HP13-0306, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 ", 2013
What are you working on in your studio right now?
I usually have several paintings in progress, as I do now. These range in size from 20 by 16 inches to ten by eight feet. It takes a long time for me to finish a painting, even though I don’t spend a lot of time physically working it. It has to sit around for a while at various junctures in its fabrication. Not much material is deposited on the painting’s surface, but there is a lot of preparation and forethought. For example, I deliberate for a long time over color choices. To clarify my position regarding color, I have in recent years stripped it way back to a binary palette; the newest work is only slightly more diversified chromatically. In any case my color is most interesting when I arrive at it slowly.
I am completely beguiled by the book form as a delivery mechanism for work on paper. Actually I have gone a little book-crazy since last summer, and I have ten or twelve books in the studio that, like the paintings, are in various states of completion. These are unique, hand-made objects; they are essentially sculpture with pages. I work on them at a very different pace than I do the paintings—manically—and usually when I am frustrated by the glacial slowness of the paintings. Working on books, it quickly became clear to me that the space of the page is fundamentally different from other manifestations of pictorial space. It is fascinating to me that I have made boring drawings into exciting pages simply by folding them in half. I have made dozens of books combining new work on paper, repurposed older work, technical experiments and found printed material. At 120 pages, including gatefolds and overlays, Book #14-0103 is to date the largest of these.
Book 14-0103 in progress
Book 14-0107 details
Can you describe your working routine?
When I was younger, I used to love to work late into the night. On rare occasions I still work until around midnight, but doing so is no longer a productive approach in the long term. It’s just not sustainable. Evidently I am more verbally focused in the morning and visually focused in the afternoon; focus of any kind tapers off as the light fades. So to the extent that my teaching schedule and other commitments allow, I try to arrange things so I can write in the morning and go to the studio after lunch.
Despite its location in a building on a busy commercial thoroughfare, my studio is relatively quiet. I used to listen to music when I work, but that too has changed. Several years ago I recognized madly crescendo-ing electric guitars as something of a distraction from the task at hand, and I retired my CDs. Now I sometimes talk to myself, which is weird, I know—but I gather that doing so clarifies my focus.
After a few hours in the studio my thoughts turn to dinner, so I wrap up whatever it is I’m doing and begin to consider menu options for the evening meal. I like to cook for my wife, Gelah, who is an enthusiastic, discerning audience for my efforts in the kitchen. It’s nice to know that, at the end of the day, one will have an enthusiastic, discerning audience.
Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?
The studio building is a massive three-story brick structure on 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. The second floor, where Gelah and I have studios, has a fairly high ceiling, not much natural light, and a concrete floor incised with a precise 12-inch grid. The grid is useful for squaring up stretchers. Otherwise the floor is pretty crappy, so I am free from worry about making a mess. When we took it, the space was raw but we put up plywood and drywall, so it feels acceptably white-cubish. The largest unbroken wall is about thirty-five feet long and 14 feet high—useful even when I’m not working large, because a small painting on such an expanse of white needs to hold itself, needs to really broadcast visually. I once knew a painter who made it a practice to test each new painting by hanging it alongside a little Matisse he owned. I don’t need a Matisse. My big wall is enough.
Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.
I paint on canvas that is stretched over a firm but flexible panel made of wood and cardboard. I have several such panels, in standardized sizes—20 x 16, 25 x 20, 30 x 24, 36 x 30, 50 x 40, 60 x 48, 90 x 72 and 120 x 96 inches. I do like that 5:4 ratio. Painting with these panels backing the canvas gives me the resistance I need to the pressure of the stamping process. Afterward, I transfer the finished painting to conventional stretchers exactly the same size as the panel, so the edges and corners fit nicely.
I put on the first color—usually a fairly saturated glaze—using a big brush, a roller or a spray gun. I mull that over for a few days, deciding what to do next. That second application is usually one color but sometimes more; it is applied all at once, in a monotype fashion. I use a piece of plastic, plywood, Styrofoam or something similar, roughly the same size as the canvas. There is a particular product that gives me the pseudo-halftone mark when I print with it. Then I take a few days or weeks to decide whether to stop, continue or give up on the painting altogether.
I do not intentionally prolong the process out of some idea about performativity, or to enact a ritual. In fact I loathe ritual. The pictorial result is primary. But each painting presents the evidence of a series of decisions that come about in its proximity and coinciding, at certain crucial moments, with its surface. The monoprint mark is the residue of a clumsy, imprecise operation. That imprint is all that remains of a protracted and complex action otherwise lost to time. It is futile to try to foresee this outcome. To the extent that I suspend control over the process, the result is surprising. I insist on being surprised.
The studio-bound business of mixing colors, selecting and arranging tools and so on is preparation for the moment of contact between wet paint and substrate. One or two such moments usually suffice for a painting. Maybe three. The technical means of making needs to become incidental, so the density and the weight reside in the painting itself, where the energy is focused in a few square feet. That is what I like most about painting: the energy is focused.
What are you having the most trouble resolving?
With regard to resolving paintings, I try not to sweat it too much. If I struggle with a painting, we both lose. So lately I have embraced the idea of the “tactical retreat,” meaning that I discard a lot of unfinished work before it sucks up too much time and energy. Because, you know, some paintings are just doomed. Generally speaking, I believe the trash can is a tragically under-utilized studio tool.
Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?
I get what I need from acrylic paint: fluidity, saturated color, fast drying time. The material of the substrate has been more of an issue. For a few years I worked on panels of various kinds, including plywood, mdf, prefabricated gesso boards and reinforced paperboards. Despite taking a reasonable level of care in my craftsmanship, I nevertheless have seen these panels warp or bow in a number of instances. This dimensional instability is heartbreaking because the only remedy is to cradle the board ever more heavily, which makes the object bulky and defeats one of primary reasons to paint on a panel in the first place. It is no accident that stretched canvas is the default substrate for painting, and to it I have lately returned.
To avoid the expressionistic associations of the brushstroke, I use tools such as paint rollers and spray guns to apply color, as well as the monoprint procedure described above. One of those fabulous old-school atelier skills is laying down a smooth, unmodulated wash of paint with a soft brush. I wish I could do that, but either I’m doing it wrong or they don’t make brushes like that any more.
Whereas the paintings possess a certain restraint and refinement, the books I make provide a place for technical (chromatic, procedural, material) experimentation and play. There, I discard little, and the editing process is mainly about the sequencing of pages. I work with found imagery, accidents, scraps, jokes, etc., and reserve the paintings for more developed pictorial strategies. The relationship between the two is complex and vital. A friend says that my books “establish the conditions of spectatorship” for my paintings, and I agree with her.
What does the future hold for this work?
I expect to further diversify my two-color, binary palette, particularly in larger paintings. Paintings in the eight-by-ten-feet range would seem to call for a greater chromatic range. The indirect, monoprint type of application, in which paint is transferred to the canvas mechanically with a kind of stamping or pressing method, certainly feels like it’s here to stay in my work. I like the unpredictability of it—the lack of control—and that the materiality of the paint becomes primary to the process. I’m interested in the use of machines in painting, for example the Gutai group in postwar Japan, and also some of the crazy shit Richard Jackson does to get paint on canvas. I’m looking to embrace more chaos, more indeterminacy, more nebulousness within the procedural paradigm of the imprint.
Also, I will make many more books.
"ever evolving index of most favored colors" (April 2014)