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The Critiques: Mark Joshua Epstein & Wardell Milan

by Legacy Russell

Artists Mark Joshua Epstein and Wardell Milan talk on the record about working off the canvas, self-defining as a creative, and how Milan’s event series, The Critiques, rocks the white box in its focus on emerging talents.

Mark Joshua Epstein, The distance between lots of love and all my best, 2011, collage on paper, 15 × 11 inches.

This Sunday marks another session of The Critiques, to be held at Third Streaming in TriBeCa. Founded in 2010 by Wardell Milan and colleague Natika Soward, The Critiques proclaims itself as “…a new initiative aimed at providing a platform for dialogue and exchange between emerging artists and critics." Who’s on the roster this week? The scintillating combination of Mark Joshua Epstein and Duron Jackson. Curator Herb Tam will act as the evening’s critic-in-residence. Milan sat down with Epstein to warm up for what is sure to be another season of heavy-hitters.

—Legacy Russell

Wardell Milan Why did you start making the collages?

Mark Joshua Epstein I don’t draw or sketch really, so it was a way of finding a trick to get myself into the studio where I didn’t have to say to myself, “Okay, you’re going to go make a painting,” which comes with some pressure. Instead it was, “Okay, you’re going to take all of these magazines that pile up in your apartment and you are going to go through them and look for motifs and images that you think are interesting.” I could say to myself, "This isn’t a big deal, I’m just going to go through these magazines,” because I get all these free magazine subscriptions. I also started making collages because I wanted to do something quick, and I also think that the thing that people don’t talk about that often with collage, is that with painting, if you want to make a highly patterned painting or a highly intricate painting, it is very hard to do it casually, it’s very hard to dash it off right? Done. Casual painting. With collage, because things are already highly patterned, you can cut a casual shape, you can make some kind of casual composition but with highly patterned things—you can’t do this in a painting.

WM When you’re making these then, how do you think about them differently than paintings? These are very immediate, they are very fast, so do they become less conceptual, do they become less intellectually involved?

MJE What happens with the collages is that the process becomes more intuitive because I’ll work on five of them at a time and I’ll just be ripping things out of magazines and cutting and it’s a visual process. I’m not thinking conceptually per se, I’m not thinking about, for example, what does this wood grain mean? I’m not trying to address the history of faux bois. It’s almost like, if you were to make all of these separate painted elements and then move them around. I think about Matisse and the cut-outs, just moving things around. It feels much more like play. Making the collages gives me ideas for the paintings in terms of compositions and colors but it also gives me access to . . . when you look through references and you’re choosing something, you maybe choose something that you wouldn’t necessarily choose the same paint color off your paint table and make it, but because it is available in a magazine you grab it.

WM So do you see them as being completely separate from the paintings?

MJE Most of them are completely separate from the paintings but then something will happen in a collage and I’ll think, Oh, this should happen in a painting at some point. This one collage is made from only two forms, and the idea of making a painting just from two forms where they kiss in the middle and address the edges is really exciting to me—but it’s not necessarily something I would think of without having make this work first. I’ve only been making these collages for a short time but I always wanted something that was less precious than working on paintings. When one of these collages looks like I don’t want it to look, it just goes in the garbage—but I can’t do that with a wood panel or a canvas. I also like that in the collages, most things don’t read as . . . anything, there is this idea of removing something from its context and the power of that. Collage feels less heavy, less weighted down and I think the works are freer somehow.

WM That makes sense with what you were saying earlier—these not being on canvas, not being on panel, there’s a different type of investment that’s absent from these collages, so it allows you to play and to be less worried about the outcome.

MJE Exactly. I’m not worried about the outcome at all. And I think that it’s hard, when you start to make a series of something and then you like them or someone comes to your studio and expressed interest in them—and I’m sure you find this—when you sit down to make another one, you have a whole new set of concerns. It can be hard with these to maintain this idea that making these is just for fun, it isn’t a big deal—and there is a parallel to the preciousness concerns with the paintings.

WM So this is a good way for you to relinquish some of that pressure and some of that anxiety that comes from working on canvases and panels?

MJE Yes.

WM Why did you feel like you needed these collages to get you into the studio?

MJE Do you ever need tricks to get into the studio?

WM No, I don’t need tricks.

MJE Never? You are always happy to go into the studio?

WM Yes.

MJE Well I think you’re anomalous.

WM I feel like with some of the collages, you are using more elements, a lot more layering. I make a lot of collages so piecing things together I think about these things being objects and so I feel like there’s more objects that are being introduced and coupled with each other.

MJE I am trying to get away with using references that are just this side of being recognizable. It’s like abstraction in a way . . . how do I look at things that are references from real life or from photographs and parse them into textures and forms. So what happens is I’m not thinking at all about story or narrative—that doesn’t enter my mind. Instead, I’m thinking about, What does this shape do and how do I play off the golds and browns and pinks that I see?

WM But even though you may not be thinking about the narrative of these individual objects or clippings that come from disparate origins, are you thinking about the narrative that has spawned the title for the project? When you’re making these collages, what narrative is in your head because I know these are abstract pieces but . . . ?

MJE For me the narrative is more . . . . I don’t divorce the terms formal and conceptual—that’s a big thing for me. I think they are the same thing, I think that formal choices are conceptual choices and conceptual choices are formal choices. I’m not sitting here thinking about a narrative but I am thinking about this thing that happens with collage where you can’t actually combine anything like you can in a painting. If there’s two shapes next to one another in a painting, to keep them separate is often more work than to mush them together—or if something is painted on top of something else, to keep them separate or to keep them distinct can be a lot of work. The opportunity with collage is that I can compress all of these things together but they will never combine—it’s a melting pot where nothing melts, it’s always simmering. Everything that goes into a collage is still what it is at the end of the collage. The elements that go in are the elements that are there at the end—some of them might be covered but they haven’t changed. The decisions happen when I cut things out—there is an initial shape and nothing ever gets recut. How do I somehow combine these things and showcase them and play around with layering and abstraction at the same time? There’s permission with a collage to be spare, to have the whiteness of the paper be one of the starts of the show, whereas with painting that can be a tough argument to make.

WM To have an area of the painting that’s unpainted?

MJE Yes, or even to just have a part that is super white or super spare. I have this irrational idea that with a painting that seems lazy and with a collage that seems astute.

WM Do you think that it comes with the type of emphasis that people put on the actual canvas itself? What a painting means? A painting occupies a certain physical space and for a lot of people they see a painting as both an object and as something that you enter and when you enter it all of these corners and boundaries that this painting occupies should somehow be attended to?

MJE Right. And you should somehow be able to inhabit the space of a painting. There is something weird about that. This painting is still a rectangle and it is still an object but there is all of this—not that collage doesn’t have its own history—but the history is much shorter than the history of painting. There’s something that goes on in my paintings where I’m thinking about shallow space verses deep space. Shallow space is in a way American, abstract, flat space, versus Renaissance, deep, perspectival space. And with collage what happens is, there is already space, in the references. You can subvert it or celebrate it or cover it up but it’s already there. In this weird way, someone else has done so much of the thinking, whoever has laid out the page of the magazine or taken the photograph. I get to weirdly benefit or suffer from their decisions. It is important for me not to make collages from art magazines, I don’t know why, but it’s much more interesting for me to make collages from Teen Vogue. Working from already printed resources makes me feel almost like I have a collaborator.

Let’s go back to the title for a moment. The distance between lots of love and all my best—this is something I think about with collages, so what is the distance between lots of love and all my best? Those are both salutations, sign-offs from letters or emails, so they are of the same thing, the same category—but for me the distance between them is huge. Signing something “lots of love” and signing something “all my best,” this is a big difference. In a sense I am using a very small pool of references in the work. The things I use are largely from a certain set of magazines, but at the same time when you flip through the pages of a magazine where it is all materially the same, the distance between types of images is vast. So there’s something in this play of references or language where two things are very close but very far in another sense.

WM You are still working on these collages, but now you have a title. So now are you thinking about how this title came about and how it relates to you personally? Are you taking all of that and putting those thoughts, those emotions, those sentiments, into this work or is the title just there to name these things?

MJE Often with the work the title will come after, but this is an ongoing series, and the title just recently appeared, and so the title appears and I’ve made all of these works and I want to keep making them. Before, the title wasn’t in my head at all because it didn’t exist—because the interaction that created the title hadn’t happened but now the title is there . . . so I don’t know the answer to your question. Now when I’m sitting down to work, do I now think about the title? I like really wordy titles, sentencey titles, not one-word titles. If I sit down tomorrow to make a collage and start to realize that the title is now affecting what images I choose, then for me that’s not ideal. People say this phrase a lot, all the time, “My work is about . . .” or “So-and-so’s work is about . . .” and I don’t have one of those.

WM Do you want one?

MJE No! I don’t think that makes any sense.

WM You don’t think that when an artist says, for example, “This work is all about my time in a North Carolina and the experience I had there in summer 1992,”—you don’t think that makes sense?

MJE I can get behind it when the work is somehow diaristic or inspired by a specific place and time—although I think the word about is problematic because any work is about a thousand things.

WM So you don’t like the phrase, “My work is about . . .” because you have a problem with the phrase?

MJE The phrase is so verbal, it is so . . . This movie is about . . . . This book is about . . . This article is about . . . I am making, and you are making visual things and so I think the talking we do around visual things is approximate. The experience of seeing or being with a thing that is primarily visual is never going to be replicated by talking or writing about it, ever. So I bristle at that phrase, “My work is about . . .” because my work is about a lot of things and, and nothing, at the same time. My work is about is a phrase for grant applications and that is maybe an important convention but when artists are talking to other artists, it’s too much of a shorthand.

WM I’m looking at this painting here on the wall. What is this work . . . (laughter) inspired by?

Mark Joshua Epstein, Hand over fist over hand..., 2011, Oil on panel, 36 × 48 inches.

MJE That painting, Hand over fist over hand…, is a leftover from the series that preceded this one. It was an orphan painting. I was making five paintings and this one refused to work, and what I’ll do with paintings like that is I’ll leave them for a few weeks until they don’t feel like precious objects to me anymore—until I don’t have a memory of just having spent countless hours painting in something really specifically. You don’t want to do that and then the next day come in and convince yourself to paint over it—that’s impossible for me. I left that painting for weeks, it had this big Roman warrior engraving by Goltzius that I had painted on the panel. I left it for weeks and came back to it and then, it wasn’t precious anymore and so I painted over 95 percent of it. I left those triangles at the top and this cobalt violet thing. With this painting, you know, I’m really interested in patterns everywhere. This piece is made primarily from the patterns that are inside security envelopes that your bank sends you or your utility company send you. These patterns are designed to hide the contents of the envelope for reasons of personal security. It is an all over pattern that doesn’t have an ethnic reference, but it has all of this history and contemporary reference in that it’s used for this one specific thing. This painting mixes together a couple of different security patterns and then the remnants of the painting before. And a latent question might be, is this painting about security patterns or the banking system or…

WM Or is it about your studio process or is it about the history that is developed through the process of you painting on this panel, on this surface?

MJE It’s about all of those things. It’s about making my own history and then obfuscating parts of the history and allowing other parts to show through. The paintings become history paintings but the history is only a record of a couple of months in the studio.

WM Do you ever feel the need to have a greater level of content? Do you feel any responsibility to represent or to speak about your heritage and culture?

MJE First question first. I think here is this idea that if you are working in abstraction, that there isn’t content. I don’t think that an artist in 2011 can make a work without content. By making formal decisions, by choosing one pattern over another, by choosing the pink over the yellow and the size of the work, by choosing to engage with abstraction—I think that the content is there.

WM Method can equal content?

MJE Yes. There is classic binary between formal choices and conceptual choices and for me, it doesn’t exist. By way of example, this work used to have figuration in it and there were these images appropriated from art history and I knew exactly what to say about those paintings—there were all these macho Roman warriors and I would say that they were about Machismo and manliness and none of that was true. It was an easy scaffold to hang all of these words on.

WM You would say that this is what the work is about but it wasn’t true?

MJE I never fully believed it.

WM So how does that affect the work?

MJE I was nervous, with the series before this one, to say “Yes, I’m appropriating figuration but actually this is abstract work.” It is hard to maintain that something is abstract when you’re using a reference because of course you’re bringing in all the history of that what I learned through making that work is that just because I brought in all the history of that doesn’t mean my work was suddenly about that. With the work that’s happening right now that is devoid of those references, there are just as many references, they’re just different references. They are pattern references or references from somebody’s outfit on the train. I do feel pressure sometimes to being making capital C Content paintings or capital C Conceptual work but by making these paintings—the record of the history that has happened in the making of these paintings is full of content. Even though these paintings might not be talking politically necessarily, I think the idea of me making abstract paintings in 2011 and doing it sincerely is . . . loaded. I think a lot of people making abstract things feel pressure about content but what happens with the work is that people will come in here and say “Oh, that reminds me of waves or mountains or whatever” and so . . . people bring associations to abstract forms. The associations that people bring to the table are part of the content, or they shape the content.

WM That’s one of the great things that happens with art in general but it’s probably more prevalent with abstraction. The audience has a greater opportunity to do that with abstract things.

MJE I was reading something that Charline Von Heyl said in an interview and she talks about she thinks oftentimes that she makes these paintings that people hate at first glance but if they come back and see them again, then they love them. And this idea of what time is the viewer investing in the work. At some point you as an artist have created a visual lexicon for your work that because you’ve made work before then people come to your new work and they understand or they don’t understand based on your established visual language. When you make a body of paintings, there is this funny thing that if you make enough of them, they start being self referential and then they validate each other. There is something exciting in the idea of making the paintings unsettling and then you, the viewer, have to come back again. Making abstract things is as risky as anything else, I wonder sometimes if I am not being, in the world, enough—but this work is super reflective of my experience and I think to impose imagery would be much less reflective of my experience.

WM So they aren’t political, but do you feel like your works are self-portraits? And if they are, how are you representing yourself or how are you disguising yourself?

MJE I do feel like some of them are self-portraits actually. I think the color palate—I’m a colorist, I love color.

WM And some of these colors on the canvases I have seen on the socks you wear (laughter).

MJE I am drawn to saturated colors that are then muted with a little titanium white—a professor in undergrad used to call them bathroom colors. There are parts of these paintings that have real trace of my hand and there are parts of these paintings that look much more technical—and in the meeting of those two things is me. The meeting between a lot of control and a lot of intuition. I’m not going to say the work is about me because as we talked about, I don’t like to say the work is about anything but these are definitely my works, they are my color palate, they are my weird decision making.

WM Do you feel like you are responsible to culture? Responsible to comment on culture?

MJE Well, when I take these patterns of these motifs, am I inherently commenting on them because I am excising them from their original contexts? I feel responsible to the paintings, it’s my responsibility to stand up for the paintings and stand up for the decision making—but what I like about living in the 21st century is it seems like everything is fair game. I remember being in college and getting in “trouble” for appropriating things from different cultures, but what happens now is I’ll see a pattern on a subway ad for a bank, and that pattern might have originated centuries ago as a printed pattern for kimono decoration, but I am responsible to it as a pattern that came from the ad for the bank or as the pattern that came from the centuries old kimono. And, I don’t have an answer for that.

WM There’s no answer but, if you are knowledgeable of the origins of the pattern, then . . . . wait no, I don’t know the answer to that.

Mark Joshua Epstein, Don't go chasing waterfalls . . . 2011, oil on canvas, 60 × 48 inches.

MJE There is a painting here that uses a really old pattern that was often used to decorate kimonos and it’s a wave pattern and that pattern is everywhere—and the way in which I am responsible to that pattern is that the title of the paintings where I use it is “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” . . .

WM As in TLC?

MJE Yes. With some of the paintings there is this sly reference, but am I going to title the painting based on its components? No. I’m not going to write a bibliography for the paintings, I can’t annotate them. You must feel this also, you are grabbing from everywhere. There’s this line between “This is mine now” and acknowledging that this wasn’t always mine. The more technical-looking parts of these paintings, one of the reasons that I make certain parts of them look that way is so you know, that probably came from somewhere else. This idea of responsibility, you’re responsible to a lot of people if you believe in responsibility, Wardell.

WM (laughter) Maybe so, but I definitely don’t feel like it. Once I have extracted the image or the object that I want from its original origin I feel like it’s mine. I never think about being responsible to the originator.

MJE That’s the only way to push forward with your work, if you’re responsible to everybody . . .

WM You’ll be sitting writing thank you letters all day.

MJE These things are combined versions of what’s in my brain. So it’s a little of this and a little of that, a little freehand, a little projected, a little cruddy and a little crass and a little elegant—and sometime I’ll reference the originators in the titles. This whole idea of I am just amalgamating things or am I creating new content—I know it’s old fashioned but I feel like I’m creating new content—as pompous as that might be.

WM I don’t think that’s pompous, I think we all, most artists when we are in our studios we believe we are creating new content. And I think most people are, either new ideas or different versions, different conversations.

MJE Yes, I agree. You can go into the studio and have this pressure and think “I’ve got to change the world, I’ve got to make content that’s going to change everything, I’ve got to represent my race, my religion, my sexual orientation,” but to go into the studio with all of those things is . . . I would just sit in a corner. So the idea is, how do you go into the studio, and convince yourself you can do something original and that you don’t have to make big pink triangles to represent gay people or Jewish stars or, you know . . .

WM I go into the studio thinking, I gotta eat!

MJE The big question to come out of this discussion, and this might sound elementary but it’s actually huge, is, What is content? and do we all have to have it. And, do you maybe have it inherently by being someone who makes something? Is it possible for something to be content-less?

WM Can something be content-less?

MJE I think about the minimalists, and Judd or someone, who makes an object that is a shiny, metal box. But that work is asking questions about the decade, the new materials he was able to get, the surface, it is about all of the things that it isn’t as much as all the things that it is.

WM When you distill any piece of art down, at the end of the day it is about identity. From Pollock to Judd to . . .

MJE Well there’s this whole thing going on with—you can look at first generation AbExers as actually doing these identity body performances, and the work was a record of the body performance—which kind of queers the history a little and definitely sexualizes it and makes it a little less macho. I think that when you make an object it is a record of what your brain is doing and what you’re body is doing and you can’t get away from that.

WM How do you begin? How do you begin the paintings?

MJE They start in different ways, and often they’ll start with just—I’ll try and not thing but just get something down on the surface—and then I’ll let that dry and a week later I’ll destroy most of it. I need something to bounce off of so it helps to get a mark or a shape on there. But often I’ll start by laying down a color and then a pattern on top and then I’ll take most of that away later on. Sometimes they start with a question, what if I make a blurry pattern or what can I do with a single brush? How many different kinds of marks can I make with a single brush?

WM So you set challenges for yourself?

MJE Yes, it is a little bit of an experimental set up. How can I put these colors together or how can I make a deep space or . . . And it’s informed by what I am seeing. I look at a lot of painting.

WM How do you determine the colors? Right now I’m making some works using innocent colors..so how do you decide?

MJE Sometimes it’s, I want to put my most expensive color next to my cheapest color—that’s kind of fun for me. There are small systems but also when I go over to the paint tubes, it’s intuitive to start with and then . . . . for example, the piece Don’t go chasing waterfalls . . . I was thinking, this painting is starting to get kind of an eighties vibe so let’s just push it there with that line of hot pink, let’s push it into a weird kind of plastic, fast food restaurant, midwest, 1988 kind of motif. The second that you choose a paint color, you limit things. You have a world of possibility and the second you make a choice . . . most of your possibilities disappear. Also, the fact that this is a live/work space informs things—I like to be surrounded by brightly colored objects, but I’m trying to introduce some mucky colors . . .

WM Maybe the muckiness doesn’t have to come from the colors?

MJE Right, maybe it can come from the paint handling. I’m always looking at color combinations, I’m looking at what people are wearing, and I’m thinking constantly about transparency and opacity. Also as an oil painter you are making choices about whether to use a petroleum product with your paint so your paint dries quickly, or are you going to use a traditional medium. Sometimes I think, synthetic color, synthetic medium, natural color, natural medium. All of these kinds of systems are happening. Also I’m a pretty thin painter, I don’t paint thickly, I’m not that interested in the texture of oil paint. I am emphasizing the color and the luminosity—I mean the colors are just wild in oil paints. I have little systems but there is no great system. There’s no, every time I start a painting I do this, or every time I finish a painting I know it’s finished because of this. There’s a fickleness in my studio practice that I think is actually a really positive thing.

Do you want to talk a little bit about this event on Sunday? You invited me to do this critique this Sunday.

WM The idea came from me and my good friend Natika Soward, we were discussing different projects we could work on together that would be outside of a gallery space, would bring people together and still enable us to talk about art. Through that conversation we came up with this idea of having these informal crits, and really centering it around young and emerging artists. We started out doing these at an extra space that Kara Walker had, in midtown, and the idea was to invite two panelists, usually museum curators or independent curators, and two artists who would present their work, and then an invited audience. We’re on the seventh or eighth crit, which will be yours, this Sunday. It’s been really productive. We feel like we are doing a good thing. It’s great to have a conversation around art that we enjoy.

Autumn with The Critiques kicks off this Sunday, October 16th, from 5–7 PM. More information on how to RSVP can be found by visiting Third Streaming online.

Legacy Russell is BOMBlog’s Art Editor. She is an independent curator, artist, writer and cultural producer.