Ellen Phelan The problem that abstract painting runs up against is how to have meaning in the work. Or, where can meaning reside in abstraction?
Michael Tetherow I think that the role of the artist is to contact, keep in touch with, the primordial world. I refer to it as the underworld. And the mystical world. The natural world. However you want to term it. So right away, that sets up a set of concerns. It creates an agenda, just in terms of context.
EP So, I understand that in East Hampton your studio is outside.
MT Yes. Literally outside. It was a very subtle, gradual change that happened over a period of two years. This summer is when it finally blossomed and developed. I started working outside, not with the idea of painting nature, but literally working with nature. Leaving the paintings outside for three, four, five days, a week or two, and allowing the elements and whatever animals were around to work on them. If it would rain, snow, or whatever . . . so working outside the city is a very important situation in that working in the out-of-doors is what the paintings are all about. That’s why it’s so easy for me to leave the city, because . . .
EP There’s something there that’s feeding you. If the city is not feeding you . . .
MT If you stop and think about it, most painting since the late ’50s has been about urban existence. Minimal art is about industrial and technological concerns. Pop art is about popular culture.
EP A lot of what we’re seeing now in art is about media and previously mediated images. Which implies that the real world is a two-dimensional world. Do you feel that, then working with nature, the phenomenological aspects of letting things stay out in the rain, or whatever, is a way of accessing the “primordial worlds?"
MT Absolutely. You’re literally working with those elements. You are absorbing them. It’s an attitude. Obviously you can’t—there are people that can, I suppose, enter certain states where they have access to things that people like me don’t have—I’m not presumptuous enough to think that I can literally contact primal forces, but I can develop an attitude. And that reveals itself in the work. It literally gives me something to say. The problem with most artists is that they have nothing to say. They have nothing to paint. That’s part of the problem of abstract art. It just doesn’t transcend it’s design.
EP Who is your audience, or who do you paint for? What is the future you’d imagine for a painting?
MT (laughter) Well, I like to think that most artists paint for themselves. Obviously that isn’t the case, but for me—I go off into the woods and perform these little rituals. And the painting is the debris that is left over. Afterwards, I roll it up and store it. Normally I never hang it upon the wall to look at it. Out in the country, I don’t have any paintings hanging up on the wall. For me, the process of making is the most exciting thing. After it’s finished I lose interest in it. It’s the excitement of seeing the painting evolve and transform and grow. I try and allow the painting to have as much of a life of its own; I do as little as possible. My idea of the perfect painting is: set up a situation, push the ball, and it starts rolling, and then I can walk away, come back in an hour and it’s all done. Something close to that. But the excitement is this interaction with the "me"—that’s why I love to paint with very thin paint, because it literally does have a life. It goes where it wants to go and I just follow it.
EP So let’s talk about the nature of the things that you stick in the paintings.
MT The add-ons. That’s what I like to call them. There again, it’s another way of incorporating representations of the so-called real world, without literally having to paint them or draw them. It allows me to have artifacts that have various symbolic and mystical powers: certain animals like bumblebees, caterpillars, or mushrooms, or shaped deer antlers, pieces of wood that have moss or fungus growing on them. These are objects that have in my sense of the world, mysterious kinds of magical qualities. It’s strictly from a Northern sensibility. These things are all indigenous to a certain climate, a certain area and tend to be rather common. They’re normally things that have died in my studio, or things that have fallen down from a tree and landed on the painting. I paint underneath a large tree. Squirrels and birds bring things up to its branches to devour them. A lot of things I did this summer had this strange red berry juice all over them. I couldn’t understand what was happening until I realized that the birds were taking this certain kind of berry—that has an incredibly strong dye in it. Indians must have used it to paint or dye their skin. Anyway, they’d go up there and chew on these berries and I would find it all over the paintings.
EP It’s perfectly true for me that living in the city without end and then going out and looking at the real world, being surrounded by the beauty of the real world, is illuminating and liberating. Everything we know is somewhere or other grounded in nature. The way in which we see color, light, and periodicity—rhythm or order—we only know this, I think, from experience of our natural world.
MT The whole idea of being a landscape painter today has taken on political connotations.
EP How do you think that is, though? I mean, is it politically reactionary? Oh, the ecology business.
MT The whole notion. Obviously, it’s a very soft statement: it’s not real aggressive, but still, you are trying to preserve a set of concerns that are disappearing at an unbelievably alarming rate. And placing a set of values on those concerns. It’s become an issue in a way it wasn’t 20 years ago.
EP You just thought it was endless. Of course, it’s interesting that the summer you were working out there was the great summer of the greenhouse effect, and the hospital waste on the beaches . . .