Invitation to Process Artist’s Talk • Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita StateUniversity
May 2nd, 2013
I am fascinated by the act of making sense—how our brains process raw information and churn it into beliefs, decisions, and conclusions. During this process, our eyes gather visual stimuli and feed it to our brains and in a split second our brains assign these colors and shapes labels, names, and meaning. In my paintings my goal is to confuse that streamlined system so that the process takes even a nano-second longer and leaves us in a state of not-knowing.
I am a big believer is not-knowing. It is a limbo that we do not spend much time in—our brains are designed to act as quickly as possible so that the saber tooth tiger or speeding Prius don’t take us out. However, I think this limbo of being unsure, possibly uncomfortable, and most of all actively present and aware of our immediate tactile surroundings is a state of great potential. This fleeting moment where we are caught up in the process of figuring out is very exciting. So with my paintings, creating this experience for myself and for viewers is the ultimate challenge.
We named this talk Invitation to Process both because I will share my thought process and process of making with you but also because the conceptual basis of my work seeks to do the same—invite you into process by the nature of their very being. I make paintings that are purposefully in-your-face about their materials and physical construction. There are no tricks or illusions—my actions and materials are laid bare in order to challenge a viewer to take these pieces as they are and be forced to decide how to deal with them.
I approach paintings like Zen Koans. Koans are (MERRIAM WEBSTER) “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment. The effort to solve a koan is designed to exhaust the analytic intellect and the will, leaving the mind open for response on an intuitive level.” Great stuff huh?!
The idea of a paradox intended for contemplation and not for a singular conclusion or message is incredibly exciting and opens up a dialog rather than presenting a hierarchical dogma.
We are living in a very democratic time—DIY isn’t a “movement” any longer – it’s an assumed way of being… there is a sense in the world that all you really need to realize an idea is the drive to do so and a Google search for reference. We have a Wikipedia mentality – together we can figure it out – we have the tools to form our own opinions at our fingertips IF we take the time and effort to try.
This relates to a theme of contemporary art practice questioning the whole idea of mastery. Craftsmanship or technical mastery and concept have been on equal playing ground for decades with each jockeying for favor over the other… I believe in quality craftsmanship but think now we are exploring what the whole notion of craftsmanship can mean without an assumed hierarchy of what is “better” in terms of how something is made. You can have quality craftsmanship without also operating under the assumption that there is a right and wrong way of creating something.
I assume that rather than a right and wrong way, each artist simply chose his or her way and its up to us to make sense of what we are given. Jacque Ranciere’s text The Ignorant Schoolmaster explores this idea that people have all the tools they need to learn and understand already inside them. It basically says that our system of having a master teach the underlings in a very top-down fashion sells everyone short. It’s an idea that I actively try to cultivate in my classroom so that there is constantly a dialog—I think sometimes my students would prefer I just tell them what to do and give them a clear-cut direction! But I think there’s a very delicate balance between encouraging and challenging and unintentionally cutting someone off at the knees in the midst of their own evolution of thought.
I mentioned earlier that in my paintings my process and materials are laid bare for all to see. This honesty of process is the structure that my paintings are based on. This is intended to let you in to the paintings so much as to turn the idea of mastery on its head. I am not interested in heroic painting that asks us all to bask in its presence. I am interested in paintings that meet us as we are in a moment in time– in constant flux between being lovely, strange, self-conscious, graceful, proud, and awkward.
My process of making the paintings is very much a negotiation. It is a negotiation with physical materials and constraints – gravity vs the weave of a canvas, light vs density of paint, pigment vs water. etc – it is a negotiation with my own impulses and decision-making habits. My paintings show off this negotiation in order to let you into the conversation – not preach to you about a message.
In this way, I think abstract painting is incredibly political and culturally not just relevant but necessary. There are 2 main threads to this point. The first is that abstraction is political because we live in a culture that’s tending more and more toward pundit-ism. In almost every form of interaction we have with media there is one talking head or another telling us what to think—I think we all understand that our news is pretty much always biased and depending on what source you tend toward dictates which bias you hear.
The whole idea behind this type of abstract work is that you MUST decide for yourself. My ideas about this really started ripening after college and after 9/11. I didn’t realize it at the time but looking back – I finished my BFA when the economy and America was still on that bubble - things were strong—starting to swing down but people were positive… then 9/11 happened & the Patriot Act happened—the idea of security and insecurity became scary rather than just an understood consequence of living life. We started looking outside ourselves for answers and looking to others for reassurance. This work was born in many ways in response to that environment.
At the same time, we live in a culture where screen-time is constantly going up and it’s so easy to forget that images are representations and not reality. So in addition to my work in some ways being a reaction to a feeling of constantly having decisions made for you & having pundits/the news media tell you what to think, it’s also a reaction to the flood of images we wade through every day. I see my work is as an opportunity to have a tactile and physical interaction that relies more on your senses gathering information than your brain reading and processing symbols and language.
So the second thread relates to the power of intuition. I see intuition as a gut feeling based on all one’s previous experience funneled into a singular moment and decision. Intuition comes up a lot when talking about art and I think it’s very important not to see it as some magical/mystical spark but rather decisions informed by the sum of all our knowledge and experience at any given moment – even though that knowledge is often not verbal. In our media heavy culture I think we all have started to doubt our intuition
To have a non-mediated experience is increasingly rare. SO I see my paintings as an opportunity to practice trusting self & own individual experience – learning to be present with self & another being – without a screen, pundit, or 700 Facebook friends weighing in. It’s just you and this thing.
So, that’s some of where all the ideas and sources of inspiration come from – let’s get down to the actual paintings.
I mentioned the idea of negotiation earlier – my physical process is a negotiation with the materials, my brain, and the execution abilities of my hand. And so, my process is entirely reactive. I do not plan my paintings at all- I can’t. I think in order for me to create an experience where I want you to be briefly suspended in a state on uncertainty, I have to keep myself in that state while making as much as possible.
So, I put down a layer or a mark and then take a long time to really look and digest how it is affecting the rest of the canvas. This process can take a long time – typically a minimum of a couple days & often weeks. I have learned that I have to slow down my making process in this way in order to not jump to the first reaction and conclusions that I have. Step 1 is to look – really look and be as completely honest with yourself about what you are seeing without making assumptions or jumping to conclusions (which as I mentioned earlier) is what our brains are trained to do. So I try to quiet the knowledge and associations my brain is bringing to the equation and just see what is happening right now. Then I can decide what to do next.
This back & forth gets repeated until the painting feels like it’s almost resolved. I don’t want my pieces to ever feel completely finished & resolved – I like them to be suspended in a state of becoming so that they keep a feeling of potential and aren’t fully buttoned up – like teenagers – full of fire, energy before we get old & set in our ways!
A big part of this process is coming to terms with the inevitable discrepancies between what my brain has in mind & what my hand can actually produce. As anyone who makes things knows – the two rarely line up completely. I think is fun but it often means accepting marks that initially didn’t turn out as I had planned. It’s often a very uncomfortable feeling but discomfort is typically much more interesting than when everything works out beautifully. I find the state of discomfort to be more generative than not so it’s something I encourage in my process and in the product.
Because of this I solely work with materials that dry quickly. I don’t edit or tweak once something is down – like I said, the process is honest – and therefore I have to deal with what happens – each decision is permanent – just like in life!
And for this most recent body of work, each decision physically shapes the canvas. I stopped stretching my paintings over a frame because I like them to be in an in-between state between being an object/being and a painting with a surface. I love 2D work because in a 2D format there are really no rules of reality – no gravity – whatever space you create – whatever light you create – the possibilities are virtually endless. That’s why I’m dedicated to painting and to 2D work BUT by not stretching it you vacillate between getting lost in this world but then a wrinkle or warped edge snaps you back into our reality.
That play between getting caught up in the act of looking but then also relating to the paintings as beings or bodies—as objects—keeps me in this place of limbo that I mentioned at the start – not knowing for just a second before you draw a conclusion keeps the experience fresh and our brains & eyes active and in the moment. So we can enjoy being present with a feeling – even if that feeling is slightly awkward—before we assign it a meaning.
So – thank you so much for your attention and to the Ulrich for giving me this opportunity to speak today!
*During the question/answer session which followed the talk, an important point was brought up about the difference between relishing a state of not-knowing and yet aspects of the paintings looking very calculated and hard-edged. The audience member asked how those could not be at odds? My response is that not-knowing is not the same as ignorance or being in a trance. My process is very calculated because I’m trying to extend this state of not-knowing through physical means—creating this dissonance takes careful consideration. In my paintings I don’t want there to be a central focal point or point of emphasis so each painterly decision is made to undermine the previous ones. I don’t want the viewer’s eye to ever rest too long on one place or decide on a comfortable compositional hierarchy. This takes creating visual contrast and thus the hard edges.
**For those interested, I would also direct you to the essay “A Walk for Walk’s Sake” by Norman Bryson (from The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act edited by Catherine deZegher) in which he discusses how drawn line always exists in the present tense while paintings have an implied past tense. I think this line of thinking is fascinating and aligns with my choices to include drawn elements with painted ones. If I want my paintings to feel as though they are caught in the act of becoming & not fully resolved, drawn lines that assert the same suspension in time—always becoming—are essential.