Notes on Painting/ Practice/ Exhibition Statements
In 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash, the byproduct of coal-fired electricity, spilled through eighty miles of the Dan River in North Carolina and Virginia. In the years since, that spill has been the conceptual, visual, thematic, and political driver of my Smoke and Water project. Working in partnership with an activist film organization, I created an installation of paintings and murals from an image shared by a water keeper documenting ash swirling with river water. The work was completed collaboratively with the local art, ecology, and activist communities of Wilmington, a colonial and Civil War-era port city, where I was born and raised. In the Smoke and Water project, I strive for visibility of the culturally marginalized pollution that disproportionately impacted people of color and economic disadvantage.
This wall painting will create an atmosphere of reflection through its contemplative yet unsettling beauty, as well as a statement of social engagement about the coal ash pollution. The rectangular squares will contain text painted by hand and gathered from brief statements solicited from impacted community members, scientists, environmentalists, polluters, and policy makers. Also main partner organizations and local groups may contribute. It will contain a response to a statement similar to the following: We are asking for a no more than 50 word statement: Please reflect on your experience and perspectives with coal ash and the future of the environment and your community. What concerns you most? What do you wish for the future?
SMOKE AND WATER: PERFORMANCE
ON LAND by Greg Lindquist and Mary Mattingly
I have listened to the thoughts of many environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices, Dan River Basin Associations and Waterkeeper about the impact of the coal ash spill and how we can properly address its ruinous, biomagnified impact on our environment. Art and its resilient beauty has the power to not only raise awareness to these crucial environment issues but also, through both visible and invisible networks of influence, to bring pressure to bear upon those responsible. It is an auspicious coincidence that my exhibition opens during the same week that federal court will convene on DENR and Duke Energy blocks away from the gallery in which I will be creating this work. I intend to harness this synchronous moment to further implore public awareness and action for holding Duke Energy and the DENR accountable for their irresponsible behaviors.
The oil seeps have been known since the early 1800s; the earliest attempts of drilling were in 1904 and extended into the mid-1980s. 10,000 barrels of oil have been extracted from thirty to fifty wells. (A recent oil spill in Houston has oozed 10,000 barrels of oil per day.)
This hallucinatory search for oil that is not only remotely located and scarce but also very difficult to extract perplexes me. Oil, like its environs of my snow-covered Rozel Point visit, is a blinding mirage. It is the ever shifting, shimmering reflection of economic conditions that propel the illusion of profit from this geological bounty. Visitors, like prospectors, also often mistake the surrounding volcanic black basalt rock for oil dripped rocks.
In a 1996 survey, Thomas Chidsey notes, “crude oil dripping from abandoned well heads, tar on rocks and beach sands and dead pelicans along the beach.” Shortly thereafter, a massive clean up removed the oil derrick, piers and remains of several shanties. Orderly rows of weathered pilings remained after clean up. What was deliberately left has been crafted into a minimal landscape rotted into an unassisted decay. Like a lawn, or New York’s Central Park crafted to appear further into a distant future of a pastoral past, these pilings forebode distant nonhuman futures.
The image and perception of the image are equally central in my paintings. These concerns often vie for recognition and significance in the work. While the image must signify cultural realities, its visual delivery must be equally compelling. I believe this sort of image must develop against the mechanically photographic. By contrast to the clarity in a photograph, the painted image may grow weary or decompose, discontinuously focus, or lengthen into the phenomenological space of the exhibition. Sometimes, this delivery literally aligns with its subject: The entropic forces of decay on architecture can be represented in the dissolution of the image or its sickly palette of color. In the end, I distrust the power of images as much as I trust their meditative capacity. In an overly saturated, mediated world of smartphone screens, computers, tablets, interactive kiosks and ATMs, the image is both debased in its proliferation and necessary for fundamental communication.
In my work, the Hudson River School painters’ interest in American progress is as important as the 1960 and 70s notion of a mythic site-specific frontier. My work began by focusing on particular geographic places, such as Brooklyn’s waterfront and the derelict Soviet factories of Rustavi, in the Republic of Georgia. But the site I am interested in is no longer only a location, such as the remote Great Salt Lake in the American West in recent paintings; it now includes studio, gallery, geographic location, discourse, the internet and its images, and so on. To be “specific” about a site, then, is to describe a hybrid of virtual and physical networks spreading from critical writing to gallery to exterior landscape to web content.
Painting is about the slowness of seeing and the difficulties of recognition. It is difficult to locate painting’s imagery with how it is painted, as simultaneously it exists as both perceptual experience and physical depiction. Painting is about the transformation of sensation, memory and observation into a self-contained, portable frame. It is a world of its own. But, to look into it with eyes, one must look around it with eyes and body and into the context in which it is displayed. The walls on which a painting hangs, although often blank and disregarded, must be accounted for.
The gallery as a particular, whole space and time for contemplating the landscape interests me. Whereas the Land artists of the 1970’s sought to take art into the landscape and thus forego the gallery experience, I am interested in bringing the perceived constructs of nature and culture into the real, architectural space of the gallery with painting. To a certain extent, this seems like nothing new if you think of from this perspective Piero’s enclosing frescos, Monet’s peripherally immersive l’Orangerie, or Frederic Church’s theaters of vistas. Yet these artists remained less concerned with and conscious of the character and particulars of their paintings in the context of one place/space at one time; they are all as pictures interested more in the frame within which time is both captured through an instance and suspended in an infinite moment.
In painting that is site-specific and extended into the realm of installation, the timelessness (or, eternalness as Daniel Buren has likewise written) of the illusionistic image melds with the immediacy of the architectural real space, experience in real time by an embodied viewer. The tense of the architectural space flickers with the illusionistic imagery painted directly on the wall, the tenses of present and past swirl with phenomenological confusion. The viewer encounters at once the exteriority of the gallery space and the interiority of its painted image, as well as the interiority of the gallery and the exteriority of the painted image. Ultimately, the melding of image and real space is not experienced seamlessly, or without complication. Corners of architecture intersect and negotiate layers of painted imagery. The light of the gallery irradiates its painted walls, fused in a perceptual mirage and locked in an endless feedback loop of the movement between eyes and body.
What happens though, when the geometry and sterility of gallery-like architecture is altered or removed? Can painting thrive or even exist? These questions intrigued and attracted me to Mary Mattingly’s Flock House project, which enlisted artists to take residency in her spherical living systems that imagine an alternative model of urban architecture. With a network of conduit and laminated plywood as frame and spandex fabric as a permeable/membranous shell, there is little distinction between interior and exterior, or the geometric determinations of wall and ceiling. Based on a hexagonal floor plan, I proposed to follow one half of the shape with a painting triptych. One central canvas would remain flush with the floor and be flanked by a canvas on each side turned inside, in a way similar to a previous display of Monet’s Water Lilies at MoMA that suggests the elliptical hangings at L’Orangerie. I was also inspired by James Rosenquist’s F-111 installation, which was recreated in its original floor plan at the MoMA in summer of 2012 and inspired also by Monet’s extremely retinal Water Lilies installation at L’Orangerie. Unlike either, though, the canvases in the Flock House were both painting and architectural substrate, becoming the walls themselves.
I wasn’t certain how the image would function in its environment. Would be it abstract or descriptive imagery? Would it be derived from the garden in its site, painted from life or photographed and painted from projection? To this end, I wrote two a priori statements arguing for each extreme, but in the end my approach was a fusing of these two false dialectics. An argument for representational imagery also required addressing a problem of how abstraction is arrived at and what is purely representational or abstract. I started with one silhouetted image of a plant and obscured it by the repetition of brushstrokes that recorded my motions, movements and actions inside of and around the Flock House.
With the evolving, freely growing aesthetics of the Flock House, I envisioned the paintings as developing in the same ecological process-based system. Each time the Flock House is installed it is subject to adapt to the resources and limitations of its surroundings. What I might have seen in the Flock House as a lack of aesthetic choices (eg craft) is rather simply a different set of choices to a more or less flexible set of outcomes (eg hypothetical, propositions, imaginings). Painting, on the other hand, might require a more crafted environment in which to function yet itself may operate in terms of process in a similar series of flexible, organic adaptions to its space in order to thrive.
The Flock House paintings began with translations of imagery or imagistic transcriptions of nature. With the imagery of one plant, I brought what was outside the Flock House inside. Each painting session or encounter also addressed something specific to that particular visit, whether it was a detail of light, color, atmosphere, feeling or impression. It was not necessarily abstract by form or inspiration but rather a distillation of something perceived or observed.
This exercise was also about subverting expectation, breaking down the contradictions inherent in language that classifies, such as abstract and representational. It was also about being outside of the interiority in a more traditional studio, and painting in the atrium of an office building in Lower Manhattan without a door to close, or privacy. A constant stream of people entered and exited this space, freely offering their responses of confusion, admiration or entertainment. This forced me to be more deliberate and decisive when I visited the Flock House, or I was forever uncomfortably distracted.
Ultimately, I never quite understood how the painting was experienced until it was removed and placed in a museum setting, where it was supplied emptied (yet altered) space around it. Rather than hang the painting as a continuous edge-to-edge triptych I raised the central panel slightly by twelve inches or so to suggest the environment of its origin.
Some of my works depict enigmatic objects in the landscape, while others frame the landscape through technology such as digital screens that, like paintings, mediate how we experience our world. My work broadly views the landscape impressionistically through the artificial environment of mechanical reproduction. In his work, the splatter is the dot is the screen. The mystery of craft in painting is explored, developing richly layered surfaces through drips, splatters and removal, suggesting various screens, veils or scrims of light through which images are viewed. The paintings on the wall depict segments of cast light shaped by windows that are detached from their original source and call attention to the architecture as a canvas and screen for painting.
While my previous exhibition “Nonpasts” focused on a conceptually ambiguous, site specificity in architectural cement boxes and cast slabs, “You are Nature” emphasizes painting the enigmatic in the landscape, in both land and water, above and below the surface. In a recent SCUBA diving trip with my brother, I explored the world under the surface of water as inspiration for painting and models for thinking about nature. If the 1960s were about space as a site for exploration and repository for imaginations, our final frontier is our environment. The ocean, with miles of uncharted territory and countless unexamined species and organisms, is our intergalactic fascination. Water becomes a unifying metaphor for my work in terms of the surface and depth of painting.
Using painting to communicate these issues is just as complex as the issues themselves. Photography, which I use as source material for the paintings, is culturally accessible and has a relatively short history as opposed to painting, which is known for being a commodity, a luxury object. While it’s impossible to escape the reification of this object, I believe painting can express a beauty that is intelligent, well-informed and conscientious of its contradictions.
If I am romanticizing these landscapes of architectural decay, I am doing so in order to seduce the viewer, to engage him or her in a more complex context about the landscape’s political, economic and conceptual content. Often, these complexities have to do with gentrification, globalization, deindustrialization and urban blight. The forces at work are often in dialectical oppositions that become blurred, such as preservation-development, interior-exterior, complete-incomplete, new-old, value-valueless, and use-neglect.
Reconsidering the role of photography as sources for paintings, I have hung paintings in clusters and arrangements that call attention to the presence of the grid, activating the edges of the paintings with the space around them. The paintings become modules with which to play—slotting them together, pulling them apart, imaging them as interlocking tongue and groove joints in wood working or hovering fragments of an incomplete modular system. Inside each painting is also another grid: the viewfinder’s residue—the indexical mark of photography. Photography becomes the obsessive segmenting of the world; in painting these views distilled and reduced into their essential forms he creates imperfect recollections of the mind.
The exhibition “Nonpasts” also marks my exploration in sculpture. Creating over a dozen concrete boxes and indexical casts, these sculptures call to mind funerary monuments, architectural columns, pedestals or coffins. In their serial forms and material sameness, I allude to the minimalism of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, yet in their rough-hewn materials and character I acknowledge incompleteness and disorder.
My work explores landscape as a memorial. As a painting, a landscape is a physical fact and work of the mind. In viewing a landscape, an internal ethos is projected onto a perception of external environment. My most recent work documents Brooklyn's industrial past and future residential growth, depicting specific sites of building and decay in the present Williamsburg and Redhook waterfront. As American manufacturing has moved overseas, these unused warehouse buildings and structures—icons of the industrial revolution— have been transformed/reclaimed by luxury. Inspired by construction materials, I use metallic pigments, often as skies, which evoke the presence of pollutants in the atmosphere.