Interview between Lindsey Goodman, Painting Student at University of North Texas and Carolyn Singh on November 2, 2009
LG: What makes you decide to paint in a non-representational manner?
CS: The short answer is: I don’t decide; I feel.
Another answer is: there is really no such thing as “non-representational”. Everything that is done in art represents something – something that a human being can apprehend. It need not represent a figure/object. I have insisted for many years now that “A painting is a painting is an idea”. Just as any word in any language – whether you understand the language or not – represents or encapsulates an idea.
No two humans see the world the same way. And yet, we seem to be able to communicate somehow. What do you see? What do you feel? How do you know what you think you know? How do you relate to the world as you know it? You have to use yourself as your primary instrument – your whole self directly. Whatever comes of your interaction with your world, yourself, your materials, and your process is what comes of it. “Deciding” doesn’t come into it.
If the question really is: where do you think you fall on the representational/non-representational spectrum? – I would say that I am more naturalistic than realistic; and more abstract than literal in my references.
LG: What is your process for deciding which media you are going to use for a piece?
CS: Again, the short answer is: I don’t so much decide as feel.
I am very sensitive to light in all its forms. I am sensitive to the qualities of materials – paper, canvas, paint, clay and everything else. It is visceral and uncontrollable. I will start to crave the “feel” of something – like some people crave chocolate, I suppose. If something doesn’t “feel” right, I’ll mess around until it “feels” better. Sometimes that means changing media in the middle of a piece or some sort of “cut and paste” process or chucking it all out and starting over. Every medium has a different “feel” and a different connection in the body/brain.
LG: What would you say is the overall general theme or concept for your subject matter?
CS: Tough question.
I think/feel about life, people, and events quite a lot. I react and am often surprised about the outcome. Each piece or series is about something I’ve experienced on some level – not in a didactic way. I don’t do propaganda. I will start something – make a mark on/with something. The piece will talk back. I’ll make another mark in response. Each of these things is alive to me. The work and I find out about each other through the act of making marks. I don’t “preconceive”.
LG: Would you prefer for your art to be more of a commodity or reserved for a gallery and it’s audiences only and why?
CS: I am grateful for any space and almost any audience that can be mustered on my behalf. The event I did where my booth was placed between the dried apple dolls and the stripping gorilla – that one I didn’t like so much. I don’t suppose that Rembrandt liked pinning his work up on close lines in his era’s equivalent event, either. But we do what we have to do in our place and time to stay alive and to keep working.
LG: You work with a lot of line and bold color such as Primavera: is this technique your personal style or do you intend to work with softer colors or neutrals in future watercolor/mixed media paintings? What makes you decide to use the flat blocks of color in layers as well as combining organic shapes versus geometric ones?
CS: The organic/geometric thing is just the way my mind works – and always has.
Primavera has a long and complicated history. One part has to do with placing the shape/spaces where I wanted them. I use what has been termed “color perspective” to manipulate the space in a painting. It is not at all “neon”. The color saturation is what it is because I wanted the space to act in a particular way. Do you know the European story about Vulcan and Venus? Well, there is a South American story that is almost the same. I was struck by the parallels in the two stories and chose to pursue that reference. The painting did not start out with the story. The story developed as I was working on the painting and then I found the South American connection. I didn’t know in advance that the painting was going to be about Vulcan and Venus. I didn’t know it was going to be about beginnings. I didn’t know what it was going to be about. Some of the color choices have to do with the quality of light as you get closer to the equator.
I have worked with all kinds of color combinations from whispers to shouts. 3 Days in June, 1995 was done in natural earth based transparent water and gouache pigments, i.e.: yellow ochre, various siennas, etc. Iris, Ascendant, 1992 was done in a severely limited palette. Justin and Kelly, 1980 started out in silverpoint on paper and moved on from there as I responded to the photographic material I was given –it was a commission piece. Shadows and whispers, 1999 started out with a very bright high contrast color reference but evolved to a more sepia dominated color scheme. I never know what will be needed and sometimes I struggle to get it right. As long as I don’t try to bully the thing, it usually resolves without bloodshed or too many tears.
LG: Do you have any techniques that you find useful in particular for mixed media or the paint application?
-The painting, Briefly in the Garden, almost has a cubist appearance. Were you aware of this while you were painting the piece? Was it intentional?
CS: The first part of the question sounds to my ears like what I call the “Perfect Purple Question”. Purple is a really difficult color to get clear in pigments. Essentially, there is no perfect purple. There is only what works in the context in which you are working. Techniques are tools – good to have on hand, better to understand when and when to use them, best not to worry about too much. My advice is always to get to know your materials, understand the chemistry, and apply in some sensible manner. Other than that – pay attention to the weather. Your pigments will work differently under different weather conditions. Also always buy the best quality pigments and paper you can afford if you are working in watercolor. With watercolor you are working naked – there is no real binder to come to your rescue. Pastels are the same way.
The structure of briefly in the garden is an artifact of the drawing process I used in that particular piece. I tend to draw (which is more a state of mind than anything else) for most of the time I am working on a piece. I am always changing all kinds of things. With watercolors you have to be careful about how much abuse the paper will take. With oils you need to worry about bonding between layers. With acrylics you can paint out and reformulate whole passages over and over again with relative ease. Conceptually I like to keep whatever I am working on “open” for a very long time. The divisions within the figures had to do with ideas I had about muscles and volumes and rhythms. It is not exactly cubist in either practice or intent. I wasn’t thinking about Cubism at the time. However, I was aware that the comparison could be made and chose to just let it go where it wanted to go. I think Critical Juncture, 1991 is closer to Cubism in spirit, although I was not thinking about cubism as such when I was doing it. These ideas are all just tools you can use to organize your space. The point in that painting was to leave no room for the two figures to move.
LG: What is the significance behind the mini squares within a painting such as night Wind Passes Singing, Approach, or A Useful Door? Why do you choose to leave the background filled with contour lined objects and figures, leaving only the squares as the focal point?
CS: The paintings to which you refer are all part of the series Borders, Boundaries, Frontiers, which is still continuing. There are many points in a life where change, looked for or unlooked for, happens. The four pieces: Approach, Clouds to hold the Heart Aloft, The Circle Knows No Leading, and Night Wind Passes Singing are meant to be taken together and in that order. The references are to a specific landscape and immigrant experience. I lived in El Paso, Texas for over 20 years. For most of that time I lived within one half of a mile from the Rio Grande. The images within the squares were generated by an obscure photographic technique called cliché-verre. These images came first and were then drafted into the story about a person leaving their old life on one side of the river/border, crossing over, and establishing themselves in a new and more hopeful life on the other side. That is one vector of the story. The linear elements refer to the protagonist’s hopes and dreams of a better life in this new place.
A useful door, was part of the same exhibit, but not part of that story. It is part of the same landscape – The linear elements are a direct reference to some of the street layouts of the city of El Paso as seen from above. The birds are seen from below. The door mediates between dimensions – up/down, back/forth, here/there, now/then. In Blue Lotus, 2002 the linear elements are central and the cliché-verre elements are subordinate. In Summer’s Child, 2002 the organization is entirely different. The use of these tools depended on the particular painting.
The paintings in the exhibit weren’t all about El Paso. Some were about mythological stories or religious ideas or children…
These particular paintings condense information/sensation by physically layering images though different materials and changing perspectives.
Other examples of the use of “mini squares are In Sunlight and Shadow, 1992 and January 11th, 1996. In the first instance, the squares directly match colors I found in the El Paso sky as I was working on the painting. In the second – the squares relate to different storm conditions experienced in the desert southwest. These are only two examples of the way I use squares or circles or other geometric shapes to call attention to some experience or idea within a particular painting.
LG: What do you feel sets you apart from other mixed media artists?
CS: Well- to be very cheeky about it – me. I am what I am. Raymond Hendler, Professor of Painting, my advisor at the University of Minnesota and the closest thing to a mentor I ever had, told me once “You got to trust yourself. What else have you got?” I tend not to be terribly influenced by anything that anybody else is doing. I focus on the work at hand and I pay attention to that.
LG: What are some of your painting or mixed media goals for your works future?
CS: Probably the most radical of the figure paintings is Fluid Stillness, 2002. Right now I am working on opening a shop online to market the jewelry and pots.
I am also working on a painting/drawing show (acrylic, watercolor, charcoal, pastels, silverpoint and such.); planning an experiment I am calling “the $40.00 pot”. I am thinking to work some oils at some point. Unfortunately the solvents don’t much like me, so I need to figure that problem out.
When I get enough of something together to make a coherent exhibition I will put together a proposal and send it off to various venues.
In terms of the painting so far– I am working five pieces that are basically acrylic on canvas. I am not too far into it so I really don’t know very much about what is going on yet. I was thinking it would be a two year project, but it seems to be going slowly, so maybe it is a three year project. We’ll see.
LG: Is there any advice you could give a watercolor artist who paints primarily flat and, abstractly with many layers?
· Always use the best quality materials you can afford. If you are working watercolor on paper buy the very best paper. Arches drives me crazy – I don’t like the way it smells and it is not reflective enough for me. I like the European papers and the Indian Village paper that Daniel Smith carries. The purity of the watercolors themselves is important. Student and hobby grade watercolors are full of fillers and extenders that dull the pigments and make dirty mixes. Brushes are important, but it is not necessary to have sable. I actually like the synthetics that have a bit of snap. I like a crisp feel to a brush. Keep trying different brands until you find what suits you. New York Central Supply has the most extensive paper offerings in the country.
· My philosophy about managing your pictorial space has to do with energy. All areas of the painting must be energized – no dead spots. Everybody has one area of a painting that they just don’t pay attention to. With most of the people I have taught – even children! – that area is the upper left hand corner of the painting. Don’t ask me why – I’ve never figured it out. I’ve just noticed it.
· Draw what is not there more than what is there. That’s a negative space /figure-ground sort of thing but also a subject reference.
· Don’t talk yourself into anything. Don’t fail to reconsider anything because you just don’t want to face it again, fail to revise something because it means changing or removing some bit that you just love and would find painful to lose. Picasso is reported to have said, “I don’t sell myself anything.” And he was right. Don’t sell yourself anything. Do whatever you need to do to disrupt your assumptions and projections. Turn the painting upside down, look at it in a mirror, put it away for 6 months so you forget what you thought it looked like. Don’t settle – keep pushing.
· Layering in watercolor can be tricky. You need to know your pigments individual quirks. Just watch what your pigments do when you put them down. Watercolor is the liveliest of the media. It really hasn’t any binder, so the pigment does mostly what it wants. You can only encourage it to do what you want. Other than that, your layers need to be very dry before you put down another layer.