David Ryan

 

 

Talking Painting

Talking Painting

 

Interview with Gary Stephan New York 1996

 

David Ryan: It would seem that many of the problems now being tackled in current, American, abstract painting have been present in your own work for a long time. I’m thinking of the way you have discussed the relationship between objecthood and illusion and in particular, the essay where you play off a highly improbable pairing of Newman and Escher against each other. At the end of the essay you wrote, “Seventeen years from the millennium, the terrible beauty of our century is coming into focus, every time has its form - this is the abstract century.”...With only three years to go, do you still feel as strongly about this?
 
Gary Stephan: Yes I do, because increasingly the organising forces in this world lie outside our senses and this makes for strange problems.
 
DR: In terms of art as well as social relations?
 
GS: Right. When I was a teenager, I was very taken with the work of Jackson Pollock, and I had no problem with it, it didn’t need a defence, it was in itself interesting. When people asked me, “What does it mean?”...or, “How does it work?”, I didn’t know where to go with these questions. Then I came across something in Carl Jung, who wasn’t crazy about abstract painting incidentally, suggesting that the case that could be made for abstraction, was that it was trying to give iconic form to the fact that this century is characterised by increasingly ‘invisible’ forces. I felt this was a reasonable explanation for the urge toward abstraction in this century.
 
DR: I suppose there is a link that goes from more detached utilities, such as electricity, etc., to the growth of information technologies with their corresponding invisibility. Do you see painting as operating, stubbornly, in the face of this...being perhaps a stubbornly concrete manifestation?...
 
GS: Hmmm...no, I wouldn’t be happy with the term, ‘concrete’. The issues around painting that I was getting at during this time, and which, in many ways, I feel I’ve made my peace with since, were as follows: firstly the paradoxical or unsavoury state within which painting can exist....This is what I was commenting on with Newman, and still think it’s the case....I still believe that, for a painting to be really interesting, it has to be in an in-between state where it is almost serviceable as a thing in itself, and almost serviceable as a view into a world. And the reason why it’s so unpleasant or unsavoury, is because we have to keep on saying, ‘almost’ serviceable. This is where modernism’s blind-spot lay, where it felt it had to clear out all the underbrush of pictorial association and get this thing to be ‘itself’. Such a viewpoint went nowhere...experientially, for me. That is why I perversely and pointedly misread the Newmans as openings and closings, cracks in doors, shafts of light and all that kind of stuff, that you are not supposed to do. They are supposed to be closed, autonomous things. Like hell they are, I thought. The reason they are so charged and re-chargeable, is that they are infused with their associations with the world around us. And this might be taken to a more general level: what you have in a painting, is often this ‘thing’, which is generally a rectangle and flat, which is built, constructed, deployed across a plane and made. If it works interestingly, it is also supple and pliable, both opened in and out. It’s only when these are in discourse that the thing becomes attractive. When you get the window with no wall - that’s not interesting, nor is the wall with no window. When it’s kind of satisfyingly ‘cobbled’ in the middle, it begins to work, and it’s the unsettled nature of this situation that makes it fascinating.
 
DR: But also frustrating in some ways?...
 
GS: Well actually, you’ve hit on something that people don’t like about abstraction, but in fact may be its grace; namely that it is an object in the world that is accompanied by a ‘what is it?’ sensation. What a peculiar state of affairs, if we think about it....
 
DR: Going back to the relationship between the wall and the window, I was intrigued by the way you offered Newman and Escher as a kind of choice; that one had to choose between these. Surely your own position has been one of synthesis?
 
GS: That is my solution; I have chosen to bind them. Culturally, what has happened on the one hand, is a transferable, disembodied iconography and on the other, these things that are almost too real. People imagine that they must choose between the two - between nuts and bolts, grounded in matter, or pure information. That’s still a choice for many artists. I saw Escher as a perfect computer logo or wine label; here was an artist whose work had become simply popular, usable imagery, in that you can scan it, rescale it, use it for almost anything. Then you get the painters who try and nail it down in absolute scale and in ‘real time’. Unfortunately, maybe, the dye is cast. I think society has decided which way it is going to go; it wants the transparency of HDTV, not the sprockets and scratches of film.
 
DR: Can painting hold its own against this? Could there be a positive reaction to this situation on the part of painting?
 
GS: Well, let me save my soul on this one. I am not comfortable with the state of painting today. I think abstraction always carried with it an anxiety that it could decay into decor. I imagine Rothko woke up in the night in a sweat, asking himself, “Is this just decoration?” As long as people kept themselves at this point - that this painting problem had to be resolved at the level of human meaning - then they were okay. I don’t think people do that anymore, and I think a lot of the stuff is collapsing into empty, pleasure-driven stand-ins for art. Empty signs. That really does bother me.
 
DR: What about the self-conscious usage of this sign value? I think it was Olivier Mosset or John Armleder, who suggested that they chose abstract forms simply because, culturally, it operated as a sign for the dominant culture of the twentieth century....Your own work has been described in such a way, that every mark is held in rigorous quotation marks....I’m sure you would distance yourself from a recycling approach, but I wondered about your thoughts on abstraction as sign or quotation; do you see this as simply a commodification?
 
GS: This problem goes right back to Malevich’s ‘White on White’; I think this isn’t a painting any longer. It was painting once but we can no longer see it; it has been replaced by its own sign value. This has happened to a lot of early abstract paintings. We can no longer have a direct experience with them. Maybe they’ve become signs for human freedom or whatever, but we can’t cross that gap that separates us thinking about what it must have been like then, or how you could conceive of making such an object, given the backdrop of history around it. That kind of bracketing is similar to the privilege of an archaic priesthood keeping aflame the fires of the deities. Once the ‘priesthood’ dies off and these things go naked into the world of the twenty-first century, nobody will be able to engage with them, or react to them. They have become secular relics. And these guys who think that the beauty of it is that it’s a dead sign system, are just burying themselves, because the only way anything historically goes forward, is if it existentially lives for people, who will have real experiences with it. The rest of it is temporary window dressing; you know you might talk your friends into it, but long term, it’s a dead-end.
 
DR: Do feel the audience for painting - those willing to spend time with painting - is shrinking?
 
GS: Absolutely. There’s the fifteen serious collectors who get together, the ten critics who get together and then twenty practitioners, the five hundred people who subscribe to the magazines - I’m exaggerating, of course, but it’s a small world, and an exclusive one. I ask myself about the whiff of privilege here, especially where it becomes a self-generating, private scene, and it’s increasingly, on the level of high school, about being in the club. This is not what people should spend their lives doing, in my opinion.
 
DR: Going back to the idea of self-consciousness - it was once suggested, in a review of on of your shows, that you “learned the severity of self-consciousness from the master’s hand” - Jasper Johns. Having worked with Johns for some time, how much did you learn from him?
 
GS: A great deal. One of the main lessons I learnt from Jasper, was to keep my distance. As soon as I got done with work, I’d come home and take a shower....I was very afraid that if I didn’t have a break-point, where, at the end of the day, I could get into my studio and do my work, then I would become one of his acolytes. Because his world was so persuasive, I was forced to stick to my own knitting, so to speak, and be protective of my own practice. The way we saw the world was similar in some ways....I admire the way his work is amplified by other things. It resonates with other human activity: poetry, philosophy, even ethics. Actually, Jasper would probably hate me saying all this because he is so concerned with the object going out in the world without any attendant agenda. But - it was never simply hermetic or didactic, like what we were discussing earlier, but rather in Johns’ work, the object is sufficiently generous that it can touch on other things and people will find it rewarding to return to it, at different times and for different reasons.
 
DR: Was Johns’ approach to mirroring forms particularly interesting for you? Of course, you use this differently, and here I’m thinking of these silhouetted forms where you exploit transformation of form through simple duplication....
 
GS: There is a lot of mirroring and doubling in my work, it’s true. I don’t think I got it directly from Jasper, though it’s certainly present in his work. But it might relate to what you were getting at about self-consciousness. I always loved the drawings in children’s colouring books...a landscape, for example, where you have to find faces in the rocks or something. But immediately the picture will look wrong....The forms are under too much stress, there’s too much information, they’re too self-conscious. That’s how I want these paintings to function; I want them to picture a world that seems to be ‘thinking’. One thing that intrigues me about Constable, is that the landscape is charged with consciousness, you know, you’ll look at them and say, that’s no landscape...because they are too fuelled up by a kind of mentality. By having the forms in these paintings be so aware of each other, they cease to have an isolated existence. In my paintings, I want something of this quality - the forms seem to look each other over, or one form might suggest, “I was once part of that...” in relation to another. Or the way these two forms [pointing to a painting] melt into each other. Or over here the way this form is the ‘sad’ twin of this one. It’s like a kind of body language - y’know, you’ll walk into a restaurant and see two people at a table - and immediately get information about their relationship just by their positioning. Forms can be read in that way and abstraction can talk about such things. That’s how it works, it is inferred from the way objects operate in the world.
 
DR: So it could be seen as psychological, or even psychoanalytic, in its approach?
 
GS: Yes it is, but that’s all I can say. I don’t want to ‘figure’ them out. I recognise a kind of fullness of meaning, but I no longer ask myself what the meaning is. I did this when I started painting. I made work that I felt was charged, but then I took the watch apart, and I’m not interested in doing that anymore.
 
DR: That approach to doubling could be seen as relating to certain Freudian readings, and I think Lacan somewhere talks about bifurcation or bipartitioning as an existential essence of Being, where he says in both sexual union and the struggle with death, the being splits between Being and semblance....The doubling of the other and oneself is constantly at play....I’m not forcing this onto your work, of course, but simply observing that this seems a dominant condition of your painted ‘world’....
 
GS: That’s very interesting. It also reminds me of the American painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder, I remember experiencing a particular form in one painting, and spotting the same form in a painting of completely different subject matter. It was the shape of a saint-hermit by the roadside in ‘The Story of the True Cross’, becoming a tree in ‘The Forest of Arden’. I traced them and they fitted exactly. This kind of memory does something - exactly what I don’t know. This, again, is something you touched on with the notion of transformation; here is the same form operating as another ‘thing’. In my work, this happens on another level as well; some of these forms have kind of phantom limbs, they seem on the verge of becoming something else. This is at its richest in Cezanne. Cezanne’s landscapes are so animated by his consciousness, which is no surprise because he really did try and occupy those forms, and we sense the plasticity and mutability of them.
 
DR: I was recently reading a lecture from the early seventies by Joseph Kosuth, where he suggested that when painting gave up a notion of ‘fictive space’, it entered into a phase of ossification, fossilisation even, paving the way for the literalist objects of Minimalism. For Kosuth, such a move constituted a kind of crisis of meaning, in that this ‘hardening’ or increased opacity of painting, in its more reductive manifestation, was a sign that we stood outside of its belief system as a language. We are simply witness to its materiality, rather like an unfamiliar language will simply appear as a series of vocal noises. Surprisingly, such a position might be not so dissimilar to your own, although I suspect you would feel uncomfortable with such a logical, linear, ‘modernist’ progression.... GS: I agree with this. I think Joseph is dead right here, and it’s what I said in so many words at a different point. I think those abstract artists who play the card of, ‘we’ve got something like nothing else’, you know; that this is a completely autonomous work, closed off from the world - build a dam in a human river and they are crazy. The thing to do is to constantly renew the flood-plane of your work by returning it to a ‘fictive space’. People like Tom Nozkowski and Jonathan Lasker explore this situation, and it works precisely because it is accessible through reading space in the way I know space to be readable, in an experiential way, and also implying meaning in such a way that I know form implies meaning in the real world. DR: The difference between, say, Kosuth and yourself, is that you believe fictive space can be re-energised within painting, whereas for Kosuth it’s a lost, historical moment. You also imply a sense of freedom from ‘use-value’, when techniques and traditions are revitalised in some way. You used a metaphor of sailing-ships, I think....
 
GS: Yes, that sailing-ships didn’t go away when they ceased to be carriers of cargo, they simply changed their way of being in the world. One of the radical things that painting can do, and abstract painting in particular, I think, is that they can spring directly from the emotions and seduction of sensation; that’s why real reductive pictures are such a dead-end, because they can’t adequately deal with this fact. One of the most radical things in life, is the way in which the pleasure principle manages to escape control and authority; state authority even. Traditionally, this is not just ‘escape’, but also a radical act - you know, once you got out of Pharaoh’s sight-line, you could drink your home-made wine and kiss and hug - and nobody could fuck with you anymore, you were in your own little cosmos. Regrettably, through mass advertising, the pleasure is now also being corralled by state authority and other means of control. I think it’s still possible to distinguish between the ‘false consciousness’ of the pleasure-drive within the world of advertising and other forms. What artists have to do, is to realise that the radical status of their pictures lies in the fact that they will never be ‘good citizens’. I’m a big defender of Renoir, and he’s a great example of pleasure escaping the ‘time-clock’. Get into a Renoir, and you’re off the assembly line; the machinery of the state collapses.
 
DR: You have also suggested in the past, a shift in the power relationship between production and reception. In your own words, “The knowledgeable father, the maker of masterpieces, is replaced by a psychiatrist, a witness to the viewer’s self-discovery.” This reminds me of Newman, who himself talked about a kind of transference of ‘self-discovery’ from the artist to viewer....
 
GS: Absolutely - it is a search for a sense of self and the object facilitates this process, in the making and the looking. If paintings fail, it is that they become simply therapy (and I’m not arguing for that, despite the metaphor). Or, on the other hand, they become propaganda. One is too outer-directed and one too inner-directed. It’s a situation whereby something that might have intensely private roots gets transposed to the level of the social, in that this thing does not remain at the private level, it becomes shared, enjoyed, and a rewarding experience for a variety of people. Something like that is definitely a condition of making a satisfying object, whereby this has to be something that the artist has to go through, as a process of self-integration. It really is for me, I know it. I need this ‘surrogate universe’ to ply the disorder, order, the beauty and even failure that occurs in my life. As my life gets more complex, the work is richer, it’s more optimistic, it’s more dense; it’s clear to me that I’m building a compensatory, and also contestatory, world. It’s really disturbing in many ways, because it’s so much like a nineteenth century idea.
 
DR: Going back to what we touched on earlier - the ‘reading’ of the paintings. You seem to stress the indeterminacy of the situation. But it’s never a free-for-all: ‘read this however you want’, it’s always tempered by a relativism, in that it’s only a relatively open situation that results from a high degree of executive control....
 
GS: Yes. What springs to mind, is that old atomic model...where you get discrete electrons orbiting in particular paths. And then subsequently a better picture: a quantum cloud that oscillates, within a range of possibilities, around the nucleus. So what you get is a situation rather like the way paintings get ‘read’- it’s not, ‘oh, you can do anything you want with them’, nor is it really, ‘it’s about the Battle of Trafalgar - the end’. There always exists a range of credible readings that enter into this cloud.
 
DR: Which brings me more specifically to the nature of words in relation to the artwork....
 
GS: This, in itself, is complex....As I said earlier, abstract form is often accompanied by a ‘what is that?’ sensation, which in turn is related to this situation of indeterminacy that we’ve just been talking about. Then there are titles, of course, which are kind of indications, somewhere between loose stage direction and poetic equivalence - they might get you in the right mood. This one [‘My Lost Soul’] has a very charged title - more so than most. And I was experimenting here with things like this [pointing]...where the same colour would occupy this very weak, literally deflated form, that was connected with this very filled form, right in the middle of the picture. And I wanted to compare the forms almost in the manner of lucky and unlucky siblings. This relationship between emptiness and fullness also reminds me of an image from the children’s stories of ‘Pooh Bear’. Piglet takes Ee-aw a burst balloon as a birthday present...and this particular story is bound up with many images of emptiness; the jar has no honey, the balloon is deflated. And despite this, the idea of this object going into an empty bottle is a pleasure to Ee-Aw - and when you hear this at the age of five, it’s like a Zen koan. It always struck me as a complex proposition, with all its inferences of interiority, etc.; and the notion that, although surrounded by this emptiness or non-functionality, invention and pleasure win out.
 
DR: Are there generally strong overlaps with theoretical interests in your work?
 
GS: My theory days are over. I really saw my first twenty-five years of working as getting enough information together in order to feel qualified enough to go about my business. So all the self-consciousness, the historical references, the various tropes and frameworks that I formulated, were an aid in just getting me to a point where I didn’t know what I was doing....
 
DR: But this was an essential part of the process, in the sense that you absorbed theoretical issues as an essential part of the practice?
 
GS: Absolutely. But, to this day, I feel that painting is not a young person’s activity, essentially. For my own part, all this information was simply something to ‘let go with’. Intuition is so important, and so underplayed and undervalued today. But intuition can only be implemented through experience. Y’know, what do we have to draw on, or let go with, when we’re eighteen? Theory is an enabler for younger artists, but it’s no substitute for experience, and the way experience can be translated.
 
DR: Could you say something about the way the paintings have changed? I’m thinking here of the change in scale, colour, etc., in contrast to the work of the eighties, say, where monumental, silhouetted forms operate in a very different way....
 
GS: These paintings moved out of the dark in ‘ninety-two. There was a group of work I showed in Washington: the first section consisted of paintings like you’ve just described, and the last one explored a heightened colour. There were five in all, but the transition looked like a movie that had been colourised, with the colour being turned right up to a maximum at the end. Following on from that show, I felt very clear about what I had to do...it was an exploration of the upper expressive limits of colour and light. There is no longer, I felt, any stylistic constraint, or any sense of ‘braking’, through the interference of taste or sensibility. I wanted to find where this upper limit lay. And what’s good about it, is that these paintings are as much as I could possibly think to do to get to that end; there is no sense of holding back at all. They are less driven by taste, and more driven by an attempt to maximise the luminosity and the plasticity of the picture surface. I want the space to be very sensuous and very unstable. I want you to be able to enter it and track around the painting, but also held by edges that both support and ‘disappoint’, in the old Wolfflin sense. He would say that edges in a linear painting were a dependable transit, whereas in a painterly painting, one would enter into the centre of objects and the margins were less dependable. The contrast of, say, a Piero to a Rembrandt, sums up this situation. What I want, is a situation where we can move back and forth between those two languages. The dependable edge that, within the same object, begins to fail, so that the whole space embraces both a notion of sealedness and openness simultaneously.
 
DR: You mentioned the paintings ‘coming out of the dark’ earlier on....Your use of black functioned in many different ways, and was also very distinctive, somehow operating as ‘blind-spots’....
 
GS: Exactly. There is this funny thing in painting, that any time there is a landscape behind figures, part of the landscape is an act of faith on our part, that it exists. Early on in my abstract pictures, I really tried to make that part of the content, and try to use that fact: that what went on behind an object, could not be known. In fact, I would use it compositionally, so that you would have three or four ways of filling the gap, of guessing some kind of continuity in that ‘blind-spot’. It’s an intriguing thing. Another aspect of black pictures, was the scale - it’s a more public scale, where things are turned to the world. Ironically, with these colour paintings, which are much brighter chromatically, these feel more inward looking; they’ve turned toward me.
 
DR: There is also some illusion in these recent paintings, and I wondered whether illusion was gaining the upper hand in this dialogue between the window and the wall....
 
GS: Well, I would no longer put it in those terms, or, in order to answer this, I can’t use them....The criteria, as I see it now, is to move things to a different level. It’s a situation whereby the preponderance of naming is resisted. Many of these forms lead you through a process of recognition that stops short of naming. Yet at the same time, it’s a fully enterable world: that is extremely important to me. I now don’t see that the object has any intrinsic human merit. I made an object - so what? The object is still there, and it will take care of itself, and it’s not going to be disguised. The painting will clearly be made out of paint and materials, but there is an alchemy that goes further than simply laying this out. The real point is, what does it mean that we can produce so much visual consequence from these meagre means? That is the interesting construct for me. I’m no longer interested in the kind of painting that says, ‘hey, is this a picture?...no, wait a minute...it’s becoming an object...but maybe not....’ I don’t think this, if it’s foregrounded as content, means that much; I really don’t. If a painting is really good, then it’s like living. What life is like, is consciousness, both self-reflecting and negotiating the world - it’s a dialogue. This is a complex situation. A painting is a thing. Inside this thing are also these operations that are like thoughts, like pictures; their identities are elusive; and we shouldn’t minimise the elusiveness of this, any more than we should reduce a person to, say, the dangerous, behavioural reductionism of a Skinner. Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that Skinner and also the notion of ‘pure’ abstraction came along at similar points in time...I don’t know.
 
DR: This idea of a painting becoming equivalent to real experience, becoming almost an organic, living and breathing thing, reminds me of Guston, where the painting had to be animated to the extent of becoming almost a personage. Is there a point of contact here?
 
GS: I’m not as big a fan of Guston as I should be. Because so much in which the way paintings are animated, for me, is through the meaning of composition, and the composition, the way in which energy transits around and through a picture, means a great deal to me. And with Guston, quite frankly, the stuff moves with great difficulty. He’s got a really nasty simple world: the wooden floor, the box, the bottle, the pink void; and boy, there’s not many places to hide in those paintings. I like to be able to get into a painting, and move around it, and feel that this circuitry is intelligible to me. Which is not to say that Guston’s isn’t, the bleak circuitry of Guston is true, and it’s Beckett like....And I wish them both the best of luck, but I’m just not going in, thank you...I’m just not going in....