Sue Scott Gallery

A Conversation At Rolling Pines

Kristopher Benedict, Tom McGrath

TM: I want to talk about the work you were making in the mid-to-late 90's, while studying at Cooper Union and adjusting to New York. Biography aside, life here in your late teens can feel like loitering, a good skill to acquire. The city's "retheming" was about tourism and lifestyle, not the "coveted youth." You had to appropriate spaces intended for others. Is it fair to mention this as a way into your work?

KB: You're right—we were loiterers. Maybe it's a New York thing, this feeling I want in my paintings of being an outsider or spectator. I thought it was French—the flânuer? It began as an 18 year old wandering the city and matured into a 30-year-old artist marveling at the proliferation of a kind of scrubbed down, urbane lifestyle.

TM: Your work often features spaces dedicated to public leisure and middle class outings: 19th c. picturesques culled from Frederick Olmsted's parks, science museums, gardens, monuments, modern "minimal-liminal" spaces that skaters love, like Astor Cube. I know Robert Smithson's writings were important to you then, coinciding with a skepticism regarding information culture and representation. This took a humorous turn in your series conflating anti-painting histrionics and pre-history imagery—as if you could escape from an "anachronistic present."

KB: The municiple spaces and public leisure spots you reference in my paintings are from a later body of work beginning in 2001. At that point it was Smithson's conception of the picturesque that was interesting to me. Also, the way he wrote about the "dialectical landscape" provided a productive analogy to the way I wanted to use painting. The work I made at Cooper—the dinosaur paintings—was indebted to Smithson in different ways than my park paintings. He seemed to have this psychedelic connection to geological time that mirrored some of my experiences. These paintings were humorous, narrative, illustrative and, maybe, ironic—there wasn't an obvious aesthetic connection to Smithson—but maybe there was an attitude in common. "Partially Buried Woodshed" as seen though the eyes of a schizophrenic landscape painter or something.

TM: So after the "deep-time travel, your eye wandered back to the everyday. Like the flânuer analogy. Perambulatory voyeur, from Baudelaire through Edmunde White—but for Benjamin the flânuer is the consumate insider / outsider: "as much out of place in an atmosphere of complete leisure as in the feverish turmoil of the city." Does this condition describe your attitude or approach?

KB: I don't think it's off base to think of my work as an outside take on, or critique of, easel painting but I'm engaged with the practice to the point of being nearly indistinguishable from a true believer. Representation and belief—how about that? When you talk about always being out of place or being in-between, this is the condition of painting. Not just the image / object, but the result of an artist's private conversation with this domestic object and also a very public and ideological declaration. In the course of my work, the character of the flânuer—the expression of melancholy—has an important place, but so does ecstatic visionary landscape painting and the kind of mind / body meltdown you find in my paintings of Yoga classrooms. The first began as a riff on the role of the artist, the second as a play on painting as an image and an object. 

TM: You mention your paintings of Yoga classrooms. I took the Yoga series as a depiction of belief, a representation of the way "other" religious practices are adopted as lifestyle. Yoga is one example, New Age another. Everything about these paintings seems to operate as a transcendental signifier: the pastel color, soft-core figuration, communal poses. This was around the time of your exhibition titled "Retreat." I remember the installation fit exactly into the moldings of an upstairs gallery. But the color decompressed the space—not just in arrangements of individual hues, but orchestrated between entire palettes. You used painting language in and out of sync with imagery—wild gestures hatching the vectors of Yoga mats into perspective.

KB: That show was in 2008 at A.M. Richard in Williamsburg. The gallery was a normal Brooklyn apartment painted white, moldings and everything in place, with three separate rooms. I made a large painting for each room that fit exactly into the dimensions of each wall. The idea was to dramatize these two sides of painting that we have been talking about—the personal and domestic aspect verses the public. The subjects of the paintings referenced a kind of contemporary urban lifestyle—community Yoga classrooms, a super-mall, Jennifer Garner and her kid. The monumental scale of the paintings was meant to have an aggressive relationship to the domestic space. In the end, the relationship wasn't aggressive at all. The space of the painting became inhabitable. These oppositional tendencies always tend to meld.

TM: I thought of your work at a German Impressionism show in Houston. Max Lieberman visited Claude Monet's Giverny, grew a beard, tried it at home, near Berlin. But he overlooked that Monet's garden was landscaped to fit his pictures. Lieberman's was actually a formal garden. Hilariously, this produced an Impressionism of stiff Impasto orthagonals. I recalled as early "serialized" piece of yours—the bearded composed Verdi sitting in a garden. The same image is painted on four canvases in deft brushwork. Until you notice that one is painted on a slightly larger canvas than the others, as if to suggest an anomaly—the hand interrupts the contemplative mind—I laugh every time I think about that piece...

KB: Yeah "The Composer in His Garden" was from 2002. It was a thought experiment. I wanted to see what would happen when "painterly" concerns like a descriptive touch, atmosphere, surface—the artist's hand—were subjected to the rigors of repetition. Except that nothing about the piece is rigorous. The canvas sizes are inconsistent, the figure and the landscape all vary a bit from rectangle to rectangle. It was kind of funny—I thought it wound up feeling animated, like there was some wind in the trees. But my aim is to create situations where the viewer is asked to engage with the author—to find ways to follow the thought process through the work. In that way I think my paintings are slow reads. Failure might occur in expecting that the viewer is always there with me. Many of the subjects I choose—the hermit for example, the musician, the ruin—can be seen as stand-ins for the difficulty of that connection.

TM: But often the painterly transformation veils your method of image-selection. This has the effect of severing images from their contemporary origin, re-casting them in relation to their "genre" counterparts from early modernity. What ensures isn't pastiche, but it raises conflicting accounts of ownership—Who is this park for? This yellow impasto isn't for me...a sort of "comedy of manners" between the hand and imagery. I wonder how this has developed in recent shows where you feature "the double" as narrative motif or romantic comedy stills—and progressed in your most recent show "Remake," which more directly raises issues of ownership?

KB: "Remake" began with the idea that in this cultural climate a subjective vision needs to be given a recognizable vehicle or franchise to be fit to be seen. But from there it really developed into a meditation on the idea of transformation. I thought I was able to find an optimistic or forward-looking tone even though there is this sense of a lapse into the past or reckoning with it. Each new body of work seems to ask for a different formal language that's found through experimentation. The process of choosing images is no different—a weird mix of research and instinct. In the end, the quotidian subjects—as they are made visible (or not) through the painting process—have to add up to something else for me. I wouldn't do it unless they had the beginnings of something meaningful. 

TM: Remakes are tricky—they're sites carved out of either shared memory or collective amnesia—I'm thinking of two shot-for-shot films respectively: Gus Van Sant's "Pyscho" and Elisabeth Subrin's "Shulie." Like bad "cover" bands, it's only in failing that remakes force certain issues—authorship, originality, audience, performativity. When a remake succeeds, franchise or not, there's been a reprieve of ownership, and something has convened in its place.

KB: In Borge's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," the remake—the fictional Menard's word-for-word rewriting of Cervantes's book—was judged to be superior to the original. I don't know. I think there is something comforting about the fact that most Hollywood remakes are truly and transparently awful. I don't think of paintings in the show as "covers." "Remake" refers just as much to the massive overhauls and changes in direction that are part of how I make a picture.

TM: Perhaps visibility is the real issue—making everyday subjects visible by disentangling their supposed specificity. We make a distinction between the visual and the visible; as painters maybe we turn one into the other, but maybe we reverse the process. "Remake" contains some work that defies recognition; it can't even properly be called abstract, let alone be a remake. Almost nothing about them is visible, but they are visual. As a colorist, you've managed to calibrate your work's most tangible property into a nonentity. But the color is very compelling—perhaps it's more of a seductive nonentity. I should be careful—paintings rarely telegraph their punches, neither do painters.

KB: Well, the painting is there to be experienced, and keeping elements unnamed and hard to pin down is part of how I hope to keep the viewer engaged. And you are right—this is exactly how I use color. I don't mind recognition of sources, or appreciation for how the painting's constructed—as long as they provide entry and aren't seen as an end. All of these elements are there to be seen through and to reflect back at us. Does that make sense? A long time ago, you and I laughed at a quote by Clemente that read, "I am more interested in what I don't know." It sounded really obvious at the time, but it relates. There is something you find in painting that encourages the creation of some kind of structure just to make a show of tearing it down.





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