Fellow painters Greg Lindquist and Tom McGrath sit down to discuss landscape painting in an era steeped in new media and technology.
I met Tom McGrath in 2011 at a summer party at artist Franklin Evan’s loft on the Lower East Side. We immediately connected discussing The Hudson River School, Frederick Law Olmstead and Robert Smithson. Our dialogue continued through an exchange of emails, conversations at subsequent parties, and the following discussion, which took place at McGrath’s studio in Gowanus during his recent exhibition Profiles in Fugitive Light at Sue Scott Gallery. McGrath is an important contemporary addressing perceptual issues of painting with landscape.
TM Let me start with an image that stuck with me from your last show. It may not have been the most consequential piece, but it was the piece [of an iPhone] that made me think about the difficulty of representing technology. I have a class on the subject of technology and painting at School of the Museum of Fine Arts; I always begin by cautioning students against making paintings of their cell phones. Dry humor aside, what is more interesting, the cell phone or the conversation on it? I want them to ask whether the measure of technological change is visually representable in the apparatus, or if it is something best made visible through other relations or means? But now, I cannot use that example any more, because you have painted exactly that in a way that works . . . I guess it’s a good filter.
There’s a kind of new kind of haptic movement that comes with iPhone cameras—a tipsy, warbly kind of sight. Your painting synchronizes the struggle of the camera to adjust the shape of the image as it focuses in on something, the eye’s struggle to adjust to it at the same time, and the brush’s attempt to capture this movement through the LCD haze . . . a painting about the hazards of drunk-texting perhaps?
But it indirectly raises a kind of question that refers back to phenomenology and perception. How does the saying go? “Cezanne didn’t just paint apples, he painted the way we see apples.”
GL Right. When you visited my most recent show, you talked about Van Gogh and how his colors may have first recorded the light of gas lamps. I am interested in your paintings that depict views from within rainy car windows looking out into suburban parking lots. The window becomes a screen; [it distorts things]. I’m also interested in your work with the urban grid, which conceptualizes the layout of a city. Do you feel that you’re extending that notion of structure with the motif of the fence?
TM Yes. Those were the driving paintings with rain on the windshield. In a way, each subsequent body of work represents a search for a situation, or condition under which—or through which—something is obscured or made visible, a questionable vantage point.
The chain link fence seemed [inevitable] to me, both in a narrative sense and in process—as a divisive but thematically unifying element. It seemed to describe something of the climate of impasse, uncertainty and inequality. The fence and the nocturne elements of the painting allow for the removal of nearly all the features of location and certainties of perspective.
GL The fence is noted in your press release as a “barrier."
TM It’s a barrier that produces and frames the illusion beyond it. It’s a framework—it always refers to either inside or outside.
GL How important is it to have that one-to-one relationship of scale with the actual object when you depict it?
TM It’s important that the fence retain actual scale for the experience of the work—so [that] it doesn’t pictorialize away, so that you can feel your feet in front of it. It’s crucial to see the fence itself as ready-made as well as a component in the process, a framework for viewing. The fence is rolled onto the surface of the canvas, paint is misted or splattered through it, then it is rolled off the canvas, leaving the trace of the fence present in its absence. This trace also structures the illusion of what’s beyond it.
GL The grid is more conceptual. When I think about the way you use the grid, I think more about the invention of perspective and how plainly it is a convention.
TM Well there’s the modern grid that exists apropos of the empty canvas, the generative surface. And then there is the Albertian grid, the plane that recedes in space toward a horizon. Those are the two axes of the perspectival cube I’m trying to obscure. But I think it’s a mistake to make a distinction between the conceptual and perceptual in this instance—they are coextensive.
There’s this really, really wild Mel Bochner photograph—it was on view at On Stellar Rays, I think—that plays with this tilting of the grid. Your work also references the optical breakdown along the surface as grid. It has a photographic remove.
GL Yeah, absolutely. I think the thin layers of splatters create a sort of formless, inert grid, making it difficult at first to structure the picture. I tend to use graphic renderings of these images as starting points. One of the things I was wondering about is how you see these silhouettes—or do you see them as silhouettes?
TM Aside from a little stage dressing, the silhouettes are interesting to me because they get us around the problem of the ingredients of the landscape painting. But a lot of people tend to think of narrative as putting things in a box in order to be read in an iconography. And I don’t just see it that way. I’m not a box painter, I’m more of a filtration painter. And you are too, I think. We’re not interested in simply taking inventory, we’re interested in capturing [subjects]. That’s where the photographic part comes in.
GL So, what relationship do your paintings have to photography and technology?
TM Technology is everything. Photo-wise, it’s the old cliche about Impressionism as the secret child of photo, and Pointillism being the forerunner of process color in printing: Sigmar Polke’s dots, Bridget Riley’s psy-ops, camouflage, the pixel, inkjets and spray paint. These paintings catch light, maybe freeze movement—I hope. The silhouettes, for instance refer to the look of a photogram, a kind of filmic mood lighting. You put leaves over the surface and spray away.
GL So it’s like a cyanotype.
TM Yeah, it is. I thought it was more like a rayogram, but I suppose it’s more like a cyanotype. [It reminds me of the] cave paintings in the Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, [and also of] Peter Stevens’s essay “Sprays: the Absent Object,” which is about David Smith’s spray paintings. In the painting you’re looking at, if you put your hand here, that happened. It’s the trace of the hand. The original touch, in Chauvet’s prehistoric example, is just as much about the absence of the hand, not simply some painterly smear.
GL One of the things that I think your work breaks down is this perceived dialectic between the natural and unnatural—the notion that there is a fine, clear-cut distinction between the two. Your hand operates the tool even though painting seems to—at least in general terms—stereotypically privilege the mark of the hand, because [it connotes] a personal and individualistic touch. When you were talking at your opening, [you said that] the first cave paintings were done with tools that left outlines or traces of touch to form imagery without using a brush. The brush wasn’t invented at that point, so it was about having this relationship that more resembled what became printmaking before the brush encoded touch.
TM Maybe they were more interested in leaving their trace than their touch . . . leaving the silhouette of a hand. I think the most interesting [cave paintings] have the silhouette of a hand that you can—at least in theory—you’d probably get in trouble for it—but if you were allowed into those caves, like Herzog implied in his documentary—you could fit your hand into the hand of someone thirty thousand years ago. That’s a kind of diachronic image, an image that cuts across time and historical context. But it’s also an example of a gesture that is truly anonymous, which feels right. As for the nature/culture dialectic, it’s risky to maintain those oppositional terms.
GL What influences your decisions about color? We talked about Van Gogh and the gas lamps—perhaps the way he saw color was really influenced by the invention of gas lamps. And for your color, it seems like it’s a fluorescence, or even some kind of bioluminescence.
TM Fluorescent colors and fugitive colors, unstable colors made in laboratories. They’re not naturalistic. Although what’s interesting—
GL —what do you mean by “fugitive”?
TM Fugitive color recedes. Of course, I don’t actually use many actual fugitive pigments, they look fleeting because of their context. It’s all orchestrated color—vibration, contrasts, etc. I’m into switching between synthetic and organic colors. Or, especially in these nocturnal settings, making a luminosity out of dark color.
GL It’s like you don’t really know what’s real and what’s an illusionistic depiction of that real material. Interestingly for all of Smithson’s care for site/non-site—the Spiral Jetty for example—how aware do you think he was, or conscious of his attempts to harness and promote the framing [of the Jetty] through photography and filming, which became almost as important to experiencing [the landscape] as the physical object itself?
TM I don’t know. That’s interesting. I wonder if the photography was the earthwork’s actual dialectical image because you couldn’t see the spiral on foot—you had to see it from above.
GL Exactly. Once you’re inside of it you can’t see it.
TM I think his documentation ended up having an unexpectedly long shelf life as an image archive, compared to the aborted geological time of his earthworks. I think the pictures would have been a way of framing his work’s dissemblance from the models he frequently referred to in his conception of the non-site.
GL It’s hard to generalize as someone looking back at the way it’s been organized into historical documentation. What I’m trying to get at is that we’ve talked a lot [in past conversations] about Robert Smithson, as much as the Hudson River School, for their varying relationships to landscape. So I’m curious if your paintings take into account the specific site of the gallery and if you have done anything installation-based?
TM In the past, most of my work has involved specifying a relationship between real and virtual vantage points. This show was actually planned for the exhibition space, with the architecture and circulation taken into account, albeit with some painterly variables. Between the two largest works, which are cornered in the gallery, there’s only one spot where they can both be seen from a distance as full images, but because of the near-panoramic atmosphere, the images don’t prescribe an individual, centered vantage point. As nocturnes, they may evoke a certain isolation.
GL With the painting installations that I have done, I’ve looked at anywhere from James Rosenquist’s F-111 to Ryan McGinness’ and Peter Halley’s wall paintings that incorporate paintings on canvases. I’m also concerned about how the image painted directly on architecture can dissolve the feeling and presence of architecture. But there’s an earlier precedence. What about Monet’s water lilies installation at l’Orangerie where the paintings become a 360-degree spatial enclosure?
TM Absolutely. That specifically informed my conception of the horizonless-but-horizontal installation I used this year. The recent work owes much to that environment. I spent that whole summer in Monet’s garden at the Giverny residency. Everything about Monet’s garden and studio was made to resemble his paintings. I only went into the garden at night, after the tourists had left. That was probably the beginning of this work.
It’s funny, I was just talking with Franklin [Evans] about this—revisiting Daniel Buren’s “The Function of the Studio.” He mentions the installation at Jeu de Palm and asks where in Monet’s work it suggests that those paintings should be inset into the walls of a sparse, minimal space like that—“70 years later, with a particular shade of salmon paint?”
Well, actually, it was Monet himself who specified that very environment at l’Orangerie, the museum adjacent to the Jeu de Paume!
Maybe Monet helped cultivate the myth of the studio as the work’s site, but in practice he played to the contingencies of the work’s life outside the studio, as would Buren and Smithson themselves much later.
GL I was listening to a MoMA podcast about the water lilies. Did you know that when the original water lilies were destroyed in a fire in the museum? Before they went back to get more they got this influx of letters from people all over the world talking about how much of a loss it was. People wanted pieces of it, as if they were pieces of the Grand Canyon, or the Berlin Wall. Dan Flavin was one of the people who wrote a letter. He gushed about how much he’d miss the picture and asked that a small piece be saved for him.
GL (laughter) Which is incredibly unexpected, but it totally makes sense for Flavin’s sense of natural light, which is so distilled it feels radioactive.
TM But that’s crazy because—I’m trying to put Dan Flavin’s light in a Monet painting for this show. Sounds horrible. (laughter) Monet is the stuff of gift shops.
GL Well, that’s the Monet that’s been spun into kitsch.
TM And the Flavin.
GL (laughter) Yet, there’s something incredibly retinal about both of their works.
TM Unapologetically retinal. For all my attempts at that kind of light, nocturnes have subtlety—they can be absorbingly dark in a monochromatic way, or they can actually be another form of luminism—the soft adjustments of the eye, the long gaze, the attempt to locate oneself in vision, in thousands of color droplets.
Greg Lindquist is a New York-based artist who earned a dual Masters degree in Fine Arts in Painting and Art History from Pratt Institute in 2007. His work examines the fictive distinctions of nature and culture dissolved in painting. Lindquist also writes about art for ARTnews, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical.com, and Beautiful/Decay. His site-specific installation in Mary Mattingly’s Flock House will be on view June 27th through August 31st, 2012 at Art-In-Building’s exhibition space, curated by Jennie Lamensdorf.
Tom McGrath’s Profiles in Fugitive Light was at Sue Scott Gallery from April 29th through June 14th, 2012.