Helmut Federle posits that there has never been a significant period in world history where art and society exist on the same level, that the solitary alienation of the artist within society is unavoidable. Federle suggests contemporary American art embodies a prescience of striving for base values; reasons to exist, and that the the toxic pall cast by our current financial debacle weighs in heavily as far as American art being produced today. By comparison, the European arena embraces the existence of art as art itself, without questioning the being or lack thereof of underlying creative desires and energies.
From this rather isolated pile of rocks in the Atlantic, I admit it is difficult to weigh in with much substance. One thing is for certain: as a contemporary artist working within a global field, it is extraordinary to be able to share and connect ideas and language with one another. I may lead a hermetic life, but my society, as I choose to define it, is vital.
Recently I've been introduced to two artists working within the same reductive aesthetic as myself, Connie Goldman from California, in the United States, and Cecilia Vissers from
Sint-Oedenrode, The Netherlands. We each embrace the importance of space, rhythm and structure within our work. As Cecilia has said to me,
"...It is very important to find interesting spaces for reductive art, all over the world, as it is a very specific form of art. We go back to basics, sometimes it feels like living on a very small island. We need to cross borders and swim oceans, be strong and not get lost in 'artland'....".
Cecilia Vissers Needles and Pins
The work is driven by power, rhythm, repetition and pattern. Logic is regularly challenged in apparently inflexible materials and irrefutable forms. Her plate steel sculptures are executed in 8/15 mm steel, and weigh up to 200 kg, with one or perhaps several minimal saw cuts, only enough to produce a clear and concentrated form.
" I strive to find a clarity and concentration of form, line and color through minimal intervention enacted in a plate of steel."
The steel plates are immersed in four separate baths, a process of electrolysis referred to as anodization. The resulting patinas are bonded permanently to the surfaces, eliciting rich
Cecilia Vissers Studio, 2009
tones of hue to the steel plates. For Vissers, the steel plates, which are made in Germany, function as large sponges saturated with strength, power, life, death and history.
"... I am looking for simplicity in a raging world, a world that I am very happy to discover but also need to avoid every now and then."
Cecilia Vissers work can be seen at Elements Gallery in Waarle, The Netherlands. Her upcoming Paris exhibition, En Forme, with the artist Eric Cruikshank opens in 2010 at ParisCONCRET .
Connie Goldman creates wall sculptures of layered, shaped and painted wood. Her reductive constructions focus on the spaces created between layers of flat, modular planes. Her work begins as very loose sketches which are eventually translated into shaped wooden panels. The panels are meticulously painted and put together in layers. There is a harmony; balance within this meditative, beautiful work.
Connie Goldman Captive I Oil on Wood Panel, 53x43 inches 2006
In her own words:
"Using a minimalist vocabulary and a reductive aesthetic that emphasizes the importance of space, rhythm, structure, and relations, I make works of art that are concrete and essential approximations of my own emotional and intellectual experiences. The work reflects my interests in architecture, music, science, sculpture, and painting as well as the threads of commonality that run between them.
Connie Goldman Eddy
"The tendency or desire to gravitate toward unity and stability is in opposition to the urge toward independence, transition, and growth. My work evokes this same tension, the dynamic that underlies my own existence. I see each piece as being analogous to the rhythmic and contradictory forces of stasis and flux that propel my world toward both constancy and change".
Connie Goldman Current VIII
Goldman's lyrical compositions yield a variety of quiet shadows which broaden the spaces in between the flat but open modular constructions. The various planes become an interplay of light, space and form, giving each configuration a sophisticated elegance.
Carole Sue designs and nurtures PocoCasa’s beautiful gardens and plantings of fruit trees, sage, chamiso, juniper, aspen and pine. Flagstone walkways connect the buildings and wind around terraces and a ramada. Acacias border a seasonal pond where birds nest.
Johnnie Winona Ross
Johnnie Winona Ross is very interested in the nature of painting, and in process. His vocabulary is rich in paradoxical components that imbue his quiet, pristine surfaces with a tension of both chance and structure. I am very moved by this. They are strong, yet personal; formalistic, yet profoundly spiritual.
"....I look for the feeling that being in the landscape gives me, a feeling at the small of my back when I see something beautiful and consider it sacred. That's what I go for in my work, and I try to achieve that by keeping things minimal, almost meditative."
This process of painting, scraping and repainting establishes a subliminal dynamic between counteractive elements - presence/absence, structure/freedom, resistance/release, richness/ austerity-that ultimately allows an elegant integration of romantic irony to permeate his surfaces. The viewer is quietly entranced by his purity of form, light and the suggestion of what lies beneath. This is the artist's process, his hand.
"....Repeating the mark, or the drip, scraping, burnishing, builds a physical history within the painting …… when you see worn stone steps, whether at an Anasazi site, or the Met, it is interesting to consider the scores of people that have used or are using the steps in roughly the same way; or seeing the keys on an old piano, worn with use. You realize that you are just part of the stream of history, a large or small part, but you are only moving through.”
Ross is a consummate painter. His depth of experience is clear, from start to finish of each piece, as all aspects of his creative process bear the same touch. From his preferences for particular substrate materials, to the final, meticulous polishing of surface with a traditional burnishing stone of native Pueblo potters, Ross approaches all with the same integrity and sensitivity.
"... There is a beauty in that a craft, a care, are conscience decisions being made that maybe help one to be aware of the possibility…. that the overall effect of the painting somehow transcends the everyday physical world... (This) is a philosophical choice...."
"It was spiritual to experience a rock art panel that was 2000-5000 years old, that is more affecting then any piece of art that I’ve ever seen. In 1994, I spent another year on grant at Roswell, my work really solidified, it wasn't like it really changed, it just became more powerful, it began to have that feeling of 'experiencing the rock art panel', or 'experiencing the desert', it became still, real, and a unique experience. My studio has 12' glass doors that face a 13,000' mountain, to one side of that is Taos Mountain, the sacred mountain. It is an unobstructed view. That view feeds me, every time that I look up.”
Carole Sue Ross
Carole Sue Ross Tilting Series 2008, Stoneware, Pit-Fired
Inspired by the exceptional quality of light and the open horizon of the land, Carole Sue Ross creates delicate smoke-fired ceramic vessels that rely on gravity, balance and weight. She molds the shallow clay pots by hand and fires them with eucalyptus wood or sage to color the surfaces. Her finished pieces are cohesive, visual groupings of these beautiful vessels, each taking into consideration the color, size, and direction of their respective tilting.
I am very attracted to the fluent color transition from within the vessels that radiates throughout the space that surrounds them. Color, for this reason, as well as the sensitive form, seems central in the luminous quality and consistency of these small, responsive pieces.
Carole Sue Ross Untitled Series 2008, Stoneware, Pit-fired
"With the initial forming, many layers of terra sigillata are applied. This mixture both seals and leaves the work with a satin smoothness and iridescent finish. The system of working is reminiscent of the process used by early Pueblo people going back to the eighth century. After bisquing, pieces are fired numerous times in a pit. Depending on the combustibles used - eucalyptus, sage, seeds - the resulting smoked areas ad patterns are both spontaneous and controlled."
Carole Sue Ross Tilting Series #5, 2008, Stoneware, Pit-fired
Carole Sue Ross’s work can be seen at Cervini Haas Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ. You may run into her work at Cafe Loka in Taos, New Mexico.
Reuniting their hearts and being, Johnnie Winona Ross and Carole Sue Ross achieve work imbued with glowing meditative presence, revealing the austerity and subtlety of the desert landscape reduced to its experience, of mystical aura and natural formal beauty.
Thank you Johnnie Winona,
Thank you Carole Sue
These two artists, with very different relationships to process and technique, embrace a common manifestation of life through line and place; a profound grounding of humanity, time, memory and personal histories.
Fiona Robinson is an artist living and working in Weymouth - Dorset, England, a seaport village 140 miles southeast of London, and 140 miles northwest of Cornwall. Several years ago, we connected through the Drawing Research Network, an organization based in the UK, comprised of individuals and institutions who are in some way involved in the research of drawing. We began a professional dialogue across these many miles which has resulted in a deep, professional respect, and developed into a wonderful friendship.
"The Circular Walk series refers to a walk accompanying a fellow artist on a route of her choice across the moor land of West Penwith between the parishes of Morvah and Madron. We started near Bosullow, walked up and over Watch Croft, joined the footpath to Nine Maidens Stone Circle, more accurately, the Boskednan Stone Circle and back to the beginning. Walking around stone circles within a circular walk became a series of circles within circles. Between the beginning and the end there is only uncertainty, explores the idea that nothing repeated can ever be the same. Any journey, however great, however small, has two certainties, a beginning and an end; it is what happens in between that has potential."
Fiona's abstract drawing sequences are conceptual journeyings through chosen and intimately felt landscape. They become collective records of experience pertaining to time and space, physical meanderings and memory. Her soft tonal surfaces, on paper and canvas, are saturated with layer upon layer of spontaneous line traversing the flat 2-dimensional plane in fits and stops of transition -sometimes smooth yet often broken, only to resume its liminal pace again, renewed, perhaps, by possibilities of destination and of return.
In 2007, Fiona won the University of Bath Painting Prize, UK, and was a Prizewinner at the 4th International Drawing Biennale, Melbourne, Australia. She is also a recipient of the Proof Magazine Brabcombe Award, UK and the Indigo Arts Prize, Liverpool, UK. She has been an invited artist at the International Drawing Biennale in Kosovo 2008, and was selected for the the Vth International Drawing Biennale, Pilsen 2006, Czech Republic. Recent shows include Lineweight at TSU Art Gallery, Missouri USA; Drawing Room II, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol UK; Transition at Rougemont Castle Exeter, UK and the Oxo Tower, London, UK. She has been awarded residencies at Brisons Veor, Cape Cornwall, UK; The Cill Rialaig Project, Co. Kerry, Ireland; and is a 2010 Recipient of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation Fellowship Award, Co. Mayo, Ireland.
"Opposite Ends of a Possible Path became about possibilities. A record of the memory of a walk over the hills above Upwey near Weymouth, it had been done many times but the painting specifically acknowledges that each time it is different. The lines are infinite variations of the route taken, preserved in a film of paint. It is about how memory fades as time elapses. In the painting the physicality of the line pales becoming a distant echo of earlier layers. Because of the organisation of space within the painting the route appears to change as the viewers move from one position to another. The work embraces the idea of mutability and variation. In it’s combining of paint and charcoal it deliberately overlaps the techniques of painting and drawing."
In her own words:
"My work is about journeys and memory; journeys through spaces, through time and through memory. They are rooted in place but often exist only in memory. My father was born in Cork in Ireland in 1913 and one of his earliest memories, probably before 1920, was being taken to Kerry on the back of a cart to a family wake. The journey took three days, some of it on unmade roads, through a landscape that was wild and inhospitable. In 2008 I travelled to Kerry, to take up a residency as part of the Cill Rialaig Project in the Ballinskelligs. The roads are better now but it is still a wild landscape. The restored buildings of Cill Rialaig were once home to the family of Séan Ó’Connail, an illiterate Irish-speaking storyteller who was part of the oral tradition. He never left this peninsular but in retelling the stories brought to him by other travellers he journeyed, in his imagination, further than many people do in reality.
A Love Affair with the Irish Landscape follows a remembered journey from the ruins of an ancient abbey, sitting perilously close to the encroaching sea, on Ballinkelligs beach, along winding lanes, past Cill Rialaig up to the top of Bolus Head. From this vantage point you can see the Skelligs, two outcrops of rock eight miles out to sea, on one of which is the remains of a sixth century monastery. The monks who lived there then were living on the edge of the known world, looking out over the Atlantic they were staring into the abyss. Each retelling of a story, each repeated journey, each new layer of drawing is different. This work is part of a continuum connecting me to the memories of all those other journeys through these spaces."
"Curated jointly by Exeter Artspace and Rita Parente of submit2gravity London, this project is in response to the prison cells underneath Rougemont Castle in Exeter. My drawings were installed in the holding cells under the castle which measure 6′ x 3′ and are a response to the space, or lack of it, to the marking of time, the lack of natural light and the echoing sound."
"The works on paper, with the marks rubbed back and laid bare, have a quietness about them, imparted by the apparent fragility of the pencil line, but the line also has a tensile strength that is insistent. The images stay in the mind. The generosity of scale of the canvases allows the lines to flow within the layers of paint imbuing them with a lyricism that suggests reverie. The process involves adjusting the memory, adjusting the line, allowing the formal requirements of the piece to take over from the initial free mark making, and then redrawing the route. Finally some parts of the image achieve a greater significance whilst preserving the faintest marks so that they stay in the mind like an unrecalled memory. Each piece of work records the progress of the drawing as well as tracing the route of the original walk. They are a sequence of remembering and forgetting."
I've been so fortunate to know Mary Judge, and her seductively intimate drawings and sculpture. We met in New York in 2008 at the opening of my first large painting exhibit at the OK Harris Gallery in Manhattan. Mary creates abstract drawings on paper, canvas, stone and poured concrete forms.
"This former school in Perugia Italy provided a completely neutral environment and I proposed a stark, open presentation of works. Here one can see two spolvero drawings made directly on the wall, and a concrete floor piece."
She uses a traditional Italian copying techinique of spolvero, or dusting, to build line and hue with dry pigment, imparting an earthy and primitive essence to her conceptual surfaces and shapes.
She has worked also with Wildwood Press, creating amazing relief and photo litho prints on handmade paper. I am continually moved by the depth and sensitivity of this work - her mark, her materials, her process.
Mary is an Associate Professor of Art at Parson's School of Visual Arts. She is represented by Gallery Joe in Philadelphia, Metaphor Contemporary Art in Brooklyn and Dieu Donne Papermill in New York. She is the recipient of a Dieu Donne Papermill Workspace Grant; NEA Mid Atlantic Foundation for the Arts Grant Works on Paper; Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant; and New Jersey Council on the Arts Individual Artist's Grant. She has also been awarded residencies at Concrete Laboratory Samsoe, Denmark; Valparaiso Foundation for the Art, Mojacar, Spain; Fondazione Marguerita Arp and Tel Aviv Artists Studios. Her work is included in collections here and abroad including The Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The British Museum, London, England; and the Neburger Bauman Collection.
In her own words:
"The drawn image is a beginning - a first attempt that can be tentative and impulsive. The fragility of paper, the medium's usual support, and the visible tracks of the artist's hand combine to create a privileged space occupied by no other medium. More immediate and less controlled than in painting or sculpture, the artist's marks are fully exposed in drawing.
"Works displayed includes spolvero drawings on panel, canvas and Carrara marble chosen by the artist on site at a local quarry. The largest piece was trucked down and placed outside the gallery. I worked over the surfaces of the various pieces using a black powdered pigment with various stencils. The second part of the show took place at the Spa, Villa Undulna, where we placed several pieces outdoors and also hung a group of small drawings."
Shifts in scale and new techniques also changed the environment for presentation and in turn helped elevate the status of the medium within the institutions of the art world.
Running into Steven Alexander -- his eloquent work and words, and sensitive, generous nature -- has been very special. Steven makes abstract paintings characterized by luminous color, sensuous surfaces and simple geometric configurations. He is an Associate Professor of Art at Marywood University, and has been Artist in Residence at Studio Art Centers International in Florence, Italy and Visiting Artist/Professor of Art at Parsons School of Design in New York, Marywood University/France, Anjou & Paris, and Austin Community College, Austin, Texas. Steven Alexander is represented by Gremillion & Co. Fine Art, Houston, Denise Bibro Platform, New York City and Ruth Morpeth Gallery, Hopewell, NJ.
In his own words:
"Sometimes the studio can be a fairly raucous place. Sure, there is plenty of time spent sitting, staring at stuff in progress, waiting for the motivation, energy or clarity required to make the next move.
"But when things are in motion, it becomes a place where much happens at once, and where actions are often accompanied by a din of sound - thick, layered and pulsating, moving in and out of focus - symbiotic with the labor, the color and viscosity of the painting process. Recently addressed works in progress lay drying under large fans -- the more stuff to dry, the louder the dense hum of the fans. The louder the fans, the louder the music - overtones of both combining and colliding to form disembodied drones. Often during a cycle of work, one piece of music will be played over and over for the entire duration - the repetition seeming to deepen the focus - the music sustaining a specific poetic relationship with the decisions being made.
Steven Alexander Meteor Beach, 2008, 96 x 96 inches, acrylic on 4 canvases (Hines Collection, NYC )
"My work is an exploration of relations that reside in the constant flux of pure sensory events. I am interested in the interaction between the painting and the viewer's imagination and experience; in the painting's catalytic potency - it's potential to generate unspecified mobile meaning. Color operates in this work and in the world as a kind of pure energy, dynamic, capricious, evocative. The surfaces emphasize the sensual rather than analytical nature of the painting process, and attest to the pervasive presence of time. Within the structures of the work, archetypal relations of male/female, earth/sky, internal/external are inevitably implied; not as opposing forces, but as interdependent aspects of an animate whole. In this sense, the paintings might be regarded as open-ended cosmologies, or as chunks of raw reality, unencumbered.
I am trying to build, out of color and substance, a place for the viewer's consciousness - where unexpected associations and resonances may occur, where past and future merge with the present moment, and the stuff of life, love and desire has corporeal presence - states of being, embodied in paint. " Steven Alexander 2009
"Poseidon was painted under a tin roof on a hilltop with rain, lightning and thunder crashing down. I don't know if you've ever been under a tin roof with rain- but it's right there with it.
"Natural surrounding is important. I have a love/like relationship with NM. I like the desert, and sometimes really crave it, but generally head for the mountains. Skiing is incredible in Taos. You can also hike up from the last chair to mountain peaks -- a snowy mountain with Tibetan prayer flags is actually up in Taos. In the summer a good hike will be enough to look out to the distance, and that's where the desert, along side mountains is really lovely.
"Of course, the paintings are not landscapes - strictly places.
Willy Bo Richardson Confluence, Oil on Canvas, 53 x 114 inches, 2001
"The idea of painting is an adaptation. It’s something that our culture can relate to. It has a certain format. Within a frame, within a context. It’s a way of taking an abstract moment, a color, an experience and putting it into a culturally digestible format. 40,000 years ago, humans were painting on the walls of caves. The painting as we know it today is a recent invention, but it's purpose stems back to humans' earliest civilizations.
"When I was a child I remember being mesmerized by the blur of colors from the vantage point of a speeding car. Along with the blur and the speed was always a feeling of freedom. In this same way, whenever taking a flight, not only would I leave the earth physically, but on an emotional level gain distance on life. My paintings give me the same experience. My painting brings perspective. In some ways it’s like creating a window. One can put this window anywhere. No need to move somewhere to get this view. But the window is not necessarily looking out on a beach scene, or a forest scene, or a mountain scene. It’s actually looking out on a “distance scene”, a scene where one has space from their personal life. " Willy Bo Richardson, 2009
Thank you, Steven,Thank you, Willy Bo
by Phong Bui
A week after the opening of his exhibit of a new group of paintings, which will be on view at McKenzie Fine Art Inc, located at 511 West 25th Street, till June 6, 2009, the painter Don Voisine visited the (Brooklyn)Rail’s Headquarters to talk with Assistant Art Editor Ben La Rocco, and contributing writer Craig Olson about his life and work.
Ben La Rocco: Lets talk about your early life in Maine.
Don Voisine: I was born in Fort Kent, Maine in 1952. Fort Kent is a northern border town on the western-most edge of New Brunswick just 10 miles from the Quebec border. The majority of townspeople are of Acadian descent and speak French, the principal industry is potato farming and lumbering. My father died when I was three and my mother never remarried. She worked two jobs to support and raise three kids. From the time we were ten we also worked part time and after school.Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Ben La Rocco: Lets talk about your early life in Maine.
Don Voisine: I was born in Fort Kent, Maine in 1952. Fort Kent is a northern border town on the western-most edge of New Brunswick just 10 miles from the Quebec border. The majority of townspeople are of Acadian descent and speak French, the principal industry is potato farming and lumbering. My father died when I was three and my mother never remarried. She worked two jobs to support and raise three kids. From the time we were ten we also worked part time and after school.
La Rocco: Are there any particular influences you remember from that time?
Voisine: While a senior in high school I played drums in a garage band called Mantra, hence my lifelong interest in music.
La Rocco: Do you really think Ike Turner is the greatest electric blues guitar player of all time?
Voisine: He was a phenomenal musician. At nineteen he was an A&R man for Sam Phillips and he brought people like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf to the studio for the first time.
Craig Olson: Right.
Voisine: And he played piano on some of those tracks. Then he started playing guitar. He had a great band in the mid-50s: The Kings of Rhythm. They recorded some terrific tracks on Federal Records out of Cincinnati. He’s the one who played guitar on all of those incredible Otis Rush Cobra singles.
Olson: Yeah, they’re so great.
Voisine: But I’m just not into virtuosity in guitar playing for it’s own sake. That’s like a white boy thing. It’s frantic.
Olson: Unless you’re Albert King.
Voisine: I went to see Buddy Guy in Central Park and it got totally boring because he was playing to the crowd, just going on and on with these extended guitar solos. I’d love to see him in a small club on the South Side of Chicago. That would be more the kind of music I’m interested in.
Olson: Yea, I hear you. I used to go down to Muddy Waters’s old club on the South Side, the Checkerboard Lounge, and there was this guy, Vance “Guitar” Kelly. And he could play, he could play all those licks, but he didn’t show off. But when he would play that way, as in this song called “Candy Licker”—you know that song? “I got me a candy licker, lick my candy all night long.” And he would make frat boys from the audience come up on stage and act it out. It was the most humiliating thing in the world. It was so funny. [Laughter.]
La Rocco: Don, what was your education like?
Voisine: I attended what was then the Portland School of Art; it’s now the Maine College of Art. I received an honorary BFA from the Maine College in 2000. The Portland School of Art, or PSA, was one of the last regional art schools in the country. Half the faculty did watercolors of the Maine seashore. We had lots of figure drawing classes and made many field trips to do plein air watercolors of nature. After 2 1/2 years of this, in 1973, I transferred to an alternative art school in Portland called Concept Center for Visual Studies. Concept was a short-lived program that broke away from the PSA. It was started by William Manning who, back in the 60s, was one of the few abstract painters in Maine, and a few others who disagreed with the PSA’s teaching philosophy. The faculty at Concept seemed more attuned to what was going on in New York and encouraged us to experiment. They did not have structured classes. You saw the faculty when you wanted to or had something to show them. As students we learned as much from each other as we did from the teachers. I met Kathy Bradford there. We, along with Maury Colton, had many intense and passionate discussions about art. This was my unofficial graduate school. Concept was located above a cosmetology school on Congress Street. The smell of hair products filled the corridors and mingled with the smell of paints. This has left me with an indelibly visceral memory of the place. I think one of the best ways to learn about art is to look and see what other artists have done. Learn how to look hard, seriously, and in an engaged critical manner, then use the same standards when considering your own work.
La Rocco: Is there a metaphorical intent to your paintings? Do the dark areas represent an absence or a void?
Voisine: Well, I do think of it as an absence, but it’s also full. It has weight, you know, a presence. It can be read both ways, a void, or something weightier.
Olson: And that’s important for you, that it’s read that way.
Voisine: Yes. In my work I like to get different readings. The white ground can be read as a negative or a positive, and it can vary from painting to painting, but generally I try to have things operate on a number of levels.
Olson: Yeah. So maybe even spatially, then, those areas flip back and forth.
Voisine: To me, that’s the air that activates the space of the paintings. That’s where the paintings breathe.
La Rocco: Despite all the black in the paintings, they never seem moody or maudlin, which is in contrast to a lot of other painters who use dark colors.
Voisine: Well, I’ve done some of those paintings, but I’ve also worked really hard to eliminate any sense of mourning from my work. I think a lot of art in the twentieth century, modernist work, has that sense of mourning to it.
La Rocco: How do you see your work in relationship to the Modernist tradition? I think of a lot of modernist work as having to do with negation or an abject condition.
Olson: I think they were also trying to neutralize space, and I don’t think you’re necessarily trying to do that, Don.
Voisine: I’m not trying to make a break from the past. I think I work in dialogue with it. But I’m also trying to make something that is relevant now, a different way of thinking about abstraction. One of those things is space. Like, Greenberg’s formalism is about flatness. I’ve always been trying to bring a kind of visual space into my work. Not something illusionistic, but a real visual space.
Olson: Would you consider that analogous to the way you experience space in your life? Where does it come from?
Voisine: I’ve made my living painting apartments. Usually, when you do that the room is empty, so you get a sense of that room when there’s no furniture in it. It’s a very different experience from when a space is lived in. I worked in theater for a while as a technical director with Ping Chong, and we were trying to create a space within a theatrical environment. Each show had a very different kind of space to it. He used a lot of films and projections and shadow plays in his work and that required a very shallow space. What I’ve experienced goes into the work, what I see goes into it.
La Rocco: Do you think of space as having an emotional quality?
Voisine: I use the color in my paintings to convey that, and this absolutely affects the space. My use of color is very subjective, very intuitive. It’s what sets the tone. The colors affect the interior blacks. But I don’t try to put in specific associations. I’m open to how people respond to the work and what they’ll see in it. I’m not trying to make something look like a landscape or something literal or literary.
La Rocco: One wants one’s work to evoke something familiar in a viewer. Do you want your painting to evoke sensation in a viewer? Or memory? Or feeling? Or should it be some kind of new experience?
Voisine: It could be all of the above. I don’t want to close off possibilities. But I don’t want to be heavy-handed about it. I don’t like it when artists say “Well, this piece is about this. This one is about that.”
La Rocco: It’s a little like an empty stage.
Olson: One thing I learned from your work early on was that you were engaged with that history of formalist abstraction. It wasn’t a critique of it. It was a different take on it. And, to me, as a young artist, it was very inspiring because you kept that dialogue alive. You actually offered new insight into something that we had all been told was over. And I think the kind of abstraction you do lends itself to those open readings.
Voisine: Well, how I work doesn’t derive from theory. It’s all about the visual. It’s all about creating a convincing object. I’m always looking at art, and sometimes some paintings I do are a response to that. A Malevich painting might inspire me, or it could be a Titian. Or, maybe the Cézanne I saw last week in Philadelphia. It’s all a big pool to draw from.
La Rocco: Is your painting targeted at a space outside of language?
La Rocco: So that in some sense attempting to discuss what it’s about is contrary to its nature?
Don Voisine, “Wheel” (2008). Oil on wood. 25 × 20 inches. Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York.
Voisine: It’s not as if you can’t talk about it. I’m not a storyteller, you know, and that’s one of the reasons I was drawn to working abstractly in the first place. I can express the essence of something without a narrative to it.
La Rocco: Did you come to that realization slowly? Or was it something you knew from the start?
Voisine: I think I knew it early on. When I decided I wanted to paint, it was my second year of art school and from that point on, I just worked abstractly. The first abstract art that I saw I didn’t understand, I had no idea what it was coming from, but there was something about it that I felt I could connect with.
Olson: I think that this is an interesting question, in terms of narrative or storytelling. They are very abstract things. This split between abstraction and narrative happened somewhere. Where do you see your work fitting into that? Do you plan each painting out before hand? Or is it from a more subjective place?
Voisine: It’s been a long, ongoing thing. It’s hard for me to remember what the decisions were that steered me in this direction in the first place. The structures or the black forms in the paintings are kind of figured out when I start. They’re laid out on the board I’m painting on. I don’t have drawings that I blow up to scale. If I do any drawings to figure out a structure it’s a little thumbnail thing.
Olson: Is there intuition involved in the work?
Voisine: Oh, totally. I figure out the proportions as I’m making the paintings. I’ll take center points, or an edge, and build something off of either. I’ll pivot an edge, a straight edge off from a point and then build the angles off of that. Sometimes I’ll draw a cross, and then I’ll move the measure, adjusting the thickness of it, and then do another line, keeping the original point. That creates a very different angle than if I’d measured everything out.
Olson: Yeah, it’s a strange take on single-point perspective. Lets talk about the surfaces you get in your paintings.
La Rocco: When I look at those surfaces it seems there’s almost always a central area, with different types of matte, different actual colors and sheens within the black. Then that’s bordered by a different color in each painting—a very wide variety of colors in the borders from painting to painting. Then there’s this incredible attention to edges, which never seems fussy in your paintings. The edges are always careful but they’re never tight, like they’re in motion.
Voisine: Well, they’re at the service of something. I need to get those edges taut to create the spatial tension in the painting. I use tape and there are bleeds and soft edges but if they don’t distract from the line that I want or create a slackness in the space, it’s fine. A painting doesn’t really snap into place until I’ve straightened out those lines.
La Rocco: So you’re waiting on a certain experience of the painting based on the types of edges to know when the painting is starting to work, but there’s a certain margin of error.
Voisine: Right, because paintings have optimum viewing distances. When you go to a gallery or show and walk up to a painting, you find yourself going back and forth, taking a couple steps back or coming forward until you kind of settle at what is the right viewing distance. For me if it looks fine at that distance then if you see bleeds up close, it’s not an issue. But if I’m at that distance and it’s working against what I’m after, then I touch it up. But it’s not about perfection. Agnes Martin said that’s an impossible task. And was it the Chinese Buddhist painters who would always make sure there was a mistake in the work somewhere?
Olson: What types of paint do you use to get that specific black matte that occurs in your work and that sheen that you get on the gloss surfaces? I was wondering if you could go into some technical details of how you actually come up with those passages. They’re pretty flawless and elegant. At the McKenzie exhibition I noticed you can see reflections of one painting in another as you move around the gallery. That creates this extra dimension in the darkness of the central area of each painting.
Voisine: There’re no secrets. There’s really nothing fancy in how I make the paintings. Everything is done in a very straight forward way. No fancy gels and mixtures. No flourishes. I use oil paint pretty much straight out of the tube. I mix the colors myself and I use Liquin to get the gloss. It takes a number of thin layers to get a smooth surface. It gets shinier with each layer. For the matte areas, I just let the paint dry as it normally does. Mars black dries pretty matte. It’s all very matter of fact. But then I try to get a painting to do as much as possible within these limitations.
Olson: In some of the recent work you have the black areas replaced by red. I was wondering if you could talk about that decision.
La Rocco: What kind of red?
Olson: Red red.
La Rocco: I was picturing a dark red.
Olson: No, it’s red red.
Voisine: I always think about having other colors in the center and I’ve done a few using cadmium red on Styrofoam. But on the whole the use of black has provided the clarity to what I’m doing.
Don Voisine, “Buzz” (2009). Oil on wood. 17 × 17 inches. Courtesy McKenzie Fine Art, New York.
La Rocco: Those are your R-Value paintings. They’re all done on Styrofoam. They seemed to mark a transitional point in your work. Prior to that you were working with squares and rectangles on square surfaces like those you exhibited in the Presentational Painting exhibition at Hunter in 2006. I thought the R-Value paintings opened things up after that. And now you’re working on rectangular surfaces of varying dimensions and incorporating diagonals on a much larger scale. Weren’t the R-Value paintings titled after race car drivers?
Voisine: Yes, whatever formats I’ve used before I feel like I can use again, I can quote myself. But as far as the titles for the R-Value paintings, they were shown in a converted garage space, Abaton Garage in Jersey City. I named them after race car drivers to maintain an automotive association. Each painting also has its R-Value rating, which is based on the thickness of the Styrofoam boards I use, if its 2 inch Styrofoam it has an R-Value of 10, but if it’s 3 inch its R-Value of 15. It’s one of the few things in my paintings that is quantifiable, as a natural measure of something. Any other attributes my paintings may have are more intangible. Painting on Styrofoam boards is an ongoing and interesting side project I began in 2006 when I was invited by Mark Dagley to exhibit at Abaton Garage. It began simply as a “what would happen…?” kind of thing. As you noted Ben, the use of diagonals in the central forms was, to a large extent, developed on this surface. Shortly thereafter I began painting these more dynamic shapes on the wood panels. Each approach has generated ideas for the other. For me one of the most interesting aspects of the R-Value paintings is how people perceive them. Viewer response has been quite different from my work on wood. Although I use the same imagery on both substrates the Styrofoam paintings maintain a funkier edge, with perhaps less gravitas, and convey a quality of humor not associated with rigorous geometric forms. The contrast of such formal imagery on a basically throwaway material seems to make the paintings very approachable, even viewer-friendly.
Olson: Many of your materials are used in construction—wood panels, Styrofoam, etc. Not materials associated with formal, abstract paintings, as defined by [Clement] Greenberg or [Michael] Fried. What is your relationship to those guys? Do you read them?
Voisine: No, I don’t read them now. In the early 70s I was reading a lot of Greenberg and seeing a lot of Color Field paintings. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was showing a lot of the painters they championed, Larry Poons, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland. I was trying to work in that vein. Once I moved to New York I saw there was a lot more that was going on, and the narrow perspective I’d come to know from Portland Maine needed to be broadened. I wanted to make work that was more my own. I started bringing in things from the outside world, and my life. I’ve never really been a purist; it’s a sullied sort of formalism. I like my formalism a little bit dirty. [Laughter.]
Olson: In some of the paintings in your current exhibition, the central black bands break the edge of the picture plane, extending beyond. In others, they’re contained within the borders and that changes how the picture is read.
Voisine: A few years ago most of the paintings had the perimeter or border color going all the way around. But I use that less and less now. I came to understand this idea of laterality through looking at Barnett Newman. If the color is at the top and bottom only, or just on the two sides, it allows for a more expansive spatial reading. It’s not as contained. In a way, that could be an expression of me as a person, where I am.
La Rocco: There’s the issue of scale also. In this most recent show there is a whole other level of intensity and ambition, and also expression. These are some of the largest paintings you’ve done.
Voisine: Yes, but I’ve done larger work before. When I was working on canvas and linen.
La Rocco: How long ago was that?
Voisine: Um…last century! [Laughter.] I’ve made some seven and eight-foot paintings. I started working on wood in 2000 and it opened up another possibility for expression in the work. In my current show “Inauguration” is a five-foot square, that’s the biggest I’ve done on wood and it’s about as big as I can handle. You know, they just get really heavy. But I think paintings can be big without size. I don’t feel like I have to make 8-foot paintings. That’s a lot of black! Also, a big difference in the work on wood is that it reads a lot faster. It seems to have more of a graphic impact. And then if you slow down and actually look at the painting you’ll find that there’s a lot of detail, too. It gets your attention and hopefully slows you down to look. The ones on canvas were slower and they seemed to absorb light more. They were more reticent.
Olson: How long you been involved with the American Abstract Artists?
Voisine: I was nominated and accepted into the organization in 1997 and elected President in 2004. I’m usually not a joiner of groups but this seemed more important. It’s a link to history. The American
Abstract Artists is an artist’s group that was founded as an exhibiting organization in 1936. From its inception the AAA played a pivotal role in the evolution of non-objective art in America. The group was born in response to the lack of professional respect accorded American Modernists in the 1930s. Among the original founding members were Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb and Gertrude Greene, Harry Holtzman and Alice Trumball Mason, just to name a few. Once the group was officially chartered and mounted its first exhibition new members included Josef Albers, Giorgio Cavallon, Carl Holty, Ray Kaiser, Ibram Lassaw, George L.K. Morris, and Esphyr Slobodkina. By 1940 Ad Reinhardt was writing and designing broadsides used to promote the group’s causes. During World War II many European artists came to the United States. Moholy-Nagy, Leger and Mondrian all became members during the war years. Mondrian’s work especially exerted a significant influence on the group. With the dominance of Abstract Expressionism the organization almost died out in the 50s but a revival of interest in geometric art and the new styles of the 60s such as minimalism helped revive interest. New artists joined, Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Sol Lewitt, Dorothea Rockburne, even Robert Smithson. This helped maintain the AAA’s vital tradition. David Reed and Merrill Wagner led the group at one time in the 80s. The AAA has always included a significant number of woman artists, in contrast to the more male dominated movements that followed.
La Rocco: Now that abstraction is a more accepted part of the artistic landscape, how do you understand the AAA’s role in contemporary culture?
Voisine: Abstraction is certainly well accepted in the art world but can still be an issue for the general public. Artists still need a forum to present and discuss ideas. Most artist groups only last a few years, while the AAA is approaching its 75th anniversary. We continue to organize member exhibitions, produce member print portfolios and catalogs, distribute published materials internationally to cultural organizations, document member history in the Archives of American Art, publish a journal every few years, and host critical panels and symposiums. In 2007 Kat Griefen curated an exhibition from the membership titled “Material Matter”, which was presented at Sideshow Gallery here in Williamsburg. The show felt fresh and current. As to the American Abstract Artist’s mission today, all I can say is, it’s not over.
La Rocco: Yeah. How do you feel about dust?
Voisine: In my painting? [Laughs.] I can’t keep it off. Did you notice stuff embedded into the surface?
La Rocco: I once watched you take out a big brush and dust a dry painting. Those dark areas will show any speck on them. I thought it might have a particular interest for you. People have done a lot of work with dust in the past—Marcel Duchamp, Gabriel Orozco and Vik Muniz.
Voisine: No, I really don’t strive to make the paintings perfect, it’s not about that at all. It’s important to me that they have a trace of the hand in them, that they are not machine made.
La Rocco: Can you tell us on the record what abstraction is? [Laughter.]
Olson: There isn’t a forty-five or a seventy-eight? [Expressive.]
Voisine: After all these years, I don’t really know. Michael Zahn makes abstract paintings that are actually representations of something. The paintings he had at the show with Linda Francis, Joan Waltemath, and myself at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, those were box-tops, but they were abstract paintings. Those aren’t realistic but they’re abstracted from something. In a way maybe Linda’s work was the most abstract but she also works from something that is observed. My painting in that show was a tall narrow vertical, called “Debutante Twist.” For a long time I was trying to figure out how to do a vertical painting and I didn’t want it to read like a figure or doorway. But I couldn’t get past it so I just said I’ll go with it and that’s how I was able to resolve the painting. I came up with that title because the shifting of the planes reminded me of a pose in figure drawing class, a contra-posto? And the blue reminded me of tulle. My geometric figure was all dressed up. But then I don’t want people to read the title and look at that painting and say, “oh, I get it.” I’m not an advocate of anything for stylistic reasons. My work isn’t geometric because I wanted to make geometric paintings. It’s where the work led me. It’s all painting whether it’s representational or abstract. A good painting is a good painting.
La Rocco: It’s a personal decision, you come to it. It’s not an ideological position.
Voisine: No, I don’t think I’m an ideologue. I realized how uncool I was in 1991 when everybody in the art world in New York was talking about going down to D.C. to see the Sigmar Polke show. At the same time the National Gallery had a Titian show. I was like “Oh, I have to see the Titian show!” I mean the Sigmar Polke show was coming to the Brooklyn Museum within a year anyway. The Titian show was just amazing. There was a late painting he did when he was in his seventies, “The Flaying of Marsyas”, which was in a room all by itself. I walked in and my jaw dropped. You get up close to that painting and you find everybody in there, Bacon, Turner, Whistler. It’s basically an emotional response. And in the Boston show now there’s a late Titian painting of, I forget the saint’s name, but everything was really softly painted except a bit of the features, his right arm is held back and the division between the light and dark, the shadow on his arm, is the vein going down his bicep, which is clearly delineated. And that’s what holds everything together in the painting, just makes it work. It’s amazing, those little details that make the painting.
La Rocco: I guess that’s where I fail to understand the distinction. Abstraction. Sometimes I think I grasp it. Where I fail to understand it is that basically it’s grounded in the painting of it and in your immediate emotional response to it. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a Rothko or a Titian, and that’s where I get bogged down.
Voisine: You don’t need to get bogged down, that’s language. You just do your work.
La Rocco: Don, what do you think of Harvey Quaytman in relation to your own work?
Voisine: People ask me all the time what I think of Quaytman and I do like his work. There certainly were similarities to what I was doing before all the diagonals. People say, “It would be great to see your work together, you know, what do you think of showing with Quaytman?” It’s not as clear-cut as people think, it’s a strange relationship. We share a common visual language but when I look at his work I can’t help but think of all the different decisions I would have made. For me that’s an interesting relationship in itself.
La Rocco: What do you think the relationship of the blues is to painting?
Olson: Do you find one at all, in your own experience?
Voisine: Well, the blues is about a good woman treating you bad. And paintings can treat you bad. Paintings mess with you all the time.
About the AuthorThis exhibition also occurs in conjunction with Chuck Close: Maquettes and Multi-Part Work (1966-2009), which will be on view from May 7 through June 6, 2009 at Pace/McGill, 32 East 57th Street. The artist will also be the subject of an upcoming museum exhibition entitled Familiar Faces: Chuck Close in Ohio Collections at the Akron Art Museum, Ohio from September 5, 2009 through January 3, 2010.