Interview by Frédéric Caillard, February 2019
“Sometimes I think about the paintings in terms of short stories”
You are widely recognized for your canvas paintings on shaped foam, but I was wondering what type of works were you doing before?
There were shaped abstractions, with canvas over a shaped stretcher, landscape oriented, with slight curves on one side. It was not perfect circles, but slow bores, missing corners… As organic as a stretcher can be. And then I moved into the foam pieces.
When did that happen?
I think I did the first one in 2007 or 2008. I had seen a John Chamberlain foam sculpture piece, I was really attracted to the foam, so I found a foam piece, tried to make a sculpture out of it, but it didn’t work. I was comfortable with canvas, I stretched a canvas over it. It looked just like a pillow. It was a square piece of plywood with foam and canvas stretched on it and I painted it. That felt like an interesting step because all of a sudden the rectangle became very organic, it was not geometric because of the way the foam moved around, and I kind of built it from there.
Did you right away stop your shaped abstractions?
Not right away, I tried to integrate them, building the stretchers and putting the foam on them, but it just didn’t seem to be working so I moved away from the stretchers in general because the foam dictated the shape and I could use a plain piece of plywood. It took me about a year to jump straight into it.
Can you walk us through your process when you create a new piece?
I am very linear, each piece is based on the last piece which is based on the last piece…. In my head I could line then all up on a wall and see the progression. There is always a relationship to the pieces I have made before. I add colors very slowly. When I need a new pink I’ll really try to think about why I need this pink instead of the two I already have. And then once it is added it is in there forever. I’ll keep on going back to it. I am still using the same colors and slowly building them over the years.
Are you trying to make corrections to your previous pieces?
I don’t think about it as a correction. When I see an older piece I am like “oh that’s good, I explored this” but then I realize I went down one road and there is a million roads I could have used. So I go back and go in another direction and explore that as well. It’s like a family tree, you can just keep on spreading it out.
Does the absence of background and frame change the way you go about composition?
Absolutely. We get so used to looking at works on a white wall that the white wall becomes the ground for me. The entire wall is the background or the piece of paper and everything else is the object sitting on it. I have tried to frame them but they seem constrained, they seem they are in a cage instead of a frame.
Your pieces are at the same time geometric and organic, which is a contradiction in itself…
…It seems like a contradiction in contemporary art, but in terms of nature, everything is an object AND organic. Geometry comes out of nature. It is there, it just not hard edge. I think of my works as geometric objects made so you can see the hand in every aspect, whether it is the painting or the construction, so there is no absolutes because the hand will always bail out absolute. There is no perfect right angle because I am not going to make them with my hand.
Most critics view your foam shapes as representing bodies. Some of them describe your canvas as skin and the creases of the canvas as wrinkles. Do you concur with that?
A lot of times. In my head, a lot of the pieces have an internal narrative, whether it is the way two people come together. I have stories in my head and a lot of them have to do with bodies, and people. And I have a real attraction to the way humans – or anything organic – push up against each other. There are different sorts of reaction and melding, even if it is just like a hug. They are not just coexisting side by side they are becoming something else for that moment.
In most of your pieces the shapes are next to each other or they overlap each other, but in some other pieces, some shapes are thinner and are flat planes. They seem to have a different role in the composition.
Absolutely! I was started to think about making a physical shadow within the pieces, a shadow of color, like using a smaller piece of wood to highlight the piece that is sitting on top of it. I have never felt comfortable putting a mark or a line on a piece. It is a way for me to create another line element within the work. Those thin shapes are a line and an object at the same time… For a while I was making a lot of paintings where the back was painted pink, so it would create a pink shadow on the wall, and then I started to think about making a physical shadow, so I could move the colors around and also lend a weight to the piece.
What about the sizes of your pieces, you have a lot of small pieces?
I try to use all of my material. The way I work is I start with a large painting and then – when I get that painting finished or the structure finished – I take all the scraps and make a medium size painting. I usually get one or two medium size painting and then I try to use all the little scraps to do a bunch of smaller works, like a nesting doll. It is practical but I also really hate the idea of discarding material, of the waste. I don’t want to waste anything, I want to use everything I can. Get everything I can out of all the material I have.
Do you need several attempts to create a piece?
When I first started making them I would make a ton and edit out the bad ones and throw them away. But now I feel I just need to hammer a way until I am satisfied with the piece going out into the world. It seems like a more responsible way to make objects. There are taking a lot longer, trying to get it just right, do less editing at the end. I refine the shapes, scrap some elements, re-make another shape…
“I didn’t want my work to seem aggressive or confrontational”
At one point in time, you were adding bolts and metal plates onto the foam, compressing the foam…
The initial idea came from looking at the back of other artist’s paintings. I always had an attraction to mending plates, the idea of these huge paintings that were only being held together by four pieces of metal on the back. Often times they are very pleasant to look at, it is a nice structure. So I started collecting those plates over the years, I had stacks of them, and I wanted to do something with them. So I tried to put them on the face instead of the back. Initially they were like Xs. I still like those paintings, and I’ll probably go back to putting elements on the front, but they felt very aggressive, with a lot of tension from the compression. There was nothing gentle about them. Even if I tried to use very gentle colors they still felt very aggressive. So I would make about one compressive piece every five or six of the other paintings. I just couldn’t get my head around it, I didn’t want my work to seem aggressive or confrontational in that manner, but at the same time I still loved the material and the objects.
Whose painting were they coming from?
The first one came from a Kiefer!
Where did you get it?
I worked for a gallery for a few years, there is a surplus of the installation elements, and sometimes they disappeared…[laughs].
“[With felt],I can make two shapes look like they were made to go together, instead of forced to go together.”
Can you tell us in which direction you are currently working?
The newest thing is that I have more or less stopped using foam and I’ve moved to using felt instead. I started to think about Joseph Beuys legacy, and how aside from his own body of work he produced all these great painters that I love. For a person who hated paintings, his students are great, and somehow the idea of felt seemed more pertinent to my work. The felt allows to get a harder edge that looks more intentional. I can make two shapes look like they were made to go together, instead of forced to go together. It also makes the line more exact but it still dulls the edges and gives an organic life. So I am trying to figure out the language of felt. I am doing things I have done before but with a slightly new material, it is offering me ways to go back into my older work and explore elements I did not necessarily get into because of the material.
Do you often use self-reference in your work?
Hardly ever. But I get a little nostalgic in the winter, and I have one recent beige and orange piece that is a kind of remake – in a physical way – of a painting that I had made when I was in my early 20s. I took the photograph of this painting in my mind and turned it into a physical object. It felt nice, it was like going back and digging out a memory and cleaning it up and making it the memory you wanted it to be, and not the memory it actually is. It felt good, but it is so self-referential, it is strange….
What other references do you use in your work? What feeds your work in general?
Sometimes it will just be a short story I read, or other artists. I think about Palermo all the time. I’ll see a Kenneth Noland and I’ll love that one stripe, and I’ll keep thinking about it and the next thing you know is that there is a work where it feels like there is a Kenneth Noland stripe in it. I got into Gerold Miller’s work too, that is pretty fantastic. That Carmen Herrera show, too! […] I have been reading short stories for the past couple years pretty heavily. Sometimes I think about the paintings in terms of short stories, especially the really short stories, like 10 or 12 pages, where you can get a whole narrative, but you meet the character and then you’re done with the character in a few pages. It feels like it is a nice approach to making a piece of art. When I have an exhibition I’ll find myself working in terms of “making a show”… But when I read a book of short stories I realize I don’t always have to do that, each story exists on its own and you still have a nice book.
Did you get inspired by Gotthard Graubner?
I think somebody showed him to me but I hadn’t been familiar with him. It’s funny when you investigate the history of materials themselves: after I started working with foam, I started looking at all these artists and I found these Duchamp paintings where he made these boobs out of foam with canvas over them. They are great, with a lot of similarities. There is a bunch of others… I grew up in Texas and the Fort Worth Museum of Art has two fantastic Lynda Benglis. One is a foam corner piece that has always stuck with me…
You also do drawings, ceramics and sculptures. Can you tell us about those works?
The drawings I make are like studies. I pour latex paint on glass, wait until it dries, peel it off and then collage it onto canvas or paper. It is a way to do the stacking of paint, a way to figure out colors and how things sit on top of one another. It is also when I feel I am at a loss for painting, I can keep my hands busy and play with things: the shape of the paper, the shape of paint itself […].
And then I moved into trying to make some works that could hang on their own, using ceramic to make like a rag I could paint and hang on the wall. I roll out the clay in between canvas so it gets the texture of canvas, it gives me a way to paint on something that feels like canvas […].
I like the idea of having something on the floor so the paintings have something to talk to. I know it isn’t the best reason to make sculpture [laughs]. Every time I have seen a Thomas Sheibitz show I have liked the fact that there is at least one sculpture, there is one object that goes with the painting, even though I may be more attracted to the painting. He is at least acknowledging the floor as a surface to look at. A lot of sculptors can make very good paintings but it is very hard for painters to make good sculptures.
Illustrations: Justin Adian’s studio view – February 2019. © Abstract Room With the kind authorization of the artist.