The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Both Chris Martin and Cy Gavin are painters of landscapes—in the broadest sense of the term. Urban experience reverberates as much as pastoral vision. The territories they each create, often on atypically huge or long canvases, are to be entered into and traversed by our gaze as if walking through a field, with our eyes perusing the surroundings in turns from a distance and close up.
Being equally alert to their inward musings and outward perceptions during the act of painting is an intentional practice. Via observation and memory, the personal inevitably informs any landscape painting, but Gavin and Martin consciously keep their processes porous, open for the affairs of the world—be it history or the latest news—to become, literally or indirectly, part of the picture.
Martin is known for his large-scale, exuberant, and gritty abstractions, which are frequently peppered with collage elements—from vinyl records to newspaper clippings and magazine cutouts. His more labyrinthine paintings at times evoke constellations or maps, with glued-in found images serving as quasi-cultural guideposts in an imaginary place that neither claims nor denies its existence.
Gavin paints ragged landscapes in saturated colors, terrains that seem scarred by craters and fissures, and which often have a vaguely industrial feel. The earth appears open, evoking layers of the past, as if dense with data of local and global history. His landscapes frequently include the human body—as a territory that’s independent yet embedded in the depths of space and time. Large nude figures hover within kaleidoscopic, panoramic scenes, and propose a reading of color alluding to displacement, migration, and the artist’s own African-Caribbean ancestry.
The two painters had only recently become acquainted when they sat down for a conversation this past spring.
Chris Martin We’re here in my studio in Brooklyn to talk about painting! Landscapes, planets—let’s start with planets. You were just telling me you have a telescope upstate.
Cy GavinI do. I got it because I became obsessed with the moon. My studio is on several hundred acres of woodland, so there’s practically no light pollution. Moonlight has become important in my life as a way of extending my day’s activities: it’s the greatest streetlight and has become my way of demarcating time. Every full moon, I paint the moon.
CMThat’s fantastic. I’ve been painting a lot of planets and moonlight scenes myself, which are not easy to do. Maybe I need a telescope.
CGYes, but it’s so hard to use one in the city.
CM It is. When I’m upstate, after a few weeks I become much more sensitized to weather, natural rhythms. It’s quiet; I sleep better. I think my whole nervous system changes from looking at trees, grass, clouds—looking at a different category of information almost.
I’m up in Andes, New York. We get a lot of coyotes howling, which adds to the general atmosphere. I’ve got drawings for paintings of coyotes howling at the moon. So you are making a moonlight painting every month?
CGI’m trying to. Maybe the most exciting one was of this waterfall I go to all the time, Bash Bish Falls. When I first visited in the summer, all I could think about was what it would look like under the full moon in the dead of winter. I hiked there at 3 AM and the waterfall was frozen, but water was running under the ice. It was insanely beautiful. That’s the big painting I showed at MASS MoCA.
CMDo you take photographs?
CG I don’t ever, except there, at the falls. I did a long exposure thing and used a markup editor to draw on the phone’s screen. You can’t take a headlamp outside and paint the moon. Your eyes would be toggling between the moonlight and the incandescent light from your headlamp shining on your palette or canvas. It would be difficult to even appreciate what you’re seeing.
CMHave you actually painted outside under moonlight?
CGI tried, but couldn’t really do it.
CMI tried, too, and it’s hard. There’s the story of van Gogh supposedly painting The Starry Night with a bunch of candles on his hat, which strikes me as insane and really dangerous. Someone should have been painting van Gogh with his candle hat.
CGThat’ll be your next work. (laughter)
CMI’ve been wanting to paint moonlight for a long time. I’ve also been trying to paint snow. I remember doing plein-air paintings of snow in high school and freezing my ass off.
CGPainting moonlight is inherently imaginative because you have to recreate it from memory. You can’t just sit outside and do it. There’s this thing called the Purkinje shift, that’s a physiological skewing of our ability to perceive certain parts of the spectrum in low light—it favors blue. When I see a Turner painting, I know his memory matched up with drawings or sketches. It’s not expected to be naturalistic.
CMI grew up in Washington DC. Going to the Phillips Collection there, I was a fan of Albert Pinkham Ryder and all those great moonlight paintings.
CGAmazing. I just saw those with Sam McKinniss.
CMThe story about Ryder is that he used to take long moonlit walks on the West Side of Manhattan. The quote was, he went to “soak up the moonlight.” He spent hours looking carefully at the quality of moonlight on the Hudson. And then, like you say, you come back to your studio, into interior light, trying to paint this other light. The story is that Marsden Hartley used to secretly follow Ryder around on his moonlit rambles, carefully staying a block behind.
CGTo see what he was looking at? That’s so smart.
I’ve been trying to get people who paint excited about these walks I do in the woods at night. It’s so bright, especially in winter, that you can spend three or four hours outside just trying to analyze what you’re looking at. There’s a fallibility and that limit to what human eyes can perceive, and that’s exciting for painting in nature.
CMThere’s no such thing as “what it actually looks like.” There’s no reality that can be separated from the way you’re seeing, your feelings, whether you’re excited or tired or you’ve smoked just the right amount of sativa or drank a lot of coffee. You’re painting a larger emotional idea of what the full moon is.
When I was a student painting outside, I would carry a bunch of canvasses up into the woods and spend the afternoon painting. And I found that if they looked more illustrational, they would fall apart. But if they had more of their own identity as images, then I could lean them up against a tree and they would look great. I still do that. I love painting outside.
CGIt’s a really special thing. There are different expectations. You have to move quickly before the atmosphere changes. It’s not leisurely.
CMSometimes it’s a beautiful day and I feel bad about being in my studio. I have this big earthen pad outside the garage door, so I drag my twelve-foot canvasses outside. Especially with acrylic, it helps to put the work up in a field, look at it from a hundred yards away, and see how it holds up.
CGIt’s the effect of taking a picture on your phone.
CMNow we’re all using our iPhones to get perspective. Do you ever do the mirror trick, looking at a painting in the mirror?
CMAny trick that gives me a moment of seeing something fresh, I’ll try it.
CGI used to live in California and all of my friends smoked a lot of pot. I never really got into it there, but I know now there are certain strains that can allow me to distance myself from my awareness. I would never be able to work in that state, but at the end of a day of painting, I always have a long appraisal period where I decant what I’ve done. Smoking then could help me get far enough away from the work to see it with an untrammeled mind. Rather than covering the work up or turning it against the wall and waiting a few weeks, I could set myself apart from it right then.
CMI find that covering things up and putting them away is sometimes vital. I used to take work down to the cellar, stick it in the boiler room, and then I could forget about it for a while. Otherwise I’ll just keep asking: What the hell can I do with this?
CGIt’s not productive. My problem is that I’m working on the wall most of the time and there are only so many walls in my studio. If I want to hide a painting, I can cover it up with plastic or I have to wait for it to dry before I take it off the wall.
CMI think people who aren’t painters don’t realize that most of what we do—and we’re not being lazy here—is sitting there and looking.
CGOh my god, for six hours, yes.
CMMy friend Joe Bradley says that some days all he does is sit around and look at stuff. It’s vital.
CGThe other night, I spent literally six hours expecting to work on this painting, but I just looked at it trying to figure out the composition. It never happened. I was so frustrated. And I just worked on another painting, which came really quickly. But I couldn’t force this thing to work because it was compositionally tricky. I haven’t cracked that nut yet.
CM I’m lucky that I have a large space. I’ll keep works around for a few years. Sometimes I just need a long time away from them. This one over here I’ve had around for several years. I knew it was eighty percent there—enough that I wanted to save it—but it’s still not done. I need to just look and look. You can’t force it.
CGAnd you also can’t be okay with it being not right.
CMWhen you work on a painting, do you have others face out?
CG I do. I work on multiple paintings at the same time. I’m doing a lot of layering, so I’m waiting for things to dry, and instead of losing that time, I’ll work on something else. But I can’t bounce fluidly between all of them. It’s usually between just two, maybe three if they’re related. But it’s out of necessity.
CMI have to put things away in order to work on a new painting. Even if they’re finished paintings I like, there’s a ritual of turning things to the wall, covering them up with foam core, so I can drag out a few new things. Then I feel that I can—what? Destroy the new painting. I can make a painting like I’ve never done before. There are no Chris Martins around me to remind me of what I normally do.
CGTo dignify it with its own voice.
CMYes. What’s that trite phrase? “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” This painting is the first painting of the rest of your life.
CG(laughter) I always try to work as if it could be the last.
CMBrave new beginnings. Are you a fan of the artist Jess?
CMYeah, he’s a great collage artist from the Beat era in San Francisco. I remember reading that he made a pair of blinders for himself so that he couldn’t look away. When he was focusing on one of his collages, that was the only thing in his field of vision.
CGWhat a great idea.
CMI’ve never gone that far.
CGI’m building a curtain system now.
CMTo keep out unwanted visual stimuli?
CMI know people who paint with their TVs on constantly.
CGYeah, I think it takes a certain kind of brain. I can’t work like that.
CMDo you listen to music when you paint?
CMYou’re out in a barn?
CGUh-huh. I usually put on an album and I know I’m doing something right if I don’t notice that it ended. Two hours later, I’m like, “Oh shit, there’s no music!”
CMIn Brooklyn, I have these big speakers that I can blast. But when I’m upstate it’s silent. I don’t have a sound system there. It’s a big old barn building and quiet. I find I adjust either way.
CGDo you feel there’s a visible difference in the way that the work comes out?
CMWhen I’m blasting music and drinking coffee, it gives me this energy to get going.
CGWhat sort of music do you listen to?
CMJazz, reggae. Lately it’s been The Congos, T Bone Burnett, and Miles Davis. A couple weeks ago, I went back and was listening to Michael Jackson for a whole afternoon, which was strange.
CGGood for energy, I’m sure.
CM Let me ask you about how you get started. The only discipline I have is to come to the studio. Then I tell myself I can do anything I want there. I can just fool around, look at an old painting, start something, do a little drawing. This is my playroom and I give myself freedom to do whatever I feel like. I might start by cleaning some brushes, and then I find myself getting involved with some task. I go, Oh, I can use a little orange here. Before I know it, I’m painting. I don’t want this voice saying, “Chris, you’ve got to get to work, you’ve got to make a painting.” I say, “Chris, you’ve got to go to the studio, and then you can take a nap.”
CGThat’s really nice. Historically, I’ve lived and worked in the same space. It’s helpful for me because I hate to think of working as work. I will be reading a book or eating and notice something in a painting that I wouldn’t have if I treated my studio like an office. Because I don’t begin with sketches, I’m just improvising. It’s helpful for me to always have the new work around, which is why it’s detrimental to have other things clutter the studio. They start talking to me and I can’t split myself up like that.
CM I’m lucky to live upstairs from my studio, so I’m basically there whenever I want. My friend Jim Harrison used to say that the most important way to look at a painting was in your peripheral vision. He also liked looking at his paintings after he turned out the lights.
CGI do that, too!
CMIn the dark you see larger compositional things.
CGEspecially with sharply contrasting hues, you sometimes find they’re actually of similar value. I want a painting to function from far away and then in a different way up close. I have everything on a dimmer, so I can see at what point the legibility fails. I will dim the light and say, “Okay, this works until about this point, then it congeals into gray. I need to reinforce this area or soften that one. This is really bright for no reason.” I love being in a space for a long time because then I can create systems that control my environment.
CMHow long have you been in your studio?
CGOnly a year and a half, but I move stuff around constantly. Things have wheels. Any bookshelf can move. The couch can move. Everything is modular because what wall I want to have in my sightlines changes all the time.
CMI find that’s often the way I get to work—by moving everything around. Usually I have to shuffle the deck. My show at Anton Kern gallery has just come down, so I’m at this moment where I get to step back. I’m doing a lot of drawing and I’m not under pressure to finish things.
CGThat’s the best kind of time.
CM I can play around. I can go back to some odd twists and turns I never followed up on or think about making a new kind of painting. Lately I’m thinking about landscape and memory. How do you make a painting of a moonlit night or something you remember, without thinking it has to be like a photograph of that image? How do you make something that’s a larger feeling of moonlight or of the Catskill landscape? To think about that I do a lot of sketches. Do you draw?
CGNot so much anymore, but I used to draw compulsively. The paintings from maybe ten years ago were quite different from the drawings I was making at that same time. Drawing was a sort of meditation, where my brain could wander and be very private. Painting always happened in public in some way—either in my family’s home or in schools or in an apartment I was sharing with people. It was less intimate—performed, always on an easel. That’s changed a lot. Working on unstretched denim stapled to the wall has been a way to break my own propensity for preciousness. When I was working on stretched canvas, I used to approach it in a fearful way, aware of the cost of its construction and then also being afraid of puncturing or dimpling it. By putting the canvas on the wall, I have a rigid surface and can work with chalk, oil stick, pencil, or charcoal. Also, when I worked on stretched canvasses, there was the problem of my idea having to square itself with the dimensions. And the idea might not be that big. Or it might be too big. Working on the wall, as the idea grows or crystallizes, I can just chop the canvas to size and this is the painting.
CMSo you’re giving yourself the freedom to go in and frame it up later.
CGStretching is a final compositional gesture.
CMOh, I almost always start with the canvas. That worry about puncturing it or putting pressure on it and getting a little bump? I quickly went the other way. I walk on my canvasses, so there are holes and footprints. If you look at this one you can see the stretcher bars are coming through. My path has been to embrace all those things, including mistakes.
CGIt acknowledges that a painting is more than an illusory idea of a three-dimensional space; it’s an object. One has to see the work in person; one can’t have the same experience seeing it in a photograph.
CM I think that’s especially interesting right now, when so many people judge paintings by flipping through them on their phones. I find that by making these huge paintings I’m forcing people to confront something they can’t photograph. They have to step back to see the whole thing, and then they can come close and look at some little detail, which is one of the things I love about trying to paint landscape. The way I experience the landscape in the Catskills is that I’m constantly scanning a field. I’m looking out to a big view, but then I look down and there’s a tiny mushroom at my feet, or a salamander. I’m constantly zooming in and out, seeing something miles away, and then a little piece of lichen. My fantasy has always been to create the experience of being inside a landscape in a painting—the viewer goes through this huge image in a series of passages.
CGYour paintings always have those little Easter eggs in them, like rewards for having this kind of intimacy. They also feel like environments. The big paintings are especially immersive. People are invited to explore. There’s a lot of information embedded, but it’s not desperate to let itself be known. One has the option of getting up close and really spending time.
CMI’ve had to learn how to juggle that. If the image is too strong, the viewer won’t come up close. If you have an image of a head, for instance, in a big painting, even a vaguely life-size head, your eye just keeps going to the head. Boom. If I don’t want the viewer to do that, I have to dampen the head image down. For me, collage is useful in this respect—I’ll put a vinyl record on a painting because that’s a scale we’re used to. You can zoom in on the record’s typeface or on a tiny photograph.
CGWe have an idea of the relationship of that scale to our body. If you see a planet in a painting, you understand it’s an illustration of a planet. A planet’s scale is obviously not such that it could be in the painting. I think it’s a generous way of relating the viewer to the work in terms of scale.
CM Well, when I first came to New York, very formal abstraction was king. People like Frank Stella made gigantic paintings, but you never had a desire to walk up to them because they didn’t change. I appreciated the works by Kenneth Noland or early Stella, but they didn’t sustain me. Being up close wasn’t any different. Whereas one of my heroes, Clyfford Still, would paint a tiny piece of orange in a large-scale work and you could really read that stuff. I have a lot of respect for Ellsworth Kelly, but you can’t walk in on a Kelly. If you get a smudge on it, it’s ruined: You broke the Kelly and punctured the mystery. I realized early on it was important for me to embrace an aesthetic that was kind of fucked up. And then I wasn’t so precious about my paintings.
CGI also really love that about Still’s work. I have an extreme want for order in my paintings, but I also need freedom to immediately redact, edit, and hide things. And not feel precious about it.
CMIt’s hard because the temptation is to paint around the good part, and that never works. My friend Peter Acheson used to tell me that the first thing you should do is paint out the good part.
CGIt’s so true!
CMDestroy that and you’ll be able to make a painting.
CGYou’ll feel free.
CMBut boy do we hold on to the beautiful detail.
CG Especially when it’s accidental, when some convergence of factors evolves into something you would never have come up with on your own. But it just isn’t in service of the whole image, so you have to be at peace with losing it. One of the nice things about working on the wall is that the whole painting could potentially accommodate this one moment if that were necessary, but I generally don’t do that because it potentially becomes too pretty.
CMHow do we preserve the beautiful stuff and still keep the whole thing? Oh, the agony!
CGUsually I just destroy things if they’re really not going to work. Or I will keep them around as a sort of germ to start something new.
CMYeah, the information in there might lead to something. I think many of my drawings function that way—as a reminder or inspiration. I’m not worried about whether that drawing is “good” or finished or whatever. It’s a way of thinking.
CGYou inspire me to draw more. I’ve sort of slaked that desire because I usually just draw on my paintings, which gets me that intimacy and can lead me in productive and unexpected directions.
CM I drew more when I had bits of time while working full-time jobs. I had to keep my painting dialogue going and would use these little half-hour slots for drawing.
CGIt keeps the wound open. When I had office jobs, the problem was that the wounds would heal over.
CM So you think of making art as a process of going into the wound?
CM(laughter) Suffering artist.
CG I don’t think it’s that painful; but it’s a time-sensitive agitation to actively resolve something. The exploratory phase is not fun or leisurely. It’s problematic and can take an emotional toll, like a filtering of life. I’m not entering a workspace and forgetting the world.
CMHey, let’s talk about that. We’re both interested in the landscape, and here you are walking in the moonlight for hours. Your connection with the Northeast might go back to the Hudson River School or this great tradition of mystical communion with the landscape. How do we—I think about this a lot—reconcile the moments of incredible beauty and peace that we find in the woods with reports about the environment and all the terrible shit that’s happening?
CG It’s a difficult question. I’m aware there are all these spaces in nature that people, who see themselves as apart from it, are trying to privatize and log and exploit.
CGIn moving my studio upstate, I’m not turning myself off or putting myself out to pasture. I’m paying even more attention to current events all over the world and finding a place where I can process it and research without suffering some kind of psychic exhaustion. And I’m bringing that into what I’m doing in the studio. I hope the things that preoccupy or inspire me are still legible in what I do.
CMAs artists, we’re not tuning out the bad news in order to make paintings.
CGThat would feel utterly irresponsible. But for me to contend with those things and find my position, I need to have a quiet space that I have a lot of control over. I’m politically interested but insist on having poise in my life because exhaustion and being overwhelmed are conditions that diminish one’s ability to fight for more equitable systems. I pay attention to so many things, and if something is agitating enough then it’s going to end up in my work in some form.
CMYes, my hope also is that anything that comes through can go into the paintings. The floor of my studio is covered in newspapers to sop up paint. And often a little piece of a newspaper gets put into a painting. Recently it was the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and there were all these images of the protests of the ’60s in the papers, and some of them went straight into my work.
CGIn a way, that’s like working with the television on. It’s not abstracted like music; it’s actual data.
CMDo you know Purvis Young’s work?
CGI do know him! In 2016, I did a residency right next to his neighborhood, Overtown.
CMThere’s a movie about him that shows him walking into his studio, where two black-and-white TVs are going constantly. And he has a beautiful woman modeling for him. He paints looking at her and looking at the TV. He’s letting all of this information wash over him. His paintings are both deeply personal and very much about the politics and history of his neighborhood in Miami. He’s an inspiration to me. And people like Thornton Dial were amazing in their ability to do these very personal things and, at the same time, reference direct political imagery. There are people out there that are great political artists, who do real protest painting. I admire Susan Coe. I also think of Basquiat as a great American history painter because he brought in whatever he was reading about, be it ancient Egypt or the monopoly on cotton. I’m inspired by that. Or Rauschenberg. If everybody was thinking about the astronauts, he was making paintings with astronauts. He used whatever was floating around the culture.
CGI often think of Guston’s work because he’s also dealing with politics, but as a way of talking about the potential humans have for behaving any kind of way. And also Francis Bacon. He was dealing with the horrors of war, but it’s universalized as a way of talking to the human condition—what people are capable of doing to one another, and what they’re able to forgive themselves for. It’s not so specific as “The KKK will do this” or a crucifixion being about Jesus. It’s about how unsavory human interests can find expression in the name of the spiritual.
CMI think about Guston a lot—he lived right between you and me actually, in Woodstock—and how split and schizophrenic he felt during the ’68 riots and all these assassinations. He said he didn’t want to be adjusting a red to a blue when all this stuff was making him crazy on television. I think he’s exemplary in that it’s the most profound personal work and, at the same time, he’s addressing the human condition in a spooky, naked way.
CMHis paintings have so much reality and suffering. He’s not making beautiful abstract expressionist painting. He’s got it all going on.
Do you have any message for the young painters out there?
CMSilence. (laughter) Okay, young painters, you’re on your own! Good luck.
CGMaybe try to do other things besides painting and see if you can stand it.
CMYeah, have you tried ice skating? Did you give that a chance? I used to say to young artists, “So you’re really a painter? Well, you’re fucked.” But now I pinch myself and go, Hey, I’m living the dream.
CGSo do I.
Cy Gavin was born in Pittsburgh and lives and works in New York. The painter’s recent exhibitions include Between the Waters at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a solo show, Devils’ Isle, at VNH Gallery, Paris.
Chris Martin is an abstract painter living and working in Brooklyn. He has had solo shows at Anton Kern Gallery, Pierogi Gallery, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, and KOW Gallery, among others.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.