Contact, 2003, oil on canvas, 66″ x 84″
Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):
Sure. A quick bio would read: I was born in 1969 and grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, attended Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania for two years and finished my undergraduate education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I received my BFA there in 1992 and my MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington in 1994. After receiving my MFA, I immediately started to teach at Boston University and in 1998, moved to Greenfield Center, New York, where I presently teach at nearby Skidmore College. I am currently planning to move with my family to London for six months. While spending the fall in London, I will show a variety of works at Riverfront Studios, in Schylerville, New York.
Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous. Was that your experience? How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?
There is little history of visual artists in my family, yet my mother, who was a voice major in college and who gently promoted art, music and literature in my upbringing was a crucial figure. In retrospect, I would say that my brother and I were extremely interested in the visual arts, drew obsessively and listened to music with some kind of urgency. Milwaukee was certainly not a hotbed for exposure to cutting edge artistic activity – yet, after repeated visits, many pictures from the Milwaukee Art Museum are still pretty firmly rooted in my memory. We were both pretty intense Ab-Ex fans in our early teens, but the collection of German Expressionists, Lautrec, Picassos at the Milwakee Art Museum injected a pretty intense jolt for my early love of painting. The other early memories of intense visual experiences were the paintings, frescoes, sculptures and architecture at our neighborhood Catholic Church, and also, to the other extreme, the world of comics and comic strips. Of course, Chicago was only a couple hours to the south and the collections at the Art Institute (where I later received my BFA) and the Field Museum became seminal in my thinking about art and creativity.
In college I studied everything with a wide-eyed and balanced approach – literature, philosophy, history, psychology, art. Through it all I was intensely drawn to a group of peers and professors at this small liberal arts school. My taste in art and music further developed and I became obsessed with independent cinema and the work of filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren and Surrealist films. Of course, painting and drawing developed in tandem with these interests to the point that I needed to transfer and finish my studies at a larger and broader art institution. That decision to leave (my school, my friends, my girlfriend) was the moment when I gathered all I learned — and desperately wanted to learn more about — that I said, as you say, “I’m going to do this.” In retrospect, it doesn’t even seem like a choice, but more of a gravitational pull, in spite of myself.
What is a day in the studio like for you? Are you an improviser?
For many years I was a night painter, heading to the studio after the sun went down. I felt that my mind became more liquid, revealing and open for the uprising of memories, emotions, imagery and an approach to making pictures that was slightly less self-conscious. This process would invite and welcome lots of improvisation and processes that, at times, seemed at bit out of my control. I would lumber back home both ecstatic and petrified about what may have just occurred. The revelatory test would happen when I returned to the studio the next day to judge what did happen and try to determine if it was in any way progressive (new developments, insights into themes, any formal advances secured).
At what stage in the making of a painting do narratives emerge? How specific are the narratives? I get a sense that these are pretty open-ended, like a story that changes slightly with each retelling?
While I often do not have fixed narratives or “stories” predetermined before I begin a work, I do have a gut feeling about a direction, a composition, a sense of mood. I would say this takes up about 50% of the “early stages”, much of the rest of my efforts are predominantly based on reactions to those gut moves. That is, after I begin to locate a quality of light, color, and composition. These three elements are some of the main driving forces for what I call narrative. So, narrative develops early, even if it is fleeting and ever changing and visually abstract in nature.
Eventually, I do sense a need to commit – to composition, color, space, figuration and theme. All of these involve a second stage of picture making that reveals forms, bodies, landscapes, interiors, symbols, storytelling, etc. So, the narrative emerges and is generated by many abstract forces and is, in the end, refined with partially or fully recognizable imagery. The combination, all invented or recalled by memory, does create an open-ended story – hopefully one not too dogmatic so that a viewer’s imagination can flow and be flooded as fully as their eyes.
Variation on Charles Willson Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastadon”, VII , 2005
oil on canvas, 46 1/2″ x 64 1/4″
Can you tell us a little bit about the idea of ‘variation on…’ how did this idea come about? What has been useful about it?
The entire idea of making variations based on another’s work entered my studio with some serendipity and some reflection and guidance. Lingering influences for such work would be a) Picasso’s terrific series of Velaquez variations, documented in stages and with great insight by Leo Steinberg; b) the tradition of classical music variations on a theme perfected by Bach, Beethoven, Paganini and others; c) a brilliant work done by my graduate school mentor, Robert Barnes, on Joseph Wright of Derby’s “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump” d) a desire to converge with painters of the past and themes that were appealing to my current narratives and life and finally e) the idea of a series, in general; having a studio experience that could make interrelationships between works large and small, wet and dry, chromatic and achromatic, abstract, experimental and traditionally based.
For my own two “variation” painting series (Wtewael’s “Wedding of Peleus and Thetis” and Charles Willson Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastodon”), the images fell onto my lap – the way I prefer. I secretly am searching for new sources that will be catalysts for future series of works, but am fond of the way Wtewael entered the studio at the time of my wedding (she really is the one that passed on Wtewael to me via our mentor and friend) and Peale entered my canvases and pastels from my brother who is a literature professor and an Americanist (complimenting recent catastrophic events like 9/11 and other darker themes that had already been creeping into my work).
These works have become crucial parts of my studio production because they challenge my preconceived notions of picture making and style. I am always searching for paintings by other artists that are dissimilar to my own methods, persuading me to never fully “copy” the works or pay attention to their antiquated techniques (as lovely as some of them are) – I’m not in business of mimicry. But, in the end and after a dozen or so “variations on …” I have discovered new picture-making techniques, previously unrealized thematic connections between artists from the past and my own affairs and profound insights about narrative, creativity and authenticity. So, in the back of my mind, I know I am hoping to find my next painting for personal variations in London.
Variation on Charles Wilson Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastodon” VI, 2005, pastel, 44″ x 70″
What’s good about complexity?
I’ve always felt that while a viewer may recognize a space or locate a figure in that space almost immediately, that, with repeated looking or lingering, the entire image, the plastic, invented world could reveal itself — slowly. While this happens, and yes it can take some time, new bodies, oddly familiar patterns, enjoyable or foreboding landscapes, devilish creatures, and an odd attraction to the physical stuff of paint will occur. This is my hope – that a complex and strangely familiar world will reveal itself to the viewer and offer moments of pleasure, reflection and even introspection.
Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.
While my teacher, Robert Barnes, always discussed with me many things regarding the craft of painting, he also shared insights about the impossibility of making art, perfecting an idea, offering to the viewer all the aspects and ideas you may have as an artist (rhythm, smell, touch and the like). One consistent word of advice was to not consider your work or parts of a work too preciously. Often I would “paint out” the object, face or zone that I falsely believed would carry the painting. Often those obliterated parts would reappear with greater worth and presence because now they needed the rest of the painting as much as the painting needed them.
In addition, I cannot say enough about what my wife, Jen, has taught me. She has been my most intelligent, critical and reliable guide through this entire creative and professional journey.
What is the hard part of painting for you?
Courage, daily and consistently.
Still Life for 2000, 2001, oil on canvas, 66″ x 66″
What is the fun part?
Opening, as my friend would say, the “box of Jewels”. That is, preparing for a session, choosing the right music to flood the studio, squeezing out the most appealing colors, smelling the linseed oil and all the other senses of the studio – all in isolation. Even if I then spend eight hours making ridiculous choices and loads of failed attempts, that half hour of prep time is always a high for me.
What are you looking lately? What are you listening to? What are you reading?
In preparation for my stint in London, I’ve been looking at a lot of English and American art made between 1750 and 1850, (Constable, Turner, Reynolds, Blake, Palmer on the English side people like Allston, Cole, Audubon, Peale, West) and a lot of others from this time period that I had never previously considered.
Listening to: Without question, The Fiery Furnaces and Tom Waits CD’s get played more often in my studio and on my iPod than anything else. Yet, over the years have I have been obsessing over two eccentric and incredible composers, Captain Tobias Hume and Carlo Gesualdo. I am tossing around the idea of a cycle of paintings on each of these figures that will also invite some of my musical and sonic interests with color, pattern and narrative.
Currently reading: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz.
The Liar, charcoal, 89″ x 42″
We always ask artists about these three things–reading, listening, looking at. I wonder is there anything else we should be asking about that would talk more about your creative activity: What are you cooking? Where are you hiking? Do you ever see deer in your yard? etc. etc.—-Is there anything else we ought to be asking you about?
I’m doing my best to be healthy in mind and body – getting my ass out on a bike, keeping in touch with my garden, getting enough sleep, eating healthier and all that jazz. Many, many times I would rather prepare an Indian meal or watch a Herzog film than pick up a brush. Does any of this add to or enrich my creative activity? I damn well hope so.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Hope London is amazing!