Frank in his Fort Greene, Brooklyn studio.
Frank Webster is a Brooklyn based painter, and all around sharp guy. We visited his studio on a balmy day in December for issue #12. It was a great place to reflect on the apocalypse.
Interview by Cheap & Plastique‘s Heather Morgan. Please see more of Frank’s work here.
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York originally?
Frank I’ve been in New York for about 20 years. Most of it has been spent in Brooklyn. I originally came to the East Coast from Chicago to get my MFA at Rutgers. I attended Skowhegan right after graduation and moved to the city shortly afterwards.
C & P: You maintain a studio in Fort Greene, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood since you have been in this location?
Frank I’ve watched a pretty dramatic change occur in my time here. The building I have my studio in was just sold to a group of investors for over $160 million dollars. I think it’s unlikely I will be in this space much longer. It’s a fairly common story New Yorkers of all walks of life face as we try to deal with the phenomenon of gentrification. When I first moved to Fort Greene the area near the Navy Yard was a dangerous no man’s land with a reputation for crime. Now it is part of something called the “tech triangle” in real-estate-speak. Scarcity has made it in demand as office space despite the lack of amenities and poor transportation service.
A Volcanic Crater, 2015, watercolor on paper, 9” x 12”
C & P: Your work definitely has an “end of the world” feeling to me, whether you take the city for your subject matter, or you are out in nature. Do you think we are doomed?
Frank That’s an interesting question. Existentially of course as individuals we are—we all have about a 70 year expiration date, if we’re lucky. As a species I think we have a lot better prospects. Most of our current problems regarding our environment are the result of human ingenuity. If I didn’t think that ingenuity could be used to correct these problems I’d probably pass over conditions in silence. So contradictorily, I guess I’m really a bit of an bright-eyed optimist. Infer irony if you like.
C & P: Your earlier work seems to draw comparison between nature and the objects and architecture we have built, to melancholy effect. Your current series seem more wholly immersed in the landscape (in Iceland).
What prompted this shift, and do you find it satisfying to work in this way?
Frank I tend to see my work as a long running project so it all seems as part of a greater whole to me. The architecture work always had a topographic quality about it—a sort of catalogue of the landscape of the modern built environment at its most vernacular level. “How had America been altered by the great wave of suburbs of the later half of the last century?” for instance. More recent work has started examining a natural landscape without architecture, a place with a highway but without strip malls. It is in a northern region (the north Atlantic) where some of the most dramatic effects of climate change are beginning to be seen. It also is a place of unearthly beauty—fascinating geologically and historically, the wellspring of European colonization of the New World with a rich and influential literary legacy. I find it satisfying thus far but really feel like I’m at the beginning of something with a lot of loose ends to tie up and questions to answer.
Plastic Bags, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 80″
Apartment Building, Tokyo, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 44″
C & P: The Iceland series is connected to your earlier work by a deep sense of solitude. Even in Tokyo, your work is free of humans. Why is that?
Frank I have been a long time fan of the romantics who were the first to really grapple with a non-anthropocentric view of the world, communion with nature and the beauty of solitude. When I get this question I always am reminded of one of my favorite paintings: The Wanderer above the Mists by Caspar David Friedrich. This painting is significant for coming up with the compositional device of a figure with his back turned to the viewer to communicate contemplation of the sublime. In my paintings I think of the figurative subject as being the viewer who is placed in a scene by yours truly (the painter) to contemplate said scene. So my paintings all have a human as part of their compositional mechanics—that human just happens to be you.
C & P: This isolation seems to be the emblematic of our civilization. Do you consider your work political?
Frank Certainly alienation is one of the most well documented hallmarks of postmodern society. I personally think that sense of isolation has paradoxically increased in this period of constant contact and social media. I see a general rootlessness and sense a growing insecurity and a feeling of economic disenfranchisement. Of course the great danger here in the United States is political apathy in the face of this larger social alienation. It’s important to combat this tendency. So yes I think my work has political undertones even if it isn’t of the banners and barricades variety.
C & P: The earliest work I have seen of yours goes back about a decade, very minimalist paintings of strip malls and other suburban horrors, rendered purposefully, cheerily lifeless and geometric. Tell us about your connection to minimalism. Have you always had a minimalist sensibility?
Frank I have a bit of a love hate relationship with minimalism. I recently visited Marfa and was really taken with the grounded-ness of Donald Judd’s vision. But I also see how that aesthetic has been applied or misapplied in consumerism and it’s tendency to erase eccentricity and cultural nuance. (Post minimalist/feminist art nailed that second point pretty well, in my opinion.) Personally I try to keep things as simple as possible. But of course the world is a complicated place and complexity has it’s way of creeping into the most straight forward situations…
C & P: Your paint seems to be heightening the drama in more recent work, exploring the surface more. How does the sublime fit into a dim worldview?
Frank The sublime is interesting because it is not necessarily beautiful. Burke’s original concept of the sublime included what was most definitely NOT pleasurable, what was awesomely terrifying or downright ugly. As an idea it has been a powerful tool to free artists from their role as interior decorators. Any art that assumes a more conceptual attitude ultimately draws it’s strength from the stance of the sublime as a counter to the merely beautiful.
C & P: It is definitely oxymoronic to present a lush, beautiful painting that depicts barbed wire and an ugly, hulking tower block of a building. Is beauty important? Is it there to console the viewer or to lure them into a nightmarish hellscape? What sort of journey do you ideally wish for viewers of your work?
Frank Beauty is of great importance and ultimately there is nothing wrong with beauty. And yes, of course, it can be a tool to seduce a viewer into confronting some experience they’d rather avoid. A spoonful of sugar? Maybe. I’d avoid prescribing an experience for a viewer of my work, but I’ve always felt that catharsis was one of the most powerful emotions evoked by any work of art. Think of a late Rothko… that unspeakable beauty, calm and sadness… “Nightmarish hellscape?” Thank you, I’m flattered.
C & P: We met in an art show at a strip bar and had a funny conversation about Jean Rollin and exploitation cinema. Rollin in particular creates some stunning visuals. Do you draw on film as an influence?
Frank I LOVE Jean Rollin and his goofy post-surrealist, gothic comic book universe. I think his movies have had a lot of influence on a number of contemporary artists. He was able to find the freedom to deal with taboo and out-there subjects as long as he just tossed a sex scene in the flick to guarantee distribution in porn theaters. Georges Bataille was his godfather. But yes, his visuals are amazing. He was a real poet of the eye. He is interesting in that his mise-en-scéne is often the most interesting things about the films. I’ve made a few paintings based on transition scenes in his movies. I feel like I’m saying I read Playboy for the articles but I really enjoy his pornographic horror films for the landscapes he sets them in—that might be the most decadently subversive thing I can say about his art. (Sort of like going to a strip club to look at paintings.)
There are a lot of filmmakers I look at as influences. Michelangelo Antonioni comes to mind as someone I was inspired by early on in my career and still holds a special place in my heart. I’m also very interested in the off-beat auteur films of the ‘70s, when the director was considered an artist and low budget films were still the norm.
C & P: When painting the landscape, you get a sense of the infinite by virtue of expansive space or endless tree branches. How do you personally know when a painting is finished?
Frank It’s tough. I like to work on large paintings slowly so there is a temptation to say something is done prematurely. But ultimately a bit more time pays off in better results. I want a painting to have that infinite and expansive feeling but to also feel that somehow it just accidentally happened. Sometimes it can take forever to find that happenstance moment.
C & P: What are some paintings that you like to revisit, in museums or collections?
Frank I have a lot of artists I look at, but a recent discovery I made when visiting Vienna was Richard Gerstl, the proto-expressionist. Unfortunately, today he is probably more famous for his youthful suicide and affair with Arnold Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde but I loved the directness and urgency of his landscape paintings. His self-portraits are chilling and among the best of the first half of the 20th century. He is under appreciated today so I’ll mention him now.
C & P: What are you working on right now?
Frank I’m playing around with oil paint after a long period of working exclusively with water-based media. Right now I’m making small oil studies which I hope to develop into large-scale works. Studio or not, I’m a wily artist and will figure out a way to make my vision happen—whether an army of “international real-estate investors” likes it or not.
Artist portrait and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Frank Webster.