David Ryan

 

 

Talking Painting

Talking Painting

 

Interview with Shirley Kaneda New York 1996

 

David Ryan: You were invited by Valerie Jaudon to participate in the show ‘Conceptual Abstraction’ at Sidney Janis in ‘91. I wondered whether you felt the term provided any useful inroads into the position of the work included in that show, which has often been grouped together under various terms: ‘New Abstraction', etc.. But also whether it has any relation to your own activity?
 
Shirley Kaneda: Well, the title was not really accurate in terms of the abstract painters brought together in that show...with the exception of David Diao, whose work is conceptual and abstract, and painting at the same time. Everyone else would not fit so easily into that category. Of course, one can propose that abstract painting can be associated with a conceptual framework, and obviously that was the idea behind the show. But the term ‘Conceptual Abstraction’ is not only inaccurate, I would say it doesn’t really serve abstract painting in the end, and I think it would be misleading to view my paintings in this light. There are, however, new sensibilities that signalled a renewal of the practice of abstract painting, which was what the show had intended to reveal.
 
DR: How important was appropriational abstraction in the eighties for you?
 
SK: For me, it wasn’t important. Some people may have thought that my work had some appropriational approaches, but that is more a by-product of the processes that I have implemented. If it looked appropriational, this was not intentional. Speaking for myself, I feel that appropriation is not an interesting proposition.
 
DR: Your earlier paintings often make use of bi-partite structures, divided between left and right, which invited a comparative mode of looking - we might get a relation between forms which suggest a particular reading of fluidity on one side, and solidity on the other. Does this articulation of ‘difference’ go beyond the formal?
 
SK: Oh, absolutely. It’s a method to invoke those ideas that deal with inconsistencies and paradoxes. I want the paintings to enable a reflection of such ideas as the desirability for consistency, obviously not literally, but provoked through the visual play within the painting, so that they go beyond the given visual information and operate on the level of the metaphorical.
 
DR: Where did the forms originate from in the earlier work, what are the sources?
 
SK: Actually, not from anything. One can name certain elements like circles, lines and so on, but the more ‘organic’ shapes are from wanting a non-standard geometry, so that they’re stretched from the basic ovals, circles, etc.. And they get more complicated, resulting in the shapes becoming more difficult to identify....
 
DR: So they’re like hybrid geometries? It’s also the irony of something becoming ‘quasi’ organic from basic geometrical procedures?
 
SK: They also take on the form of something seemingly specific. Someone once related them to emblems or insignias; my earlier work was often related to the heraldic design...which I don’t mind...but again, this was a by-product, not an intent.
 
DR: This is interesting at the level of almost a game playing with recognition. With heraldic design, recognition might even be a matter of life and death in the context of battle or war. But on another level you have intimated an indeterminacy built into these forms and an acceptance of various interpretations: is this a correct assumption?
 
SK: Definitely. It opens up the space of a painting for me in order to produce a more reflexive work. I had to bring into play more complex shapes. And not only were they complex in themselves, but also in terms of the relationships of those shapes together with texture, pattern and so on. It was an examination of what a particular painting could hold in terms of difference and complexity.
 
DR: The recent work seems to explore a more overall, disruptive fragmentation, rather than the bi-partite differentiation, and it results in a kind of spatial disorientation, whereby one opening of form seems to fold onto another. Andrew Benjamin recently suggested a possible reading of the new work as a loss or lack of ‘ground’- and I’m reading him both literally and philosophically here - that your work, “eschews any necessity of retaining a determining ground.”
 
SK: Yes, I think that’s accurate because they’re made up of parts, and they are, by and large, disparate elements. And yet they have to co-exist on the same picture plane, defying a figure/ ground reading even thought the figure/ ground might initially seem to be the ‘logic’ of the painting. My intention is to deny that rationality within the work. In a way it’s all ‘groundless’ - we are left simply a bunch of elements of their material and visual relations. It is these effects which supply the material for their interpretation. And those material relationships that exist in the real world are replicated in my work to make visible those relationships that exist, but cannot be seen.
 
DR: I was thinking about this in relation to Adorno in the Aesthetic Theory, where he writes about montage, which he describes in terms of ruptures, allowing the life-world to invade or flood into the work of art in order, as he says, “[to] Shock people into realising just how dubious any organic unity really was.” I’m interested in how you allow something of this sensation, but that it tends to fold back onto the work itself: the rupture is a kind of reflexive one, so to speak. This might be linked to Adorno’s dissatisfaction with the polarised extremes of montage and constructivism, the latter of which he said “rattled badly”, because of its anti-subjective drive. Your work might be seen to engage with some of these problematics, and could in fact, be viewed with Adorno’s ideal address to the work of art, “Nothing in you, no part of you is unimportant.” I just wondered about these relationships within your work: the opening out, folding back in, etc.. And also whether Adorno’s political reading of form has any resonance for you?
 
SK: Absolutely. The play of these different shapes or elements is one of complex interrelation. We may momentarily have the illusion of having grasped an element and its location, but this is soon ‘broken’, and ultimately it is impossible to locate them within a fixed area. And this kind of activity in my work is close to Adorno’s idea of a work of art, in that it is always destroying what is, or working towards freeing so it can reshape itself. Though they look to be montaged, nothing loses its identity to the whole in my work, in that unity is dependent on those parts, or as I think he says, “Must include that which resisted integration.” This is a crucial aspect of my work as the whole tends to produce a false universal, in which the parts are not given equal credit, but are only there to serve the construct of the whole. My paintings frame a moment in a continuum in that all the elements in the painting can be imagined to continue outside the work. What interests me about this, is how such fragments can take on the appearance of self- enclosure in such moments. So it’s not that I don’t believe in the principle of unity, quite the contrary. I just don’t believe in the pretence of a harmonious unity where the parts become sacrificed for the sake of it. My problem then, is how can we have a whole that does not negate, and is faithful to those parts that make it whole, and which does not produce an illusion of unity but an actual one. I try to dispel the notion of hierarchy between the whole and the parts: they are equally important and one can’t have one without the other. I guess I have to agree with Adorno again in terms of form and content, and its relation to politics. My work is certainly not political, but its content can be seen as a resistance to oppression and dominance; and so in that sense, it can be seen as being sympathetic to a political reading. I’m still idealistic in that I think of art or painting as a place to produce those values that can be useful for us. Of course, this predicated on the fact that the work is not literary, so it’s on a metaphorical level.
 
DR: Following on from the idea of fragmentation in relation to a ground, this obviously could be seen to relate to certain psychoanalytic notions. And I’m thinking particularly of the kind of language Lacan sometimes used, with reference to the unconscious, where he conjures up an image of total discontinuity as opposed to the ‘mirage’ of the unified one, “...The experience of the unconscious is the one of the split, of the stroke, of rupture....Where is the background? Is it absent? No. Rupture, split, the stroke of the opening makes absence emerge - just as the cry does not stand out against a background of silence, but on the contrary makes the silence emerge as silence.” I’m quoting out of context of course, but that would seem very relevant to your approach. It could also be a description of your recent work, with its...well, maybe it’s too strong a word...but a kind of violence, in terms of cutting, splitting, opening?...
 
SK: That’s interesting. [laughs]...Certainly the concept of the ‘Real’ in Lacan’s terms is similar, in the way that the elements in my work just seem to exist alongside each other, because the work resists language and its interpretation. I know that there is an aggressive side to my work, but I think that, more than referring to the unconscious as you’ve suggested, the important issue for me is ‘difference’....For example, there is an aggression and at the same time, something that is ‘beautiful’. But it appears to be in conflict, because they are treated separately, and yet at the same time they require one another in order to identify themselves. I guess what I think about consciously in relation to my working process, is how these identities interplay as a model of the Real, not the Symbolic. Without getting too psychoanalytical about it, what I want to imagine, is a state that exists before we have the Symbolic.
 
DR: How do you see the function of these patternistic devices within painting?
 
SK: It’s two-fold. Going back to the notion of politics, what induces me to structure clashing and differing patterns and processes, is so that they may partially reflect the present dialogue that has evolved around cultural ideals. I hope my work can reflect the fact that, within the social as a whole, the existing hierarchies are becoming more fluid. So where we used to think of social structures as singular, we see them as being more pluralistic or, in a funny way, more democratic, because of its diversity. On the other hand, the notion of the decorative is such a loaded concept which has been shunned by most painters, except for pattern and decoration painters of the seventies and, more specifically, Philip Taafe. Painters are almost paranoid about their work being seen in some decorative manner. But I also think there is a difference between the decorative and decoration: the decorative is a quality and decoration is an embellishment. I think abstract painting has to deal with this. Not to ‘put it to rest’ and leave the notion of the decorative behind, but so that it can become part of the vocabulary of abstract painting. I think it’s one of the most relevant aspects of abstract painting. Most abstract painting being done at the present of any significance incorporate this notion of the decorative - whether knowingly or not - Stella, Polke, Lasker and especially Richter. It’s really something that we needn’t deny: for me, I’d like to emphasise it and make it part of painting. I think this opens up the supposedly closed system of abstract painting’s subjects and aesthetics. DR: How does this square with certain classic modernist views of the decorative? Greenberg, for example? SK: I think he said, “The decorative haunted modernism, like communism haunted democracy.” Or something like that. The difference is that modernist painters associated the decorative with the idea of the backdrop - like wallpaper - because it haunts the ‘field’ of abstract painting. For me and for other current abstract painters, painting is no longer a metaphor of the field.
 
DR: Several artists I’ve interviewed have spoken of the need to reconnect abstract painting with the everyday: David Reed or Mary Heilmann, for example, particularly in their approach to colour. Is this an important issue for you too?
 
SK: I think some of us recognise that abstract painting isn’t out there on its own, occupying a space that is always self-referential and self-perpetuating, and nothing else. One of the ways to reconnect abstract painting with the arena of the real, is to make direct reference to the world of everyday experience, maybe through an approach of structural relationships. Having said this, what also must be stressed here, is that abstract paintings are in themselves ‘real’, they don’t refer to other things. Just because they don’t have mimetic or referential quality does not mean they are any less relevant. So for me, I don’t have any specific relationships that I would like to emphasise - like fashion or what’s happening on the street, or commodification. So abstract painting, while it can be absorbed into the life-world, can’t be dissolved by its losing its identity.
 
DR: That’s one of the quandaries of modernism, isn’t it? That idea of resistance to being swallowed whole by a voracious consumer culture?...
 
SK: But it participates in this consumer culture. One doesn’t have to compromise or make works specifically for consumption. I think there is a room to make challenging works that can have criticality, while being part of our culture which is based on capital. Bruce Nauman is a good example of an artist like that, in my mind. Another notion of resistance with abstract painting, is that it has its own identity, as with everything else, and it shouldn’t be in competition with other media that are closer to the real world - like video and installation - just because they draw on, and engage directly in its representation.
 
DR: Does this also mean actively drawing on these media in some way? For example, the optical patterns in this painting might be seen in terms of a video or computer screen image...a hint of a kind of virtual space?...
 
SK: In my case, I’m engaged simply with the nature of processes.
 
DR: Does it bother you that I read it in this way?
 
SK: Not at all, but it’s a by-product; it wasn’t an intentional component. It can reflect technology, and I’m open to these references that seem to spin off my approach to painting’s processes.
 
DR: Could you say something about these processes themselves?
 
SK: I approach these generically, so to speak. For example, many of the areas will be worked on the floor, I won’t use a brush but manipulate the paint through lifting one side of the canvas and letting it flow - and so on. In other places I use a palette knife in a particular way. Each of these approaches may be referencing different modes of painting. One can think of stripe painting or abstract expressionism, but obviously not exactly or directly; it’s simply a loose reference to those means. I certainly feel that many processes or approaches within abstract painting’s history, were prematurely abandoned, or at least worked through very quickly, and then dropped. And for me, it’s interesting to go back and find out what can be useful, and through this kind of historical awareness, use abstract painting to maintain itself as a discipline. By using these means again, it can construct new meanings and bring the new into some kind of relationship with its past and traditions, as opposed to this perpetual striving for the new and displacement. By constantly rearranging and redressing painting’s means, the new gets elucidated.
 
DR: You mentioned this when we talked last evening, that any engagement with abstract painting is also an engagement with its history.
 
SK: I think it’s impossible to deny or ignore painting’s history, because painting is a closed system. In other words, we know the material and structural limitations, but this doesn’t mean that it’s incapable of discovering something that we haven’t seen before, whether that’s fulfilled by contextualising its history. This doesn’t simply mean dressing up the old to look new, but how we see the past through the context of the present can open up something useful to us. There is no such thing as discovering something totally new from scratch. Even the old chicken and the egg theory - the which came first - something was there to begin with. There is always in our culture a propensity for the new. While I have no problems with the new, I think that when there are so many interdisciplinary approaches, each discipline is basically in danger of losing itself. The problem is how we can maintain these different disciplines while allowing for an inter-disciplinary approach. Otherwise there is erosion with nothing left to fall back on. For this reason, I think abstract painting is in one of the better situations, not only to retain its grounding but at the same time acquire new ones.
 
DR: So your position would be one of accepting the new as having its own presence, as well as containing a whole shoring up of the past, and this can be used positively?
 
SK: I think so. In a way, I feel similarly toward philosophical and critical thought. You don’t have Lacan without Freud, or Derrida without Kant. Of course it sounds dialectical, but isn’t that how art came into being?
 
DR: How important are such theoretical concerns in direct relation to the practice of your paintings?
 
SK: I’m of the school that believes that it would be very difficult to divorce theory from the practice of abstract painting. And I know that it’s not a popular idea in that this was, and still is, the criticism of abstract painting: that it relied so heavily on theory. Whenever there is any theory that is complex, there is a mistrust, or it is thought pretentious, because those associations are not fixed. I feel that abstract painting is on the one hand, a physical and aesthetic act and on the other, a reflective one; and you can’t really have one without the other. Otherwise it’s really in danger of ending up as decoration. Even if it has a strong theoretical or intellectual content, this does not necessarily mean it has to be textual. For my part, I’m interested in getting the structure and material to operate on a metaphorical level; where the painting leads the viewer to ideas rather than demonstrating or illustrating them.
 
DR: The term, ‘feminisation of formalism’ has been associated with your work. How do you see this now? SK: I think I used that term in an interview with David Pagel conducted with me for Tema Celeste. It’s a rather strong term I used, in retrospect. The idea of the feminine, for me, has to do with a notion of not being singular. In particular, modernist abstract painting was singular and had a monolithic approach, particularly with respect to formalism. So when I used that term, what I meant was that there was a way of thinking about formalism that’s not ‘neo’ formalist, but perhaps ‘post’ formalist. So I attempted to deal with a kind of poly-vocal situation and argued that it can not be reduced to a singularity. In reality, present, contemporary abstract painting consists of many different voices; and the reason why it’s impossible to have a moment anymore - one that can be singularly identified - is that there are so many different approaches and it’s difficult to make any hierarchical conditions to say, ‘this is better than that’. The criteria for making hierarchical decisions can no longer be construed in the singular, with all the corresponding authority that this implies. In fact, I think there is no space for movements anymore, any singular visual style: I think we are past that time. There are similarities and corresponding concerns, but always realised differently.
 
DR: Many of the other artists I’ve interviewed emphasised the importance of place, of location and installation, in relation to their work, not just on a physical or formal level, but also the way this informs or constructs meaning. Do you see your painting as functioning in an integral way? Or is the inter-relationship of pieces an issue?
 
SK: In my show that I had in ‘94, I played with those ideas a little. I think the reason why many artists are interested in this ‘playing’ with the environment is because art’s autonomy was made so much of, that they now want to articulate its conditions, the terms of its independence, so to speak....On the one hand, the paintings are complete in themselves, at least in my case let’s say; and on the other hand, rather than the idea of peeping through a window onto the other side - the opposite is what we want to see right now: the notion that paintings are actually looking in to our space and we become part of the scenario....It’s like the window is kind of facing the other way, not the wall....
 
DR: Yes. Julia Kristeva describes something like this, when discussing the Giotto frescoes in Giotto’s Joy, where she talks about the central viewpoint not being in any particular fresco, but rather the site of the viewer within the architectural setting.
 
SK: Right, exactly. That’s a kind of pre-perspectival situation that she’s describing there and it’s interesting that abstract painting can reconnect this. This concern with installation, which as you say is a growing concern, is to constantly offer up fresh viewing situations by consciously negotiating the relation between paintings: what faces what, the height, spacing, etc.. It’s that changeability of the viewing situation which then affect the way we look and think about - that is the goal here.
 
DR: Finally, how do you feel about the climate for making paintings today? Without asking you to crystal-ball-gaze too much, do you feel the present situation is a healthy one, particularly in connection with a sense of future practice or development?...
 
SK: Well I’m optimistic, but on the other hand you have to be realistic...and I don’t think these are good times for painting. We were talking earlier about the multiple styles that constitute contemporary painting, and while this is in many ways great, it also creates confusion and such a situation has delivered a glut of abstract painting, much of which is not interesting. So, all this gets tied up with the whole genre of ‘abstract painting’ and lessens its impact....It seems often extremely difficult, although vital and necessary, to develop clear criteria as to what might constitute successful work within the genre at this point in time. The other thing is, of course, the problematic relationship between painting and the market place and the whole critical, curatorial apparatus. It’s obviously easier to sell paintings than massive installations; and many galleries have fallen back on painting for purely economic reasons, which is misleading. There are very few writers or curators who will fall back on abstract painting. And it is amazing how so many younger critics are historical amnesiacs, you know; they don’t understand how painting has changed and they don’t really want to take the time to understand. It’s easier to pretend you’re viewing media with no historical precedent, as it is also easier to engage with images that are more literary. With painting, the viewing takes much longer and while painting is attempting to be in ‘synch’ with its present times, the audience passes by with a clipped attention span. What you have to realise, is that painting has a temporal space, and the average viewer probably doesn’t want to spend a long time looking at it or thinking about it. There is a sensuous quality in my work that hopefully switches on this exchange, to ignite an interest with the physical that can engage the viewer, which can lead to other thoughts about the real world, metaphorically. For me, it’s important to find ways to switch this process on, but I think the most dangerous thing is to force this contact by representing something too literally in abstract painting, so that the viewer thinks he or she has got the meaning. For example, you mentioned the TV screen earlier. If this was an end in itself, then it becomes the kind of signification which leads nowhere.
 
DR: Yes. Somebody like Gerhard Richter has been grossly misread in this way. By many painters too, producing the blurred or technological ambience of the TV or video screen....And this can easily become simply a mannerism. Another point that might be relevant to what you were saying earlier, is Adorno’s observation, writing in the late sixties, that abstract painting was still a site for radical practice, despite the growing number of paintings appearing in hotel lobbies and lounges....
 
SK: That is what formalist abstraction ended up doing, creating a third and fourth generation of artists that just reproduced those premises and processes. With all the questioning of old values, going on in the sixties, it was also a crucial moment in terms of painting, a defining one. Since then, everything has been in reaction to painting. It was all in relationship to the notion that abstract painting had degenerated into decoration from the point of view of the Conceptualists. This idea can’t sustain or rationalise the glut of other objects anymore, and what we need to do is re-evaluate that moment in a more pertinent light. One could almost say that everything since then has been reactionary. Art can’t just be a reaction, and one of the great problems of our time is that much of the work being produced is simply a commentary or critique which ultimately doesn’t do much for the category of art. Adorno was against the ‘real’, i.e. representational works of art, so he was a staunch believer in the abstract. As far as abstract painting being a radical site...it’s no more or less than other art forms. It’s certainly capable of being radical only if the audience can understand that the terms of painting have changed. Painting’s terms are always evolving, which I think is abstract painting’s unique strength.
 
© David Ryan & Shirley Kaneda 1996