An Interview with John Mendelsohn

I first came to know Kook Projects from curator Soojung Hyun, who asked me to participate in their inaugural show Kooky Cutters: Redefined Realities. What I find particularly intriguing about this gallery space, besides being new and not in your typical art district, is its discreetness. Founded and directed by Kate Kook and co-founded by its curator, WooJae Chung, Kook Projects stands as one of the more unorthodox spaces in New York City, as it has no street visibility. For their openings, this nicely converted ground floor apartment directs its visitors to enter through an iron-gated service entrance, down a set of stairs, and past the building’s recycling area to an alleyway that leads to a fenced-in courtyard and interior spaces. 

Kook Projects’ current exhibition is a solo show by New York artist John Mendelsohn. In April of 2013 I reviewed one of Mendelsohn’s exhibitions at Sideshow Gallery in Brooklyn. I find this latest presentation to be quite absorbing, as it includes works dating back to the 1970s.

Mendelsohn kindly agreed to answer a few questions; here are the results.

DDL: Knowing you previously, as what I can best describe as an abstract colorist, I was completely surprised by the earlier works included in your exhibition Drawings, Studies and Works on Paper. Let’s start with the peculiar silhouette paintings on board from 1976 and the disquieting "Hospital Drawing 1" and "Hospital Drawing 2" [above] from 1982. These are striking images in their own right -- can you elaborate on the content of these pieces?

JM: These Silhouette Paintings were selected from a larger series. They all share the green and cream palette and they all have a charged, dream-like quality. I am trying to recall my frame of my mind at the time, and I know that I was very interested in how images arise unbidden from the unconscious. The imagery of this work included men and woman, men with dog’s heads, horses, dice, rowboats, and other symbolic forms. The dark green functioned as sky, or water, or space, and the images in cream seem to be glowing presences, silhouettes in light rather than in shadow. It struck me at the time that the series has both a folk art and a cinematic quality, especially when seen in a sequence of related images. There are hints of a narrative, but more distinct for me is a feeling of the mystery of relationships, chance, and finding your way in the world. The Silhouette Paintings were exhibited at Artists Space in New York in 1976.

The Hospital Drawings in the exhibition were also selected from an extended series. This group involves a young man in a hospital bed, alone or accompanied by a nurse. His identity or sense of self keeps shifting, and he emerged from or sinks back into the space around him. At times things seems to become clear and distinct, while at others the light or darkness around him overtakes the scene. The two works in the exhibition, variations on a single image -- the patient and the nurse at his bedside -- show the extreme of these two tendencies. These works overall have a strong psychological aspect to them, in that young man’s interior states of feeling seem to be manifesting themselves in the form of illness and recovery. A group of these works were exhibited at PS1 in 1982.

DDL: "Imaginary Portrait 1," 2 and 3 (1983) and "Alice Study" (1986) go even deeper into the psychological realm. In the three portraits, it is almost as if we are looking at troubled, even insane spirits. Alice, as much as she is distorted and stylized in comparison, also comes off as quite distressed and anxious. I know as an artist, what we feel and the state of our own mind has nothing to do with what we are painting and drawing. With all that said, are we looking at what I like to call automatic portraits that evolve as you work or are these works preplanned with a specific message in mind?

JM: The Imaginary Portraits in the show are studies that became the basis for paintings. The process involved a number of different approaches -- drawing from life, working from memory, and invention, and sometimes all three came into play in a single piece. This work is charged with feeling, both about the specific people and about who they are as fictive characters. For me they became iconic in the roles they play -- playing a heightened version of themselves, but also embodying aspects of human nature. In terms of planning, as studies they were ways of seeing the person and images that might represent them.

The Alice painting was based on the original John Tenniel illustration for the book, which I read for the first time in 1986. The image captures the transformation and dislocation that was central to her experience. My work was a study for the first of The Alice Paintings, a series of fifteen large canvases that combined images of Alice and Anne Frank, two girls confronting the surreal strangeness of real life.

DDL: From this, we jump to what I have known you for, the abstractions, the color fields, the expressions of technique vs. intent. Many of the painted surfaces of the newer works that dominate the exhibition appear to be ‘combed,’ for lack of a better term. Then there is the Elvis Black Water series of 2010 ["Elvis Black Water 1," above]. There’s a kitschy, velvety, dreamy, wood-grainy type feeling to these works. A soup of sensations. There has to be a good story behind these works.

JM: For the past fifteen years I have been exploring different kinds of visual movement in my paintings. Working on the Elvis Black Water pieces, I was in the midst of an extended group of drawings that involved wave-like energy moving across the surface. There is the sense of viscous fluid, colored light, and unfurling blackness passing through it. At the time there seemed to be a brackish, swampy feeling in the work. The process was direct and intuitive, as was the case for much of the work in the show. I think that for me emotion is realized through the process of working, rather than felt in advance. The title occurred to me when I was looking at what I had done -- something scary and seductive.

DDL: I love that answer. I find it difficult myself, to figure out exactly what I have in front of me in the studio to near the end or just after something is completed. Which leads me to my next question. I noticed quite a bit of the work is extremely spontaneous, such as "Turbulence Study 1," 2 and 3 and "Black Drawing 1," 2 and 3, all from 2010, while in the Descent series of 2012, and even more in the two 2010 Mindflower works, there seems to be a lot more intensity and directedness. Which feels more natural to you, the freedom of chance or the more controlled techniques?

JM: I guess that I am drawn to both of these tendencies, and especially to the interplay between the two. One way that this happens is in exploring structures that start to develop anomalies, unexpected forms, or breakdowns of some sort. For instance, the Descent studieshave a kind of regularity in the combing of the white medium over the green ground. But then these lines start to jam together into masses or interrupt and overtake each other’s path, leading to a highly dynamic situation. With the Mindflower pieces, yes, they have a greater measure of control. However, the next step in the paintings that followed was to treat the abstract flower forms with a variety of solvents, so that the toner of the collaged photocopies starts to blur, along with the surface dissolving, to reveal the white paper beneath.

DDL: One final question. The bubble wrap pieces. When I first saw "Illuminated Drawing 2" (2014 [right]), I immediately thought of Yves Klein Blue. It really drew me in. Then when I saw that it is painted, as is "Illuminated Drawing 1" (2014), on the most delicate bubble wrap, I was delighted by the effect. The way you handled the color in both pieces is quite impressive. How did you end up painting on this particular surface, and were you originally using the bubble wrap to apply paint, then realized later on that it was an excellent painting surface in its own right?

JM: Sometimes the immediate origin starts to fade away -- but further back there were drawings with pulses of color, like "Love Terminal ’96" and "Descent Drawing," which are in the show. "Illumination Study" involves the quality of glowing lights, and the Mindflower paintings appear like blazing stars suspended in darkness. This past summer I worked on a series of drawings using bubble wrap -- I know I had been thinking about a scintillating field of color, and this was a way to begin. There are things that I am just starting to realize about this work -- how it feels and what it suggests to me. The sense that the bubbles are holding light -- that the drawing is illuminated -- is one of these things. Yves Klein is an artist who I have been interested in for a long while. - D. Dominick Lombardi

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Mr. Lombardi is an artist with representation at the Kim Foster Gallery in New York, a writer with The Huffington Post, ARTslant, and d'ART, and an independent curator.

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