To get where you're going, it's helpful to know the paths of those who've been there before you. This is true for traveling, and no less true for making art.
So, I've been gathering images and written snippets that speak to me in some way from artists, writers, and critics both contemporary and long gone. Even though I can't currently nail down what my work is really, truly, for sure, 100% about, all of these collected pieces feel relevant and right in some way. Hopefully this constantly evolving collection of artists, images, and writings will help me piece together the disparate tendencies and visions that make up my own studio practice.
Gilliam is a color field painter and lyrical abstractionist artist associated with the Washington Color School, a group of Washington, D.C. artists that developed a form of abstract art from color field painting in the 1950s and 1960s. His works have also been described as belonging to abstract expressionism and lyrical abstraction. He works on stretched, draped and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a draped, painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars around 1965, which was a major contribution to the Color Field School. (text adapted from Wikipedia)
My fascination with Gilliam's work is in his unconventional, unstructured manipulation of the canvas as a fibrous object rather than as a stable, neutral ground. To me, this hearkens to my interest in color as a formless, disembodied thing; it takes the shape of whatever it's on, much like fiber and fabric tend to do; when it exists as light, it takes the shape of the lens from which it's projected. (What are the exceptions to these rules, if any?) In painting and textile work, color becomes embodied through its relationship with fiber (in printmaking, through the relationship with paper or fiber). Typically, that fiber takes a "neutral" embodiment as a stretched canvas; paper takes a neutral embodiment as a sheet. Gilliam's paintings maintain the embodiment of color, but don't stay tied to the restrictive cell of the canvas; rather, they eschew that hard geometry to take on decorative, human, and landscape-like forms that have an almost sentient, embodied energy.
In my current studio practice, I’m very concerned with the embodiment of color and the structure of surfaces. Moving forward, Gilliam's exploration of space and form through animated canvas structures is one I hope to delve into in my own practice through hand-weaving my own canvases and creating my own atypical paper structures on which to apply painted and printed color.
Richard Serra is an American minimalist artist who was involved in the Process Art Movement. Since 1971, Serra has made large-scale drawings on handmade Hitomi paper or Belgian linen using various techniques. In the early 1970s he drew primarily with ink, charcoal, and lithographic crayon on paper. Today he produces drawings and prints using a special mixture made from silica and Paintstik (a type of crayon made up of a mixture of pigment, oil, and wax) on handmade paper in collaboration with Gemini G.E.L., a publisher of fine-art limited edition prints and sculptures in Los Angeles. (Text adapted from Wikipedia.)
My interest in Serra's work is threefold:
First, his focus on minimalist printmaking has yielded spectacular and timeless results. Contemporary American printmaking is saturated with narrative, visually overworked, political, and/or commercial imagery; to see a legendary artist making evocative Minimalist/post-Minimalist prints (though not surprising, considering Serra's work historically) is heartening and genuinely interesting. While I appreciate narrative work (I love biographies and fairy tales), and while I cut my teeth in commercial print shops, I'm more interested in creating a space of open and evocative mystery conveyed through space, structure, relationship, and color.
Second, much of Serra's recent printmaking work evokes (to me) a sense of bisected structure (paper) and binary systems (black and white). Even though my recent work represents a vivisection of binary (and hierarchical) systems, I respect (and am fascinated by) the pervasiveness and tensions of these systems; indeed, their presence and power in history (especially Western history) is one of the reasons I'm drawn to this work. Gender (male/female), class (aristocrat/proletariat), art (high/low), presence (embodied/disembodied), materiality (digital/physical), environment (urban/rural), and linear time (now/then) are the binary and/or hierarchic structures and tensions I'm drawn to study and unpack.
Third, many of Serra's print works imply a sense of landscape through the use of a horizon. Why is the horizon important? If I were to get in a bar fight, it would be over one of four things: binary gender/sexuality systems; how the Internet is ruining the preciousness of real, physical relationships with people and places; how capitalism is ruining our natural environment; or someone physically aggressing a friend or loved one. Implied in half of those bar fights is the importance of the physical, natural environment (i.e., Mother Nature) and the body. We are embodied in it. We can touch it, smell it, and taste (in) it. It sustains us. In solitude in nature and in the body, we can introspectively mine our thoughts and emotions to know what we're really made of. The horizon - unlike any digital existence - allows for the perception of depth. And unlike the manmade horizons in a built, claustrophobic urban environment, the horizon of the Earth is a timeless, primal line to which we all look with wonder and contentment. To me, the horizon - even abstracted - represents a very real landscape where I exist as a multi-dimensional, embodied being with full agency of myself and authorship of my destiny.
Summarily: 1) the horizon mystically hearkens to an embodied place before systems, where equilibrium can only be microscopically shaken and where a person alone can live in both stillness and potential; 2) Serra's use of Minimalist and post-Minimalist methods and monochrome/bichrome palettes create a quiet space that hypnotizes me to content introspection, which is rare in today's information-saturated, depth- and horizon-less digital world; and 3) the color and tonal contrasts in Serra’s work evokes a sense of relationship that I hope to tap into.
Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, was an American painter of Russian Jewish descent. Although Rothko himself refused to adhere to any art movement, he is generally identified as an abstract expressionist. In 1936, Rothko began writing a book, never completed, about similarities in the art of children and the work of modern painters. According to Rothko, the work of modernists, influenced by primitive art, could be compared to that of children in that "child art transforms itself into primitivism, which is only the child producing a mimicry of himself." In this manuscript, he observed that "the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color."
At some point in time, Rothko read Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. From this time on, his art had the goal of relieving modern man's spiritual emptiness. He believed that this emptiness resulted partly from lack of a mythology. Though Rothko was influenced in the early 1940s by the popularity of "mythomorphic abstraction" in acclaimed shows by Max Ernst, Wolfgang Paalen, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dalí, this fascination with Surrealism and myth (which became a "tired formula" for him) matured into a purely abstracted space. Soon after, his "multiforms" became his modus operandi. (Text adapted from Wikipedia.)
Basically, take everything I said about Richard Serra's recent printmaking work, but REALLY amp up the feeling of mystical connection to a deeply personal interior landscape and embodied existence in an actual landscape (due to both HORIZONS and SCALE). While Rothko didn't personally view his paintings as referential to any landscape (real or imagined), we as viewers tend to find what we're looking for, and in Rothko's "multiforms", I see horizons. I'm also intrigued by his early interest in Surrealism and mythology; I, too, am drawn to fairy tales and myths. Some of my past work has addressed the death of myth in the age of the Internet, and some of my earliest memories are of reading fairy tales and coming to the realization they were formulaic and employed certain archetypes and motifs. And one of my most primal art memories is seeing "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" as a child and being overwhelmed by the implied narrative, the surreality, and the sheer size of the work (roughly 10' x 13'...monumental to a kid).
So, my interest in Rothko's works in the context of my own studio practice are: 1) evoking primal emotions and meditative, personal experiences using color; 2) implying relationships through color; 3) evoking a sense of space in relation to the body through the literal size of the support (canvas, tapestry, or paper) and through implied horizons.
From White Cube, the artist's London-based gallery:
Julie Mehretu makes large-scale, gestural paintings that are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. In her highly worked canvases, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography.
Mehretu’s points of departure are architecture and the city, particularly the accelerated, compressed and densely populated urban environments of the 21st Century. Her canvases overlay different architectural features such as columns, façades and porticoes with geographical schema such as charts, building plans and city maps and architectural renderings, seen from multiple perspectives, at once aerial, cross-section and isometric. Her paintings present a tornado of visual incident where gridded cities become fluid and flattened, like many layers of urban graffiti. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality. Through its cacophony of marks, her work seems to represent the speed of the modern city depicted, conversely, with the time-aged materials of pencil and paint.
My interest in Mehretu's work concerns abstraction, scale, and conceptual-material juxtaposition.
Regarding abstraction: the fluid, intuitive abstraction in Mehretu's work is something I aspire to. I have been told that my work sometimes conveys "an anxiety about not being understood", and I'd like to eschew that for many reasons...not the least of which is that my anxiety about not being understood often translates into anxiety about making work, and consequently not being as prolific as I could/should be. I'd like to release my stranglehold on the viewer's interpretations, and gently guide them to the general emotional/intellectual vicinity of what I'm exploring in my studio practice.
Regarding scale: I wanna go big. I know this means longer hours in the studio and/or fewer (but more monumental) pieces produced, and it almost certainly means more materials expenditure, but I feel that my interest in making pervasive, intangible systems into tangible art requires creating a sense of envelopment, environment, and sensory mesmerization that is best done in the monumental size traditions of the Color Field painters. I have no clue where I will produce this work (perhaps it gets produced in pieces and sewn together?), but I feel a calling to at least attempt one truly massive piece of work.
Regarding conceptual-material tension: when I came into the GSU MFA program, I thought my work was about the tension between technics/social media/the Internet and the "real" world. As I peel away layers of that very narrow idea and get closer to the core of the work, I increasingly get the feeling that my issue with the digital world is that it's just not the physical world. The digital world can stimulate our senses of sight and sound...but touch, smell, and taste? Not really. A digital device is slick, like glass. The Internet doesn't have a smell. You can't eat a Tweet. And even sight in the realm of technics exists in a strange, overstimulated no-place: there's an overwhelming amount of information and light-emitting color...but there's no depth. Are things IN the screen, or ON the screen? If they're IN it, where exactly are they? There's no depth because there's no horizon. So this idea of the horizon is becoming very interesting to me.
I suppose I'm interested in embodying unimbodied systems, and I'm still trying to figure out why. What comfort and meaning and magic and connection and essential human-ness do I find in the physical/material that I fear the digital world is slowly doing away with? Is part of it that there's something innately lonely about unimbodied systems? And do they make us feel insignificant and helpless in their vast yet untouchable complexity? Is my crusade as an artist to bring people back into their bodies and into experiences that only an embodied entity can experience? Is part of that to embody unimbodied systems to we can be with them, touch them, see them?
So, long story short, I started out openly indicting the world of technics in a very heavy-handed way through digitally-manipulated print media (WTF, I know). As I've relaxed my anti-Internet evangelism, I've realized that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Non-colloquial translation: rather than shouting the evils of digital systems and telling people to be wary of unimbodied systems (economics, gender roles, politics, etc.), I should be striving to make work that espouses the beauties, peculiarities, and realities of the world's physical systems, and exploring ways to embody systems that have no form.
Julie Mehretu totally gets this dynamic of juxtaposing your media against your conceptual explorations, and addresses it through exploring the frenetic speed and movement of modern cities through the still, archaic media of pencil and paint.
Victoria Manganiello is a Brooklyn-based textile artist, and also one of my new favorite people on the planet. She's a weaving wünderkind, and has been featured by multiple stellar news and interview outlets, including Vice Creators Project ("Textile Artist Makes Weaving Cool Again"). She's an unpretentious straight-shooter, hella talented, and - perhaps my highest form of praise - she's someone you'd gladly have several beers with.
She and I have a lot in common: we're both children of the 80s. As children, we were both fascinated by objects and construction, and we both wanted to be architects when we grew up (I skewed more toward interior architecture, and my room was always knee-deep in graph paper sketches). We both appreciate the importance of studying art history. We both found a born proclivity for weaving in our first fiber arts classes (hers was as an undergrad; mine was just this semester, as a graduate student). We've both started our own galleries in support of emerging artists, curators, and arts education. We both espouse conceptual themes of history, connectivity, environment, tension (literal and figurative), and touch (in the working process).
I was lucky enough to meet Victoria in NYC this March when I was up for Armory Week; she graciously made time to talk about her work in the context of her show at Sara Kay Gallery. Through this visit, and seeing her delicious work up close and personal, my interest and conviction in Textiles as a versatile conceptual art form has grown dramatically. I consider myself a printmaker first and foremost, but I often find myself leaning toward my childhood inclinations of creating interior and/or immersive environments; and, simultaneously, longing to make more intuitive marks and creative decisions than printmaking usually allows for. I also want to make work that emphasizes structure, environment, material, and process over narrative or representation. I'm not interested in the canvas or the paper as a window to another world; I'm interested in the canvas and the paper itself. I'm intrigued by the canvas - especially in the Minimalist, post-Minimalist, Abstraction, Color Field, and monochrome traditions - as a historically masculine space that occupies an essentially female-gendered object (because essentially, a canvas is just a woven object that most people see as a "neutral" surface for art).
Seeing Victoria's woven canvases and hanging installations - some of them painted ON the loom - opened up a new world of possibility to me. In weaving, my finished pieces don't have to remain standalone objects dependent on the original color of the fiber. They don't have to live on the wall (but they certainly can). I can employ weaving as an art form tied to female identity and histories of labor, mass production, low art, interior spaces, and craft as a NON-neutral space for painting, printmaking, and installation... and use these woven objects to embody the tensions between the unembodied systems that keep me up at night: binary male-versus-female; the aristocracy versus the working-class; digital versus physical; technic versus organic.
So why weaving (besides all the awesome reasons above)?
-It marries human creativity + intuition with a set, repetitive system to create a beautiful, tangible, personal object; in this way, it reminds me of printmaking.
-Even from a purely technical standpoint, I SO very much enjoy weaving: warping fiber, sleying the reed, and threading the heddles taps into my love of precision, arithmetic, and tedium; the mechanized process of throwing shuttles and keeping a treadle pattern is repetition heaven, and very meditative. But finally - and integrally - the ways in which this systems-produced object can be painted, dyed, installed, draped, worn, destroyed, altered...the potential for its use as both surface and object (or even as print matrix) are almost limitless.
-The process gives me a sense of peace; the product is something that heightens my awareness of my own body (spatially) and senses (touch, primarily, but also sight).
-Because how often are we concerned with TOUCH in our artwork these days? I want to create work that increases viewer's awareness of their own body through scale, environmental awareness, and touch, or - if I can't get viewers to overcome the untouchable aura of work in a gallery - a desire to touch something that looks like it's meant to be touched. It's probably always been kind of a problem...but we're in an era when physical embodiment and materiality are eroding concepts, and despite being more "connected", we're lonelier and further apart than ever before. Even as humans increasingly live in physically crowded urban environments, touching someone - even accidentally - is cause for awkwardness or apology. Touch is essential to humanness, but much as solid science is showing that digital devices are eroding our ability to sense depth (horizon) and aesthetic nuance (subtle shifts in light, visual texture, and color), studies show (and I firmly believe) that our sense of touch is eroding as well - and not just physically, but socially.
-It's just fucking cool. It is. You should try it.
Check out more awesome work by Victoria Manganiello (and some of her amazing collaborators like Julian Goldman) on her website. She has some truly mind-blowing video and photos on there, and for anyone who makes work about technology, place, connectivity, or structure, it's a treasure trove.
Rudolf Arnheim was a German-born author, art and film theorist, and perceptual psychologist. His magnum opus was his book Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954). (Text adapted from Wikipedia.)
Arnheim is also the author of the famous essay "Entropy and Art", from which I've excerpted the passage below:
Order is a necessary condition for anything the human mind is to understand. Arrangements such as the layout of a city or building, a set of tools, a display of merchandise, the verbal exposition of facts or ideas, or a painting or piece of music are called orderly when an observer or listener can grasp their overall structure and the ramification of the structure in some detail. Order makes it possible to focus on what is alike and what is different, what belongs together and what is segregated. When nothing superfluous is included and nothing indispensable left out, one can understand the interrelation of the whole and its parts, as well as the hierarchic scale of importance and power by which some structural features are dominant, others subordinate.
I haven't yet finished reading "Entropy and Art", but this passage stood out to me as critical to the conceptual themes of my work. Arnheim's interest in structure and order as a way to explore and critique relationships speaks to the minimalist and material inclinations in my recent work.
Yes, yes...Sol LeWitt WAS an artist. But his influence on my work and concepts concerns his WRITING, specifically his essay "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art" (1967).
In this brief essay, LeWitt details characteristics of conceptual art, and how it differentiates from art that is "meant for the eye". This doesn't mean that conceptual art doesn't take a visible form, but rather that the IDEA is paramount in conceptual art; the stimulus of the eye (pleasing or otherwise) is of secondary importance.
My primary interests in this essay are 1) that conceptual art is usually based on a system or a predetermined plan, and the execution is perfunctory; and 2) that all objects and marks made in the service of conceptual art - even if they are not finished pieces - are themselves art.
While I don't agree that execution of a work is perfunctory - because I am VERY concerned with materiality and outcomes, and creating said work myself - I DO love the method of making work based on a system, in which variables will invariably arise.
I also like the idea that everything produced in the process of making a "finished" piece of work is itself art. Most of the work I made is labor-intensive and can be very time-consuming; sometimes I feel like I don't end up with much "deliverable" work without hundreds of hours in the studio. The idea that all of the small bits (partially dyed fiber, tiny sketches, thread waste, paper scraps smudged with ink) leading up to a finished piece are ALSO art is a liberating idea. I'm not sure if it's TRUE - but it feels nice to think of it that way.
This body of research will continue to grow, so please feel free to bookmark this page and revisit it from time to time to see what's new, what's altered, and what's erased.