Transience Is the Meaning: Gary Stephan


Gary Stephan's recent one-person exhibitions include those at the Baumgartner Gallery; Cristinerose Gallery; Mary Boone Gallery; Diane Brown Gallery; and the Margo Leavin Gallery, CA. His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Miami. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Grant, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant.

Bradley Rubenstein: I really want to talk a little about the new work, to begin with. Seems like these are the start of a new way of thinking about painting for you. They appear abstract but also strangely concrete.

Gary Stephan: I see them abstracted from the world, but also concrete in that they are material objects. I try to make complex spaces. In fact they include three types of space. There's a cartographic space, where you look down on it, as though it's a map. Then there is a conventional picture space, whether Eastern or Western. You're essentially looking at things sideways, with objects stacked up as they are in these particular ones where it is pushed up. But even in these, there are moments where the easiest way to read parts of them is sideways.

BR: So it's almost like an MRI?

GS: No, that would be the third one, the cross section, and an example of that is here, where you have this little tunnel that goes down into this chamber, similar to these. I can show you -- this is Japanese.

BR: And this is Indian. This kind of contradicts my initial reading. These are very narrative pictorial structures. You seem to be playing with the idea that the visual structure that originally contained the narrative can be flipped, in a way.

GS: Yes, I'd like to make abstract pictures that go right up to the line, and sometimes fall over into representation. I'd like to load them with as much stuff as I can without having people say, "oh, a dog" or "a golf course." But I'd like to get that level of complexity, that level of world-like material. See, the problem for me with representation is, I love its complexity, its richness, but I am troubled by the fact that once you read it, essentially all the meanings are collapsed at that moment. Like when you see something in a bedroom, a shaft of light comes in the window and catches a wrinkle on the sheet, and for a split second you think there's a toy duck on the bed. That moment where it's open is great. It's completely open, then the minute you realize, "Oh, no, I know what it is," the whole thing collapses. You can never turn it back into a duck; it just won’t go. The brain sees that as a mistake. So I'd like to see if I can make abstract pictures that have that kind of openness to them, where you can still find them highly suggestive.

BR: So it can always be a duck.

GS: It can always be a duck, or if you make a duck out of it, you know it's your making, not mine. I'm not making pictures of ducks. Although, oddly, people have complained that these pictures fail because they saw something they had imagined, and they were so convinced that I had willed it. They didn't realize their responsibility as constructors of the images.

BR: The pictures almost beg that, though.

GS: Yes, they do!

BR: Which, in a way, deconstructs the idea of you as an artist making an image that says what you want it to mean.

GS: Yes, but transience is the meaning. You've said before that the works looked very determined. I was thinking about how I make them and do things to them and then change them and then change them back. I found the word that best described this was "interrogate." I sort of interrogate the painting. I am making it and unmaking it. I keep adding gray, for example, until I block too much out, then I’ll start carving it back by adding white again. I am interrogating that edge of, how much do I need to say? How much can I unsay? Or . . .

BR: When I grew up, in my neighborhood, the guys always had these really nice cars, '70s cars, like Chargers or GTOs, and they were always taking the engines apart or customizing something. For them, the inside of the car -- the making and unmaking it -- was just as important as actually driving it.

GS: In a way I think it's the essence of the modernist argument that instead of the object being presented to the viewer as a closed set that reflects the authority of the artist -- and indirectly the authority of the state -- this is a set of elements that, if you'll contribute as a viewer, can be organized as a satisfying picture. But without your participation, it isn't enough. You have to help, like with a late Picasso. If you play with them, then they start to come together.

BR: Going back to some of your earlier works, there was the same sense of constructing a painting.

GS: Yes, in the early '60s, I began to say to myself, these aren't only pictures, but they're paintings. In the process, I began asking myself, what is a painting and what is a picture? I made a column for myself, and on one side of the column I wrote, "Stories are to books as pictures are to paintings." You know, in those days I wouldn't have said, "As software is to hardware, brain is to mind." In other words, every image manifests itself as matter. There is the painting, which is this real thing. So a lot of those material investigations were seeing how far I could push making a thing a thing, but also an image, and have them stress each other, without having one put the other into question. It would come back and forth; for a while it was the connective tissue, and at another time the connection was to these ways that, say, a Fra Angelico was painted in a niche -- how site-specific they were. Oddly, sometimes he would have them miss the wall by six inches so. Maybe it was just that he got it a little wrong, so there would be a tearing down. I think it’s an old thing that artists have always liked to do.

BR: Playing with the limits.

GS: Yes,what I call the picture painting discourse.

BR: So where did this take you?

GS: I made a bunch of templates, abstract elements. I said to myself, "I want them to have more properties than pure geometry, but not as many qualities as a thing." So I made these up. They were about as interesting as furniture. Furniture is about right because it's sort of halfway between geometry and bodies. Furniture always looks a little like people, because we use them. But they're also geometric, because they respond to architecture. So that was how I came up with the vocabulary of shapes.

BR: I read them like that, like they're elements of grammar.

GS: Yes, elements of grammar is perfect.

BR: They weren't objective enough though to seem really post-modern, like, say, Allan McCollum -- you know, a surrogate painting.

GS: I thought of them as tropes rather than surrogates.

BR: Yes, that fits. They're sort of Rorschach, in a way. You're anticipating the psychology of the viewer by the shapes you choose.

GS: Well, that surprised me and still surprises me, because it continues to happen. You know the joke where the guy goes to the psychiatrist who gives him the Rorschach test, and the doctor says, "I think you're obsessed with sex." And the patient says, "I wouldn't want to work with someone who just showed me all those dirty pictures." The remarkable thing is the reason that's a joke is the patient fails to appreciate his complicity in the construction of reality. And that's the problem with doing things that have a Rorschach-like quality. Very often, people don't realize their involvement, and they put the entire burden on the artist. I had a psychologist in the studio recently, and once I'd given him permission, so to speak -- of telling me how they worked, or how they could work -- he began to completely free-associate. I pointed this out to him, and he said he could do this. It's true up to a point, but it's also not true. As an analogy, I said, "Look, you come upon an automobile, a brand new Lexus, and you've never seen a car before. You come up to it, and you like it. It's attractive. You walk around it. Then you realize, of course, that there's an inside to it. You open the door, get in, fiddle with the knobs and dials, and eventually you get the radio to turn on. You sit there for a while and you think, this is sensational! Here I am listening to music in this very beautiful little room! You get out, you close the door, and you leave thinking it was great." Now, I say, that's not really what cars are about, and you could say, they are to me. In other words, whatever you make up about a picture is what it is about. But you shouldn't think that whatever you do with it is as good as anything else. It still has a specific nature to it, much like a car does. You can do other things with it, but if you don't drive it, you're missing what's most important about it.

BR: Half the fun of a car is taking it apart in the driveway; the other half is driving.

GS: Exactly.

BR: I want to talk about color a little. You spend the summers upstate, and your colors seem really connected to that for me. They look organic, which is interesting because they are synthetic, acrylic. But somehow this seems a part of your thinking, this dichotomy.

GS: Here is a perfect example: people upstate will, you know, smoke cigarettes, and they take the package at the end, and they crumple it up and throw it out of the car, and it's sitting on the country road. So when you are coming toward it, for a very long time you can't figure out what you're looking at. Your brain does a lot of things. It says, "flower," "button," whatever. Eventually your brain says, like with the wrinkle in the sheets, "Oh, yeah, crumpled cigarette pack." But it also has what I call cultural color. There are little passages in the paintings, too, that have this cultural color.

BR: Marlboro red.

GS: Exactly. Marlboro red.

BR: Coming back to the new work . . . when I first saw what you were doing, I was really surprised. I thought for some reason they seemed really streamlined, really tight, like Klee Bauhaus-period. You still have all the same elements, the same conceptual base to the work, but suddenly it all really clicks in a way that distinguished these pieces from the rest.

GS: That's interesting to hear. I feel that way about them now in a way that I haven't felt before about my work. In the past I've had the feeling there was something I wanted to do in the paintings, but for some reason I couldn’t. Would be nice, I told myself, if I had a little more of some kind of experience, but, well, it's no big deal. What is nice is now I don't have that anymore; in fact, I have a sense of almost taking on the hardest way to make it happen and just seeing how I get from one place to the next place. I always felt I had to leave something out, but I don’t have that feeling anymore.

BR: That's the sense I get. They're working, and you're not.

GS: Right. It isn't exactly like they're a breeze, but they constantly engage me. I have a feeling now which I never used to have that even if they're going badly, I always think, this is going to be fun . . . relax. It’s almost like an intellectual puzzle: it's hard, but you don't feel hopeless. I think, for these to be good, the key is they don’t cave in to style and design. There's a lot of people making abstract pictures who are stylists in the way they create. You know right away when you see the work. What I prefer to do is, even if the viewer doesn't know exactly what something is, they know these things are legitimately like this. They're not just brand signifiers like the great little propeller on a BMW -- which I like. However, a lot of painting, unfortunately, works like that. So instead of having some organic thing where it came out of a process in which you actually tried to make something real, they become sets of signifiers.

BR: Trying to de-stylize something that has become mannered and stylized, like putting tail fins on the Lexus.

GS: That's right. It doesn't strike me as a particularly good idea.

BR: Well, to me, what you've done seems the antithesis of that. You appear to have arrived here in a very thoughtful, concise way.

GS: I don't think I'm going to wear this out. It strikes me as a fairly protean metaphor for how things go together, so I think it will serve me well. You always fear when you start to get a language of elements together that at a certain point they stop being lived experiences and start getting into exactly what I was talking about. They start to become sets of signifiers that don't mean anything particular to you but mean something to the people who like them. And, with the template work, I thought, well, I really like them, but I'm not going anywhere, I'm not learning anything. This is just ridiculous, this is no way to live a life. They start to break down.

BR: So, in a sense, you are creating a space in your paintings, partly for the viewer, but also for yourself -- place to explore something.

GS: The goal, the highest goal I know of in my analysis of what makes painting really interesting, is a term I've come up with: the expressive eye. At one end of painting you get pictures that are incredibly optical like Bridget Riley, where they don't mean a thing but do a lot visually. And then way at the other end are things like Kiki Smith; they don't look like much, but they mean a lot. So they're emotionally charged, but visually they're just residual, you know, like a dead crow. It's metaphor that's so compelling. I want something between that literary end and the empty optical end -- something that's both expressive by being visual, by the means of visuality. The formal construct is the meaning. I think the best example is Cézanne, where the paintings are both highly optical and highly expressive, but not in any way that you can pull apart. You can't say there's the part that means something, and there's the part that just looks like something. It doesn't work like that. They're seamless worlds. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.