I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
“For me, there’s something absolutely affirming and necessary in exploring the negative …” Mary Jones speaks to artist Marc Handelman about multiculturalism, marble, and mountains in the latest Post Impressions.
New York Live Arts presents
Marc Handelman’s most recent show Geological Studies at Home and Abroad took place at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. where he is represented. He will also show at Reception Gallery in Berlin this November. Marc was a recipient of the 2011 Awards for Artists from Printed Matter, and his book Archive for a Mountain will soon be published by Publication Studios. Marc graduated from RISD in 1998 and from Columbia in 2005. I met him in his Brooklyn studio in July.
Mary Jones You’ve been working with the subject of Manifest Destiny since 2005 and your ideas have expanded to include landscape ideology and nationalism. What sparked your interest?
Marc Handelman In grad school I was thinking about the relationship between ideology and space in painting, and began researching the Hudson River School. Around that time there was a show at the Met by the Luminist painter Stanford Gifford. I was really terrified by the disarming beauty of this work, with this kind of serialized light, and I was struck by the complete absence of violence in them. And yet they’re some of the most violent paintings that America has produced.
MJ Do you mean that literally?
MH Yes, those beautiful or sublime landscapes are one of the last places that you could think about genocide, yet that image is structured right below the surface. Every single painting had this centralized soft glowing sun, and it began to feel, even optically, like a blind spot, with this weird hypnotic afterimage. It was hard to look at anything else and there was something kind of violent about that obfuscation in terms of how disarming it was. But I’m mixing my metaphors. On one hand I’m talking about the optical violence of it, but those paintings, of course, also functioned as the moralizing rhetoric for western expansion and the genocide of Native Americans.
MJ That’s a very political reading. Is there a personal connection that forms your view?
MH I grew up in Berkeley, California during the multiculturalism of the late ’80s and ’90s. My father’s Jewish and my mom’s Japanese so it was hard not to confront ideas about identity and history. We also visited Hiroshima and Dachau together. Thinking about history in my family was a confusing space for me. There were a lot of conflicted feelings of simultaneously identifying as perpetrator and victim, not just in terms of the Triple Alliance and the Holocaust, but also as an American. I mean what kind of society actually uses weapons of mass destruction? But I grew up thinking about pretty difficult questions, like about what ways you could understand your position, or your society as evil. There was an underlying question for me about evil being something that actually arises out of “the good.” I think this all had a big impact on how I came to think about politics.
MJ How does your work with the Untersberg Mountain connect to these ideas?
MH It’s such a direct, or explicit way to think about how politics, ideology, and landscape merge. It’s also a poignant way to explore how the kind of special blankness of landscape is continuously projected on and filled. My book about the Untersberg is one record of the incredible mutability of this figure that is the mountain. For years I’d been trying to make a painting of the Untersberg but it never really worked. Painting, it seemed, couldn’t really contain the complexity of this subject so it was on the back burner for years. I had a box of research material continually building, and all this eventually became the artist’s book Archive for a Mountain. But I do think of this book as a kind of ostensible painting.
MJ To me the marble paintings strongly imply the virtual window of landscape painting, but then evoke the opposite sensation.
MH In some ways, the marble was a complete negation of representation. The paintings didn’t show the picture of landscape, but you could think of them as stand-ins for those images, with all the emptiness of that sign. They were like a false tabula rasa. The blankness of marble as a metaphor spoke to a kind of potent violence and function of landscape as a kind of veneer. At the same time, they were some of the most mimetic paintings that I’ve ever done. Pictorially, the forms within the marble are so associative that they seemed to perfectly evoke actual landscape tropes: ice floes, lightning, sunsets, all those kinds of latent clichés. This was actually a surprise to me.
MJ Marble also represents luxury. Were you commenting on painting as a commodity?
MH The work acknowledges and plays with that but the painterly labor in them does something other than merely reduce painting to an economic sign. The material facture is actually part of the de-realizing effect of their illusion. They insist on the false essence of what they speak to. The mahogany frames I made for each painting also nod to a gesture of commodification, but more importantly they relate the paintings more directly to architecture and produce this quality of physical weight and pictorial phenomena.
MJ Faux paintings of marble rely on panache and charm to create an illusion. Your work breaks the illusion of faux with an insistence on surface, slow deliberation, and materiality. What is the role of gesture and the hand in your work?
MH The painterly facture, the gesture, the hand have all been in my work in different ways. The work has also shifted a lot. In terms of the marble there’s an insistence on a visceral dimension, or bodily presence of the paint. I want to insist on the stubbornness of the body as a mode of translation. I don’t use projection devices or assistants for this reason. There’s a pressure I want to put on the subject position of the maker that’s important. So, in one way, I’m both totally present in the work, and completely erased as a subject at the same time. The compositions are also given to me in advance, as I find images of marble slabs online. But I’m interested in how paintings are always an index of their construction; and this materiality of the paint is always part of a dissimulation of the image. Unlike faux painting, it’s not about an economy of rendering, so there’s an investment in this kind of material excess.
MJ In your last show you break from the monumental size of your previous work into the A4 scale that has the potential to be tiled out infinitely. In the paintings, you also use the specific scale of your own outstretched arms as would an abstract painter. How does this change the content for you?
MH I wanted to think differently about the question of monumentality, and relate it to ideas about fragmentation, and of the relationship between part to whole, and partial or contingent views. The marble block suggested something like a stand-in for an unrealizably large picture—a kind of monumentality that exceeded representation. The A4 format was more or less a way to think about this kind of folding or unfolding of this monumentality, since to repeatedly double or half the size still retains the same format. Using the reference of my body also, hopefully, created a visceral connection for the viewer. It was a very subjective way of finding a size that was just verging on dwarfing the viewer but also being small enough to be manageable for them. It was important that someone could be able to relate to this authoritative presence.
MJ The projected film was also surprising in terms of scale. Instead of a large cinematic image, you did the opposite; the image almost seemed to go into a window, a hole, a hole of history and time that represented loss rather than spectacle. The whirring sound of the projector accented the feeling of history. By shrinking the image down, the projection and the images became indecipherable and unknowable. The projected light almost created an inverse projection.
MH It was important to work against particular powerful effects within film, and to retract what can be seductive and affective in it. I wanted it to be almost invisible. The piece was sort of about suspending a filmic special effect that uses painted backgrounds. Part of this suspension was to take out the illusion of movement, giving back some of the original qualities of a still picture, something like painting although it had no materiality. And it was also a way to think about the dematerialization of painting, or the virtual aspect of the picture. This piece, as well as the book and the paintings, all suggest questions about obsolescence.
MJ You described a reaction from a friend who after seeing your show, wanted to like the paintings, but felt perhaps she shouldn’t, or that she wasn’t supposed to.
MH Well, they’re slippery for me as well—I’m interested in the way they are not determined in advance. I wouldn’t say that the work is exactly antagonistic, but I’m interested in the specificities of the painting creating something more unstable, unclear, a kind of provocation that puts pressure back on the viewer.
MJ Why antagonism?
MH There’s this anxiety and skepticism for me located in the things that appear the most benign, the most beautiful, the most positive, the most disarming. Those are often the mechanisms that I find the most problematic in their political implications. The aggression, but also the kind of weirdness and estrangement, of the paintings perhaps sets itself in opposition to an initial reading of something that’s easily digestible.
MJ Is part of your motivation as an artist to urge the viewer to question their assumptions about culture and ethics?
MH Absolutely. It’s definitely coming from this space of questioning and it’s necessary to feel uncomfortable in that inquiry. It’s a complicated thing to talk about. But it’s critically important to think about my own self-implication in an attempt to be in the world ethically. For me, there’s something absolutely affirming and necessary in exploring the negative, and it’s often very convenient to disavow our own subtle and complicated relationships to authority or power, for instance. Sometimes these inquiries are speculative, or performative, or fictionalized, but it’s ultimately about exploring what it means, and what the implications are of what we do as artists.
Andrea Fraser talks about the institution that’s already inside us. Some artists try to work from this position, which is a very vulnerable position, and some try to skirt past it to a higher ground or something, but it’s hard to trust that. I have to assume that there are going to be these blind spots in my self-criticality, and that’s also where a performative aspect comes in as a kind of preemption to these blind spots. I often begin my lectures with the Guston paintingThe Studio (1963) where he depicts himself painting a self-portrait as a Klansman. He’s asking himself what would it be like to plot and plan, to be evil, constructing a kind of imaginary for subjective violence. I suppose, as a maker, I’m thinking about my relationship, and really my inevitable relationship to objective violence. Being caught up in that, which is part of being in the world today, is where I try to think about the complexities around my self-implication, and hopefully the viewer is able to participate in some of that questioning and, well, vulnerability.
Mary Jones is an artist in NYC and an adjunct professor at RISD and SVA.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.