Interview With Sarah Schmerler
"I see these paintings as characters: I have to let them develop, let them become, essentially, themselves."
IN CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS WALSH
Chris Walsh titled this show "Gesture and Geometry," but he could just as easily have called it "Reconciling My Hand to the Rectangle," or "Balancing Form and Intent." A recent resident of Toronto, Walsh was a Brooklynite for 25 years; he maintained studios in DUMBO and Long Island City, and before that attended Pratt Institute where he received his MFA in 1983. Later, he worked in arts institutions around the city, ranging from the Brooklyn Museum to Mary Boone Gallery. He returns to DUMBO for this show to find an urban landscape much changed by gentrification and politics, a fact of life that is surprisingly apt, given the subject matter of his abstract work.
What is a city comprised of, if not the layers upon layers of civilization (let's use the term loosely) that have gone into it? New York has current population densities that couldn't have been imagined; neighborhood maps that have been drawn and re-drawn over basic grids. Walsh, meantime, builds his abstract paintings out of layers and layers of color over an architectonic framework. Listening to the way Walsh describes his own process of clustering and layering rectilinear forms (sometimes over the course of a year or more) on a single canvas, along with his own love of urban descriptors, you'd think that he was forging his own urban planning concern out of oil paint — creating a composition that one day might breathe with a manic and uncanny life like the very City that inspired them.
As I spoke with Walsh in Toronto in the weeks before his pending show, I found myself more and more concerned with how he would greet the (much changed) site of his newest solo show. Walsh is, in effect, a painter's painter; someone who thrives on spending long hours of studio practice, making compositions that evolve, over time, crafted out of their own process. I felt compelled to ask him some questions about the art world (past and present), about the deeper meanings of building up a picture plane, and about just what a dedicated studio artist like himself sees as our combined artistic future in the Information Age.
Tell me a bit about where you're from; and looking beyond that: where you see yourself headed.
I grew up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in a town that's about two hours north of Boston. I went to UNH (the University of New Hampshire) as an undergraduate, majoring in printmaking. That was the late '70s; then, in 1981, I moved to Brooklyn by way of Boston and went to Pratt, where I got my Master's in painting with a minor in printmaking. My undergraduate experience was pretty much a "shut up and draw the figure" situation — traditional, figurative. I reached a point where I started to rebel. Graduate school was pretty loose by contrast but that said, I was starting to make abstract paintings even before I went to Pratt, so I was improvising even then.
Tell us a little about that — those early abstractions — and the thinking that fueled them.
It had partly to do with growing up in such an amazing natural landscape. You know the Hudson Valley Painters? Well, there's a White Mountain school of painting that's a precursor—and our town library was full of their paintings. And then there were the Appalachian Mountains right outside. I felt I didn't want to take that on, become a representational painter. I wanted the root of my work to be interior, internal. That's where I saw my abstraction coming from. I was looking at people like Gorky, printmakers like Stanley Hayter (who worked with Pollock and Rothko). Hayter had a process he called "counterpoint" where his imagery would come from imposing different systems on top of each other and melding them; he'd make a mark on a plate, he'd work in layers. It's a sort of low-tech version of what people do in Photoshop today. Hans Hoffman once asked Jackson Pollock if he worked from Nature, and Pollack responded, "I am Nature." I don't see myself in that heroic way. But I do feel that instinct and intuition play an important role in my approach to painting.
Can you skip ahead now, and tell us how you feel about the works leading up to this show?
The body of work I made right before this one is really intense, optically dense. They almost need to be framed with a border of space because you need a buffer zone to read them. There's so much information in a small 16" x 20" painting; you can almost make a whole new composition out of a small section of one of them. That said, I'm happy with the new works right now because they're opening up. And some of the newer paintings have a more immediate impact because of that. I'm allowing the imagery to be more lyrical, which was an aspect of my earlier work that was suppressed when I started working off the grid in the 1990s.
In the interest of arriving at a sense of this improvisation and lyricism you mention, I'm going to ask you for some basic definitions — but I want you to keep them very personal. O.K.?
What does the term "painterly abstraction" mean for you?
I think that painterly abstraction is about allowing the hand to enter into the making of the image. I'm thinking of it in opposition to hard edge abstraction. In painterly abstraction, touch is part of the content. It comes back to my education in terms of living in New Hampshire, where I discovered the Ab Ex painters, like Gorky, Pollock, on my own. Today, you have someone like Mary Heilmann who talks about not wanting to belabor her handling of the paint — which is interesting to me — yet her work is certainly painterly and expressionistic. On the other hand, you have someone like Peter Halley, whose paintings are at once visceral and textural, but they're also kind of cold — by that I mean there's this sense of remove. So there's a whole range of ways to understand the term.
Give me your reading of another term: "urban landscape."
For me it's collage. A collage that has contradictions to it. It has a structural, man-made element to it, but it's unplanned. There are layers of both growth and decay.
Can you give us a personal example of how this understanding of urban landscape affects you?
I used to have a daily routine of walking my dog from Boerum Hill to Fort Greene or DUMBO, depending on where my studio was at the time, and during that process I was observing and absorbing my surroundings, making up compositions in my head. For instance, you might find yourself at the same stoplight every day, at a certain time, with a certain light, and you can't help but compose a picture that's subconsciously stored in your memory of that. At the same time, this process of identifying with my environment when I'm in the studio, breaks down into a formal vocabulary that has elements of Mondrian. ... There's something neurological about my response to this vocabulary ... I definitely can see triggers and synapses, even as I struggle to define it.
Tell me more about the layering, the density — or not — of your work, vis-a-vis what you've just said about the urban grid and geometry.
My paintings are layered, but they're not layered because I think they "need" to be layered; the layering comes out of a process of making changes, of adding and subtracting, in response to what's happening on the canvas. It's about making decisions and changes, all with a mind to arrive at an image that has an impact. Enjoying the challenge of it. Because of that, it takes on a life of its own. The paintings start talking back. I'm interested in getting to that point. Where the paintings start talking back.
Can you talk about a couple of works in this show by way of illustration? I notice that a work like "Orange Life #1" is so sparse, others so dense. What's going on behind them, as it were?
Even though there's an aspect to all of the works of what you could call "all-over painting," they also contain focal points that, visually, the images build out from — out, or around. Even "Orange Life #1," which is essentially a grid painting, has a dominant vertical rectangle that's been carved out from a burst of orange brushstrokes so that the edges are frayed; it also has this other side that's clearly defined, so "Orange Life #1" is a good example of gesture and geometry, the two elements, working together in constant balance. It reminds me of a photograph I took in Dorset, England, of the ruins of Corfe Castle, near Stonehenge. What was striking to me is that you'd have this pillar of stone that was left, a fragment of wall that was still standing, and within that fragment you'd have a window, an element that was very geometric. Essentially, that's the same thing you see in the painting: geometry contained within a fragmented phrase.
By contrast, "Zig Zag" is an interesting painting because I worked on it so long it became something else. I remember reading Paul Klee's diaries back when I was 17; what he wrote about growth in terms of a painting or a work of art plays into my way of thinking, my process. Working on a canvas over an extended of period of time, the trick is to know when to step back and put it aside. Letting a piece simmer for a few days or even months allows a separation from the making of an image in order to return to it with fresh eyes. With practice, I've found that working on my paintings in groups helps to avoid obsessing over one image, but there is always that one piece that refuses to say "finished". “Zig Zag” was certainly one of those canvases. "Cumulus," on the other hand, was started at the same time as “Zig Zag.” The way the off-white thought-cloud shapes rhythmically work their way across the surface of the painting is an example of what I mean by lyrical. Both images are dense and contain an element of concealment in their layering, but “Cumulus” was allowed to develop at its own pace partly because I was so focused on resolving “Zig Zag.” There are moments in both paintings where you can see what's hidden beneath the surface; there are these "windows" that reveal the ground level of the paintings, but they differ in terms of scale, space and personality. They're stories, in the sense that they tell a story; and you can "read" them. But while I'm in the studio making them, they talk back like characters and demand things. In the case of my approach to painting, it's about a push and pull of imagery, a dialogue with materials. This must be something novelists come up against: how to develop, create a character so strong that the story writes itself. I don't remember where I read it, but a novelist once talked about how he felt that if he knew where the end of the story was going, why write it? That plays into it as well for me. If something is thought out at the beginning and you don't let the process enter into it ... why do it? I see these paintings as characters: I have to let them develop, let them become, essentially, themselves.