Sculptural weight still looms large in Scott Redden’s work. In conversation, the one-time sculptor turned painter takes Lynn Maliszewski on an excursion through his characteristically bold landscapes.
Scott Redden impales traditional landscape painting with his vibrant yet ominous oil paintings. Quaint homes infiltrate green hills and yellow prairies summon nightmares of a forlorn simplicity and solitude. Redden’s small Chelsea studio mocks the surrounding glass-paned golems. He welcomes the solace of an uninhabited foreign countryside reminiscent of the wildest fantasies of reclusion.
Lynn Maliszewski Tell me about your earlier work. What were you doing when you first came to New York?
Scott Redden My early paintings were very much sculptural things. When I first moved to New York, I was making these crazy structures. I would take furniture pieces and create shallow boxes backed with canvas and fit found furniture pieces into them. I’d overlay these constructions with plastics and poured wax. Then there’d be painterly washes at the end. I threw out my back a couple times moving them and realized I couldn’t do them anymore. I think I came to painting scenes of houses because they’re still heavy images but I could paint them and reduce the weight of the actual material. I still approach things like a sculptor in a weird way. I lay a lot of paint on then I almost sculpt it more than paint it. So I’ll apply some paint, push it around, then add some more, and more. While I push the paint around, I like creating these slight sculptural lines to differentiate between colors. It has this very sculptural quality, but it’s all from pushing the paint around. I love that, that the horizon line is actually a thing. You can see little bits of the black come through and that just allows for more definition, defining the parts you can and can’t see.
LM You procured an MTA Commission in 2007. How did that go?
SR They gave us a station to design for, and I went out there and looked around. I had the Alabama Avenue station along the J Line, which I love the name of in a way, but there’s really nothing out there. There’s a big bus depot, a highway—there’s just urban sprawl. There was just nothing uplifting there for me. So I thought maybe I could backtrack and bring some of my quirky Americana out there, showing something that was not there rather than what was there. The MTA liked the concept and went for it. I took some painting images that I liked and reworked them into the format. I actually created some sketch-work that became paintings. They gave us a very short period of time, like a week, to come up with our images for seven large stained glass panels. It was a pretty wild project that took about two years to complete. I had to fly out to Minnesota at one point to meet with the fabricator. I met one of these glass guys who helped me design and create the work from sketch-work, color concepts, and about two years worth of email—we just wrote back and forth most days. They would send pieces of this faceted glass, which is thicker than stained glass. I liked watching the project slowly build. The glass fabricator, in the initial stages of the commission, began depicting the imagery through an even grid of epoxy cuts. Considering the cuts in the glass, I wanted a more natural way to connect the glass pieces. After much discussion and drawing, we settled on a more natural pattern, more organic. I think it was a nice addition to the area, I kind of laugh about it now because it seems to be a work in progress. The MTA is trying to prevent it from being damaged further or debating whether to replace it. A couple panels have been damaged and I feel bad about it but at the same time I put it behind me although I would like it to last as long as possible. It’s been graffitied, smashed. It’s meant to be there for the long haul.
LM Your subject matter consists mostly of homes and rural Americana scenes. Where did this subject matter come from?
SR It was kind of my escape into this simpler place and a bigger space. Growing up in New Jersey, I just always wanted to leave. For my first big series of paintings I did for Dillon [Gallery] back in 1999, I went around and shot all these homes around there that I found interesting. There was also not just the pictorial side and the meaning in that, but there’s also a way of painting it which is almost like Minimalist stripe painting, which has a whole other side and thought process. So I decided, if I’m doing these house structures, I’ll find ones I remember from driving around at home. So I drove all around. I felt like a thief: I’d run onto people’s lawns, shoot their houses with my grandfather’s old Pentax camera, then run away. I got the weirdest looks from people; it was really kind of funny. The grounds, the skies, the clouds, and trees are much more like abstract painting. Thinking this way, I can be more spontaneous, more fluid. It’s not really about capturing naturalistic places or space, but it’s more about finding a painting where all the elements work together in that realm.
LM The precision in your imagery allows tension to surface despite the ease of your palate and subject matter. What can you tell me about your methods?
SR I’m very specific. I do everything separately so that everything is painted as best as I can. I work on a dark backdrop so everything is just black until it comes into the painting. As I paint new things, I have to think about what I’ve already painted, so I’m continually looking at how things work as I build up whereas a lot of painters will work here and there, building up the whole painting at once. I work very compartmentally until it all kind of makes sense by the end. Optimally, I never have to go back and repaint areas I’ve already painted. Whatever’s working next responds to what I’ve already made. Each individual component has to work in itself before the whole painting works.
LM You work mostly with primary colors. Any reason?
SR I’m more of a Minimalist. I love Klimt’s coloring: gold, yellows, greens, pinks, reds, but I keep it fairly simple. I’ll play around with primaries and secondaries, and I think about color theory a little bit. I think with the last series I used a lot of green grounds because it’s sort of the tradition of green ground, blue sky, and sometimes a yellow field in thinking of Van Gogh, who’s one of my favorites. I love that bright yellow leaping off the canvas. It’s not necessarily naturalistic, it’s just the colors I respond to. I like having little bursts of color break through the pictorial plane sometimes too. They don’t represent anything other than dabs of color, reminders that it’s a painting. It’s not really a landscape, it’s a painting. My colors are so saturated and heavy; I love weight.
LM Is there a reason your work remains based in the terrestrial realm?
SR I like painting water at times but I still paint it very heavily. That blue in there is still pretty thick and ground-like. There’s a certain weight to the work and it has more to do with the earth. I start with a dark ground because a white ground just seems like air. I don’t even know what to do with it.
LM Is the awkward aura presented in your solitary landscapes intentional?
SR I don’t think about that too much. I’ve had people say everything from, Oh my god, what’s going on here? to This is the loneliest picture I’ve ever seen. Everything holds its own space and the tension between the forms is heightened due to the composition. There are all these things coming together to create the overall image, but I like that these forms are singular to themselves. There is also something that glues it together, something less obvious. I’ve had people say they don’t look inhabited, but at the same time the houses themselves take on a kind of character and they may seem animated in a way.
LM Any new projects on the horizon?
SR I have a thought of doing more big, heavy, rock-boulder clouds. I didn’t mean for them to be boulders but there’s something existential about them. I was thinking it’d be fun to do some different kinds of clouds. I’ve always loved those Japanese rain paintings. I may try some stormy-looking things to make it more of an iconic thing than a picture. It’s something I’m thinking about, but I’m not too committed to it yet. I have it in my head and I need a lot of paint to do it. I’d love to do another project with the MTA on ceramic tile to see what kind of difference that medium would make. Working with the City was a fun project. I like the idea of seeing my work in different ways; it gives me a different kind of perspective.
Scott Redden believes in wringing his subject dry, allowing the subtleties of his focus to expand like molasses over a countertop and slowly, but completely, engross the viewer. Redden’s canvases blossom out of atmosphere rather than narrative. His fascination with Americana’s topographical landscape produces a vision of sprawling primary colors with seemingly identical elements. Salt-box houses speckle isolated estates accompanied by church steeples or dense drum-stick foliage. When he feels like a challenge, Redden embraces wildlife and assorted countryside details to expand his range. Horses, for example, are devoted pawns of his aesthetic stratagem, mocking his silenced civilization with an allusion to the doldrums of departed packs and isolation. The seclusion of Middle America squirms past optimistic sunshine, imposed community, primary colors, and symmetry in Redden’s recent work. Each work implies the comfort of the neighborhood without any of the necessities. Redden notes that many of his images are “longing for the real without ever connecting to it.”
A strikingly unidentifiable, unlivable, unknowable world peaks out from behind the confines of representational reality. Redden’s homes are locked in twilight. Pristine demeanors and sprawling acres are subjected to relentless sunshine and societal inadequacy. His barns confront realism and become characters that mimic the importance of society. Human characteristics like loneliness, anxiety, and worry adhere to these reclusive monuments. Low-flying clouds resembling magnificent spitballs or sharpened baked potatoes threaten defenseless homes with their weight. Heavy shadows of ambiguity simultaneously anticipate and denote the delirious passing of time. The trajectory of the day is mercilessly taken hostage within his structures. The barn, like many of Redden’s structures, hides behind the confidence of its demeanor and exists in limbo outside of maintenance. In refraining from solely wilderness themes, Redden’s work strays from the dreams of nature’s solidarity found in Thoreau or the Hudson River School of painters. Redden jeers at the self-sufficiency of lost generations and appropriates the modern hermit. His scenes of a seemingly simpler life illuminate the apathy and disquiet of being an outsider. Like lost puppies, the buildings await rediscovery. The apocalyptic emptiness of the scene is radioactive: aesthetically digestible and soulfully poignant.
Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance art writer and aspiring collector. She writes for Whitehot Magazine, HAHA Magazine, and her own blog Contemporaneous Extension outside of her sanctioned waitressing job in the West Village. She enjoys Julian Schnabel plate paintings, micro vs. macro, and her Willy Wonka candy wall.