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DEEP SKIN & STROKEWORLD PAINTINGS
Excerpts from a Studio Conversation with Artist Luke Gray, Author Daniel Pinchbeck, and Gary Snyder of Gary Snyder Project Space in NYC
Daniel Pinchbeck is the editorial director of reality Sandwich (www.reality sandwich.com) and the author of Breaking open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: the return of Quetzalcoatl.
L.G. (speaking of a personal library of books on psychedelia, shamanism, and paradigm shifts...) I did all this reading, back in the 80’s and early 90’s, when I was in my twenties and early thirties. You try to situate yourself in your culture, and you try to figure out where you’re located, where your spirit is located, where your thoughts are located, and it’s a long process, and eventually your work fuses with your thoughts, in the sense that you don’t really need to think anymore, beyond a certain point. And I think that’s the whole intent, of the project, to get to that point where your work fuses with your thoughts. Sometimes I feel dumb, because I don’t read that much anymore toward my work, but i don’t feel like I have to, until I have a new crisis, and my work has to be re- defined. It’s really just a question of getting to that point where the work comes from, in all the tumultuousness of my daily life. I’ve always believed in speed of execution as a way of short circuiting a certain analytical process. I think it started with seeing Keith haring in the subway in the early 80’s, just do his thing in 15, 20 seconds, and just walk away. And that was the work. There was something about the immediacy of that and the power of not looking analytically at what you’ve done, and trying to figure out how to make it better. I was really just trying to cultivate a process inside myself where all these things would work themselves out internally before the work was done.
G.S. Daniel, Luke’s process of painting is an extremely spontaneous one, very much about being in the moment, and I always, somewhat naively I see now, thought it was about being in the moment, almost like a jazz musician, but I’ve come to see that a little differently now. i used to see it as a world that was out there, like a weather system, or a quantum field, but I now see it as a world that he’s created, that is very diverse and very complex and very meaningful, a world that i don‘t quite know yet. What I do know is that part of the power of the work is in its rapidity, and in its attempt to almost vibrate on the same level as other things.
D.P. How quickly do you do these?
L.G. These paintings are done in...about 20 minutes...
D.P. Wow! (laughter)
L.G. When they’re done they’re done. I just step away and never touch them again. I think basically the thing is resolved inside before it’s put out there, and obviously I can’t work that way all the time,I have months when I’m able to access that and I have months, or even years, when I’m not able to access it. For me paintings happen in little moments. I’m not about to punch the clock in my own studio...
G.S. Luke paints in series...and my observation is that there’s always been this build-up of energy, which releases itself in a series of paintings, then Luke may not paint for a long time. He doesn’t paint again until something builds up again and it releases, and he’s very very tough on himself about that. He’s not one of those guys who comes into the studio every day and has to paint. It’s much more of an intuitive, mysterious process, and sometimes a deeply disturbing process...you’ve gone through long periods where you haven’t been able to paint.
L.G. Basically Daniel, what I’m trying to do in these paintings is create extremely associative spaces that every viewer will bring their own history to, they’re own vision to, it’s all about a world in flux, a world that is mutating and isn’t static in any way. There are a lot of things that are just on the cusp of being, but they’re not solidified. Each painting is almost like a frame in a never ending film, which is all about transformation and change, which is what I feel our world is about. So it’s about trying to capture that...that fleeting moment and make it solid for a second, and then to make it an object of contemplation. Another one of the foundational thoughts is the idea of the brushstroke as a kind of pixel, or building block, of all painting. and then, trying to re-imagine a world where that brushstroke is set free to do what it wishes to do. not in the service of describing something, necessarily, but just being unleashed to become almost like an actor on its own stage...flying through the space, stopping, building structures, dismantling structures, this whole notion was very important to me. I wanted this world I was imagining to be a very illusionist one also, not the two-dimensional space of Greenberg’s New York school. I still believe that illusionism is the holy grail of painting, and always will be.
D.P. Luke, we’re both sons of painters. What kind of a dialogue did you have with your dad about painting?
L.G. We actually didn’t talk so much about painting in general, although we were very supportive of each other. I think an artist of our generation has to me more self-aware. An artist of my dad’s generation was able to just dissolve themselves into their work, but we have to straddle both sides of the line between the conscious and the unconscious because we’re post-modern. It’s a completely different relationship to painting. What was required of my generation 3 4 was to be both inside and outside of the painting at the same time.
D.P. A job I had in my late twenties was writing for art magazines, for example, the art newspaper of London, and then I got into, you know, psychedelic shamanism, I went to the Burning Man festival, and I got less interested in the traditional containers of the art world, and everything that’s involved and associated with them, and what I loved about Burning Man is that the art that’s made there is kind of anonymous, you can look it up, but it’s mostly sculptural, and it’s mostly made to solicit the maximum amount of enjoyment and community interaction...
L.G. ...and be a spark for ritual...
D.P. Exactly, exactly, the construct of the art world is so much more involved with making this object that’s going to have an archival life...one of the most liberating things about Burning Man is that a lot of the stuff gets burned at the end of the festival... it’s like a release of one’s attachments...to this idea that it’s going to be something permanent...
L.G. Like a Tibetan sand painting...
D.P. Exactly, it’s like a ceremony that our culture has constituted, like a Lakota sun dance...
L.G. The fact that you mention anonymity is very important to me because I think really from the very beginning my greatest influences were always tribal, whether it was Mayan, Egyptian, or Australian Aboriginal painting, which first came to new York in the early 80’s at the Asia society, I remember that really opened my eyes, and I was always trying to develop a language that had the anonymity that tribal art has. It’s not the anonymity of a technological society, which is a very cold and isolative one, it’s the opposite of that...it’s the anonymity of an artist in a group of people where individuality is not celebrated to a certain extent, and painting is a vehicle for ritual, so there are certain types of marks and certain ways of producing work that can be individually interpreted by each artist, but it’s pretty much all subsumed in a common vision, and one that‘s very familiar to the tribe. in my work, by reducing the painting stroke to this kind of unit, this DNA-like building block, it becomes a neutral, anonymous structure, it’s not my brushstroke, not my signature, it’s the brushstroke.
D.P. My question is this: could the creative impulse that goes into making beautiful works such as these, be shaped into a tool that helps bring about a different kind of engagement? How can that be harnessed at a time of species-level crisis to bring about a transformation in practice and habits?
G.S. One could argue that being moved by a work of art, the feeling of humanity, the touching of something real, is working in it’s own way toward that goal.
L.G. Daniel, in some of the discussions on your website and in your writing you’re talking about alchemy, and the transformation of matter. This is important, and I’d like to talk about it. When I’m doing paintings, I want the work to be about paint, and the essential language of painting - the brush- stroke. When I’m doing drawings, I want it to be about the essential language of drawing, which is the line. And there’s always been this attempt to make the narrative in my work about genesis, which is transformation of matter, so in the paintings you have these kind of building blocks, or brush- strokes, which are in the process of building something. The drawings are all about the line, which is in the process of creating something. It’s animist, you know, which again betrays my deep relation to the tribal, to tribal art. Speaking of animism, Jose Arguelles, in his book the transformative Vision, showed a very intuitive understanding of painting. He spoke about the watercolors of turner (JMW) in the same terms I’ve always thought of them. Especially at the end of turner’s life, he did paintings on paper where it appeared that the watercolors had become the very elements that he was describing in his paintings. The watercolor became the clouds, became the ocean, so there’s this very animist thing also happening there, a one-to-one correspondence between paint and phenomena. This relates to what I’m talking about because it‘s connected to a post-modern way of thinking and working. While you’re creating, while you’re in the moment of creation, you have to have this kind of hyper level of awareness of the significance of the tools that you’re using. This is what focused my efforts on trying to question, at the beginning, what the building blocks of the language were, be it painting or drawing, and using that as a kind of animistic tool that took on it’s own life, almost as if it were happening by itself, building itself, as opposed to being controlled by an external force. There is also an aspect to post-modernism where it is breaking through the illusion of the utopian dream of modernism, accepting its failure. Never again dissolving oneself in a kind of absolute vision which would not allow any type of self-criticism. Clearly I felt that I couldn’t just paint. You couldn’t just paint and lose yourself in the painting the way Pollock or deKooning did. You had first to go through a certain amount of deconstruction of the tradition that you were involved in, and take responsibility for your choice, and somehow work another level of awareness into it all. This often took a purely intellectual turn at that time, but the deconstruction taking place was absolutely necessary. Drawing had been deconstructed to the line, painting had been deconstructed to the brush- stroke, and I thought, let’s now take those elements and build a whole new world out of them. And I think that’s very much what happens Daniel, when you have a shamanic experience of the type you‘ve written about, you do go through a kind of deconstructive experience, where the reality that existed for you before is no longer, and it‘s then up to you to piece it back together again. I really felt, by the late eighties, that analysis and deconstruction had just sapped the art of any life force whatsoever. I felt the only way I could take up the brush with meaning would be to take the work that had been done and use it to build a new world. That’s what postmodernism meant to me. It was a period of severe analytical thinking where things were stripped of their meaning and historical context.
D.P. What comes next?
L.G. Well that’s exactly it. For a lot of people it was the end of something. For my dad’s generation it was the death of some- thing, like an ice pick in the heart. For my generation it was an opportunity to remake art.