Untitled (Alps), 2012
Friend of Cheap & Plastique Nathan Wasserbauer interviews Brooklyn-based artist Aaron Williams for Issue 10. See more of Aaron’s work here. Read another interview with Aaron on the Art Fag City website here.
C & P: Your work has changed in the last few years, and you’ve recently completed a new body of work. Was this change a deliberate move or more of a gradual evolution?
Aaron: Sort of both. For the past few years, I’ve been moving away from what I consider to be more traditional and prescribed ways of making things. I started off as an abstract painter and I think I just got tired of the conversations and assumptions of the medium. It all seemed very limiting to me and I made a decision to open up my studio practice as much as possible, to allow for a variety of mediums and working methods. Exploring different facets of an idea through different mediums is important, to try to bring ideas that exist in the studio into the real world as much as possible.
C & P: There is a sense of absence in your work, with visual clues or remnants of that which had been. Works officially “Untitled” also record in parenthesis the person or event that was formerly represented on the page. How significant is this to reading, or reacting to the work?
Aaron: The idea of trace, or remnant has been a constant in my work, both in materials and content. In talking about the effect of a thing, rather than the thing itself, there’s a greater capacity for poetry and an organic meaning to occur, rather than a didactic, sort of one-to-one logic.
The pieces in which I’m manipulating posters of cultural heroes, the figure is generally obscured by brushstrokes and paint splatter. The brushstroke in these pieces represents an almost meaningless, unconscious action. An aggregate of these actions make up a painting that has a specific hierarchy and purpose but taken on it’s own, it becomes more of a void or an accident, a remainder of another, purposeful action. I’m cutting the brushstroke into the paper and this removal of the photographic layer of the poster creates another level of meaning for me. The finished piece has no actual paint, just the memory of that thing, documented.
I’m interested in the relationship between this calcified mark making and the intellectual and emotional capacity of the figure; the point at which a poster ceases to be, say, Muhammad Ali and the physical reality of the material takes over. I’ve thought a lot about Rauschenberg’s Erased DeKooning: at a certain point, that piece ceases to be about erasure as eliminating previous meaning and becomes a unique piece created by positive, assertive mark-making.
C & P: How are the materials chosen for these new works? Talk a little bit about the addition of color, which I believe is a choice you made over time, correct?
Aaron: I’m using mostly quotidian materials right now, book pages and posters. These things have a transitory quality physically, they’re almost non-objects. They do however carry a huge conceptual and emotional capacity. I’m intrigued by the space between the physical reality of a thing and the intellectual or emotional capacity that thing has the potential to evoke. A poster, for example, is a carrier of identity, politics, culture, etc. but the physical fact of that thing is that it’s a frail piece of paper that’s cheaply produced and disseminated.
Color often exists for me in a pretty organic way. There’s a drive that I have in the studio that is largely conceptual but I have an equal ambition to make something that is visually compelling and color often fits into the latter category. Things gain meaning if they’ve hung around the studio long enough and I’ve learned to trust that impulse, even if I can’t really put my finger on why it’s there yet.
Untitled (Ali 2), 2011
Two Opposing Views in 133 Parts (detail), installation at the Portland ICA
C & P: You exhibited a work last summer called Alone: Two Views in 113 Parts. The installation is visually linear in much the same way software film and music editing appears on screen. Is this a direct influence of your work in film?
Aaron: I think it probably is, though that didn’t occur to me until much later. That piece was partially influenced by wall friezes done by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the way that work was unique to the architecture in which it existed. I liked the idea that the viewer would be physically committed to the piece, that they would have to walk from one end to the other to get the full meaning (it’s about 90 feet long). The text in the piece is essentially linear; it can be read from left to right but aside from the text, there are other layers of meaning that occur. I wanted to confound that linearity by gradually making the text unreadable and creating a context where one would have to refer to the middle, beginning or get a total view to get a richer idea of the piece.
C & P: Talk about the choice in this piece of merging the Columbine killers handwriting with a poem by Edgar Allen Poe.
Aaron: This piece has changed over time and it’s meaning has shifted a bit for me. I began the piece thinking about visual shorthands, culturally held assumptions about inherited knowledge from books and photography. The piece is comprised of 113, cut book pages. The pages are idealized photographs of nature, beginning with very close, first person perspective to distant galaxies. These images are practically authorless and begin to take on a larger, cultural meaning of formless notions, like say, god or transcendence. Galaxies for example, as depicted in print, don’t have much relation to how those things really exist and they start to take on broader, mythical meanings.
I think there’s a certain violence in that piece having to do with futility and disaffection. The poem, Alone, isn’t the most subtle poem in the world and there’s an almost desperate nature to it. I wanted to imprint the text with personal meaning, using the handwriting of someone who was involved in an act that was largely based on ideas of loneliness and disaffection. Ultimately, I think there’s an implication in the piece that as the imagery expands outward, the text expands inward at the same velocity.
Untitled (Miles), 2011
C & P: Horror in film has had a large influence on your work and fear seems to be an element you explore in both your studio work and your films. Part of the rush of watching horror films is confronting that base fear, that point of confrontation. Is this how you view the art making process, or your practice in particular? Or both?
Aaron: My love of horror films goes back to my childhood. I watched films that I was probably too young to see at the time and some of these films, like The Exorcist and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (among many others) left a serious impression on me. This interest definitely influences my studio practice, but in indirect ways, I think. I’m attracted to a certain idea of fear, in the way that experiencing something new can evoke fear. Also, creating things in the studio can carry with it a certain violence. Destruction and death have always been important parts of my process. I try to have the courage to be able to destroy something in order to build it better.
Untitled (Yellow and Red), 2011
C & P: In your film A Man Born Blind Who is Being Told About a Rainbow, you flip through pages of books to show specific artists. Why did you choose these artists? Describe the connection to the footage from your studio.
Aaron: Most of my pieces start off pretty organically and that part began as a sort of curated show of artists that I own books of. I just started taking these books off my shelves and photographing certain images, editing them down until I got to what I thought was a somewhat coherent group. As it progressed, I noticed that there was a theme of creation and destruction developing and that became interesting to me, as these are two equal creative impulses for me in the studio. The piece begins with images of Frank Auerbach, (for me, the epitome of painterly logic) and progresses through images of futuristic optimism and destruction which are depicted in floating cities and homemade bombs. There’s a homemade atom bomb near the end.
The other part of the piece is a long tracking shot of all of the detritus from my studio. It’s a row of remnants of materials that were used to build art pieces: scrap wood, plexiglass, paint, things like that. Negative spaces. I wanted to take these negative spaces and make something from them, to prioritize them. The final shot is of two of these scraps, one on top of the other, signifying the most rudimentary form of creative impulse. It’s the moment when nothing becomes something, the beginning of the studio process.
C & P: I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the filmmakers you’ve edited into your work, as well as how you selected the music.
Aaron: The clips that I use in my video pieces are chosen largely for narrative reasons, although I do have a great love for Tarkovsky and his films figure pretty highly in some of my pieces. I’ve used clips from his films and I’ve borrowed certain themes from his work. For the piece we just discussed, the long tracking shot was based on a scene from the film Stalker in which he depicts an array of culturally important objects underneath water. The turning of pages in art books turns up in a few of his films as well.
The music in my videos is chosen for a couple of reasons. Again, I’m appropriating Tarkovsky, who utilized baroque pieces in his films. My other motivation for choosing particular pieces is that I find video to be a difficult medium as far as audience is concerned. Asking six or seven minutes of someone’s time in a gallery setting is a lot to expect and I wanted to use pieces of music that have an emotional pull, something that would make the viewer stay for more than a few seconds to watch the entirety of the piece unfold.
Untitled (Alps), 2012
C & P: How much of your 3D work is constructed for film only? How much makes to the point of sculpture and installation?
Aaron: So far, all for the constructs in my videos is for specific, film use only. Of course, connections exist between pieces so something that’s used for a film might turn up in another form in the studio at some point.
C & P: Since you’ve undertaken these new concepts in your practice, what conclusions have you drawn? Or are you not at a point of conclusion, but rather in the middle, or even just beginning?
Aaron: A lot of it has to do with trust. I’ve had to learn to re-format my studio practice and trust that there would be something of value at the other end. As far as where I am, I always feel like I’m just about at the beginning.
Q & A with Schoolhouse resident Justin Orvis Steimer.
C & P: What artists (living or dead) inspire you or have helped to shape your painting/drawing style?
Justin: Roberto Matta was the first artist whose work really captivated me. The environments he was able to create, the way the shapes, lines and colors all interact with each other. The way you can go into his painting and wander around. Later some of the other surrealists really struck me, Tanguy and Ernst, again for the worlds they created and their combination forms, mixing abstract with figurative, giving me the feeling that anything is possible. Now I really believe in the collective consciousness, that we are all the same and all connected, we all inspire each other. The strongest inspiration from another person I have gotten recently was when I heard Nico Muhly’s music for Benjamin Millipeid’s Two Hearts. The combination of long sustained notes with repetitive yet slightly changing rhythms was so enchanting and seemed so familiar, it re affirmed that artistically there is always room to grow and continue to learn and that it is possible to make the old new again.
C & P: What is the first piece of art that you encountered that had an impact on you?
Justin: In 3rd grade I saw a Mondrian painting in Pittsburgh. When I got home I sat down at the kitchen table and drew a square on a piece of paper with a marker and thought my drawing could be in a museum some day, if someone ever found it.
C & P: Have you always been creative? Did you know that you would be an artist from a young age?
Justin: When I was young I wanted to be either an artist or a fighter pilot. It turns out that the navy only selects people who can see well for flight school, so pilot was out. I always knew I was an artist, I have only just recently fully realized that I am living that dream.
C & P: What is influencing the work you are making right now?
Justin: Really trying to create something that no one has ever seen before. Drawing life in a manner that will cause someone to make a connection that would never have been possible any other way. Right now is the most important time there will ever be, anything is possible, for my work there is nothing more important than documenting this energy.
C & P: Does being in New York City inspire the work you make?
Justin: I love New York. I spend a lot of time walking around and drawing in its subways and parks. I hear the train go by when I am painting in my room and the sirens while I am playing the organ. I am part of it and it is part of me.
C & P: Tell me a bit about your process when beginning a new piece. What inspires you to start a new piece?
Justin: I feel a constant compulsion to create. There is nothing more sacred to me than my drawing. This belief has made it possible to realize that there is tremendous value in the generally overlooked action of scribbling. This is what I have devoted my life to. Scribbling. Every drawing and painting begins this same way, with the idea being that just like sound can be etched in to vinyl, so too can energy be drawn onto paper. How the scribbling evolves throughout my life and where it will lead is the motivation for doing it.
C & P: I noticed that you utilize many different types of materials to create your work (wood panels, traditional canvas, sketchbooks, scrap paper, bedsheets, etc…). How do you decide what paper/surface to use for a particular art piece? Do you often experiment with materials? Or is the selection of materials mainly based on how you are feeling at the moment you begin working?
Justin: I bought a Moleskine sketchbook in 2005 and fell in love; the size, the paper, the pocket are all great. I haven’t found a book i like better so that decision is easy. I am currently on my 16th one. For my other work I like to start with something that already has some energy, a history. A couple months ago I found a large, flat, thin, smooth square of wood on the sidewalk near my house. It had a lot of scratches on it which I spent hours studying and imitating. Now you can no longer tell which marks I made and which were all ready there. It makes the viewer have questions about everything about the painting. I poured on paint and varnish (gifts from friends) and water and let them all mix. The wood soaked up what it wanted, some of the escaping air got trapped and made bubbles, the past life of the wood influenced these events. Then came the decisions of how much to change what has happened and what to leave alone. Man vs. nature. Destiny vs. free will. That painting is titled going in to get out. Most recently I have been sewing together scraps of muslin that my mom sent me. I have a couple frames that were given to me by Mark, my upstairs neighbor, which i stretch the fabric on. Thoughts of both of these people are in my head as I work, plus the fact that they had direct physical contact with the objects means that their energy is alive in the painting. That painting is titled thanks mom.
C & P: What other activities do you enjoy pursuing when not making art?
Justin: Just this past week I started going out to the Rockaways to surf. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time and I am excited to finally start going often enough to be able to really learn it. I spent literally all of my money on a wetsuit and a used surfboard. I now have 38 dollars to my name. I have always told myself never to worry about money, it always comes when I need it and the important thing is happiness not my bank account. I have also just started baking bread. I cooked in a restaurant for five years but we bought our baguettes so I never learned about yeast and starters and all of that. Two weeks ago I bought three packets of yeast and looked up a simple recipe and now I bake a loaf almost every other day. It really is quite simple, it just takes a bit of time for the dough to rise but it smells all yeasty and delicious while that is happening so it is a pleasant wait.
C & P: Does making music influence your painting practice?
Justin: Sometimes the only thing I want to do is sit down and play the piano. I don’t know what is going to come out but it is just like drawing, I just let my mind wander and start pressing down the keys, then maybe a certain rhythm or pattern emerges and sounds nice so I go with that for a while, then I want to change one of the notes or my fingers forget what they are doing so I play around until i find a new arrangement that makes me happy and I go with that for a while. It is its own thing as well as another way to think about painting. Making a big splash on the canvas is smashing your hand down on the keys. Drawing nice clean lines is playing a simple melody one note at a time.
C & P: You told me that you usually make music for yourself (and most often by yourself) and you also seem to be drawing constantly. For you is art making a solitary process? Do you ever collaborate with others? Are you a solitary person?
Justin: I definitely prefer working alone and enjoy my solitude. Occasionally people will ask to paint or draw with me and I always say yes. I also always feel a bit uncomfortable while doing it. My painting titled do something began with me and some friends getting out some frustrations by making a mess with paint. For me it wasn’t complete until I was able to go back and work on it alone for a few weeks. I was happy to have my friends finger prints and sweat on the canvas but i felt that to be able to understand it better I needed to refine parts of the mess. I do think it is good to get other people involved occasionally to keep things new and diverse but I will always do most of the work myself. Musically I do not like the pressure of someone else relying on or reacting to what I am doing. Most of the time I do make it for my self, I don’t care that no one else hears it. Every now and then I will play with people around but it makes me a bit nervous and it influences the music. I have been playing the guitar for over 10 years and I still struggle to play any song correctly the whole way through. This makes it hard to play with other people. Recently however my roommate David and I have been making these kind of tribal sounding, meditative songs. They are a combination of my electric organ, synthesizer, and acoustic guitar, mixed digitally with David’s beats and sometimes Mariette adds some vocals. That has been working because we are not concerned with the outcome. No pressure. Just like my drawing, if a mistake happens it is either embraced and left alone, or worked on until it becomes something new.
C & P: What could you imagine doing if you did not create art?
Justin: Traveling through outer space.
C & P: Where can we see more of your work on the web?
Justin will be showing his work this June at:
ps project space
548 w 28th st., suite 328
vip preview: wed june 20 from noon-8pm
opening: thurs june 21 from 6-9pm
gallery hours: june 22-27 open noon-6pm
closed sunday and monday
Photos © Christine Navin. Do not reproduce without permission.
C & P: You live in L.A. How long have you lived there? What do you like most about living there?
Deedee: I do live in L.A., I moved from rainy Oregon. I love it here. There is so much amazing art coming out of L.A. right now, and there is a lot to do: hiking, biking, surfing, museums, different kinds of food…
C & P: Have you spent any time in NYC or on the East Coast? Does being on the West Coast inspire your work?
Deedee: I love New York! for some of the same reasons as L.A.— galleries, food, endless cool stuff to do, great public art, but I love the lightness and sunshine in L.A.. I definitely think my work has a lot of influence from Southern California, My work is really inspired by natural environments.
C & P: Do you feel that there is a lot of interesting artwork being created in L.A. right now?
Deedee: Yes, there are really great artists living and working here: Mel Kadel, Shepard Fairey, Retna. I love seeing new murals and how art is becoming more of a public thing once again, like it was in the 1940s when the populist culture of the Mexican mural spread to Los Angeles and the greater U.S..
C & P: Where did you grow up? Were you a creative youth?
Deedee: I grew up in Oregon, my mom was a school teacher, and my earliest memories are of sitting at a little desk and making stuff—drawing and gluing while my mom was cooking in the kitchen. My mom was also in school when I was little and I remember going to her classes and drawing during the lectures.
C & P: You started out designing record covers and t-shirts for Oregon’s music scene in the early 90s and you were also in a band. How did your past creative endeavors lead you to the artwork that you are creating now?
Deedee: The punk art of the 70s was really inspiring to me. I liked the iconic and simplistic imagery. I liked the messy silk screened look, so when I got into my first band I was so excited to start making shirts and record covers. We were very DIY, even carrying our silkscreen on the road to screen shirts for people at our shows to make gas money to get to the next gig. I think the DIY ethic of the times definitely made me the artist I am. I mean, there weren’t many other girls making weird art and hanging it in their local punk clubs and having art shows back then. There certainly weren’t cool galleries in Portland then, so I just was propelled by my own desire to create, and by the music I was listening to that inspired me to rebel against the norm.
C & P: What were some of the bands that you created artwork for in the 90s? Do you still create artwork for bands?
Deedee: I mostly made stuff for the bands that I was in Adickdid, The TeenAngels, Juned, The Hindi Guns and a few other local bands.
C & P: Does music influence your work?
Deedee: I like listening to music when I paint. I love listening to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service on BBC radio on the internet, it is the highlight of my week when I am in the studio painting.
C & P: Could you talk about the repeated use of the bear image in your work? Who is this mysterious bear and why does he so often appear to be plagued with some sort of existential malaise, a la Munch’s The Scream? Is the bear pissed off at the world?
Deedee: Yes, and no… The bears have always symbolized the Buddhist idea that to desire is to suffer. I think I first started painting bears when I quit smoking, and I was constantly looking for something outside myself to fill up the emptiness left by overcoming that addiction. I quit drinking, smoking, drugs, all that stuff awhile ago. It was so dark, but the desire for things outside of myself— whether it is a piece of art, or a piece of cake, or to gossip—whatever the need is that is taking me out of the moment, that is making me suffer, is the thing that the bear symbolizes, so the bear is the perfect metaphor, the ceaseless unending desire that compels most people to consume, to over consume, to feed their addictions to stuff or drink or drugs. I think we can all relate.
C & P: Are the characters in your pictures purely fictional or are they based upon people you know?
Deedee: That is funny. I am largely driven to create out of pain, or maybe I use my work to solve problems. Recently I had a crush on this guy, who is now my boyfriend. I had told a couple of my close friends, who decided it was a competition of sorts. With no loyalty to the friendship I would watch from afar as they followed him around. It was so painful to watch the long term friendships disintegrate before my eyes, and walk away from this guy I liked, but I didn’t want to compete so I just decided to hang out elsewhere with other people. My sadness over losing the friendship and feelings of being betrayed and burned came out in this really petty way. I mean I couldn’t help feeling that the whole situation was very high schoolish and in high school I obsessively drew horses, and one of the girls had some horse like qualities (according to one of my friends) so I just started drawing all of these culty brainwashed girls as horses, following around and worshiping these masculine bear creatures. It was amazing how satisfying (albeit juvenile) to transform my crappy feelings into a whole body of work for a show.
C & P: Your illustrations are populated by creatures found primarily in the Pacific Northwest, have you always drawn these particular animals (the bear, the owl, large wild cats)? Are you a fan of exploring the woods and camping out in the wilderness? Have you ever come into contact with any of these animals in the wild?
Deedee: As a kid, my mom took us camping for weeks at a time. Some of my most fun memories are of hiking in the woods in Oregon, sitting naked in hot springs in the woods while it was raining. One time my brother and I found a headless cow upside down in a stream that had bear claw marks all over it, and we still stayed in the campground near where it happened that night. We used to live in a log cabin in Wyoming that bears would come near all the time, and I still hear owls up by my parents house when I go visit, so yeah, animals from the Pacific Northwest are a huge inspiration to me.
C & P: How did the tree creatures and animal human hybrids that are repeated in your work come to be?
Deedee: The first girl with a bird head was a caricature of this girl in Santiago, Chile. I was living there, painting and playing in bands. My bandmate lived on the 21st floor of this building, and we would sit around and drink wine and do lots of drugs and his skinny model girlfriend would wander around the apartment talking in a little high-pitched voice, she was like this little beautiful bird in a cage, living up above the dirty city!
C & P: Many of the characters in your work are involved in blatantly sexual acts, which bring to mind images you might see in the Kama Sutra or in a relief in a Hindu temple in India. Are these works an influence on your illustrations?
Deedee: I am half Indian, and have spent time in India visiting family, and was initially inspired by one of my trips to a temple in Southern India where there was some hardcore monkey on giraffe, on tiger on bear action. The relief carvings were painted some really vibrant colors. They lined the outer parameter of the inner sanctum of the temple. I studied Indian temple imagery in college, and those things tend to symbolize spiritual inter-connectedness, and fertility for the earth and the crops—plentitude, abundance, etc. I guess my thoughts on it, beside the fact each human desires that connectedness—both emotionally and spiritually—are that the sexual imagery is my response to the disconnectedness, anger, and violence that we are bombarded with on a daily basis in our culture.
C & P: Your work also seems to reference the patterns and colors found in Indian textiles. Does Indian culture influence your work? Have you spent time in India?
Deedee: I do spend time with my family in India when I can. I was really inspired by the feminist art of the 60s that used textile patterns as a way of bringing “women’s work” into high art. I like textile patterns, and think it is interesting that every culture has their own unique patterns.
C & P: Some of the characters in your portraits are dressed in traditional Indian clothing while in other works they are wearing high society gowns and look like they may have just walked off the lawn of a George Seurat painting. Are you interested in fashion? Why do these two styles appeal to you in particular?
Deedee: I like to play with the issues of class.
C & P: What is your process like when creating your work? Do you draw by hand? Do you use a computer when creating your pictures? Do you ever make silkscreen prints?
Deedee: I draw, no computer rendering. Yes, I have been doing a lot more printmaking because I feel it makes my work more accessible to people who can’t afford a painting.
C & P: You told me that you just finished a body of work for a show. Is it in L.A.?
Deedee: I have a show up at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles right now. I also have upcoming shows in Melbourne and in the UK.
C & P: Where can we find you on the world wide web?
Self Portrait With Bird, Acrylic and Oil Stick on Canvas, 72” x 60”, 2010
C & P: You grew up on the East Coast in New Hampshire, went to undergrad in Baltimore, and then moved to NYC to attend graduate school in Brooklyn. Do you feel that living on the East Coast has influenced your work at all? If so, how?
Elias: In as much as a place you’ve spent the majority of your life can, I suppose. As far as direct references within the work, I doubt it. I paint pictures of places I’ve lived, but I think those references would find their way in regardless of where I resided. I love the East Coast; I really can’t imagine living elsewhere in the States. Being near an ocean feels freeing to me, living in the middle of a giant country such as this one gives me a weird feeling of confinement. Granted, that feeling is based on nothing but supposition, but that’s my immediate reaction that a coast is necessary for my general sanity. The coast of France, Italy, India, those also sound good too…perhaps it’s a bit of a fight or flight sensation, the need/possibility for a quick escape. On the other hand, as a person, these places have shaped my ideals, concerns, and general humanity greatly; so if the pictures are just an extension of me, then I’d answer a resounding yes to the question. Aside from it being an impossibility, the thought of not growing up in New Hampshire, and not being able to follow the trajectory that it set me on, is a sad thought; I wouldn’t change much if asked to do it again.
C & P: What do you like most about living in New York City? Least?
Elias: I grew up 5 hours away from the city, with an aunt who lives here; so at least twice-yearly trips were a regular occurrence growing up. What I like about New York the most is that, while I’ve only lived here a short three years, I still often get that feeling I got as a child, driving in down the West Side highway, the city creeping up higher and higher. It’s an utterly fascinating human conquest, this place. It is the only place (that I’ve been so far) to continuously blow me away when I thought it no longer possible. When I go visit my family up north, I realize the things about the city that I like least (the lack of solitude/quiet/open spaces); they are numbered, but usually forgiven upon returning.
Narcissus, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 76” x 62”, 2011
C & P: I read online that you studied illustration in undergrad and painting in graduate school. How have both educations influenced your work? What made you change from illustration to painting? Do you ever do commissioned illustrations now?
Elias: This was a continual struggle at the Maryland Institute. I have a big problem with peoples’ need to divide artistic disciplines, and their utter surprise when artists bridge gaps comfortably or have two separate practices. My biggest objection is that these lines do not exist as much between “high art” mediums; no one questions the painter who also sculpts his models, or a painter who does charcoal studies for her oil paintings. But show someone a little graphic novel you’ve worked on next to a big dirty painting and somehow there arises a problem; when so-called “applied” arts are done by “fine” artists there are questions of intention, ideas that the artist lacks direction; I still don’t understand it. Can one not be “illustrative” within a painting? Or, what does that even mean? I think the words have too much preconceived connotation. I started at MICA in the Illustration program because I loved to draw, especially little characters and stories. I found a teacher, Warren Linn, whom I respected very much; he was one of the heads of the Illustration department during my years as a student at MICA. As a professional illustrator, he is still in all senses of the word, a “fine” artist. I began taking painting classes; I never saw the difference! An illustration could be just like a painting; if anything it was perhaps more content-directed; and maybe when the painting was done, it would be sized down to fit a particular spot; that seemed fine with me. The academic institution has a problem with this. The school needed to classify and direct its students, so when I argued that no, I did not need to use Photoshop to make my illustration—I wanted to draw and paint and play and use my hands—this created an issue. Now, it sounds like I’m the little kid in the corner bitterly complaining about not getting his way, but it was not my ignorance of the importance of a tool like the computer; I wanted to learn that too. It was the fact that it was considered the “proper” way, and I felt justified in challenging that. I stayed in the illustration program due to Warren’s mentorship and other students I had met in the program. I do the occasional illustration if there’s a request for one, but do not actively seek them out. The personal space of painting, with no specific end goal in mind is now my priority.
Paphos, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 64” x 74”, 2011
C & P: I first saw one of your paintings outside of your studio space at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. I was really intrigued by the Brooklyn Army Terminal buildings and the area surrounding it. How long have you worked in that space? Do you find being in that strange, empty industrial area inspirational at all?
Elias: Oh man, I love that building. Did you know it was the biggest building in the world when it was built in 1919?! There are 52 acres of floor space just in building B! It’s really unbelievable. I’ve only been in the studio space since June, but yes the site is incredibly inspirational, many architectural elements of the building have already crept into some paintings. I’m one to pretty much tune out everything once I’m in the studio, including my environment, but I’m sure the 10 minute walk up to and through the building filters in more than I know. I’m also really attracted to empty industrial areas in general, thinking about what goes on in them during the day, or what went on inside 100 years ago when they were built. I often ride my bike down to the studio, and all along 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn—much of it dubbed “Industry City”—are these towering factory buildings; it’s really something to ride through, especially at night when I’m usually the only one around. Someone once described my paintings as having “lonely architecture,” I think that’s apt considering the places I’ve chosen to work. My studio in Baltimore was in an old mill, my friends all lived in old warehouses, the studios at Brooklyn College were housed in a converted theatre with 30-foot ceilings, and now the Army Terminal.
C & P: What inspires you to begin a picture?
Elias: It’s an extreme, fervent desire to create a better painting than the last, not a single inspiration. An angry professor once called this inability to define my inspiration as a “lack of passion;” I of course fought to disprove her, but I don’t know how good a job I did. Yes, there are often specific content and ideas I want to paint about; but my real inspiration doesn’t come until I just start, lay a color down, anything. Saying I’m my own inspiration is probably as egotistic and selfish as one can be, and I assure you that’s not what I’m getting at. Maybe “everything” is the answer to what inspires me, I rarely find myself seeing or experiencing something and then getting one of those light bulb moments of “Oh! now I have to go paint!” It’s a more gradual process of influence upon inspiration upon experience that seems to coalesce once I get into the studio. It can take hours of dicking around doing crossword puzzles, staring at canvases, or it can be immediate; there seems to be no rhyme or reason, which I think is an attraction of the whole thing for me: the fact that the process I’ve been developing my entire life continues to surprise.
C & P: Tell me a little about the process of creating a new work. Do you sketch out your ideas with a drawing first? Do you ever work out a composition on a computer before you begin to paint?
Elias: No to both. I do make drawings and little paintings, and many elements of each often reappear in the larger works, but it’s very rare that I’ll do an actual study for a painting. I use the computer to occasionally find source material; if it’s a certain building, or a logo I want to use, I’ll bring it in and tack it to the wall; but my work actively lacks a digital aspect with respect to how it is made.
Tavern, 2012, Ink and Oil on Canvas,18″ x 14″
C & P: Do you paint mainly with acrylic? Why does this medium appeal to you? Have your paintings always been so colorful? Or is this a new development in your work?
Elias: Immediacy is extremely important to me; I need to be able to change something at any time, and acrylic affords that ability due to its fast drying time. I often thin paint further to speed this process. When I know what I’m doing in a picture (which is rare) I’ll use oil, if I am confident in the permanence of that area. Oil paint is beautiful and I think is something I need to explore more, but for me a more considered temporal aspect is attached to oil paint, one that I’m not willing to give in to just yet. I also use a lot of latex house paint, for a couple of reasons. One, for the same reason as acrylic: it is water based and it dries quickly. The other, because even though I mix colors, I like starting with paint that was already designed for some use, I especially like the idea that it was designed to decorate or embellish someone’s home. I get most of my latex from mis-tint racks at hardware stores. These are colors that weren’t mixed to the customers’ satisfaction, yet they are examples of colors people chose to live with, and that resonates, and I more often than not use the colors as they are straight out of the can. Color has always been an important aspect in my painting, while some of the pictures may have underlying (or outright) dark, ominous, depressing subject matter; they are more often than not painted with “happy” colors. This might just be to amuse myself, which is fine, but I’d hope some people would laugh at my work.
C & P: Do you feel that you notice minute details in your everyday experience, the stuff most people do not see? Do these details make their way into your paintings?
Elias: Minute details, probably yes. But as far as it being the “stuff most people do not see,” I don’t know what other people see, and it’s been my experience that while one thinks they are doing/seeing/being/fucking/creating/living life differently or better than the rest, someone’s probably done/seen/been/fucked/created/lived it before you. That’s comforting.
All God’s Children…, Acrylic on Canvas, 56” x 53”, 2011
C & P: There are usually humans depicted in your paintings, mainly men, & most of the time these humans are cartoonish and are involved in somewhat absurd actions. What are these men getting up to? And why do they look sort of ridiculous?
Elias: Don’t you look ridiculous? I bet you do, I know I certainly do. We are a weird, depraved, schizoid, yet seemingly predictable species, and I think we all do completely absurd things on a daily basis. Today I drank coffee so I could shit, then smoked a cigarette while riding a bike that made my chest hurt, called my mother to feel love, ate a sandwich that made me nauseous, then did laundry so I could feel clean and good, and now I do; what’s not ridiculous about that? So I paint what I see; and yeah, I’m pretty sure all those men are me.
C & P: Is humor an important aspect of your work?
Elias: Yes, without it I don’t see the point. We’re all depressed, sad, lonely, abstract—those things are the easy feelings to identify and commiserate with—but making someone laugh is true talent; having happiness in common is rare.
Saint Joseph , 2012, Ink on Canvas, 18″ x 14″
C & P: Are these paintings self-portraits?
Elias: Yes, I think most of the men in the pictures are me to some extent, or at least a man I somehow identify with. I don’t see them as self-portraits in a traditional sense, but sure, you could call them that. Some of them are how I see myself; some are how I wish I could be.
C & P: Your paintings also have a very architectural element to them; there are grids in almost all of the paintings I have seen. Are you interested in modernist architecture? Are you influenced by the work of any architects in particular? Why does a grid pattern find its way into so many of your paintings?
Elias: Yes, architecture continues to be a constant element, if not an outright theme in many paintings. It’s kind of the opposite of your question earlier about seeing “things others don’t.” Architecture is the thing we ALL experience and see daily, many of us sharing in the same environments and structures. It’s an all-encompassing board game, especially in a place like New York City. I do like modern architecture, my father is a modernist interior designer/woodworker/furniture designer, so it feels like a given that growing up around every issue of Architectural Digest ever printed would have some influence on me. My draw is more towards Italian renaissance architecture; not that it stopped there, but I really admire a time when the building—the structure from foundation to buttress—mattered so much and was constructed with such care. That is a huge hole for me in modern construction: building purely for profit and not to last, not factoring in the life and destiny of an edifice. And now it’s a passing thing, even if I see a building I like (again, especially in New York) I don’t meditate on it, the first thought is usually, “shame that’ll be gone soon.” The grids. This is a two-parter, 90% of which is pure selfishness and obsessive desire. I really like making the grids. It’s cathartic, I can use precise tools like rulers and protractors and miniature Japanese xacto knives, I can sit and do one activity for hours, it takes up time. In this way, while I think each grid becomes integral to the painting, they also become a bit of a cop-out to dealing with the rest of the picture, a time-waster. The other 10% is legitimate. The grid is graph paper, it is measurement, and it is what practically every building plan, city layout, and computer motherboard is laid out upon. It’s the ultimate template among templates. I’m using the most primitive tool of planning to anchor these pictures of relative chaos. Keith Mayerson was a professor of mine at Brooklyn College; on our first studio visit he looked around, paused and said, “Ok, ok, I get it, you like to get your grid on.”
Doors, Acrylic on Panel, 12” x 24”, 2011
C & P: What artists would you cite as influences? If you could grab a coffee (or tea or whiskey) with any artist, living or dead, to have a chat about the state of the world, art, kittens, or whatever, whom would you choose?
Elias: How about a round table of three? Philip Guston, El Greco, and (because music is just as important to me as visual art) Fats Waller. I choose these three primarily because they came out of traditional schools of art, only to become utterly indefinable in their time and able to break down walls people thought would be up forever; and they each had the courage to do this—that courage sets them apart. I would only hope to one day be that fearless. Guston and Fats would both have a bottle of whiskey each, El Greco maybe some wine; El Greco would tell us about working for a Pope, Guston would proceed to tell El Greco more than he knew about his own time (this would last a few hours), and Fats would just tap away and say, “haaaaay, who are you guys anyway?” If anyone were to bring up kittens, it would probably be me; I’m a little unnaturally obsessed with my cat.
Dinner Party, Acrylic and Latex on Panel, 40” x 60”, 2010
C & P: Are there any contemporary New York painters that you admire?
Elias: There are, but my continual realization is that I’m awful with names, and classifiable information like that goes right through me, so it’s hard for me to make a list. Matt Blackwell, G. Bradley Rhodes, Annie Ewaskio, Nicole Eisenman, Ivin Ballen, that’s a short, incomprehensive list. Having said that, there is not much contemporary painting that I’m thoroughly impressed with; sculpture, installations, these things seem to be winning the day. I just saw some Gehard Demetz wood figure sculptures, those things are outrageous, I really admire him. I’m through and through an awful cynic, so most things I see don’t impress me (often including my own work). I am not reinventing anything, but most of what I see seems really to be a reenactment of previous art eras. The recent huge gravitation to geometric abstraction I find odd, yet predictable; it’s insanely saleable, and I get that and am fine with that, pretty pictures should sell. But what I don’t get is the 25-year-old painter wanting to make pretty pictures. If at such a young age people seem designed and inclined to create for product’s sake, or purely to impress themselves with a neon tableau of exquisitely painted shapes, I don’t see a forward direction for painting. The other problem I see is that artists of my generation seem averse to an art knowledge—from fundamental skills to art history—they think their talent lets them test out of that class, and that’s bullshit. And their talent is huge! I’m not denying that, I think with the flood of admissions at art schools in recent years, it’s just producing a larger pool of possibly great things to happen, but if half of those people are griping in the corner about drawing a model, or studying Persian art history, then there will be something missing as they mature; and that something missing is what I see when I walk into many shows in New York today. It’s a shying away from the field you chose, and a somewhat glib look of life, an idea that you know it all already. I certainly don’t know it all, if anything.
Tithe, 2012, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 18″ x 14″
C & P: I have been thinking a lot about the Internet lately and how it has become so much a part of our daily lives. Do you feel that the Internet is a hindrance or a helpful tool for you as an artist? Does the wealth of information online and its instant availability influence your work at all?
Elias: It is a helpful tool in the gigantic fount of information that it is. I really, really love it as an immediate source of information, when I’m at a computer; the newer, mobile aspect frightens me a bit and I think eliminates a lot of constructive conversation and human interaction. Do people stop in gas stations on country roads to ask directions anymore? I think it’s an impossibility for the Internet to not affect today’s artist, just as one’s environment—subconscious or not—does the same. Our “at-your-fingertips” generation is, I think, a bit lazy in its approach to the search for answers (myself included). We take for granted the fact that we can know anything we want at anytime with practically no effort at all; I think this limits a part of our human desire to hunt and gather. I’d say my Internet use is 30% useful: the articles I read, the music I can get, the news I can absorb, the things I can buy cheaply; but the other 70% is pornography, gossip, and voyeuristic nonsense, all which I think I and others could and should live without. I haven’t figured out a way out of it yet, but I pretend to try every day.
C & P: What are you working on right now?
Elias: More paintings. We just had an open studio event at the Army Terminal so I got a lot of feedback and critical response, which usually puts me in a stress zone and I start painting over everything and second-guessing; and combined with these interview questions, you could say I’m working on my stress level right now. In addition to more paintings, I have a plan to make some cast resin sculptures; a process which is totally alien to me but that I’ve always wanted to learn.
C & P: What could you imagine doing if you did not create art?
Elias: I’m a big fan of plan B’s… and C’s and onward. Plan B for me for a while has been some sort of zoological or animal study; I am continuously amazed and in utter wonderment watching nature programs and reading articles about our world’s other species. The “holy shit!” moments are endless, and that intrigues me greatly. I could also imagine being a food critic, if someone would pay me to eat, I could get on board with that. Or a baseball player.
Birdman, 2012, Acrylic and Ink on Canvas, 20″ x 15″
I am forcing myself to take a couple weeks off of working outside of my normal 9 – 5 job, after spending the past 2 months staying up super late night after night & neglecting my friends and all of the fun happenings going on in nyc so that I could curate and design issue 10 of the magazine and simultaneously organize the Fountain exhibition, which just finished this past Sunday.
Just saw that this Gerhard Richter Painting film opened today at Film Forum. Looks awesome, I am pretty excited to go and see this during my leisure time!
And from Nowness:
Production still from In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There, 2011
Cheap & Plastique correspondent Heather Morgan interviews Chicago-based filmmaker/video artist Charles E. Roberts III for Issue 9. Charles will be showing at the Cheap & Plastique booth at the Fountain Art Fair during Armory Arts Week in NYC, starting this Friday, March 9th and running through the 11th.
Heather/C & P: Your films often come across as paintings come alive. Given your background in painting, do you find yourself composing “like a painter” when you construct your sets or your shots?
Charles: There is something of a tableau quality to much of the video I’ve done so far. I’m actually trying to move away from that and let things fall where they may. Also, my lighting situations tend to be very unnatural. I use light to throw color more than to illuminate a realistic sense of space. Maybe they are more like stained glass than paintings. I was never a very good painter.
Production still from In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There, 2011
Heather/C & P: Some of your recent work revolves around varying incarnations of witches. What do these creatures mean to you, what is their power?
Charles: I’m not interested in witchcraft or any of its spiritual aspects necessarily. I do relate to witches in the folkloric or storybook sense of the word, the reclusive character in the strange little house deep in the forest who spends her days gathering ingredients for the spells she will cast that night. That pretty much describes my studio practice, albeit in a forest of thrift shops and dollar stores.
Heather/C & P: What are some themes to which you find yourself frequently returning?
Charles: Right now I can’t seem to escape flora and gore. The blood will not cease flowing and the flowers continue to grow up through the snow.
Production still from In the Heart of the Wood and What I Found There, 2011
Heather/C & P: What films have you found most influential over time?
Charles: All of the works of Sergei Paradjanov have been a significant influence on my video work over the last few years. They are undoubtedly the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Carmelo Bene is an artist who’s films I’ve just recently discovered, I’m especially fond of his Salome. I also love the black magic themed horror films that came out of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia in the 1970’s and early 80’s. The gore in those films is out of this world, so plastic and rainbow colored…and some of the spell casting in those movies is very much like some contemporary performance art.
Video still from Act 1 for The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, 2012
Heather/C & P: Given that your latest work has involved performers, is this work in any sense collaborative for you? How much of your ideas or images are already worked out before the actors arrive?
Charles: I usually have the costumes and sets planned before shooting. The action is usually choreographed on the spot. Recently I have been trying not to dictate every little movement and control every little fold of fabric. I’ve worked with some great performers and I’ve played the puppeteer much too often.
Heather/C & P: You instill macabre imagery with a lush sense of beauty. Describe the experience you are attempting to create for the viewer.
Charles: I’m still trying to work this out. I would like to be less macabre and more repulsive, but always lush. I would prefer physical reactions to my work as apposed to intellectual or even emotional…at least that’s how I feel today.
Video still from Act 1 for The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, 2012
Heather/C & P: Do you envision incorporating music into your pieces?
Charles: I am about to embark on my first adventures in sound recording. I have no idea how this is going to work out but I’m very excited about it! There may be some pieces that will call for something more musical in the near future. I will enlist the help of others more experienced for those particular projects.
Heather/C & P: Who are some of your favorite artists, living or dead?
Charles: Michelangelo de Caravaggio, El Greco, William Blake, Albrecht Dürer, Gustav Moreau, Maurice Sendak, Peter Greenaway, Andrzej Zulawski…this is no way a complete list, just the first eight that come to mind.
Video still from Act 1 for The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, 2012
Heather/C & P: Tell us about future projects you have planned.
Charles: I should have a website by the new year called The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, there are eleven acts scheduled to be performed there. I still dream of making a psychotropic porno.
Video still from Act 1 for The Temple Theater of the Gruesome King, 2012
Heather/C & P: You refer in your work to childhood systems of belief and fantasy. How does your own childhood inform your work?
Amanda: My childhood definitely directed me toward image making. I was raised in White Plains, New York by a single mom. It was the 80’s; we watched a lot of MTV. Depending on how you look at it being poor limited or expanded my childhood activities. My first two records were Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Those album covers were spectacular pictures, colorful, dynamic and highly emotive. I remember holding Purple Rain and staring at the flowers on the back cover while the record played. I’d say Cyndi’s color clash and Prince’s body language taught me the power of pictures. Fantasy was everywhere in the 80’s and I was a kid filled to the brim with fantasy. The parking lot next my apartment building was the blank canvas for all types of high jinx and adventures.
Heather/C & P: Much of your work is based on the self-portrait. Some of these figures seem like artist-as-model, others more mythical. Tell us about the different characters you create, and how they relate to yourself.
Amanda: I refuse to adhere to a fixed notion of identity. Or reality for that matter. How boring life would be if reality was absolute. Identity is flexible, changeable and influenced by experience. Yes, I pose for the initial photographs for the paintings. Although, if we are in constant transformation I am not sure if in the end I could confidently say that they (the people in my paintings) are any longer me…
“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish lifting up all these faces.” Claude Cahun
Heather/C & P: Is there a self-portrait by an artist you particularly admire?
Amanda: Van Gogh’s Portrait as Bonze. Van Gogh’s obsession with Japan goes a bit overboard in this painting. That’s part of the reason why I love it. This painting was part of an exchange with Gauguin and Bonnard. It was Van Gogh’s attempt to share a dream—I don’t think that Gauguin ever understood. A Bonze is a Japanese Buddhist monk and upon close inspection, you will notice that Van Gogh altered his features to play the part. He slanted his eyes, made his head rounder and his cheeks more narrow and sunken. The electric mint background that his portrait is painted against is what first drew me to this painting. I visited it often at the Fogg Art Museum in Boston. It was in the room with Picasso’s Mother and Child. I always anticipated the blue of Picasso’s piece as I ascended the steps to the second floor. That blue would scream down the hall but became somehow more humble as you drew closer to it. Van Gogh’s self-portrait was much smaller and hung to the right of Picasso—it was hung low, right in your face. One of his eyes confronting you and the other somewhere else (maybe in Japan). Something about that shade of green made me feel more alive. Whenever it was out on loan the whole room felt dismal.
Heather/C & P: Your most recent work depicts cats, real and symbolic. What do these cats represent? Do they have a personal meaning for you? Are you a “crazy cat lady?”
Amanda: When I finished graduate school, three years ago, all I craved was privacy. I wanted to hole up in my studio and sift through, digest the copious information I had been fed for two years. I like people, don’t get me wrong, but I was kind of sick of hearing what everyone thought. Being in my studio is being at home, since I have a live/work space. The cats lounge about the studio, so I guess it was natural progression that they made more appearances in the pictures. The “Catlike” series of paintings were inspired by a ceramic cat; a large Maneki Neko Charlie had got for me in Chinatown in Boston. Maneki Neko literally means beckoning cat. It is a popular Japanese sculpture believed to bring wealth and luck to its owner. Hence its appearance in many shop windows & restaurants. Its origins are explained only in folk tales and legends. My Maneki Neko was unfortunately stolen when my first apartment in Chicago was broken into. I got obsessed about its abduction and frustrated, I loved that thing! Where was her luck and where did that leave mine? Smashed in some alley for a few pennies… I couldn’t let it end that way, so I decided to rewrite the story…my beckoning cat was not carried off by desperate folks but instead it had enough of immobility and came to life. I imagined Maneki Neko as a girl/woman whose behaviors were only those learned from the real cats that moved, slept and played around her.
I also see a correlation between the solitary studio life of a painter and the indoor cat. We both have these elaborate internal lives full of stories. I often find myself envious of my video and performance friends who get to interact with other people while making work. But in all truth I feel most content when I am alone in the studio. So, yes I am on the road to crazy cat lady status—but not yet.
Heather/C & P: You have spent time in Austria and China. Tell us about how travel has influenced your work. What other destinations do you have in mind, and what kind of art will you explore there?
Amanda: Travel is always the most amazing mind shifter. One’s sense of the vastness of the world becomes more tangible and overwhelming. Vienna was my first trip abroad alone. I was awarded a travel grant to study the life and work of Egon Schiele. I was living in Boston and it would be my first time on a plane after 9/11… I ended up not going alone. Charlie and I brought 15 rolls of film. We wandered and explored and documented every moment. I was a shy blossoming art student with visually hungry eyes. Going from museum to museum viewing paintings and drawings I had only seen in books. I was ecstatic. Schiele was very important to me. His self-portraits were brave and his watercolor drawings are full of sensuous line and fascinating choices of vibrant of color. I related deeply to his tortured soul. When we returned home and had the film developed and all 360 of the pictures were vertically half black and half image—apparently the shutter wasn’t functioning properly (Life was hard before digital photography). In retrospect, the dozen or so photos I kept from this trip are somehow poetic. I’ve returned to Vienna twice since.
China was sensory overload. I was happy to have a camera on this trip because there was too much going on for it to sink in completely in the moment. The photos upon returning helped me organize my memories of it. So much of that trip was non-language because of the complete language barrier. Happening upon the English alphabet (even when used in nonsensical ways) woke up a part of my brain that seemed to be dormant for most of the trip. Everything felt overwhelmingly visceral.
I would love to go to Rome and see some Caravaggio…but I would go just about anywhere that would have me. Really.
Heather/C & P: What painters have you been looking at most recently?
Amanda: I honestly haven’t been looking at much painting lately. Thanks for reminding me. The last noteworthy painting show I went to was Luc Tuymans at the MCA. I had been to an epic lecture of his while a grad student. By epic I mean it was long, three hours I think. The show was unexpectedly amazing. The paintings we alluring from a distance and kind of like fading memories up-close, they were made up of big brushy marks, mint greens, and powder pinks. He really made paintings out of his found source material. I was impressed. I also met a new friend at the show; we were both drooling over the same painting.
Heather/C & P: Your palette has shifted from cool, earthly tones to fluorescent color that mirrors the increased theatricality of the images. Did the subject matter inspire the color choice or vice versa?
Amanda: Actually a local back-alley treasure hunter named Eddie enabled the addition of moments of fluorescent color in the newer paintings. I had been experimenting with pushing the color for a while now, trying different brands of oil colors. I could get really bright colors with gouache and watercolor but with traditional oil colors it was challenging. Of course half of the battle for intense color is more about the relationship between colors and not so much the color itself. I stumbled upon a few water-soluble colors that up the temperature of traditional oil colors and then Eddie found some discarded fluorescent oil paint sets made in Mexico. They are tiny tubes. They won’t last forever. A friend from Mexico recently told me that they are traditionally used to paint Alebrije, Mexican folk art sculptures. I particularly love the reds and pinks, they are just hot enough to use in the flesh without looking hokey.
Heather/C & P: Your use of pattern sometimes appears to comment on the figure, other times creates a dizzying environment for your figures to inhabit. What draws you to the use of patterns, how do you choose them? How has their presence in the paintings evolved?
Amanda: It’s unbelievable to think that I have been working with figure and pattern for seven years. I think that firstly I am attracted to patterns, I have always been. I have strong visual memories of rugs and drapes from my childhood. I like the feeling of getting lost in a repetition. The left side of the brain kind of gives up and the right side takes over. When this happens is when I most understand being “in the zone.” My first experience of this was in my first intro to drawing class. Ever since then I can’t wait to get in the studio and go there. I guess I want to share that experience of looking with the viewer. And you’re right in that the patterns function differently from painting to painting. Sometimes they seem to be part of the implied narrative and other times lending to the mood of the picture. The biggest evolution in the patterns is probably to touch of the paint. The older works have more of an all over equal touch—kind of like the even surface of a photograph. I have been trying to loosen it up just enough to let it breathe and make it feel like a painted surface. I’ve also been using a bit of wax to suspend the paint, make it more matte, less opaque and velvety. I’ve spent a good amount of time making pictures, now I am learning to make a picture a painting.
China definitely had a huge impact on my pallete. If you want to experience synthetic color in a natural setting, China is heaven. Even the trash was beautiful and colorful against a mountain landscape. I have the photos to prove it. Red, hot pink, indigo and silver against green lush mountain scapes…gorgeous.
Heather/C & P: Having recently performed Butoh dance, do you see yourself expanding the worlds of your paintings into three dimensions, using elements of performance or installation?
Amanda: No. I’m happy working in 2D. But being in the studio stationary for so many hours makes it mandatory to move when I am not working. Dancing seemed to be a way to do this. I have a fascination with Japan. It comes primarily from Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese cinema. I’ve used Japanese paraphernalia; kimono, tabi socks and geisha hair-dos in paintings and I’ve been accused of exoticism because of this. Taking a butoh class was partially to widen my knowledge of Japanese dance. I was first introduced to Butoh in a Japanese cinema class in graduate school. It immediately seemed related to German and Austrian expressionism in mood. I think of the morbidly-obsessed Egon Schiele who believed “Everything is dead when it lives”… or Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance. Of what I have experienced of Butoh, I like the restlessness and the juxtaposition of fluid movements against uncomfortable right angles. I look at it like a painting, something that needs to be deciphered. I don’t know that much about it but I am curious to learn more.
Heather/C & P: Tell us about your passion for vintage clothes, and how your thrift finds become part of the process of constructing your images.
Amanda: I have always thrifted. I was ashamed of it when I was kid because it was out of need not desire. By the time I was in high school I knew all the good spots and branched out of suburbia to NYC and frequented vintage and army surplus shops that were affordable. In college I ended up working in a vintage shop in Harvard Sqare in Boston. I was there for about eight years. Being in that environment really changes how you think about clothes. Everything you touch is a piece of history, recent or otherwise. Each dress has a story imagined or real. Having access to these objects imbued with past lives became part of my life and I am now addicted. For better or worse, Chicago is thrift heaven! This city is unbelievable. Don’t get me started…
Everything in my life works its way into the paintings at some point. I collect vintage fabrics and I have all kinds of clothes from various eras. How I put items together varies from painting to painting. Sometimes the fabric comes first sometimes the costume. Either way I like making clashing patterns and colors become harmonious in a painting.
Heather/C & P: What are you working on right now?
Amanda: I have just begun a new project. I am going to be doing paintings of my artist friends living in Pilsen. I am excited to look outside of myself and work with so many interesting and complex individuals. We were all attracted to Pilsen for the same reasons—in order to have time and space to make art. Chicago has a huge advantage over other major cities in that artists don’t need to make much money to survive here.
That said I want these paintings to go beyond documentation. In order to do this I will be placing them in worlds I have created for them based on my interpretation of who they are through their artwork.
Distorted Face II, Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 cm, 2009
C & P: You just showed your work at the Claire Oliver Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. Could you speak a bit about the title of the show, Dissonance and Contemplation?
Andy: The title is meant to be non-literal but perhaps it hints to the vague feeling of all is not what it seems, or maybe the timorous acceptance of one`s fate, or the idea of my paintings surviving me.
C & P: Did you make it to NYC to see the show? Was the show well received? Was this your first show in NYC?
Andy: A solo show in Chelsea is usually an important marker for an artist so yes I attended the opening. Dissonance and Contemplation was my second solo show in NYC and my first with Claire Oliver Gallery.
Edge of Desire, Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, 2009
C & P: There seems to be a shift in the imagery in your painting over time from predominantly black and white portraiture to more colorful, monumentally-scaled environments with multiple figures and elements. Can you talk about this progression?
Andy: I go back and forth between multiple figures and single portraits. Right now I am exploring monumental interiors that contain unfamiliar element—interiors with more readable three-dimensional spaces that require me to slow down my process to organize the narrative between props, animals and figures.
Nico, Oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm, 2006
C & P: Your recent work is large-scale. Do you find you prefer working in this large expansive format to your earlier more scaled-down work?
Andy: Working on the larger pieces slows down the process. I also have a series of small sacral relic paintings that are preciously framed under glass. I have no preference for size, format should not be a parameter for content or quality.
C & P: In your newest paintings, such as Watchdog, the interior space, where strange activities are taking place, resemble the interiors of abandoned warehouses. Are these real/actual spaces that you are painting, are they abandoned spaces which you have explored?
Andy: They are real spaces that one could visit. I compose and install the selected figures, props, elements in my studies.
C & P: What interests you about this type of space and the graffiti that one regularly encounters in spaces like these? Does the graffiti that you paint onto the walls of these spaces in these paintings have any meaning?
Andy: The caveman with his torch, burnt stick, animal blood, pigments was saying “I was here!” Same for today`s graffiti artist. There is something aesthetically pleasing about graffiti in 20th century ruins. Something apocalyptic yet strangely beautiful.
Watchdog, Oil on canvas, 300 x 200 cm, 2011
C & P: The figures in your recent work, such as The Deer, the Sheep & the Three Companions or Hypnotized, seem to be wholly engaged in their own private activities and almost completely unaware of one another. Are the individuals in the paintings meant to be perceived as having been dropped into these environments and functioning independently of each other or are they part of a larger narrative within the work? Also, could you talk about the somewhat strange inclusion of animals in these works? They don’t quite make sense in the space but they also don’t seem completely out of place.
Andy: My figures are like addicts in rehab. They are removed from their computerized worlds and seem to be at odds with the world around them. The environment they find themselves in suggests a mental version of the rust-belt era—only it is the digital world that has now broken down. The decomposition of human interaction: the post-social network disconnect that I believe is before us if not already begun. The animal is meant as a prop for use as allegory—open to the viewer to for interpretation.
Hypnotized, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm (2 parts), 2011
C & P: Can you talk a bit about the recurring mode of abstraction in the works; the horizontal bands of distortion? It calls to mind images of a television struggling to find its signal. Is this repeated technique meant to be evocative of a particular undercurrent in your work, or a particular feeling you’re hoping to convey?
Andy: It could be a painted version of the cosmic microwave background radiation that we commonly know as “static” on the signal-less television. At the same time these fragments accrue like a paused VHS tape.
As If Nature Talked Back To Me, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm (2 parts), 2011
C & P: Your work recalls Gerhard Richter’s photo-based paintings (such as Matrosen (Sailors) from 1966, Herr Heyde from 1965 or the Baader-Meinhof sequence) in which he dragged a squeegee across his canvases to add an element of abstraction reminiscent of the blurred and distorted quality of visual memory. Do you base your paintings, or elements of them, on photographic sources? Are you influenced by or referencing Richter’s work or techniques?
Andy: Richter`s Scheune, 1983, looks to be influenced by Edward Hopper. Duchamp`s Nude Descending a Staircase obviously directly inspired Ema Nakt, 1966. The point is that sooner or later you will find cross pollination between artists. Richter`s vast oeuvre reveals how wide his influence on the contemporary art world really is. The above mentioned work by Richter is a carefully rendered photographic effect. I am more interested in a very risky painting process of motion and distortion, less photographic, more cinematic. My intension is it to reveal a topographic surface of valleys, fissures, craters, divots and explosions in oil that up close, return to the non-figurative. The paint handling in my work is difficult to read in a small jpeg format and does not reveal the material (or amount of material) that I use to reanimate the destroyed under-painting.
C & P: If you work is not photography/film based, how do you come up with your subject matter?
Andy: I conceptualize my works through the use of my own multimedia source material and my own studies.
Jam Session I, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, 2011
C & P: Can you talk about the varying roles of nature and architecture both throughout your work and as concurrent forces within some of the most recent works?
Andy: In my own life I was thinking about the rural and urban environment, were I want to live. Both nature and the man-made serve as equal opportunity staging for my subjects. I will work on a series of figures in specific environments till I have reached a point of saturation—its like considering a group of paintings as one piece and knowing when to put the brush down. I do also invent “psycho-landscapes” when nature does not work as a setting.
C & P: You have painted quite a few images of people rowing in canoes on lakes/bodies of water (Transition II & Transition III, Silver Lake I, White Lake # 1897, Rower I)… could you talk a bit about this subject matter and why it is recurring subject in your artworks?
Andy: The “transition” paintings refer to the afterlife, the crossing of the river Styx into the next dimension. I believe the canoe/boat is used in several different cultures as a vessel to the next plane.
Transition III, Oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm, 2010
Rower I, 2009, Oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm
C & P: Are you influenced by the work of any filmmakers or photographers?
Andy: Roy Andersson, Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini are influential film makers to me. And in photography Robert Capa and Miroslav Tichy.
C & P: What painters are you looking at? Past? Present?
Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Titian and Velasquez are a few of my favorite painters.
C & P: What projects are you currently working on?
Andy: I am preparing for a solo show next year during the Biennale at the Gwangju Art Museum in South Korea.
Model in the Studio, Oil on canvas, 140 x 120 cm, 2011
C & P: I have always been interested in how artists function/survive in different cities throughout the world. What is it like to be an artist in Zurich? Do you feel that you have a lot of opportunities there? From reading about you on the web it seems that you have lived in many places, LA, London, etc…, is there something special about Zurich that makes you want to stay & make art there?
Andy: Zurich is a very pleasant place to live—if one is at least able to travel in their mind. The clockwork infrastructure and busy ant-like work ethic occasionally leaves the artist with the need to experience other realities. There lacks a roughness here, a physical rawness and joie de vivre that one is confronted with in places like New York. That said, I am fortunate to be able to travel for the collecting of characters, landscapes and ideas for source material that I bring back to work in my studio.
Cheap & Plastique interviews Pittsburgh-based photographer Ed Panar for Issue 9. Ed was featured in TIME’s Best of 2011: The Photobooks We Loved and was also picked by Alec Soth for his Top 20 Photobooks of 2011. Animals That Saw Me is available here.
C & P: You currently live and work in Pittsburgh, PA. What do you like most about living in Pittsburgh? Least? Is this where you grew up?
Ed: I just moved back to Pittsburgh earlier this year after spending the past few years in Brooklyn. The town I grew up in is about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh so I didn’t grow up here, although it shares some similar qualities with the town I’m from. It wasn’t until I lived in Pittsburgh for the first time in late 2005 that I came to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the city. It was also the first time I actually started to understand how the city is intertwined with the rugged topography of the area. I really came to appreciate this quality very much. There are a lot of things I love about Pittsburgh. I love its range of moods and atmosphere. The labyrinths of streets and neighborhoods scattered along the hills, rivers and forests. All the bridges, narrow alleys, and hidden staircases. I could easily go on. Since moving back it’s been really wonderful so I don’t have too many complaints at the moment!
C & P: Is Pittsburgh bustling with creativity since it is a relatively inexpensive city to live in? There seems to be quite a few arts spaces there, are you affiliated with any of them? Do you show your work anywhere in Pennsylvania or the US?
Ed: I don’t know too much about what is going on locally at the moment, so I can’t really speak about that. But I am interested in working on a lot of different projects while I’m here and hope to help contribute something to the local scene. A new photography bookshop and project space called Spaces Corners just recently opened in Pittsburgh and the founder Melissa Catanese and I are working together on a series of photography events and programs for the upcoming year.
C & P: I went on a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh a few years ago, to go to the Andy Warhol Museum, and ended up being pleasantly surprised by the city. I found it to be a very photogenic (I loved the nighttime fog) and friendly city, I ended up taking a ton of photographs while I was there. Do you shoot mostly in Pittsburgh or do you journey outside of the city on shoots?
Ed: I always photograph where I live, and every place has its own unique photographic possibilities. But Pittsburgh is definitely one of my favorite places to wander around and take pictures. The possibilities of taking pictures here feel endless. I already have quite a few photographs of Pittsburgh from when I lived here previously and from visiting over the past few years, but I am looking forward to adding to them and working on the next chapter.
C & P: I also ventured out of the city to Braddock and some smaller surrounding towns. I had never been to a place quite like Braddock before, where everything was just shuttered and in a state of decay, even the churches, it was eerie. Have you been to Braddock? Do these semi-abandoned, depressed, ex-steel mining areas hold any interest for you as a photographer?
Ed: These places absolutely hold my interest as a photographer. I haven’t really spent much time in Braddock, but I’m familiar with it and many other towns that share the traits you mention. I grew up in Johnstown, which is also a former steel town. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, it always seemed as if every town you were in was a former industrial town of some sort on the decline. The post-industrial landscape has always had a sort of mythological presence to me as well and I’m sure part of my attraction to these types of spaces is due to my personal relationship to them. As a kid it was easy to imagine these sites as some kind of ancient ruin for a visiting alien population, or as the backdrop for any of a number of stories. So these types of places and spaces are something special to me. But I don’t really seek out the empty areas specifically, although they aren’t hard to find. I’m also interested in the old parts of town where people still live, where life goes on just like anywhere else.
C & P: How do you scout out locations for photo series? Do you research places on the internet? Or do you randomly travel somewhere with the hope of finding something interesting to shoot? Or is the location of where you shoot unimportant to you, are you always looking for an image no matter where you are?
Ed: All or most of the above at different times. As I mentioned, I’m always shooting where I live, so most of my explorations start from there. I spend a lot of time on Google Maps scoping out future photo expeditions, learning about where things are, and what streets lead where. (My urban explorations are always on foot or bike.) I try to have at least one camera with me at all times. I try to keep a simple and open approach to shooting, which usually means not thinking too specifically about this or that project. When I’m in the places I live, chances are what I’m shooting might be considered for a project I’ve already started working on.
C & P: Is there any one subject/thing that always attracts you (and your camera)? Something that you have 100+ photographs of?
Ed: There are many recurring types of pictures in my archive. My latest book, Animals That Saw Me, is an example of a project that came from a pile of recurring pictures I had of surprise encounters with animals. There are a lot of things that I always seem to be taking pictures of no matter where I’m at: streets, paths, houses, rivers, forests, and the seasons, to name a few. Overall I’m interested in the different types and arrangements of objects you find in different places.
C & P: The scenes that you most often shoot are of subjects that most people might just walk past and not notice; an oil stain on the ground, a pipe with a soda container sticking out of it… Have you always noticed these non-places/non-subjects and found them special/photo-worthy?
Ed: Sometimes I think I’m trying to work on a type of photograph that is about the background and edges of things. I’m curious about how this can be done, or even what those terms might mean in this context. What would a photograph of our peripheral even look like? First I would have to figure out where the peripheral begins, and then decide how a photograph might make you aware of the edges between things. Someone once described my work as “ambient photography” and I really like the idea of that.
C & P: Many of your pictures are people-free (although not always animal free!) Do you prefer to photograph places that are void of humans? Have you ever shot portraits or made images where people were the main subject of the photograph? Why do you think you are drawn to one type of imagery over the other (if in fact you are).
Ed: I have always been more drawn to spaces and objects than people in my photographs. I do sometimes photograph people and there are many occasions where humans appear in the scene. But I do have to say that I’ve never really been drawn to photographing strangers. I don’t really know why, but because of this I guess it’s safe to say that I’m more interested in the non-human world. I try to challenge myself to keep making interesting photographs no matter what though, so I don’t feel like I have any hard and fast rules when it comes to what I will or won’t shoot. I try to leave room for surprises.
C & P: Do you purposefully shoot imagery so that it is not linked to a particular time and place?
Ed: No, not at all. Most of my pictures are sorted in chronological order and sorted by place at some point during the process. Some years I make work books collecting together new pictures by month. Some projects are completely place specific too and the location is a big part of the work. But I also like to play around with the sense of place and time and mix things up. On my tumblr blog, the pictures are only identified by the year they were made and nothing else is revealed. Some projects, like Same Difference, are collected from pictures from lots of different places. The titles for the pictures are of an actual place, but sometimes it is such a specific neighborhood or street that if you still might not know where it is, even though I’m telling you.
C & P: You have published two photo books with two different publishers, Gottlund Verlag and J&L Books, how did these collaborations come about? Could you talk a little bit about the process of creating these books?
Ed: I really enjoy the collaborative effort that it takes to realize a book project. In both instances, I was approached initially by the publisher with the idea to do a project. The process varies from project to project, but in general there is a several month long period of going back and forth with the pictures and thinking through all of the different aspects that will make up the final book. You want to spend enough time with the edit and sequence so that you feel like all the pieces are there and in the best place. With every publisher I’ve worked with it has been an incredibly rewarding situation so I’m very grateful for that.
C & P: You have said that creating books and having a website—with a lot of work on it—helps you to edit your images. How do you choose which images should be in a series or in a printed book? What is your editing process like? Do color palette, location, subject matter, etc… factor into the edit?
Ed: I find the most important thing that needs to happen in order for me to be able to edit better is to simply know the pictures I’m working with. It’s all about spending time looking at the pictures. Sometimes it can take a while for it to become apparent which individual qualities of the photographs matter most to you. In order to help me get to that point I try to spend a lot of time simply looking at my pictures and sorting them in different ways. Sometimes a project starts when you make a new folder and start putting things together in a new way. Editing is something that I really enjoy so I do my best to keep adding new pictures to the pile. Each project develops its own parameters that determine which pictures will be included.
C & P: I am pretty sure I recognized a few images of NYC on your website, do you like shooting in New York? Does it feel different to you to shoot here rather than in Pittsburgh? Have you photographed in any other countries? Is that experience different for you? Is there any place that you would love to photograph?
Ed: Like anywhere else, learning how to take pictures I was happy with was initially a challenge in New York. But I found myself really excited about the work I made there by the end, and I am hoping to continue shooting there over time. I found myself making pictures there that I’m still thinking a lot about these days. This is one reason I enjoy learning how to make pictures in new places. I find that through the process of learning how to shoot in new places I recognize certain patterns and tendencies that I acquired over time. It’s still too early to say what might come out of this work, but I’m excited to spend more time with this project in the upcoming months.
C & P: Did you imagine that you would be an artist/photographer in adulthood? How long have you been taking photographs? What drew you to the medium and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?
Ed: I started taking pictures when I was a kid. My best friend and I had a ‘detective agency’ and we needed photographs to aid our investigations. In high school I started taking pictures on a regular basis and I haven’t stopped since. Now I feel weird if I’m not taking pictures on a regular basis. I’m interested in other things as well, but luckily photography provides a wide window to the world. It can be about so many different things at once. It feels like a riddle you can never quite solve, and I love that.
C & P: What type of camera do you shoot with? A digital SLR or a film camera?
Ed: My primary two cameras are film: an Olympus Stylus Epic for 35mm and a old Pentax 67 for medium format. I also use my camera phone quite a lot ever since I got my first one in 2004.
C & P: Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your photographs? Do you ever use Photoshop to edit images when finalizing a body of work?
Ed: I scan every single frame I shoot, so I spend a lot of time on the computer with my images. It’s definitely an important tool in my process. I don’t normally use Photoshop to do anything other than make color corrections and things like that. But I have always enjoyed playing in Photoshop and probably have a few folders of strange collages lying around somewhere.
C & P: There is definitely an element of humor to your work, I laughed out loud a couple of times while looking through your website. Are there any artists who use humor in their work that you admire?
Ed: There’s quite a few. A lot of the time it’s not so much an artist who is ‘using humor’ as an artist that allows a bit of humor to enter the scene. That’s when I like it the most. In photography, Jason Fulford instantly comes to mind. I love the way he plays with collections of pictures and text in his work. I also have to say I really enjoy watching comedy, so shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and East Bound & Down might not be a small influence either.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational? Contemporary? Past?
Ed: Too many to list!
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Ed: I’d probably still be working the night shift at the McDonald’s in my hometown. Maybe making ambient music on the side. Who knows? But I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I’m just trying to imagine ways of doing it better.