David Ryan

 

 

Talking Painting

Talking Painting

 

Interview with Jonathan Lasker New York 1996

 

David Ryan: Jonathan, in the past you’ve been rather critical of the blanket term, ‘abstraction’, suggesting that this term implies, “A negative [condition], namely the absence of image, rather than a positive position.”...How do you now view this complex relation between a concept of abstraction and image making?...
 
Jonathan Lasker: In a way, I really don’t think of my paintings as abstract...there are very clear pictorial references in my work. Maybe you can say that they are ‘abstract pictures’, because they use the means of abstraction in order to engage the picture plane as just that - a plane for picturing to happen. What my paintings are trying to arrive at, is a situation whereby a series of pictorial events can be construed, and yet at the same time one can look at that painting as being very literal in the abstract sense. So I don’t think ‘abstraction’ is a totally negative term; that was too harsh a judgement. What I was probably thinking of when I made this statement, was a condition that might be seen to be bound up with late modernism, whereby the ‘picture’ is no longer present, and what is asserted is a sense of what’s real about the thing that you’re looking at. In current painting, what you’re having, is a situation where you can have both things happening at the same time. You can arrive at a picture that is more ‘aware’ of itself literally.
 
DR: Does this create a more congenial framework for playing with pictorial metaphor?
 
JL: Yes. Definitely. I think when you’re looking at my paintings it’s clear that you will think of, or relate to, other things in the real world outside of the picture. Yet you’re also very aware that you’re looking at a painting: at a process of making and the physical elements of paint, which is one of the conditions of abstraction.
 
DR: Your work has also been seen in the context of a kind of picturing of the processes of the mind itself....
 
JL: That is true. I’d like to think that these paintings throw the viewer back onto themselves, that they view themselves viewing the picture....And that they are aware of how they are construing a picture, construing random marks to be a picture - which is what painting actually is - mark-making construed as a picture. This process - and it’s a two-way thing because it leads back to invention - will be consciously reflected upon, I hope, by the viewer. Painting can essentially mediate this relationship between a picture as a thing and also engage a reflection on the consciousness of the viewer and maker. I see these works as being very much about painting primarily, and then maybe about abstraction secondarily, which in some ways is reflected in the fact that I’m interested in a broad range of current painting: anything from current realism to abstraction.
 
DR: You have always spoken very positively about the medium of painting in a climate that is often hostile and depreciating....
 
JL: Right. Well, of course, there has been a long standing argument against painting throughout the century. I’ve personally always asserted, in fact, that it’s one of the most interesting mediums currently, because of this capacity to engage illusionism, or rather a mediated image, something that doesn’t actually exist, and at the same time to present a very actual experience. It’s a dialectical situation. In this way painting presents these two tendencies very clearly, whereas other media do not. In most films for example, you are really not aware of the cinematic process, you go straight ‘through’ the medium into the illusion. The image that is presented in painting, I’d like to think of as an ‘ethical’ image, which can have a very strong moral grounding force. This is very important today I feel.
 
DR: Leading on from this notion of an ‘ethical image’, in the catalogue ‘Cultural Promiscuity’ you wrote about the ‘hyper-real’ conditions of culture today - “The irreality of contemporary culture is supported by and in complicity with a bankrupt economy.”...I was wondering how, as a cultural producer, you see the most effective way of dealing with this?...
 
JL: If that is the cultural moment, that doesn’t mean that everybody, culturally at that moment, is working within the same paradigm. You can also be working against that culture, while at the same time recognising that it is prevalent, and I think painting has the capacity to do that. My own painting does engage in some of the irreality that is around us....I’d like to think that it both engages with, and is mutually critical of this cultural moment. In many ways my paintings are critical in two different directions: they are critical of any easy assumption about meaning, and on the other hand they are critical of a very decadent approach to a culture without meaning, or without the possibility of meaning. So they cut both ways in that sense.
 
DR: Was the acceptance of this hyper-real situation more prevalent in you earlier paintings? I’m thinking here of some works that were painted in the early eighties that referred to a particular chain of motels....
 
JL: Right. The Motel Series - thirteen paintings made in 1981. They were all quasi-mass produced works as though for a motel chain; an imaginary motel chain. The important question for me, though, was how would I manufacture such paintings as my own, and be aware that their destination would be the motel chain or the discount store? I was dealing with this idea of a kind of stereotypical production and yet at the same time these works deal with very real and actual painting issues. So I think a lot of the dialogue that informs the later work is in those paintings, but maybe transposed in a different way. They are still, so to speak, conflicted about these issues. I don’t necessarily think it’s a situation where something is ‘corrupted’, more a question of engagement; lets say I think you can get your hands dirty. The ivory tower approach to culture is very false. The idea of the cultural producer always working outside of the social moment and in a manner that is ’pure’, is a false notion. If you’re going to deal with the issues and problems of the world in which you live, then I think you have to engage directly and get your hands dirty.
 
DR: So you feel painting can have this double edge?
 
JL: It can: I think if it’s the artist’s intent, yes. If it isn’t, then the work is lost. For me this is an extremely important dimension of painting. So much of Pop Art was about this issue.
 
DR: The small maquettes that precede the larger works are exemplary telephone pad doodles, but they are also very carefully framed: they give no sense of overflow....I wondered if you could say something about control, self- consciousness, and the other side of the coin, perhaps a relation to the Surrealist notion of tapping into the unconscious through utilising the scrawl of the knotted gesture?...
 
JL: Well...it is a subconscious moment, but I’m not interested in travelling deeply into my interior in these paintings; but through these maquettes they touch on a subconscious moment or impulse. For me, again, this is a play around a duality - the paintings explore an awareness of themselves - a consciousness with, what I like to think of as, that moment which can be represented by a half-way stage between consciousness and the unconscious; as in when you’re just waking from a dream. It’s a fine line between these states, and these doodles do have frames, boundaries; they are contained. So really where these two states hit against each other, is in the complete process itself, whereby the small works are scrawled out in that manner. But when it comes to the paintings themselves, they are very consciously traced, always with the same sized brush so the execution is very clean.
 
DR: Yes, that’s interesting: this idea of using a process that, for want of a better word, conventionalises this relationship. On one level, of course, it’s arguable that we only have access to the unconscious through convention. I’m thinking here of Pollock’s psychoanalytic drawings produced for the Jungian analyst, Dr. Henderson, who felt that Pollock was articulating unconscious tensions through the ‘language’ of another artist, namely Picasso and specifically Guernica.
 
JL: We all go back and forth between origination and convention. It’s a reality, we could not exist in the world without those conventions, yet at the same time there has to be some extemporisation. I’m not too sure how original as human beings we can be, and how much of it is acting out universal patterns. I certainly don’t have an answer for that, but in a way I am directly involved with the investigation of what that is. These forms do play on certain conventional notions of what could be seen as archetypically abstract means of expression; unconscious forms presented in a manner which we now may see as being somewhat conventional. At the same time, though, when they reappear in my own work, each and every time these conventional aspects appear, rendered in such a way that is unfamiliar, or at least I’ve never seen them rendered in this way before. You could, for example, say that maybe a particular element has some of the qualities of a gestural passage from a de Kooning painting. If you really look at it, though, de Kooning certainly would not have painted it in that manner. Some of these forms are ‘typical’, subliminal, biomorphic forms that one might find in early Abstract Expressionism, Baziotes for example...but, of course, also very different, through the rendering and the whole process itself. At all times there is the question of our relationship to convention. Maybe we are all the same on one level, and then there is the fact that we do re-invent ourselves, and yet there are also original points of expression. You mentioned the Motel Series earlier; they were about these concerns as well in an odd way, because they addressed the issue of myself tracing my own identity through a couple of layers of convention. They were based on my own paintings, yet they were palette knifed in that ‘Ecole de Paris’ kind of style, the kind of thing that you would find in a motel chain....And this style owed something to the rise of Abstract Expressionism in America. So here I was trying to negotiate, or trace myself through a commercial convention and also a couple of layers of art history, and still arriving at something that was my own image. So it’s also a question of asking where the identity really is - and finding it.
 
DR: Through ruthlessly pursuing convention, you can arrive at something that’s other than convention?
 
JL: Absolutely. You can see this clearly just from how different people will approach the same tasks - handwriting analysis is a simple example, but even, say, cleaning a bathroom tile - it won’t be done in the same way. Actually it’s remarkable how much invention goes into our lives, and perhaps these days it’s easy to forget that, the emphasis being on convention.
 
DR: Thinking about your affinity with Abstract Expressionism, and especially Kline who has been mentioned in connection with your work by yourself and others, it’s interesting to think about Kline’s own relationship to scale....According to Elaine de Kooning, Kline constantly produced tiny ink drawings while still a figurative painter, and it was the experience of seeing one of these small, calligraphic drawings blown up on a monumental scale through a friend’s Bell-Opticon, that the abstractions were seriously begun....
 
JL: In a way that’s interesting...because Kline had to manufacture himself; he had to ‘design’ himself, and his ‘tag’ as an Abstract Expressionist, so to speak. He came later to abstraction than the others, that is true, and felt the need to re-invent himself in this direction. As a result, I think, he produced what I’ve previously referred to as some of the most ‘cogent images’ of Abstract Expressionism: the starkness, the black and white, the concentration. In Kline we find perhaps a similar juxtaposition of informality and self-awareness; self-consciousness through this process. The definition of his expression is extremely powerful, a very absolute expression, yet at the same time possessing nuance in a very controlled manner.
 
DR: In many ways though, your work could be seen as critique of Abstract Expressionism, in that you process the move from the unknown to the known and vice versa in a very deliberate manner....
 
JL: It’s not a critique, really it’s not. I think of it more as an analysis. The word ‘critique’ is used rather too broadly and consistently in contemporary culture. Analysis is a much more healthy relationship, I feel. So it’s analytical, yet very respectful of what these artists created and accomplished. Each moment in culture has its own thing to say, and while I respect those artists immensely, I have no intention of wanting to be one of them today; this certainly is not an attractive notion. The idea of the past is that it’s a stepping-stone to the future, so that particular moment is passed, but through analysis we can clear a space for something that might have a connection but is different, is ‘new’. Otherwise it tends to be a crude deconstruction, which is more often than not simply a negation. On its healthiest level, deconstruction can be analytical and function as a building block, but it has generally occupied a negative position.
 
DR: I want to go back to something we’ve already touched on to a degree, that is the ‘notational’ aspects of your painting. You used this term to describe what interested you about 18th Century, Mannerist painting, Magnasco for example....What is the connection with your work?
 
JL: It’s very relevant to my own work. Much Mannerist painting explores notation in this pictorial sense....In any kind of picture, one is of course using a notational system that the viewer then receives. In Mannerist works, the notational system becomes heightened, by manner or gesture. The gesture takes on an independent life of its own through its very characteristics being highlighted or emphasised in some way. The pictorial components become more isolated, and ontologically they come into their own. That intrigues me a lot. Because in my own painting each and every element of notation, suggesting a figure against a ground, each element can be taken as part of an entire picture. Yet at the same time it very much has its own existence in the work separately, sometimes physically separately, in the sense that you feel the paint is being placed upon the canvas in a certain and very specific way. Notation stands in for something else and yet as a ‘note’, it is its own thing; and this is, again, a dialectical relationship that interests me.
 
DR: It’s interesting thinking of this as a kind of unravelling in many ways...and something similar happens in relation to the scale of your paintings. A friend of mine who saw the pieces at the Hayward Gallery in London, suggested to me that he felt the scale was all wrong. This seems to me, however, a crucial aspect of your project; that through the processes you utilise, we experience a very different relationship between image/scale/size...and this might also be related to what Gary Stephan the other day referred to as ‘homeless representation’, in connection with his own work. Does this strike any resonance with your approach?
 
JL: It does in a way...that is true....These forms or shapes I create are, on a certain level, a little bit ‘vagrant’. They are kind of homeless, and they also could reappear in almost any other picture; but that is not to say that their appearance in a picture is arbitrary; that’s a mistake many people make when looking at my paintings. Because they see one thing placed against another thing that is contrary to it, they think this placement is arbitrary. The placement of these forms is actually very specific. One thing is intended very much to contradict something else in a specific manner, so the relationships are very important. At the same time, I am working with a fixed vocabulary of forms, which sometimes can appear in very different contexts in order to create these different relationships. So in a sense these forms are kind of homeless. They don’t necessarily ‘belong’ in a traditional sense to the picture; they are visiting there. In the past, I’ve referred to them as almost being like ‘cultural tourists’, going from one location to another, and visiting that space, trying it out as a natural environment for themselves, seeing what it would be like to exist in that environment. As regards the scale, there can be a sense of the figures being over-large, and an odd relationship to the ground as ‘place’. At all points, the paintings are at the same scale....If I do a small painting, maybe two by two-and-a-half feet, then this will appear as large as a much bigger painting on a certain level; so the elements in relationship can appear overly large....
 
DR: So there is a kind of double-take with the scale; it disorientates a sense of size....
 
JL: Right. Things are trying to find their place but they can’t quite find their place. The scale is actually as it would be if you think of them as figure representations. It’s actually the placement that disorientates, I think.
 
DR: What about the process of doubling and mirroring that informs your work?
 
JL: The doubling tends to explore the reproducibility of these initial psychic moments, where you take the original impulse and then it becomes mediated. In some of my paintings, what I’ve done is taken this automatic mark-making, and then reproduced it by tracing, using this ‘cottage-industry’ mode of reproduction. In many ways, I’m trying to situate an authentic psychological expression within the cultural moment, which perhaps demands mediation. But what I’m saying is that we can have this authentic experience and expression in that manner, and that this can be produced and mediated within the same painting. So in some ways, it shows how the culture is disallowing our own identity. And in a way, the whole thing of multiplicity in contemporary culture is severely damaging to our perception of ourselves as ‘original human beings’, or as having a sense of original identity. In certain ways, these paintings deal with the moment of that frustration; they deal with that conflict.
 
DR: So it seems quite a moral positioning in many ways....
 
JL: Well, I feel that’s extremely important in terms of an artist’s relationship to the dominant cultural experience: I think ultimately it is a moral one.
 
DR: I was wondering about this position in relationship to certain traditional modernist notions. This was extremely important for abstraction at one point in time: a striving for unity, wholeness, where this goes beyond the formal and suggests a kind of ontological position; a realisation of integrated self for both object and viewer....This too could be a kind of moral approach to form....What is suggested to you by the replacement of this model in much contemporary abstraction with fragmentation, complexity, contradiction, doublings, disunity?
 
JL: Well, as I’ve said, my paintings are dialectical, there is no question about that. The object functions almost as a discourse....The audience or participant’s relationship to a discursive situation is a thought process, and likewise the viewer’s relationship to my work is more of a thought process. What you are referring to in modernism, is this thing where the painting is more or less an object presenting itself to the viewer, who is also more or less an object....
 
DR: But both realise themselves within that moment....
 
JL: Well, as much as a thing can realise ‘itself’....There is no selfhood for a thing.
 
DR: The identity of the thing is realised through the viewing process, so that an analogy with selfhood can be made....
 
JL: The viewer confirms the thing’s existence. As such, there is a confirmation. But it all happens on the part of the viewer. The viewer recognises the object, and the object gives the viewer a stationary point to ‘be’ in relationship to the object.
 
DR: The ‘destination’ of this notion of the object’s ‘identity’ is situated within this idealised viewing situation....
 
JL: Right, and the two things go back and forth. Well...what we are describing, is a situation where the pictorial gets deflated. My interests are much more, as I’ve said, pictorial, but the viewer does get a chance to step back and also have a relationship to isolated events in the painting. So he or she will relate to particular ‘things’, in relation to other ‘things’. These are events that are existing in actual space, sort of mutually confirming each other as such, so the idea of a negative notion of fragmentation doesn’t really hold with my paintings. The viewer is the most active participant within this dialectic. In terms of a relationship with, or rather an analogy with a notion of self, I have to say I’m very optimistic about notions of the self, because obviously we very much need them in order to construe any social concept. Yet at the same time there are deep and serious questions about them, and I feel that my paintings do attempt to address these issues. On another level, I think it’s interesting that painting has become discursive. I mean Minimalism didn’t really have a discourse - it had supporting literature, and a critical context, but in itself wasn’t actually discursive....
 
DR: You mean issues were not somehow pictorially present?
 
JL: Right. It was literal and...well, an empty vessel. I’m not denigrating minimalism here, but I think it’s a more recent thing that contemporary painting has been able to take on more confrontational issues....And in an actual and a less literary way - and I’m thinking here of the way critics project onto something that is empty of discourse in itself - current painting visually takes much more responsibility for the construction of particular meanings or the initiation of its own discursive issues.
 
DR: Do you see your paintings as operating within a system of language that you set up, or is it rather languages in the plural?
 
JL: That’s a good question....I think...language, rather than the plural, which would suggest more a question of crossing cultural boundaries, which does happen to an extent, but ultimately only to a limited extent. They do stay within a tradition of western history and culture, but this in itself is explored on different levels, I think. Let me say that I don’t want to get too literal about the paintings operating as a language. There are things that happen on a pictorial level that always defeat language. Language, of course, defeats itself ultimately, because linguistic cognition is limited.
 
 
DR: Language springs to mind in relationship to your paintings for a variety of reasons, though. Many of the things we’ve been talking about could be related here: the idea of convention and invention, the notion of dualities and particularly ‘difference’, so important to the structuralist proposition of language....
 
JL: There is that, I suppose. As well as a very actual, literal experience which goes outside of language, which is the idea of being in front of the thing at the moment, and experiencing how it is actually happening in front of you....Where this notion of a relation to language is relevant, is during the process of making. Certainly here you could point to patterns of language at the operational level....
 
DR: Another structuralist notion of how language functions that might be relevant to the kinds of experience offered up by your paintings, is the idea of a relationship between an abstract totality of language that can never be experienced perceptually....It’s only in the individual utterance that we ‘experience’ language. There is something of this in the way that you approach form, and the way you were talking earlier about a kind of endless, potential re-combination of forms, and this might also lead to a reflection on what is actually present and absent....
 
JL: Yes, this is a valid point: I guess you could formulate parallels. I do, however, feel that it’s important for painting that it operates on a level of visual phenomena, and then afterwards one infers the meaning of that phenomena...in a literal manner, if literality is at all necessary.
 
DR: But there can be fruitful convergences with theory, that might help us reflect upon that phenomena, as long as it isn’t forced....
 
JL: Yes, exactly. Any painting that becomes an illustration of theory would, to my mind, be very much compromised.
 
DR: But these chance convergence’s can occur. For example, I can think of Derrida’s deconstruction of presence, where he favours the indeterminacy of writing over the (illusory) ‘grounded’ authority of speech. Surely this could be relevant, after the fact I’m sure, to the way you displace the ‘authentic’ gesture of the maquettes in the larger works?...
 
JL: Actually, I‘m not interested in deconstruction, but much more in a situation of reconstruction. These paintings accept the fact that currently meaning has been deeply deflated, yet at the same time, I’m interested in engaging possibilities for meaning. The questions to ask are: how can we begin to reconstruct meaning? How does one find relevant meaning within certain forms? How do they begin to have significance to us again and what are those meanings? What is the resonance of that experience? And try to build back up from that, so once again we can recompose an abstraction which posits an overall meaning. I think that’s the point in history that we are in right now. If Derrida is implying that the spoken utterance is always seemingly a subjective prejudice, then on a certain level, that prejudice, for me, is a correct one. It’s the only way that we can proceed to construct meaning. Personally, I feel that after going through all the analytical processes of deconstruction, I think we are going to fall back on the fact that there is a meaningful core to human consciousness, and that in order to communicate, we have to accept certain ‘constructions’. On that level, I’m optimistic about arriving at meaning, but I think it will be at that point when we have gone beyond the kind of dispersal of meaning that deconstruction favours. Much contemporary theory is operating from a level of rather poor faith; and ultimately in culture, and socially; I think this is very important too, it is now crucial that people start to re-invent their culture with some level of faith. Whether this is an intellectual position, is debatable, but certainly it’s a creative one. And that’s a very important thing to realise, that creativity is an act of faith. So what we think, is not only how we construe things, but it is also what we wish to believe, and that is how we construct thought in the first place. I certainly think it is a difficult point in history that we occupy....And those people who are simply emphasising this are not false in that belief, but it’s a moment for, if anything, a more heroic approach, rather than a demoralised approach.

 

© David Ryan / Jonathan Lasker 1997