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Lubos Culen

Vernon Public Art Gallery, September 6, 2007, 978-0-9783080-1-8

Conversation between Bryan Ryley and Lubos Culen in the artist’s studio on July 2, 2007.  




Lubos Culen: In our two previous meetings we talked about abstraction and representation, and you said that representation is an end game because it’s conclusive, it’s preemptive, not allowing for interpretation and/or expression of individuality.

Bryan Ryley: I wouldn’t say that representation doesn’t allow for interpretation, as of course it does because it triggers thought processes which every individual interprets from, but it usually offers something that feels conclusive, a verification of a fact or occurrence. If it’s something I haven’t seen before it presents some new information, but that’s just news. I suppose representation for me is an end game; it’s completing something, not opening a door. A door may be open at the beginning of a representational piece, but then it just becomes a series of steps to closing the door. Abstraction, the way I prefer to work, is such that I really don’t know what’s going to come up in front of me and I am moved into new territory that feels more alive, or open-ended. It is freer; doors are opening, not closing.

When I was talking about representation, that is, painting or art generally that makes references to the outer physical world (and previously you referred to Picasso) we can see these works as abstract, but perhaps we can say that these works are abstracted from reality because there are still direct references to the physical world or narratives. There’s that continuity in Picasso’s work. On the other hand, when we talk about a non-objective approach, I feel that you are bringing to the work of art a position that doesn’t relate to any representation of physical reality, although one may have glimpses of it from the titles. In that sense I’m tempted to believe your work is much more aligned with works of Kazimir Malevich. His was the first exploration in contrast to say, Picasso, who made abstractions relating to the human body. Malevich came to painting from a totally theoretical point of view and hence the term “pure abstraction.” Do you feel that your work is connected to Malevich’s?

Yes, very directly inasmuch as my objective in painting is to make real objects that don’t refer to anything outside of themselves, they are simply paint applied to surface. Of course, the paint has inescapable associative human values and scale and all that kind of stuff – pigeonholed formal properties. But I really am interested in the life of the paint, the action of the wet paint, the language of the dry paint, what it comes to be. These are unique beings, unique entities. In many ways I just get involved in the recognition of them and not about anything other than that.

Yes, previously you referred to this and stated that you were interested in the here-and-now aspect and the manipulation of the paint, and perhaps working with concepts that may only be completed once the painting is completed. So in that sense, and I may be reading into it, is it a reciprocal process?

Yes, it’s somewhat like the perceptions given us through the understanding of closed systems and feedback loops. When I’m working I believe, in a way, that all of us are closed systems with unique room and territory within which we function. All living things are dissipative systems that have their own organizational order, and which, of course, show themselves in the real world in terms of material structure. But to get to the structure there has to be a process that occurs, and organizational properties have to be processed in order to give rise to the structural phenomenon, the thing we see or feel. At any rate, there is always a reciprocal give-and-take going on. Even if I’m painting landscape, I look, I see, I make decisions, I mix paint, I take a brush, I apply it to the surface, and I apply it in an organized fashion dictated by what I see in front of me, my hand-eye coordination and my understanding of paint and colour – all that stuff is really a closed system and I operate within it.

When you say closed system, are you, and I think this is kind of a funny question, talking about formalism and order, certain instituted orders of things, and hence the hierarchy of things? If so, are you trying to get away from this closed system and seek certain phenomena?

I fight this hierarchy of things. I’m really interested in, very interested in, not being governed by the hierarchy of things. That’s probably the ultimate goal – not being controlled. I’ve always believed art to be a search for freedom in any way, shape, or form. There’s a sense of trying to find out some greater information. But to me all art, all artistic expression in the history of humankind has been about searching how free the mind and life can be. And so, for me, that’s always what it’s all about. In this recent body of work I’ve determined to use a system that allows me to move my paint with certain tools, in a lateral fashion across a surface. I’m not going to pull the paint vertically across it; it’s going to be lateral. It is my hope that within these restrictions I will come to understand a greater richness of possibility and experience new terrain. Well, as you know, these paintings are on canvas, however, the canvas is stretched over a prepared board surface, and on that board I have marked a grid of horizontal and vertical lines ...

So that’s already imposing a certain structure ...

Yes, I suppose in certain ways, you could call it an arbitrary structure. I first discovered the grid as a ground structure working in a liquor store stacking boxes of Smirnoff vodka. I realized that there were distinct patterns governed by the arrangement of boxes, as the shipments would come in. Whether the cartons were stacked upside down or right side up, a random organization of horizontal and diagonal lines constantly created new visual structures, each marked by only two variables. I kept notes of these structures thinking I may have had future use of them. And so when I first moved to New York and started working in the studio the first thing that I did was impose one of these grid notations on my foundation canvas. This gave me a sense of stability and any mark that was applied after came to be understood or felt as separate or loose from the grid. This initiated my relationship to the grid in symbolic terms. I suppose I began to perceive the grid as the stability of my world, my platform, and incidents occurring subsequent to the grid or loose from the grid were the divergent energies around me.

So again, slipping back into cliché, we call the grid an archetypal structure consisting of a square as its base and having a repetition that is potentially infinite. We paint on square or rectangular surfaces that reflect a structure that is relational to the edges of the canvas, and therefore a fairly stable structure, and yet, what you call the incidences that are superimposed on the structure start to have individual character and talk about a certain experience over a period of time. I think that what you were also talking about was the passage of time. Am I close?

Yes, yes you are.

Let us go back to the vectoral quality of your linear marks, different from those of Jackson Pollock’s, or different than Rothko’s who was also working with these fairly basic structures.

Yes, before the canvas is stretched over the flat board that I work on, I select a number of 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 inch cardboard squares, let’s say seven or eight of them, that may be informed by some random occurrence I encountered on my walk to the studio. It could be that I saw eight ravens or something, so I pick up eight of these cardboard pieces and toss them onto the board. Where these pieces of cardboard have landed close to an intersection on the marked grid I staple them to that intersection. So, what I’ve done is create a raised surface on that board in these particular points. The canvas is stretched overtop, and then gessoed. Then I’m prepared to start placing pigment with a rubber squeegee, dragging it across the surface in a lateral fashion. These elevated squares act as interference aspects that pick up the paint, creating episodic passages that I really don’t have a lot of control over. In this I am trying to rid myself of a certain degree of control, and I’m trying to give it off to something else, some other property separate from me. Maybe that comes back to Malevich to a certain degree too.

You know, it’s interesting. In reading about abstraction we often talk about Picasso and Malevich and their takes on abstraction, but there have been arguments that abstract art is loosely based on Plato’s theory of forms. He argues that in the’ invisible’ world there are already intangible ‘forms’ or templates for all existing objects. Forms in this invisible world are then still tied to some sort of a representational aspect of our physical world. Nevertheless, forms in the invisible world are intangible, and therefore they are still just mental concepts. What follows is that the abstraction is about concepts as opposed to images abstracted from the three-dimensional physical reality. So, as you’ve described, you have a grid and little interference points that in the process of painting link a concept to a three-dimensional reality that ‘materialized’ in the process of the actual execution of the work.

Absolutely, that’s right. I agree with you totally. One of the things I used to say to my daughters is that you have all the knowledge in you, it’s all there, it’s only a matter of finding the touchstones that make you cognizant of it. I’ve always believed in this. In order to advance, we must give ourselves over to something bigger, a broader scope of knowledge than that into which we have been indoctrinated. As an individual, I don’t wish to live my life through perceptual orders and methods dictated by others, controlled by social and historic dictates I’ve had nothing to do with. I want to position myself with the material outside of the human layers of convention. I would like the material to have its own ability to express itself. I believe all materials, as we do, display organizational abilities and properties. When they undergo particular processes they give order to our world, interacting and building systems upon which further development occurs. I call this systemic abstraction. I believe that it’s based on – I believe that all our thoughts actually are based on – systemic thinking, systemic behavior.

The word ‘systemic’ implies that it is inherently part of something as opposed to systematic. Meaning relating to systems.

As you mentioned, we work on rectangles. Even the breakdown of the vertical/horizontal is a section that is breaking down from a larger construct. Everything is really part of the molecular world, the microscopic and the macroscopic are reflections of each another. I just think this is so, I intuit it, I have always felt it.

Yes, it’s only in your titles that we have some glimpses into references to the world. But at the same time, the work itself is relational, isn’t it? Because it relates to itself and it relates to different structures and you as a human element, the executioner of the project who gives it the ‘breath of life’ and inevitably activates it. There is the beginning, there is the ending, and there is the experience over a period of time. Could you talk about the titles and the references in them and how they tie in with your perception and your activity as a painter, as an artist?

First off, I should say, I wouldn’t mind erasing all my titles, because I created them really for myself. Perhaps it’s the teacher in me that I tend to give out my knowledge too readily. In some ways maybe I shouldn’t because I think it steers people too quickly towards something that is too singular, too concrete, and not intended. However, I have left the titles attached because what I’m trying to open up for people through a title is a touchstone to a thought, a reference point or experience that will trigger other thoughts and feelings. What I’m trying to do with painting is to offer a place where a person can stand and feel themselves in relationship to something, even something that they have never encountered before, that they can stand in front of and begin to commune with. I am pulling this paint across the surface because I’m interested in the duration of an experience and I would like each individual to be able to feel that duration, not necessarily of the paint, but the passage of time that’s taken place so that they become cognizant of their own awareness of time and its relationship to the bigger unfolding of time around us. So, for example one painting title is Paseo de la Reforma. This is the name of a main thoroughfare in Mexico City and an experience there triggered the painting. During a visit there my wife and I witnessed demonstrations on this avenue that went on night after night. The protesters were farmers who had been removed from their land and were protesting the injustice of this. To do so they set up large oil drums on the boulevard upon which eight unclothed women stood wearing masks of Vincente Fox, then President of Mexico. Around them circled up to one hundred men carrying burning torches and chanting. Children worked the crowd handing out leaflets outlining their reasons for protest. Between ourselves and this spectacle, traffic rushed by at a constant and relentless pace. It all struck me as such a succinct metaphor for the plight of this agrarian society still attempting to have a place in this present age, which is rapidly moving past them and apparently dispensing with them. That’s quite a heartfelt kind of situation and the paining came from that.

Some other titles, say Circus Train, or Train to Tamale – when I think of train, I think of passage, movement, and the rhythmic nature of the machine. The pull of the paint as I put pressure down, as I release pressure, has a rhythmic kind of feeling that stretches over terrain, the way train tracks do. At the particular time that I was working on these paintings, my daughter Alexis was in Ghana, in Africa, working as a nurse, and she would talk about her long bus ride to Wa, or going to the town of Tamale in the northern part of Ghana, by train. That got me thinking about her life, her movements and the transport that she would take, bus or train, so, it’s all about passage of time. That’s the kind of thing I hope my titles make reference to.

In previous statements you stated that contemporary painting requires constructional forms and methods that mirror conditions of our time. When we talk about forms, are we talking about this grid structure and other structures, like your little cardboard pieces for instance, which may relate to something, but inevitably will function on an abstract level as something relational perhaps only to each other. When it comes to methodology in your studio practice, can we say that you’re trying to dismantle the hierarchy of formalism or the hierarchy embodied in formalism?

Formalism to me is always – I have to be careful in how I say this – the discussion of formalism is sort of the cowardly way out of talking about what we’re all doing, you know, we are all organizing form. The question is why you’re organizing this form – you know? I’m not interested in formalism …

I see it the very same way. By extension, anything in the production of art will inevitably have a certain form –  even when we talk about John Cage’s compositions, where the main element is silence. So the silence becomes the form, and inevitably in that sense it is a certain theory, and we know that theories are fairly arbitrary.

And can become hierarchal.

Obviously what lurks in the back of my mind is Clement Greenberg and the fact that he might have done a disservice to painters and also to minimalist sculptors. I was just thinking about Donald Judd, for instance. Greenberg’s writing at the time Judd was first exhibiting might have stalled his development beyond modernism. I believe that, say Donald Judd or some of the other minimalists, were already tapping into a new perception of the world and of art that is more akin to post-modernism. And what I mean by that is that there is no singular narrative or explanation or meaning in the work of art, but there is a fair amount of parallel meaning. Also, you have made reference to Carl Andre –  same school, same focus.

I think that Carl Andre, Mel Bochner, Donald Judd are systemic artists. They are aware of the systemic nature of life. Judd’s work, definitely the boxes – one element jigged, creating a new construct within a finite order of things. A closed system, but open possibility and freedom within that system.

Somewhat archetypal too.

It is, it is definitely. Look at our human bodies – these are closed systems but they’re open to the world, they breathe in air from the external world, they take in food from the external world, but this food and air are utilized for the maintenance and progress of that system into which they enter. In a sense, that is what I’m trying to do with my paintings. I’m trying to bring in information and external entities: paint, material, scale – whatever, all the so-called formal things into a system, and see how they live. I agree with you that interpretations of Greenberg’s sensibility perhaps stalled the progress of art, however, as in all things, I am not sure his words or thinking were fully understood. His ideas were assumed to be too singular, too narrow.

Do you mean the workshops at Emma Lake?

Yes, certainly Emma Lake was a major factor in what has happened in Canada. I think that so-called formalism and its practitioners, the Greenbergian acolytes, developed a mannered approach that took their art into a decorative mode. As you know, I went to Emma Lake for three different workshops in 1979, 1980 and 1981. Then I just had to say: “I’m out of here.” There seemed to be no human value in any of the stuff that was going on. I mean, really nice people, wonderful people to work with and everything else, but they’d swallowed something I could never swallow. I had to get out of there. What it is exactly I don’t even know.

Well, borrowing from Sarah McLachan, it is all about ‘building the mystery’. Or to paraphrase Greenberg’s notion, painting can be about nothing as long as it’s painted well. Obviously, he was advancing some notions of aesthetic values or hierarchies.

Yes, what’s done right or done wrong, seemed to be the mantra. In many ways, is anybody ever wrong? I mean, they are what they are, they are doing what they’re doing, and they impound us, they impact on us, as individuals do. We may recoil from how we’ve been impacted upon, but are they really wrong? Measured against a hierarchy, a set of behaviors, they might be. As you know, I teach at a university and one of the things I don’t ever want to do is to create an imposed hierarchy for somebody. People have the right to find their own place.

We are all our own unique history and genesis of our thoughts.

Our experiences.

You talk about the desire to push the language of form into its own autonomous role, given external representation and intent. When you say ‘autonomous role’, what do you mean by that?

I believe that a painting has autonomy. It comes to a place where it says, “I am me, I’m not about anything else, I’m me.” There’s an autonomy there and I think from the artist’s point of view, from my point of view as an artist, when my work has come to that place I have to say you’re you and you’re everything you are, you’re none of me, you are your autonomous self. And that’s what I really want people to understand, that this is an autonomous self, this isn’t a reflection of some other external thing.

Is it because it refers to itself?

It is itself, it doesn’t refer to itself; it is itself. It does not refer to anything. You do that.

Is it because it’s realized in the material and therefore it is?

It is what it is and it’s not anything else. And that’s what I’m saying about the impact of one individual on another. Our scanning mechanisms start to categorize immediately and try to understand what’s in front of us. The great thing about a painting is that it’s not going to change. Whereas human beings, as seconds pass, alter, because they are affected by their environment and their environment moves them forward in some way. Paintings, once they become themselves, they are there. Then it’s upon us to really find out and look at that thing, to take it in, and find out, estimate, and understand what it is we are in front of, what ‘we are’ while we’re in front of it. It doesn’t need us, we need it, and I think the quicker we come to that realization, as human beings, we’ll be a whole lot better off.

In that sense it’s us, it’s the viewer that activates the meaning.

Yes, absolutely. This raises the question about context, the discussion about context in art. I’ve always been blown away by the fact that – and this is where we go back to representation – I have colleagues, fellow artists, people in general, who say they don’t understand painting unless they recognize something in it. I think to myself, well, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you have a relationship with this nebulous thing, this autonomous thing, with that which is in front of you? Where is your internal context, where is your feeling? Do you always need an extraneous echo, a reference point, a memory, a sound byte from somewhere else? It always surprises me to see these wheels at work scanning somebody else’s horizons for validation. Why can’t it come from what’s in front of you, into your system as all new experiences have done from your beginning?

Any work of art is contextually tied to a structure. One can work with varying structures, questions of representation or non-objectivity, and the ‘objectness’ of the object itself is rich; do you know what I mean?

It is rich. It’s always rich territory.

Thinking about history, I want to go back to Malevich and his concept of the “zero form.”

What Malevich was talking about is that there is something here even though you may think that there is nothing here.

For instance, in his white-on-white compositions with squares he is referring to the light-based colour theory that stipulates that white light contains all the colours. It also contains all the colour harmonies that you can potentially foresee.

Sure; all the discords are there, too. Everything is there.

And by extension, his black square paintings talk about the absence of all of that. From that point of view, there is a lot of contextual underpinning in the work, as mundane as it looks to some viewers and without, or with very little, reference to the outside world.

It takes me back to something you said earlier, which is Plato’s notion that the world is full of these forms, even though they are not visible. For a person to understand or to appreciate or to benefit from Malevich’s work, they have to have a turn of mind that can conceive the fact that the full spectrum of light is in the colour white. If they do not have that, then they have to have some other methodology or manner of thinking to get the completeness we are talking about. So really, to understand what we were referring to earlier in my own work, it would be this conceptual framework that underpins it. In a way, it is not about the visible world only; it is about the world of all things, concepts, and experiences. And that gets back to the organizational aspect. And the structural aspect that comes to light in the actual object is the visible reality of that organizational aspect.

I want to tell you about something from Jennifer Macklem’s artist statement. She is saying something that echoes what you have described in saying that the painting is an accumulation of decisions in the process of creation, and I like that statement and think it is true. I think that one can become complacent about a certain methodology or an imposed structure, or, one can change the structure. One can carry out the plan and institute a preconceived structure, or, on the other hand, one makes decisions at every step of the way, and the work of art is then influenced by this sense of freedom and, inevitably, new direction. And this may not be logical at all.

It is only upon reflection that we can understand what that structure was that you have just undergone. You might have set out with a determined order and method, but as Jennifer Macklem indicates, you make decisions along the way. When it is completed, that autonomous thing I am talking about as being painting is the reflection of the complexity of the structural shift, the experience that has gone on.

And it is unique to every piece.

And it is unique to every piece, it is autonomous.

You cite Marcia Tucker and her statement about the “new approach to production.” She says, “… this doesn’t mean the elements employed have no relationship to each other, but rather that such relationships are of a new kind. They do not evoke form, a preconception of order which the artist is trying to express, but come from an activity of making work and from the dictates of the materials … and that the relational logic has been replaced by a functional one.” In your practice, you address that concept as well; you say that there’s this understanding of materials and forms, and of structures that are not preconceived.  

Yes, in a sense there’s no great mystery here; the painting is a function of a process. It has given rise, it has come about, through the exercising of a function, the movement of paint ordered in a certain way, decisions having been made along the way, as you indicate. In the end, the product is a functional thing. It’s not intending to talk about any big ideas, it’s not intending to shut down any ideas, it is really an example of materials that have been ordered through a functional methodology. They’ve set up, they’ve dried, that’s what it is, there’s no great mystery here. It’s a function occurring over time. The red pigment is pulled from the left across the surface towards the right, and it dissipates as it goes, as gravity and surface tension grabs the paint. The paint only has so much to give before it runs out. So the mind has to get onto the fact that there’s a functional extrapolation going on and one’s own understanding or feeling for the physical properties that are going on will bring it all into view. Tied to these realizations will be a myriad of other things, but first one has to give oneself over to the function of the work.

In summing up your pursuit in painting over the last thirty years, you say you are concentrating on a gestural analysis and not on a traditional or formal analysis. We touched on this when we were talking about Picasso’s abstraction.  

Picasso’s works feel representational, it’s just distorted representation. I’ve vacillated in my own practice towards that kind of abstraction as well. The representational world does immediately take you to the social, contextual world of human enterprise; a history of human activity. That’s what representation does, it gives us a window on the history of human interface with the world. I don’t think there’s an artist alive who isn’t enticed, or does not want to be part of that. The representational world is very interesting, of course, and I tend to walk into it for a while and then walk out of it. At times we want to look back, but it’s important to look forward too.

In our dialogues in the past, we have talked about Gerhard Richter and the fact that he has been on the forefront but also on the margins for many years. Art critics could not pigeonhole him because he was resisting any classification quite actively. He produced highly representational work and purely abstract art as well.  

I think that you’ve said it well. Gerhard Richter is actually doing us all a good service in that he’s pursuing different perceptions of the world, and by extension, of living. He’s interested in the historic, socialized representational image, trying to get a handle on it, while he’s interested also in the conceptual framework of the pure autonomy of experience. So I applaud Richter. He has fought for his margins and as you say, he’s actively gone after it. We could look at Baselitz – in a way his upside-down figures are another metaphoric look at autonomy, while at the same time, he is giving himself some kind of familiar structure to hang his paint on, which is a representational thing. Representational painting is just an excuse to hang your paint on something, it’s just a structure. Lucien Freud does exactly that, selects models to hang his paint on, yet when he does, these models, structures, are processed through the function of his unique system. I think that’s one of the things that has been misconstrued in discussing painting. Painters love to paint. During my last show in Calgary I watched the audience and you could tell who the painters were. They were not interested in what it’s about, they know what it’s about, we all know what it’s about. They know that, they were more interested in the ‘how’ it’s done and ‘why’ it’s done this way. That’s the functional thing I am talking about. We need to go there more in our understanding. What drives the function and what can we extrapolate from this function should be the concern. That’s why Gerhard Richter’s non-objective side is purely non- objective. He wants people to experience the how, not the what. Even in his representational work he utilizes an obliterated focus, situating one’s response in the area of a ‘felt duration,’ giving recognition to the passage of time and therefore contextually an awareness of existence. It’s about the ‘how I perceive this,’ not what am I perceiving, how am I perceiving, how am I feeling.

It is fascinating that he works with the two fields of his interest, the high realism and the non-objective abstraction. You are familiar with his other bodies of work that were based on historical photographs of family relatives. The images are ever so slightly dissolved – they are realistic, but dissolved. The works are informed by historical approaches to painting, yet, when it comes to representation, the work is probably neither. It’s just, you know, what you call paint and certain expression. 

Yes, it remains in an in-between place and that’s where the best painting resides. Richter himself refers to this. That’s why Picasso has such power, because his best work still resides in that in-between place. That’s why people were attracted to distorted representation, because it occupies an in-between place, and in certain moments you understand the autonomy of a passage as being separate and distinct from that which it is describing. As any passage is tied to the representational, the descriptive aspect of the whole, it is also separate and finite unto itself. In a way, that’s what I’m talking about in all of this: the functionality of the reading of painting. To read art is to perceive that the elements there have their own autonomy, but they also reside within the context of a whole. So they have a dual purpose, and good art always has as its engine, this in-between place. Not-so-good art anchors itself in one camp or the other. It’s true in music, it is true in dance, it is true in theatre, it is true in sculpture, as it is true in painting. We have to be more open. Good artists are open to the malleability of experience, as opposed to any singular concreteness of experience.

All of this was expressed by the French theorist Jacques Derrida. He held that no work of art, whether representational or non-objective, is capable of transmitting just a singular meaning. I think that that’s human nature; we experience the world on many levels.  

Now in our time we’re coming to these realizations. I think in the scientific community, the humanities, and in the artistic community, we are all talking about the same thing. We’re never close enough to be there, but we’re getting there. Cybernetics initiated things that evolved into many exciting platforms, such as the ecology movement, all of it enriching our understanding in both social and pure scientific contexts. The artist has a role, if you will, in giving visible reality and performative form to this awareness that all things are functionally and structurally connected to one another, while at the same time being unique and self-governing.

It’s interesting that you mention cybernetics. I was interested in it in my early twenties, and we still believed that information theory would be able to mimic human processes and the brain activity. The theory didn’t hold true past the late 1970s and it really just became a tool for people. It is a closed system; it only refers to itself and it can only do what it can do, hence the human element again comes to the forefront.  

As long as I have known you, you have been talking about felt experience, certain gestalts. I understand that this is tied to representation versus non-objectivity in painting and it’s perfectly understandable that when someone is painting a portrait of someone else, the portrait will only be finished when the image carries the likeness of that person. In abstract art we don’t have the luxury of how to judge when the painting will be finished. Could you tell me about your process? 

Well, I remember as a young kid drawing an elbow. I don’t know how old I was, I could have been three or four years old, and I remember saying to my father: “Dad, I can feel my elbow when I draw an elbow.” I remember that as being a very cogent experience. I could feel my anatomy as I drew my anatomy on the page and I think I’ve always been sensitive to felt experiences in that way. They generate an awareness, a sense of ‘beingness,’ and that’s perhaps why I have operated in an abstract realm for most of my life. I get a sense of it being right or wrong, it’s a felt thing, and it’s a sensory thing first. I guess I believe in and trust my sensory abilities. Even when I’m painting portraiture, which I have done a fair amount of, the ‘rightness’ of the portrait is when it feels right, not when it looks right. A lot of things have to come together before it is correct, before it’s on the money, and a good deal of this is the felt experience. You have to feel it’s right. You don’t think it’s right. If you have to think it’s right, it’s definitely not right.

Yes, we have different capacities to perceive; the one is mental and the other is based on perception. 

I believe felt reality to be a whole reality, that is, you understand it to be full. Working in abstraction is just as demanding as highly representational work, it’s right or it’s wrong. It has got to feel right before it’s right and your understanding of it being right, again, if you’re thinking it’s right, it’s wrong? There can’t be any thinking about it.

Because then you slip into justifications... 

Exactly, and then you seek hierarchies to justify it; oh, it looks like such-and-such, or it reminds me of – all that kind of stuff. That has nothing to do with anything other than your own failings. In the film on architect Frank Gehry by Sidney Pollack, Gehry and an assistant are shown working on a model. Gehry says to take an element off the model and bend it, and then put it back on. The assistant does this and Gehry says: “No, no, not that way, take it off again and make it more accordion-like.” The assistant makes it accordion-like and puts it back on and Gehry instructs the assistant to make it shorter. The assistant makes it shorter and puts it back on. Gehry looks at it and bursts out laughing and then says, “That’s so stupid it works”. Charlie Rose, who is conducting the interview, chastises Gehry and says, “How can that be? Here someone is paying you millions of dollars to design a building and you’re saying, “it’s so stupid it works!” Gehry just looks at him and says, “You don’t understand, do you? It has nothing to do with thought, it has everything to do with feeling, and this feels right.” I’m paraphrasing this of course, however it illustrates what I’m trying to explain, “It’s so stupid it works,” means it feels right. And that’s how we make decisions as artists, that is how we make decisions as people. You know, you come home and your family greets you, and if there’s any discord you feel it, you don’t think about it. If there’s love emanating, you feel it. I’m a frequent fighter for feelings. As a teacher, it’s a big part of what you do. You feel it first, you think it second.

Let’s talk about abstraction in western Canada? It has been my argument for some time that abstraction was the domain of eastern Canadian artists, for instance Guido Molinari. In western Canada, people were still trying to paint in the style of the Group of Seven, and still try to find this perfect Canadian paradigm in art and people in the east were more tuned into abstraction – Molinari, Claude Tousignant.

The two artists you mention were working in Quebec, which I think is significant. I think the split in Canadian art is the division in the representational stream and the abstract stream; this stems from a split in English and French colonization. Western Canadian artists have fought (and some are still fighting) to get out from under the age of British colonial thinking. Prairie artists, those working in an abstract way, were largely colonized by Greenbergian sensibilities, much later than the British colonial overlay. For some reason these artists thought that somebody was smarter than they were, and consequently adopted foreign orders and structures to develop their work. When you look at Quebec – thank goodness for the artists in Quebec, because if there was anything they were doing, they were fighting colonial sensibilities in their lives as well as in their art. It blows me away that there was not a single francophone on the boards of major corporations in Quebec until the early 60s, if not later, that’s quite amazing. At any rate, where they took their clues from was a French milieu, a milieu outside of Britain, and one that was beginning to look at the undercurrents of life’s understanding through other means. If you look at British art, it has primarily been a representational, classifying art. If it had a spiritual context it was through a representational narrative construct.

I actually studied with Roy Kiyooka when I was fourteen at the Okanagan Summer School of the Arts in Penticton. There were about eight of us in the class and Roy read us his poetry every day for three weeks. We would paint on these little ten-or twelve- inch canvases. In the beginning we would ask what it was that we should paint and he would say anything you want. He wouldn’t set anything up for us, yet he would talk about things and read us poetry and after awhile we would paint away like free little children. You know, I wish I had had an opportunity to thank him for that, because it truly was a liberating experience at that age. In many ways Kiyooka was a true abstractionist. He wasn’t looking to reference other people’s realities or copy someone else’s constructs, which has been one of the major problems holding back the development of art in this region. An important reaction to this history of abstraction as a derivative of representation is that a vital school of thinking emerged in Vancouver that decided it didn’t want anything to do with either the medium or the viewpoint and went in a conceptual, photo-based direction. That was a great shift in focus. I think that is one of the reasons I live where I do, as I didn’t really want to be in that post-colonial milieu in Vancouver.

That’s interesting, because even artists like Vancouver-based Tom Burrows, whose work is abstract but still refers to reality, for instance, his Blood series … 

I think that one danger here is I don’t want to sound like there’s exclusivity to my thinking or reasoning, because I see the validity of all kinds of work. All work has its place, it has its context, and it has its reasons for being, where it came from, and what it’s going to do. Last December I saw a huge retrospective in New York of Warhol’s last works, and there are many of them. The man knew how to work. The great thing about Warhol was that he wasn’t worried about what it meant, he wasn’t hung up on it. He put elements together, again and again, believing in, trusting in the functionality of it. He would throw three or four elements together through a certain methodology and the work would be activated by the function of its relationships. Not only through the images, but perhaps to a larger degree, through the methodology of construction, a process that placed the work within a timeframe. Its meaning comes through the function of all relationships, including the how and why of the construct, and not just the what. We have gone down the wrong road in thinking that meaning is superlative and singular. Meaning is caught up in the functioning of the way we interact with this thing. The context comes through the function of thought, not through any end meaning. I remember talking with Jack Shadbolt, who was a very influential artist for me when I moved back to the west coast from New York. He came to my first solo show in Vancouver with dealer Ken Heffel. At a point later in the day when the crowds were gone, he took me aside and said let’s go have a cup of coffee, let’s talk, as artists. He delivered with this a certain credibility to me. As much as I think of Shadbolt’s work in terms of abstraction, his art was about representation, similarly to Picasso. I am not saying this is wrong. He is not the one who called himself an abstractionist. It was the external voice that did, the critics and the general public. Jack called himself an artist, and he was going after truths, which is what we do as artists, and his methodology was coming through an understanding built on a referential viewpoint, and he fought to try to understand that his whole life. Later on we invited him as a visiting artist to Okanagan College. I had a show at the time in Penticton and I asked Jack if he wanted to see it and he immediately jumped at the chance. He was always a generous person. We didn’t have much time, and as we drove down the valley I asked about the idea of abstraction as disfigured representation, or abstraction as autonomy of experience, and we talked a fair amount about it. On the return trip he was totally silent. I thought I had offended him, but at the end of the trip he said: “You have brought up that thing I’ve been fighting with all my life.” But it is the same thing we all struggle with: where is this language that is the most functional for us, not the most meaningful but functional, how do we get at the truths through this stuff?

Are you aware of any other abstract artists whom you would consider to be working in systemic abstraction in western Canada? 

In western Canada? It would only be my ignorance, but I don’t, although I’m sure there must be. There’s an artist out of Seattle, Tom Degroot, he’s working in this way. On the world stage, Gerhard Richter works in this way, the Mexican Ricardo Mazal, I think Fiona Ray works in this way. There is a German painter who uses representational imagery melded with systemic abstraction …

Sigmar Polke? 

Yes, Sigmar Polke.

He wasn’t very popular.  

Yes, people didn’t get onto it, now he’s huge, a systemic thinker, a systemic painter, a systemic artist. I would say that Stan Douglas, a westerner, is a systemic, felt-experience artist as well.

But in a different medium 

Stan Douglas is not tied to singular statements. He’s looking at the multiplicity of experience, and setting up instances where the richness of experience can be felt – you know, a prepared piano that plays according to feedback loops triggered by movement. Felt durational experiences, functional outlays. Through other means Bill Viola certainly sets up the durational experience as well. All of this goes back to the sensibilities of John Cage. That’s why my painting boards are prepared, it’s a Cage thing. They’re prepared through randomness and set up through obstruction – there’s a co-joining going on at all times. I think of them like Cage’s prepared piano, and we’ll see what happens when they’re played – it’s as close an analogy as I can probably get.

There is another person we haven’t talked about whose work is close to your work and sensibility I believe, Piet Mondrian. What do you think about the way he went about art making? Because he started in a representational way and then went through a period where he started to do abstractions and finally, his work resulted in certain structures that reflected the outer world, but they weren’t representational any more. 

Yes, non-objective.

There seems to be a focus on a certain rhythm in his painting. 

Again it is time passage, rhythm as time passage, duration. He was about duration where the density of a passage has a position relative to a less dense passage, setting up a relational reading governed by the limits of a closed system. It’s all relational within a series of felt experiences. It’s not understood, it’s sensed; one feels the density of a thick black line and as one’s eye moves down that line it doesn’t touch the bottom as expected but stops an eighth of an inch before it reaches the bottom. One thinks it’s going to touch the bottom, but when one actually feels it and experiences it, it doesn’t touch the bottom and you think, “Oh my God, it doesn’t touch the bottom – why?” Once you experience this gap, the eye starts to rove and finds something else, and so again another durational experience unfolds for you. Here’s a closed system that Mondrian has constructed. Within that closed system, set variables trigger multi-faceted response mechanisms in the viewer, all parallel to that which the artist first encountered. It functions. In his early representational work the tree breaks down as he focuses on the relationships of the spaces between the branches. The branches demarcate the spaces, but it’s the spaces between the branches, that’s what the work is about, the eye/mind/body experience tracking those spaces, the weights of them, the checks and balances. It’s all about felt experience. If it’s relational, it’s that we recognize a felt experience as being relational to another felt experience that we have just had. My proximity to you as we talk is an example of this. If I push my chair five feet back, even if the words remain the same, your feeling about those words would be different than they are now. So again, it’s a relational thing, its meaning is bound up in the function of its relational qualities. If you stand in front of a late painting of Mondrian’s, and give yourself enough time, you will begin to become aware of the function of your own experience as it feels the autonomous structure of that painting. It is as if it is a being. You are two different things, but through the joining comes awareness, not just of it, but of oneself. And that’s where representational work for me is too dictatorial – it tells me too much, perhaps too forcibly, too completely, about another. It doesn’t really let me in, and from what I can tell, doesn’t care to.

Again, a closed system. 

Yes, an end game, it’s there too quickly, too exclusively. Now Richter plays a great thing. Through the slight dissolve he tells me I don’t have to be located in one place only, tells me I can move beyond that. So he actually places his historical imagery quite beautifully, because I sense its origin but I feel its passage of time, its duration from then to now. This is really quite wonderful.

Do you know some of Richter’s work from the middle of his career where he was making art-historical references to Baroque painting? They started to be done in a fairly conceptual, yet gestural way. He was reacting to this directional quality and relational quality in the use of line. 

The time thing, that’s where the clue is in all this. When it’s durational we understand that we should be thinking about time. The felt response triggers the category of time. This contemporizes our experience. It makes us conscious of time, our place in time.

Yes, it’s interesting, and one could make the argument that any line-based work will exhibit those qualities.  

Yes, if one can read those qualities from the line.

Would it have to be an expressive line that carries those qualities? 

No, any line carries those qualities, however, it’s whether the viewer is sensitive enough to perceive this. It’s similar to Malevich’s white-on-white – if the viewer is not conceptually based, he can’t understand that this is a container of all things, this white cube. That same viewer would not understand that a line has duration, doesn’t understand that it is functional, that there’s a starting point and a duration while it is unfolding itself. Any line, even one drawn with a ruler, does that.

This actually brings up an artist who was very influential for me, Paul Klee. His work is all about function. I remember in third-year university discovering his book The Thinking Eye. It’s a bible, really. In some cases he examined the growth of plants, attempting to understand the vertical reach of the growing stalk. He focused on its extension, direction and duration, and about the opposite direction, the roots and how they reach, and he’d work it out through visual systems. Systemic thinking, again, closed systems, how things function, you know, about the direction of a vortex in the northern hemisphere, and its opposite in the southern hemisphere, all of that stuff. So all of those things woke up in me and verified for me what I had always sensed, that the world works in patterns, in systemic constructs, there is an order. As an example I had no intention of working with a cruciform when I started my Four Corners series. I had spent a couple of months in Spain and Italy, and I came home with not a clue in my head as to what I was going to do. I started working in one corner of a piece of paper, creating a square. I then moved to the remaining three corners of the paper, with no intent or specific thought in my head, just filling them in systematically. And sure enough, what emerged in the center of the page but a cruciform, the form/shape that I had been studying over the previous three months. When you reflect back it seems obvious, but this verified again something that I have experienced over and over again, that within the artistic creative journey, one finds or encounters a structure, yet one never seems to see it ahead of time. It appears that one’s job in the creative enterprise is to set up the possibilities or the territory in which a structure will develop, and if one is attentive and open, language will develop. That’s always been amazing to me. I never worry about where work comes from, because it’s going to come.

That’s a conviction that I envy. It must come with the sustained effort and probing and doing, and that’s what you do. 

Yes, that’s what you do. I can’t stop probing. I can have a week or two of down time, but then I get itchy. And so that’s what we do as artists. I watched Charlie Rose the other night interviewing Paul Simon, who had just been given the first Gershwin Award for creative composition. After congratulating him Charlie asked him what is he working on now, and Simon said “nothing.” Charlie Rose responded, “You’ve just been given this award for being a highly creative person and you’re doing nothing?” and Simon replies, “I’ve got nothing in my head right now, and actually I’m quite depressed and even wonder if I’ll ever write any music again.” He went on to say that all his life it has been this way and he often questions its validity, wonders why he does it or whether he will do it ever again. He stated it is always like that after a high creative cycle. Then he said, “Out of the corner of my eye I’ll see something and it’ll start to create a seed and before long I want to sit down with a guitar again and start.” Interestingly enough, he writes his music not from the lyrics, instead everything is from a sound/structure point of view, building systemic events, with words applied later to the structure. He comes out of that period of the late sixties to early/mid-seventies when this kind of thinking was going on, as it was for me in New York. This is also the time when Carl Andre and Donald Judd were working in New York.

You spent three years in New York, from 1975to 1977.

It was a great time, a time of few hierarchies. Art wasn’t selling for big bucks yet. It was all about how you were thinking and what you were doing. I used to attend readings and weekly talks at the Lindesfarne Society. People with fervent ideas would gather, poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, people of all stripes, from all over. It didn’t cost you anything to go other than your commitment to searching ideas. Not like it is so much today.

So really, the whole new arts scene and the money started to happen in the 1980s? 

Yes, the monetary aspect of it.

What do you think about Julian Schnabel’s work? 

I love Schnabel’s work a whole lot. I love his irreverent sticking-it-to-you kind of painting. He too, works systemically. I mean if you look at Schnabel’s bodies of work, you really have to call them bodies of work, let’s say his large portraits, many of them fourteen-by-twelve feet. Take his series of a blonde girl in a blue tunic. He does forty paintings of her attempting to do the same painting of her each time, but as time passes, things interfere, entropy sets in, things become different. All of a sudden he slashes red across her, or yellow, blackening out her eyes with a band of purple paint. Devices are used but they herald from a set vocabulary and operate within the bounds of his closed structure. Much of his work has this big, nebulous, cosmic feel; paint, striations of paint, blobs of paint, globs of fur, text. Mostly they set up feelings about the vastness of life by means of scale, their disjunctive materiality and boisterous delivery. He’ll do a number of paintings like this and then he’ll stick a brick on it or something that breaks the whole feel. There’s something oddly wonderful about that. It’s his own creative juices working out of his own vocabulary. References abound, but they are in the service of a new and unique object. I respect Schnabel a lot.

Can we go back to the discussion about the title of your fall 2007 exhibition Saltus. Definitions that were available were about cadences or oscillations, and made reference to mathematics and music. Could you comment how you perceive the meaning of Saltus?

What triggered my interest in the word saltus is a belief that even a blob of paint has its own autonomy, yet we as humans can’t escape the desire to see it as referential to something, to find meaning through it, to place it somewhere. Saltus references that, in fact, there are always dualities in perception. One perceives something for what it is, its material reality and then seeks to establish reference points to secure a richer or extended metaphorical understanding. For me, all good work, representational or abstract, works on this cusp. One can look at Manet’s work and see this, or Goya or Velasquez. Saltus talks to me about this cusp of recognition wherein recognition of the autonomous self finds an equal place to the external referential existence we insist it should have. In my mind, this has a great deal to do with recognizing the value of the individual amongst the many, of putting our mind’s eye in the service of equality and freedom. In recognizing the duality of our perceptions, we take the first step to opening ourselves to greater context and tolerance.

Well in a way, it does talk about the cadence, one from the other.

It does, the cusp is important. Cage’s silence perhaps.

In this sense, it is the isolated internal’ thing’; either it is or it is not.

And it’s interesting because when you’re on that cusp point, it is never sitting firmly, you know what I mean? So cadence is an appropriate word, and again, when you speak of cadence you speak of time; cadence does not sit on a singular point, it’s a movement between two points.

And it is well expressed in music, of course, music being a function of time. It works in mathematics; it is duration, it is passage.

Yes, that’s what thought is, even the word thought, t - h - o - u - g - h - t, it’s a passage of time. Linguistics has always seemed important to me, from an early age.

Linguistics as related to visual arts as a structure and a meta-structure to explain meaning encapsulated in works of art?

Meta-structure. Yes. Our children, before they were able to vocalize recognizable words, spoke in a language of emotive shapes. My daughters would talk to me for long periods, twenty minutes or so, in babble, or what people would call babble, but I felt was totally articulate. They were shaping their felt world, building structures out of thin air. I think about linguistics from a teacher’s point of view when I encounter students who haven’t yet come to understand that the structure of their world is partially molded by the structure of their language. There are shapes there, similar to our earlier reference to Plato’s theory of forms.

That would be true of all languages, you know. Cultural anthropologists say that any language is an arbitrary system of meaning.

Inflection, duration, all of those things – the emotive qualities of disparate languages. Linguistics is fascinating. It comes from our bodies, and it makes our bodies. Systemic and structural …

When we talk about Lacan, for instance, he is interested more in the psychological underpinnings. And when we talk about signifier/signified structures as one of the oldest observed linguistic entities, we can observe that over a period of time they expand and create other contexts and so on …

Yes, all that is bound up in the autonomy of the work. The ‘beingness’ of one mark, it is its own, yet it is relational to things, and depending on one’s point of view it could be the signifier, or the signified. It really depends on the order of perception.

So a structure is perfectly capable of referring to itself, being nothing more, nothing less, clearly autonomous?

Yet perfectly capable of somebody else thinking it is referencing something else, it takes it all.

Well this is interesting. For instance, look

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