find it very interesting and I think that it’s related to the fact that they are in fibers or ceramics or sculpture. They’re used to the spatio-temporal action of doing something in space over time. Artists in 2D tend to get an image and make it static then try to translate that into a painting. Then they wonder why the painting isn’t as active as they want it to be. In ceramics, particularly when you’re in the act of making, everything is moving all the time.
NK Do you think that has anything to do with the physicality of the art object itself?
MB Yeah. It’s haptic. It’s all about the sense of touch. So these ceramics undergrads doing a pastel drawing have a greater physical sensitivity because they’ve practiced having material moving through their fingers.
It’s almost proto-cubist in that they sense the perspective but they allow it to distort so that the material takes on the character of something that is seen.
JS And there’s also the fact that some people naturally operate with an optical approach as opposed to a tactile approach in drawing. When someone is drawing, say, the play of light and shadow from an optical approach the phenomenon is external and they are more trying to render the gradient. But someone working from a tactile approach might actually move their hand to sort of carve out that light and dark. They’re drawing the forms more in a sense of building them almost as a three dimensional form even though it’s being done on a two dimensional surface.
NK Well, there definitely is a three dimensional, sculptural aspect to a 2D drawing. I was bringing that up with our color drawing class last week. Just the fact that when they’re drawing the figure there is a backside to that figure; you need to sculpt the body through the medium. You can’t forget about the backside when you’re drawing the front side.
MB That reminds me of a fantastic Michelangelo sculpture in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence called, “[The Genius of] Victory.” In it the figure is almost in a wrestling pose pinning another figure to the ground. When you walk up to it it’s almost as if you’re seeing three sides of that main figure — front, side, and back — all from the same angle. Michelangelo seems to be giving you multiple views of the same thing. Francis Bacon said that Michelangelo captured the best examples of “male voluptuousness” in his work. And in some sense voluptuousness is about the turning of the form, so you can think about that in terms of the play between optical drawing and tactile drawing. It’s about understanding the various roles of the form in space.
When I’m working observationally I always move my head around — sort of bob and weave — to get a sense of both the static and the dynamic aspects of whatever form I’m looking at. And this brings up a really interesting angle to the question of what Giotto was doing at Assisi. It makes sense that he would give us images that were almost sculptural, or maybe sculptural laterally across the plane and along the direction of movement as you view them. Then, when Rockburne gives us images that bend out — it’s almost as if they are pleated and they want to fold out. You see that play out in the history of her work.
Giotto was a master at using visual devices... +
…that subtly control the viewer’s bodily movements. In order to experience the work, the viewer must walk along and by it. If one is visually sensitive, this viewing position mysteriously causes one’s body to function as part of the painting.”
MB Do you guys see that? That there have always been the main subject matters Rockburne mentioned but how we have manipulated them or understood them in space has changed? We sense that difference when it’s right on top of us. For instances, a few weeks ago when we talked about Cimabue; everything is so flat and it related back to the mosaics and to architecture in a very static fashion. But when Giotto comes in it’s like the works want to peel away, as if he’s trying to break out of the geometry of the built space itself. So it is site specific but it’s also sight specific. It’s fascinating to see how — between two guys over the course of 50 years or something — they make this huge change in how we’re going to experience space in an image. That kind of historical pivot is interesting. I see it between Michelangelo and Pontormo. I see it between Caravaggio and Jusepe Ribera. I see it in Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou , and Louise Bourgeois. There it’s less about influence between people and more how they combine to influence others.
I just love the way that forms get changed across these examples. Take Bourgeois and Hesse. There is often similar use of shaping with both of them. Similar actions or modes of participation you’re supposed to take when you come up to the work. But then when they take that shape and move it into a different medium or even a different scale, the dynamics of approach-ability change.
JS When you talk about dynamics of approach-ability, that makes me think of Op Art. Specifically how they used illusion and scale. In some sense the images have to be big to get the whole effect. If you had to be close to it, but close to a large-scale piece, the effect might make you fall on the ground…
NK Well, in the color play of an Albers — on a smaller scale — the interplay between inner an outer squares creates a similar push. Taken alone, each square might be the same color, but then with the nesting and the relationships that are set up the whole thing changes.
MB I think there are moments when artists like Bridget Riley did some interesting things, but today what I’d call Op Art would be stuff by Olafur Eliasson. Maybe they’re less “optical art” than they are “perceptual art.” For example, there’s that amazing piece by Anish Kapoor in the Hirshhorn in DC called, At The Hub of Things. The outside is an amazing blue pigment — deep, totally seamless, seemingly endless blue. Inside it’s completely black, but it’s so matte and flat that it’s as if the universe is opening up from nothing. It’s like you could fall right into it. So comparing that to the experience of a Riley, you can see that she’s making a very different thing. But a few weeks ago I saw a piece of hers at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. For the first time in many years I was taken in by one of those pieces. It felt like it really was undulating and coming out at me. I actually stepped to the side to look along its surface from the edge. So often with Op Art when you become aware of the conceit it doesn’t work anymore, so it was nice to feel the effect. But it was nowhere near as shocking or as physical an experience as the Anish Kapoor was.
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So that progression— from an Albers halation, to a Bridget Riley where the visual dynamics cause the work to punch out a bit, to the association of color and surface with an idea of space in the Kapoor — is fascinating to take in. There’s a progression also of objects on a wall to objects that seem to — or actually do — challenge your experience of space. Maybe that goes back to Dorothea Rockburne’s original thought, that to see the Giotto’s in Assisi properly you have to be walking past them. You make the work by performing it. They’re set up in a frieze-like manner almost to get you to move, then when you’re going past them, the paintings sort of pivot themselves.
The physical action of looking is what Rockburne is making us come back to here. That is, the way it can be distorted or can distort what is seen. How do you want to see your work? How do you want others to view your work?
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…parts of the conversation the editors felt might support future topics of discussion on the site.
NK Well, this makes me think of what we read from Umberto Eco last semester. I think it relates to what we’re doing here, specifically the ideas of interpretation, misinterpretation, or overinterpretation. You know, when someone is reading a text or looking an image, are there degrees of ambiguity that are appropriate?
MB So is it possible to think about a person’s very perception as being interpretation or over-interpretation by default? Obviously seeing is an interpretive act. Can it be misinterpretation or over-interpretation? Or do those things happen only in the mind, in abstract analysis after the work has been received? Isn’t that the conceit of optical illusions? You’re seeing something for real but then you misread it and make some sort of estimation about it that isn’t really true.
NK And that estimation is wholly dependent on the experiences we bring to it.
Caleb McMurrayRockburne does a beautiful thing by relating kinesthetic space to emotional space. I thought a good example of that I saw recently was Brian Mahieu’s landscape work. It’s all plein air, and he talks about the light and painting outside. He went into his moods and the mood of the landscape all coming together into one piece. Initially when I saw them I thought they were just sort of impressionistic landscapes and I didn’t really care. But once he brought in the language of emotionality and connecting with the space, and the dialogue between his sense of the emotion of the space and how he was feeling coming into the work. I think that emotional aspect isn’t something we touch on much in grad school. And I like what she says about how emotion is not “sentiment, it’s strength.” It really made me rethink Mahieu. It would be easy to read his statement and see it as cliché — here’s the moody artist out in the landscape — but reading this made me like the work more and made it have more weight.
Simon Tatum I agree. I appreciated that she mentioned emotion being strength. It’s sometimes easy to think of myself as too emotionally connected to the work and that I need to take a step back to make it relate more to everybody. But if that emotion drives the work and it has a whole lot of effect on how the work is going to be perceived by other people then embrace it. We definitely saw that in his (Mahieu’s) work but I guess I can see it in my own work as well. I see it in certain emotions of seriousness or sadness about aspects of history that translate into the marks at particular times. Even though it might not always be that way and might be a temporary emotion while I’m making the work. It stays there and those emotions build up as you’re building the work. Those elements end up in the final product and can be interpreted or reinterpreted in multiple takes on the work.
MB There are so many aspects of the work that can influence how it’s made but may not be overtly declarative in the sense that they become clearly readable. We can all read the point of access that is the history of painting. We can all read the point of access that is picture plane. But we may not all be able to get the point of access that is the artist’s subjective response to some action inside them that then inflects the work. It may be entirely transparent to the average viewer. Does that mean that the work failed? I don’t think so. I think that’s just another layer of interpretive structure. It’s sort of like a “He who has ears, let him hear. He who has eyes, let him see,” kind of thing. If you can see an element or an emotion in a work, it’s probably there. That’s a positive and a negative thing for us as artists because people see stuff in our work that we didn’t intend all of the time. But viewers also see things that can clarify for us what we meant.
NK As in, we subconsciously enter this information into the piece that their interpretation has brought to light for us? It’s embedded and only comes out through the interrogation of the viewer.
MB Right. I would say, however, that there are a lot of people who — you know, Sunday painters — who would claim, “I feel stuff!” and it’s not really there at all. But no matter how precise you get, no matter how much you try to load it with information, there’s always going to be some emotional quality to it that is real yet beyond your ability to articulate. You’re always going to have some subjective aspect. There is just some scale that you prefer, some color that you want. There is just some quality of surface you want to achieve…
NK A base, primitive motivation…
ST I think it goes back to the conversation we were having the other day: when it comes to modes of working there are certain things we’re making even if we don’t have a precise idea of what we want. There are things we’ve experienced before or that we’ve seen in other works that inform our own works or lead us toward what we want. So when I’m building up a surface I might instinctively incorporate something I’ve seen in your (Matt Ballou’s) painting or in a painting I’ve seen in a museum. Or say there’s some mark or line work that I’m employing one way but then it begins to imply something completely beyond my source or idea, and that’s an A-ha! moment. It’s a realization: I know how to do that now. And so I keep doing it. Many times it’s not necessarily a product I was going for but it’s a result of working in the present with an awareness of the non-present.
MB To shift gears a bit — we often think of coming close to a work or getting back away from a work. But Rockburne is talking about moving past a work. I know for myself when I see one of my works in progress out of the corner of my eye I can get really excited about it. In moving past it obliquely I get a sense of whether it is working or not. In light of that, what are other movements — other physical movements — that our work might solicit other than coming in or moving away? Rockburne talks about moving along so you get it in the periphery — so you’re parallel with the work. Are there any other situations we can think of?
NK Michelangelo’s David. The hands are huge but when you’re standing below at a certain angle they seem to have proper form.
MB That’s similar to the Pisano sculptures at the Duomo in Siena where the necks are extended to accommodate the angle of view from below. The gesture of the figure takes into account the position and potential movement of the viewer. What else?
Colleen Smith Different physical perspectives in which to see or make art. I’m thinking in terms of the process of painting itself. A problem that comes up a lot with students — and with me, too — is that it’s so easy to be totally engrossed and so close to it. You step away and see that it’s completely distorted or that you focused on one detail. One of the hardest things to teach students to do is to try to get them to pass over the whole image. You know, to not only think in terms of what the thing is but in terms of abstract shapes, light and shadow, and how it all fits together.
Kyle Hendrix I think a similar thing happens in three-dimensional forms as well. I’ll often have an object on a banding wheel so I can rotate it, get a 360 degree-view, and get a sense of the exterior curvature of the form. I’m doing this to get a smooth curve or volume. Often I’ll take a picture on my phone as a way to get back; that small image is enough to shift my perspective and I’ll realize that I was off and there’s a lump on this side…
CS I do that all the time, too.
NK But you (Kyle) also have an inside your object…
KH …I don’t know if that distortion comes from being with it too long or not getting enough distance in making.
CSThat’s what’s nice about the little screen on your phone — you can kind of get the entire thing in your vision immediately and see what’s off in perspective. Whereas, even if you’re stepping back in your studio, you’re still taking in everything else around you so it might not be enough of a shift to see the distortion.
STBill Hawk (Professor Emeritus of Painting at University of Missouri) always talked about the fovea of the eye with regards to this. That when you’re looking at a work and you’re up close to it, basically you’re focusing on a certain section of it and that’s all you’re seeing because the center of your field of vision is pretty tight. When you step back you can start to take in all the elements at once because you’re moving so that they all fall within that area of highest acuity on the retina. Bill had it down to a science, so that he can tell you how far back to go based on the size of your painting. For instance, if his students were working on an 18 by 24 inch painting he’d tell them exactly how far back to get all of that image size within the fovea. I always moved back instinctively before for taking his class, but now I kind of know the logic behind it.
MB The principle of the fovea is that we only ever see between 1 and 2 percent of the visual field in focus. So you have to calibrate where you are to what you’re seeing and try to get that relation. You can always break out of it once you understand it…
ST Yeah, I don’t like to sit in one spot or even back and forth sort of on one line. When I’m working on a piece I want to know how it’s going to look from the far right corner, the far left corner, right up on the surface, and on a sharp angle on the side. Even up above and below it. One thing that I always do while I’m getting back is this tilt. I’m not sure why I do it but maybe it’s related to looking at a work in progress in a mirror. You know, get the reverse image to see where it’s off. The tilt helps me in a similar way to using the mirror. And an added thing that’s coming into my work now that I’m working on Mylar and glass is that I have to see what they look like when it’s flipped backwards. I always look at them from the other side. And I have to remember what’s coming through them as well, which completely changes it.
MB What other methods do you all use to see the work differently as you make it? For Simon it’s tilting. For me it’s catching it out of the corner of my eye. What are some other modes you use?
Guigen Zha When I’m working on the design (Photoshop mock-ups) for a new work, I noticed that when I obey the rules of perspective it gives me a composition that’s very normal, general, and it has no excitement. I’ve started to break those rules. I start with one-point perspective, and then layer in other parts of the image with different — wrong, broken — perspectives. It completely changes things. I’m more satisfied this way.
NK Since these are matters where we talk about how we engage with what we are working on, I kind of wanted to get back to Kyle (Hendrix) again to talk about the inside of his vessels. How does the relationship between the inside and the outside work?
KH For me it’s always form follows function. These are objects made for use. That’s the main consideration.
NK Those recent works you showed that had the shallow top but when you flipped them over there was this refined interior on the bottom…
MB Which was just as considered as what we would see on top.
KH I think someone who was very interesting with regard to this is Richard DeVore. He made vessels that questioned the idea of inside and outside. You’ll see the form from a distance but as you approach it there will be unknown interiors — unknown considerations of the interior form — that are suggested and that question what a bowl can be.
ST I think that’s something about 3D work — like, with ceramics, I would never touch a ceramic piece. I just don’t touch artwork. I guess I’ve always thought it was disrespectful. Now that I’m interacting more with ceramics and sculpture people, they’re telling me, “No, you’re not experiencing the work properly.” And picking a work like that up really is a different way of understanding it.
KH It’s interesting you bring that up. In thinking about how a person perceives an artwork and the question you asked about how we physically interact with our work — whether it’s approaching, moving away, moving past, or picking it up. When you add functional ceramics into the mix, obviously the tactile quality of the work and how the work functions emotionally with you as you’re using it and engaging in in its function is key. Pete Pinnell (Chair of Art Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) tells an interesting story about a mug made by a pretty well known contemporary potter named Linda Christianson. He has this mug of hers, and it’s got a very rough, gritty rim. It has a kind of uncomfortable handle. The volume that’s constructed is kind of tippy and it’s just not easily used. You know, the way you’d consider a diner mug; you can engage with it on an unconscious level. You don’t really need to be aware of what you’re doing. You can use it without paying attention. Anyway, Pinnell didn’t like using Christianson’s mug for those reasons and one day he decided to force himself to use it. What happened was that he quickly recognized that the act of using the mug got him to slow down. Time slowed down. He enjoyed the beverage the mug held; the grittiness of the lip allowed him to consider more fully the liquid that was in there. It changed his whole perception of using it.
CS And in his talk he also mentioned handles as well. I had never really considered the idea that women and men hold handles differently. After the talk I kept asking myself, do I have a masculine grip or a feminine grip? And I never thought about, I mean, we talk about painting in these really abstract ways — gender, sexuality — all of the time, but I had not thought of cups in that way before.
ST Now that I’m picking up ceramics I’m feeling them all the time. It’s so much more fun. The other day I picked up this bowl to look at it. I didn’t think very much about it but when I set it down — the artist hadn’t put a foot on it — it wobbled. That was an experience in itself. I guess it’s that physical experience with the work that makes being with the work so much better.
MB All of this makes me want to talk a little more about that sense of how we approach the work. Think of this: what kind of weird, alchemical thing is happening when we see something in the world and we want to remake it, or take it from one kind of dimensionality to another. Or we want to take it from one scale to another scale. Then when it’s in that new state we want to — well, it’s not that we want to — it’s automatic. It’s limbic. It’s in the deep brain. We want to take that and retranslate it. So it makes me think about things like mirror neurons, which we’ve talked about in the past. That whole conversation about the cup is all about mirror neurons and haptic sense, where the form itself communicates to us and activates the motor cortex in the context of how I would actually be moving if I made a ceramic slab, or if made that particular mark. You know, if I see the ink moving across Simon’s piece, I’m thinking about the gesture of his hand. Then I see it tighten up, and there’s a difference in the attitude and the action and the philosophical motion that’s happening. I’m interested in that dynamic. How works activate mirror neurons. Relationships between lived and imagined action.
The artwork, as a representation of reality, pulls back out into reality in a different way when it is viewed.
I think all of this goes back to cave paintings in the sense of people wanting to take a three-dimensional — really four-dimensional — activity like hunting and put it onto the surface of a cave wall, two-dimensionally. Over time the cave becomes a sacred space where they are considering the cycle of their lives. Do you think that there’s alchemy there? Do you think that someone seeing the two-dimensional deer on the cave wall allowed them to have a three- or four-dimensional experience? The artwork, as a representation of reality, pulls back out into reality in a different way when it is viewed. I’m super concerned about this perennial human activity of taking a three-dimensional reality and collapsing it into a two-dimensional one or taking a two-dimensional reality and reconstituting a version of three-dimensional reality from it. And when mirror neurons come into it, where physically — just by being in the world — when I make a gesture every one of your motor cortexes fires as if you were making the gesture, too. That’s one of the reasons we, as primates, gesticulate so much. That’s how the tribe knows what is going on. I think there’s a clear relationship between the fact that the mirror neurons help us with certain physical processes — learning how to talk for example — and the symbolic processes we go through — translating dimensionalities, using abstractions and geometries to contain meaning. I’m so interested in this. Do any of you have any thoughts that flow out of this?
CMSome of this just has to do with wanting to document what has happened. We have this desire to constantly document and verify what happens. Look at Instagram for that, but even the cave paintings. Maybe all of that is as simple as them wanting to say, “we did that and we want to remember that we did it.” Even amongst performance artists, or artists like me who use walking; there’s a desire to document it. Even someone like Richard Long interacts with and alters the landscape, and people criticize him for that. On the other side Hamish Fulton, who doesn’t interact with the landscape — he doesn’t change it — but then he still makes work that produces a document. It’s a way to leave your mark. It’s kind of funny and I don’t have a good reason for it. I guess it comes down to the idea that it’s confirmation of an event for us.
CS Going off of that, I think one of the strangest things about 2D work is the fact that all this time is spent making this image — you have it all rendered out the way you want it — and then the average time someone spends actually interacting with it is only seconds. It’s such a weird thought. You see these paintings that seem to have something transcendental about them but you only experience it for a minute and then you move on to the next one. Yet that painting might have taken months and months to make.
MB Is that a deficiency, which it could be and often is, or is it effectiveness? I think there are some works that are so effective they act almost instantly as a whole event. How long do I need to stay with that Anish Kapoor? It’s effective. It moves me. I can’t wait to go back to see it again sometime. There are multiple times where you come to something you’ve seen before or you have read before and it hits you completely differently. In some sense maybe what’s effective is the fact that I know an artist has put in hours and hours and hours and it will always be full. I can always go to it. There are paintings I’ve spent hours and hours with — like Pontormo’s Deposition — and then there are other works I’ve spent much less time with but in some way they are always in the back of my mind. There’s this quirky Piero di Cosimo in the Uffizi that has the most incredible blue sky. I don’t know how he did this blue. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s like the inside vault of the sky and some opening to infinity…
NK Zach, we were talking about the notion of the index dovetailing with mirror neurons. What did you have going on with that?
Zach Nutt Yeah. Indexing is like an equation. You have an experience and your brain is firing to understand it, and yet you’re filtering it through a different method or methods of understanding. It’s processing it out as a separate symbol.
NK Right, this equals that. And part of that equation is the manner in which your mirror neurons respond to the stimuli. The stimuli fire something in you that becomes indicative of an abstract idea.
ZN It’s symbolic or poetic thinking conditioned through our experiences, our interacting with the world. Like, if we do such and such action, we know that physics will operate in such and such a way. And then when you create perceptual illusions in art it puts you into that place of something you’ve done before. You anticipate what’s going to happen.
I’ve been thinking a lot about mapping — or translating the idea of different dimensions — during this conversation. I had an experience last semester when I was creating big maps. I had been working from a Google Earth image with a perspective looking straight down from, say, 500 or 1000 feet above the earth. There’s a slight angle to the image because of the line of sight from the satellite. You can see that from the direction of shadows and whatnot. Anyway, I had spent a few hours at that work and when I walked outside into the same area that I had been looking at on the map I had this strange sense of vertigo; it was like I was 1000 feet up seeing myself walk out into this map. I was having an experience of the bounding box of this map. It was as if I existed in the map and above the map simultaneously.
MB It’s that oblique, 8-bit video game look.
ZN I don’t know if that’s something that could be replicated for the viewer, but it was an interesting moment. An aspect of maps that seems profound to me is how outside the bounding box of a particular map, the shapes are abstract. We recognize them as landscape and maybe there’s a little indication of what it is, but it’s low resolution. But when you’re inside the bounding box you can see that building over there, and you can look at it and see how tall it is and relate that back to the map. You start to feel yourself inside the map in a way; you start to relate that two-dimensional plane to the three-dimensional world all around you.
MB Well, that makes me think about early Chinese perspective, which is isometric. It’s always got that wonderful vertical, but the angles that come off make it so that scale doesn’t change within a particular area. The scale shifts are arranged into arenas of action separated by mist or some other formal element. What’s interesting is that they totally understood perspective. It’s about the way they want you to read the image and how they want to establish the hierarchies. In that way it’s very similar to Egyptian stuff and other cultures where there’s a very specific societal hierarchical structure. You know, you’ll have the highest ranked person rendered the largest. The figures might be in the same physical space but their scale is totally different and not keyed to the perspective of the space. It’s symbolic scale.
GZ It’s all about balance. You have to have balance.
MB The abstract balance is at least as important formally as, say, perspectival accuracy. That’s one thing said in the article: all of these cultures certainly had notions of perspective but they had other notions that were just as or more important.
That’s my final question. What are some things that are more important to you than a depiction of accurate orientation? Like Kyle was saying about the cup being shaped to force a certain use. It was almost broken in order to make it function. What are some ways you guys are purposely adjusting something so that you can obtain a particular approach to the work?
KH I can tie that to my functional service vessels right now, where they’re not easily handled or passed around. They exist on this table space where they require users to come to them. If you want to use it you have to be in proximity to it. You have to reach out to it and think about it being useful to more than one person. It forces users to be close to each other as well, unlike a traditional plate form that has lift. This object is here. It’s static to the table plane, and picking it up isn’t how it’s going to be utilized.
MB It’s interesting that at a granular scale, as individuals, we are unpredictable. But when you look at 50,000 or 50 million people, we kind of all do the same things. I wonder if it’s like that with artworks, too. We go through all of these motions to try to get people to engage, but really just by virtue of what is it — a cup, a painting on a wall, a space — people have to engage. They engage in the way it occurs to them to engage. How much effect can we actually have, given that?
ST I think that, in my work, recently, it’s been important to not just create it through pure perspective but through the relationship between the mark and the material. I mean, when I’m working from these Cayman Islands National Archive photo sources there are particular issues. If I’m working from a photo of a figure, I understand how to develop the figure because I’ve done it from life so much. But then also I recognize that these photos are limited sources of information. So a lot gets added in, not so much in terms of imagination since I don’t really think of myself as thinking about being imaginative. It’s more a play with materials where I fix solutions. So if I’m trying to build an image using a photograph I might not know how I’m going to render any specific aspect of that figure to make it work and make it feel like it’s a better experience than simply viewing the original photograph itself. Often times it comes down to playing with the material and something happens with my mark and with the material that gives me something I can use.
NK Isn’t that an imaginative process, though?
ST I don’t think so.
NK Just the use of the work “play” makes me think of it being imaginative.
MB I think, too, allowing the potential of the material to direct your hand, to craft resolution, or to give you an instinct for resolution — I mean, some people are going to hyper-render and that’s an instinct for resolution that comes out of their engagement with material. Other people are attempting to display a notion of how this history has been lost or fractured, or faded and that’s you inventing with the material. To me that’s imaginative.
People often use invention or imagination as excuses for just doing whatever, without realizing that we’re constantly inventing and using imagination. Just to listen and participate in this conversation you have to invent…
NK John, do you consider your process more imaginative or more analytical? I’m just wondering how you understand the way you’re taking these different sources of information and compositing them together.
JS They’re sort of the same. I mean, the big changes happen when I step back to analyze what I’ve done and where it’s going. So in my analysis the process starts. Well, I don’t know that I’d call it imaginative or intuitive. I just start moving parts around — cutting things apart and putting them together, then cutting those apart and putting them together differently. I go back through when I can focus more. The imagination has done its part so I just let the analytical take over. I’m going for slight humor… not slapstick funny or ridiculous. I try to keep it serious.
CS I think the imaginative is a big component of my work and one of my biggest challenges is figuring out how all of these things that I’m collaging into the painting fit in the same believable space. You know, trying to create a believable world. It takes time.
GZDo you care about making a unified perspective space from all of the different sources?
CS I care about the perspective, but it’s tough. Most of my paintings come out of an imagined space and therefore an imagined perspective.
MB I’ve actually been wondering if the way that you work — inventing the space and populating it with collaged elements — allows you to do more lateral movement compositionally. I think that I have been doing a lot more lateral action lately, too. What I mean is that there’s a piece — a compositional element, a figure, a perspectival structure — and then there’s an adjacent piece that you relate it to and it’s all about how those two areas connect rather than the whole thing necessarily. That’s what I’m seeing in your new big one. To me, that’s all about things folding and unfolding across the surface, even though you’re crafting a constructed landscape.
MB Yeah, Balthus was definitely like that. Theater-like. A screen could raise, something could wheel out, and everything was staged.
Does anyone have final observations?
CS One thing I really liked that Dorothea Rockburne said was how all of the stuff that she experienced in her childhood had stuck with her. I’m interested in that for all of us. Do we have an aspect of our past that comes up in our work now, anything that harkens back? She was talking about the Northern Lights or being told she should take a math class, for example. As a child I was so interested in these fairy books. I remember looking at the Victorian fairy paintings all of the time. I’ve had some of those images hanging on my wall since I was ten or something. They were always so seductive yet had a creepy element at the same time… bird people and bats and stuff like that. Super weird. I was looking at my paintings recently and just realized it was coming back in my own work.
In August at night I would lie in a field... +
…and look at the northern lights and think about astronomy as a child might…”
MB I think for me it was about realizing that an image could be symbolic and observational at the same time. For instance, I looked at a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh when I was 5 or 6 and was fascinated by the little illustrations in that. And around that time we had a large format art of Walt Disney book that had the Fantasia stuff in it. You know, it was sort of my first pass seeing those abstract ideas that can be shown in a representational form: a pas de deuxwhere the abstract and the depictive coalesce. In a way I think this is what I’ve always been interested in as an artist. Particularly in my most recent work where it’s exactly the same compositional formatting and mode of casting of the eye through the painting whether the image is representational — clearly depictive, clearly observational, clearly perceptual — or abstract and totally invented. To me they’re utilizing the same compositional structure and almost the exact same intent for the internal geometries of the work. It’s kind of like the difference between a Western mandala form, which is representational in that you can clearly see people doing things, and an Eastern mandala form, which is often completely abstract in its imagery if not in its use. I feel like I’m doing that, going between those poles.