The Poetry of Space: Scott Grodesky + Bradley Rubenstein

Scott Grodesky was born in Warren, Ohio, in 1968. He lives and works in Long Island City, Queens, New York, and teaches painting at SUNY Albany. Grodesky’s most well-known body of work depicts life in his neighborhood, including his wife and children and the surrounding buildings and landscape. He employs reverse perspective as a tool for investigating new relationships with forms and narratives in painting.

Recent solo exhibitions have included Sunday L.E.S., New York (2009); Galleria Glance, Turin, Italy (2008); Baumgartner Gallery, New York (2000, 2007); Daniel Weinberg, Los Angeles, (2004); LFL Gallery, New York (2003).

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Bradley Rubenstein: Scott, I’ve been looking at your work for a very long time. We talked a little before about the "explosion" paintings from the '90s. I found them quite impressive at the time and still do. You said they were a beginning of an exploration of perspectival systems. Can you elaborate a little on that? Give us a little background on where they came from -- what you were thinking of when you began them.

Scott Grodesky: Prior to the explosions of 1991, I was working with this idea of reverse perspective (RP). My problem at the time was that the RP paintings lacked focus, and I was looking for a solid way to depict the space. It was in 1990 that I threw out all of my materials. I reduced my materials to graphite pencil and powder graphite suspended in acrylic medium on canvas. Keeping in line with this, I reduced the images to simple structures that represented the expansive system of RP. Concentric rings and explosions were those basic structures for me, so I set about trying to rebuild my language from a new standpoint. The goal was to keep things simple and then add materials and elements over time to make more complicated works. It was the beginning of a longer-term project. I was surprised at how I became enamored of the explosions and spent a couple of years working on them. I was influenced at the time, and still am, by Agnes Martin and Roy Lichtenstein -- throw in Tibetan thangka paintings and these comic books I would buy down in Chinatown.

BR: That is interesting; you really went from one kind of Minimalist way of working --simplified pictorial structure -- and combined it with simplified materials, like Brice Marden or even Robert Morris. How did that work for you with such narrative influences like thangka painting or Lichtenstein?

SG: It didn't work! I had to narrow the narrative to really ambiguous situations. In a way the thangka paintings had narratives that I didn't really understand or connect to. I was just curious about the structure and how it was so otherworldly to me. Lichtenstein had the narrative in a simple form, or in some cases removed like in the Mirror series. I was really responding to a coolness in the structure and approach of these artists.

BR: To me, these works, what you started doing in painting, was kind of concurrent with what a lot of artists were doing in other mediums at the time. I think of Matthew Barney's Cremaster films. He started out with video, then silent film, then sync-sound, and so on. Do you think that what you were doing was part of a larger zeitgeist, for lack of a better term, or were you off on a really idiosyncratic trip?

SG: In some ways it was both a zeitgeist and a personal trip. I was interested in a bunch of artists at the time: Cady Noland, Olivier Mosset, Karin Davie, and Peter Halley. Mathew Barney was a catalyzing force at the time. There was this feeling of change in the early '90s, with the '80s still a heady spectacle. This idea of reduction and reconstitution of what the formal construction of a work could be was in the air.

But at that time, I was still working alone, so to speak. Later in 1991 I began to meet these heroes of mine, and that was when the whole thing began to coalesce.

Barney is interesting for me; in 1990 I was an art installer for Gladstone, and I worked on Barney's first show. In a way, that show helped solidify the ideas that were bumping around in my work.

BR: Yeah, I agree that that time was kind of a watershed moment, especially in painting. I remember it as a great time to be painting, if you were really interested in coming up with ideas that were personal or approached picture making in an oblique-strategy kind of way. Strangely, I have always thought that Barney may have had a greater impact on painting and photography than he did on sculpture. His sense of color has always impressed me, and I've often viewed his performances as a form of travel photography. He goes to different places and interprets them into his own narrative.

SG: I love the color in those early Barney works. I remember his use of the first fluorescent coil bulbs and how that really affected the color of the show. I think that Barney was a great influence on the next generation after the early '90s. Most of the artists working in the early '90s had been working out their ideas even before or concurrently with his debut.

BR: So, basically, at that point you reached a kind of ground zero in your work and manifested these really iconic images of explosions. Let's stay in that moment for a bit, and tell me how they fit in with what was happening then. How were they received at the time?

SG: I did reach a ground zero. It was very satisfying to reduce to rebuild. The explosion paintings were well received. That surprised me. I was very young and not completely prepared for the interest. This all happened at the beginning of the new direction of the work. What I had planned to do was build on the way the explosions had the cool effect that I admired in other works, and I was going to add in elements to generate the RP paintings. I suddenly was making explosions for a while – well, a while in young-artist terms. I could have continued, but it was brought to my attention that Halley was making explosion prints, and I was more interested in the concurrency of multiple ideas forming simultaneously. I built up the explosions to a real crescendo using silk screens and gunpowder. They ended in a more pictorial space.

BR: Now I am remembering that about the explosion pieces; you took the literal elements and made them pictorial. That was really interesting to me. Looking at the arc of your work, then, you can see how you went from a minimalist, concrete way of working into something more theoretical and abstract over the years.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I do want to ask about one more connection to your exploration of RP. There’s a really interesting David Hockney painting in the Met, an interior done with RP. It relates strongly to a later Braque. Both of these painters dipped a toe into that river, but they were mostly one-offs. Hockney went on, though, to do a lot of research into perspectival systems, particularly focusing on Vermeer. Getting back to your work, you pushed on after the explosions and started a painterly exploration. Give us the impetus behind this changing direction in your work.

SG: It wasn't my intent to go from a minimalist to a more pictorial way of working. I wanted to follow the leads that the painting gave me. Each group of work showed me a new place to go. I was really into experimentation and advancement in the way the paintings were made. I moved into the new RP space in order to clarify it. That painting of the interior space by Hockney was always interesting to me because I thought it failed at the idea of RP. There’s a chair in the painting that shows a reverse space, but the rest of the painting is kind of goofy. I love it! When I think of Hockney and RP, I think of his photo works and the way that he nailed it with all of those shifting small photographs.

BR: Was there a psychological element to what you were doing? For example, by turning things inside out, are we seeing into how you perceived things, or was it purely on a mechanical level?

SG: As I was following the paintings’ cues to make the next work, I began to notice that the works that depicted friends had a stronger psychological thrill. It was at that point, at about 1998, that I began to paint people I was close to, mainly my wife Sara. In the beginning I wasn’t interested in psychological spaces, but I ended at that place.

BR: Yeah, the work from that period seems like the big turning point. To me, it is where you really begin alluding to a whole lot of ideas, whether intentionally or not, that give the work a great deal of depth. When I look at the figurative pieces, particularly of your wife, I really like how, even though she is the thing that should, in traditional perspective, be closest to the viewer, in your work, she recedes. The picture with you and her together is wonderful; you loom very large over her. It’s like some Renaissance Pietà or Madonna and Child kind of thing. These works call to mind so many styles and concepts.

So, having reached this point with the work, you began doing more complex scenes. In some ways these seem so overwhelming visually, it’s hard to imagine how you laid them out when you painted them. Did the more elaborate compositions present more problems for you, visually, technically, or in any other way, or was it a seamless progression for you?

SG: The idea of a seamless progression is great! That never happened for me. I had plenty of paths that led in directions I felt were dead ends. My main goal was to open up the world in the paintings. I love the challenge of making a complex painting with all of its brain-hurting choices. Basically I used, and still do, a way of working that is additive. A start is made, usually with an eye or ear, and the painting is grown from that point. Any quirky compositional situations are welcomed. I find it interesting that RP space is too complex to pre-envision, so as the painting is constructed, all kinds of accidents occur. In a certain sense, this is imprinting an abstract way of thinking onto a figurative system.

BR: Looking at the arc the paintings took, you can see how the working space of the painting became limitless. These paintings basically took you to the series of still lifes, the most recent work?

SG: The space really opened up for me around 2005. That’s when I started to make a series of large paintings, 6'´14'. These paintings were based on earthquakes, war, city planning, and domesticity. I could put a lot into a large work, so the space in the paintings became wonderfully complicated. It was after making this work that I settled back down to the still life. The still life became a form of closure for the works. Skulls began to appear in the paintings, signaling an end to the whole period. I’m in the process of rebuilding now, and the new paintings have more symbols intertwined within them: floating eyes and skulls. In these new paintings, RP is also now a symbol for memory. The latest paintings are constructions about memory, love, life, and death.

BR: When you’re working that way, plotting out the space of the painting by starting at point A for creating the RP, how do you factor in lighting and such?

SG: When I work I have a tumult of ideas for the painting. As the initial drawing progresses, the ideas become clearer and more focused. Issues like lighting and color begin to take shape partway into the work. The color choices are often the last to be made. I like that part of the painting process when the decisions become binary; a simple yes or no to the problem is all that is needed to continue the work.

BR: Are these paintings going to be the last of the RP series, then? Where do you see your painting going next?

SG: I don't know if these are the last of the RP works. There have been a lot of new elements filtering into the paintings, causing me to think the end of the RP series was soon. I can never tell where I will be next. I have been playing with abstraction, and that’s the reason I pronounced the end of the RP project a year ago, but it just will not die.

BR: So, rumors of RP's demise are greatly exaggerated! In some ways you are going full-circle, taking it from the abstractions of the explosions, through the various degrees of representation, and then back again 

SG: Ha! I don't know if they’re exaggerated. It's just a long metamorphosis. I like to think of change as having a corkscrew shape; you go around the circle, but you end up in a different place. Hopefully a notch above. - Bradley Rubenstein

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

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