R: These are your most recent works?
S: Not all of these are done. This one isn’t done.
R: Tell me why it isn’t done.
S: When I paint I’m after a particular kind of surface. The edges of my paintings are something that I think are the personality of the painting; the way the paint is thick as it comes over the edge because I apply so many layers. I haven’t applied too many layers to this, I’ve only painted it once. I’m striving for a process where I choose 4 colours and that’s the painting. This piece could work, but to me it doesn’t feel done.
R: I’m thinking about Abstraction. In some cases it’s seen as a reaction against representation, and in others its driven by process and a series of decisions.
S: The second is where I lie. That is what I do, it’s very formal and procedural. I’m just thinking about the surface, the paint, the paint as a material, as well as a subject, which includes colour. Not everyone is going to think that is enough. Some people search for more. I’m asking people really to look at the paint and the surface, and what fascinates me is to try and evoke, not a meaning, but what I do find is that when a painting does work for people they can connect it to a memory of a place, which is to me is so fascinating, because it’s a circle, nothing more. It’s only a circle and I’ve chosen 3 colours, that’s it. When the paintings work somehow people find more. People also appreciate them without finding anything more, just appreciating the shapes and the colours, and that’s also fine.
R: What jumps out at me is that in some ways they remind of emojis, or symbols, because they’re so graphic, like flags.
S: Yes! I want to talk about that. Look at the earlier building paintings. There’s a graphic quality to my work, there always have been. I’m so happy you touched on flags because I’m fascinated by them, I always memorize them when the Olympics come, because they are so sharp and they’re loaded with meaning for people as well. They’re just bands of colour and they represent so much. This painting takes colours from an African flag. I’m interested in people’s relationship to colour. People have a specific relationship to colour, even from the time they are kids, that never leaves us.
R: It’s interesting to think about Abstraction in relation to representation in this context, because symbols are different. They exist in a different theoretical space. Symbols by definition provoke bodily reactions, and you project your hopes, desires and feelings onto them.
S: That’s kind of fascinating, also applied to flags, because they have clear symbols, a circle can be a sun, for example. Perhaps that’s a direction I can take my paintings further, making my
own symbols. I’m still using stripes, but when I moved from doing stripes to circles people really attached comments to those paintings. I thought ok, I’m taking things further, it’s not just colour and stripes, I’ve moved somewhere new. It was a reaction I was really intrigued by.
R: When I look at them, I almost see a kind of personality, or character. Where does that impression come from?
S: Yeah! But also, someone else might walk right by it, have a totally different experience, it’s also just a circle.
R: So these circles are really experimental for you. Do you only work on canvas?
S: I’m interested in the sculptural quality to the painting. These here are oil paintings on panel, adding a block element to them, especially when you see them all together. I want to emphasize that more, an installation element. I’ve been moving into Formalism which gives me a great kind of freedom, that I didn’t feel with still life or portraiture.
R: Talk me through your process of making these new paintings.
S: First I look at a lot of other paintings. I also look at a lot of textiles. When I first started to do abstract work with busier patterns, I was really interested in these Gee’s Bend quilts, which seemed to have a real spontaneity to them, but I found the quilts to be equally important to looking at paintings.
R: Something related to what we’ve been talking about is that quilts were also used for messages. They were used in the Underground Railroad as maps for people to find their way along the trail. There would be arrows and secret patterns in blankets hung out on fences and laundry lines that would indicate a house was a safe place to stay.
S: They’re so loaded actually. Interesting. That brings us back to symbols. So I’ll look at these textiles and paintings, and my painting will start as an idea for a pattern and colour. There is a spontaneous element even though these are the most planned. Aside from having a picture to look at for inspiration, I really didn’t know how these were going to end up. I may have a pretty close idea of what I want to grasp. People often ask me if there is a particular emotion I want to convey or something like that and the answer is no. But I do hope that they can evoke an emotion. That’s why I don’t title them. The actual combination of colour takes a long time for me to be happy with. Some of them have plenty of layers. I want there to be a little bit more when you get up close. You can see my thought process. You can see I’ve reconsidered things, and for me that’s an important part of the painting.
It’s very satisfying for me to have an idea, an abstract picture, and just make it. It feels like freedom, “This is what I want to do, this is what I did.”
R: Can I ask you about the new sculptures you’ve been making?
S: They’re sculptures with a lot of paint on them. They have a lot to do with the paintings. They’re totally in process. I’m a painter, so when I see objects my first reaction is to paint. It’s natural for me to want to paint over them. I think aesthetically bottles are fascinating, but ultimately these are all about colour and simplicity. This reminds me of as a kid, you know those plastic toys, Fischer Price, stuff you react to when you’re really young.
R: It’s interesting to me that it’s still a similar procedure where you make pre-determined decisions. You collect the objects, choose the colour, and apply them to the form, which in some ways is the same logic as the paintings, it’s just a different base.
S: I see them as very similar. I’m not as excited about painting a bottle, which is why this not quite done, I’m just thinking about painting every-day objects, like in Pop Art.
R: This is an opportunity to segue into asking you about Jasper Johns, thinking about his painting on top of every-day objects. He also used symbols. I remember in art history my professor lecturing that Jasper Johns was gay, and that his images were all codes for speaking about his identity. Similarly for Robert Rauschenberg, although his bisexuality is referenced often despite his being married to women. In years following that lecture any time I’d come across writing about Jasper Johns I’d never see reference to his sexual identity. So all that to ask you does your being queer come into your painting? Is it inspiration or do you perceive it as separate?
S: I think it’s separate. Some days I wish I had more of an intense answer. It’s separate. Does being gay even have to come into my work now? It’s no secret. This is a sign of how much progress has been made, it’s a privilege to be able to take this position.
R: Coming back to the question of representation, if you’re not working in that theoretical space then can one even bring sexual identity into the work? Representation and identity are intrinsically linked. So if you’re working with symbols you’re actually in a space of play, putting materials and objects into play.
S: I think this is a bit of a lightbulb moment than can be pushed further.
S: I don’t know in terms of personality how it works. These paintings are me. Painting is such a profound extension of a person and their personality and the way they experience the world. Even though I’m not doing representational work somehow things all around me spark ideas. It’s difficult to describe.
R: It’s odd to be asked to take a stance and say something is or is not part of the work, separating it out.
S: Yeah, I mean, we’re absorbing, dissecting, re-creating the world around us all the time, of course it’s going to show up in the work somehow. Maybe that’s why choosing the colours is such an important part for me. I don’t know what it means, but I can’t imagine that ever ending, choosing colour as my subject matter.
R: Your practice has been talked about previously as being connected to other local histories of Abstraction like Bob Christie, William Perehudoff and Eli Bornstein, more recently Jessica Eaton’s photography, and they’re all prairie-born artists who are obsessed with light and how light creates colour. Bornstein works with paint and Eaton works with film. I’m wondering if you’re referencing the history of that aesthetic. It seems to me you’re thinking about the materiality of the paint, rather than light per se. Tell me about how you choose your colours and how it relates to the properties of the paint.
S: Oil paint is a rich medium. I’ve been painting for 17 years, I’ve been choosing colour for a long time. It’s not about what I love in a combination, it’s about, sometimes, trying out an intention. I don’t want to choose colours that are overly superficial or predictable. I want something that is more subtly confusing, like colours you might think don’t go together, or colours that look kind of just look pleasing in a surprising way. This painting here would be a good example. I don’t even know if I like these colours together, do they really go together? I don’t know, maybe not. I’m not after brightness, happiness, or a pleasing experience. I’m after something more vague, subtle. I have to tweak it all the time. I do this one day and I think it looks great, because the painting is wet, and then a couple of days later the colour is darker, it just doesn’t look as juicy, or vital, so I have to go back and find a balance that I think is not superficial.
R: It’s a play of the relationships of the colours to themselves.
S: Yes, exactly. This looks like black far away, but then you get up closer and it’s not actually black. The colour is more than what it initially appears.
R: So you’re playing with perception.
S: Absolutely. As you get up closer you also notice these details, like what I was saying about the edges, or the roughness, so it’s a new realization that makes the painting more interesting. People see paintings in different light, for example. I don’t want people to see my paintings as just blocks of colour, I think that’s fine, but I want there to be more to it.
R: It makes me think about how there’s this new technology being used to shoot x-rays into historic paintings to figure out the layers and the process of making them. It can now be done with even more detail. So conservators and art historians will digitally peel back the layers of a painting and draw inferences about the painter’s life, saying things like “Oh look this hand was over on the left, but now it’s over here, so therefore the painter must have been feeling....”
S: I watch a lot of art history shows and I really like the ones where they have to do an x-ray to figure out if a person is actually the real artist, and that’s something they discover by looking through the layers of a painting. The backs of paintings are also fascinating, saying where the painting has travelled, provenance, things like that.
R: With the benefit of hindsight now, do you have insight about what made you make your transition into Abstraction?
S: I’ve always loved shapes. A building is made up of a group of shapes. I just wanted to be free, not tied to representation, I just wanted to use line. I was working representationally after university, with all these great examples around me in Saskatoon. You see Pereheudoff’s work everywhere, I’m lucky to know Bob Christie. Art Placement shows such strong work, so it’s not like these paintings came out of nowhere. I’ve been influenced by things indirectly without even being able to articulate it. I’ll paint something that I think is finished, and then by chance I’ll see a Pereheudoff panting that is new to me, and they’ll look very similar. I think that’s so interesting. We’ve arrived at a very similar image without my having seen the original. Our work is in conversation with each other.
R: So to close, I’ve been reading a book called The Art of Prudence by Balthasar Gracian, a Spanish clergyman and moralist who wrote using a pseudonym, and he says that, “Fame was and is the sister of giants. She works through extremes. Monsters and prodigies are either abhorred or applauded.” If you were to be pursuing fame would you want to be famous for being a monster or a prodigy?
S: Oh. Well, monster doesn’t really describe me well, so prodigy, I guess. Yeah, I’d like to be applauded.
R: For prodigious technique.
S: Absolutely, yes.