Last week, I spent the afternoon with artists Howard Hersh–San Francisco, Jeff Hirst–Minneapolis/Oakland, and Krista Svalbonas–Chicago. I visited the excellent install of Howard & Krista’s show at Wall Gallery, 473 25th St, between Telegraph & Broadway. (Their collaborative show, Correspondences opens this Friday, Apr. 3.) Afterwards, we ate at Sweet Bar Bakery then spent time with Jeff in his studio, Lowell St at 56th. Last stop was mine (65th at San Pablo) before we made a drop off back at Farley’s East on Grand Ave. We criss-crossed a little patch of Oakland, and I marked up my mental map with experiences in situ.
Seeing Howard, Krista, & Jeff’s work all on the same day was kind of serendipitous. They each reference architecture, picking up on the elemental lines, shapes, and planes that make the spaces we occupy. Howard’s recent work has removed surfaces so the interior reveals complex supports; the foreground presses forward precariously while the background dissolves. Krista uses photographic collage to merge images of disparate building surfaces, mixing materials into a flat plane that still echo the retreating walls we see around us. She juxtaposes rural and urban, joining shapes into unreal structures that sometimes float untethered to the ground. Jeff’s work alludes to the irregular weathered surfaces of aging buildings, skewing the panel shape towards organic as if referencing the work of the hand removing a piece from something much larger than itself. I enjoyed all of their work, and it left me begging a question of myself: since my dad was an architect, where is the architecture in my work? Its absence must be there. At the very least, I wanted to see what was there instead, and why.
I grew up around buildings as they went from freshly poured concrete foundation (damp and dusty as it cures), to framing, plumbing, cabinets, drywall, spackle, then the last finishing touches. A couple times we lived on the same block as buildings my dad was working on. I sometimes left my house in the middle of the night, walking two lots down to the open lumber framework of an unfinished house. I’d sit down on the concrete and look up at the moon. I remember the time my dad stood with me inside the Ironsides House, proudly explaining the angle of all the windows, the way he maximized the light and minimized the desert heat at different times of the day.
I’ve played with skewed perspective and absence in my artwork. With my recent paintings, I’ve been working quickly, without as much intention as I usually have. A recent post at Slow Muse picked up on an interview with artist Claerwen James where she said she has held onto this, which she heard in a lecture:
Don’t have an abstract idea or an agenda that you’re trying to communicate through a painting: make it because you want to make it, because you want to know what it will look like, and this is the only way to find out. – Bernard Cohen
I can’t say yet that I value working from the gut over the conceptually based methods I’ve used before, but I know I’m having a good time making paintings this way lately. In the past, I’ve had overarching projects that have propelled me into series work. Some were time based, and with others I strategically plotted ways to push myself towards certain source material. (Honestly, a couple times I contrived the projects to get myself working steadily after I went through a great personal loss, when grief was overwhelming me.) The projects challenged me, and I liked that. Also, when I discovered conceptual art after high school, it blew my mind (link provided for my non-art friends), and I still love it.
As I worked on paintings the past couple months, I tried to find a moment of balance for elements that are in flux. There’s purposefully no structure, no ground. The space is all amorphous; the transient elements gather and disperse. I made some of the shapes into defined masses and others as caverns that lead elsewhere, beyond the picture plane, somewhere unreadable, unknowable.
Lately I’ve been losing a clear sense of where I’m going with my work in the studio. Visually, conceptually even, things are making sense. And I just love working with these materials. But I still ask myself, what’s the purpose of what I’m doing? I’m painting on panels that are meant to be hung on walls. Do I want gallery representation, do I want a collector base, so that my work becomes a kind of commodity? Like luxury goods? Don’t I love doing things that have social impact? How can I make things that make a difference? Or, what is it I am meant to do, need to do?
I know most artists don’t overthink this. They make the work they need to make; the details work themselves out. I know, I know. I get it. Of course there’s cultural value to visual artists’ work. I don’t think paintings need to be justified. I know that making them, looking at them, caring for them- these are worthwhile. But I’m asking these questions for ME. Where do I stand? Where have I been? Where am I going? I really believe that asking myself these awkward questions, the ones that make me look into the hardest places, that it’s leading me exactly where I need to go. This is how I work. It’s excruciatingly slow, but I keep at it.
So, in the same way that I lose a sense of place when a building is demolished, I also lose my place when I start to re-evaluate the structure of why I do what I do as an artist. Am I just renovating my art practice, keeping the exterior of the structure (the things I’m making) and just remaking the interior (the whys)? For a minute there last week, the thought of doing a full demolition of my art practice crossed my mind. Tear it down! Start over! I started to despair. Geez, self, stop it with the threats! You know you love to make things with your hands. You also know what’s important to you, you know you’ll find a way to connect the two. You know you’re going somewhere with your work AND these questions. Just keep at it until you figure out what’s next.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Recently, San Francisco tragically lost a beloved artist, Susan O’Malley. I never met her, but her practice inspires me. There are so many tributes at her participatory online memorial. Her work remains with us, beautiful, courageous, alive. Here’s something O’Malley left us, with her “An Unsolicited Open Letter to the Young-ish Artist”:
As you finally jump into this adventure, it dawns on you: it’s always been there. You’ve always had everything you needed to do it. It just took you this long to accept this and the uncertainty of the process. And, now finally, you’ve said yes and things are happening. Don’t scold yourself for taking so long, just appreciate that you’ve finally made it here. – Susan O’Malley